Saw All I Desire with a friend last night and moved once again by the story, the grace with which it’s told, and Stanwyck’s magnificent performance. It spurred me to re-read Victor Perkins’s wonderful analysis of the moment where Naomie Murdoch (Stanwyck) returns to the home and family she deserted ten years before and finds the key still hidden in the same hanging pot. It’s a wonderful analysis of a beautiful scene. I am fascinated by the opening shots of that sequence. As you can see below, we are shown Naomie entering the shot by the elongated shadow she casts before she enters the frame, then the camera moves up to show us her looking at the home that was once hers and then the cut and move into an increasingly large close-up of Stanwyck expressing the mixed emotions she’s feeling at the re-encounter. How will her past affect her present? Will she be welcome, does she deserve to be there, what has she lost? It’s so beautiful. A great director and a great actress co-creating (with others) an unforgettable moment.
PS It occurs to me that this bit of film can be read as almost an inverse rhyme to the great ending of the earlier Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) , with all that it implies of self-sacrifice, a job well done, a moment of triumphalist virtue.
I saw this episode of The Barbara Stanwyck show mainly to see what Jacques Tourneur could do in what is basically a twenty minute television format but became entranced by the way each episode started.
As you can see above Barbara Stanwyck turns her head, the camera pulls back, the name of the show appears and leaves us only with her silhouette. It then fades to black, starts with her silhouette and the camera moves in to reveal the new dress she’s wearing ending with a medium shot above the waist as Stanwyck recounts the plot and informs us of who the writer and the director is.
The show was clearly influenced by the Loretta Young so which had been running since 1953 and would enjoy its final season just as Barabara Stanwyck would start her new one. Loretta was famous for modelling a new dress each show. I assume that the producers of the Barbara Stanwyck show also imagined that female audiences would tune in to see what its star was wearing. Barbara, however, does not twirl. It’s an elegant and informative opening.
The producers have clearly taken care to provide the star with as many changes of outfit as possible and they manage to cram quite a few in twenty minutes (see below).
The format of this series is an anthology one, with different stories each week, which gives everyone involved more scope but is perhaps less satisfying for an audience. Here Barbara Stanwyck is a silk entrepreneur who goes to the see the US Vice Consul in Hong Kong (Ralph Bellamy) guest starring and bumps into Hong Kong waif who has already found adoptive parents but can´t find the papers necessary to prove who he is and has a deadline in which to get them. Needless to say Ralph and Barbara help, everything is resolved at the end and US services abroad get praised in Barbara´s concluding chat, a visual and structural rhyme to the beginning.
The format allows for little preparation, few set-up, little camera movement in the story itself. What I noticed is that Tourneur frames judiciously, often keeping the accent on the boy. Stock footage is used extraordinarily well to give the impression that all the action happens in Hong Kong, and the actors give extraordinarily accomplished performances given the material. It´s also worth noting that the potential for racism is extremely high and the show largely avoids it even though I did wonder if it had in any way inspired the character of Short Round in Spielberg´s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Stanwyck won an Emmy for her performance in the serious. As to Tourneur, he directed quite a lot of episodic television, and I will see some more, but…episodic television of this period is not a director´s medium.
The film noir to end films noir, Billy Wilder’s classic crime drama Double Indemnity made its way to The Electric in Birmingham for a one-off screening, where a packed cinema ensured a great atmosphere. Mike, as usual, hadn’t seen it, while José is very familiar with it, even having taught it before.
Mike didn’t entirely click with it, though he’s able to appreciate much of what makes it a classic. Perhaps the stylistic and thematic elements that identify film noir are so perfectly employed by Double Indemnity that it leads to an ironic, detached mode of viewing – the genre, though it has existed since its inception, is strongly connected to its classical era of the Forties and Fifties, and has been parodied and pastiched more than most, burdening the film with unfair baggage to audiences not in that frame of mind. José, on the other hand, relishes the chance to see it with a paying, enthusiastic audience, finding that he notices different details and appreciates the film differently outside of an academic setting.
Unquestionable is the strength of Barbara Stanwyck’s seductive performance as the femme fatale, her Phyllis Dietrichson the archetype of the dangerous woman who bewitches her doomed victim, in this case a chump played with distracting self-importance by Fred MacMurray. And every time Edward G. Robinson appears on screen he lights it up, capturing the audience, whether with the array of witty retorts and bon mots with which the script furnishes him, or dialogue as ostensibly dull as a recitation of an actuarial table for types of suicide.
With all of this in mind, Mike is sure that a second run at the film would help him appreciate it more. There’s no doubting its place in cinema history, and that it continues to pack out cinemas with eager filmgoers is testament to that.
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Dottie Ponedel was the make-up artist to the stars in the classic era. She helped develop Dietrich’s look and did her make-up throughout the thirties. She also developed Garland’s ‘natural’ look beginning in Meet Me in St. Louis. For years she was the only female make-up artist, hard to believe now, and for years the boys in the union tried to get her kicked out (see image below). The book is a reminiscence, jottings from memory once all the adventures had been lived and whilst Ponedel was living through a difficult and all too early retirement brought on by Multiple Sclerosis. In a way it’s a slight book; a person’s memories, treasured, vividly rendered, but of a past already distant when they were written.
But what a person Dottie Ponedel was! She moved to LA with her mother and on 300 dollars they set up a bakery. She was picked off the street to work as an extra, and LA being a small town then, got to know all the big stars; Valentino and his first wife, Jean Acker, Carole Lombard when she was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. She moved from bit parts to dancing bits and even got a contract with Goldwyn. She became a make-up artist only when she solved a spit-curl problem for Nancy Carroll and Carroll insisted on having her onset. The film was Follow Thru in 1930. Then, by her account, Von Sternberg had seen what she’d done with Carroll and wanted her to do something similar for Dietrich. In the book Ponedel goes to great lengths to explain what she did do, and why Dietrich’s look in her American films was so different than in The Blue Angel. Soon she was under exclusive contract to Paramount as a make-up person, at a time when all of them were men, the most famous of them, the only one who enjoyed a similar level of fame to hers, being Perc Westmore, and that because he was head of the whole make-up department at Warners.
‘At the studios, the make-up men hated my guts’ writes Ponedel. ‘They called me everything under the sun because I wouldn’t make charts to show them what I was doing. Why should I, the way they were treating me. If they were smart, they would have done the same as I, take a little from this painting and that painting and use a little imagination and they would have the Ponedel make-up style. That’s how I became so well known’.
Whilst Ponedel had been an extra, bit player and dancer, men had been a certain kind of problem. The sexual harassment seems relentless: ‘it seems every time I did a dance I got into trouble with the male sex.’ And it was structural, from the lowest to the highest: ‘Those big guys had offices that looked like Grand Central Station. I did a hop, skip, and jump around the oval table and he after me’.
Once Ponedel became a make-up artist most of that stopped. The make-up men and the union boys might have hated her. But the stars, particularly the women –Dietrich, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Garland — loved her. The book evokes a strong sense of female solidarity, women creating all-women networks in which they could find mutual support, help, voice their troubles. And we all know the hair and make-up people are privy to all the secrets. And Ponedel still respects them. We hear of Dietrich’s extraordinary generosity and kindness. How Paulette Goddard credited her with getting her role in Unconquered after De Mille had rejected her. How Garland stole back some of her own money from Sid Luft so that she could go to Rome. What come across here is the kindness and generosity of women one thinks of a bit as monstres sacrées.
Almost a third of the book is devoted to Judy Garland. The chapter that begins the story of their relationship is entitled ‘My Wonderful Judy’ and begins, ‘Now that Judy Garland has taken her final trip over the rainbow, it’s up to me to write the story that Judy and I were going to write together. I was with Judy a quarter of a century and if she wasn’t at my house or me at hers, or on the phone, I always knew what she was up to. Few people meant more to me in my life than Judy Garland.’
What follows, for almost a third of of the book or more is an account of that friendship, its professional beginnings and how it flowered into something deeper. Men do not come across well in this account. Here’s Danny Kaye jumping on Ponedel in a hotel room whilst she’s asleep and pretending he’ assaulting her for a practical joke. Ha Ha: the humour curdles the blood. Here’s Minnelli, distant, ineffectual, complete powerless to help, uncaring of the many adventures Garland is undertaking with other men; here’s Sid Luft, exhibiting the classic behaviour of an abuser and stealing her money; worse he’s stealing her money whilst she knows he’s stealing her money and she lets him because…well, one can always make more money.
It’s quite an extraordinary tale, partial, lacking in context, but offering information one doesn’t get elsewhere and told with a personality that jumps off the page. I recommend.
I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?
In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).
Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful
There are innumerable reasons to value Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944): it’s not only one of the great works of cinema but possibly the ur-text of what started off as a cycle of films and eventually became a genre: film noir. It’s got dialogue that still snaps, a structure so tight nothing’s extraneous, lighting so expressive it’s led critics like Richard Schickel to see the film as, ‘a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows’. I love the actors, the badinage between Edward G. Robinson and Fred Macmurray, the tough-guy voiceover, the way the film evokes a combination of cool cynicism and overheated desire. Its influence continues to be felt. As we can see in the cabezudos scene in Almodóvar’s La mala educación/Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004), Double Indemnity’s images are instantly recognisable, regularly re-deployed, still very evident in the culture and still wielding power (see clip below).
My own favourite moment (see clip at the very top) is a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck in the scene where Phyllis (Stanwyck) is driving her husband to the station whilst Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is hiding in the back seat waiting to off him. Her husband’s been haranguing her, ‘why do you turn here!’ She honks the horn. ‘What are you doing that for!’ Then, as if to answer him, the camera cuts to Walter crouched in the back and rising for the kill. The film then cuts back to a close-up of Stanwyck. ‘Why are you honking the horn!’ as we hear a thud. The camera remains on her face as her husband gets killed and it’s this moment that remains indelible to me.
What do we see on Stanwyck’s face? She bounces with apprehension at the blow that kills her husband, mouth a little open. Then, as lights ricochet past her face, what does Stanwyck convey about Phyllis’ thinking and feeling in that last close-up before the scene dissolves? Disquiet, a hardness, efficiency, a vengeful ‘he only got what he deserved’ look, the slightest glimmer of a smile; could it be glee? And could it be sexual? One feels it’s so without knowing quite why. It’s in that evocation of the precise and the evanescent, the material and that which reverberates just out of reach – it has so many associations it can’t quite be pinned down – that Stanwyck’s great artistry makes itself manifest. It’s a glorious moment, one of many, and part of the reason why, to quote Woody Allen, Double Indemnity is ‘Billy Wilder’s greatest film, practically anybody’s greatest film’.
PS In a wonderful conference on noir at the University of Warwick on 19th of May 2017 — Hardboiled History: A Noir Lens on America’s Past — Kulraj Pullar speaking on ‘Veronica Lake and L.A. Confidential: Nostalgia, anachronism and film history’ iterated a fascinating redeployment of Baldwin’s notion that the ‘negro’ is a white invention in relation to the femme fatale. I don’t identify, I didn’t create, I don’t need the negro says Baldwin: so how, when and why do white people need this term? Thus how, when and why do men need femme fatales like Stanwyck’s Phyllis?