american film

Of Unrealistic Choices on Film

We’ve all been there.  Staring at the screen in disbelief controlling our urge to yell at the doomed character: “Don’t run up the stairs, you idiot! You were right next to the front door.  The guy with the hockey mask and the axe is in the house…  so why would you do that?”

The answer, of course, is that either that particular character is toast, or, if it is the main character, then having him or her run out the door and onto the street and into the nearest 7-11, where the armed cashier then proceeds to fill the bad guy with lead, doesn’t exactly ratchet up the dramatic tension.  So you end up having characters make choices that no one but a moron would make in real life, all in service of the plot.

It’s annoying as hell when it happens in a cheesy horror flick, but even more when it happens in a film that has been anointed by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Of course, Detour from 1945, didn’t start off that way.  It started off on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, being filmed with a reported (albeit unlikely) budget of $20,000.  Other sources cite $100,000 but it was not a high-budget film by any stretch of the imagination.

Detour 1945 Film Poster

It’s essentially a hard luck story, and one never really wonders, even for a second, why the main character is having such a bad time.  It’s clear that he is the kind of guy who would be incapable of tying his own shoelaces and is his own worst enemy.  Unlike in The Lost Weekend, which we discussed here, the main character in Detour cannot use alcoholism as an excuse for his bad choices.

Fortunately, the bad choice is early in the movie, so it won’t really spoil all that much if I tell you about it.  Essentially, the guy is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a random motorist.  The man in the car takes some medicine, starts feeling bad, parks the car and, in an attempt to get out, stumbled and hits his head on a rock.  In keeping with Hollywood tradition, he dies.

The main character decides that the police will blame him for the guy’s death.  The only logical thing to do, therefore, is to steal the man’s car and belongings and pass himself off for the dead man.  Of course.  It’s what anyone would do in that situation.

So everything else that happens afterward is his own fault.

But that’s not even the worst part of the whole thing.  I understand that penniless drifters are usually not well regarded, but to automatically assume that the police will blame them for everything and expect audiences to sympathize is another Hollywood-ism that annoys me to no end.  Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to unite against authority and “The Man”, but, just once, I’d like for the police to believe the main character when he says it was an accident and calls them to report it.

All of the above is too bad.  The acting, the mood, the dialogue were first rate… to the point where it was supremely well-received.  I suppose that audiences and critics will often overlook a single moronic decision if the rest of the elements are in place.  Maybe they are correct to do so.

But in my case, having to write my own thoughts a few months after seeing the movie, that single stupid choice was the most memorable part of the film, and therefore became what I write about.  Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Bizarre or interesting note?  None in particular, except for the fact that, since the film was produced by a studio that no longer exists, and the rights seem to have fallen into some kind of black hole, it is now in the public domain.  Which means that I can link you to a place where you can watch the thing legally.

Oh, and it’s noir.  I did mention that everything in 1945 was noir, didn’t I?

 

Perpetuating the Alcoholic Writer Cliché

Our look at the 1001 films one should watch before one dies continues today with The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism but which is very steeped in the noir tradition.  This last is completely unsurprising, as the box-office success of one noir film after another affected the production philosophy of every other genre, regardless of whether it was related or not.

The Lost Weekend (1945) Movie poster

Some of the results were less than stellar, but in the case of The Lost Weekend, this blend worked extremely well, resulting in a number of Oscars.

As a writer, the most interesting aspect of the film to me is that it is purportedly an attempt by the director, the great Billy Wilder, to make a movie about Raymond Chandler, with whom he’d worked with in the production of Double Indemnity (there’s that ever-present noir link again…).

While not biographical by any means, The Lost Weekend deals with how a writer’s insecurities can lead to rampant alcoholism.  It doesn’t pull any punches: the scenes used to show the awful consequences progress from lying to stealing to delirium tremens and, finally, to the decision to commit suicide.

In the end (spoiler alert), all seems to end well thanks to the power of love (yes, gratuitous Huey Lewis reference), but I got the feeling that the reprieve was only temporary, even if the filmmakers wanted the message to be upbeat.

Why don’t I believe them?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a writer.  I know that writing is 99% rejection of some sort.  Whether it be publishers who don’t publish your book or stories, critics who hate it once it’s published or readers who don’t buy your book in droves, writing is not a place for those of fragile ego.  And if your confidence issues lead you to contemplate suicide… well, maybe you should be doing something else.

But if you’re not afflicted with the writing gene/curse, it’s a film that not only explores an interesting topic in a pretty much definitive way, but also, despite the darkness of the character’s situation, manages to entertain.

Ronald Reagan: Film Husband!

The interesting or unusual note that we always try to find int hese movies?  It’s present… This one stars Ronald Reagan’s first wife!

Reversing Noir

 

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Films of the noir era usually focused on one character who, though no saint himself, had a strict view of just how much bending of “right” was acceptable.  The hardboiled dick who lets the dame off despite the fact that she is guilty as hell because the guy had it coming is the typical storyline.  There is one other twist which is that everyone, including the point-of-view character is so deeply mired in muck that they are irredeemable.

By 1945, however, Michael Curtiz decided that the genre needed a new twist, and used that feeling to create his take on Mildred Pierce, an adaptation of the novel by James Cain (who you might remember from here).

In this film, while some characters are certainly sleazy, there is only one who is actually bad… and the rest of them spend the entire film putting themselves at risk in order to try to help that one character (I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who might be watching).  Their reward?  Betrayal of all sorts, from sexual to downright criminal.

Other than that particular twist, the film is notable for the way Mildred Pierce creates a business empire against all odds, often hindered by friends and family.  It’s a sign of how the war had affected American society – audiences accustomed to women performing war work were definitely ready to see them on screen as strong business leaders.  Although this isn’t the central theme of the movie, it is strong enough to be very notable.  And Joan Crawford is extremely believable in the role, one can’t help but think that she was a much better choice than the other women considered for casting.

This is a good complement to the noir era, something to watch if you’re really into noir in all its permutations.  Of course, it’s a film a casual viewer might never actually get to, but for fans of the genre, it’s a must.

Ann Blyth

Also, a shout out to surviving cast member Ann Blyth, who is notable because she was a key member of the cast – and central to the plot.

Did this guy ever screw up a film?

Bergman and Peck

Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound

Today, we look back on a rare beast – a suspense film from the mid-forties that had no noir pretensions whatsoever.  Spellbound (1945) is a Hitchcock vehicle which is the second Psychological thriller to have appeared on the list – the first was 1942’s Cat People.

The two films feel completely different, since the older movie is more about the shadowy workings of the mind, while Spellbound actually looks into both the methods and profession of psychology.  Whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of the state of the field in the 1940s is not something we’re qualified to discuss, but for the purposes of the movie, it worked well.

As usual with Hitchcock, the movie is well thought out and reasonably convoluted – and the ending is impossible to guess, despite the best efforts.  Hitchcock was a master of foreshadowing enough that the partial reveal wasn’t a surprise to the more intelligent viewers, but that the whole picture would only really appear when the director himself felt the time was right.

That technique actually works much better in Spellbound than it did in the film that old Alfred himself said was his favorite.  In fact, of the movies he directed that have been on the list so far, this is the best of his Hollywood movies (although there are still plenty more to come, so that might change over the coming months.

Spellbound Dream Sequence

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Dream sequence by Salvador Dali.

We won’t get into the plot of the film itself, as it’s well worth watching, but it’s interesting to see the kind of talent they put together for it.  As leading couple, no less than Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.  Then there was famous acting coach Michael Chekhov. The film even had the collaboration of Salvador Dali, who filmed the dream sequence, which was reputed to be completely insane, but, sadly, was cut by the production team and is now mostly lost (although Dali’s unmistakable flavor can still be seen in what remains).

Perhaps this film would give To Have and Have Not a run for the title of the old film with most still-recognizable names involved.  All that talent created a good flick – go find a copy and enjoy it!  It does somehow seem that most Hitchcocks fall into this category…

 

As always, a mention of two of the actors who were involved in this one who are still with us: Rhonda Fleming and Norman Lloyd.  Here’s a shout out and thank you, if you’re reading this!

 

 

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

When Everyone is Out to Get Everyone Else

Murder My Sweet Poster

We’re on an unapologetic film noir binge here at CE, and we don’t care who knows it.

After our recent review of Double Indemnity–which established a lot of the basic format of noir while simultaneously ignoring the most important element, the hardboiled detective–we’re back in more familiar territory.  In fact, we’re entering hallowed ground, for we are about to speak of Philip Marlowe‘s film debut.

While other Chandler novels had been filmed–even Marlowe ones–the character had never appeared by name until 1944’s Murder My Sweet (which British audiences will likely know as Farewell My Lovely).

Possibly the most notable element of this film is that Dick Powell, known for light-hearted roles as opposed to anything Marlowe-esque was cast in the lead role… and, seventy years later, therein lies a problem.  The major issue is that the hard-boiled dick actor par excellence is Humphrey Bogart, and no amount of thespian versatility by lesser men could ever really equal that.  Having anyone else play Marlowe seems somehow sacrilegious.

This is still a great film, mainly because the plot is so twisted that one ends up needing a corkscrew to figure it all out… that is until the end, where the spider at the center of the web is revealed, and the motivations become a bit clearer.

Dick Powell in Murder my Sweet

We won’t spoil it by giving away the final revelation, but will limit ourselves to noting that most of the comments about human sorididity that we made about  Double Indemnity are still valid, but detract less from this film.  It’s one of those cases where having the plot focus less closely on the relationships between people and having more actually go on shifts the focus away from the baser elements of behavior.  This one feels more like a roller-coaster ride through the murky depths than the view through a microscope of that same muck… and gains by it immeasurably.

Watching the two films back to back is recommended for anyone who wishes to truly understand the extremes of noir, and how two aesthetically similar films in the same genre which touch on similar themes, and even use a similar flashback framing to tell the story, can feel completely different, and yet be unmistakably related.

And a final reflection is how dark films seemed to find favor during dark times, despite the best efforts of the Hays office.  Noir is a product of the early and mid forties, which would seem to be anti-intuitive; one would think that a people weary of war would look for light-hearted filmography.

But that clearly wasn’t the case.  Noir would never be done as well as it was then, much like comedy would never be as good as the screwball type of the thirties – Hollywood simply never recovered that particular magic.

We give this one four Schlemmons.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Double Indemnity Movie Poster

The nice thing about our Manifesto is that it allows us to cheerfully jump from the horrors of WWII weapons of terror to light-hearted reviews of science fiction anthologies without batting an eyelash.  Perhaps the move we are making today is conceptually much smaller (although, admittedly, the last time we discussed films we went on and on about crazy Russians), but it does take us back to somewhat darker themes.

Film noir has often been analyzed from an aesthetic standpoint, and with good reason.  The darkness and visual cues (such as venetian blind lighting) are signature moves.  But today, in analyzing a film that is often credited with creating the noir look, we’re going to be contrary and look at the characters, a sordid little bunch.

Let’s begin by saying that 1944’s Double Indemnity is a film with a bunch of unforgettable scenes and plot devices – perhaps the most memorable of which is the dictation of the story into a recording device by the main character.  Having said that, it’s not actually an enjoyable film.  One doesn’t watch this one with the same pleasure as, say, The Maltese Falcon.  Though the characters are equally down-on-their luck, and often just as self-serving as the ones surrounding Sam Spade, they don’t have that touch of black humor or dogged streak of hidden nobility.

Barbara Stanwyck's towel in Double Indemnity

What I applaud most is that they managed to get it past the Hays code – even if they had to make some compromises (notably the size of Barbara Stanwick’s towel)

Despite not being enjoyable, that’s probably what has made this film so respected even seventy years later.  Think back to 1944.  There was a war on.  The public was thinking of heroism, of sacrifice – and so many films of the time reflected that.  The ones that didn’t at least attempted to give the audience some sense of humanity’s redeeming qualities…  and along comes Billy Wilder with an unflinching look at the seamier side of human nature.

This is a film where the main character is a heel, where the girl is worse than he is, and where even the supposedly pure younger woman’s innocence and decency can very easily be called into question by cynical viewers.  It looks at the real world, a world in which Sam Spade is as likely as a flock of flying unicorns.

It moves along at a decent clip, piling intrigue upon intrigue until, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, we are back where we started, but we now know why the man is dictating into the machine.

It works, it’s powerful, it’s much more true to life than most of the hardboiled genre… but you won’t like it as much. On a scale of one to five, we give it three Schlemmons.*

*For an explanation of the Schlemmon system, see here… now we just need to get someone to create a Schlemmon icon for us.

Noir Gets Victorian

Gaslight 1944 Movie Poster

One of the interesting things about the 1001 movies list is that, unless you are up on your old cinema and theater, you don’t know what to expect with a lot of films.  Gaslight (1944) was one of these.  Before viewing it, I wasn’t familiar with either the play or the movie, so I expected it to be some kind of Victorian-era costume-drama love story.

Of course it was nothing of the sort – and, if I’d thought about it a bit, I could probably have predicted it.  You see, 1944 was smack in the middle of the film noir era, and its sensibilities ranged far and wide.  Heck some of the films were even set outside of Los Angeles.

The case of Gaslight, however, must be seen as an extreme example.  Setting a noir-esque film in Victorian London was a bit of a stretch, even for the era.  Given my choice, I’d have kept the genre in contemporary America – but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t interesting.  It has quite a few memorable aspects.

The first is that by being set outside of the usual time and place of noir, it gets to play with social structures and even technology quite foreign to the hard-boiled private eyes that populate more typical fare.  Even the film’s climax (won’t give spoilers) could not have happened during the mid twentieth century.  So in that regard, it is quite clever.

On the other hand, it also uses much of noir’s shorthand, especially the tortured human elements and unhealthy relationships that are so typical of the format. There’s even a hard-boiled detective (although he works for Scotland Yard as opposed to having a seedy office in a high-rise).

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Cover

Though it’s not a bad movie, this one probably earned its place on the 1001 movies list because of the fact that it experimented in mixing genres in ways that most noir flicks didn’t in the 1940s.  Yes, there were variations on the theme (making the hero an insurance salesman or a woman instead of a detective), but this one was probably the most extreme.  In a world a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a real thing (and soon to be a movie itself), an experiment of this sort probably wouldn’t attract a whole lot of attention – but that was not the case in 1944.

So, glad to have seen it, but not really all that keen to recommend it to anyone.  Watch it if the above has piqued your interest…  or give it a miss.  There are other, better films noir to spend your time on…  and we’ll have a writeup of at least a few of them here soon!

When Horror Actors Go Bad

Laura (1945) Movie Poster

So, our 1001 movies quest continues (see here and here for other notable entries in this series), and today’s installment is referred to the 1945 film Laura.  Now, this one was a solid, entertaining noir movie… but there isn’t much one can say about it except to watch it if you can get it on Netflix in your area.  A good film, but not one that speaks to an era or about which we can draw deep philosophical conclusions*.  It certainly doesn’t compare – either in cast or in writing talent, to this flick which was one of its contemporaries.

As far as I can tell, a modern viewer looking to draw conclusions from this film will note two things.  The first is minor unless one is a jazz lover, and that is that the the theme song, Laura, seems to have spawned hundreds of recordings by everyone up to and including Frank Sinatra.

But the truly iconic moment comes when you realize that the bumbling, leading man-esque “boyfriend” character is none other than Vincent Price.  The mustache is missing, but it’s unmistakably him.  Anyone whose childhood was marked by the video for Michael Jackson’s thriller will know that Vincent Price is synonymous with late-night B-movie horror.  His voice on the video wasn’t just another creepy narrator – it represented an homage to a career that became representative of cheesy horror.  Heck, he was so big that he was a guest on the Muppets!

Vincent Price With Severed Head

So, to see this icon prancing around as a love interest in an old noir film was as distracting as having Sauron turn up for the charity ball in a lavender suit and carrying canned goods for the poor.  Perhaps it would have been all right if (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) his character had turned out to be the murderer after all, and the dorky good-looking guy thing had been an act…  but even this salve is denied the modern viewer.

To that point, of course, Price wasn’t a horror icon, but still, one must retroactively chastise everyone involved in production for not having the foresight to predict it and cast someone else.  After all, having posterity write what we’ve just written about your movie probably wasn’t anyone’s intention.

Those too young to remember Price should definitely watch it, and to understand what we mean in a more relevant way, try to imagine Freddy Krueger (who has been relegated to the slots that Price used to occupy on the late night programming cheesy list) being cast as the shallow, idiotic prince in a Disney princess movie, and you’ll see what I mean.

*Intelligent readers will note that this has never stopped us before.  To them we maturely stick out our tongues and make rude noises before admitting that they might possibly have a point.

Bogart, Hemingway and Faulkner? Definitely “To Have”

Lauren Bacall - The Look

It’s well established that almost no one liked the book version of To Have and Have Not – not even its author, Mr. Macho himself, Ernest Hemingway.

But that didn’t stop Howard Hawks from deciding that it could be a basis for a great film, casting Bogart and Lauren Bacall in an unforgettable pairing.  Bacall is so perfectly well suited to noir that the pair’s chemistry simply blows that of Casablanca out of the water…

But it wasn’t quite that simple.  The book was a bit of a turkey, so the production had to really rework it to get it right, and not much of the original material survives in the film.  Of course, having William Faulkner helping with the screenplay can’t have hurt, either – even if he and Hemingway were anything but best buddies.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

Let’s stop to think about that for a minute.  When was the last time you heard of a Hollywood movie which had TWO Nobel-prize-winning writers involved in the screenplay?  Granted, neither of them had won when the film was produced, but the choice of a “difficult” writer such as Faulkner for adaptation would have meant that a lot of the dialogue was deeper than normal.

That is not something that would happen today – the blockbuster system neither needs nor is interested in Nobel Prizes, and difficult dialogue is strictly verboten.  I believe that’s one of the main reasons that today’s films last a lot less in our memory than the old classics – and the reason that recent years are not referred to as “Hollywood’s Golden Age” in the way the thirties and forties are.

Of course, both Bogart and Bacall are dead, too, and don’t look like they’ve been replaced – although it would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that modern film is devoid of giants.  That isn’t true – but the giants are a lot more careful of their image, and ambiguous characters are not all that common anymore among the true superstars.

To Have and Have Not Piano Scene

I suppose that, in much the way that the thirties were the classic era of the screwball comedy, the forties were the era of film noir (this one isn’t exactly textbook noir, but it’s close enough) and Hollywood moved beyond it.  But looking back on the era now with modern eyes, it’s an amazingly entertaining body of work – and the Hays Code probably helped by forcing directors to up the innuendo so that audiences could read between the lines.

Not that much of that is necessary while watching To Have and Have Not.  The sexual energy between Bogart and Bacall – not to mention the sheer sultry throaty presence of Bacall herself – were enough to telegraph intentions, and give us a much more believable story of damaged people making the most of their situation than the one in Casablanca.  Yeah, despite being unabashed fans of Rick’s Café, we actually wrote that last sentence.

It’s hard to call this one unappreciated or forgotten, because it still gets its good share of late night air time, but it’s definitely worth rediscovering, as a lot of it is actually better than its more famous Bogart stablemate.

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