american films

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.

Reflections Upon Big Eyes

Tim Burton Big Eyes movie poster

María Evangelina Vázquez, who wrote this wonderful piece on Blake’s Poetry a few months ago, is back.  As is becoming a habit, she brings something completely new to the Classically Educated table: a thoughtful review of a modern film.  In keeping with our tradition, however, she deals with the subject from a different angles, which tie many isolated incidents together – and provoke thoughtful reflection.  If you enjoy this piece, and can read Spanish there is a repository of her articles here

Big eyes stare back at us. It’s like in Las Meninas by Velázquez; we ask ourselves: are we looking at the characters on the painting or are they looking at us? It is true that very often those things we cannot see directly, those that are hidden, are the most important ones. We have the iceberg theory by Hemingway which supports this idea. And now we have Big Eyes, the film by Tim Burton, based on a true story. In this movie we get to know the life of Margaret Keane: the real artist behind the paintings that were attributed to her husband, Walter, for around ten years.

It is not the first time that a woman is shadowed by a man who takes credit for her work; that is what happened to French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who began writing as ghost writer for her husband. Other women such as the well known Brontë sisters used male pen names when signing their first texts; and even in our times, J.K. Rowling signed her books with her initials so that the audience would think the author was a man.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell Poems

While some may still have to conceal their identity, others are often tempted to show themselves off more than they should. Social networks encourage us to share images of our private lives with others. What’s the limit, where do we draw the line? Our eyes are often overstimulated and we see so many things that a great part of these images go unnoticed and we cannot always decide what is relevant and what is accessory. It’s like in “The Purloined Letter” by E.A. Poe: the most obvious place for the letter is overlooked. We have an appetite to see more and more. And although we cannot possibly process all the information available, we look for images everywhere and try to make sense of what we see. We often don’t pay attention to images that we should see or that could interest us if we only gave them the chance to show themselves. On the other hand, we usually end up paying more attention to those images that are easy to digest, or that the media offer us with just one click.

The movie Big Eyes focuses precisely on what we see, what we want or are allowed to see, what we decide to show to others, how we mask ourselves because we don’t have the strength to assume who we truly are, or because society just makes it complicated for us to do so. Margaret is a talented artist who paints enormous, expressive eyes. These eyes are way out of proportion but they are what make her characters so special, and they become her trademark, like Modigliani’s long necks (in Argentina we have paintings by Lino Enea Spilimbergo, which also emphasize the eyes).

Margaret Keane Painting

Is it not a remarkable paradox that the artist who painted those huge eyes couldn’t be seen? Keane’s eyes remind me of John Steinbeck’s gigantic pearl, one that was so big that it could not be sold; a promising rarity that, however, could not find its place in the market. That’s what happened to Margaret’s paintings until the art market found a place for her. It has long been proven throughout human history that commercial success does not imply quality in art (and I should say in any other area), and that the lack of it does not imply poor quality of work either. The most significant example for what I’m saying is Vincent Van Gogh. He has bestowed great gifts on our eyes; nevertheless during his life he was quite invisible to those in charge of selecting masterpieces.

It is true that Margaret struggled and suffered psychological abuse for many years until she could stand up to her husband, to society, but she finally got the recognition she was looking for. We should ask ourselves: how many more Margarets are out there? Invisible all their lives… Sometimes just one look is enough to save them.

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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The Early Queen of Technicolor

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

As we continue our review of the 1001 films to watch before you die, it has become increasingly obvious that Judy Garland was the early queen of color film.  Most people will remember the scene in the The Wizard of Oz where she opens the door from the black and white world of Kansas to the riot of color that is Oz, but it would take a much more hardcore movie fan to recall the subject of today’s post.

Meet Me in St. Louis is another Garland musical, this time from 1944 which, unlike The Wizard is basically a family drama / romance.  As such, the color is a little more muted – but still stands out among the other great films mainly due to the simple fact of having been filmed in color.  Looking back at the movies we’ve reviewed here at Classically Educated, only The Life and Death of General Blimp was a color film.

So, what did we think?

Hmm.

Not our cup of tea, really.  To be brutally honest, it seemed like an unnecessarily melodramatic treatment of stuff that wasn’t all that serious.  This isn’t entirely a bad thing.  Had this same film been made in modern times, the melodrama would have been created by having someone die slowly of something awful during the entire film, or having someone fight against some terrible social stigma.  In that sense, the Garland vehicle is much, much less unbearable.

Meet Me in St. Louis Scenery

The scenery is also evocative, if much less complex than what you’d see today.  It does make you want to move to St. Louis over a hundred years ago and recreate that idyllic lifestyle.

The central conflicts have to do with a couple of love stories and a possible family move that would disrupt everything, but in the end it’s not really a spoiler to say that things turn out for the best.  It may have unnecessary melodrama, but is in essence a musical comedy.

In its time, it was critically well-received, and even commended for being just a bit darker than similar films which had a more “pollyanna” vibe to them, but that edge – though still visible when comparing to other films of its day – has lost a lot of its bite for modern audiences.

I wouldn’t say that the film was particularly memorable, but it is significant for a few things.  In the first place, it’s where Garland met Minelli, which, eventually, led to a whole bunch of other musicals with Liza in them.  This may or may not be a good thing, depending on one’s point of view, so I’ll leave it at that.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Album Cover

In addition to that, this film saw the debut of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“.  This, many, many years later has allowed millions of wives to annoy millions of husbands with the Michael Bublé version of the same while in the car. Again, this may or may not be a good thing, depending on one’s musical taste and gender.  All we can really say for sure is that divorce lawyers seem to be happy with that development.

Finally, this is the first film in the 1001 that we’ve seen that has three surviving cast members: Joan Caroll, June Lockhart and Margaret O’Brien.  If any of them are reading this, Hi!

So, all in all, this is a film we’d probably recommend to people partial to slightly melodramatic musical comedies.  It would probably not go down particularly well with an audience capable of appreciating the finer points of Apocalypse Now, but that isn’t its intention after all.

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