Monday, June 30, 2014

CAUGHT (1949)

Max Ophüls, 1949
Starring: James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan

A young girl is convinced by her roommate that the only way to land her dream man is to go to charm school. She scrimps and saves, eventually graduating and changing her name to Leonora. She becomes a department store model and has a chance meeting with millionaire Smith Ohlrig, a cold, controlling, and neurotic man. When his psychoanalyst confronts him about his intimacy issues, he marries Leonora almost as a challenge. Things quickly turn abusive — they never spend time alone together and Leonora becomes an essential prisoner in their opulent New York mansion. She is kept awake at all hours, not allowed to sleep or relax, and is expected to play hostess at all times. After Smith becomes more abusive, she leaves him and finds a job as a reception in a doctor’s office with strictly blue collar clientele. She falls in love with the kind, handsome doctor, but becomes pregnant after a brief reunion with Smith. Leonora wants to be with the doctor, but Smith uses the pregnancy to control and imprison her once more…

Based on Libbie Block’s novel Wild Calendar (a much better title, in my opinion), Caught is a particularly hard look at love, marriage, and the American dream. It fits together as a pair with Ophüls’ follow up and his other American romance-noir, The Reckless Moment. Both films cynically examine American domestic life, as well as issues of class and definitions of success. While neither can really be called a straightforward noir, Ophüls subtly blends romantic melodrama, domestic thriller, and film noir for two unique films worthy of far more attention than they’ve received.

Ophüls seems to suggest that the American dream for women is a version of the fairy tale romance where a princess marries a prince. In this case, Leonora becomes the “princess” by going to charm school, learning how to dress properly and have perfect manners, and changing her name to something more elegant. She marries a wealthy man, not because she loves him, but because he fits into her dream concept. This makes it difficult to sympathize with her, mainly because it’s easy to see how she willing creates her own self-deception and prison. Barbara Bel Geddes (Vertigo, Panic in the Streets) both succeeds and fails in the role. She is ordinary-looking enough that she’s more effective than someone more glamorous or assertive would have been, but lacks the subtlety or complexity to really pull off Leonora’s character and has too much of a good-girl-next-door vibe throughout the film.

There is little to enjoy about the opening — Smith Ohlrig is cold and controlling, while Leonora is essentially a gold-digger putting on airs. She is an odd reversal of the femme fatale, while Smith is something of the homme fatale, a seductive, but sexually problematic male character bent on the destruction and control of those around them. Regular noir villain or toughie Robert Ryan (The Set-Up, The Racket) is fairly two-dimensional as Smith, though he is surprisingly charismatic in such a flat role. Smith was based on mogul Howard Hughes and excellently captures Hughes’ reputation for manipulation and control, as well as his issues with obsessive compulsiveness and paranoia.

The film livens up with the arrival of James Mason’s Dr. Quinada. Mason is wonderful in his first role in a U.S. film, though I would probably enjoy him in anything. He plays against type here — he was primarily cast as villains and bad guys before this -- but is utterly believable. If you’re a Mason fan, you owe it to yourself to check out both Caught and The Reckless Moment, where he takes the male starring lead and delivers excellent, albeit very different performances.

While the film’s ending is often criticized as being rushed or weak, it’s a nasty piece of commentary about how children often hold loveless, abusive marriages together and suggests that Leonora is much better off delivering a stillbirth that permanently frees her from Smith. The film fails to wrap up the fact that she and Smith are not yet divorced, but somewhat subversively, the ending shows that this isn’t necessary for she and Quinada to be together. The fact that he’s willing to take her as she is — divorced, a near murderess (she believes she killed Smith, though he survives a psychologically induced heart attack), with a lost child, and socially ruined — is also remarkable. 

In addition to the film’s noir-like subject matter — a doomed marriage, a woman on the run, and dramatically changing gender roles — there are some wonderful noir visuals. There’s an excellent sense of claustrophobia heightened by the sets and cinematography. Smith’s prison-like mansion echoes those seen in Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and many other female-centered films noir. Of course there’s also expert direction, as Ophüls is undeniably a master. Though his two American films noir are subtle, they are both masterful.

Though it’s not yet available on DVD for region 1, Caught has fortunately been restored for Blu-ray and will finally be released this July. You can pre-order it on Amazon. It comes highly recommended, particularly for fans of James Mason and anyone who likes examinations of gender roles and romantic social structures.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

POSSESSED (1947)

Curtis Bernhardt, 1947
Starring: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks

After wandering around the city with amnesia and only able to mutter the name, “David,” a very sick woman is admitted to the psychiatric wing of a hospital. As she recovers, a doctor helps her recount her story. She became a nurse for the Graham family and the invalid Mrs. Graham. She had a relationship with one of their neighbors, an engineer named David, but he broke things off after she became obsessive. Meanwhile, the disturbed Mrs. Graham drowns in the lake, presumably suicide. Graham keeps Louise on to care for his children, but soon falls in love with her and proposes marriage. She agrees, although she does not love him, but hopes it will help her get revenge on David. Sometime later, David comes back into their lives due to a work contract, and develops a relationship with Carol, Louise’s new stepdaughter. Louise’s obsession with him renews and she slowly becomes more and more unhinged… 

This strange blend of melodrama and film noir is an unusual entry in ‘40s cinema. It bears something in common with The Letter, Nora Prentiss, and Mildred Pierce, but is a convincing portrayal of one woman’s descent into madness. Joan Crawford was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her incredibly strong performance. She spent time interviewing psychiatrists and observing mental wards, which went wrong when one woman later sued Crawford and Warners Bros. The woman did not consent to Crawford and a few other studio people observing her electroshock therapy treatments.

Crawford’s Louise is the ultimate representation of the confusion — and mania — surrounding changing gender roles in the wartime and postwar worlds. In addition to her somewhat subservient, traditional occupation as a nurse, she longs for a traditional romantic role and wants David to marry her. He blames his profession and desire to move around from place to place, a literal way to avoid settling down. Like the film noir hero, he remains single and there is something unlikable about him, something not entirely masculine. Van Heflin (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) is fittingly smarmy as David. The line between his complicity in Louise’s behavior is pleasantly blurred, making his role in the film less cut and dried.

Raymond Massey gives a solid performance, but his character — Mr. Graham — is as baffling as all the others. Why does he love Louise? Why does he insist on marrying her even though he knows she doesn’t love him? To the film’s credit, she does seem to warm up and begin to enjoy their life — he is a stable, positive contrast to David — but David’s constant appearance and her mania banishes this fleeting marital bliss. There is also a chilling air of manic depression about her interest in dining and dancing with her husband; her sudden, unexpected highs are simply too high, not believable.

The script leaves many questions unanswered and introduces too many ideas. For starters, Mrs. Graham’s suicide out on the lake makes this feel like a film noir and murder mystery, particularly with the eerie lake setting. Nothing is resolved and it doesn’t go anywhere, which is a shame. Louise’s insanity is another unanswered question. It seems that there should be some past trauma intruding on her life, but this is never addressed. Her obsession with David and subsequent possessiveness is simply a fact in and of itself. The one benefit to giving few explanations to any of the events is that it gives the film a dream-like quality, almost a fever dream as Louise wanders in and out of sanity.

Though there are plenty of melodramatic elements, there is a lot of film noir mixed in. Noir elements include flashbacks, fog, stark lighting, odd angles, and POV shots. The bleak ending is not at all redemptive, but there is some small hope for Louise’s recovery. Her husband, bafflingly, continues to standby and support her even though she is catatonic, insane, and a murderess. Louise’s mental breakdown scenes are oddly reminiscent of climactic moments from The Two Mrs. Carrolls and The Spiral Staircase, when women are trapped at home during the middle of a violent thunderstorm. In the latter two films, they are being pursued by violent killers, where as Louise is only being terrorized by her own mind.

On a final note, Geraldine Brooks is very likable as Louise’s step-daughter Carol, who is at first angry and resentful, but quickly warms to Louise’s presence in her family home. There is a slight echo of Mildred Pierce, with the spoiled, resentful daughter, but Carol’s cheery, light-hearted personality is a nice contrast with Louise’s growing sense of paranoia. Also keep an ear out for Franz Waxman’s wonderful score with elements of the Theremin to make Louise seem even crazier. Possession is available on DVD and comes recommended, particularly for fans of women-centric films noir and movies about portrayals female madness. Crawford might not hold a candle to Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, but she is excellent in this thoroughly unglamorous role nonetheless. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

NORA PRENTISS

Vincent Sherman, 1947
Starring: Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Robert Alda

Dr. Richard Talbot has an accidental run in with night club singer Nora Prentiss. She is hit by a car on the street in front of his office, so he treats her minor bumps and bruises. Talbot has been feeling constricted by his nagging wife and the precise, ironclad routine of his life. He and Nora clumsily begin an affair and his life changes almost overnight – he becomes selfish, neglectful, and constantly tardy. Unable to leave Nora and unable to ask his wife for a divorce, Talbot fakes his own death when a patient happens to die in his care one evening. He flees east to New York and begins a new life with Nora. Unfortunately, he becomes consumed with paranoia, convinced the police are a step behind him and they will never have any peace…

Nora Prentiss is an odd entry into the female-centric noir films of the mid to late ‘40s. It seems like it should be far more melodrama than it is and contains a number of interesting twists. The plot has a number of holes, but is pleasantly complex. Though the advertising suggests otherwise, the titular Nora Prentiss is not a femme fatale – she’s not even the protagonist, actually – she’s just a good-hearted nightclub singer looking for someone to love her. She does not actively contribute to Richard’s destruction – that is all of his own doing. She accepts that he must leave her for his wife and family and even leaves town to remove the temptation. It is Richard’s own insane idea to fake his own death and flee with her to New York; bizarrely, he doesn’t tell her about this until weeks into their trip when he begins to feel jealous or paranoid. She doesn’t leave him or cheat – though she has the opportunity to do both – and she sticks with him until the bitter end.

Actually, most of the film’s characters turn out to be different than they are initially presented and almost opposite than they would be in a more formulaic, conventional film noir. Robert Alda (The Man I Love) puts in a surprising turn as a nightclub owner with genuine feelings for Nora, while the sinister-looking Bruce Bennett (Dark Passage) is wildly miscast as a doctor. Seriously, the man constantly looks like he is either in the midst of plotting or executing a crime. The dependable John Ridgely (The Big Sleep) has a small role here as an unfortunate medical patient and looks extra handsome. Rosemary DeCamp (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is also well-cast as Richard’s understanding, well-meaning, and yet nagging wife. She could have easily turned into a shrew, such as the wife from Humphrey Bogart film Conflict (1945), which would have justified Richard’s increasing need to break free of his dull, confining life. Fortunately, the script does not make things that easy for him.

I don’t have a lot to say about star Kent Smith (Cat People). He was perfectly cast, but the dependable suburban-dad-gone-wrong is just not a character-type I enjoy or find interesting. He essentially plays the same character in the superior Cat People and Curse of the Cat People alongside Jane Randolph, whose all-American, world-wise yet goody-two-shoes sensibility is so similar to Ann Sheridan. Speaking of Sheridan, she seems almost miscast here, despite a solid performance. If you want to see her in an early noir, she’s absolutely adorable in They Drive By Night. Probably her biggest role was in I Was a Male War Bride, where she costarred with Cary Grant. It’s just difficult to believe that such a repressed, straight-laced character – Richard – would leave his regimented life of domestic bliss for someone as nice and as dependable as Nora. While this element certainly sets the film apart, it feels unbelievable.

Though it has its share of slow moments, there is plenty of doom, gloom, and frustration in Nora Prentiss to keep this moving towards its inevitable, if somewhat ridiculous conclusion, which I won’t spoil here. There’s some solid direction from Vincent Sherman (The Unfaithful, The Damned Don’t Cry, The Letter), who helmed his fair share of female-centric melodramas and films noir. James Wong Howe provides some excellent cinematography; the series of shots that open and close the film are absolutely mesmerizing and I spent much of the second act wishing for more of these. His expert use of expressionist shadows and angles elevates this to far more than the mediocre affair that it otherwise would – or should – have been. One of the film’s concluding shots is particularly breathtaking – Nora and Richard speak to each other through the mesh window of a jail’s visiting room. On one hand, it looks very much like a screen in a church confessional booth, and on the other, it looks like the character behind the mesh is slowly melting away to nothing.

Available on DVD, Nora Prentiss is not a must-see, but will please fans of more obscure, gloomy noir films with a suburban focus. It will also interest anyone who has seen a lot of films noir and is tired of the tried and true formula.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

GILDA

Charles Vidor, 1946
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready

“If I’d been a ranch, they would have called me the Bar Nothing.”

An unlucky gambler, Johnny Farrell, arrives in Argentina and is spontaneously rescued from robbery and violence by the wealthy Ballin Mundson, a Buenes Aires casino owner. He winds up working for Mundson and becomes his loyal right-hand man. The two agree that women don’t belong in gambling, but Mundson soon comes home with a sexy new wife – Gilda. He suspects that she and Johnny have a past, but they both deny it. The careless, unfaithful Gilda parties with various men, though Johnny follows her relentlessly; it is revealed that they had a disastrous past relationship. Mundson dies trying to escape two Nazis trying to collect on a debt; Johnny inherits the business and Gilda inherits his estate. They soon marry, though it turns out that Johnny has only married her to get revenge for her infidelity.

Though it is yet another film noir that examines the life of a beautiful, unhappy woman married to an older, wealthy man, there is nothing quite like Gilda. Often known as Rita Hayworth’s most successful film – which it undoubtedly is – I think it is unfairly neglected in the pantheon of great films noir. Be forewarned – much of the film is incredibly mean-spirited and it’s a somewhat frank look at spousal abuse. Despite her faults, Gilda is the clear victim and it’s impossible to dislike her regardless of what she may do to Ballin or Johnny. Though the story is initially set up as an interesting, gangster-themed film noir with the relationship between the down-on-his-luck Johnny and the sinister Ballin, it is pale and wan before Gilda’s arrival.

The film has an incredible amount of perversion and sexual subtext, considering the Production Code. The Ballin-Johnny-Gilda threesome is oddly foreshadowed by Ballin and Johnny’s initial third companion, Ballin’s “little friend,” an expensive black cane with a concealed blade that he always carries with him. This phallic, deadly object is the film’s only major indication of the homoerotic undertones to Ballin and Johnny’s relationship. Outside of the rushed, implausible happy ending, Gilda is openly portrayed as sexually promiscuous, a woman who will take fun, adventure, and attention wherever she can get it, even if it’s right under the nose of her husband or former lover.

Gilda's ultimate rebellion occurs during a third-act scene where she rushes onto the casino stage to embarrass Johnny, who has been keeping her prisoner and psychologically abusing her. She does a stirring, sexy yet desperate rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame,” complete with a strip tease where she asks the audience members to “help” with her dress zipper. The song sums up much of the film’s underlying issues – that a sexually independent woman who refuses to be contained by marriage, money, love, or propriety will inevitably be blamed for everything by the men in her life. Due to this psychological manipulation, Gilda is constantly imprisoned throughout the film – by Ballin, Johnny, and herself, through the institution of marriage, due to emotional neglect, and especially because of the period’s slowly changing gender roles and sexual mores.

Gilda is merely a possession for Ballin – as is Johnny – and there is no indication that they have an active sexual relationship. This is in keeping with other films noir centered on younger, sexual woman married to feasibly impotent, yet wealthy older man – and like those other films, wealth and in particular their mansion home serves as a prison more than a source of comfort or liberation. Gilda is trapped by Balinn’s home, wealth, and social status. While many other men find her alluring – of all ages, classes, and professions, as can be seen throughout the film – Ballin is is only attracted to dominance and control, fantasies he plays out with both Gilda and Johnny.

The film immediately capitalized on the worldwide paranoia that Nazis escaped to South America and assumed new identities with the strange plot of Ballin trying to escape ODESSA operatives. I honestly have no idea why they are after him, despite the fact that I watched the film two days ago. Though they are easily forgettable next to Gilda and the love triangle, they provide a nice backdrop of evil and perversion that further underlines Ballin’s icy, lethal character.

Glenn Ford (The Big Heat, 3:10 to Yuma) is particularly unlikable, masochistic, and misogynistic here as Johnny Farrell and he is upstaged at every turn by Rita Hayworth in her finest and most memorable performance. He is also often overshadowed by George Macready’s sinister, exotic Ballin Mundson (Detective Story, Count Yorga, Vampire), yet another version of the homme fatale seen in films noir like Laura, While the City Sleeps, Deception, and others.

While Gilda was Hayworth’s most successful film, parts of it also seem to mirror her private life. She was married several times and generally these relationships were incredibly abusive. She first married when she was 18 to her much older promoter, Edward C. Judson, who was physically abusive, controlling, and ultimately cleaned out her bank account. Though she briefly had a happy marriage with Orson Welles – he helped rewrite the script for Gilda – he was constantly busy and neglectful, and did not want to settle down. This was followed by an abusive marriage with the philandering Persian Prince Aly Khan – Hayworth was the first princess-actress in Hollywood – and another abusive and financially draining marriage with struggling singer Dick Haymes, as well as a fifth failed marriage. The unhappy Hayworth longed to retire from Hollywood, but had to keep working due to financial struggles caused by a series of abusive husbands who drained her bank accounts, as well as her somewhat extravagant lifestyle. She suffered from alcoholism nearly all her life and with Alzheimer’s for two or three decades before her death.

Hayworth’s beauty and sex appeal was somewhat of a curse for her; though it ensured her fame, she complained that the men who courted and married her thought they were marrying the brash, extroverted Gilda, not the shy, introverted, and nervous Rita. Though she was proud of the many musicals she made with Fred Astaire, she felt bitter at years of mistreatment at the hands of Columbia. Despite the fact that she was their top star, she was not allowed to choose her films, was given a poor financial agreement, and was often punished for her marriages or bad press related to her relationships. She became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, sex symbol of WWII – she was known as the “Love Goddess” – though the sad culmination of this was the fact that the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was named Gilda and allegedly plastered with a poster of her, to Hayworth’s rage and horror.

Gilda comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a fascinating portrayal of misogyny and spousal abuse in WWII and postwar America. The film is available on DVD and newcomers should check it as soon as possible – Hayworth is simply unforgettable.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

Tay Garnett, 1946
Starring: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn

A young wanderer, Frank, stops at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes entranced by Cora Smith, the owner’s young wife. The voluptuous Cora quickly begins an affair with Frank, because she is bored by Nick, her older husband. Cora is ambitious and wants to be able to support herself financially; she wants to take the diner from Nick. Soon Cora and Frank plot Nick’s murder. Though their first attempt is botched, they try again, eventually succeeding. Cora’s lawyer suspects the truth, though he has no concrete evidence, and leads the two through a long trial involving betrayal and backstabbing.

Based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, this is the third adaptation after Le Dernier Tournant (1939) from France and Ossessione (1943) from Italy. Though the studio had the rights for more than decade, they were afraid to make the film because of the Production Code, which frowned up things like adultery and murder. Fortunately an earlier film based on another of Cain’s novels – Double Indemnity – paved the way for explosive combinations of sex and violence.

The Postman Always Rings Twice actually has much in common with Cain’s other two famous novels adapted for the screen, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is married to an older, wealthy man. She begins an affair with an insurance salesman and the two plot to murder her husband and collect the insurance money. Cora is also married to an older man and though not wealthy, he owns his own home and a diner. She too plots with a lover to murder her husband, hoping to inherit his business. In Mildred Pierce, the titular woman appears to be well-off in suburban California, but strives for more in order to support her two spoiled daughters. She takes a side job as a waitress and soon earns enough to open a restaurant, which turns into a successful chain.

Cora is a cross between these two women, but possesses an odd sort of innocence that both Mildred and Phyllis lack. There are two notable changes from Cain’s novel – both related to Cora’s character. The first is the lack of sadomasochistic sex, where Cora and Frank are passionately drawn together, but also hate each other and want to cause one another physical harm. While Cora is certainly a sexual being in the film, she is less bitter, violent, or hateful than the Cora of the novel, as can be seen in the wildly different ending (Cora and Nick resolve to live happily ever after, but – SPOILER – Cora is killed in an accidental car crash, which Nick is prosecuted for).

The second and more detrimental change is that Lana Turner is an entirely different Cora than Cain’s. The Cora of the book is not beautiful or glamorous; she’s a trashy roadside waitress. This element of cheap sex is something Barbara Stanwyck was able to nail (see what I did there?) in Double Indemnity, but Turner is far too clean, appealing, and glamorous. Turner’s beauty, fashionable clothes, and obvious sex appeal make it difficult to believe that her ambition in life is to become a successful restaurant owner. Frankly, it’s difficult to picture her in the situation at all. Where Mildred Pierce tackles a similar theme – an ambitious woman works her way from waitress to wealthy restaurateur – the only reason it’s believable that this is Joan Crawford’s dream is because she is trying to provide the best for her children (and peripherally, herself) in the quickest way she knows how. Cora’s diner, on the other hand, is out in the middle of nowhere and seems an unlikely source for a sudden profit.

Regardless of these issues, this is Turner’s best role by far (though that isn’t really saying much) and she is pushed to her limits as an actress her. She is the focus of one of the greatest opening sequences in all of cinema. Frank is alone in the diner and a lipstick tube rolls across the ground towards him. Looking towards it, he glimpses Cora’s long, naked legs, white short shorts, a white top exposing her midriff, and a white turban-like wrap around her head. I’m not sure which is more eye-catching – her bare legs, exposed skin, and obvious sex appeal, or the fact that she is clearly a femme fatale and wears blindingly white costumes for much of the film.

John Garfield (Force of Evil) is excellent as Frank Chambers, a likable but frustrating drifter. As Frank does to Cora, Garfield plays somewhat of a supporting role to Turner, serving to constantly remind us of her desirability. Cecil Kellaway (Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) is pleasant as Nick, so happy go lucky that it’s difficult to watch Cora and Frank’s murderous plot unfold. Hume Cronyn (Shadow of a Doubt) basically steals the film as a fast talking, double-crossing, constantly plotting lawyer who complicates the situation between Cora and Frank.

Unfortunately, while The Postman Always Rings Twice is unable to complete with Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce, it is a worthwhile film and comes recommended. Thanks to the ending, it feels less like a film noir and more of a precursor to the erotic thriller – taken on this count, it is a solid film. Postman is available on DVD, though Lana and her whites have fortunately also made it to Blu-ray.

Monday, June 23, 2014

DECEPTION (1946)

Irving Rapper, 1946
Starring: Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid

A pianist, Christine Radcliffe, finally locates the love of her life, cellist Karel Novak, after years of searching. They were separated during the war and Karel was placed in a concentration camp and assumed dead. They have an emotional reunion and quickly marry. Karel moves into her elegant loft apartment full of fine art and fur coats, but becomes suspicious when she claims to be a poor music teacher. Christine was actually having an affair with famed composer Alexander Hollenius, who becomes insane with rage and jealousy when he learns of her marriage. Christine is desperate to keep their affair from the equally jealous Karel, but Hollenius soon tricks Karel into taking a solo in a major performance of Hollenius’s new symphony. Christine is convinced Hollenius has something malicious up his sleeve and hopes to intervene before it’s too late…

Based on Louis Verneuil’s play Monsieur Lamberthier, this was filmed once before, but has its most memorable incarnation in Deception. Though the film received mixed reviews and was Warner Bros. only Bette Davis vehicle to take a hit financially, the film holds up well thanks to some incredible set design, wonderful German Expressionist-influenced cinematography, and strong performances from all three leads. Reuniting with director Irving Rappert a few years after Now, Voyager (1942), Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains are all captivating and charismatic, even if the script is ridden with plot holes and histrionics.

As with The Letter and Mildred Pierce, this has plenty of elements of melodrama, thanks mostly to the fact that the bulk of the film surrounds a love triangle. Deception has elements in common with both Laura and The Letter – both concerned with love triangles – and the latter being an earlier vehicle for Davis. In Laura, a powerful and controlling, if effete man is obsessed with the female protagonist and murders her when he thinks she is leaving him for another man, her fiancé. In The Letter, Davis’s character shoots a man in cold-blood out of jealousy; though she claims self-defense and lies about their relationship, as he was her lover.

Like The Letter, the plot of Deception is complicated by the fact that none of the characters are particularly likable or sympathetic. While Karel is near-abusive with his jealousy, it is all founded – Christine lies to him throughout the entire film and there is a mention of past jealousy. On the other hand, she rationalizes away all his flaws, due to his (unspoken) years in a concentration camp. There aren’t enough scenes defining their love for one another; outside of their opening reunion, a few moments of tenderness would have gone a long way.

In my eyes, Bette Davis can do no wrong, but here she comes close to being the villain of the piece or, at best, looking ridiculous. Though she seems to love Karel, her lies are an ever-mounting snowball of distrust and dishonesty that will inevitably end badly. She is equally horrible to Hollenius and abruptly ends their close romantic and sexual relationship to get married – with basically no warning or explanation. She reacts like he is an abusive psychopath – and perhaps he is, but the film never shows this. His murder at Christine’s hands is nearly inexplicable and hardly seems justified. Rains has played plenty of obsessive, psychopathic lovers – The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) and The Unsuspected (1947) being two diverse examples – and his murder and Christine’s behavior would have been far more justified if he was secretly abusing and stalking her as in these other films.

Part of the problem is that Rains is just too likable and charismatic as Hollenius. Not only does he out-act Davis and Henreid, but many of his scenes are absolutely fantastic. He tortures Christine and Karel at a pre-performance dinner by ordering extravagantly, causing their meal to take hours. In another scene where Christine confronts him early in the morning, he is lying in bed reading newspaper comics and deftly banters with her, adding a hefty dose of humor and making Christine seem like a hysterical idiot.

Like Clifton Webb’s character in Laura, Hollenius could be described as an “homme fatale,” loosely a male version of the femme fatale. These characters are sprinkled throughout noir; they often successful, hedonistic, well-dressed, and seductive. Though they are not often physically attractive, they seduce with wealth, power, charm, and flattery. They are also deceptive and cunning. Controlling and manipulating other characters brings them great pleasure and many of them have an air of repressed homosexual desire. These characters are capable of blackmail, social or financial ruin, and even murder.

Aside from Rains’ fantastic performance, Deception is worth watching for its excellent visuals. A mix of film noir and Gothic atmosphere, the set pieces from art director Anton Grot (Mildred Pierce) are marvelous, particularly Hollenius’ ornate mansion and Christine’s starkly shot, spacious New York loft apartment that overlooks much of the city. There are plenty of wonderful shots of Davis looking both elegant and sinister as she sneaks up a staircase or blows out a candelabrum. It seems to be constantly raining in the film and though the typically urban environment of noir doesn’t play a large role in terms of plot, the murky cityscape is a permanent fixture in Davis’s penthouse apartment.

Though Deception perhaps has too many melodramatic moments to appeal to all fans of film noir, it still comes highly recommended. Fans of Davis, Henreid, and especially Rains should consider this a must see. I don’t believe this it’s available on DVD, but you can find it streaming on Amazon.

Friday, June 20, 2014

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS

Lewis Milestone, 1946
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott

“Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”

A young girl – Martha Ivers – lives with her miserly, controlling, and abusive aunt, but longs to run away with her friend Sam. One fateful night, she accidentally kills her aunt during a thunder storm and Sam leaves without her. Her tutor, Mr. O’Neil, and his son Walter go along with her story that the old woman slipped and had an accident.

Years later, Sam returns to Iverstown – named for Martha’s family – where she is a wealthy industrialist. Mr. O’Neil forced her to marry Walter, who has become district attorney. He loves his wife, but he has turned to alcoholism because she continually rejects and controls him. Sam, meanwhile, has met a lovely, yet troubled young lady, Toni, and is considering a future with her. Martha is delighted that Sam has returned, but soon Walter convinces her that he is only there for one thing… to blackmail them for every cent they’re worth.

Based on the story "Love Lies Bleeding," by  John Patrick, the film was written by Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, The Roaring Twenties) and Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds). It falls in with a series of female-centered films noir from this period set in small-towns beset with corruption. Unlike the majority of film noir set in urban environs, the Iverstown of Martha Ivers is industrialized, small town America. Other films of this type that come to mind are Mildred Pierce or Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel; all three make powerful statements about domestic life, small town values, and the inevitable spread of corruption.

Issues of class are at the heart of the film – like the titular character of Mildred Pierce, Martha has made something of her life, but essentially came from nothing (her father was poor, her mother was from a wealthy family) and was forced to assume the last name (and identity) of a society heiress. Instead of descending into a life of leisure, she has worked long and hard to develop industry in Iverstown, particularly where her iron mill is concerned. A woman running a mill is an unusual role for the time period and I can’t help but feel that David Lynch was influenced by Martha Ivers for Twin Peaks. The latter’s Catherine Martell has much in common with Martha – both women are in loveless marriages with husbands they don’t respect, though the hostility comes from the controlling, manipulative women. They are both ruthless and predatory, women toughened by life in order to compete in a small-town man’s world. Neither Martha nor Catherine is without sympathy and it is easy to see how men fall for their dangerous schemes.

As with other small town/suburban-themed films noir, Martha Ivers has plenty of elements of melodrama. The developing relationship between Sam and Toni is the biggest culprit and include teary scenes where Toni admits she has made mistakes, but tries to explain that she went wrong at the hands of a man. I personally found these tedious, though Lizabeth Scott admittedly had a lot working against her, considering that she had the weakest role and it’s impossible to avoid comparing her to Barbara Stanwyck. Toni, a down-on-her-luck criminal, should be more sympathetic and likable than Scott is able to convey, but she merely comes off as weak and pathetic, a lost woman who is looking for someone to take care of her.

Stanwyck, one of the finest actresses of film noir and ‘40s cinema in general, plays a thoroughly complex role here as Martha. Martha is an unusual femme fatale in the sense that she is a victim and was essentially forced into her role by the people and circumstances around her – her aunt and her tutor, the fact that Sam left without her, and Walter’s inability to stand up for her early in their lives. Conversely, she seems to have reached a point where she enjoys the power; she doesn’t feel guilt about having an innocent man executed, she merely doesn’t want to be uncovered. She manipulates and belittles Walter, in an echo of their relationship as children.

Martha Ivers was Kirk Douglas’s film debut and while it’s fitting that his first movie was film noir, it’s difficult to really picture him as a weak character. Regardless, he’s excellent and steals the film from everyone except Barbara Stanwyck, because… it’s Stanwyck. Western star Van Heflin (3:10 to Yuma, Stagecoach, The Prowler, Possessed) manages to hold his own here, though he’s not quite as charismatic as Douglas or other famous tough guys like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. Like so many film noir protagonists, Sam is a loner, a drifter, a war veteran, and a career gambler to boot. Heflin is convincing and adds a somewhat more laid back, light hearted air to the role. Martha’s interest in Sam seems to be because he is an unsuccessful drifter, a forceful man with a potentially violent, criminal element. Really, Heflin’s Sam comes across as a man looking for adventure, someone who refuses to be tied down by or caught up in small-town drama or corruption.

There are some other excellent side roles, including Darryl Hickman (Leave Her to Heaven, Alias Nick Beal, The Set-Up), who is cast against type as the young Sam. Judith Anderson (Rebecca) is gleefully unlikable as Martha’s horrible aunt, whose sticky end sets the course for the entire film. If Anderson had been on screen any longer, she likely would have stolen the film.

Director Lewis Milestone made his career with All Quiet on the Western Front, but does solid work on Martha Ivers. The film’s strongest moments lie less in his direction and more in the charisma of Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas. The film’s odd plot and unique blend of noir and melodrama is enhancing by early hints of the Gothic – a young heiress trapped in a threatening old house by a malevolent caretaker. Martha’s aunt’s murder takes place during an ominous thunderstorm and the lights in the house flicker on and off. While I would have liked to see more of this element throughout the film, it is an usual work with a particularly tense spin on film noir’s ever present psychosexual theme.


The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, despite its out-of-place name that evokes BDSM, comes highly recommended. This mix of a great script, some wonderful performances, and a typically amazing score from Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound) cannot be missed. The film is fortunately available on DVD and Blu-ray after years of languishing in the public domain.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN

John M. Stahl, 1944
Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price

“There's nothing wrong with Ellen. It's just that she loves too much.”

A lovely young woman, Ellen, meets a writer, Richard, on a train ride west. They quickly fall in love, though Ellen is there to mourn her father, with whom she was inseparable. She likes Richard, because he reminds her so much of her father. She casts aside her fiancé, an attorney, and essentially tricks Richard into marrying her. Though they are happy at first, Ellen is desperate to be alone for their honeymoon, but Richard invites her mother and sister to visit, and his disabled younger brother, Danny, to live with them. Ellen’s insane jealous deepens by the day. She is cold to her mother and sister, and tries to get rid of Danny by sending him back to the hospital. When that doesn’t work, she casually lets him drown out on the lake near their cottage.

A distraught Richard doesn’t suspect her at first, but their marriage has obviously taken a turn for the worse; he spends all his time with her sister. Ellen wins his attention back by becoming pregnant, but is repulsed by the child growing inside her. She throws herself down the stairs, killing the baby, but is still unable to have Richard all to herself…

Based on a novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, the excellent script was penned by Jo Swerling of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), another film about domestic unhappiness. Director John M. Stahl (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life) does a solid, confident with one of the most unusual, singular films of the ‘40s. Though Leave Her to Heaven is generally classified as film noir, it is one of the rare entries in the series to be shot in color, Technicolor, no less. This was Fox’s most successful film of the ‘40s, which belies its incredibly unpleasant subject matter.

Similarly to Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven has elements of melodrama that serve to confuse and disorient, particularly when some truly lurid, horrible acts occur. Leave Her to Heaven approaches noir subject matter in a totally fresh way. It does have a femme fatale – Ellen – but she is not a murderess because of greed, she is simply obsessed with Richard and determined to have all his love for herself. Film noir commonly treads the troubled ground of trying to make sense of changing gender roles during WWII and post-war America – this literally takes us to a scene of domestic bliss and turns both marital happiness and gender roles on its head.

There is seemingly one horrifying scene after another, each building in intensity. Ellen admits to being obsessed with her recently deceased father and dumps his ashes all over herself during an odd memorial ceremony where she rides on horseback through the desert. Her behavior worsens after her marriage to Richard, culminating in the drowning of his brother and, somehow even worse, throwing herself down the stairs to induce a miscarriage. This is domestic life at its most horrible and nightmarish.

The two murder scenes – where Ellen kills Richard’s brother and then their unborn child – are vivid and terrifying. In such moments, it is difficult not to see this as a horror film. The cold, psychopathic Ellen, as she watches Richard’s sweet, disabled brother thrash around and then drown in the lake – prefigures Hitchcock’s Psycho or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as well as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. As with Peeping Tom, there is a tragic element to the story as well. Looking at Leave Her to Heaven through the lens of nearly 70 years, it’s easy to see that Ellen is unwell and is likely suffering from a treatable personality disorder.

It’s clear that Ellen’s mother and sister treat her with kid gloves, indicating that they know something is very wrong, though no one, at any point, attempts to help her. From the first ten minutes of the film, they are reluctant to mention her father’s death, as if they are trying to pretend it never happened. Her obsessive relationship with her father is uncomfortable and has an inevitable incestual slant. Their relationship is never openly discusses; this impenetrable silence extends to other areas of the film, quickly.

It’s weirdly easy to sympathize with Ellen and though she handles it in a monstrous way, her plight is certainly a frustrating one. All she wants is some time alone with her husband and – presumably – sex. She complains that the walls of their cottage are thin and the acoustics are annoying perfectly, implying that everyone in the house will hear what’s going on in the bedroom. Not only does her husband refuse her any alone time by presenting a constant, unending stream of visitors and family members, but he also consistently surprises a woman who states time and time again that she hates surprises. To add insult to injury, he redecorates her beloved father’s room and has the incredibly bad taste to dedicate his book (the first he has written during their marriage) to her sister, who he has been spending all his time with.

Gene Tierney is excellent in the role and this is truly her film. She was nominated for Academy Award for the film and brings both her beauty and icy reserve to Ellen. One of the most popular noir actresses of the ‘40s, Tierney was fresh off of Laura (1944), another film about obsession – though in that film she was the victim, not the perpetrator. Oddly, she was also in the similarly titled Heaven Can Wait (1943), Ernst Lubitsch’s film about marital bliss. Sadly, Tierney herself suffered from mental health issues throughout her life, namely depression, which made it difficult for her to work at times. Thanks to a friendship with Humphrey Bogart – developed during The Left Hand of God (1955) – he encouraged her to seek psychiatric treatment after recognizing symptoms that his sister also allegedly suffered from. The early years of her treatment were unpleasant. She was given shock treatment, which she hated, and she ran away from the hospital. She attempted suicide and was institutionalized off and on for several years, though kept up with her career.

Ellen’s suicide is yet another indication of untreated mental illness, frustration, and sexual repression. Like the typical femme fatale, she ruins the life of the protagonist, as well the “good girl” trope – in this case, her sister. She poisons herself and frames her sister, who nearly goes to prison for murder. Her last act is ultimately one of self-destruction, though it’s impossible to see a truly happy ending in the film as Richard wearily makes his way back home, after two years in prison.

Hungarian actor and director Cornel Wilde (High Sierra, The Big Combo) is decent as Richard, but he’s essentially playing a passive cookie-cutter character, though it works perfectly in the film. Like several other film noir protagonists, Richard is a writer and was presumably a loner before his marriage to Ellen. In typical film noir style, he struggles with masculinity and, in this case, fails at nearly every turn. Ellen is a better outdoorsman and can out-swim, hike, and ride Richard. He is unable to protect any of his family members from her and didn’t even propose marriage – she essentially tricked him into it. He is also unable to sexually satisfy his wife, rejecting sexual, romantic love for a family-saturated version of domestic bliss. He is also utterly passive to the last. Instead of acting on his environment, he is pushed through the film by the women around him, particularly Ellen. Finally, and most frustratingly, he fails to ever know or understand his wife.

Keep an eye out for a young Vincent Price, who makes a somewhat surprise appearance as Ellen’s attorney fiancé. Though he disappears for most of the film, he returns at the end for an incredibly bombastic trial scene that is one of the best in ‘40s or ‘50s cinema. As always, he’s an excellent orator and is almost diabolically captivating. Price previously appeared as Tierney’s fiancé in Laura, so it’s nice to see them together again after such a short time.

In addition to the solid script and excellent performances, the incredible visuals are another remarkable component to this unusual film. The wonderful art design from Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford has a degree of precision and control not seen in many other films. Not a single object or color is out of place, and nearly everything seems designed to either contrast or enhance Tierney. And though the majority of the film takes place in natural setting – in the woods, by a lake, in the desert – it feels more like a clothing catalogue than scenes of the wilderness. This controlled, prescribed element also adds a strong feeling of fantasy to the film. While more traditional film noir works often operate under nightmare logic, this manages to trump them all with its bold, almost lurid, unrealistic colors and some fantastic cinematography from Leon Shamroy.

Leave Her to Heaven is a strange, unsettling work, and one that will likely leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. It is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation. On a final note, and one that I hope with further sum up this filmic experience, is the meaning of the title. It comes from a conversation between the ghost and title character in Hamlet: "Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her" (Act I, Scene V).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

Michael Curtiz, 1945
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden

Mildred Pierce is brought to the police station to explain the death of her husband, the playboy Monte Beragon, who was shot in his beach-side cottage. Her ex-husband, Bert, is the main suspect, but Mildred insists he is innocent and explains recent events. Four years ago, Bert and Mildred divorced, because he was unemployed and racking up bills, while she was trying to provide for her two spoiled daughters, the haughty Veda and tomboy Kay. Mildred secretly took a job as a waitress and began selling baked goods on the side to support Veda’s increasingly extravagant lifestyle.

After setting aside some money, Mildred opened a restaurant, which soon became into a profitable chain. Kay fell ill and died, resulting in Mildred spoiling Veda even further, until the girl became into a beautiful, but haughty and ungrateful 17-year-old. Mildred soon learned that Veda tricked a wealthy young man into marrying her and is now blackmailing him for a divorce. Horrified, Mildred kicks her out of the house, but regrets her decision, especially when she learns that Veda has become a nightclub singer. The only way Veda will come home is if Mildred improves her station in life and marries the indolent, womanizing Monte Beragon, who comes from a wealthy, upper class family. Mildred soon learns that Monte and Veda have an illicit history – and that Monte is all out of money – which results in his murder. Did Mildred kill him?

Based on a novel by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice), the film’s script was quite different from the source novel, adding everything from a murder (which the novel completely lacked) to punishment for Veda, which the Hays Code necessitated. The span of time in the novel is shorter and the setting is changed from Depression-era America to WWII. The latter is mentioned on and off throughout the film and is used as a loose explanation for why Mildred has to work and for why she is surrounded by scoundrels – all the good men have gone off to war. Mildred is more successful than she was in the novel, while Veda is far more useless and parasitic.

Mildred Pierce is essentially melodrama masquerading as noir. It would have been flat-out melodrama if the murder plot had not been added to the film. There are also some excellent film noir-like visuals throughout, including ominous shots of staircases, a mirror cracked by a bullet hole, dark and gloomy scenes in the beach house at night, and other shadowy, depressing shots that contrast with the sunny, California setting. The script also added common elements of the film noir: voice-over narration, flashbacks, and a lengthy police interrogation. There’s some wonderful cinematography from Ernest Haller that brings plenty of German expressionist elements into this tale of suburban America.

This is a loveless, oddly cold film, even though it is essentially about a mother’s love for her daughter. Everyone seems to be motivated by money; even Mildred is never shown giving affection – she simply tries to buy it, directly leading to Veda’s offensive attitude and obviously skewed perspective on life. Money appears in nearly every scene, whether Mildred’s employee and friend Ida is counting it, Mildred is earning it or spending it, or someone is taking money from her. While Veda is awful, the climate of the film and the behavior of the other characters makes it clear why she turned out this way – she is a direct product of her environment, which also somehow makes her more sympathetic. The distaste of the upper classes for employment and labor was something that essentially died out around this period (check out some Agatha Christie novels if you want to read about murder and the idle rich), when enterprising members of the lower classes found themselves wealthy and began to strike it rich and replace the hereditary aristocracy.

The concept of nouveau riche – making one’s fortune within their own generation or lifetime – clearly applies to Mildred herself. This distasteful term implies a lack of class, education, or breeding and Veda – despite the fact that she herself was born in a lower class – constantly throws this in Mildred’s face. Nothing Mildred provides will ever be enough, because it is not inherently Old Money. The film points out this hypocrisy through the only moneyed character, Monte. He is a broke, idle, useless, and immoral scoundrel who skates through life on his charm, grace, and family name. He bankrupts Mildred after agreeing to marry her, has a long-running affair with her 17-year-old daughter, among other things.

Ironically, Mildred’s struggles are all of her own doing. Her first husband, who strangely winds up being a minor hero by the film’s conclusion, is a jobless loafer, racking up bills and ignoring his wife and children. Even at the start of the film, the married Mildred bakes around the clock to bring in extra money and remains blinded to Veda’s increasingly nasty behavior. She consistently surrounds herself with lecherous, greedy men and willingly gives them a share in her business, despite the fact that it’s clear she and Ida could handle anything. She makes a deal to marry Monty – knowing his faults – and is somehow surprised when he ruins her financially and is caught having an affair with her daughter.

This was Joan Crawford’s only Academy Award – for Best Actress – through it revitalized her career and she went to on to appear in some other films noir, including Possessed and Johnny Guitar. Director Michael Curitz did not allegedly want her for the role, thanks to her demanding, difficult reputation, and tried to get everyone from Bette Davis to Barbara Stanwyck. Crawford fought for the role and is one of her finest.

Hungarian director Michael Curitz – known primarily for Casablanca, Angels with Dirty Faces, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex – remains a forgotten and underrated Hollywood figure for reasons that I can’t quite figure out. Mildred Pierce moves at a decent pace, expertly includes film noir elements into what was initially a dark melodrama, has lovely visuals, and some great performances. Arguably, both Mildred Pierce and Casablanca are supported by incredibly strong leading and side performances and benefit from wonderful scripts. It’s difficult to say whether or not Curitz was a master director, but he certainly knew how to choose great projects and excellent casts.

Aside from Crawford, Mildred Pierce is full of solid performances. Eve Arden (Anatomy of a Murder, Grease) is great as Mildred’ employee, friend, and confident, Ida, and steals every scene she appears in. Ida is both a spirit of positivity – with her wisecracking humor – and negativity, as most of her dialogue revolves around complaining about men or Veda. She certainly lightens the tone of the film, matter-of-factly drawing attention to Veda’s horrible personality and the wolfish nature of all the men in Mildred’s life. Unfortunately, Mildred ignores her advice, which is to forget about the lot of them and cut them out of her life.

While Ann Blyth (Brute Force) is excellent as Veda, Martha Vickers (The Big Sleep) was allegedly considered for the role and I would have loved to see her in the film. Zachary Scott is perfect as the charming, slimy Monte Beragon, someone whose true character is obvious from the beginning of the film, but, in keeping with her treatment of Veda, Mildred fails to see the truth. Monte represents the corrupted wealthy class; raised in opulence and splendor, his wasted life is spent leaching off others, carrying on affairs with women, and going to parties.

Mildred Pierce is a strange, unsettling film, but one that comes highly recommended. It is difficult to really like or feel sympathy for any of the characters, but it presents an interesting slice of wartime life and a poignant look at the changing roles of women. The film is available on DVD, though hopefully sometime soon it will receive the Blu-ray, special edition treatment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

THE LETTER (1940)

William Wyler, 1940
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

In the jungle of Malaysia, Leslie Crosbie shoots an acquaintance, Geoff Hammond, as he is fleeing her bungalow home. Locals fetch her husband, a planation manager, along with the family lawyer. Leslie explains that Hammond came to visit that evening and made numerous advances and then tried to rape her, so she shot him. While her husband believes her unquestioningly, their attorney, Howard Joyce, is not quite as sure. As a formality, she is arrested and tried. Her trial goes through without a hitch, until Joyce’s Malaysian clerk shows up with an incriminating letter that Leslie wrote to Hammond. Hammond’s bitter widow is willing to sell her the letter, but for a steep price.

Though it seems to have been forgotten alongside many other films from classic Hollywood, The Letter is the finest collaboration between director William Wyler and star Bette Davis, and may be the latter’s best performance. Wyler and Davis also worked together on Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941). He also promised the lead role in Wuthering Heights (1939) to her, but it went to Merle Oberon, perhaps due to the end of an affair between Davis and Wyler. Wyler made a number of classics, such as Roman Holiday (1953) and How to Steal a Million (1966) with Audrey Hepburn. Other noir-like films include Detective Story (1951) and The Desperate Hours (1955), as well as the incredibly creepy The Collector (1965).

Based on a short story and then a play from W. Somerset Maugham, this is a compelling mix of film noir and melodrama. Though this was released a year or so before the film noir cycle officially began, The Letter is linked to the style/genre by its dark thematic content and impressive visuals. There are numerous shots of Davis in the shadows – moments of shadowy bars across her body or her face obscured by darkness – that betray a lot about her guilt and her real role as murderess.

Somerset Maugham would recycle some of the themes from The Letter throughout his incredible novels – the exoticism of foreignness, sexual intrigue, and marital difficulties. Some of his works had autobiographical elements and he incorporated his wide travels in his fiction. Apparently The Letter was based on the real case of a woman who shot and killed a male friend in Kulala Lumpur. He allegedly attempted to rape her, though her story fell apart and she was found guilty, but saved from execution. This wasn’t Davis’s first turn starring in a Maugham adaptation, as she also appeared in Of Human Bondage.

The opening is one of the most powerful in all of ‘40s cinema. The jungle is dark, but idyllic, and Malay workers are sprawled across the seen, sleeping. This calm is broken by gunfire, as Leslie follows the dying Hammond out of a bungalow and continues shooting him. The silvery, shining moon is ever present and the film’s almost constant shots of the jungle are eerie and surreal. Wyler highlights this sense of unease with the delicate, but persistent sound of wind chimes. Apparently he aimed for a sense of the surreal and the mysterious, which he deftly accomplished.

Davis and Wyler’s romance was allegedly more serious to Davis than it was to Wyler, no doubt to her abortion. Despite this, she remained a professional and continued to work with Wyler. Her portrayal of a broken hearted woman is certainly convincing, but she always claimed that Wyler was responsible for her finest performances; her work here as Leslie certainly ranks among her best. While Davis was known for playing this type of character – independent, though perhaps immoral women that reflected the period’s changing gender roles, this is one of her most tightly controlled performances. It proved she was capable of far more than histrionics. Leslie’s repression, control, and boredom are all associated with lace, which she meticulously creates throughout the film. This symbol of femininity, fragility, and decorum, is ultimately betrayed by her true nature, though she conceals this from herself and others as long as possible. In the pivotal scene, where she reclaims the letter, she wears a large, exotic-looking white lace veil, but is forced to remove it by Mrs. Hammond, just before kneeling, debased, at the other woman’s feet.

The rampant racism will bother contemporary viewers, but keep in mind that this is light years ahead of something like The Mask of Fu Manchu. The Malaysians are notably skeptical of the white characters – with good reason – and their reaction to the murder is fascinating. Alternatively, and whether or not Wyler intended this, the British/white reaction to the Malaysians is ridiculous, with their blatant short-sightedness, longing for “civilization,” and racism. Mrs. Hammond is the most troubling character. In the novel, this character is a Chinese mistress, not a wife, and the madam of a local brothel. Due to the Hays Code, she was transformed into a Eurasian wife, played by Gale Sondergaard. Sondergaard was an American born to Danish parents. Bafflingly, Warner Oland, a Swedish-American, became famous for playing both Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. If, for a moment, you can brush aside the casting of dark-haired Scandinavians as Asian people, you might be able to ignore the obvious “yellow face” given to Sondergaard. Pretend that she’s actually Asian and her performance is starling and effective. I won’t ruin the ending, but it is quite a surprise. Mrs. Hammond is a stereotypical “dragon lady” of film noir and racist Hollywood movies poorly portraying Asians. Though she is given no dialogue and hazy motivations, she is hypnotic and demands attention in each of her scenes.

Though this is clearly Davis’s film, all the performances are top-notch. Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent) is excellent as Leslie’s loyal, oblivious husband, who doesn’t find out the truth until it is too late. British theater actor James Stephenson is excellent as the hardnosed lawyer. Stephenson was allegedly fed up with Wyler’s intense, frustrating style and only stayed on at the behest of Davis. After the film’s completion – and his Best Supporting Actor nomination – he was grateful she convinced him to finish the film.

Incredibly building tension that never lets up, despite the film’s quiet tone and deliberate pacing, the only real flaws are the changes forced on the film by the Production Code. In Maugham’s original story, Leslie leaves her husband and goes off to live alone, forever mourning the man she loved – and killed. The Hays Code could not allow a woman to go unpunished, so Leslie was forced to meet death or imprisonment. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is surprisingly brutal.

Even the unnecessary changes imposed by the Hays Code can’t ruin this spectacular, sadly neglected film, which comes highly recommended. The Letter is available on DVD and all fans of film noir, dark melodrama, and of course of Bette Davis and Somerset Maugham will fall in love with it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Femme Fatale: Women in Film Noir

French for fatal or deadly woman, the femme fatale is a staple of film noir and has also appeared throughout centuries of myth, art, and literature. Used in different incarnations from the Middle Ages to Victorian England, the femme fatale has appeared as a vampire, witch, enchantress, or demon. She has appeared in the bible (Salome), in Greek mythology (Circe and Medea), classical drama (Clytemnestra), and history (Cleopatra). (To learn more about these various incarnations, Bram Dijsktra’s Idols of Perversity comes with the highest possible recommendation.)

In addition to her historical, literary basis, the femme fatale is likely a further development from the ‘20s flapper and/or vamp, cinema’s first independent woman. Clara Bow and Louise Brooks are solid examples of this type, a sexually promiscuous, independent woman. These characters (as well as the real life Bow and Brooks) often had more tragic outcomes than their later, femme fatale counterparts. They had a certain wantonness, an innocent joie de vivre that was taken advantage of by men. Though the femme fatale was often trapped in unwanted relationships, she is never a figure of innocence.

So far in my film noir series, I’ve covered a number of films that focus on the femme fatale. Even an early film noir like I Wake Up Screaming (1941) has a beautiful, ambitious character who uses her sexually to get ahead in life. A number of men are obsessed with her and her rejection of them – she chooses her career over any of the available relationship – leads to her death. Though she is killed fairly early in the film, her presence -- and portrait -- haunt the proceedings.

Vain and ambitious, the femme fatale uses her beauty and sexuality as a lure to trap men in dangerous, often fatal scenarios, and relies on deception more than outright violence to achieve her aims. Insane and murderous at worst, morally ambiguous and sexually tempting at best, the femme fatale is contrasted with the good girl, an innocent hoping to marry the hero, but who is quite out of place in the noir world. The good girl represents an ideal that can never be attained, a dream that is little more than a distant hope in film noir’s unending nightmare reality. Unlike the good girl, the femme fatale specifically rails against the conventional family structure: marriage, child-bearing, housework. She is glamorous and free-spirited, and above all prefers sex and independence to a life of dull security and domesticity.

The truly subversive element of film noir is not that the femme fatale exists and plays such a major role, but that the good girl nearly always fails in her quest to tie the hero does -- and the hero himself almost uniformly rejects marriage. There is a certain type of femme fatale that is generally trapped in an unwanted relationship with an older husband or powerful, unlawful man that she cannot escape from. She strives for financial and sexual independence and would rather face death than relinquish her individual identity and live out the rest of her life as a status symbol, a pretty object.

Throughout film noir, women trying to escape from their husbands include Rita Hayworth in Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Ava Gardner in The Killers. In many of the earlier films noir, marriage is a paralyzing influence – the husbands are often aged, ill, or paralyzed due to a varied set of circumstances. If these women are married, they generally have large, castle-like, cavernous homes that are really ornate prisons -- Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Lady from Shanghai are all examples of this. In Murder, My Sweet, Claire Trevor plays a cold-blooded murderer, a woman who will kill, imprison, or blackmail anyone trying to remove her from her recently elevated station in life. She falls under the type married to an older, infirm man with a massive, tomb-like home and an older daughter from a first marriage who receives the lion’s share of his affection. Trevor’s character is of course not faithful to her husband and will seduce anyone worth manipulating. Barbara Stanwyck’s memorable Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity is of the same time and ranks as one of film noir’s most famous protagonists.

In Ace in the Hole, Jan Sterling plays the greedy, ambitious wife of a loving man buried in a cave-in. Though ready to immediately flee, she is persuaded to take advantage of the situation, making quite a profit, but is driven into a homicidal rage when she tries to seduce a reporter, her business partner, and he refuses and humiliates her. Ida Lupino, so frequently a femme fatale in her early career, is yet another woman with a clueless, older husband in They Drive By Night. She murders him to get the man she wants and, when he refuses her, tries to have him imprisoned as an accomplice.

Another type is the cold-blooded, financially-motivated murderesses, famous examples of which include Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon and Jane Greer from Out of the Past. Though these women feel emotion – at least jealousy and possessiveness – they are incapable of real love and often wind up dead or imprisoned. Another interesting version of this type is Ann Savage in Detour. Her character is hardboiled, tough talking, sexual but completely unglamorous, and quick to blackmail a complete stranger. Her attitude and recklessness eventually get her killed, when she accidentally pushes someone too far.

A third type of note is the mentally diseased femmes fatale, which includes Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, a horrible woman who kills in order to keep anyone from getting between herself and her husband. After coldly abandoning a fiancé (a young Vincent Price!), she kills her husband’s disabled younger brother by letting him drown, throws herself down the stairs to induce an abortion who she learns she is pregnant, and eventually commits suicide. With her final act, she frames her sister, who has struck up an innocent, warm friendship with her husband.

Sunset Boulevard is a another unique spin on this theme. While Norma Desmond is certainly a femme fatale, she is a more aggressive variety and holds the financial reigns, coercing a younger writer to become her paramour. The implication is that this independence has driven her mad, resulting in suicide attempts, delusions visions of grandeur, and murder. Carmen Sternwood from The Big Sleep is another – her actions, which include nymphomania, drug abuse, pornography, and murder – are depicted as the result of a real mental illness. While the latter is implied by the actions of many femmes fatale, it is not often openly addressed in the individual films.

Part of what makes the femme fatale so fascinating more than 70 years after the fact is that she represents a complex sort of duality. One on hand, scholars have seen these characters as early examples of liberated, independent women who strive for sexual and financial independence, who reject marriage simply because it hampers their autonomy. On the other hand, these characters exhibit cruel or evil traits; they are murderesses, poisoning, shooting, or drowning those who get in their way. Or, somehow worse, they convince unassuming men to commit murders for them and use their overripe sexuality as weapons. This dark fantasy is an aspect of fears due to changing sexual roles in WWII and post-war America.

Part of the problem is that WWII necessitated that women leave the traditional role of stay-at-home wife and mother and join the work force, since the majority of the country’s men were at work. The end of the war led to a strange rift; women were forced back into the home, but proved that they too could work, vote, play sports, and do everything that their husbands could (short of becoming soldiers – though some female nurses, journalists, and photographers insisted on traveling to the front lines). The perpetually threatened state of masculinity and heteronormative life that plagued the early ‘40s haunts both decades of noir cinema.

There are, of course, hundreds of these characters and dozens of well-known actresses who regularly took these roles, including Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake, Lizabeth Scott, and Gloria Grahame. In the next few weeks, I’ll be examining a number of female-centric entries in the film noir series: The Letter (1940) and Deception (1946) with Bette Davis, Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford, Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945) with Gene Tierney, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth, the films of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and many more. Watch along to learn more about the femme fatale, or check out Ann Kaplan’s Women in Film Noir.