Many Home Screenings: the headcold edition

The misery of a summer cold can best be dealt with by staying home, taking meds to ease the symptoms, hot toddy-drinking, and a film festival in bed. That’s how I’ve spent my week, anyhow. Here are the cinematic results:

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And here are the briefest of reviews plus recommendations:

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950): Poor oil town woman leaves home and claws her way to the top — but can she find happiness among gangsters? David Brian impresses as a truly nasty villain, while Joan Crawford chews scenery but never fully earns my sympathy. RECOMMENDED.

I Confess (1953): A Hitchcock film I’d long wanted to see, with beautiful Montgomery Clift keeping the secrets of the confessional even when it threatens his life. Rather simplistic plot, but Anne Baxter helps make it worthwhile. MILDLY RECOMMENDED

Johnny Eager (1941): Early noir with handsome Robert Taylor as a sociopathic criminal whose conscience exists solely within his longtime friend, an alcoholic played in Oscar-winning fashion by Van Heflin. Lana Turner suffices as the rich gal our anti-hero finally falls for, but the bromance is far more interesting. RECOMMENDED.

I Walk Alone (1948): While we’re on the subject of bromances, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas are brilliant together in this flick about criminal competitors. Lizabeth Scott plays a singer (dubbed as usual), who turns from femme fatale to good girl so fast your head spins. Come for the threesome, stay for the bromance turned sour. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941): Walter Huston is so superb as Mr. Scratch that the heavy-handed tale of a farmer who sells his soul is entertaining rather than dull. Edward Arnold steals the show at the end, however. MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

Ladies in Retirement (1941): Gothic melodrama featuring Ida Lupino as a woman burdened with two mad sisters (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett). Murder and mayhem ensue, with the help of Louis Hayward as “Cousin” Albert and Evelyn Keyes as easily seduced maid Lucy. Delightfully dark. RECOMMENDED.

The Bat (1959): Serial killer “The Bat” is on the loose, and no one is safe, especially not the mystery writer (Agnes Moorehead) who lives in the murder victims’ former home! Moorehead and supporting stars Lenita Lane and Vincent Price are entertaining, but the mystery is weak. NOT REALLY RECOMMENDED unless you need more Agnes Moorehead in your life.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) (1958): Louis Malle’s first film is a noirish crime film that made Jeanne Moreau a star. A wonderfully quiet film, we follow Moreau’s interior monologue and watch silently confident leading man Maurice Ronet as their plan to murder Moreau’s husband goes awry in complex and unpredictable fashion. The ending is a bit too French for me, but it’s a gripping MUST-SEE for film noir lovers.

Danger 5, Season 2 (2015): This Australian series alone makes Netflix worth the monthly fee. Bizarre and hilarious spy adventure comedy. The team’s mission is to Kill Hitler, whether we’re in the 60s or, for season 2, the 80s. Multilingual, multispecies, and full of shout-outs and homages. Brief description: Team America on acid. MUST-SEE.

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Many Home Screenings: the headcold edition

Mr. Holmes vs. Gods and Monsters

Because the term hasn’t begun yet and I have a little free time, I caught a cold after babysitting a friend’s sniffly kid. My head stopped up and feeling wonky, I took drugs, drank tea with cinnamon schnapps in it, and watched movies for hours and hours. I’ll soon post a belated Weekly Screening Round-up to cover the 8 films I’m not discussing here, but for now I want to talk about Mr. Holmes (2015), the only post-1950s flick I watched in the bunch. In particular, rather than just review it, I’ve decided to compare it (between sneezes and with what little brain I have today) to one of my very favorite films that shares a lead actor, a director, and an emphasis on love and death that would make Woody Allen proud, Gods and Monsters (1998).

The star of both films is the one and only Ian McKellen. I love this actor fiercely, and even when I’m not crazy about the material (e.g. Vicious), I’m still crazy about him. I don’t know the man himself, of course, but whenever he speaks — in or out of character — I know I’m in for a treat. He puts forth intelligence, devotion, creativity, risk-taking, and love. So I enjoyed both Gods and Monsters back in the day (I’ve seen it three or maybe four times to date) and Mr. Holmes yesterday.

The director of both films is Bill Condon, and I don’t share the same broad fondness for his work as I do for that of McKellen. Between Dreamgirls and Twilight, I wondered if I’d ever volunteer to see another of his pictures again. But with McKellen in the picture, the Condon of Gods and Monsters reappeared…at least to a degree.

In terms of theme, both films pay significant attention to the impact of the past on the present, on the value of creative intellect and its loss, on aging and death, and on the vital importance but difficulty for some of bringing love into their lives. Whether it’s due to hyperintellectualism and introversion or homosexuality and illness, the films reveal the challenge in differing cultural contexts of finding and valuing love — of all kinds. I particularly liked the emphasis on rescripting the past in Mr. Holmes, where the past intruded only to reveal false memory and the need to indulge in creative fiction to cope with life’s hardships. By contrast, in Gods and Monsters, Whale suffered from delusions and great pain, bringing the past into crashing conflict with the present, making a far darker movie.

Housekeepers are the dominant women in both men’s lives, women who care for their employers and bicker with them over differing notions of propriety and social class. Lynn Redgrave’s Hanna is older, also alone, and her relationship with McKellen’s James Whale is one of parental strictness but also affection. Her personality suits his, both being set in their ways. Laura Linney’s Mrs. Munro is a quieter woman whose losses have led her to a hardened acceptance of life’s unfairness. She does her best, and in some ways she is a working class stereotype, but by the end of the film she has revealed her vulnerabilities more fully, and we warm to her, fully. Perhaps it is because I haven’t seen Gods and Monsters in a while, but Linney’s performance moved me while Redgrave’s did not.

For love objects, the films differ significantly in what the present offers each protagonist as he heads toward death. Holmes has lived into his 90s in quite asexual fashion, as far as we can tell in this version and the character as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Whale, by contrast, coped with homophobia and the heteronormativity of Hollywood through lust, or so the film — based quite loosely on facets of Whale’s actual life — tells us. Hence, when the two men, facing the inevitability of death (one through age, the other through debilitating strokes), experience a last chance at love, the results are quite different.

Holmes finds a kindred spirit in Mrs. Munro’s son Roger (Milo Parker). He shares his love of bees as well as his writing with the boy, instilling in him some of Holmes’ own arrogance along the way. But love for the child in a moment of crisis (that ends a bit too Hollywood happily for my taste) is what draws the trio together, Holmes at last connecting with Mrs. Munro over their shared love for Roger; he finally stops disparaging her and taking her for granted. For Whale in Gods and Monsters, the “boy” on whom he turns his attention is his uneducated but hunky gardener Clayton Boone, played by Brendan Fraser with a zeal I’ve never seen in another of his performances to date. While Holmes does mold Roger a bit, he does so at the boy’s encouragement and because he sees they share a worldview. By contrast, Whale knows he has absolutely nothing in common with with Boone. He enjoys looking at him, and then uses him as a vehicle for self-understanding before death. Boone becomes his Adam, his Frankenstein’s monster, and the sets reveal this in superb fashion. Life, war, love, death — all swirl around the troubled friendship between the suffering director and his handsome but naive gardener. Frankly, I love both of these characters and love the way they’re used in the films, even if the Fraser role is far more complex than Parker’s Roger. I’m also drawn to the

Ultimately, I’m drawn to the complexity of style and content of Gods and Monsters more than the simpler tale of Mr. Holmes. The ending of the latter is far happier than the former, with Holmes making peace with death and those he cares for facing a happier future because of him. It’s downright un-Holmesian, in a way, despite the number of times McKellen’s Holmes tells us that Watson embellished and fictionalized him to the hilt. It becomes an engaging tale of a lonely man finding peace and love in his last years, and not a lot more. Gods and Monsters haunts the viewer, throughout the film and even after the frightening climax and bleak ending. There is more complexity and craft in the direction of the film, ultimately, and I believe it will stay with me far longer than Mr. Holmes.

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Mr. Holmes vs. Gods and Monsters

Ethel Barrymore in Moonrise (1950)

File:Moonrise (1948 film poster).jpgLast year, I was pleased to join the 1st Annual Barrymore Blogathon by writing about Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo. This year, I shift to Ethel Barrymore on her 136th birthday. In 1948, at age 69, she played the role of Grandma in Moonrise, one of the last films to be directed by Frank Borzage, 15 years Ethel Barrymore’s junior. Borzage loved directing films about young love, and the lesser-known B noir Moonrise gave him that opportunity, which he transformed into an engaging voyage through wonderful expressionist settings and style. And he wisely included Barrymore in a supporting role.

Thematically, Moonrise (1948) is about the redemptive power of love alongside the persistence of hate. Its plot is straightforward, but its style is lyrical, dream-like, featuring romanticized rural settings. It stars a compelling Dane Cook as Danny, a young man who is tormented and bullied into violence of his own, based on the fact that his father was hanged for his crimes. Gail Russell is engagingly sympathetic as Gilly, the gal that Danny sets his heart on. Henry Morgan plays another victim of the bullies — including Harry Carey Jr. and very young Lloyd Bridges. Worthy of even more attention is Rex Ingram as Mose, an educated, elderly African-American man who lives on the edge of a swamp where race doesn’t matter. He advises Danny based on his own experience as an outsider: “Blood is red, it keeps you alive. It doesn’t tell you what you have to do” and “It’s all right for a dog to chase a coon but not a man.”

Ethel Barrymore has her big scene as Danny’s grandmother late in the film. She is the one who finally shares the full truth of his father with him, enabling Danny to let go of misunderstandings that keep him from following a mature, responsible path in life.

Critics compare the film to Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) in style, but there is greater romanticism, especially in Moonrise‘s Hollywood-style ending. We could also wish Barrymore had as compelling a role as Lillian Gish in Hunter, but the grand dame resonates well in her minor appearance as a strong, wise woman who knows the importance of truth-telling. And the film deserves to be better known.

Because Moonrise is in the public domain, copies may be less than vivid, yet it can be watched for free. Why not celebrate Ethel’s birthday with a screening of your own?

This post is a contribution to the 2nd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon.

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Ethel Barrymore in Moonrise (1950)

Brit Noir, Jean Simmons, and a Face-off

I love postwar British noir. There’s a romantic edge to much of it, a mood of darkness but with a touch of hope. The British vs. American experience of WWII is likely part of the difference, as well as British filmmaking style vs. the Hollywood machine. I’m not experienced or well-read enough to elaborate much further, but I can tell you what I like and why. Two of my favorite postwar Brit noirs:

These two films feature an homme fatale (the male equivalent of the femme fatale), but our protagonists are women who are streetwise and strong, plucky underdogs we root for. Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) has been young and wild and is now older and wiser; she fights for what she has even as the temptation of the criminal lover of her past returns.Turn the Key Softly (1953) tells the tale of three women, all looking for some happiness as they get out of prison. We sympathize and wish them well, from the naive gold-digging Stella (Joan Collins) who has a chance of happiness with a regular fella to the elderly thief Granny Quillam (Kathleen Harrison) who only wants a little peace and quiet. Our central protagonist is Monica (Yvonne Mitchell), done wrong by her handsome criminal boyfriend: can she escape his clutches and move on?

Jean Simmons was a central young actress in postwar British film, including their “soft” noir. I know her work from Hollywood productions mostly, including her oddly cast Sarah in Guys and Dolls (1955) and the lead in Cukor’s The Actress (1953), about the life of Ruth Gordon. I also know her classic noir appearance in Angel Face (1952) — a film that is far more compelling to watch if you don’t know about her misuse by Howard Hughes and director Otto Preminger. (Hughes bought out her contract without her knowledge, so she chopped off her hair to protest, and he made her wear a wig. Preminger demanded that Mitchum slap Simmons harder, so Mitchum slapped Preminger, and Preminger tried unsuccessfully to get Mitchum thrown off the picture. What a mess.)

Beyond these Hollywood films, I also watched her in The Clouded Yellow (1950), a kind of Hitchcock lite picture about a secret service agent on holiday and a young woman who is framed for the murder of an offensive handyman. It isn’t a favorite of mine, but it held my attention as a mild thriller…at least until a stiff Trevor Howard (born 1913) ends up in a romantic relationship with young Jean Simmons (born 1929) at the end.

Earlier this week, I delved deeper, spending an afternoon watching a Jean Simmons double feature via Amazon Prime: So Long at the Fair (1950) and Uncle Silas (1947 — later retitled The Inheritance). The films are both postwar British films set in the Victorian era with a Gothic mood. Both feature a woman in peril, scheming evildoers, and a handsome young man to rescue our heroine. So much can be compared, and I like one film better for many reasons and the other for a few. How could I not indulge in a Noir Face-off?

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The following sections will compare what to me were the most central facets to determining my enjoyment of the films. By exploring the details, I will see which film is truly my favorite…though I think I already know…

SUMMARIES

So Long at the Fair (SL) is the tale of a British brother and sister (Vicky) who visit Paris for the 1889 Exposition. After the first night, the brother goes missing. Not only is he gone when his sister goes to find him in his room, but his room itself seems to be gone. Determined to find him even as others think she is mad, Vicky does everything humanly possible to provide evidence that the hotel managers are lying and have taken her brother or perhaps even killed him. In the end, we learn the truth of where the missing brother has been, with the fortuitous help of a handsome young artist.

Uncle Silas (US) tells of a young woman (Caroline) who goes to live with her allegedly reformed ne’er-do-well uncle upon her father’s death. She is both petted and misused by this uncle, who will inherit all if he can marry her off to his vile son…or kill her.

And now, the face-off:

THE PROTAGONIST

  • Jean Simmons as Vicky (SL)
  • Jean Simmons as Caroline (US)

Simmons is young, beautiful, and sympathetic in both films. Vicky is strong-willed and determined throughout the film, entirely engaging. Caroline is a typical gothic female — young, vulnerable, and passive.

Winner: So Long at the Fair

THE VILLAINS

  • Hotel proprietress Madame Hervé (Cathleen Nesbitt)
  • Uncle Silas (Derrick De Marney) and his cohort Madame de la Rougierre (Katrina Paxinau) (US)

 

The hotel proprietress who keeps trying to convince Vicky she is mad and that she should return to England is splendidly cold, and her partner husband (?) is a menacing buffoon. It takes nothing from them to say that the ornate Gothic appeal of perverse Uncle Silas (as well as his slimy son) and his scheming, drunk confederate Madame de la Rougierre are in another class entirely. Uncle Silas is a film about menace and evil, while So Long at the Fair is more of a thriller, without a central villain.

Winner: Uncle Silas

THE LOVER

  • George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde) (SL)
  • Lord Richard Ilbury (Derek Bond) (US)

Lord Ilbury is noble, kind, and willing to fight dangerous men to save sweet Caroline. George is an artist with an eye for the ladies, but he assists Vicky in every way he can. He’s a devoted helpmate, not a Lord on a white horse, and I like him the better for it. And George is played by Dirk Bogarde, barely disguising his 50s hair. Poor Derek Bond hasn’t got a chance.

Winner: So Long at the Fair

THE DENOUEMENT  [SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS SECTION]

  • Poor brother Johnny had the plague. (SL)
  • Uncle Silas is undone and takes his life with poison. (US)

The reveal at the end of So Long at the Fair is frankly a serious disappointment. Was he actually a spy? Did he have secret information? Was he mistaken for someone else? Was it just to rob him of a family brooch? No. He had the plague, and if anyone found out, it would have caused panic at the Exposition. UGH. By contrast, we know Silas will be found out, but it’s delightful when the family solicitor goes to confront him and finds him dead in his favorite chair by the fire. Not brilliant, but a lot better than the plague.

Winner: Uncle Silas

MISE-EN-SCENE

  • Paris of 1889, including cafes, ornate hotel rooms, and even a performance of the can-can. (SL)
  • Victorian mansions, including Uncle Silas’s enormous crumbling estate with its secret rooms and barred windows. (US)

While I prefer a creepy haunted mansion to the Paris Exhibition as a setting, So Long at the Fair did much with the details of its little hotel. The feel of Silas’s estate was fine, but it lacked detail, I thought. The more ornate the better if we’re going Victorian.

Winner: So Long at the Fair 

GOTHIC/NOIR PEDIGREE

  • Based on an urban myth of its era; co-directed by Terrence Fisher (of many a Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee 1960s horror film) (SL)
  • Based on a novel by Sheridan Lefanu; cinematography by Robert Krasker (of The Third Man and Odd Man Out fame) (US)

There’s a Hitchcock feel to So Long at the Fair, and I will remember it for its plucky heroine and setting long after I forget Uncle Silas, but you can’t deny the latter’s amazing pedigree.

Winner: Uncle Silas

Oh damn. I really did enjoy So Long at the Fair far more. I thought the writing stronger (until the ending) and liked determined Vicky so much more than stupid passive Caroline! But the truth will out, and the truth in this instance seems to be a tie, with 3 wins each.

FACE-OFF WINNER: There isn’t one, apparently! Just call it a draw.

 

 

 

Brit Noir, Jean Simmons, and a Face-off

Noir and the Western: John Sturges

When The Midnite Drive-In unveiled plans for a Film Noir Blogathon, it was easy to opt in. The difficulty for a noir-centered blog was to pick a subject…one that I wasn’t already going to cover anyway. Pretty much anything I post August 12-14, 2016 is going to be appropriate, so I decided on a less obvious focus: the noir western, specifically those of director John Sturges, The Walking Hills (1949) and The Capture (1950).

I want to begin with discussion of the concept of a “noir western.” If both halves of such a picture (the noir and the western) are genres, you have a blend of genres, and that’s a reliable description. However, I’m convinced by the writings of scholars and fans along with my own experience that central to film noir is style. It’s more adjective than noun. There are content elements we see in noir, such as character types: the femme fatale, the hard-boiled dick, the good wife, the gangster, and the everyman sucker-punched by fate. There are plot and thematic elements, including violence, mistrust, criminality, death, deceit, ill-fated love, lust, corporate greed, and the disruption of the traditional family. And there is style: lighting, cinematography, sets, and settings (aka mise-en-scene). All of these aspects must be considered when we apply the label “noir” to a film, and there is plenty of argument over both the defining factors and the application of the label to specific films.

What I love about films that can be called both noir and western, or noir westerns are the way the noir turns the often hypermasculine and ultra-confident western into a study in anxiety. Noirs don’t have heroes, they have protagonists, often torn or twisted by personal history or fate. Complex, angst-ridden characters are not common in classic westerns, though when they appear they are most often sidekicks who must be avenged, villains, or bystanders who let the hero shine more brightly. But such stereotypes are made to be broken. Consider the distance between the brave Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who saves the fallen woman Dallas (Claire Trevor) in Stagecoach (1939), and Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon (1952), a man who can’t save anyone — not himself nor his bride, Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) or his Latina ex-lover Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). Even his deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) turns against him. Such differences, of course, say much about the eras in which they were written — from pre-WWII to the Cold War. And shifting cultural mood is a significant factor (along with the influx of artistically inclined emigre directors coming from Europe fleeing the Nazis) in the development of classic-era film noir.

John Sturges

John Sturges

John Sturges (1910-1992) is a director best known for hard-hitting, male-dominated action flicks. Odds are that if you know his work, it is for his westerns, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), or for his military pictures, such as The Great Escape (1963), Ice Station Zebra (1968), and The Eagle Has Landed (1976). But perhaps you know him  for his direction of films that blend noir and the western, best exemplified by Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination.

If you like to dig deeper, you may also known Sturges from his earlier films, such as the noir-police procedural Mystery Street (1950), starring Ricardo Montalban as a cop seeking the murderer of a prostitute in a small town. But if you keep digging, you’ll find two more pictures that say much about the impact of the western on noir and noir on the western in the immediate post-WWII era.

The Walking Hills  (1949)

In simplest terms, The Walking Hills is a western about a group of treasure hunters who search for a buried wagon load of gold in Death Valley. The mistrust and violence that erupts among the characters, however, is clearly noir-influenced. (IMDb calls it an “adventure thriller western,” which shows its complexity in terms of generic identification.)

Our lead in the film is Randolph Scott, best known for his western films. The central woman in the film is played by Ella Raines, known to noir fans as the plucky working girl of B noir. Arthur Kennedy and John Ireland are also featured, actors known for both noir and westerns. Tensions among the characters run high as they sweat out the hard work and harbor suspicions and jealousies.

The Death Valley setting is fascinating: wide open and sunny yet lonely and dangerous. The simple plot reveals complex character relations, including intrigues and hatreds that lead to violence. There is a desperate fight with shovels, and fate steps in with a raging sand-storm to bring the film to its conclusion.

As you watch, you know by dialogue and costume that you’re watching a western, but the mood feels darkly noir.

Randolph Scott, William Bishop, and Ella Raines in The Walking Hills

 

The Capture (1950)

Even more obviously noirish than The Walking Hills is 1950’s The Capture. Here again we have a western setting, this time in Mexico’s oil fields. The mood, however, is typically noirish plot twists and anxiety straight through.

Through the noir device of narrative framing, we meet protagonist Lin Vanner (Lew Ayres) as he finds sanctuary in a priest’s tiny home after having been shot by the police. He knows he will be killed, and seeks solace in telling his tale to the priest. When managing an oil field, Vanner captured a man who was suspected of robbing the payroll. The suspect was shot and unable to raise both arms to signal his surrender, but Vanner did not know this and shot him dead. As a result of the incident, Vanner’s social-climbing fiancée broke off their engagement, and Vanner resigned from his job. Guilt drove him to visit the dead man’s widow Ellen (Teresa Wright) and her son, and he decides to work on her ranch. Complex emotions emerge as the two grow attracted to one another, but when Ellen finds out who Vanner is, she turns cold and vindictive. Another twist comes as Vanner learns the truth of Ellen’s relationship with her abusive former husband. The film eventually returns to the present, where Vanner’s past has fully caught up with him and he must pay the price…or must he?

 

Lew Ayres and Teresa Wright in The Capture

 

If The Walking Hills is a western with noirish tensions, The Capture is noir with a western setting. The two films together illustrate well how the mood of the immediate post-war era impacted Hollywood film and worked within John Sturges early directing career, leading to his best known and award-nominated films.

 

Noir and the Western: John Sturges

Classic Movie History Project: Fritz Lang

For 2016’s Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, I elected to write on Fritz Lang, as an example of foreign influence on classic Hollywood cinema. A vital, innovative writer and director in Germany (born in Austria) beginning with his first efforts in 1917, the Jewish man raised as a Catholic who fled Nazi Germany upon Hitler’s takeover is best known to Americans for his expressionistic Weimar masterpieces and his subsequent prolific, if necessarily less artistic, work in Hollywood. The following paragraphs will introduce (or reintroduce) some of Lang’s most innovative and important pictures with particular attention to the development of film noir.

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Metropolis (1927)

The silent science fiction masterpiece Metropolis is for many contemporary Americans the best or only remembered Lang film. With its tale of the proletariat, inspired to rebellion by a mad scientist and his femme fatale robot and saved by the privileged class, the picture is remarkable for its mise en scene, its effects, and its cinematography.

While most famous, I find Lang’s M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1931) even more powerful. Less stylistically grand, these films both offer more fully developed characters, compelling plots, and disturbing messages.

M (1931)

is the tale of a child serial murderer, played with compelling intensity by Peter Lorre. Our protagonist is caught not by the police but by the criminal class who wishes to rid itself of the extra police scrutiny they face because of the murderer’s actions. The terror faced by mothers and children and the panic in the city is paralleled by the greedy selfishness of the criminals, who come together to form a tribunal reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. They put the criminal on trial, and we learn the anguish of the murderer, who hears voices he cannot silence unless he is murdering a child. He begs for understanding, arguing himself a victim, too.

With few words until its climax, is a powerful film, the first to take up the point of view of a serial killer.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

For those who study Lang as a film noir director, there is a final picture he made before leaving Germany that is perhaps his most powerful: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). A tale of corrupt power and psychic possession that grips the viewer and doesn’t let go, Testament is the third in a trilogy of German-made films about a brilliant criminal gambler. The 1933 production was not released in Germany, most obviously because reaches furthest in its cultural critique, a message about absolute power that the Nazis couldn’t abide. It’s a tightly written proto-noir tale with horror and police procedural elements, too, entirely creepy and totally riveting as we watch the seemingly unstoppable Mabuse as he plots to take over the world while we unravel the clues that will solve the central mystery of how a man can retain his power and influence even after death.

HOLLYWOOD

Lang fled Nazi Germany to stay a short time in Paris, and then came to the US, where he signed with MGM and began the effort of matching his artistic visions with Hollywood economic realities. His devotion to a combination of expressionism and realism was severely tamed by small budgets and a focus on box office success. But Lang adapted well and quickly. Paring his style down to its most essential elements, Lang made 23 features over a 20-year period, including many that would inspire and come to define the film noir style.

Fury (1936)

Lang’s first film in the states was Fury for MGM, a tale of an innocent man who is nearly lynched, and then seeks revenge, starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sydney. An engaging and popular film at the time, it nonetheless suffers from a typically Hollywood issue: Lang was forced Lang to tack on a reconciliation between Tracy’s character and his girlfriend at the end. Nonetheless, it won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story and was selected for the National Film Registry.

Man Hunt (1941)

The first of several anti-Nazi films and a thriller with noir overtones, Man Hunt stars Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, and the woman who would come to be Lang’s main noir leading lady, Joan Bennett. Set just prior to WWII and dealing with an American accused of attempted murder of Hitler, the film’s portrayal of Germans as evil brought the ire of Joseph Breen of the Hays Office. Breen called it a “hate film,” and prefered to see some indicators of good non-Nazi Germans to balance the picture. He ultimately demanded that the film be edited to only suggest rather than show Nazi brutality, weakening the impact in typical Hollywood fashion of the era.

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague, Reinhard Heydrich, aka “The Hangman of Prague,” Hangmen Also Die! is another anti-Nazi picture made after America entered the war. It stars Brian Donlevy and features elements of film noir style. Some of the dialogue is over the top, but with Lang at the helm and Bertolt Brecht writing, there’s some serious punch to this film, particularly the strong role for the female character (Anna Lee) and the unremitting willingness to show Nazi mass murders (not graphic, just evident).

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry of Fear begins Lang’s noir focus on the innocent everyman whose life is muddled by fate…and the evil-doings of others. Ray Milland stars as a man just released from a mental asylum who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring and pursued by foreign agents. The protagonist of the Graham Greene novel on which the film is based is the cold-blooded murderer of his wife; by contrast, in the Lang film, the death is a mercy killing, a loving assisted suicide, and our hero has no guilt whatsoever. The film also omits all scenes in the private mental institution, although we eventually learn of its role in the Nazi ring. And there is a happy ending, of course. Again, the heart of Hollywood compromise is evident throughout the picture.

Woman in the Window (1944)

Often discussed as the most marred of Lang’s noirs, Woman in the Window, features the teaming of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, a trio that would also appear together in Scarlet Street the following year. Both films focus on a dull, middle-aged man who falls prey to criminal predators through attraction to a beautiful young woman. Woman in the Window shows a mid-life crisis in full bloom, featuring an educated man who should arguably know better, yet it isn’t entirely his fault when things go awry as he comes to her rescue. Still, the Hays Office couldn’t keep its nose out, and insisted on a happy ending. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but the forced denouement elicits a loud groan from most viewers.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Much stronger, in my opinion, is Scarlet Street, in which Robinson’s middle-class protagonist is so stifled in his creativity, so “henpecked” by his wife, and so incredibly naive about women generally, that we can see his doom from the moment he meets Bennett’s Kitty, freshly thrown to the ground by her abusive boyfriend Johnny (Duryea) and sporting her symbolic clear plastic raincoat. At Johnny’s encouragement, Kitty is to take Robinson — whom the two assume is wealthy — for everything he’s got. Even after he puts her up in an apartment, however, she won’t give out more than a peck on the cheek — although she does allow him to paint her toenails in an infamously gorgeous moment. But once he knows he’s been misused and his pretty Kitty laughs at him as raucously as his abusive wife, he avenges himself. This leads to a delicious ending I won’t spoil for the uninitiated.

(I have to confess I was saddened to learn that Robinson didn’t enjoy performing in either film. Guess he prefered playing tough guys.)

House by the River (1950)

I only saw this film recently, and was surprised I’d never heard nor read about it. A wicked little gothic Victorian-era noir, the film stars Louis Hayward as the slimiest character I’ve seen in many a film. An accidental murder by our unscrupulous novelist protagonist leads him to deceit and manipulation that fuels both his writing career and his downfall. The heavy-handedness of the plot put critics off at its release, but I enjoyed it — although I wasn’t much thrilled with the casting of a rather flat Jane Wyatt as Hayward’s wife or Lee Bowman as his brother.

Clash by Night (1952)

Clash by Night brought Lang together with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, as well as Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe. The film is a minor thriller based on a play by Clifford Odets that originally starred Tallulah Bankhead. Somewhat stagey, the film nonetheless features fiery performances by its leads. A bit torrid and not as memorable as other Lang films, it nonetheless continued his penchant for noir.

The Big Heat (1953)

Lauded as Lang’s best noir, The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in a tale of a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city. For me, it’s most impressive and unique in featuring a femme fatale (Grahame) who earns viewer sympathy after she is scarred by her criminal boyfriend (Lee Marvin) and finds redemption. As one critic has noted, it is Ford who indirectly brings pain and death to the film’s women, not the women themselves. I also love that “Put the Blame on Mame” is played in a bar scene, alluding to Gilda, in which Ford also starred as a man who does a woman wrong and blamed her.

 

The Blue Gardenia (1953)

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Lang’s final trilogy of “newspaper” noirs leave me somewhat cold, I confess, though this is typical of noirs of the era. The films emphasize typical noir themes of power and violence while emphasizing the specific role of the media. They feature some fabulous stars despite arguably lukewarm results: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr (Blue Gardenia); Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Vincent Price (While the City Sleeps); and Dana Andrews again with Joan Fontaine (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Much had already been said and done in Hollywood noir by this time, and Lang simply continued the trend rather than truly breaking new ground in these pictures. Still, all are enjoyable despite their faults, and they illustrate well the link between Lang and the production of the original noir cycle in 40s and 50s Hollywood. We see the quick rise of the style and its massive appeal followed a decade later by a slow, sputtering decline.

Ultimately, Lang is a man who sought above all to make movies, like many a native and emigre director of the Hollywood studio system, and he did so — with a number of compelling hits as well as fan and cult favorites. While he had to compromise artistically and politically once he came to America, he escaped Nazi Germany to become in many ways the father of film noir. Now go watch some Lang!

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Classic Movie History Project: Fritz Lang

If not for noir… Miklós Rózsa

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Miklós Rózsa, Composer

(18 April 1907 – 27 July 1995)

My great affection for music has not translated into great attention to film scores and soundtracks. A few motifs and songs have penetrated, announcing themselves so potently or poignantly that they fuse with film content. No one who watches High Noon (1951), for example, can ignore the way Frankie Laine’s “Do Not Forsake Me” actually tells the story of the film from the opening credits, nor how its rhythm penetrates the tense moments of the picture.  And Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo is unforgettable. Yet, when I began studying film noir, investment in exploring its music came long after content and style, from mise–en–scène and cinematography to character types and themes.

Eventually, I did begin to consider the impact of music on classic noir, with particular attention to ornate classical scores by talented composers. In addition to noting the effect of certain motifs, instruments, and styles on film content and mood, I also just listened to scores for their power and beauty.

In addition, I noted how often the noir composers I enjoy most are émigrés, much like most of the best noir directors. Rózsa was born in Budapest (Hungary), studied in Germany, left before the rise of the Nazis to compose in France and England, and then found continuous employment composing film scores in Hollywood while he continued writing “serious” classical music. His last film score was for Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a comic homage to noir.

In total, Rózsa composed music for nearly 100 films, and was nominated for more than 25 awards. He won three Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture:

  • Spellbound (1945)
  • A Double Life (1947)
  • Ben-Hur (1959)

The first two of these three are identifiable today as film noir. His other classic noir scores include  Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Criss Cross (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The Red House (1954).

As David Amos has written of Rózsa, “To the music world, he was recognized as one of the greatest film composers of all time. He […] stands together with an elite group of composers of film music, together with Bernard Hertmann, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Bronislav Kaper, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of the industry’s founding fathers.”

Amos thus advises, “Most of the time when you and I are watching a movie, we get carried away with the drama or the comedy, and the music, as good as it might be, adds to the moment, but becomes only a support to the scene we are seeing. It stays in the background. Try once in a while to separate yourself from what is on the screen, and listen to the sound track. You may be amazed at what may be there. Hollywood has turned out many wonderful film scores, but Míklos Rózsa’s creations are indisputably among the best.”

I so agree. Moreover, if not for noir, I’d never have connected the dots between so many great film scores and come to appreciate the depth and diversity of this incredibly talented and prolific composer.

 

For more information, please visit The Miklós Rózsa Society.

If not for noir… Miklós Rózsa