Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.
Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.
The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.
This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.
Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.
Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.
Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.
The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.
The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.
Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.
Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.
The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.
In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.
One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.
Jour de fête was the very first film I saw that was directed by France’s comic master Jacques Tati, and I’m delighted to say that it began a love affair with his relatively few, but endlessly intriguing filmic creations that I don’t expect to end before I do. Our acquaintance was made in 1995, the year the color version of the film was restored and made available to viewers for the first time by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and cameraman François Ede. It played the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and I can’t say that the restoration of the failed Thomson-Color experimental color process looked all that great—in fact, it was pretty dreadful, at least to someone who had never seen it in the black-and-white version, or should I say in one of the two spot-tinted black-and-white versions, one with and one without a painter character.
Still, nothing could hide the genius of Tati and the great love he had for cinema and France. Paying a visit to a one-day fair in a small French town and watching the hilarious misadventures of the local postman, played by Tati himself, was the most pleasant vacation I could take from my big-city woes—woes with which Tati would empathize and lampoon repeatedly in all of his feature films. Jour de fête, his feature debut, was his deceptively simple first volley at the giant maw of modernity.
The opening image of a caravan carrying merry-go-round horses down a snaking road to a town square, a young boy skipping behind in anticipation, conjures the idea that we are entering an enchanted valley that time forgot. We even have a fairy tale narrator—a severely bent old woman leading her goat and commenting on the people and activities surrounding her. Once in the village, we see nothing but horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles conveying objects and people, even elegantly dressed people come to town to attend the fair. Livestock and chickens walk and flap around the square and freely wander in the homes of their owners.
As the carnies unload their truck to set up their rides, midway games, and movie theatre, one of them, Roger (Guy Decomble), spies a lovely young woman, Germaine (Santa Relli), beautifully framed in a third-story window. The two flirt across the distance until his wife emerges from their caravan to give him what-for. Nonetheless, Germaine hurries down to the square, and in a sweet and ingenious scene, the two appear to carry on a flirtatious conversation with the dialogue from one of the movies to be played that day substituting for their voices.
We get an oblique hint that Tati’s entrance is imminent when Roger’s wife is shown to a mailbox where she can drop a letter. Soon, traveling the same winding route as the carnival workers, the real entertainment of the evening arrives. Like an old vaudevillian transferring his act from stage to screen, Tati arrives in the postman character from many of his short films, most notably The School for Postmen (1947), back straight as an ironing board, trousers fastened to his ankles with bicycle clips, and arms flailing to swat the wasp that dogs his descent.
For the rest of the film, Tati as François performs one gag after another with exquisite physicality. Around the village, he is a friend and helper, someone the villagers turn to as perhaps the only government official around to take a leadership position. For example, in one of my favorite gags in the film, the men of the village are trying to erect a pole in the middle of the square from which they can hang a banner with the French tricolors. The pole bobs precariously around the square until François is prevailed upon to lead the effort. He gets everyone organized, instructs a rope handler how to brace himself with the rope, and the pole gets raised. The cleat that will hold it in place still needs to be secured, but strangely, the man with the hammer keeps missing the spike. As François looks into his face, we get a close-up of his crossed eyes, a dead ringer for silent film comedian Ben Turpin. François moves one of the spikes to the left of the one on the cleat, and our man hits his target dead on.
However, this regard by the villagers encourages François to adopt an officious manner, causing those who meet him for the first time to make him the butt of their fun. Two of the carnies entice him into a café, get him drunk, and use a handheld kaleidoscope to circle his eye with black pitch. His staggering attempts to get on his bicycle and complete his route see him plunging helplessly into a thicket and attempting to ride a fence that has entangled his bike, scenes that play all the more hilarious for Tati’s uncomprehending distractedness.
When he finally returns to the square, he and the villagers are inspired by a preposterous newsreel of U.S. postal service efficiencies, including the use of helicopters and parachutes to get postmen through their appointed rounds. François decides to deliver mail “American style,” and devises methods to mount, dismount, and drop off letters with such speed that he even manages to outpace a cycling team on the road. (Is it possible that the USPS decided to sponsor a professional cycling team some 50 years later because of Tati?) The villagers cheer him on all the way as he skewers their mail on hoes, silently sneaks a package containing new shoes onto a block just as the butcher is bringing down his cleaver, and runs two cars off the road. When he finally speeds right off the side of a bridge and into a creek, our ancient narrator picks him and his bike up and rides them into town.
The ambition of the stunts pushes the film into surrealist territory. For example, a long sequence where his bike takes off on its own, forcing François to give chase, quite reminded me of the absurdist novel by Flann O’Brien called The Third Policeman in which a character steals bicycles when he believes their riders have exchanged too many cells with them and have become more than 50 percent bicycle. Tati filmed without sound, and his ability to play with the soundtrack to insert dialogue and diagetic sounds in addition to his gloriously quaint music allows him to orchestrate his humor precisely.
For a first feature, Tati has surprisingly strong control, calling on the conventions of silent films and vaudevillian stunts and recrafting them into a cinematic ecosystem all his own. While he was not able to achieve the color palette he so clearly wanted with this film, as indicated by the dialogue he wrote, his later films fairly vibrate with color. Finally, while the horrors of the modern, mechanized world would come in for more specific drubbing in such later films as Mon oncle (1958) and his crowning masterpiece Play Time (1967), his contempt for cars and Parisians gets its first voice here. Jour de fête is an auspicious beginning for a very distinctive and masterful filmmaker.
The Criterion two-disc set includes two alternate versions, a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1995 rerelease version; “A L’americaine” (“American Style”), visual essays on the film by Tati expert Stéphane Goudet; Jour de fête: In Search of the Lost Color, a 1988 documentary on the restoration of the film to Tati’s original color vision; and the original trailer. The film is included in a box set, “The Complete Jacques Tati,” available in DVD and Blu-ray editions.
When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.
The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.
The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.
When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.
Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.
Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.
Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.
Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.
The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)
Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.
Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.
The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.
The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.
The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.
Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).
Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French made when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French banished from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.
The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.
Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.
This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.
French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.
The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signalled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.
If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.
Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when many Americans remember those killed and maimed during their military service and honor them with parades, commemorative speeches, and the ritual eating of charred meat. There are, however, millions upon millions of unsung contributors to this country’s war efforts who will never win a medal or have a song written about them—indeed, there is a growing minority seeking to avoid doing their part at all costs, most of them at the very top of the social pecking order. I am, of course, referring to all those Americans through the decades who have paid their income taxes.
Wars don’t come cheap these days, and it is a profound irony that conservative elements in our government who rail against taxing anyone to pay for our country’s freeloaders—you know, kids, old folks, the disabled—can’t vote fast enough to rush spending to the industrial giants who supply the guns, tanks, aircraft, bombs, and computer technology that make going to war possible. This peculiar prioritizing I lay at the feet of none other than Donald Duck.
In 1942, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., approached Hollywood about preparing some propaganda to encourage citizens to pay their income taxes in full and on time to help pay the freight for World War II. Walt Disney, a true-blue American who drew patriotic cartoons about World War I for his school newspaper, was highly receptive to the request. The film studio responded with The New Spirit, a short cartoon that was the company’s first entry into the propaganda war. Enlisted to create this important short were two proven animation veterans, Ben Sharpsteen, supervising director for Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941), and Wilfred Jackson, the animation director of those two films. The sailor-suited Donald Duck, the government-approved mouthpiece for this task, became the everyman to sell the importance of tax filing to the public, some of whom were alive before 1913 when there were no federal income taxes.
Donald (Clarence Nash), like many Americans, is literally filled with patriotic fervor fed by outrage at the attack on Pearl Harbor, American flags rising on the whites of his eyes as a radio announcer (Fried Shields) becomes the motivational voice of the anthropomorphized, floor-model radio. He winds Donald up about a very important contribution he can make to the war effort, leaving Donald pleading that he will do anything, anything to help. Nonetheless, when he finds out he’s being asked to pay his income taxes, his reaction is less than enthusiastic.
Once convinced of the importance of this duty, however, Donald throws himself into it, bringing every weapon of calculus at his disposal. The all-knowing radio reminds Donald that he made less than $3,000 that tax year, so he can file that era’s version of a 1040EZ form. The film helpfully goes through the steps needed to file this form. Donald, in his eagerness to help win the war, zips across the country to hand-deliver his tax return to the Treasury.
It is here that the drums of war pound with growing sexual tension as phallic columns of coins turn into factory smoke stacks and production lines turning out “guns, guns, all kinds of guns.” “Taxes to beat the Axis” becomes the rhythmic slogan that helps hype the battle action—sinking ships, shooting down planes, destroying submarines. Of course, the enemy craft are marked clearly with the Nazi swastika or rising sun and equipped with predatory fangs and evil eyes. Ultimate victory is predicted, freeing everyone from want and fear, with heroic assurances that “taxes will help keep democracy on the march.”
It’s not certain what parts of The New Spirit were most effective, but a Gallup poll that year found that of the estimated 60 million people who saw the cartoon, more than 37 percent said it positively affected their willingness to do their taxes. Ironically, the government never paid Disney to produce the film, which had originally been part of the bargain, and the studio lost a bundle on it.
In one of the most bizarre moves by the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The New Spirit was one of the 25 films nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. Perhaps it was nominated for its psychological realism about the seductive power of weapons. It’s a perverse delight to think what would greet such a film made and distributed widely today—it might just cause a rightwing meltdown.
Outside London, 1944. During the second, lesser-known but very bloody Blitz turned on the city by Hitler, V-1 bombs, nicknamed “doodlebugs” for the insectlike drone of their rocket propulsion, rain on southern English. These flying weapons are a unique blend of the amusing, for the sound of their jets is like a noise a small child might infuriate an elder by making, and the terrifying, because when the engines cut out the bombs crash to earth in total silence, people on the ground within earshot are stricken with a moment of heart-stopping impotence as they cannot know if the bomb will explode close enough to them kill them. This backdrop of hapless besiegement is both an immediate plot device and psychic overtone vital to Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger, adapted from a popular detective novel by Christianna Brand.
The setting is Heron’s Park Hospital, an Elizabethan manor house in a village on the distant fringes of the city, requisitioned and expanded to serve as an emergency clinic taking care of civilians mangled as collateral victims of the war, as the unmistakably mordant drawl of Alastair Sim explains in voiceover. Sim plays Brand’s recurring hero, Inspector Cockrill, and his voiceover is the report he’s writing to his commander about his latest case, dropping alarming hints about things about to unfold, as when he notes the apparently banal progress of a postman and mentions that “he would be the first to die.” The postman, Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), speeds along a lonely country lane with a V-1 zooming overhead, and once he arrives at the post for rescue party volunteers with whom he works, reports dryly that the bomb was chasing him. The sound of the evil device still drones above, and then suddenly cuts out. Higgins listens for a moment, then, in reflexive fear, ducks just before an explosion erupts and the rubble of the destroyed building pours down on Higgins and company, all accomplished in what seems to be one, astonishing shot (close examination reveals a crucial, near-invisible edit). Fire gutters amidst clouds of dust. The office’s undamaged radio continues to operate, the voice of an infamous Lord Haw Hawlike female Nazi broadcasting propaganda threats and signing off with the eerie catchphrase, “This is Germany calling…this is Germany calling.”
Gilliat had become well known working with writing partner Frank Launder before the war, penning the film that gave Alfred Hitchcock his springboard for a move to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes (1938). They also created for that film the comic characters Caldicott and Charters, played by actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. The characters so perfectly epitomised a kind of preoccupied, even cloddish, but basically okay English gentleman that they were carried over to several other films, including Night Train to Munich (1940) and Dead of Night (1945), and helped give Gilliat and Launder the clout to set themselves up as auteur filmmakers and, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, create their own distinctive brand. The duo were in their element during the war and just after it, their special blend of dry-trending-black humour and drama connecting with an invigorated and engaged audience hungry to have their day-to-day lives acknowledged. The team’s early films Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), and The Rake’s Progress (1945) studied the mores of life on the home front with intimate empathy and an acute sense of the human absurdity amidst the official heroics. After the war, they engaged subjects like crime and urban poverty, in London Belongs to Me (1948), and Anglo-Irish relations, with Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger (1946). As with other British filmmakers who thrived in this period, including Powell and Pressburger, Alberto Cavalcanti, David Lean, and Carol Reed, the 1950s brought waning fortunes that forced many to head overseas or face decline, but the duo prospered again when Launder directed and Gilliat produced the hugely popular, disreputably funny The Bells of St. Trinians (1954), birthing a series.
Launder loved farce and broader comedy, and was rewarded with the more solid directing career, but Gilliat was the more talented filmmaker, his elegantly cynical side meshing with an intuitive understanding for both noir and neorealist stylistics blowing in from abroad, and displaying elements of both in concurrence rather than in imitation of those movements. Gilliat’s sensibility found its greatest expression in Green For Danger. Importantly, this was a postwar film that nonetheless harkened back a mere two years, which could well have felt like a lifetime, making it partially a work of hurried anthropology bent on capturing the mood of the time before it slipped away. Rather than the unvarnished, docudrama look of a lot of wartime filmmaking, however, Green For Danger retreats to the studio to create the self-contained world of Heron’s Park—a mishmash of old and new, Renaissance gables abutting concrete blockhouses, stained and plate glass, where the workaday can suddenly morph into the menacingly shadow-ridden and alien: Powell and Pressburger’s idealised classical English landscapes of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are now riddled with the permanent mark of modernity, reflecting its jagged new sense of self. The setting has a curious similarity to the far more remote and overtly nightmarish precincts of Isle of the Dead (1945) and the lofty nunnery of Black Narcissus (1947) in the sense of being both insulated and besieged. Like Black Narcissus, Green For Danger is in part an oblique, metaphoric study of the mental exhaustion wrought by the oft-idealised Blitz spirit depicting the cost of lives led in painful sublimation and self-sacrifice through the figure of a young woman turned baleful psychotic.
This jury-rigged jangle of a workplace can also be likened to the hospital staff, a team of people forced to subsist in close proximity, working long, exhausting shifts with little respite for several years in the midst of explosions and broken bodies. Gilliat’s camera introduces the crucial players and potential suspects in the mystery about to unfold, Cockrill’s voiceover noting their names before their faces are revealed. Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) is the great surgeon and former suave playboy of Harley Street. Dr. “Barney” Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the anaesthesiologist who’s made perpetually tense by both a troubled professional history and his toey relationship with beautiful, inevitably popular Nurse Fredericka “Freddi” Linley (Sally Gray). Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) is the coolly efficient and commanding head nurse silently eaten up by her lapsed romance with Eden, who seems now to be fascinated with Linley. Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John) is a quiet, good-humoured, but damaged young woman, daughter of a family friend of Eden’s whom Eden has taken a paternal interest in, whilst Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is the hospital’s one-woman morale booster and likeable busybody. Tensions begin to manifest as the team emerge from a lengthy operation. Linley nettles at Barnes’ proprietorial attitude and breaks off their engagement. Bates swoops about directing work with hawkish intensity and then watches Eden move off with pained longing. Woods prods Sanson about her condition when she seems woozy. An alarm bell calls them again to action, as Higgins is brought in. He’s a John Doe who has been pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, dazed and reciting the propaganda radio’s lines in delirious terror.
Linley replaces Sanson for night shift on the ward and chats with Eden about her problems until the sound of a V-1 overhead drives the two into each other’s arms in the anguish of waiting for the explosion, which fortunately goes off elsewhere. Eden kisses her in the heat of the moment, backs off shamefacedly and begs forgiveness, but Bates has glimpsed them through the window and assumed the worst. Sanson arrives back at the nurses’ quarters, quietly distraught: the death of her mother, crushed under her house and left to slowly die by a rescue team, is still a raw wound. Sanson also identifies Higgins before the surgical team operate on his leg. Recovered from his delirium, Higgins narrows his eyes suspiciously at Barnes before he can put him under and says “You’ve got a nerve.” Barnes decides to anaesthetise him on the operating table, but something goes wrong. Higgins stops breathing as he goes under, and in spite of Barnes’s quick efforts to give him more oxygen, he dies on the table from causes no one can determine.
Heron’s Park’s new administrator and chief surgeon Mr. Purdy (Henry Edwards) hopes at first to pass the death off as the inevitable result of the risks his people must take. When assured Higgins wasn’t an emergency case, he instead pressures Barnes to step down pending an investigation and help shield the hospital—and him—from blame. “I merely suggested that I was hoping the gesture would come from you,” Purdy suggests. “The only gesture I feel like making is far from polite,” Barnes retorts. He joins the party the hospital staff are throwing to blow off steam and tries to patch up with Freddi, whilst Eden contends with Bates’ spiky, forlorn jealousy. “You’re sick of me, and I’m sick of myself,” she says as they’re thrown into dancing together during the Paul Jones mixer. Bates breaks away, turns off the record player and shouts out to the staff that she knows Higgins’ death was actually murder and that she has proof.
The early scenes of Green For Danger are a master class in setting up a complex interaction of plot strands and human elements. The mechanics are readily familiar, obeying the basic precepts of whodunit detective fiction—setting up a cast of suspects, affording them all the opportunity for murder, bringing in a canny detective to disassemble the enigma—but the quiet excellence of the characterisation and the sharpness of the dialogue quickly nudge the film out of mere generic efficiency into something ebulliently enjoyable. Wilkie Cooper’s excellent photography, with future great DP Oswald Morris as camera operator, aids Gilliat in creating a probing, subtly mobile mise-en-scène with an interest in contiguity of space and action, such as the startling moment of the building dropping on Higgins’ head, that echoes Hitchcock’s fascination with such effects and looks forward to its use by many later filmmakers. For the most part, the film unfolds with a quiet realism, and yet Gilliat easily nudges it toward poles of ethereal strangeness and stygian menace. The early shot introducing the cast of suspects sees the camera adopting the position of prostrate patient, pivoting to note the masked, near-anonymous faces of the medical personnel, at once angelic and threatening in their concealing surgical whites. The hospital dance sequence is an intricate play of individuals in the midst of public revels, randomly stirred to bring both pleasant and nasty surprises to the participants. Lovers and the lovelorn are brought together, but then rearranged into less neat pairings, the change-partners motif played for both droll comedy and swift character illustration. The gang of medical heroes interact as a tight-knit, almost incestuous bunch, whilst warnings of dark and dangerous things unfolding are batted off with flip humour and drunken mordancy.
The dance is scored to an impudently catchy jazz version of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” As Eden appeals to Sanson to give up working at the hospital and tries to make her wake up to the corrosive effects of her mother’s possessiveness, Eden’s fellow surgeon Dr. White (Ronald Adam) darts into the frame, grabs Sanson’s wrist, and draws her away, chanting along to the music in comically unnerving fashion, “Don’t you believe a word he says, a word he says, a word he says…” Bates’ public eruption and ill-advised, almost exultant announcement of having discovered the hospital is as rotten as her own sense of self, segues into the film’s most alluring and well-staged sequence. Bates flees the manor house and darts through the dark hospital grounds, whilst Bates keeps catching glimpses of a fleeting shadow dogging her footsteps. A hand grabs her out of the dark; it’s Eden, claiming to be worried about her. Bates accuses him of pursuing her, and escapes his grasp. She enters the deserted, darkened operating theatre and searches for her secreted piece of evidence. Bates realises that she’s not alone in the darkened room: in a revelation that’s quite bone-chilling on first viewing, Bates sees a figure in full surgical gear standing in the shadows wielding a scalpel. Bates’ scream draws Linley, who’s been drawn to the surgical block for her own mysterious reasons; she finds Bates sprawled in the theatre, stabbed to death.
This sequence is an utter, sustained delight not just in the deftness of Gilliat’s staging, replete with camera movements racing with Bates through the aisles of a gentle English garden turned nightmarish zone of threat, but in the webs of association it evokes to the modern viewer, the prototypical edge to it all. Horror films had been entirely banned in Britain during the war, and here Gilliat skirts the edges of the genre with relish. The source of horror is no spook or monster, but a masked, gloved, homicidal maniac, an aspect that, considered with the film’s visuals, feels uncannily predictive of places the horror genre would go many years later, particularly Italian giallo cinema, which would follow Green For Danger in taking detective fiction and retaining its investigative plot patterns, but drag them into a zone of the irrational, filled with killers reduced to blank avatars of psychological menace. Much like Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1963) and its many children, like Halloween (1978), the solitary woman is stalked through familiar environs where the wind churns the bushes and autumnal leaves into an engulfing furore. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the villain is tethered inescapably to obsession caused by the possessiveness of a parent. As in Coma (1978), the institutions and paraphernalia of modern medicine are mined for the not-so-hidden anxiety and disquiet they hold for many, the barren, empty corridors of a hospital at night, the creepy impersonality of the surgical outfit, and the inherent anxiety in putting yourself into the hands of people charged with your protection but who might nonetheless betray that trust. Gilliat mischievously repeats a bleak visual motif—earlier he had framed Bates staring from without into the nurse’s station where Eden was kissing Freddi, boxed out by both life and the frame, and again just before Higgins’ operation, and finally in gazing through the window of the theatre door at her dead body.
Darkness gives way to light, and Bates’ murder brings Inspector Cockrill to investigate, first glimpsed dodging this way and that at the threat of a V-1 and finishing up hanging from a gate in anxiety until the explosion goes off and leaves him to recover his dignity. Cockrill is a strutting bantam cock, a canny and incisive operator who also happens to be a self-conscious egoist and showy agent of justice, about as different as it’s possible to get from both the Columbo school of sly, misdirecting investigator and the scruffy, earnestly neurotic kind all too familiar from most recent detective TV shows. Cockrill is more like an overgrown schoolboy, pivoting playfully on spinning chairs and almost poking people with his umbrella, blowing his nose in front of surgeons, gloating with joy as Barnes and Eden finally lose their cool and get into a fistfight at his feet. Sim had been a popular supporting comic actor for many years in British film, but his performance here turned him into one of Britain’s oddest, biggest movie stars, warping his native Edinburgh lilt into a burlesque of a southern accent that’s alternately soft and stabbing, disarming and provocatively insinuating. It might be worth mentioning that as well as being a dark thriller and interesting pressure-cooker character study and period time capsule, Green For Danger is also one of the funniest films ever made, with Sim entering the film as both plot game changer and comic relief with his impudent, almost insulting sense of humour and buffoonish streak. The narration not only allows Gilliat to do quick storytelling but also introduces Cockrill as a character in the film long before he actually appears, which isn’t until well over half an hour in.
“Very well—pause for 30 seconds while you cook up your alibis,” Cockrill tells the assembled medicos. “Did you get us here just to insult us?” Barnes asks. “I only like to strike an informal note,” Cockrill replies. “You scare the life out of her like any flat-footed copper off the beat,” Barnes rebukes Cockrill after his interrogations cause Sanson to have a hysterical fit, to which Cockrill retorts, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.” Grilling Barnes over the procedures of his anaesthetising, Cockrill recognises nitrous oxide as “so-called laughing gas.” “Actually it’s the impurities that cause the laughs,” Barnes notes. “Ah—just like our music halls,” Cockrill quips. “Are you trying to make me lose my temper?” Eden asks the inspector as he prods him over his love life. “That was only a secondary object,” Cockrill admits. Cockrill is a unique creation, a postmodern character from before the idea was coined, one who points out and makes jokes out of the clichés in the story he both represents and detects. His presence lets Gilliat reflect on how familiar the tropes of detective fiction were in 1946, whilst also acting as a perfect plot disruptor by reflecting the neurotic insecurities of the suspects back at themselves. When Eden takes Freddi out for a romantic and secretive moonlight tryst in the hospital grounds, Cockrill suddenly emerges from the shadows to airily finish the quote from The Merchant of Venice Eden uses as a chat-up line, and then casually brushes aside a bush to reveal a similarly hidden, eavesdropping Barnes to say goodnight. Here and there, glints of sharp satiric comedy appear amidst the drollery, including another interestingly anticipatory moment early in the film when the blowhard Purdy is first glimpsed, schooling his staff in that most dreaded of postwar arts, management and team-building, pointing to his chalkboard marked with explanations of the principles of positive and negative thinking, and his putting these ideas into practice by having the waste bins relabelled as salvage bins. Cockrill is found lounging in bed, reading a detective novel: his face lights up in glee, having clearly guessed who the murderer is, and so turns to the back page, only for his face to drop in disappointment, his guess wrong.
Green For Danger could have finished up a tonal stew with a less disciplined director, but instead it weaves together with the spryness of a dance, as Gilliat set himself the task of pulling off a feat Hitchcock had pulled off before him and Robert Hamer would afterward with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in extracting humour dry as a martini from dark situations. Gilliat may even have had ambitions of following Hitchcock, and with one film at least accomplished it. The film does become more conventional on a cinematic level once Cockrill enters the picture, though he acts like a bull in a china shop investigating the murder.
The actual crux of the mystery is the surgical gown the killer wrapped Bates in; it apparently was stabbed twice, but Cockrill notices that one stab wound was an attempt to hide the fact a hole had been cut in the gown, possibly to remove a crucial piece of evidence the gown sported. Meanwhile, four tablets from a bottle of poisonous pills have been removed from the murder scene, and Cockrill warns the others that there’s one pill for each fellow suspect for the murderer to use. But when Freddi lets slip that she noticed something important about the crucial surgical gown, the killer instead seems to try to kill her by sabotaging the nurse’s quarter’s gas supply, almost choking her to death as she slept. The fortuitous arrival of Sanson just ahead of Cockrill sees Freddi rescued in the nick of time, with Sanson dragging Freddi from her bedroom but losing grip on her and dropping her down the vertiginous Elizabethan staircase. The method of attempted murder here again points to the killer’s still unclear method of executing Higgins, but Cockrill still can’t quite fathom the method. He convinces Freddi, battered but uninjured, to help him by pretending to be badly hurt, requiring skull surgery, and pressing the others in the circle of suspects to reproduce their function in Higgins’ operation, giving the murderer the opportunity to repeat the modus operandi, something Cockrill recognises they’re bound to do because the murderer is actually insane, no matter their worldly motives. And motives they have. Barnes might have been after revenge on Higgins because of his seemingly personal knowledge of the professional mishap Barnes was investigated and exonerated of years before. Eden might have wanted to silence Bates. Woods might have covered up the truth of her twin sister’s fate: Woods told everyone her sister had died at the start of the war, but she has actually become the “Germany Calling” propaganda voice that haunted Higgins.
Another part of the unusual beauty of Green For Danger is its lack of a stand-out hero. That’s actually a common feature of much WWII-era cinema, especially those that actually deal with the exigencies of coping with the war. There is emphasis on teamwork and mutual reliance (and like a lot of such films, the credits list characters by the relative organisational rank of the personnel): the innate professional commitment of the characters is the chief value that has been both violated, and yet holds fast elsewhere. But Green For Danger doesn’t idealise the commune entirely and all of the protagonists are notably fallible. Cockrill, in spite of his cocky cleverness, is outflanked on occasion, and the finale is a particular disaster for him. Barnes and Eden seem to be offered as a polarised pair, provincial middle-class and urbane swashbuckler. But Gilliat refuses to reduce either to a type, with Barnes’s slightly pathetic chip on his shoulder and Eden’s covert decency emerging even as they compete for Freddi’s attentions. Howard had just become a major romantic movie star thanks to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), whose epitome of the wartime ethos Green For Danger could well be burlesquing, as Gilliat probes for self-destructing irrationalism behind the stiff upper lip and laughingly notes the commonplaceness of the dalliances Lean’s film portrayed as singularly fearful. Importantly, Eden represents the kind of slightly soured, faintly arrogant but ultimately good playboy that Gilliat was so fond of as to seem like a personal avatar, a figure usually played by Rex Harrison in Gilliat’s films, including in The Rake’s Progress and The Constant Husband (1956).
The quartet of nurses are even more interesting and diverse, ranging from Woods’ hearty presence as the team’s supplier of emotional ballast hiding a lode of humiliation, to Bates’ severe passion, as sadomasochistic and indiscriminate in her self-conceived tragedy as anything the killer does: “That hurt didn’t it? Now you know how I feel,” she comments with a quiet triumph after shocking Barnes with the news of Eden and Freddi’s kiss. Even Freddi, cast by fate as the confused object of affection and local glamour-puss, is thoughtful and aware of her naiveté as a problem, musing on how she considers Barnes “a better sort of person than I am altogether” and contemplating the nonlinearity of her emotional commitments. John’s Sanson is the quietest, the frailest, the least noticeable, so, of course, she’s the one to watch out for. John isn’t well remembered and didn’t appear in many films, eventually quitting acting after marrying a politician. But she was momentarily one of the most interesting British female stars of her time, discovered and given several leading roles by Leslie Howard before his death, usually playing quietly stoic heroines rising to the challenges of wartime in films like The Lamp Still Burns and The Gentle Sex (1943). As with Howard, Gilliat exploited that image in casting John as Sanson, whose emotional fraying makes her an object of concern for her colleagues and counts her out of the erotic roundelay eating everyone else up. Sanson retains flashes of droll humour and charm in between fits of anxiety, as when, intruding upon an argument between Woods and Eden over his play for Freddi, she notes Woods stamping out and asks Eden, ever so coolly, “Anything the matter?”
The title finally becomes clear as the penny finally drops for Cockrill right at the edge of his risky stunt costing Freddi’s life: a smudge of black paint on Woods’ gown gives away the ingeniously simple trick Sanson has used, painting a bottle of carbon dioxide, usually coloured green, in black and white to mimic an oxygen cylinder, and slowly poisoning the person under anaesthetic. Freddi is saved in the nick of time, and Cockrill reveals how his thinking finally saw all the pieces snap together, in recognising that the gown found with Bates had a similar paint smudge on it before it was doctored. Most cleverly, when Sanson is revealed as the insane murderer, John, instead of letting Sanson’s lunacy off the leash in being caught, becomes even quieter, unnervingly exactingly polite and explaining her motives with nonchalant simplicity, nominally for revenge against Higgins who had headed the rescue team that unwittingly left her mother to die—only her eerily wide eyes signal a frustrated animal’s fear, absent of reason and convinced of her the rightness of her course of action until she keels over, killed by those self-administered poison tablets, a fate Eden tries to save her from, having guessed she was the culprit, and having an antidote ready—except Cockrill wrestles the syringe from Eden’s hand before he can administer it, mistaking his actions for an attempt to kill Sanson and evade justice.
The bitter undertaste to the conclusion of Green For Danger is its last great touch, undermining the usual feeling of correct order restored and avoiding the sense that somebody heedlessly evil has gotten their comeuppance: instead the ultimate truth the film communicates is that the effect of war has turned a lovely young woman into a homicidal maniac and worn everyone else ragged. The film concludes on a joke that nonetheless still echoes the theme of professionalism as its own virtue: Cockrill offers his superior his resignation at the end of his report to express his regret over the resolution of the case, “in the confident hope that you will not accept it.”
Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Although director Michael Curtiz and the rest of the team involved with making Casablanca could not have known it at the time, this last line of dialogue from the film perfectly characterizes the love affair movie audiences have had with this quintessential World War II romance since it premiered on November 26, 1942, in New York’s Hollywood Theatre. During the war, audiences were hungry for news and stories about the war, and films like The Battle of Midway (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) mixed with documentaries like The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), frankly racist anti-Axis cartoons, and newsreels to keep the public informed and morale high; Casablanca was timed to appear about the same time as the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8 and the presumed liberation of Casablanca itself. While other wartime films have lived on, none have generated the ardor fans feel for this story of “three little people” caught in a love triangle. What makes this film so compelling that it lands regularly among the top romances of all time?
Casablanca is much more than just a boy-meets-girl kind of romance, and to show that, I’m going to have to go all schoolmarm on you. The birthplace of most of the philosophies that guide Western societies is Greece, and the Greeks had four terms for the main types of love human beings experience: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Agape means love in a spiritual or humanitarian sense, wanting the good for another. Eros, the most common love in Hollywood romances, is the passionate love of longing and desire. Philia is more general and can extend to family, friends, or activities. Finally, storge is natural love, as by a parent for a child; importantly, Greek texts also use this term for situations people must tolerate, as in “loving” a dictator. Casablanca activates each of these forms of love, giving audiences a quadruple whammy of loves so powerful that the film has become the stuff of legend, with well-remembered quotes that distill the essence of these forms of love.
Let’s start with eros, the love that’s launched a thousand movies. The central love affair of the film is between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), one so intensely romantic that it’s impossible to forget. Certainly, Rick’s passion for Ilsa is undying, but he keeps it under deep cover as he plays the morally indifferent, womanizing proprietor of Rick’s Café Americain, a far cry from the freedom fighter he had been when he met Ilsa in Paris weeks before the Nazis marched into that most romantic of cities. He has forbidden Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano player he escaped Paris with on the day Ilsa abandoned him, from playing the couple’s song, “As Time Goes By.” When he hears it and races to scold Sam, he comes face to face with Ilsa, dewy-eyed with remembrance and longing for Rick. How many of us wonder at a fate that tears the thing we want most away from us (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”) and then returns it transformed into an instrument of torture (“If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”).
It could be argued that the marriage between Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa is an example of eros as well, and for Victor, that is probably true, though the parental role he played in Ilsa’s life might mean that his began as a storge kind of love. For Ilsa, the relationship is most definitely a complicated example of storge. Not only is her love more that of a child than a grown woman—and, to be frank, gender norms often cast women as children in an unequal balance of relational power—but also one of accustoming herself to a man for whom she has no real romantic feelings, something particularly acute once Ilsa and Rick are reunited. Victor has been through great hardship at the hands of the Nazis, but his greatest tragedy is poignantly communicated when he tells Rick that he knows they both love the same woman: “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.”
Storge and philia are best exemplified by Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Casablanca’s French police captain. A functionary of the Vichy government, Renault is the ultimate survivor, making his way by having no convictions at all. Flattering Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Gestapo officer who has been pursuing Laszlo since his escape from a Nazi concentration camp, Renault says, “We are very honored tonight, Rick. Major Strasser is one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation it has today.” Strasser says, “You repeat Third Reich as though you expected there to be others!” In a deft sleight of hand that reveals his storge regard for France’s conquerers, Renault replies, “Well, personally, Major, I will take what comes.” Renault’s double meanings in dealing with Strasser are doubled by his philia love for Rick as a man of like mind, “the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.” Beneath their nonchalant exteriors, both nurture the love that conquers all in Casablanca—the love of humanity, agape.
Yes, the central love of Casablanca is agape after all. What sacrifice will the characters in this film not make for love of country, of humanity. It is this attachment to an ideal, to the thread that binds us all together at the most basic, spiritual level that resounds in generation after generation of movie fans. While there are incredible scenes of romantic love throughout Casablanca, led by Ingrid Bergman’s luminous presence and Humphrey Bogart’s commanding tenderness, the most soul-stirring scenes are explosions of agape, such as when Laszlo commands the combo at Rick’s to play “La Marseillaise” to counter the Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” in celebration of their own camaraderie. The two songs are perfectly counterpointed in Curtiz’s editing and Max Steiner’s scoring, a symbolic battle of ideals to justify the sacrifices the film’s audiences and their proxies on the screen were then making on and off the battlefield. That this scene still resonates relates only in part to what modern audiences know about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis—the love of freedom is a love that’s bred in the bone.
Curtiz and the smart script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch continually counterpoint the soul-shriveled with the virtuous. The murdering, greedy fixer Ugarte (Peter Lorre), whose possession of the letters of transit that could see Ilsa and Victor safely out of Casablanca constitutes nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme, contrasts Rick’s motives in keeping the letters, a way to regain his lost love and not for sale to Victor at any price. Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), Rick’s jilted lover, perverts romantic love by keeping company with the German officers.
Yet both Rick and Yvonne let go of their bitterness when confronted with the power of agape. Yvonne joins in singing “La Marseillaise,” tears streaming down her face, and Rick utters his immortal speech as he sends Victor and Ilsa off to continue the fight in America: “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” His eros love resolved and transformed by these paternalistic words into storge love, he has set Ilsa free to make her marriage a real one and found freedom for himself to return to a life that can express its love of humanity and perhaps, one day, to find romantic love again. Casablanca’s rare and wonderful ending leaves us not longing for the lovers to unite, but uplifted by the universal love that it so beautifully affirms.
Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and “Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”
Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who had found himself jobless in his forties, turned to writing crime fiction for survival and to expel the cynical passion that had built up inside him. Inspired by the genre’s early master, Dashiell Hammett, who had already lapsed as a novelist, Chandler began writing short detective stories before achieving a smash with his first novel, The Big Sleep. Where Hammett’s diamond-hard prose and stringent sense of human motive blended a peculiarly Dickensian imagination with a hard-earned understanding of street realities, and Chandler’s rivals like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson were paring down their words to hard blocks of chilly analysis, Chandler brought intricate, even florid, visual and experiential prose as well as literary awareness to the form. He turned the private eye tale into a type of neomythology. Chandler’s singular hero, Philip Marlowe, became his tarnished knight-errant, anatomising a corrupt society whilst retaining his decency under a veneer of cool scorn and world-weary alienation.
Chandler’s writing was inimitable on the page but he swiftly inspired a raft of strong cinema. The first film based on his work was Murder, My Sweet (1944), taken from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely, and cleverly cast Dick Powell as Marlowe, his boyish face from his ingenue days turned anxious and leathery and thus a good mix for embodying Marlowe’s peculiar persona. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), greeted as shambling revisionism in its time, actually got to the heart of Chandler’s often outmatched, fool-of-fortune hero to a striking degree. Dick Richards’ more traditional Farewell, My Lovely (1974) cast Robert Mitchum as a tough, aging man tormented by his own failures. But the best known and arguably most perfectly iconic Marlowe, however, was Humphrey Bogart, who played the role for Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep.
Playing private eyes, gangsters, and other urban warriors was already second nature for Bogart, who had finally cemented his film stardom by playing Hammett’s distinctly grubby Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart was an unlikely figure for such roles, as he came from a blue-blood New York clan, but youthful experiences in World War I, where according to lore he received a facial injury that gave him his signature lisp, and a spell of rank poverty during the Depression chiselled worldly knowledge deep into Bogart’s face and voice. He became American cinema’s image of the tough, savvy man of action until his death from cancer in 1956. The Marlowe Bogart plays in The Big Sleep isn’t quite the sad-sack he increasingly became in Chandler’s books, but a swift-tongued, poised, occasionally insolent swashbuckler with a moral streak that never feels forced, but rather flows from his refusal to be bullshitted.
Hawks made The Big Sleep as a follow-up to his and Bogart’s first collaboration, To Have and Have Not (1944), which had made a star out of model Lauren Bacall. Bacall and Bogart’s on-screen chemistry lit up the screen, whilst their off-screen affair was common knowledge and ended Bogart’s troubled second marriage. Hawks and his formidable task force of screenwriters, including future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, sought to create another vehicle for the couple’s electric appeal. They seized on Chandler’s work, even though they couldn’t work out who killed whom at one point, and soon found the author couldn’t remember either.
Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is provided by entwined incidents of romance and evil, rather than riddle. Narrative velocity is provided as Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats, who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence. The animating mood of Chandler’s novels, captured beautifully in this film in spite of its buoyant segues, is one of miasmic corruption and evil welling out of a still-callow, urban America that’s infected with secret appetites fed by feudal princes of the underworld, creating a noxious symbiosis that can only be battled by someone who understands it intimately. Bogart, who had found his real break in cinema playing hood-eyed heels ready to break teeth and plug bellies, was ideal to play such an intimately conversant hero, hard knocks and rude facts impressed upon his persona. Marlowe’s first appearance in the Sternwood Mansion sees him immediately fascinated by effetely competent butler Norris (Charles D. Brown), and the thumb-sucking teenaged seductress Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who, as Marlowe puts it, tries to sit in his lap whilst he’s standing up.
Marlowe is hired by Carmen’s decrepit, wheelchair-bound but still whip-sharp father General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to find the most sensible way to get rid of a blackmailer who’s calling in Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe’s interaction with Sternwood is a marvellous introduction to the strange adventure upon which he’s about to embark, the General mentioning that he imagines his daughters “have all the usual vices besides those they’ve invented for themselves,” and coolly notes, “If I sound a bit sinister as a parent Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.”
Sternwood is quietly pained by his recent abandonment by personal bodyguard and companion Sean Regan, who usually took care of such unpleasant business for Marlowe. Marlowe soon realises that Regan’s disappearance is on the minds of others, as Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall) tries to find if he’s been hired to find Regan. Marlowe rebuffs her in a verbal skirmish of quips, insults, and innuendo, and then gets busy tracking the apparent blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) to a rare bookstore he owns. There, Marlowe pretends to be a camp dilettante, annoying Geiger’s chicly dressed, but covertly brassy shopgirl Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and noting the apparently forbidden trade of the shop. Marlowe consults an employee in a neighbouring shop (Dorothy Malone) who is able to point out Geiger to him. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house and whilst staking the place out hears multiple shots, followed by two cars fleeing. He finds Geiger dead and a very high Carmen sitting by the body.
The most difficult challenge for Hawks and crew wasn’t Chandler’s knotty plot, but rather the litany of crimes, depravities, and illicit acts encompassed by the story, nigh impossible to portray under the rules of the Production Code. Carmen’s drug addiction, Geiger’s pornography racket that has her in thrall, Geiger’s gay relationship with his gunsel Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), and sundry other aspects had to be conveyed via nudge-and-wink devices, like Marlowe glimpsing a flustered-looking man looking for access to the locked back room in Geiger’s store’s, or Marlowe recoiling when he sniffs a concoction near Carmen in Geiger’s house, the girl not stark naked as she is on the page, but draped in a Chinese bathrobe. Major story developments had to be changed, too. Regan could no longer be Vivian’s husband as he was in the book, just as the identity of his killer had to be carefully smudged. Yet The Big Sleep still conveys an atmosphere of impeccable sleaze, as the dialogue and action constantly trace the sordid world it sees lurking behind urban brickwork, suburban rose bushes, and brownstone mansions alike. Hawks and company even make an overt joke out of the barely censored material when he has Agnes repeatedly cut off from finishing her angry description of a hood pal as “a pain in my—”. The Big Sleep conveys a pervasive relish of the dark side of American life that makes it stand apart from a lot of the noir films that would follow it, feeling closer in spirit to the boastful, struttin’ blues of guys like Muddy Waters and, much later, many a hip-hop star.
Like those artists, The Big Sleep simultaneously brags and conspires with the audience to delight in its carnality and brutality in a manner partly detached from the oncoming noir pattern of stark moral parable. Toughness, terseness, cool under pressure, a capacity to look at the meaner things in life and love and still sling off a devastating wisecrack: not only does the film revolve around such traits, but positively fetishizes them. Sometimes it does this to a grimly hilarious extent, like the traditionally shoehorned time-out for a song, where Bacall warbles lyrics bouncily reporting the tale of a “sweet, sweet guy” who socks his lady in the choppers.
The specific appeal of the private eye genre has always been about the detective’s independence from the state-sponsored moral force represented by the police. Marlowe’s breezy confidence in sticky situations is quickly confirmed, as he spirits Carmen from Geiger’s house, tells Norris and Vivian how to handle the situation, and then returns to study the crime scene and work out what happened. A police inspector pal of Marlowe’s, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), calls him out to a seaside pier, where a car containing the Sternwoods’ murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor has crashed into the water. Ohls, who recommended Marlowe for his current job, half-jokingly suggests Marlowe might have rid the family of a problem by killing Taylor.
Marlowe soon strides with characteristic directness into the thicket of double-crosses Geiger’s death causes amidst his coterie of associates, including reputed creep Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), who may or may not have killed Taylor for Carmen’s porn pictures, but who’s certainly trying to squeeze the Sternwoods again with them, with Agnes as grouchy confidant and Lundgren gunning for whoever he thinks killed Geiger. Events and personalities collide in Brody’s apartment in a hilarious and then brutal critical mass that sees Marlowe sarcastically outwitting not just Brody but also Vivian, who tries to cut a separate deal, and then Carmen, who turns up wielding a pistol to collect her photos. Many directors might have let this sequence devolve into an extended exposition punctuated by random, gun-wielding interlopers. Hawks turns it into a bedroom farce, linked to the screwball comedies he helmed in the 1930s and would direct again in the near future, except with blackmail and murder added to sex. Marlowe casually calls out Agnes and Vivian out from the curtain behind which they are hiding, with Marlowe and Vivian’s frenetic argument interrupted by an exasperated Brody.
Later, in a subtle, but brilliant encapsulation of Hawks’ technique, Marlowe, now holding the gun and the aces, grills Brody over his actions before Taylor’s death. Brody sits in a chair and Marlowe prowls on the far side facing the camera. Brody shifts his position as he explains, trying to avoid Marlowe’s excoriating gaze, and the camera pans slightly back and forth, tracing this little dance of power, with Brody quite literally shifty, Agnes looking on poised like a praying mantis dying to chew Brody’s head off, and Marlowe’s potency visually stated. A moment like Marlowe kicking Lundgren in the chin after challenging him to pick up a gun only confirms his mastery, a spasm of physical violence as precise and immediate as any kung-fu battle and quicker to the point. Of course, Marlowe was also himself perhaps the most knocked-out and beaten-up hero in the history of literature, and here he gets the crap knocked out of him by a couple of stand-over artists and his lights turned off by a thug with a fist full of pennies. The Big Sleep is set in wartime, instead of being a quasi-period piece, an off-hand detail confirmed by the rationing stickers on the cars and the habit of chief villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) referring to Marlowe as “Soldier”—which he is, lone warrior keeping the home front in order.
One fascinating aspect of The Big Sleep is that as an action film made during World War II, the age of Rosie the Riveter, Hawks is in a wonderland where his love of gender blurring can be given free rein, free from the usual justifications for having the classic Hawksian lady on hand, as female taxi drivers who can flirt hot and drive cool could be introduced without comment. Marlowe has starkly memorable interactions not just with appointed love interest Vivian but with a complement of strong vivid, hardboiled gals of various persuasions, from Agnes to Carmen, to cute librarians, cigarette girls, gangland wives, and, most deliciously, Malone’s embodiment of an everyday wet dream, the trimly bespectacled geek girl who archly transforms into drop-dead babe for a bout of backroom sex between incidents in the case. Malone’s star was as instantaneously sealed by her appearance here as Bacall’s was giving whistling instructions in To Have and Have Not. Vickers is similarly marvellous as the protean Carmen, swerving from frightened kid to coquettish seducer to wrathful dope freak, and yet, amazingly, her career never went anywhere after this. This was also true of Darrin, who’s brilliantly spiky as Agnes (“Whadda those look like, grapefruit?”), the proverbial cookie full of arsenic.
No director of his—or perhaps any—era had such finite understanding as Hawks of the film actor as a lodestone of both singular personality and ensemble reaction, and how to use this to enrich rather than take over a film, especially when it came to the ever-mercurial nature of sex appeal. In Bogie and Bacall’s combusting on-set romance he had a force of nature at his disposal, and yet The Big Sleep had to be retooled to make the most of it to ease studio worries over Bacall’s less well-received sophomore work in The Confidential Agent (1945). So, scenes were added sporting charged conversations where the couple assess each other’s sexual style through horse racing metaphors, and a late scene is laced with intimations of S&M as Vivian voraciously kisses a trussed and bloodied Marlowe. The whole thing adds up to one of the sexiest films ever made, a rare achievement not just considering the time of its making but also its usually more businesslike, overtly macho genre. Part and parcel, too, of the film’s greatness is the almost relentless stream of great dialogue provided by the awesome trio of screenwriters, with Jules Furthman rounding out the work by Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Speech in The Big Sleep is not, however, just a series of verbal displays of cleverness like too much modern film and TV writing. It’s given form and shape by the niceties of streetwise communication, and usually predicated on characters testing each other, feeling out motives, fishing for revelations, toughness made apparent not just in slugging and shooting, but also in verbal wit and dexterity and their capacity to hold onto knowledge, another form of power. The General’s aged, ruined form (“I seem to exist mostly on heat, like a newborn spider”) conceals a man who has no need to ration truth, which puts him at an advantage over just about everyone else, but also signals how far out of the running he is now.
Verbal currency is certainly at stake during Marlowe’s first conversation with Vivian, where she tries to wheedle facts out of him, but is instead provoked to quick displays of anger. Bogart’s Marlowe turns his weaknesses into strengths through his verbal nimbleness. “So you’re a private detective,” Vivian greets him, “I didn’t know they existed except in books or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” An opening barrage many could not recover from, but Marlowe replies, undaunted, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” There’s a pair of clever in-jokes lodged in this line, as Bogart had been forced to wear platform shoes opposite Ingrid Bergman on Casablanca (1943) and had often ridiculed his early career playing Joe College types who say “Anyone for tennis?” Marlowe’s quip deprecates both himself and the actor playing him, but in a way that gives both stature and potency. Similarly knowing are Marlowe’s exchanges with Carmen, where he calls himself Doghouse Reilly in parody of stock tough-guy shtick, the filmmakers wise to Chandler’s strategy of kidding the genre’s clichés just a little to clear ground for his own. By comparison, Marlowe’s interactions with Mars see two alpha males assessing each other’s qualities almost delicately, though even Mars is finally driven to note irritably, “You take chances Marlowe.” “I get paid to,” the private eye replies. Ridgley’s performance is nicely understated, never trying to come on like the tough guy.
Mars is a gambling boss who proves to be shepherding the Sternwoods’ darkest secrets even as his associates, like Geiger, try to profit from them. Even when the case seems over, with the Sternwoods’ blackmailers dead or locked away, Marlowe comprehends that some deeper game is being played, especially when Vivian is apparently robbed by one of Mars’ goons after a big roulette win. Marlowe realises the robbery has been staged, and is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Mars’ wife, who supposedly ran off with Sean Regan. Marlowe cops a beating for his continued interest, but then encounters Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), Agnes’s diminutive but poised boyfriend, who offers to sell interesting information. Before Marlowe can pay him off, he witnesses a unique bit of cruelty, as he spies on Mars’ main thug Canino (Bob Steele) extracting Agnes’ whereabouts from Harry, who’s loyal enough to lie, and then bullying him into drinking poison. Even for Marlowe, it’s so nasty and depressing a spectacle that he spends the rest of the film restraining a glimmering ferocity that finds equal expression in forcing Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) to recognise the monster her husband is. Marlowe finds Mona with the help of Agnes, whose words of regret for Harry’s death are, “I got a raw deal.” Agnes puts Marlowe onto the actual whereabouts of Mars’ wife, and he arrives at a rundown service station where a kick on the door brings out the gun-wielding, nerveless owner Huck (Trevor Bardette) and, more portentously, Canino, solicitously inviting Marlowe in to make an easier catch.
Hawks’ classical, spacious mise-en-scene is at its most open and free-flowing through The Big Sleep. Cuts only come when necessary, as Hawks generally prefers to choose camera set-ups that allow for nimble shifts of focus. His camera drifts with and amidst characters in settings like the Sternwoods’ mansion and Mars’ gambling palace, where geography is at once carefully unified and hard to read, camera peering through into adjoining rooms and the sense of secret forces always at work, a notion confirmed when Mars offers to let Marlowe see the rooms behind the gambling tables. Marlowe replies, “No thanks, I’ll go out with the rest of the suckers.” Hawks avoids the more expressionistic edge of noir for the most part except for odd moments, as when Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones’ death, the silhouetted victim and villain seen through glass with the camera deftly taking up a position where it can see Canino through a gap in the door, privileging the viewer. Yet the frames are often flooded with darkness, the lighting a careful alternation of dark zones and hazily embracing lights.
The camera quite often becomes the observant eye that Marlowe is, reading promissory notes, car registration slips, street signs, or spying on a stick-up going down. Such are the readily absorbable details of the modern world, the signs and wonders Marlowe’s understanding depends upon, but, of course, nothing compared to reading people, like Vivian’s insolent mandarin visage when Marlowe first sees her. Praising any single performance in The Big Sleep feels pointless because of the general excellence, the machine-tooled refinement of the actors’ rhythms, which make the film seem to work like a racing engine, fast and efficient and utterly integral. Hawks’ beloved, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue patterns turn all that great dialogue into an aural dance of precise musical intensity.
The typically cheap Warner Bros. sets, swathed in mist and rain (more rain falls in the course of the film probably than in the average L.A. year), nonetheless imbue the film with its pervasive air of enclosing gloom, and even when Marlowe heads out of town the landscape offers no respite. Even a moment of overt slapstick to relieve the mood—Huck running for the hills at a shot from Marlowe—is still rendered as a moment of hysterical energy, particularly thanks to Max Steiner’s scoring. In spite of its nominal pretences as an account of the very real dangers and depths of American society and idealised vision of the battle against them, some perhaps well known to members of the cast and crew, The Big Sleep, as its weird, pithily poetic title suggests, is far from realistic. It is indeed one of the most fervently delirious works from classic Hollywood, moreso than John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most stylised creations in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This is a world of golems lurking in the shadows (Canino), lesser imps and demons (Brody and Lundgren), capricious witches (Agnes and Carmen), royal priestesses (Vivian), ruined kings (Sternwood), and thieving pretenders (Mars), with Marlowe as muddied knight-errant. The tale occurs in a zone of the fantastic, a grotesque netherworld where every character is harbinger of either sex or death.
The evolving relationship of Marlowe and Vivian, who turns out to be hiding with Mona in a last-ditch effort to put Marlowe off the scent, pays off naturally as she not only frees him, but proves gutsy and loyal enough to help him trick Canino. Canino finishes up on his back with a gut full of bullets, and Marlowe sets out to entrap his boss. In the book, it was revealed that Carmen shot Regan in a moment of druggy, jealous anger when he rejected her advances, and that Mars has both covered up the crime but used it as a way to siphon the Sternwood fortune. Here that’s passed over and inferred in favour of a fiendishly nasty climax (one Hawks would later recycle in 1966’s El Dorado) that sees a casual aside earlier in the film, Mars’ invitation for Marlowe to step outside when his goons are patrolling, turned into a trap. Marlowe drives the criminal out of Geiger’s house so that his own thugs machine-gun him down, his fate traced out with ghoulishly memorable concision by a line of bullet holes erupting through a door before his limp and perforated body falls back. Hawks fades out on the sound of police sirens as Marlowe and Vivian face each other in a moment of triumph, but before their besiegement actually ends, poised between past and future, with the pure moment of anticipation now theirs—the immediate prospect that at last someone’s going to get laid. However you view it, The Big Sleep is one of the classics that define classic Hollywood.
After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus Hollywood had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She levels a gun on Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye. Only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.
Despite the bone-chilling weather, February 26 marked a joyful (if probably temporary) return of the Northwest Chicago Film Society to the Patio Theater. The theater’s 87-year-old boiler was returned to life, and though it wasn’t up to keeping us toasty warm in sub-zero weather, nobody seemed to mind—it was just great to gather with old friends and other classic film fans to see another of the rare films on film NCFS specializes in showing at an appropriately vintage movie theater.
After paying tribute to Harold Ramis, who died this week, by showing the trailers for Ghostbusters (1984) and Groundhog Day (1993), NCFS fired up a short film about motorcycle racing in the British Isles to coordinate with the main attraction, a romance/noir hybrid set in London—the luridly, but not inappropriately, named Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. This film was the first Burt Lancaster made under the aegis of Harold Hecht-Norma Productions, the independent production company he started only two years after his star-making debut in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) to capitalize on his own popularity. Lancaster’s company in a couple of different incarnations would produce some excellent movies, including Best Picture Oscar winner Marty (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). One only has to look back to the company’s first film to see that Lancaster had more than acting ability and charisma—he knew how to make great pictures.
In true noir fashion, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands zeroes in on a damaged World War II veteran whose precarious postwar existence almost inevitably collides with crime and violence. The film opens in a pub that is closing for the night. The patrons dutifully file out, save for petty criminal Harry Carter (Robert Newton) and a nervous, drunk Bill Saunders (Lancaster). When the publican (Campbell Copelin) tries to rouse Saunders from his place at the bar, Saunders reacts violently. He punches the publican, who falls, hits his head, and dies. A scream from the barmaid (Marilyn Williams) sends Saunders running. He eludes a policeman who gives chase by climbing into a flat occupied by hospital worker Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). A former inmate in a Nazi POW camp, he’d rather die than be locked up again, and when Jane does not turn him in the next day, he feels safe for the first time in a long time. She feels drawn to him, too, but naturally, Saunders’ crime, however accidental, will cast a shadow over their relationship and lead to violent consequences.
In many ways, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands has a predictable set-up, but it is shot through with surprises. Of course Carter comes looking to blackmail Bill. Of course Jane rejects Bill when his impulsive violence pops out, and of course she takes him back. But I was genuinely shocked by some of the scenes. For example, Bill is much more vicious and immoral than I expected. He mugs a man for his wallet and uses the stolen ration coupons to get some new clothes so he can call on Jane, a shocking touch of plot and character that doesn’t feel forced. His assault on a passenger on a train he and Jane are taking and subsequent attack on a police officer are sudden and vicious, but his punishment—six months hard labor and 18 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails—drew a literal gasp out of me. The lashing was a very difficult scene to watch and reminded me that postwar England was not so far ahead of the medieval tortures for which the country has long been infamous. I was also surprised that after Bill “goes straight” as a driver of a medical supply truck, he agrees to let Carter set up a robbery of the supplies in exchange for keeping Bill’s secret. In a previous scene, Bill saw how the supplies stopped an epidemic, but his personal survival always comes first.
While obviously shot mainly on a soundstage, the evocation of the physical atmosphere and mood of postwar London is pretty realistic. It is a world of ration books and black market trading, broken buildings and ongoing relief efforts, grieving widows and shell-shocked veterans. Seasoned DP Russell Metty, who would help create the look of Douglas Sirk’s famous Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s, paints a classic noir landscape of dark corners, narrow alleys, and menacing close-ups. When Bill and Jane go to the zoo on their improbable first date, Metty switches from an open, happy collection of boys mimicking a chimpanzee in a cage to a keeper feeding a ravenous lion. The camera moves swiftly from one caged predator to another, while Bill grows more anxious by the minute. The pacing, abetted by film editor Milton Carruth, is like a sudden eclipse of the sun, providing a hard-to-evoke state of mind for the troubled man that lasts throughout the film. This sequence is echoed later in the film when Jane joins Bill in psychic pain, wandering the streets in a daze, each corner harboring a menacing face that mirrors the face of the man she stabbed in self-defense.
Those who are looking for a hot romance between Bill and Jane will be disappointed. Although Lancaster can easily play the seducer, his Bill is a wounded boy. The first sign we and Jane get of this is at the zoo. Bill joins the boys in imitating the voice and face of the chimpanzee, a clear case of arrested development. Although the extended chase scene at the beginning of the film shows off Lancaster’s extreme athleticism and strength, he always seems small and pleading when he is with Jane. He barely reacts when he climbs in her window and sees her in her nightie, and doesn’t display a manly jealousy when the man on the train seems to be trying to make time with his girl. Even when he bemoans how his influence has screwed up Jane’s life, he knew what he was doing in pursuing her; she is a born helpmate.
Fontaine always seems to be the girl who wears glasses. In so many of her roles, she’s fragile and slightly aristocratic, as though her pure lineage has made her weak. As Jane, she falls in love with Bill’s need for her, his boyish vulnerability. When she leaves her room to get milk the morning after Bill has broken in, I half-expected her to put some in her tea and pour a full glass for him. She is always clearly in charge, finally overriding his survival instinct by making him accompany her as they both turn themselves in, thus kissing the blood off each other’s hands.
Robert Newton is always a pleasure, and his ingratiating crook is penny ante and not at all a match for Bill in the violence department, though Lancaster never lays a glove on him. It was a real relief not to see a fiendishly clever or super-powered villain, so dully common today. Screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici and adapter Ben Maddow were both to become victims of the Hollywood blacklist, and I have to think that their sympathy for common people brought out the vulnerability and sheer ordinariness of these characters. A large cast of bit players adds wonderful atmosphere and puts some real flesh on the bones of this scenario. Sadly, this film is not available for home viewing, but perhaps you can urge a programmer in your area to book this pristine 35mm print of a nearly forgotten gem.
Not the most popular or famous of Val Lewton’s epochal series of low-budget horror films made for RKO Studios, The Seventh Victim is the deepest, the most original, perhaps the darkest, a film that tends to weave a powerful spell on those who tune into its peculiar wavelength. The fourth film in Lewton’s horror cycle, it was the directorial debut of Mark Robson, who, like Robert Wise, had worked as an editor at RKO. He was promoted after Lewton’s first director collaborator Jacques Tourneur graduated to bigger-budget productions, and who would go on to a long career with many strong films as well as some shamefully shoddy late career labours that bespoke cruel truths about the decline of the studio system and the talents it fostered.
Tourneur’s films with Lewton had clearly reflected both men’s status as immigrants, fascinated and alienated by the American landscape. Robson and Wise were more parochially alert, and facilitated a shift in focus in Lewton’s series to foreign and historical settings, where a similar sense of unfamiliarity could be sustained. The Seventh Victim looked back to the initial success of Lewton’s series, Cat People (1942), and to silent melodramas that had blended aspects of realism with fable-like storytelling precepts, like Victor Sjöstrom’s The Phantom Carriage (1920) and D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1922), whilst also looking forward to many films, and indeed genres that didn’t yet exist. Jacques Rivette would strive to recapture its atmosphere with several films, particularly Duelle (1976). Alfred Hitchcock may have remembered it in the most famous scene of Psycho (1960). Roman Polanski would engage its ideas for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Dario Argento channelled it for Inferno (1980). Stanley Kubrick would partly remake it as Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Hints of its influence are detectable in urban horror stories of Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma.
One reason for this slow yet indelible effect of The Seventh Victim was that it followed Cat People in proving a horror film could be set in a completely contemporary urban landscape, transformed into a world of dreamlike vignettes and private netherworlds, and unlike its precursor was able to do so without any hint of the supernatural, presenting a situation where human folly creates horror. Robson’s directing wasn’t as smoothly fluid and sophisticated as Tourneur’s had been, but to a certain extent his neophyte coolness helps exacerbate the sequestered mood. Like all of Lewton’s productions, the title came down from RKO honchos. But the erstwhile Ukrainian aesthete, who had immigrated to the US in the company of his aunt, the silent tragedienne Alla Nazimova, took an active interest in every level of his creations, as Lewton excelled his former employer David Selznick in fulfilling the ideal of producer as auteur. Lewton’s approach had a twofold strangeness stemming from linked urges, as he tried to set his dramas in a demonstrably real world, but also psychologised his narratives, and pared them back to simple, almost fairy tale-like precepts, an approach which Lewton would take to an apogee with the next film, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which bypasses horror altogether in spite of the title, and becomes instead a gothic-edged children’s film. Lewton’s fondness for deliberate naïveté is also apparent in The Seventh Victim, which tells the story of young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her first role) and her coming of age whilst on a Snow White-like adventure in the concrete forests of Manhattan. The film kicks off with a quote from John Donne, a quote so suitable it serves almost as the mission statement of the horror genre: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”
Like many fairy tales, this one starts with an exile from home, albeit a place that’s not really a home. The two Gibson sisters, Mary and older sibling Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) are orphans. Jacqueline has earned a living whilst Mary has grown in a girl’s boarding school. Called before the principal Mrs. Lowood (Ottola Nesmith) and her aide Miss Gilchrist (Eve March), she is told that her sister has been out of touch, and her tuition hasn’t been paid for six months. Mary is offered a post at the school, but Gilchrist encourages her to make a break: “It takes courage to really live in the world,” she says, both as imploration and warning. The narrative’s use of staircases as symbology is plain in the first shot, showing the main staircase in the school, with religious-themed stained glass windows above it, as Mary ascends through a throng of other students, an intimation of Mary’s status as an almost holy innocent about to swim against a tide of human decay. Her departure from the school is one of the brief yet indelible, almost magical Lewton moments, as she smiles both sadly and wryly to herself, descending the stairs this time, in listening to the students in the classrooms being chided and reciting Latin conjugations and Romantic poetry. Mary’s excursion to New York sees her come in contact with a peculiar sprawl of vividly contrasted personalities, most of whom are engaged in duels with their own mortality and searching for meaning in existence.
Mary learns Jacqueline has sold her successful cosmetics business, La Sagesse, to her former assistant Mrs Esther Redi (Mary Newton), and seems to have vanished. Mary begins following a breadcrumb trail, firstly a clue provided by one of La Sagesse’s employees, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), who leads her to a boarding house run by the Italian immigrant couple, the Romaris (Chef Milani and Marguerita Sylva), above their restaurant in Greenwich Village, where Jacqueline has rented a room that proves to contain an ominous array: a noose suspended above a chair, waiting for someone to take their place at the end of the rope. Such disturbing discoveries point Mary to the morgue in search of her sister, and this leads her to another person seeking out Jacqueline, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont). A prominent lawyer, Gregory says that he loves Jacqueline, but keeps his marriage to her secret from Mary. Such secrets teem in the situation Mary finds herself in, as she soon learns the nature of adulthood seems to be ever-metastasising confusion.
This Snow White gains a single dwarf as helpmate, diminutive private eye Irving August (Lou Lubin), who is taken with her vulnerable desperation. When he’s warned off the case by a bigwig, August’s interest only intensifies, and after checking out La Sagesse, tells Mary that there’s a mysterious locked room in the factory where Jacqueline might be held prisoner. Mary and August steal into La Sagesse, whereupon both freeze up when faced with the long, dark, ominous corridor down to the secret room. Mary can’t work up the will, and instead encourages the timorous August to go in her stead. August finally does disappear into the dark, then reappears, moving strangely and silently, not answering Mary’s appeals, until he drops dead on the floor, bleeding from a wound in his chest.
This terrifically eerie sequence, with the photography (by Nicholas Musuraca) and lighting turning humdrum factory space into a nebulous zone of existential danger and infernal threat, is one of the great moments in the Lewton canon. It also provides an interesting contrast to the famous pool scene in Cat People, which it sustains a similar concept and mood to, insofar as that it pays off with actual violence rather than mere self-induced fright. Except that, fittingly for the film’s themes, August’s death later proves not to have been a malicious killing but one caused by fear, fear of the dark and the quiet just as beset the interloping pair. The way Mary encourages August to venture forth into the dark in her stead reveals the degree to which Mary is still a child, getting the adult to go where she daren’t, whilst the pair of them also resembling a couple of kids standing outside a haunted house daring each-other to go in. But Mary’s has growing capacity as an adult to persuade, an ability to make another do something that has an unexpectedly ugly consequence because of her weakness. This resonates interestingly with the Lewton films on either side of this one, with the ponderings of the nature of free will in The Leopard Man, and the more urgent contemplation of a desire to impose will with fascist overtones in The Ghost Ship (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945): indeed in the Lewton cycle this tendency is considered a genuine evil. Later in the film group will is exerted on an individual for destructive ends.
Mary loses her innocence here, and is sent running out into the night. Riding the subway back and forth in a daze, she’s startled to see two society swells propping up a third who seems passed out drunk, except that the third’s hat tumbles off and she recognises August. Mary chases down a transit cop, but the duo slip off with their charge, making it all seem like some nocturnal imagining. The mood of this scene, with the clamour of the train, sharply contrasts the pellucid silence of the factory scene, and yet compliments it, presenting another perversely claustrophobic, alienating urban environment. I can’t think of another scene like it in film before it, except perhaps in a Hitchcock film like Blackmail (1929), but it certainly anticipates in acute ways the fascination with New York’s fecund, deteriorating infrastructure in ‘70s cinema as a wonderland for evoking anxiety, and specifically a sequence like the one in which Nancy Allen dodges a killer on the subway in Dressed to Kill (1980).
One of the Lewton series’ singular qualities was this way the filmmakers were able to turn limited resources and set-bound productions into precisely atmospheric invocations of place. Just as The Leopard Man (1943) captures the mood of a town on the fringe of the wild, The Seventh Victim follows Cat People in tangibly recreating the feeling of a big city in the hours when its streets might as well be wilderness. That canard of “eight million stories in the naked city” is suggested in Mary’s visit to Missing Persons, a simple tracking shot absorbing an array of similarly befuddled by the ease with which it’s possible to get lost in a big city, even as August tries to reassure Mary that it’s only “nine miles long and three miles wide.” The most overt poetic invocation in The Seventh Victim comes from an actual poet character, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), in whose mind a searchlight above the Manhattan rooftops becomes “Cyrano’s sword,” cutting through “the blue cloak of a prince.” Jason invokes Cyrano de Bergerac, Byron, and is glimpsed at one point sitting “at the foot of Dante,” that is, under a mural in the Romaris’ restaurant under the boarding house, named for the poet. For the jocular Mrs Romari, all intellectual and emotionally complex propositions are humour. “Do you actually want to find your sister?” Jason asks Mary, who catches his eye when she first arrives at the Romaris. Mrs Romari laughs at him, but Jason’s sense that tracking down Jacqueline might involve soul-rending damage proves prescient. The gentle, Hart Crane-ish poet, who’s haunted by a romantic tragedy that killed his burgeoning career, begins finding his way back to functionality as he’s stirred to action on Mary’s behalf. Jason learns he’s not to be Prince Charming, but finds other things that make the effort worthwhile.
Another peculiarity of the Lewton series is the fashion in which it touches on metatextual ground without quite making it overt. Similar characters and roles recur from film to film, whilst actors appear often in interestingly, deliberately contrasting parts. For instance, here the velvet-voiced Ben Bard, who had played a stern but empathic policeman in The Leopard Man is here the leader of a Satanic coven. The Seventh Victim features the most explicit example of this tendency, as Tom Conway reiterates his role from Cat People, the psychiatrist Dr Lewis Judd. Except that he’s not quite the same Judd. For one thing, the character in the other film was mauled to death. For another, this one isn’t as coolly amoral, even if he seems at first just as superciliously obnoxious, phlegmatically brushing off a secretary’s pleas for help for her alcoholic father: “Dipsomania’s…rather sordid.” It soon proves that both Jason and Gregory have reasons to distrust the psychiatrist, who was seen with Jacqueline and Jason’s former sweetheart years before, shortly before they both vanished. Echoes of Cat People’s emotional quandaries are also apparent, the fear over loss of a loved one to mental instability and the abuse of privilege by a physician. The possibility that Cat People might indeed have been a story written by Jason as a j’accuse screed aimed at Judd, converting emotional damage into metaphorical terrors, is entirely conceivable. It’s clear enough why Lewton and regular screenwriting collaborators DeWitt Bodeen (who co-wrote this with Charles O’Neal) would bring back this character: his insolent charm, given body by Conway who was a minor marquee star, provides an engaging cynical, worldly counterpoint to the idealists and placeless drifters who populate the film, as well as a constant hint of sexual evil. Except that here the filmmakers take a chance to divert the outcome of the previous drama, as if deliberately engaging in an act of self-reflexive revision.
Judd first appears approaching Gregory as an apparent emissary from Jacqueline, shaking down the lawyer for money to support her, and remaining cagily impenetrable about what exactly is going on. He then goes to Mary, offering to bring her to Jacqueline. He takes her to an upmarket hotel, but finds that Jacqueline seems to have vanished: “She’s left me to meet them alone,” he murmurs in alarm, and flees, leaving a bewildered Mary to face “them” alone himself. The knock at the hotel room door Mary answers proves however to be Jacqueline, glimpsed only for a few seconds like a fleeting mirage. Few movie characters can ever live up to the levels of mystique as are built up about Jacqueline (notably, like Rebecca de Winter, Jacqueline is spoken of in rather awed terms, and identified by totemic monogrammed effects), and that makes the Brooks’ appearance here all the more unique. When she’s finally glimpsed, with her weird Egyptian-flapper hairstyle and haunted, moon-bright eyes, it’s only for a few seconds: Jacqueline raises a finger to her lips, warning Mary to be quiet lest she attract any of the people searching for her. She’s undoubtedly corporeal and acting for real reasons, but also, seems like some emissary of the underworld, urging silence like an enforcer of taboo and mystery. The film’s obsession with doors and staircases – leading Mary to Jacqueline, Judd wryly comments, when presented with two staircases up to the next floor, that he prefers the “left or sinister side” – as passages between worlds accords with Jean Cocteau’s use of mirrors in his intensely similar Orphée (1949).
Eventually the truth of Jacqueline’s situation begins to emerge: through Mrs Redi she became involved in a group of Satan worshippers known as the Palladists (based on a French society of Satanists rumoured to have practised in the 1800s), and because she told her therapist Judd about them, they’ve declared she must die. The Palladists are hardly however a shocking cult, but a collective that runs the gamut of bohemian oddballs, bored socialites, saturnine malcontents, homosexuals, and the physically damaged. They give a face both to the overwhelming anxiety manifesting in the darkness that crowds the edges of the film, and also suffer from it themselves, and have adopted one method of trying to feel they master life and death. Judd and Jason even move in the same social circles as the Palladists, amongst whom Redi, Mr. Brun (Bard) and one-armed hostess Natalie Cortez (Evelyn Brent) seem to be the senior members. Jason is canny enough to bring Mary and Gregory within close proximity of the coven on a hunch. Judd seems like an ideal Palladist, but he rather stands distinct from them, too intelligent to fall for their folderol, too interested by their strangeness to ignore them, and too scared of what they might do if provoked. Brun expostulates at length the peculiar dichotomy at the heart of the society’s sensibility, its insistence that anyone that breaks its oath of secrecy must die, but also its pledge to non-violence. The only legitimate way they can, then, punish Jacqueline for her transgressions is to force her to commit suicide, but failing that, a few members are willing to go further, not because Jacqueline broke their rules but because she could possibly expose and embarrass them.
The notion that Jacqueline joined the group for erotic as well as emotional and spiritual stimulation percolates below the surface as you’d expect from a 1943 film and yet nudges me constantly, apparent in Frances’ suggestive worship and unconcealed love for Jacqueline (“The only time I was ever happy was when I was with you!”). Redi’s husky-voiced ambiguity is also telegraphed, giving a particularly piquant charge to a scene in which Redi enters Mary’s apartment to warn her off the search for Jacqueline. Mary is caught naked and dripping wet in the shower, with Redi’s silhouetted form glimpsed through the curtain. The prefiguring of Psycho here is unmistakable, although less violent, the note of erotic threat less immediate than a big knife but no less unsettling for the naïve and vulnerable girl. Redi makes a mistake, however, by doing this, because she informs Mary that Jacqueline was in fact the prisoner in the secret room, and she killed August in fright. This fact gives Jason the inspiration to finally pressure Judd, who’s been hiding Jacqueline since she escaped that night, into letting him, Mary, and Gregory take her into their care.
Jason’s tracking of Judd through a skeletal studio version of the Village offers stark, lunar-surface alleyways and blankly silhouetted, shadow-play windows, islets of warmth between oceans of dark. When Judd finally does lead the trio of searchers to Jacqueline’s door, she proves to have now lodged in some mysterious abode, descending into a deep focus frame with peculiarly numinous effect, her waiting cohort of would-be friends and protectors gathered in the foreground. Lewton’s films were usually too starkly budgeted to offer the kind of oversized Expressionistic effects found in Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau’s early work or in Rowland V. Lee’s delirious Son of Frankenstein (1939) with their carefully contrived and constructed games with space and architecture as mimetic canvas, and besides Lewton was usually after something a touch subtler. Here Robson captures something closer to the French 1930s template of “poetic realism,” where more realistic environments were carefully manipulated to create expressive settings, here managed on the back-lot sets with an almost theatrical minimalism. Robson was following on from Tourneur’s work, and pointing the way forward to the similar mix the most visually vivid noir films would sport within a few years. Many of the personnel who worked with Lewton, including Robson, had indeed worked on Orson Welles’ costly but deeply influential works at the studio, and indeed in many ways Lewton and team found practical applications for much that Welles had helped evolve.
Jacqueline’s “return to life” however proves disorientating: taken to Jason’s studio, she recounts August’s killing in a spellbinding moment, with Robson tracking his camera in slowly to her wan and haunted face, and then finally her eyes, a shot that summarises, for me, the essence of Lewton’s achievement and perhaps indeed the genre. Where before she had ministered silence to hold the abyss at bay, now she confesses with words but those eyes say more about abysses she’s seen into. As tawdry as the Palladists are, the terrors they’ve evoked for Jacqueline after a life of frantically seeking sensual experience have pushed her to the edge of sanity, of liminal awareness, which with her morbidly fixated nature she feels experiences with all the acuity of a Dostoevsky character. At the same time, Jason, realising his romantic hopes are fading as Mary is gravitating more to Gregory’s paternal charm, tries to hint, by way of his extended Cyrano metaphor, to Jacqueline that her husband is in love with her sister. A dance of attraction has been in motion behind the scenes, between the carefully calibrated types: Gregory as upholder of order, Jason as protean creator, Judd as guardian of the psyche and healer, with Mary and Jacqueline, objects of their affections, as mirroring siblings, who embody Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in William Blake’s parlance.
The dance ends unsatisfyingly on one level: it’s hard to believe Mary would fall for Gregory, if only because, like too many of Lewton’s heroes, he’s played by one of RKO’s usual, deathly dull leading men, in this cause Beaumont, who would later find his role comfortably numbing us all as the patriarch of Leave it to Beaver. It does make sense on a psychological level, as Gregory has presented to both Gibson girls the ideal of the settled, paternal male, and through him an illusion of familial solidity. Jason, denied the girl, is rewarded with renewed creativity and also in discovering his accord with Judd, who proves to actually have been a benefactor, protecting Jacqueline and Jason from harm by life’s crueller facts. When he explains that Jason’s long-ago sweetheart, the one he saw Judd with, is now irretrievably insane, “a horrible, raving thing,” he recognises that Judd has been his friend all along. Judd’s own admissions to jealousy of Jason’s accomplishment with his first book gives way to his scepticism over his new work: “the time is out of tune,” he says, for such a romantic artist in a bleaker time. This touch reflects the peculiar status of Lewton’s films, their blend of darkness and light, homey emotionalism so nimble but frail in contrast to overwhelming evil, which marked the producer’s sensibility out of place in ruder environment of Hollywood, and yet came closer than almost anyone else to recording the psychological undertone of his era: The Seventh Victim, after all, was made in the midst of World War 2, and if any epoch could shake a person’s faith in common humanity and yet also offer many proofs for it, that was the one.
As Tourneur and Wise went on to make some definitive films noir, Robson’s different touch would become clearer as he would make some excellent works situated rather at the nexus of noir with urban drama and social realism, like Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), whilst fervently emotional melodramas amongst like Peyton Place (1957), From the Terrace (1960), and Valley of the Dolls (1967), coherently extend the female-centric sensibility he could adopt, apparent here and in his follow-ups for Lewton, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1946). Like Wise, Robson essentially became an all-round artisan who could be relied upon by the studios even as they floundered: it’s hard to imagine a film more diametrically opposed to the delicate horrors of this film than Earthquake (1974), Robson’s second-last work. The melancholy effect of The Seventh Victim is strong and genuine, especially considering that Lewton had used it to express his own mortal anxiety: he would die aged 46, whilst Gage would be killed in combat in the Philippines a year after the film was shot, and Brooks would die young from alcoholism.
It’s remarkable, considering how dense and suggestive the narrative of The Seventh Victim is, that the film only runs a fraction over 70 minutes. The sense of compression is leavened slightly by the artificial effect of Mary and Gregory’s romance, although their couple’s last scene together, as Gregory asks Mary not to look at him as he both declares his ardour but also states his intent to deny it for Jacqueline’s sake, is delicately lovely and only needs a more convincing context. Judd and Jason’s rebuke to the Palladists awkwardly approaches a note of standard-issue piety Lewton usually artfully avoided. But this is both more complicated and simpler than it seems as it bears out a consistent aspect of the Lewton series, a belief that sometimes the most complex things are summarised best by the simplest words, especially matters like human interdependence. Judd offers the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses” – with a direction to actually consider what it implies in retorting to Brun’s respect for “Satanic majesty and power” by implying his belief is far cornier, with the implication that, to quote another Donne poem, no man is an island, and that the Palladists, rather than finding exclusive power, have instead left themselves tragically cut off from the only things that make life bearable.
Apart from these stumbles, the last fifteen minutes are remarkable, as Jacqueline, brought out from the shadows by her friends, proves to have only been made vulnerable to her enemies. Kidnapped from Mary’s rooms, she’s kept by the Palladists in Cortez’s place, browbeaten by the gathering into drinking a cup of poison, with Robson’s framings teeming with Dutch Master-like faces looming out of chiaroscuro lighting, and Brooks with her nemesis, the glass, looming before her, voices of encouragement, alternately bullying, seductive, and despairing, whilst Jacqueline resists with cool boredom: “No, no, no…” When she finally does raise the chalice to her lips, Frances knocks it from her hands, an act of mercy from a friend moments after Frances was hysterically imploring her to drink. Jacqueline is released, but one of Palladist goons who had helped spirit August away now stalks her through the dark streets in perhaps the most epic of the many sequences of anxious midnight wandering in the Lewton series. Like Mary in the subway scene, Jacqueline finds herself utterly alone in the midst of the great city. She can’t appeal to the oblivious passers-by to protect her from the almost abstract threat that pursues her, the stalker’s face gleaming deathly pale as he looms out of shadows, building to a climax when Jacqueline edges her way along a wall in trying to escape a blind alley, only to feel the coat of her pursuer, lying in wait for her. A hand grasps her wrist; a knife flicks open.
Jacqueline is only saved by the sudden eruption of a coterie of actors from their theatre’s rear entrance: one of the male actors grabs Jacqueline up, offering to buy her a beer and a sandwich, and spirits her to safety. These folk are more than actors; they’re like an explosion of the life essence itself, emerging from doors with the Comedy and Tragedy masks painted on. The irreducible linkage of the two faces lies at the heart of The Seventh Victim’s obsession with mortality. Jacqueline cannot follow the actors into the tavern to share their Bacchanalian love of life, wandering away instead back to the Romaris’ boarding house, where she encounters one of the other residents, who throughout the film has only been glimpsed shuffling from one door to another. This is Mimi, a withering, consumptive woman waiting to die, played by another Lewton regular, Elizabeth Russell.
Just as Russell played the sinister foreign woman who mysteriously recognised her “sister” in Cat People, here she recognises Jacqueline as fellow lost soul, and states her intention to go out and have fun rather than wait for death, in a monologue that’s both chilling and pathetic: “I’ve been so quiet, oh so quiet, I hardly move, yet it keeps coming for me all the time.” The firelight from within her room casts infernal flickering on the scene. Jacqueline’s final realisation that Mimi will die anyway precipitates the seemingly off-hand, yet bone-chilling final moment. Mimi, dressed up, leaves her flat and moves down the stairs, only distracted for a moment by the odd sound of a toppling chair in Jacqueline’s room, the confirmation that Jacqueline has finally taken her last option. A throwaway touch here underlines the overtone of inevitable fate being met: where the Palladists had mentioned that so far six deaths had been listed for the six betrayals their organisation had recorded, so Jacqueline’s apartment is numbered 7. The final effect is tragic, and yet as a whole, like all of Lewton’s films, The Seventh Victim is peculiarly life-affirming: enjoy it while you have it.
Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.
Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.
Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.
Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.
When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.
Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.
Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.
Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.
The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.
If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.
Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942). Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.
Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castile, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.
Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.
Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Mike Smith gave an interesting talk at a local library about the history of the Academy Awards that featured clips from several Best Picture winners representing different eras of filmmaking. He chose the much-honored The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to represent the World War II era, and commented that while American audiences today seem to need several years to pass before a film can address an important historical event such as 9/11 or Columbine, no such time lag existed for previous generations. Particularly during World War II, movie audiences got dispatches from the various fronts through newsreel footage that spared no one the horrors of war. With the immediacy of the war touching large numbers of Americans, feature filmmakers felt both a freedom and an obligation to present their war stories with the same unflinching reality. The Best Years of Our Lives, released right after the end of the war and dealing with the challenges of repatriated veterans, did nothing to sugarcoat the difficulties faced by double-amputee Harold Russell, who won an Oscar for his affecting portrayal of a soldier coming to terms with the loss of his hands and how his disability will affect the rest of his life.
In a similar vein, The Story of G.I. Joe premiered in June 1945, a mere two months after the death of its central character, Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who was mowed down by machine gun fire on an island near Okinawa four months before the end of the war in the Pacific. Like illustrator Bill Mauldin, who concentrated on the lives of the ordinary “dogfaces” fighting the war on the ground in his cartoon “Willie and Joe,” Pyle attached himself to the infantry and wrote in plain-spoken style about the lives and deaths of the various G.I. Joes he met. The Story of G.I. Joe, a mournful one if ever there was, can be looked on as a public display of grief for a man who dignified the pain and loss of so many Americans.
The film focuses on C Company, 18th Battalion, a small outfit stationed in North Africa. The CO, Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum), has to deal with two stowaways. One is Pyle (Burgess Meredith), who approaches him and asks to ride with the company to the front. The other is a stray puppy one of the younger soldiers has tucked into his jacket at the back of the truck. Walker orders little Arab off the truck, but ultimately relents as both Pyle and Arab become unofficial members of the company. This sweet moment is almost immediately shattered when enemy planes swoop down on the company. The men follow their training and scramble for cover while the gunner remains on the truck to shoot at the planes. After the attack, they reassemble, only to discover that Arab will need a new master. It’s a slightly predictable, but nonetheless wrenching moment. “The first death’s the hardest,” says Walker, in understated acknowledgment that there will be more. When the company hunkers down in the evening, we get a sense of the cold desert nights, as Pyle wraps up tightly in the sleeping bag he carries, and Pvt. Murphy (John R. Reilly), too tall for the Air Force, extends his long legs outside his tent, letting a draft in on his complaining tent mate.
As with a real company, men are killed and new ones rotate in. As the soldiers’ identities get obscured by quick succession, beards, mud, and rain, it’s hard to tell one from another. The film provides a core group of soldiers with character-defining behaviors to help us stay connected—‟Wingless” Murphy, horny Pvt. Dondaro (Wally Cassell), family man Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele), dependable Pvt. Spencer (Jimmy Lloyd)—as they manage to survive actions from North Africa to Italy. But it is Ernie Pyle who forms the strong center of the movie. Pyle functions as something of a Greek chorus, which normally would relegate him to the sidelines, particularly as he drops in and out of C Company as his war coverage takes him all over the map. However, Wellman manages to keep him at the forefront, giving audiences familiar with his written dispatches a sense that they are still seeing the war through his eyes. Wellman performs this sleight of hand in a number of ways. For example, Ernie waits with little Arab for the remnants of the C Company veterans with whom he started his “tour” to return from a rain-soaked battle; like Ernie, we don’t see the battle, only its aftermath. We feel the weariness of the men as they come back, one by one, and perform their after-battle rituals, and wince with open emotion along with Ernie and Arab when one of them doesn’t return. In addition, Ernie earns the nickname “the little guy,” putting him on even footing with the troops, and is acknowledged every time he returns to C Company as one of them.
The Story of G.I. Joe doesn’t offer a strong chronology or an orderly passage of time. True to the experience of the GIs, the war just keeps going, and the soldiers keep going with it. The grim conditions are occasionally lightened, even during battle. In a tense sequence where Walker and Warnicki are hunting three German snipers holed up in a ruin of a church, the Americans dart in and out, laying down covering fire and counting with happy grins of camaraderie when one of the Germans falls. During the same action, Dondaro ducks into an inn where he comes face to face with a young Italian woman (Yolanda Lacca). He speaks her language, and the entire scene takes place in Italian with no subtitles. After the battle, Warnicki attempts to find a record player for a recording his wife sent him of their son saying hello. He gestures to the Italians, rotating his finger in a circle to show what he’s looking for, but instead of a turntable, one of them returns with a coffee grinder. What wonderful touches of realism and human connection!
A sense of futility descends frequently. As American troops are pinned down by Germans perched in the culturally significant monastery of Monte Cassino, Warnicki, a Catholic, says he’d rather live for his family than die for a piece of rock. When Allied bombers at long last appear to destroy the monastery, the GIs cheer, only to discover that the rubble of the monastery is as useful a position for the Germans as the intact building was. Eventually, Warnicki loses his battle with the demons in his own head and is shipped off to a psych hospital, a reminder, perhaps, of Pyle’s near crack-up. The question comes up frequently about why Pyle stays when he could go home, a question he can’t seem to answer for himself. The film betrays nothing of his troubled home life, but broken marriages aren’t skimmed over, as Walker’s split is signaled economically when he receives no letters from his wife during mail call.
The central performances of Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum form a strong core for the action going on around them. Meredith, age 38 at the time, seems rather older than the 43rd birthday he celebrates in the film, but as Steven Spielberg said when he talked about casting Saving Private Ryan (1998), the faces were older back then; 43 in the 1940s could look like 63 today. Meredith carries the gravity of those years, the quiet patience and unembarrassed emotion of a person secure in himself, and remains present but unobtrusive throughout the film. Mitchum has always seemed grizzled beyond his years to me, but in this film, he not only looks his age (28), but also acts it as a man barely old enough to lead a command of men not much younger than he is. He is world-weary when he talks about having to write condolence letters to relatives of his fallen troops, but the scene ends rather innocently with Ernie waxing philosophic, only to turn and find Walker has fallen asleep. The two actors work beautifully together and build a relationship that feels solid and genuine.
Although relieved by actual war footage, the sound stage shooting threatens to undermine the reality of the unfolding story. Fortunately, Wellman had such a good grasp on the rhythms of ground warfare and paid such close attention to detail that the film never loses its grip. For example, ensuring bodies retrieved from a battlefield show signs of rigor mortis not only adds veracity to a scene, but also defies those heroic final speeches dying soldiers always seem to have time to spit out before their eyes flutter and their heads drop abruptly to the side. The soldiers carry their rifles butt-up in the rain to prevent water from going down the barrel. There is no final victory to end the film on a high note either, only Ernie Pyle’s gut-twisting final line: “For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks pal, thanks.’” Given Pyle’s vain hope that the horrors he has reported will convince nations not to make war again, that “thank you” belongs to the men and women who served alongside the fallen soldier, not to those of us who have risked nothing. We, it seems, have not learned any lessons at all.
If The Sea Hawk is the working model of the old-fashioned swashbuckler, The Black Swan is its disreputable younger brother, a study in lascivious über pulp in rest and motion. Starring Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn’s chief rival for the mantle of swashbuckling heartthrob during the late 1930s-1940s, in one of his nearly a dozen collaborations with director Henry King, The Black Swan is another essential genre avatar. King, a cinema pioneer and usually a soberly artful, thoughtful director, here threw out the niceties and reduces the serious themes of the Curtiz-Flynn model to window dressing. He charges through the narrative like a whirling dervish to wrap up his narrative in 84 minutes of Technicolor-swathed foreplay. The theme usually treated cheekily, even suggestively, but ultimately decorously in Flynn’s movies, the dance of dangerous seduction between roguish outlaw and a prim lady fair like Olivia de Havilland, is here transmuted into an extended S&M fantasy. Apart from Duel in the Sun (1948), The Black Swan is, in its circuitous way, quite the filthiest, mind-bogglingly kinky and campy film I’ve seen from a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s. Whilst The Sea Hawk took the oncoming mood of war seriously enough to sail on those ill winds, The Black Swan is entirely a rejection of contemporary reflection, except perhaps in its aggressive underlying celebration of warrior masculinity as a newly desirable ideal.
Some of the films that helped to invent what would later be called the camp aesthetic (and The Black Swan surely is one, along with the likes of Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman  and the most florid Bette Davis and Joan Crawford melodramas) welled out of the underground reservoirs of this seemingly more serious era’s frenetic anxieties and perfervid fantasies, which would also disgorge film noir. Shot in Technicolor that pools with the luscious vivacity of Renaissance art, all the better for soaking up the texture of leading lady Maureen O’Hara’s vulva-red lips and the hues of Earl Luick’s costuming, The Black Swan prefigures the painterly aesthetic of King and Power’s fine later collaboration, Captain from Castile (1947). But whereas the latter film was coolly resplendent in its use of storybook colour and offered its melodramatic story as a sober epic, The Black Swan is little more than a romp through the tropes of the pirate movie.
Working from a script by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, King whirls through what should be a first act of a standard swashbuckler film in a solid 20 minutes of delirious fights and captures, rape and bondage, torture and pistol brandishing, door-entering and stair-climbing, that starts to play like French bedroom farce done in buccaneer costume. This is, as an opening title tells us in a manner suggesting cowriter Hecht lampooning his archly romantic foreword scrawl for Gone with the Wind (1939), a “story of the Spanish Main — when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was — Love, Gold, Adventure.” The very first shot, of a young Hispanic gallant serenading his lady love far below her high balcony, hits a romantic note the film only wants to subvert. Within moments, the Spanish Caribbean port is infiltrated by a band of English privateers who leap from the rooftops to overwhelm the guards and plunder the town of everything that can be carried away; the pirates are glimpsed hefting tethered girls onto their ship like sacks of grain.
Pirate captains Jamie Waring (Power) and Billy Leech (George Sanders) celebrate by getting sozzled on the beach with two trussed maidens wriggling like puppies at their feet. Leech makes a play for figurative fellatio as he tries to force one captive to drink from his mug, but as she resists, he instead splashes his symbolic seed all over her face. Spanish soldiers resurge from the night, driving out the pirates and capturing Waring, who is then stripped to the waist and hung on the governor’s rack for a little gratuitous torso-ripping and rippling. Now it’s Waring getting the wine goblet/penis substitute waved in his face. Thankfully, in bursts Waring’s chum Tommie Blue (Thomas Mitchell) with a relief party, and soon it’s the Spanish governor on the rack. Jamaica’s British governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), comes downstairs to intervene, protesting that England and Spain have now made peace, but Waring, even more infuriated, has him promptly hurled into the dungeon as a traitor. His daughter, Margaret (O’Hara) descends too, wielding a pistol and demanding to know her father’s location: Waring swats the gun from her hand and tries to kiss her as prelude to ravishing her, but the arrival of Waring’s friend, Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), distracts him so much he drops Margaret like so much laundry under his arm. Morgan’s arrival doesn’t mean, however, that the pirating business will continue as usual. Morgan, whom all of his pirating friends thought had been hung in London after being captured and shipped there by Denby, has returned as the new Jamaican governor, because he’s the only one who can persuade the pirates to hang up their cutlasses now that England has made peace with Spain—or, if he can’t, can use his knowledge to hunt them down.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan is initially spurned by Denby. Leech and fellow cutthroat Wogan (Anthony Quinn) in turn spurn the idea of giving up piracy, whilst Waring reluctantly sides with Morgan and Tommie. As he and Tommie escort Morgan into the governor’s mansion, they fight like children over the best rooms, and Waring eagerly claims Margaret’s former chamber, all the better to lounge upon her pillows to imbibe the scent she’s left on them. Tommie tries to impress a lady friend he’s picked up by making love to her in Margaret’s bed, only for Waring to catch them and kick them out. Waring tries to reinvent himself as a gentleman, or at least as close as he can get to one, in order to pursue Margaret in his new station. She, understandably, is less than thrilled initially, playing the cobra to his mongoose in a lengthy game where Waring tries to suppress his natural inclination to bend Margaret over the nearest barrel and have at it and play the gentleman suitor. When Margaret falls from her horse while fleeing from him, he tends to her in his approximation of gallant fashion, including peeling her eyes wide to check she hasn’t suffered a stroke and fetching her a drink of water using a lily pad as a cup, only for her to then clout him on the noggin with a stone. Waring has a love rival in the form of Denby’s foppish friend Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), a strutting ponce who seems by far the more ideal gentleman—except that Ingram is plotting to make himself extremely rich, destroy Morgan, and help Denby take back control of Jamaica by feeding information to Leech on where and when to attack ships, and how to avoid Waring and the other loyal captains under Morgan.
Piracy is to King as jewel thievery is to Lubitsch and Hitchcock: an extended mating dance. Whereas for the latter directors, that finer illicit occupation symbolised adult sexuality at its most sophisticated, piracy under King’s watch becomes a fundamental metaphor for baser, more primal processes, as the drama, whilst set nominally in a specific historical milieu, portrays a moment in human evolution that is far more remote, when animal needs and raw force give way to the relation of individuals. King isn’t the slightest bit interested in either the finagling of the villains or in delivering a comeuppance to Ingram—that’s left to be resolved after the final fade-out—but rather focuses purely on the randy energy of his stars, complemented with some neat action.
Power, who was King’s discovery, was catapulted to stardom after appearing in King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936) as an artful, but largely static romantic lead. When he played the title role in King’s 1939 drama Jesse James, and then the masked avenger in Rouben Mamoulian’s more classical The Mark of Zorro (1940), with an epic bout of swordplay between Power and Basil Rathbone that ranks as one of the most genuinely fierce ever filmed, Power became a legitimate rival to Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling idol. The air of physical discomfort that would beset Power increasingly in the later 1940s and 1950s owing to the inherited heart ailment that would finally kill him, was still nowhere to be seen, and he bounds through The Black Swan with the swaggering confidence of a movie star at full force: actually this was the next to last movie Power would make before he joined the Marines and served as pilot through the end of World War II. He was bisexual according to Hollywood scuttlebutt (but then, who wasn’t?), and certainly was no stranger to letting himself be eroticised on screen. He spends about a third of the running time of The Black Swan sans shirt, starting with an interlude of homoerotic torture.
O’Hara, on the other hand, seems to have possessed some innate quality that brought out the latent S&M fantasist in so many of the directors who worked with her: bound, gagged, and hooded in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), kidnapped repeatedly and subjected to medieval torture in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), dragged across country on her rear end at John Ford’s behest in The Quiet Man (1952), and thrown in for a bout of mud wrestling and spanking in Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock (1963). What was it about O’Hara that exposed the nakedly eager chauvinist in such filmmakers? Was it her capacity to seem at once rigidly proper and cast-iron in character, but also provocatively, lawlessly sensual under the surface? Certainly The Black Swan is predicated on just this balance, as the more ferociously contemptuous and dismissive O’Hara gets the more and more certain Waring is that Margaret secretly adores him. After he’s clobbered Ingram, who ill-advisedly tried to start a duel, he demands to know what on earth she sees in such a flop of a man. Margaret spits a stream of insults at him: “You black-hearted bully! What do you know about men or women or anything human? All you can do is shoot and kill and prey on women, with your beastly senses slobbering at the sight of anything fine!” Waring swishes his cape and struts off with a confident flourish: “I repeat my lass, you’ll have to choose between us, and very soon too.”
The idea of making an action-adventure movie as an excuse to put two roaring hot stars together was once one of the essential creeds of Hollywood; Howard Hawks was the past master of it. I recall a few years ago when watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), one of the direct descendants of this film and its brethren, how much I was struck by the blinding arc of electrochemistry between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in one singular scene together. That chemistry was otherwise entirely ignored in the series, leaving us instead with Knightley’s romance with Orlando Bloom’s blockish ingénue and Depp to romance his own CGI simulacrums. It felt like an offence to cinema and nature, one neither Hawks nor King would have committed. The classic notion that the on-screen action is only an essential backdrop to the contemplation of human mating rituals is not necessarily a degradation of the adventure movie ethic; on the contrary, it has long been one of the genre’s distinctive traits. The essential motif of misconstrued character between potential lovers is again ancient, though the peculiar tweak it’s given here is that Margaret really isn’t wrong to mistrust Waring’s “reformed” character, given what we see of the way he acts, a pure caricature of troglodytic masculinity who obeys a fundamental belief in the truth of immediate biological reaction rather than any social nicety. Freudian and mythical symbolism is invoked as Waring plants a sword between his and Margaret’s beds as both a fittingly phallic and deadly totem of the space that must remain between them until the romance is finally mutual. Whilst it could hardly seem a greater distance from King’s next film, The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Black Swan treats playfully a theme that consistently preoccupied King in his more evidently personal works: characters attempting to transcend their character flaws and evolve towards a yearned-for state of grace and enlightenment, usually within the context of a great social moment that not only offers the chance for such transcendence, but also forces it.
Chief villains Sanders, who, equipped with his great bushy red beard and broad accent, seems to be relishing playing a less gentlemanly kind of rotter for once, and Quinn, sporting an eye patch, feel like avatars for the perverse, consuming pan-sexuality of the “pirate” breed, imps from the innermost realm of Waring’s psyche who must be defeated if he is to truly evolve as he says he wishes. When Waring and Margaret are forced to pretend to be married for the sake of fooling Leech, he comes snuffling into their room looking as if he very much like to climb into bed with both of them, brandishing a nightgown for Margaret that he seems to like the idea of wearing himself. Meanwhile, Quinn’s Wogan lounges shirtless in the window bay of his cabin.
Whether Waring really can evolve is the chief stake of the plot. He gives in, apparently, to his most anarchic impulses when, faced with a schism between ardour and duty, he haphazardly combines both by intervening to keep Margaret from marrying Ingram by kidnapping her, cueing another of O’Hara’s bondage scenes, as Waring ties her up and wraps a big thick gag about her yap. But once he has her on his ship, Waring tries to maintain a gentlemanly forbearance, even as circumstance dictates he pretend to be signing back on with Leech and Wogan. The necessities of political loyalty are also seen as essentially erotic, just like the dance of force and seduction, softness and hardness between Margaret and Waring; Morgan’s ennobling by the King and his new suppliance to authority demands he attempt to quash his former colleagues and the roguish activities he himself still wishes he could indulge, just as Waring must give up his ravaging.
Cregar’s gleeful performance as Morgan is another highlight of The Black Swan, walking an exact line between high comedy and imperial force, appearing initially in a vision akin to the climactic moment of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when King Richard reveals himself as nobility and order incarnate, as he appears unexpectedly, resplendent in the full Restoration drag. And yet Cregar’s Morgan constantly scratches underneath his mighty black wig of state and finally tugs it off in a fit of pique. He’s almost glad when the conspiracy of the snotocracy in Jamaica forces him to flee and find his only possible salvation in one last bit of seafaring action, to try to ensnare Leech and Waring, whom he believes really has turned rascal again. As a film, The Black Swan is a work of pure illustrative élan in the most classical Hollywood fashion. In avoiding standard swashbuckling until the finale, King pares back exposition to almost comic book proportions, like the course of an attack on a treasure ship depicted in swift montage, resolving with a victimised ship’s nameplate, still affixed to a broken piece of hull, drifting in the water. The early scene in which Leech and Wogan split from Morgan, with a pie-eyed Waring unable to actually decide whom he wants to follow, is a Hogarthian litany of seedy humanity and ye olde fakery. The ultimate sympathy of The Black Swan leans distinctly towards the pirates’ side, or at least the gentlemanly ones: Morgan considers chucking in his commission for a return to sea, having gotten a taste of the more refined buccaneering of politics and high society, whilst Waring’s swashbuckling prowess is finally proven to have heroic uses.
Whilst neglecting the usual action until its last reel, The Black Swan finally lets rip in one of the most visually inventive and dazzling action sequences of its era, making the fullest use of Leon Shamroy’s photography—he very deservedly won an Oscar for his work—and some ingenious special effects, including using a mixture of matte and model work to give the battling ships the kind of crawling liveliness that wouldn’t be much seen in such fare until the arrival of CGI. Waring, finally cut loose in action, cripples Wogan’s ship by cutting its rudder lines, causing the vessel to crash headlong into the shore, and then swims to and boards Leech’s ship to engage in the compulsory death-duel with his nemesis. Sanders, never pressed for much physical acting, nonetheless rises to the occasion with some surprisingly deft swordplay, making the final battle a convincingly feral clash. Waring is skewered in the hip by his opponent, giving him a terrible wound that nonetheless also hands him the chance to dispatch his enemy with one good jab to the belly. Of course, the spectacle of Waring’s selfless and prodigious derring-do, and his newly prostrate, weakened state, finally win Margaret over, and she contemptuously dismisses Morgan’s offer to see her beastly kidnapper hung. The final clinch, rather than offering Waring secure reinstatement into polite society, offers instead Margaret, now transmuted into a pirate wench, a sexually sovereign being who feeds back to Waring his own suggestive catchphrases (“I like to sample a bottle before I buy it”) and recites “Jamie Boy’s” name thrice according to an ancient and pagan nuptial vow. It’s as sexy as movie punchlines get.
If Raiders of the Lost Ark represents the adventure film reborn, The Sea Hawk is its classical ancestor at zenith. Few director-star collaborations provided more pleasure, and yet have resulted in surprisingly few encomiums of the kind that, say, Hitchcock and Grant or Stewart, or Ford and Wayne, have earned over the years, than that between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. That could be, perhaps, because both men are feted for what they did obviously well, whilst remaining strangely under-regarded. The Budapest-born, eruptive, malapropism-prone Curtiz, born Mano Kurtesz Kaminar, first rose to fame in European cinema before he followed a path to Hollywood that was well-worn, and yet he quickly installed himself as one of the town’s arch professionals, and one of its most inimitable stylists, surviving and flourishing where so many others sank or settled for less. Curtiz’s development of a muted but acutely animated kind of expressionism proved a perfectly adaptable style that loaned a veneer of intrinsic mythos to even the most humdrum and realistic material, mixed with an eye for quicksilver visual exposition and mise-en-scene, and a grasp on shooting and cutting together action sequences that deserved comparison with Eisenstein and DeMille. Curtiz’s style found its most perfect purpose in a run of filmmaking from 1935 to 1945 that produced several of the works by which people still define the very essence of Classic Hollywood, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, which Curtiz took over directing when William Keighley was taking too long), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
Similarly, Flynn, who tackled almost every type of lead role, is nonetheless one of those stars bound to be associated forever and ever with one specific kind of movie and part. His embodiment of the swashbuckler was here at his absolute height: he brought his own distinct mix of romantic sensitivity and a certain ardent, intrinsic rebelliousness to the template first laid down by Douglas Fairbanks, of the grinning, devil-may-care, impudently charming, infinitely athletic man of action. The Sea Hawk both continues and slightly distorts the formula laid down by Curtiz and Flynn in their earlier collaborations, Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also set Flynn’s personality in high-contrast conflict with the imperious Renaissance matriarchy of Elizabeth I. Here the terms of reference were closer to the historical action of the other entries. Flynn’s usual object of romantic interest, Olivia de Havilland, is swapped for the under-used Brenda Marshall, a slightly harder, chillier personality, albeit one who melts darn well, fit for a slightly harder, chillier brand of the genre. If I’ve chosen to speak of The Sea Hawk rather than The Adventures of Robin Hood, perhaps the most perfect swashbuckler ever made, or Casablanca, a study in the chamber-piece adventure movie, to celebrate this one, it’s partly because The Sea Hawk fascinates me in how, whilst sustaining the innocent, ebullient traditions of the pre-WW2 swashbuckler, it can be seen assimilating a darker new reality into its form, intuitively reshaping itself to match an oncoming era of total war. On the cusp of the era that would spawn film noir and see the adventure film sink largely to candy-coloured lampooning, The Sea Hawk looks at times awfully like proto-noir in the least generically familiar of contexts. The Sea Hawk flaunts Warner Bros. production resources, not stretched to a limit as Robin Hood did, but employed with an exacting sense of talent employed for appropriate results, crammed to the rafters with terrific character actors and technical wizards.
By the time The Sea Hawk was made, WW2 had begun in earnest, and whilst released still in the time of the US’s official neutrality, this Warner Bros. production took an overt tilt at an historical parable of Hitlerian ambition through the prism of Elizabethan England’s conflict with imperial Spain. Warner’s adventure films might have seemed the escapist flipside to the studio’s famous run of social-realist and gangster films, and yet they internalised similar values; Flynn’s heroes were usually patriotic, but in a fashion that demanded they fight corrupt oligarchs and tyrants domestic and foreign, often even driven to sacrifice or destroy themselves or commit an act of betrayal, if a greater cause demanded a forbidden act. The Sea Hawk tweaks the dynamic insofar as the Flynn’s often outright rebellious attitude to authority, which often segued late in the tale to a new loyalty as the corrupt fell and regimes changed, here his relationship with Elizabeth is based on differing definitions of defensive patriotic action. The Sea Hawk’s opening immediately establishes the agenda: Philip II (Montagu Love), characterised as a majestic egomaniac, gesticulates at the world map upon his wall, his shadow falling in classic Curtiz style upon the continents fashion like a stain, as Philip airily declares that soon “it will no longer be a map of the world, but of Spain!” Philip’s wrath has been drawn by England’s recalcitrance, in particular its sponsoring of privateers, or “Sea Hawks” as they’re dubbed here, to justify the film’s title after tossing out the Rafael Sabatini source novel. Secretly planning to build the Armada to swamp England’s resistance, Philip sends his ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to browbeat Elizabeth (Flora Robson) into curbing the Sea Hawk raiders.
The galley taking Alvarez and niece Maria (Marshall) to England, under the captaincy of Lopez (Gilbert Roland) and driven by slaves committed to the oars by the Inquisition, falls prey in the English Channel to the most infamous of the Sea Hawks, Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who swoops upon the Spaniards and pulverises their ship before boarding. The Sea Hawk thus really kicks off with its biggest action set-piece, signalling an intent to play with the usual narrative structure, and, as Flynn and several of his familiar company like Alan Hale appear, deliberately evoking a feeling of stepping in where one of the earlier Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers left off. The action that follows is close to perfection in form and function, and, like the desert chase in Raiders, has a solid spot in my private list of all-time great action sequences. If all the infrastructure of classic Hollywood was worth anything beyond putting interesting actors together in small rooms, it was to put together a bit of filmmaking like this, an escalating series of visually thrilling, artful, yet perfectly expedient shots that stands at such a remove from the endemic gibberish of so much modern action filmmaking. Even The Sea Hawk’s classiest twenty-first century offspring, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), couldn’t come close to it for managing both intensity and clarity at the same time in depicting close-quarters carnage.
Curtiz and the production team were evidently trying to match the finale of Captain Blood – a couple of shots from which augment the sequence, including snatches from the first silent version of The Sea Hawk (1923) that film itself interpolated – and to outdo it for flow and tactile detail, a quality of the film as a whole that leaps out. The eternal assumption of the classic swashbuckler, that British sailors were incontrovertibly better shots than anyone else, sees Thorpe’s crew cripple their lumbering, slave-driven foe and board it, albeit a little earlier than Thorpe wished because one of his men, Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan), jumps before he gives the order. The battle sequence proceeds with a micro-managerial sense of detail outlay: the cannon balls of Thorpe’s ship, the Albatross, shattering the hull of the enemy; grappling hooks skewering enemy soldiers; the galleon’s oars shattering as the two ships are pulled together; the frantic, multi-levelled, impossibly teeming shots of the two crews battling; Thorpe getting his trusty lieutenant Pitt (Hale) to force the Spanish trumpeter to sound surrender, saving Lopez in the nick of time from Thorpe’s blade; Lopez requesting that Thorpe leave his ship so he can be the last man to abandon the sinking vessel, the Spaniard finally swinging over to a general cheer.
A level of gentlemanly forbearance and essentially anti-chauvinistic feeling is evoked in Thorpe’s attempts to mollify the outraged Spaniards, giving them run of his decks and treating his unwilling guests to fine dining with captured Spanish silverware, and Maria’s maid (the compulsory, evergreen Una O’Connor) gives the English sailors a tongue-lashing for speaking contemptuously of Spanish culture. But the underlying emotional kick is delivered when Thorpe is reunited with a former crewman, Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), one of the galley oarsmen who could recognise the English Channel purely by the shifting of the swell. Thorpe’s sense of justice and outright contempt for the draconian tyranny Philip is asserting across the globe is established in front of Alvarez and his daughter, planting a seed in her sensibility that proves inseparable from Thorpe. In spite of her attempts to remain icy towards Thorpe for his freewheeling piracy and disregard for international diplomatic niceties, Maria slips quietly and quickly under the spell of his charm.
Hollywood in the late ‘30s avoided engaging with contemporary political realities with an oft-astonishing amount of pussyfooting: when Confessions of Nazi Spy (1940) was released one critic quipped that it was only five years too late. Strangely, but with intuitive aptness, the historical remoteness and playfulness of the Warner Bros. swashbucklers reflected the era’s undercurrents with the greatest concision, growing in force throughout the Curtiz-Flynn films, with the air of oncoming fascism in Captain Blood and the ethnic repression in Robin Hood, as Flynn’s characterisation became increasingly revolutionary: “You speak treason!” “Fluently!” as the classic line in Robin Hood goes. The cheery pseudo-socialism that often bobbed up in these films resurges, here with a cheeky tilt at imperialistic plunder. When Maria furiously spurns Thorpe over his acts of piracy, Thorpe, asks, oh so innocently, whether she considers a thief to be only “an Englishman who steals.” “It’s anybody who steals!” she retorts, only for Thorpe to question, then, just how the Spaniards obtained the Aztec gold she has in her jewel collection. Game, set, match. The Sea Hawk sees Thorpe, constantly warning Elizabeth about the dangers represented by Philip’s ambition and overtly breaking the rules in order to fight the threat before a properly sanctioned war has started between England and Spain, looking like the archetypal premature anti-fascist, and an equivalent of an international volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, contrasting Elizabeth, who tries Chamberlain-esque peacekeeping, until she’s pushed too far and unleashes Churchillian rhetorical force.
It’s made clear right at the start of the film that Philip’s intentions are entirely malevolent, planning to sweep away the single bulwark against his spreading influence, so the audience knows that Thorpe’s assumptions are correct whereas Elizabeth has to work purely by instinct, protocol, and expedience. The film’s most insidious villain, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is characterised as a Halifax or Quisling type, arguing from the midst of Elizabeth’s royal council for mollification of Spain whilst secretly plotting with Alvarez to weaken England as much as possible, including destroying the credibility and effectiveness of the Sea Hawks, in order to ensure the ease of the Armada’s eventual victory, and hoping to be installed himself as a puppet king. Re-armament is the chief plot stake: Philip’s arms build-up, in constructing the Armada, and diplomatic bullying, is, like Hitler’s before the war, put off onto the demands and rights of a sovereign nation, regardless of the logical targets and obvious intent. Thorpe, in turn, prods Elizabeth to build a fleet to meet any threat, but she staves off the necessary moment in not wanting to empty the national coffers, so Thorpe hatches an ambitious plan to step up his plundering, and attack Spanish gold shipments in Panama.
Elizabeth approves the plan, but Alvarez and Wolfingham, hoping to get the jump on Thorpe’s next venture, try to spy on his activities, but actually discover his intention through clever deductions: Thorpe’s efforts to maintain secrecy extend to having charts prepared without place names, but Alvarez and Wolfingham manage to steal a glance at the charts whilst under preparation and are able, thanks to an astronomer (Halliwell Hobbes), to determine the location purely by the shape of the land and an unexpectedly revealing decorative motif. Such a deftly clever little plot pivot is another reason I love The Sea Hawk, as it points to the genre’s counterbalance of physical action with a demand for wiliness and intelligence in both heroes and villains. Alvarez and Wolfingham are splendidly smooth, aristocratic bad guys, although Alvarez is less a villain than a man doing his national duty, and who gets his comeuppance not on a sword but when, in delivering grim news about Thorpe’s venture to Panama, he tries to needle Elizabeth, only for his own daughter to faint in a heap in despair: “Your arrow hit the wrong mark,” Elizabeth chides him drolly.
Thorpe’s ill-fated Panamanian venture sees him stumble into a well-laid trap, seeming to capture the across-land gold caravan, only to then be almost caught in an ambush: Thorpe and his men flee into the jungle, cueing one of the all-time great examples of the much-satirised “stumble through the swamp” sequence, complete with random, separated members of the crew lurching through the parboiling, mosquito-infested marshes, going mad and dying one by one: “It’s too bloomin’ hot!” one screams as he claws at his own flesh before collapsing. What’s left of Thorpe’s crew fights its way through to the coast in sight of the Albatross. But the Albatross proves mysteriously deserted as they row back to it, in a sublimely eerie sequence that builds to the inevitable realisation that the crew of the ship has been slaughtered, with corpses hanging in the rigging, and Spanish troops, under Captain Lopez, waiting for what’s left of the would-be raiders. No gentlemanly courtesies for these prisoners: Thorpe and company are soon committed in a show trial before the Inquisition and sentenced to die at the oars of the galleys. Suddenly The Sea Hawk’s reversed structure becomes coherent, as the film deliberately destroys the Merry Men crew and reduces Thorpe to the abject slave he was set upon freeing at the start, bringing a new edge of threat and suffering to the scene, and homoerotic S&M fantasy blends weirdly with perfervid concentration camp parallel, with anticipations of Ben-Hur(1959). Thorpe, his last remaining fellows, and the potential new crew of English prisoners have to concoct a plan to escape.
Within the more realistic confines of Hollywood cinema, Curtiz’s visuals in The Sea Hawk both reflect the lingering influence of the art-moderne touches that permeated the gnarled dream-state historicism of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1923) and the futurism of Metropolis (1926), whilst also anticipating the total stylisation of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: Part One(1944), in utilising the geometric precision of Anton Grot’s sets, which largely reject the twisted contours of Expressionism that had been the familiar influence on such settings in favour of a kind of historical wonderland by way of Bauhaus, to create Elizabeth’s royal court. An overt, deeply stylised contrast then is constructed between the tangled, busy environs of the ships, the open sea, and the fetid jungle, where power is a matter of guts and muscle, with spaces that express power through voluminous reaches, reducing the players to twisting figures arranged like chess pieces in the political gamesmanship. Curtiz’s love of carefully shaped compositions infuses even the most functional and throwaway shots. The opening battle is a whirl of shots balanced geometrically or on lines of Renaissance perspective painting, conjoined by the newer arts of montage, weaving all into an organic mass. Sol Polito’s camera glides with gossamer grace at low angles as Elizabeth and her cohort of ladies-in-waiting, like petticoated paladins, sweep through the ranks of armoured warriors and plumed, hose-clad courtiers, investing the feminine not simply with beauty but strength through its spectacular contrast with the surrounds, and the reversal of the hierarchy.
Robson’s marvellous Elizabeth, not the grouchy spinster Bette Davis played nor the masochistic self-made idol Cate Blanchett espoused, is a warrior in frilly collars wide enough to serve as radar dishes, strutting about in costumes that contain her homely features within declarations of monarchic strength and wealth. This Elizabeth’s lack of good looks is initially the sport of men’s talk (“They say Elizabeth surrounds herself with beauty in the hope it may be contagious,” Lopez quips), but her flirtatious relationship with Thorpe is a dance of patriotic and erotic fascination, crystallising Thorpe’s similarity to Walter Raleigh – I love the big, hearty, satisfied breath Robson takes in after meeting with Thorpe, his descriptions of gallant action and explanations of daring plans, mixed with flattery, leaves her with orgasmic pleasure. Such liaisons reflect The Sea Hawk’s place in a genre that was always defined by a playfully anarchic take on sexual mores, so often played out in the dance of fascination and repulsion between mischievous, swarthy, criminal, usually lower-class males and ladies fair, dying to be ravished even as they spit in the rogues’ faces. The Sea Hawk however sustains the courtly, restrained take on this essential element of the swashbuckler that Flynn’s films offered, keeping the star’s overflow of randy energy on a tight leash, in comparison to the out-and-out kink in Henry King’s deployment of Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the reflexive self-satire The Black Swan two years later.
Here Marshall’s Maria, like De Havilland’s ladies from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, is the daughter of the oppressive regime won over by the untamed but innately good male, but whereas in those earlier films the final kiss of hero and damsel set the seal on a reconciliation of social spheres – classes, races, and genders – here Maria is left behind by her father and forced to pick a side in the upcoming war, choosing her mate’s side rather than her sire’s in a matter of moral as well as sexual gravity. Curtiz pulls off a marvellous visual coup in a sequence in which Thorpe visits an increasingly smitten Maria, who gains an almost religious solemnity in regarding the man she now loves whilst holding an armful of roses: “That’s how I’ll always think of you from now on,” Thorpe says to her, likening her to a religious icon he once say in South America, “As Our Lady of the Flowers.” Simultaneously, the image of the two standing in the garden, underneath the palatial sprawl, in a symmetrically balanced shot, gives true visual resolution to the notion of the film’s driving oppositions, the masculine and the feminine, the natural and the civilised, the warlike and the civil, meeting in perfect harmony in the English country garden. Later, in a ripely iconic scene that hovers on the edge of a semi-mystical gulf of longing, just as the last scenes of Casablanca offer, Maria’s attempt to warn Thorpe before he leaves that her father has unlocked his intentions, sees her gazing tragically at his just-sailed ship from a foggy wharf, and Thorpe, not knowing he’s just missed her, still gazing back to land clearly thinking of her, from the stern of his boat.
Of course, in spite of its modernist touches and the elements that reflect a sub-genre entering a state of flux, The Sea Hawk still often embraces and defines the big, unabashedly fanciful, theatrical, slightly campy quality that defined the classic swashbuckler, in moments like the lengthy, rivetingly structured escape sequence that resolves in the liberated crew burst into singing, in perfect harmony, along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. Korngold’s music, like Max Steiner’s, although arguably in a more sophisticated manner, maintained direct links between Hollywood scoring and the Vienna music schools, capital-R Romanticism, and the legacies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom had praised the prodigious young Korngold. Korngold’s lush style eventually fell way out of favour before becoming, in the late ‘70s, the model again for anyone who wanted to make an adventure film and needed the sweeping emotional thunder Korngold’s work offered. Here his work, particularly the major heroic theme and its constant partner, the central romantic theme which ebbs and soars to the rhythm of ships upon the waves, is indelible and arguably even better than his great work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The effect of that fade-out upon the boisterously singing crew is precisely the glory of films like this, even if it’s a touch embarrassing, especially in how it caps off the escape, the culmination of the steady, musically intricate build from deadly, intense silence to frantic, liberating action.
The escape from the galley is just as good a piece of filmmaking as the opening battle in a subtler fashion. Again, there’s a ferocious sense of realistic detail and storytelling rhythm as the galley slaves, grimy, sweaty, hairy, quietly and carefully work their plan to escape, picking away at the embedded hooks that keep them chained to their oars, sliding the chains out from their shackles, in feverish, desperate, ingenious labour. The English then slowly, remorselessly work their way up through ship as an embodiment of the resurging repressed, strangling their captors and infiltrating the neighbouring ship where the plans that confirm the Armada’s purpose are in the hands of Spanish officers, and Thorpe has to wrestle with one as he tries to dispose of them over the side. Doubtlessly Spielberg was thinking about this scene for the opening of Amistad (1997), and it feels like a draft for generations of prison escape movies and heist movies – as in Rififi (1955), the escape sees the men attempting to break their bonds in as near-complete a silence as possible – and other entries in more familiarly realistic genres. The finale shifts gears into another proto-genre, the spy movie, as Thorpe has to sneak back into the queen’s palace where now he’s a proscribed outlaw and Wolfingham’s cadre has cut off access to Elizabeth, to bring her news of Philip’s plans. This demands using the cover of Maria’s carriage: she’s incidentally at the wharf as her uncle plans to leave on the Spanish ship that Thorpe and his followers now possess, only to find the mysterious stranger in her cab is her lost lover. Thorpe then has to make a dash through the cordons of spies and guards, and Flynn gets to cut loose as a swordsman, ticking off the now-iconic moments of any good swashbuckler, including taking on three enemies at once in a whirlwind of physical genius, until Thorpe tries to elude his pursuers only to lock himself into a room with Wolfingham.
The essential, ritually demanded climactic duel promptly erupts, for a third and final piece of bravura cinema, with the witty touch of Thorpe being the one clad in a Spanish uniform, which Wolfingham airily announces he should be wearing. Curtiz enlarges some of the flourishes of Robin Hood’s final battle as the duellists leap and tumble, crash over furniture and through windows, and dance across the cavernous spaces, shadows projected like titans against the castle walls. Daniell, though a great actor, clearly wasn’t as athletic an opponent for Flynn as Basil Rathbone, and the duel is augmented with more stunt doubling therefore than Rathbone needed on Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Mark of Zorro (1940), and thus the near-lethal sense of physical unity those duels provide is slightly despoiled by deft edits. And yet you’d have to be paying the closest kind of attention to really notice before the twentieth viewing. By this point, the Kafka-esque quality of the settings, the grand halls of the palace now shadow-flooded and oppressive, and the attendant mood of oncoming tyranny, has become dominant. Thorpe bests Wolfingham but, unlike other Flynn heroes, he is finally driven into a corner and at the point of being skewered by Wolfingham’s guards when Elizabeth, fetched by Maria, arrives to save his neck. The fade out leaves the audience not with the sense of missions fulfilled and final romantic clinches, but conflict only just begun, as Elizabeth gives a rousing speech upon launching the first of her new fleet to take on the Armada with obvious morale-raising purpose. In movie terms and in real life, a long fight was only just starting.
The great old swashbucklers seemed to have sadly short lives, with Fairbanks dead at 56, Power at 45, and Flynn had only another 19 years of life ahead of him, albeit years he crammed with experience and indulgence far beyond most and which accorded strangely with the aura he gave off on screen of mercurial manhood. He died with an awful swan song, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), just after he’d gained new appreciation as an actor with The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), where he exhibited the harsher lessons of growing old with a fearlessness equal to his heroic image. And yet, as long as the cinema continues to exist, I think, the image of Flynn in his prime will continue to reign over cinema’s fantasies like his Sea Hawk ruled the oceans.
The year 1939 stands out in film history as a banner year, when such megaclassics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair, Dark Victory, and John Ford’s Stagecoach came out and competed for the best picture Oscar. You might say that 1939 was an especially good one for Ford as well. He premiered two other noteworthy films that year, both starring Henry Fonda—Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, his first Technicolor film. All period films, Drums Along the Mohawk has the feel of a Western, but covers the period just before to just after the Revolutionary War. Noteworthy for its realistic period detail and a level of hardship and brutality I had not remembered from my first viewing of this film many years ago on a local TV show called Family Classics, Ford exposes just how hard and fragile was the life of early American homesteaders.
The film starts in the elegant city home of the Borst family, where Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) is being married to Gilbert Martin (Fonda). After the simple ceremony, the film cuts to the young couple leaving in a covered wagon for a homestead in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, towing a wedding present—a dairy cow—behind them. The long day’s journey through varying terrains, shot with Ford’s signature expansiveness, brings the Martins to an inn, where Gil persuades Lana to have some vodka to toast their marriage. The innkeeper (Spencer Charters) embarrasses them by teasing them about their newlywed status, and a patch-eyed colonial named Caldwell (John Carradine) asks them about their political affiliation—American or Tory—in an intrusive and sinister manner.
The following evening, the Martins arrive at the cabin Gil built on the homestead. It is very cold and a very far cry from the type of home Lana left behind. As she tries to put on a brave face, Gil builds a fire in the hearth and goes out to shelter the livestock. While he is gone, Lana is scared out of her wits by the intrusion of a Native American. Blue Back (Chief Big Tree) is a friend of the white settlers in the region and a Christian convert given to shouting “Hallelujah,” but Gil barely calms Lana’s hysterics before she says she intends to return to her parents. Gil brings her around slowly, and Lana eventually integrates into the community and starts working the land with Gil.
The primitive conditions of life on the farm don’t factor much into the hardships the Martins face; instead, war is the “natural” element that heaps tragedy upon the Martins and their community. Native Americans in the employ of Caldwell gather a war party to attack. They burn the Martins’ home and crops and send every homesteader in the vicinity running for their lives to the nearby fort commanded by the genial Gen. Herkimer (Roger Imhof), where Lana collapses and has a miscarriage. Economic necessity forces the Martins to work in the house and farm of Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a scrappy, well-to-do widow. They hope to save enough money from their earnings to rebuild. Unfortunately, the approach of British troops and their Native American mercenaries pushes every member of the settlement into battle in one way or another, as more homesteads are burned and more attacks are made on the fort. By the time American troops reach the remote Mohawk Valley to inform its residents of Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington, the homesteaders claim the right to raise the Stars and Stripes themselves as the defenders of their piece of the United States. After witnessing the grueling trials of the homesteaders, the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.
Drums Along the Mohawk doesn’t romanticize the war for independence, nor does it make the eventual victory of the Americans seem a forgone conclusion for the people it portrays. Indeed, the Mohawk Valley settlers are in trouble from the get-go—isolated, loosely organized, outnumbered. So outnumbered, in fact, that every eligible fighting man is told that if he does not report for battle, he will be hanged. Even the preacher (Arthur Shields) is a reluctant sharpshooter and the women work on reloading the one-shot rifles and dumping boiling water on the attackers when the fort is under siege. The fort itself looks like it could blow down in a good wind, and its walls are easily breachable by the fairly short ladders the Native Americans carry for that purpose.
Ford handles graphic violence in a suggestive way that only slightly blunts the horror. After a face-to-face battle, one-third of the men who went out to engage the British return. Gil, looking shell-shocked, sits against the wall of a make-shift infirmary and recounts the battle to Lana, who is busily cleaning and dressing his wounds. Every detail is burned into his memory, including the fact that his friend Adam (Ward Bond) actually was enjoying himself. His last memory is of a Native American mercenary being impaled on a pike. Gil complains that Gen. Herkimer sat holding his knee after being shot early in the charge; he is not aware that the general will lose his life in an attempt to amputate his gangrenous leg, a procedure we know will happen but will not be allowed to hear or see. Another shattering scene occurs when the simple-minded Joe (Francis Ford) volunteers to try to reach reinforcements. After apparently getting away, his friends can only look on in horror as the mercenaries wheel into the open a smiling Joe, who is tied to a wagon stuffed with hay. The homesteaders try frantically to keep the mercenaries from setting fire to the wagon, only to fail and force the preacher to shoot Joe to spare him burning to death.
Ford’s superlative facility with ensembles and the details that bring a time and place to life are on full display here. We watch the community help Gil and Lana clear their land, cutting trees and pulling stumps using oxen and fulcrums made of young birch trees, and burning the felled timber to make ash to fertilize the soil. A scene in the church shows the organist playing an instrument made with two bellows that must be pushed by hand. The sacrifice of livestock and belongings when the Native Americans come a-burnin’ is done without endless complaint—homesteaders do what must be done.
I very much enjoyed the interplay between Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Bond’s Adam is more than a little flirtatious with Oliver’s widow woman. He clearly loves her and gives her a passionate kiss at one point in the film, rather a surprisingly wonderful moment that she brushes off as her due. Mrs. McKlennar is a woman who never liked being confined to domestic duties and does what she pleases now that she’s a widow. Imagine a woman, and a pioneer woman at that, actually saying she doesn’t like cooking and cleaning! Imagine a woman like Edna May Oliver being considered desirable by a strapping man like Ward Bond. In Hollywood, it’s just not done. In John Ford films, however, it is!
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert have a tremendous chemistry, playing a passionately in love couple with very convincing feeling. I must admit being able to see Fonda’s brilliant, blue eyes added to the believability of Colbert’s ardor, but her initial shock at seeing the cabin and Blue Back was horrifyingly real as well. Other supporting characters, like the snobbish Mrs. Demooth (Kay Linaker), add color and humor, but not a great deal of depth. Like many Ford films, the teeming mise-en-scene and expansive vistas of a wild country (filming took place in Utah) create the big slice of life Ford seeks to capture more than completely rounded characters.
On the other hand, the enemy Native Americans are allowed to be people, not caricatures. In the final scene, Ford gives us close-ups of a number of characters, including Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones), a free black woman who works for Mrs. McKlennar, showing us the diversity of Americans present at the birth of the nation. It’s a bold statement from a man who felt peace should be as inclusive as war. Drums Along the Mohawk is a fine film that more cinephiles should take the time to rediscover.
This past October, I started my 2011 Chicago International Film Festival coverage with a review of a harrowing documentary called On the Bridge, in which director Olivier Morel documented the sufferings of Iraq War veterans afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the invisible wound that scars witnesses to war, and some individuals so afflicted die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide, or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, which is making it possible for more traumatized men and women like those documented in On the Bridge to get the help they need. War-related PTSD, however, certainly is nothing new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever the “gentleman’s war,” it also upped the psychological pressures on combat troops.
Motion pictures, a beneficial technological marvel of the 20th century, have been used almost since their beginning to document the many aspects of war. The United States government, a major producer of documentaries, commissioned a number of films that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war to reintegrate into the society they left behind. Such films include The Reawakening (1919), which shows doughboys of World War I, many of them amputees, getting medical treatment, prosthetic limbs, and occupational therapy as they reacquaint themselves with life free of the discipline and danger of armed conflict. Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is Let There Be Light, but its fame derives mainly from being kept in the dark for 35 years after it was made by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. So uncomfortable was the War Department with this documentary that it had it remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light that not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were soft in the head before they went to war cracked up upon their return.
Now, thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation grant for the donated services of Chace Audio by Deluxe, the National Archives and Records Administration has restored the badly damaged soundtrack to an improved print of Let There Be Light. To commemorate Memorial Day this year, the NFPF premiered the film on its website May 24, and will run the film through the end of August through a generous donation of web hosting by Fandor. For those who took an interest in our recently completed blogathon to stream the Cutts/Hitchcock film The White Shadow, the online presentation of Let There Be Light is a preview of the high-quality streaming, expert research, and copious film notes we can expect when that silent film makes its debut. For Let There Be Light is an amazingly powerful experience, even on my laptop, and one that left me in tears by its conclusion.
The first line of the opening title card must have gotten this film into hot water with the Army brass right off the bat: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” Along the side of a ship bringing the troops home, Huston shoots a deep shadow of men carrying a stretcher, a graphic depiction of the darkness attending the wounded in spirit in postwar America, as his father Walter Huston offers a sober narration to match. Ambulances back up to the admission department of Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York, as the “psychoneurotic” soldiers step out one by one and pass through intake. A group of 75 new arrivals will be the subjects of Huston’s film, taking them from the start of their treatment in a common room where they are told not to feel self-conscious about the cameras, to the hearings eight weeks later in which doctors will determine whether they can be discharged to home.
We see individual sessions in which a psychiatrist tries to get to know the soldiers and find out the circumstances that triggered the uncontrollable shakes, stuttering, leg paralysis, and amnesia of the more physically manifesting patients, as well as the severe anxiety of others who jump at loud noises or dart their eyes nervously, as though reliving some horror. Hollow-eyed men who can’t sleep or whose sleep is interrupted by terrifying dreams that replay some scene of war haunt the screen in between these sessions. We hear the men testify that they have lost the ability to feel happy and that they feel useless. One man in particular, the only survivor of the original group he went into the service with, wished to go back into battle to do something for someone, feeling not only survivor guilt, but also a lack of purpose. One African-American soldier breaks down into tears when he tries to tell the psychiatrist how much his sweetheart means to him because of the sense of self-worth she gave him. I’m only playing armchair shrink here, but it seems to me that these men understand that their hopes and dreams, lives and achievements mean absolutely nothing to the men sent to kill them, and perhaps even to those who sent them to face the enemy. Cannon fodder, in other words, less than human in a dehumanizing enterprise.
Then, however, are the apparent miracles. Hypnosis and sodium amytal, aka truth serum, is used on several patients to free psychological material in the unconscious and help the psychiatrist effect a talking cure. One solider with hysterical paralysis gets up on his feet and walks after one such session once his paralyzing impotence to help his ailing mother and financially strapped father is released. Another solider with a severe stutter repeats over and over again in relief and amazement “I can talk. Oh god, I can talk” when the moment his stutter started—men in his unit teased him for mispronouncing a word with the letter “s” in it—is connected with his fear of the “s” sound made by a German weapon. The film cautions that it takes more than one dose of amytal to cure these soldiers, and that they have only been freed to benefit from follow-up therapy.
Slowly, the men begin through occupational therapy and recreational sports to regain a sense of usefulness, a respite from their psychotic episodes, and a reengagement with the people and world around them. Family visits are fragile moments, and family members must be carefully prepped so as not to undo all the hard-won gains made so far. It feels good to see one patient play catch with his young son as his wife looks on, or the African-American soldier smiling with his sweetheart under the sun.
The last meeting of the men in group therapy focuses on what they want when they get out in the world. Most simply want employers and the people in their communities to give them a chance to show that they can be productive and good to be around. They don’t want to be different from everyone else, an understandable desire. In time, they may be treated the same as everyone else, but it’s certain they will never feel the same as others—they don’t even feel the same as the people they used to be before the war. No amount of therapy will erase the scar of war. The chance to understand the costs of war that live on long after the conflict is an encyclopedia entry is the value of this finely crafted, compassionate documentary from one of our most gifted directors. On this Memorial Day, reflect on these mangled souls, the miracle of therapeutic understanding, and the obscenity of the endlessly recurring war chants of those who will never see a day of combat in their life.
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
By Paroma Chatterjee
Welcome guest blogger Roma Chatterjee.
“Let me go! Let me go!” screams Lina right at the beginning of the radio play, Suspicion, made barely a year after the film. No introduction, no lead-up to the characters, no sense of place; just a woman shouting frantically at her assailant.
If the play darts straight to its point without wasting a minute, the film saunters along, gazing at the flowers, humming a tune, until it is surprised (repeatedly) by dark shadows on its ambles. We meet Lina and Johnny on a train, at a hunt, at Lina’s house, and on the way to a church, until we get to those climactic words, “Let me go! Let me go!” The first 15 minutes or so of the film read suspiciously like a drawing – room comedy. The characters make small talk, pose for a local photographer, flirt on their way to church until, without the slightest warning, we cut to the top of a hill where a man and a woman seemingly struggle for dear life. Articles of clothing fly off, one after the other, and the fact that none of them denude the woman in the least, takes away nothing from the unexpected violence of the scene. The music, chirpily bucolic until this moment, soars and sustains its pitch, a suitable analogue to the height of the hill, and the goings-on on top of it.
Barely a minute later – nay, less – the struggle is over. The man teases the woman with talk (again, of the small variety). We are back in the realm of light comedy. There is an infinitesimal moment when the comic threatens to shade into something more richly erotic a la Hitchcock, when Lina says that Johnny “need not touch” her “ucipital mapilary”, but the moment is undone no sooner than it begins. Johnny blithely messes with (and messes up) Lina’s hair, and that is that.
Why would Hitchcock, for whom every scene counted, insert such ostensibly superfluous business in this film? Oh, one could argue that each moment, no matter how inconsequential, only adds yet another nuance to Johnny’s superbly insouciant amorality, that each scene goes toward heightening the layers of suspicion that surround and threaten to overwhelm Lina in the second half. And yet the gravity of the “light” episodes in Suspicion are still worth some thought. In no other picture did Hitchcock extend these as much. No other work of his, to my mind, teeters so precariously on the line between mild comedy and full-blown drama.
And, I suggest, that that is part of the very suspense generated by Suspicion. This suspense does not simply consist of us, the audience, wondering with Lina how much farther Johnny will go – whether he’ll cross the milestone from cheating at cards to mercenary seduction, from confidence-trick(st)-ing to embezzlement, from embezzlement to murder. It is also the audience wondering when the cinematic codes capturing each of those misdemeanours will shift, when a melody played by an orchestra will become a tune, whistled nonchalantly – and with a touch of menace – by a feckless young man, when a bland churchyard peopled by worthy parishioners will transform itself into a windswept hill with a couple, fiercely locked, at its summit.
Suspicion reiterates this effect constantly. In the process, it triggers off suspense even in those arenas of life that do not, on the surface, seem to merit it. Right up until Lina elopes with Johnny, suspense resides in whether Johnny will ever call Lina again, if he’ll ever write to her (remark the scene in which Lina keeps asking the postmistress if there’s a letter for her, if it has been misplaced), if he even remembers her. Suspense animates, if in a rather more humorous vein, the story Johnny will come up with to explain the disappearance of those priceless chairs that are Lina’s family heirlooms. There is an interesting and surely deliberate resemblance between this scene and an earlier one in Lina’s father’s study, when Lina and Johnny run away from the ball. When they kiss, the camera moves from their left profile all the way to their right. It doesn’t envelope the lovers completely; it merely offers us both sides of that osculatory exchange. It is the only prolonged kiss between the two in the entire film – a strange phenomenon, as Lina is passionately in love with Johnny in every sense of that word, and Hitch was certainly not one to shy away from exploring erotic obsession. But this picture doesn’t delve deep in that sphere.
There’s a point to that lone, long kiss, nonetheless. When his foolishly amiable friend Beak, goads Johnny into telling him and Lina what happened to those chairs, Johnnie is shown moving from the mantelpiece on the right in a half-sphere toward the left, behind the sofa. It is the other half of the sphere described by the camera during their kiss, its delayed counterpart, if you will. In both cases, Lina and Johnny are accompanied by a third person, even though the dramatic content of the scene involves just the two of them. (In the case of the kiss, they are constantly surveyed by the portrait of Lina’s father in full military regalia.) As Johnny moves, the audience can literally see him trying to decide whether to evade the question of the chairs altogether or whether to come up with a lie so thumpingly good as to be applauded as the truth. This is the cross Johnny bears throughout the picture – he is continuously being put on the spot as a performer. Being a good liar takes skill and patience, after all, for his story must convince.
If Johnny’s persuasive powers (including his innate charm) are constantly put to the test against Lina’s burgeoning suspicions, then Lina herself is measured against her doubts. How well does she bear up under them? What does an ever-thickening mist of suspicion literally do to a person?
In Lina’s case, one cannot help but notice that for all her inner anguish, she looks better for them. Clothes, especially female apparel, was stuff that Hitchcock took seriously. In the second half of Suspicion, Lina looks every bit the belle of the ball. Her clothes get darker (she is in mourning for her father), and her figure is more pronounced. Her evening dress when she puts together the word, “M-U-R-D-E-R-E-R”, is magnificent – simple, sophisticated, and with a very low, very elegant neck. I was tempted to ask upon my fourth or fifth viewing whether Lina deliberately made up this fantasy of a scoundrel-spouse precisely so it would enhance her attractions. It is almost as though Hitch is suggesting that suspense – living with it, responding to its shadows – can make us sexier! Not a bad campaigning point for one whose livelihood was based on it.
And speaking of sexy, what are we to make of the fact that Lina wears reading glasses? This certainly doesn’t impede Johnny from flirting with her, though she hastily tears them off when he shows up at her house. All through the narrative, when she must read a telegram, a newspaper, or a letter, Lina looks at the piece of paper, adjusts its distance somewhat, then fumbles for her glasses. The few seconds that it takes for Lina’s sense of vision to come through, clear and unobstructed, correspond to the sudden changes of register from the comic to the dramatic that punctuate the entire picture. A telegram turns out to be an entirely unexpected missive from Johnny that draws Lina out of the depths of depression into ecstatic expectancy; an innocuous newspaper sows the seeds of suspicion that Johnny murdered Beaky; a mundane letter from the insurance company convinces Lina that she will be Johnny’s next victim. The reading glasses thus become instruments signaling a series of vital changes in the narrative, never mind if some of the changes they effect are erroneous perceptions on Lina’s part.
Which brings me to the final coup of the film: the ride in the car when Lina fears that Johnny will somehow push her over the precipice. (As a friend of mine commented, the “chaser” and self-proclaimed “chase-ee” occupy the same space and the same shot here, quite cozily, even though one of them is terrified out of her wits). When it comes to these sweeping vistas – the top of the hill, the steep drop to the sea below, the winding roads – Lina doesn’t require her glasses. She isn’t called upon to read anything, though she does, insistently and maniacally. She spins her own narrative parallel to the one that is being played out, reading the various signs her life with Johnny have thrown at her. The original ending, of course, revealed that Lina’s made-up narrative coincided perfectly with the “real-life” narrative, that Johnnie was indeed a merry ladykiller. Although the ending of Suspicion as we know it today is a let-down, I’d suggest that in one (albeit feeble) way, it maintains a marvelous spring of tension: it carries Lina’s obsessive “reading” to the point where she manages, for a few moments, to force the “real life” story to coincide with the one in her head. She actually almost falls out of the car, with no help from Johnny.
What follows are the weakest moments of an otherwise quite brilliant and unexpected narrative. Can the “happy ending” be attributed to yet another twist of the plot? Can we read it as the “ever-after” for Lina and Johnny, the two basking in mutual trust and assistance for the rest of their lives? Or is this a brief hiatus that will transmute into another series of suspicions?
Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.
Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.
Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.
The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.
Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.
Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.
Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.
Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.
Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.
Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.
Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”
In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.