28th 02 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)

Director: Norman Foster

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

This film is now available on DVD as part of the Universal Vault Series. I still recommend seeing the 35mm print if you can.


25th 12 - 2011 | 2 comments »

The Front (1976)

Director: Martin Ritt

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Christmas, an increasingly secular holiday that has come to mean gift giving, decorations, big meals with family and friends, favorite movies and music, and leisure for most of the workforce. Those who keep the religious traditions of the holiday go to church to celebrate the birth of the messiah, Jesus Christ, and think about peace and good will among all people. In my capacity as professional killjoy (as evidenced by my reviews of Midnight in Paris and The Artist), I am now going to remind you about the end of the story that began on this date 2,011 years ago—the king of the Jews was crucified, and his message of peace and love repeatedly ignored by generations of warring, racist people the world over.

Which brings me to The Front, which tells the true story of how the American entertainment industry collaborated with the federal government to deprive film and television creatives—many of them Jews—of their livelihoods through the use of a blacklist. The blacklist was unacknowledged by studio and television executives; directors, writers, and actors simply were told their work had somehow gone downhill or that they were not a good fit for the material going into production. Why? Because they were Communists or had become “controversialities” by coming to the attention of Commie hunters at the studios or being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Everything from being a full-fledged member of the Communist Party to signing one petition could be grounds for blacklisting, investigation, and imprisonment.

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The Front is a tragicomic look at how the blacklist worked and how some people sank and swam in its wake. The film gains all the more energy and poignancy from being told by several blacklisted artists—director Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley—and including the slightly fictionalized story of blacklisted television star Philip Loeb.

The film focuses right from the start on Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a cashier and bookie in New York City who owes money all over town and has tried the patience and pocketbook of his brother Myer (Marvin Lichterman) for the last time. He has lunch one day with his boyhood friend, writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), who tells him that the television studios have stopped buying his scripts. Miller has been blacklisted, and desperate to keep working to support his wife and three children, he asks Howard if he will act as Miller’s front—the person who will put his name on Miller’s scripts and be a physical presence with the network executives and producers. Offering him 10 percent of whatever he gets for the scripts cements the deal with the willing Howard. Howard brings a script to the show Miller used to write for and becomes the new darling of producer Phil Sussman (Bernardi), as well as the idol and boyfriend of WASP script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci).

Naturally, this overnight sensation must be checked out by the network’s anti-Communist investigator (Remak Ramsay). Soon, his ties not only to Miller, but also to two other blacklisted writers (Gough and David Margulies) for whom he fronts, are discovered, and Howard must agree to a token appearance before HUAC. As the network is desperate to keep using him, Howard is assured that if he gives up just one name to the committee, he can keep riding the gravy train.

The Front largely eschews an overtly political angle by focusing on the real-life consequences of the blacklist and the various kinds of people who got caught up in the maelstrom. Howard does what he does initially out of friendship and then to make some real money. He moves into a nice apartment and buys tailor-made suits, but he does the right thing by squaring his debts with his brother and the gamblers whose bets he took. He’s thrilled to be dating a beautiful shiksa and horrified when she quits her lucrative job rather than fire a blacklisted actor, but he calls her out for romanticizing the struggle against the blacklist and loving his talent instead of him when he confesses that he can barely write a grocery list. Woody Allen indulges a lot of his own relationship shtik in the film, and this aspect of The Front is the weakest.

By contrast, the plot line involving Hecky Brown (Mostel), the television star who suddenly doesn’t seem right for his hit show, is easily the most affecting. He and Howard become friendly during the short time their paths cross at the television studio, and it’s easy to see why. The flamboyantly funny Hecky isn’t so different from Howard—he’s basically apolitical and in need of money to support his family. His “Communist past” can be put down to trying to get laid and supporting the Soviet Union during World War II when they were allies of the United States. He’s willing to write letters, even spy for HUAC to keep working, but to no avail. He has to bum a ride with Howard to a Catskills resort to perform for many times less than his normal fee; the resort owner (Shelley) is only too happy to take advantage of Hecky’s misfortune by cutting the meager fee even further.

Hecky’s humiliation makes life unbearable for him, and one night, he makes a visit to Howard to apologize for his tantrum at the resort, checks into a hotel, and takes delivery on a bottle of champagne from room service. He toasts himself in a mirror, goes into the next room, and moves out of the frame. Moments later, a sheer curtain blows into the frame, and the camera moves to reveal the bottle of champagne sitting on the sill of an open window. The film craft in this scene is superb, with its understated image of Hecky seeing himself only in terms of how he is mirrored back to himself by his adoring audience, and an off-camera suicide that offers a beautiful, diaphanous image of horror waving angelically at the audience. Mostel, a personal friend of Philip Loeb, infuses his performance with all the love he had for the man whom he personifies as Hecky Brown; there wasn’t a dry eye in my house after this scene played.

Writer Bernstein captures the collusion between the entertainment moguls and HUAC in a scene of nauseating obsequiousness. Network head Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) all but gives the committee members blow jobs for their selflessly patriot service to the country, and they gobble it up like greedy lapdogs. The exchange is a good reminder not only to Howard, but also to the audience that such egos demand tribute and obedience and that naming names pays them tribute and builds their appetite for power. When prompted to give up a name, for example, Hecky Brown, who can no longer be hurt by these sharks, Howard realizes that to do so would be to confirm the committee’s verdict on the harmless entertainer and give his employer and government an out for their shameful behavior. His parting words, shocking coming out of the mouth of Woody Allen, are “Fellas… I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.”

Allen handles the comedy in the film well, particularly the daily travails he has to negotiate when the studio asks for last-minute rewrites and he has to find a way to get them from Miller. Ritt directs these panicked scenes with verve, and film editor Sidney Levin maintains a rhythm for this scene—indeed, for the entire film—that shows the precarious roller coaster all of the characters are riding, exhilarating for Howard at first, then getting increasingly burdensome. The slow stammering Allen engages in when stonewalling the committee is one of his best scenes on camera in any film and builds a tense exasperation in the committee members that is a wickedly pleasurable experience.

The Front begins and ends with Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart,” a hit song in 1953-54, the time period during which the film takes place. The lyrics, “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/If you’re young at heart,” give way to the bitter irony of the second verse “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams/And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” Perhaps in shame for helping to take down Philip Loeb, Columbia Pictures coproduced this film. For blacklisted artists who had been living the fairy tale of the American Dream until their youthful activities brought down the wrath of a paranoid nation, The Front offers them public redemption—and the paycheck many of them were denied during this dark time.


17th 11 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Murder by Contract (1958)

Director: Irving Lerner

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is certainly no more voracious, vociferous, activist movie lover than the man whose own films are destined to live forever—Martin Scorsese. An avid film collector and active in the preservation movement, Scorsese also has found ways to keep previous generations of films and film artists alive—sometimes literally, by having them work on his films—by borrowing from them. In my review of Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010), I mentioned Scorsese’s use of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s point-of-view shooting from The Red Shoes (1948) in his choice about how to film the fight sequences in Raging Bull (1980).

There is another director who is lodged fondly in Scorsese’s memory, one whose light was dimmed by the blacklist—Irving Lerner. Lerner began his film career directing and shooting documentaries and ended up making Poverty Row pictures. The same year Touch of Evil, the supposed last of the classic noir films, was released, Lerner issued Murder by Contract written by another blacklist victim, Ben Maddow, and shot in seven days primarily on the old Charlie Chaplin Studios lot at La Brea and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Scorsese remembered an early scene in the film in which its star, Vince Edwards, does chin-ups and push-ups in his SRO digs, and had Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) do the same in Taxi Driver (1976). He also hired Lerner to edit New York, New York (1977) and dedicated it to Lerner, who died after finishing work on the film. After seeing Murder by Contract, it’s easy to see how this film could be so memorable and influential to the budding director.

The film begins with Claude (Edwards) carefully grooming and dressing in his room as the opening credits roll. The fastidiousness with which he tends to his appearance suggests a careful man who wants to make a good impression. When he arrives at the home of Mr. Moon (Michael Granger), we’re not at all surprised to learn that he is there for a job. Surprisingly, he tells Moon that he has a steady job that pays him well and gives him a pension and fringe benefits. But he wants to better himself more quickly so that he can marry his girlfriend in Cleveland and buy a house on the Ohio River that would take him more than 20 years to save for otherwise; he wants to be a “contractor.” And he doesn’t mean electrician.

Moon hires hitmen for a mobster named Mr. Vick. He decides to let Claude stew for a couple of weeks after their interview. Famed cinematographer Lucien Ballard shoots Claude in a monotonous routine of dressing, exercising in his room, taking in food trays and tipping the server one of the dimes he has lined up on the table, and waiting for the phone to ring—which it eventually does. Claude is given his first contract, efficiently shown with quick shots of three people tied up in a back room, a sleepy man in a barber’s chair, and Claude emerging from behind a newspaper wearing a white barber’s coat, placing a protective cape around the man’s neck, and grabbing a straight razor from the real barber’s shelf of equipment. Moon pays Claude $500, and at his home, Claude records the sum in a notebook that lists the money he has versus the money he needs to buy the house.

Claude proves to be an effective, reliable hitman, and is given the task of filling a major contract on a government witness in Los Angeles. He is met at the airport by two bumbling handlers, George (Herschel Bernardi) and Marc (Phillip Pine), and frustrates them by playing the tourist for 10 days—not even asking who the target is. When he learns his victim is Billie Williams (Caprice Toriel), the girlfriend of Mr. Vick, the idea of hitting a woman unnerves him to such an extent that failure seems inevitable. The second half of the film details his attempts to take her down and how this “jinx” of a job proves to be his undoing.

Like a number of Poverty Row films, Murder by Contract makes a virtue of its low budget by telling its story in a lean, direct way. Uniquely, it may be the most satirical film noir I’ve ever seen. While humor is found in other noirs, such as The Big Sleep (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Murder by Contract sends up the work/success ethos of the American Dream while at the same time critiquing the hypocrisy by which killing in the line of duty is sanctioned and even honored, while killing by civilians can be grounds for execution.

Claude is a very interesting character. Handsome, healthy, and well-built (Edwards was an Olympic-level swimmer), Claude has never been in trouble with the law, has a college education and a good job, and prides himself on his businesslike attitude to murder, using careful, intelligent planning to ensure success without risk. He never lets emotion get in the way of fulfilling the contract, he tells Marc and George, and shuns firearms. He represents the amorality of businessmen who put windfall profits ahead of common decency while rejecting the vulgarity—and exposure—of naked shows of force. You’ll have to turn around to see that he has slipped a knife into your back.

But like many noir killers, Claude has an undercurrent of crazy—which Marc and George comment upon frequently—particularly psychosexual. He goes ballistic when a waiter (Joseph Mell) brings in his breakfast tray with a lipstick-stained coffee cup. After chewing Harry out for taking no pride in his work and assuring him that he will never get ahead with his slovenly attitude, Claude flips $5 at him as he goes out the door to fetch a fresh cup. Later, when Claude receives a call girl (Kathie Browne) into his room—it’s hard to imagine him having sex with a woman—he admonishes her to wipe the lipstick off her mouth and refuses to kiss her when he ends up hastily ushering her out of his room.

Most of all, he freaks when confronted with the task of killing Billie. He calls women unpredictable, descended directly from monkeys and just as flighty. He could be called misogynistic, but he seems more frightened of women than hateful. In fact, according to the dismissed maid (Frances Osborne) he bribes for information on how to get to Billie in her police-protected home, Billie is highly predictable, spending the mornings watching TV and reading the newspaper and the evenings playing piano. It is Claude who becomes unreliable when his initial, ingenious plan to kill her goes awry through a fluke.

The camera work in this film is brilliant and effective, offering extreme close-ups to heighten our anxiety, as well as to clue us into Claude’s state of mind, particularly when the call girl’s lips loom uncomfortably large. Claude’s early satisfaction with California as he swims in the ocean and walks like a wannabe movie star through the streets with his dark sunglasses barely hiding his attractiveness gives way to a bitter dislike of the place he senses will eat him alive. Similarly, attractive shots of the city transition to dark, arid, tossed-away parts, evident in a scene in the abandoned sets of the Chaplin Studios where Marc, George, and Claude have a final confrontation and one in a drainage culvert through which Claude makes one last attempt to silence Billie. Lerner’s documentary background offers candid laughs, particularly in a gun shop where Claude observes that he can buy a machine gun for $124.95; note the small Nazi flags in the background, a real and remarkably pungent detail.

Most affecting is the simple score of the film. Mainly played on a single guitar by its composer, Perry Botkin Sr., the tune is upbeat and catchy, almost like an advertising jingle. Claude could be thought of as the ultimate organization man for one of the oldest organizations in history, and Botkin’s melody again offers pointed satire on the American idea of success.

Vince Edwards, who must have shared a similar regard for Lerner to Scorsese’s, also remembered him and enlisted him to direct several episodes of Ben Casey, Edwards’ hit TV series of the early 1960s. It’s time Lerner and his unique and superb noir Murder by Contract were better known by more cinephiles.


4th 08 - 2009 | 13 comments »

The Prowler (1951)

Director: Joseph Losey

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This week, Noir City is in Chicago, bringing with it some luminaries of noir cinema, including Foster Hirsch, author of the authoritative Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen and other books on cinema, and Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation. Both were present for the rare screening of The Prowler, a noir classic that has been unavailable for many years. The Film Noir Foundation came to the rescue of this languishing film not only because it’s stylish and compelling, but also because of the talent who put it together. Horizon Pictures, aka John Huston and Sam Spiegel (credited in the film as S. P. Eagle), produced the film; blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo wrote it (his credited front Hugo Butler would later be blacklisted); Robert Aldrich was assistant director; and the director, Joseph Losey, would flee to England to avoid the blacklist and establish a distinguished career for himself there. Film preservation/restoration is a tricky business, but let there be no doubt that The Prowler was worth the effort.

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The film opens with a shot of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) as seen from outside her bathroom window as she prepares for a bath. She turns toward the window, and her smile is replaced by a twisted look of horror. She quickly pulls down the window shade. Two uniformed cops, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) and his partner Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), answer a call to investigate a report of a prowler. They arrive in a posh section of Los Angeles and knock on Susan’s door. Crocker talks with her and goes to the bathroom to investigate her vantage point. Garwood, after nosing intrusively around the Gilvray home and making a few fresh remarks to Susan, goes outside to check for footprints. When Crocker lifts the window shade, Garwood’s face is framed in the window. He found no evidence to suggest a prowler had been there. The cops leave Susan with the suggestion that she pull down her shade in future.

In short order, Webb starts coming around to see Susan, who is alone at night because her husband (Sherry Hall in person, the voice of Dalton Trumbo on the radio) works evenings announcing what sounds a bit like a Paul Harvey radio show with music. They find that they attended rival high schools in neighboring Indiana towns, with Susan saying how she admired Webb’s athletic abilities and cut his picture out of the local newspapers. She is unhappy in her marriage because her husband can’t give her the children she wants. The two begin an affair. This being noir, we know what that means.

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Van Heflin plays Garwood with all the aggressive dissatisfaction of any noir antihero who thinks life dealt him a bad hand. When Webb pursues Susan, she’s too lonely and unhappy to notice what a bum’s rush it is. Webb hates being a cop and dreams of owning a motel in Vegas that will be a moneymaker without him having to lift a finger. It’s hard to know whether he truly loves Susan—though it appears he does—or simply her rich lifestyle and, later, the insurance policy on her husband’s life he finds when he picks a lock in Gilvray’s desk—a script convenience that helps us picture Webb scheming right from the start.

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Susan is the real wild card in this film because of the subtle neuroticism with which Keyes infuses her. Susan seems like a horrified innocent when she realizes Webb murdered her husband. Yet, during the coroner’s inquest, she lies for him, causing the grand jury to label the death accidental. She marries him in record time—later, when we learn she is four months pregnant, her motives come screaming into question; she was an actress, after all, though she claimed to have had no talent. Keyes never betrays Susan as an accomplice to her husband’s murder; she’s not like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) telling Walter Neff she only wanted her husband dead, that she wouldn’t have actually killed him, and then coming clean to having played Neff from the start. She’s horrified when she realizes that Webb intends to kill the doctor he has fetched to help deliver their baby in an abandoned mining camp, a hideout to prevent authorities from learning that Susan lied about not knowing Webb before her husband’s death. When she warns the doctor of Webb’s malicious intentions, we have to wonder whether Susan is now trying to get rid of Webb, too, to cover her tracks completely, now that she has the baby she always wanted. Or maybe one murder really is all she can live with.

There is so much rumbling under the surface of Susan Gilvray, so many sentences that we think are going to end one way and go in another. This is a brilliantly written and realized character, one that kept me in the movie even when Van Heflin and the colorfully corny supporting characters threatened to turn the film to kitsch. Foster Hirsch doesn’t even believe there was a prowler. Indeed, the way Losey shoots Van Heflin through the bathroom window makes it pretty clear who is planning to invade this home after the distressed “invitation” of the lady of the house.

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The settings are brilliant, from the rather eerie and lifeless Gilvray home to the dust and tumbleweeds of the mining town, where the incessant winds create a mad atmosphere similar to that of the great silent classic The Wind (1928). In the seedy SRO where Webb lives, he proudly displays evidence of his dead aim with a gun. The motel Webb buys and in which he and Susan will live seems to be a physical emblem of their adulterous and murderous alliance, the deafening noise of the trucks barreling down the road and pulling into the parking lot an accusing cacophony. Justice is served up somewhat arbitrarily, but the final image of Webb’s desperate climb up a slippery slope is as symbolic and appropriate at they come.


11th 05 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Director/Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1939, successful screenwriter Dalton Trumbo published a strongly antiwar novel called Johnny Got His Gun. Its central character, Joe Bonham, an 18-year-old volunteer in World War I, has been the victim of a horrible mortar attack that blew off his limbs and his face, but somehow, left his torso and brain intact. The doctors at the field hospital to which he is taken believe he is, basically, a breathing tree stump, with no feelings or thoughts. They transfer him to a permanent hospital where he is expected to offer researchers information that may help them treat patients in the future. But Joe can think and feel. So there he languishes in his body-prison year after year, remembering his past, trying to discover where he is in the present, and hoping against hope that he will be able to make contact with the outside world.

Trumbo was one of the Hollywood 10 who refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was held in contempt of Congress and eventually jailed, and most cruel of all, blacklisted in Hollywood. He continued to write, his scripts submitted for production through a “front”. One such front, Robert Rich, won an Oscar for best screenplay for 1956’s The Brave One; he did not appear to collect “his” Oscar because he was actually the child of an acquaintance of Trumbo’s. Eventually, Trumbo beat the ban and began working under his own name. During the height of the Vietnam War, he decided to adapt his pacifist book for the screen. He ended up making it his first and, as it turns out, only directorial effort.

This year, Shout! Films issued Johnny Got His Gun on DVD; I was lucky enough to be contacted by the film’s cinematographer Jules Brenner, now a film critic, and offered a review copy.

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The film’s opening credits show stills from WWI, from rank-and-file soldiers marching in formation, to enthusiastic civilians cheering them on, to the old men in command, and of course, the casualties on the fields and in the trenches. We immediately are taken into Joe’s situation, a flurry of Army doctors and nurses attending to his immediate needs and talking about his future. Joe (Timothy Bottoms) eventually awakens and wonders why it is so dark. Since he can’t see or hear anything, he becomes attuned to the vibrations of people coming in and out of his room, the routine of the nurses who clean his airway, connect his feeding tube, and check his vitals. He can tell by the touch of a hand whether the person is a man or a woman. He can also tell that a pricking sensation at his shoulder is stitches being removed from his body. But they’re too far up. Oh no, they’ve taken his arm! His horror only increases when he realizes that all of his limbs are gone. The film unfolds his reality in the hospital, his memories, and his hallucinations and dreams.

“I remember the real things, Mother, even before we left Colorado and moved to Los Angeles. I remember everything.” A memory of his mother (blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt) examining his dirty, bare feet; his menagerie of pets; bathing in a washtub; running through snow to use the outhouse–all comforting memories scored by composer Jerry Fielding with nostalgically wistful music. I was quite reminded through the images and music of another period piece that shares a lot in common with this film–Death of a Salesman, particularly the production staged and later filmed by Volker Schlöndorff. Certainly, cannon fodder Joe Bonham is a comrade of chewed up and spit out Willy Loman.

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I found several memories quite touching, as when his girl’s father catches Joe and Kareen (Kathy Fields) necking on the couch on his last night as a civilian, berates them for acting like they’re in the backseat of a flivver, and then orders them both to Kareen’s bedroom. Or when on a camping trip, Joe, with his back to his father (Jason Robards) on the floor of their tent, confesses that he lost the prize fishing pole his father had lent him reluctantly and his father simply turns over and hugs Joe. Others seem like a cardboard cutout spouting Trumbo’s views, for example, when a young Joe asks his father what democracy is, and his father says it’s about governments sending people to kill each other.

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In drug-influenced dreams and hallucinations, he imagines seeing Jesus (Donald Sutherland) preparing to take soldiers on a train for their date with death. He sees himself as a freak in a sideshow run by his father and mother. He hears an oration on progress from a man played by Trumbo himself. He sees Kareen in a garden strewn with Greek sculptures telling him she had to marry someone else when he didn’t return from the front. These hallucinations seem dated now, a product of 60s and 70s pseudo-psychedelia. However, if the film had been made by Luis Buñuel, a friend of Trumbo’s who had originally been slated to direct it, imagine the possibilities of these sequences. It’s tantalizing to think what he might have done with it, how he might have ratcheted up the political perversity, how he would have handled the sexual elements, whether Joe would have gotten one of the maestro’s fetishized artificial limbs. We do know how he would have handled Jesus, as one of his shots, of Donald Sutherland piloting a train at night, a gauzy scarf blowing in the wind, made it into the film. (“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?”)

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The extended sequence in Joe’s reality when he makes contact with a new nurse (Diane Varsi) is suspenseful. She traces “Merry Christmas,” a letter at a time, on his chest, and he responds later by tapping out Morse code with his head. Will something good finally break for this poor wretch? What do you think. Nonetheless, the voiceover narration by Bottoms that carries this story along communicates his excitement in a way that got me excited, too.

If the characters had been more well fleshed, less symbolic, I think the film would have been more affecting. Trumbo’s writing comes from another era, one in which poetic polemics were popular and accepted. Today’s audiences have been so marketed to that even messages with which we are sympathetic may not move us. In 1971, Trumbo could expect viewers to bring their own experiences of war loss to the movie theatre. In 2009, we are far too remote from war to be as deeply touched.

What moved me the most about this film, actually a partial memoir of Trumbo’s own childhood (for example, the death of Joe’s father was shot in the very house, the very room, and on the very bed where Trumbo’s father actually died), was that it seemed to address his experiences with the blacklist. He was a living, thinking man who was silenced by politicians fighting a principle that was supposed to “make the world safe for democracy,” as Joe’s father says to him. This painful period underscored so many scenes in this film that it felt more like an autobiography than a film about war.

The DVD extras, including a documentary about Trumbo and the making of Johnny Got His Gun and the radio play starring James Cagney as Joe, are superb. While the film didn’t pack the punch I thought it would, I’m glad I saw this very personal work brought to life by the man who conceived it so many years before. l


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