I’ve long argued that many noirs are male melodramas about men who meet the wrong women and die from love. This is PechaKucha aims to reveal those elements in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers,
I’ve long argued that many noirs are male melodramas about men who meet the wrong women and die from love. This is PechaKucha aims to reveal those elements in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers,
A 62-minute-long, 1940 B-movie whose director you haven’t heard of and whose top-billed star has barely ten minutes of screen time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stranger on the Third Floor is nothing remarkable, but its reputation precedes it: Here we behold, if the legends are true, the first film noir.
José, a lover of noir, both likes and dislikes this line. On the one hand, it enjoyably disrupts what is already a fairly shaky narrative of noir beginning practically overnight in 1941; on the other, noir is a term that encompasses many visual styles, stories, character types, associated genres and influences, and artistic movements like this develop gradually, not immediately. But this taxonomic discussion says nothing of Stranger on the Third Floor‘s quality.
And for a good fifteen minutes or so, that quality is not promising, but the film explodes into life upon the protagonist’s descent into a hallucinatory nightmare brought on by guilt and fear. It’s José’s first time seeing the film, and immediately he proclaims its dream sequence as one of cinema’s greatest. And throughout the film, before, during and after this central visual treat, there is conveyed a vivid sense of the difficulties of life in Depression-era America, alongside a severe critique of the absurdity of a justice system that can be relied upon to offer nothing of the sort. All of which is to say nothing of Peter Lorre, who imbues his titular stranger with both understandable threat and surprising empathy.
So, Stranger on the Third Floor, The First Film Noir, is rather more than an historical curio. It embodies stylistic and thematic developments that were taking place in American cinema of its era, though the question of what counts as first is best left to those who think it’s even deserving of an answer, let alone possible to establish one. It’s a film that is on its own terms deserving of your attention, and in between its B-movie cheapness and clunkiness, offers something truly great.
A film of Arthur Miller´s famous play that made me think about Pauline Kael’s views on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, something like, ‘People argue about whether this is cinema or merely filmed theatre. I don’t care, whatever it is, it’s great’. The play, now considered a great American classics, opened to mix reviews in 1947, its run prolonged mainly by Brooks Atkinson´s appreciation in The New York Times which, according to Christopher Bigspy in Arthur Miller, ´welcomed a new talent and praised All My Sons as an honest and forceful drama, identifying Arthur Miller´s talent for unselfconscious dialogue, for creating characters as individuals with hearts and minds of their own (p.282). Word of mouth made it a hit, and in April of 1947 it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best play over Eugene O´Neill´s The Iceman Cometh.
I saw the film in two stages. In the first, which amounted to the first act, you’re introduced to the characters: Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson), a rich industrialist who’d been taken to trial for manufacturing and shipping defective plane parts that caused the death of 21 airmen but found innocent by a jury; His wife Kate, (Mady Christians), warm, dutiful, and with a core strength, who nonetheless seems to be living in a fantasy world where horoscopes matter and her son Larry, a pilot who’s been missing in action for three years, is still alive; their other son, Chris (Burt Lancaster), back from the war, working with the Dad he seems to worship, and having fallen in love with Anne (Louisa Horton), who used to be Larry’s girl.
Watching the first part, it seemed to me that the film was going to be about Chris being able to marry Anne without sending Kate to an early grave. It had brilliant dialogue and the actor are magnificent. But it looked so dull. The direction is atrocious, like a film made by someone who knew nothing of the medium, the camera first using establishing shots and then merely following or focussing on whoever’s speaking next. I see that that’s not actually the case and that aside from filming many of the films in the Falcon series, Irving Reis also directed films that are still remembered including The Big Street (1942) Crack-up (1946 ), and The Batchelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947). But let’s just say he’s not a major visual stylist.
After I returned to the film, I saw the last two acts in one swoop, and it made me better understand those who go to cinemas to see filmed plays even without a live broadcast. This is such a great play and it seems more relevant now than ever. According to Kate Burford in her great biography of Lancaster, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, the film was made at a time when ‘the mistakes, chicanery and treachery of the home front’ during the war had become the stuff of daily postwar headlines. The New York Times would suggest that screenwriter Chester Erksine, had carefully deleted from the original play anything that might explicitly suggest that there are ‘faults in the capitalist system’ and had confined the drama to the greed of one man (Loc 1455 on Kindle). But what drama!
As the play unfolds, we find out that Anne, the girl Chris wants to marry ,is not only his brother’s ex but that her father is the man who’s taken the fall for sending defective equipment, and that Larry is not just missing in action but that he committed suicide out of shame for what his father had done. After worshipping him all his life, the son even raises his hands to the father, which when it’s Burt Lancaster raising it to Edward G. Robinson, is really something to see: ‘You can be better’, he tells him, ‘Once and for all you know that the whole earth comes in through those fences. That there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible for it’. In the end the father realises that all those young airmen who died because he shipped defective equipment were also his children, thus the title, All My Sons.
The film might not be great cinema but it does offer the opportunity of seeing two great stars — Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson — performing in one of the great plays of the era. The casting might at first seem incongruous: Burt Lancaster as Edward G. Robinson´s son? But movies have their own logic. They´re both movie stars and so they belong together, they share a consanguinity of stardom. Plus their differences in shapes and sizes also evoke something of the ideology of the era and the message of the play. The parents not too distant from the old country and the journey that brought them to America, building a base there so that the next generation can be safer, bigger, better, stronger; and then how that their focus rests so squarely on themselves and their immediate family blinds them to a larger community, to full citizenship and its inherent responsibilities.
I found passages in the film like the one above very moving. It´s the siren song of immigrant parents, the dream that gives their life strength, meaning and purpose. To hear a truly great actor like Edward G. Robinson say lines like this is, as you can see above, a thrill: ‘I want a clean start for you kid…I´m going to build you a house….I want you to use what I made for you …with joy not with shame. Sometimes I think you´re ashamed of the money…..Because it´s good money. There´s nothing wrong with that money´
Edward G. Robinson´s other aria, sparked by the moment when Burt Lancaster as the son begins to clock about his father´s actions on the line, ‘If you want to know ask Joe,’ I find unbearably moving, ‘Can´t you trust your own father? …. My own son…. Going behind my back’. The betrayal Joe feels, the hurt Chris knows he´s inflicting on someone he loves. The lashing out by the father. It´s familiarity crept up on me and its resonance moved me: ‘I don´t have to explain. Not to you. You´re my son. You´re in it with me. My flesh and blood. You wear my clothes. Eat My Food. You live in my home. I don´t have to explain to you. If I´m guilty, then you´re guilty too’. And of course, it´s a thematic pivot: Joe´s actions have also become Chris´s responsibility. His very father tells him so. And thus he must make his father answer.
Burt Lancaster here plays the juvenile role. The quiet, All-American, typical boy next door. But Chris has been to the war. He´s survived it. And he´s now in love and wants a future. And he feels guilty, probably about both surviving the war and having fallen in love with his brother´s girl. Lancaster well conveys the sensitivity of Chris, his love for his father and his mother, the slow dawning that his father and therefore he himself is also responsible for what happened. He doesn´t offer the nuances or the bravado that Edward G. Robinson does. In much of the movie, he represents rather than acts. But the scene where he jumps on his father, the violence of an action both of them would have found unimaginable a few weeks before, is truly frightening and heart-breaking.
It´s also another part he´d had to fight for. According to Burford, ‘Ignoring (Hal) Wallis´doubts and Erskine´s protests that signing him was ´like casting Boris Karloff as a baby sitter,’ Lancaster pushed hard for the untough guy loanout part of Chris…’I wanted to play Chris Keller,’ he told one reporter, ‘because he had the courage to make his father realize that he was just as responsible for the deaths of many servicemen as if he had murdered them’. Happy for the chance to portray ‘an average guy — a solid character with high standards,’ his own best dream of himself, he insisted that his choice was a step forward in the direction he, not any studio, had chosen. The overnight star that Universal called ‘the hottest thing in pictures’ was not acting like one. ‘(Burford, Kindle location 1466)
According to Christopher Bigsby in Arthur Miller, Miller himself derided the film, ´Watching the film forty years later, he found the result, starring Edward G. Robinson, a laughable melodrama that ought to be burned. His speeches had been re-written and all the subtleties blasted away(p.282)´ If so, he’s quite wrong. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a thrill to see great actors attack a great play like this. In the clip above, after Robinson has displayed his genius in the aria where he accepts responsibility it’s left up to Burt Lancaster to once more underline the theme of the play, the taking of responsibility : ‘It’s not enough to be sorry…you can be better….that’s there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible to i’ and then that great moment with the mother as she goes into the father’s room. It’s not a great movie. But I found the experience of watching it very moving.
The film is often described as a noir, which baffled me a bit. As you can see in the images there is noir lighting throughout, very effectively deployed, particularly in the scenes where Chris and Anne first kiss, their faces barely visible, the relationship haunted by the past and the actions of their parents, and there are more examples of that throughout the film (see examples below).
It didn´t seem to me to be a noir but I was perhaps stuck on it being an adaptation and overly focussing on noir in terms of recurrent techniques (though see examples of Russell Metty´s superb noir cinematography above) or narrative conventions (though there are flashbacks). However, if one focusses on thematic and atmospheric attributes one might come to a different conclusion. According to Robert Sklar in Movie-Made America, ‘the hallmark of film noir is its sense of people trapped — trapped in a web of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false (p.253) ‘. Thomas Schatz in Boom and Bust: Hollywood in the 1940s, notes that David Cook follows a similar tack, describing film noir as a ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ whose films thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and the utterly unheroic nature of human beings.’ Cook notes that this style first emerged during the war but reached full maturity only with the paranoia, pessimism, and social angst of the postwar era(p.232).´
Seen that way, All My Sons is a noir. But more importantly, though not a great movie, it remains a great opportunity to see great actors perform in a great piece. I for one was surprised at how moving I found it.
Those interested in such things may want to look at the billing in the three posters at the top of this post. Edward G. Robinson is top billed in the first and second. This is before his career began to suffer from the blacklist almost from the time this film was released. You can see that Lancaster receives solo top billing in the third, poster, a historical erasure of both Robinson´s position in the industry then and what he brings to the role.
Sorry Wrong Number is about a woman — bedridden, confined, and isolated — who overhears plans for a murder on a crossed telephone line and comes to realise that the victim of that murder is herself. It´s based on the eponymous radio play from 1943, one of the most famous of its time, in which Agnes Moorehead gave such a legendary performance that she would forever more be associated with it. She did many versions. The one that aired on CBSon 9/6/45 can be listened to here. Lucille Fletcher fleshed out her play for the movies, not too successfully. The film, a big hit in its time, remains a good watch, though it does drag in the last third, and there are too many unnecessary asides (the police inspector with the black child is particularly annoying).
It´s hard for me to think of a film star other than Barbara Stanwyck in the part of Leona Stevenson. Who else would have dared come across as so unlikeable? Leona is a spoiled, selfish, rich girl. A daddy´s girl used to getting everything she wants. And she´s not above buying her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster) and then feigning illness to keep him. I was surprised to see Sorry, Wrong Number does not get even a mention in Andrew Klevan´s otherwise excellent Barbara Stanwyck from the BFI´s Film Star series (London:2013). There are of course so many other great Stanwyck performances to choose from (Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, and this to mention only a few that Klevan does deal with). But this is one of her most famous and one of the four she received an Oscar Nomination for (Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941)and Double Indemnity (1944) being the others.
But perhaps Klevan didn´t appreciate the performance. In Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman Dan Callahan deems it her most flagrant Oscar bid: ´the showy role of bedridden neurotic Leona Stevenson calls for something more along the lines of the scenery-chewing style of a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford than it does Stanwyck´s best life-or-death realness. …As of her high-pressure work in Wrong, Number, I’m glad she didn´t win for this atypical, sloppy picture; it´s not at all representative of her talent, her artistry, or her overall style'(p.175). Perhaps, and Callahan does a great job of dissecting what he sees as the weaknesses of Stanwyck´s performance in his book. But I don´t agree. It´s a fearless performance. She plays an unlikeable, controlling, possessive and neurotic woman so well, the audience ends up disliking the character whilst eliciting pity that a love that is deeply felt should take that form. I suppose I *can* see Crawford and Davis in the part but I can´t imagine them being better.
Callahan notes that ´Lancaster is ill at ease in his role — great to look at but still green as an actor, (p.174). Callaghan´s criticism, that he lets Stanwyck push him around in their scenes together, is to me part of his success in the part.. However, according to Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life: ‘When (Hal) Wallis described Sorry, Wrong Number — Henry Stevenson, a boy-toy weakling, tries to get out from under the control of his rich invalid wife, Barbara Stanwyck´s queen bitch, Leona, by having her murdered — Lancaster said, ´Why not me?’ Wallis objected that he was too strong for the part of Stevenson, but Lancaster insisted that the audience would be more interested in watching a strong man become weak. In the first of what would be a series of roles in which the star was cast against type, Wallis gave in. It was also the beginning of another career motif for Lancaster: getting himself cast opposite strong, experienced, intimidating women’ ((loc. 1695 on Kindle edition).
Burton himself was happy with his performance: ‘I really sweated bullets on that one’, said Lancaster. ‘This was the first part with which I couldn´t identify Lancaster on the screen. Usually there´s some movement, some characteristics which you recognise as your own. But not this one. Ten minutes after I walked into the theater I gave up looking for Lancaster. Seemed like a different person up there. It´s a good movie´ (Minty Clinch, Burt Lancaster, 1984, pp.24-25)
The scene above is critical in establishing the dynamic between Leona and Henry. The camera moves in on Leona and dissolves on the voicing of Sally Hunt (Anne Richards), with a gleeful little smile as we dissolve into her memory of how she first met Henry. We see a crowded dance-hall as Henry and Sally come into view and we´re made to see Sally´s adoring look and Henry´s response to it: they´re a couple in love. And then of course Leona cuts in. This is a critical scene in that we need to see that Henry´s gorgeous, that he´s happy, and that he´s happily involved with Sally. This is the moment where Leona will begin to ruin his life. The film has to communicate what Leona sees in him, which as you can see in the scene above and in the gifs below, it does very well.
Henry´s handsome, taken, ostensibly independent. But someone who can and will be bought. As the poster tell us, ´Heiress to millions….who bought everything she wanted…Including this man!
The ability to buy anything, including love, means however that Leona is never sure whether he loves her or just her money. Thus the the increasing and not entirely psychosomatic illnesses: Leona gets progressively bedridden but it is tied to her not getting what she wants at all times,. It´s her way of manipulating people´s responses to her needs, which is all that she sees, acknowledges and thinks about; and will be what drives Henry to plan a murder he too will come to regret in the end.
Sorry, Wrong Number was a prestige picture: and adaptation of a popular and critical success from another medium. According to Michelangelo Capua in Anatole Litvak: The Life and Movies, ´(it was) a 22 minute radio play….made popular by Agnes Moorehead in a tour-de-force performance in 1943. The play was so successful that it was rebroadcast seven times and translated into fifteen languages´(p.78). It is also, however a noir, with Burt Lancaster as the homme fatale, an interesting counterpoint to his Swede in Siodmak´s The Killers (1946). It´s about desire cutting through class, murder, a connection to the underworld, the night, drug trafficking, and, in its own way, an ode to the telephone. Visually, cinematographer Sol Polito encases the whole film in a world of shadows with a restlessly moving camera, evoking the jitteryness of things that lurk, are half seen, as is demonstrated in this great scene below
But the scene above though crucial — it happens just before the murder — is not an isolated instance and Polito tries to capture a consistent look and use of lighting throughout (see image capture below)
It´s a film that looks great, has terrific use of sound, a legendary central performance from Barbara Stanwyck, and one that makes the most of Burt Lancaster´s appeal. However, it does also feel like a film that´s padded out, filled in, with sequences that seem extraneous. These are mostly the ones with Lancaster and it´s not his fault. These are the scenes that were largely added in to flesh out a short radio play into a feature-length film. I´m not sure how I feel about Anatole Litvak´s direction, some of the shots like the one I giffed above of Burt peeking, are superb, but this is yet another of his Hollywood films — like All This and Heaven Too, City for Conquestthat feels narratively bloated: terrific shot to shot but unsatisfying taken as a whole, inflated plots, convoluted structures, lethargic pacing.
A landmark noir with a superb opening sequence (see below): we see some men through their shadows reflected on a wall. They’re fighting. The only light source seems to be from a lamp and the light gets extinguished as it falls on the floor. For a moment we only hear sounds. Then the lamp gets turned on again but we only see a person below the waist. We follow that person’s feet and they reveal a body on the floor. The man searches its pockets. The first man grabs the other man, clearly drunk, and we see only their legs as they leave through the door. The camera then pans back to allow us to gaze on the body on the floor. There’s a dissolve and the body gets turned over to show us it’s now clearly a corpse with a man we will come to know as Captain Finley asking a woman, ‘Was Samuels drunk when you left him at the bar’?
It’s a great opening, all shadows, mystery, half-seen moments of violence. Who are these two men? What were they doing there? Which one is the killer? Why did he kill? These are questions the film sets up. They’ll be answered progressively and only fully at the end. In the meantime the world of the film is dramatically conveyed: darkness, violence, murder, mystery, murkyness. And it´s got a particular and particularly resonant context. These are all returning soldiers who have been demobbed but have yet to find their way home, in a liminal, transitory space, with many of them not yet adapted to a civilian context and some still processing trauma. The world created is a vivid one.
Crossfire is based on novel by Richard Brooks, The Brick Foxhole. In the novel the cause of the murder was homophobia. The film changes it to anti-Semitism, newly unacceptable after Auschwitz, and denunciations of which were then in vogue: Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, made the same year, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
According to Thomas Schatz in Boom or Bust:’ In 1947, Hollywood’s film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. Crossfire, for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject element of both the message picture and the police procedural:the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book (p.379)’.
What anti-semitism brings as motive and cause to a crime film and police procedural like Crossfire is that it´s particularly difficult to prove. Robert Young, nice, steady Robert Young — to my generation forever Marcus Welby MD– is top-billed but burdened with the thankless task of delivering the film´s message, offered in the most cringey and condescending way possible. According to Pauline Kael, ‘There are condescending little messages on the evils of race prejudice that make you squirm; this is the patina of 40s melodrama’. It´s difficult to disagree with the former but I´m not sure about the latter.
In many ways, the film is an archetypal noir: flashbacks that offer different perspectives on the action; unreliable narration, subjective camera on scenes evoking drunkenness that are all canted angles out of focus, and marvellous to see,;low-key lighting often deploying one source (see above). It´s got a great look from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt; and Dmytrik is wonderful at creating interesting compositions (see below):
…and at choosing just the right angles for maximum expressiveness, such as the way the film suggests the very real threat and power that Montgomery (Robert Ryan) represents (see below):
According to J.R. Jones in The Lives of Robert Ryan:´Dmytryk also chose his lenses to make Monty look increasingly crazed: at first his close-ups were shot with a fifty-millimeter lens, but this was reduced to forty, thirty-five, and ultimately twnty-five millimeter. ¨When the 25mm lens was used, Ryan´s face was also greased with cocoa butter,¨Dmytryk recalled, ¨the shiny skin, with every pore delineated, gave him a truly menacing appearance¨(p.59).
Crossfire is exciting to watch. But it´s also blunt and capable of great crudity — not just thematically, as in the homilies offered by Robert Young´s Finlay but also through it´s mise-en-scène. Note below how Ginny, the hooker marvellously played by Gloria Grahame is introduced via a dissolve of a trash can (see gif below)
Robert Ryan nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Gloria Grahame won for Best Supporting Actress. Sam Levene is the victim. George Cooper is Mitchell, the fall-guy. Robert Mitchum was clearly used just for box-office and is completely wasted.
The film was a B produced by Adrian Scott, later one of the Hollywood Ten. It´s box office success would launch Dore Schary from producing B´s at RKO into his running of MGM, still for while, the ‘Tiffany´s’ of the studio. It´s the product of progressive filmmakers then at RKO who wanted to make a difference (Schary, Scott, Dmytryk) and was praised for it´s worthyness. But it was also , one of a series of films that led to the famous saying, ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union.’
To say that it´s a landmark is not to say that it´s great.
It’s got Robert Ryan and some great noir lighting, and it’s of undoubted historical interest. Yet, I Married a Communist aka as The Woman on the Pier 13 is hard to watch and even harder to say anything good about. Ostensibly Howard Hughes used it as a loyalty test for directors. Many (Huston, Ray etc) turned him down. Robert Stevenson took the job. Ryan’s wife told their son that the choice the actor faced was take the job or lose the career.
Scott (Robert Ryan) is a coastguard who’s boat was torpedoed during the war and is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend, Eve (Nan Leslie), and they’re planning to marry. But he´s not quite well and they decide to wait. Big mistake. One day he meets a woman on the beach, Peggy (Joan Bennett). She’s no good. She’s married to a blind painter, Tod (Charles Bickford) and has already cheated on him once before. For Scott, meeting Peggy is like coming out of a fog and into a compulsion, and is beautifully visualised for us by Renoir (see below).
For Peggy meeting Scott is… well who knows for sure. The film leaves it deliciously ambiguous. Sometimes the film indicates that he’s just some bit of juicy meat to her. Other times, a means out of an increasingly self destructive and interdependent relationship with her husband. As you can see below, she admits to cheating on her husband before: ‘I’m a tramp, say it. ‘And whilst she admits to being a tramp she certainly makes no apologies for it. Watching Bennett, perhaps the surliest female presence in all of American cinema, is a pleasure all film noir lovers will recognise.
In Jean Renoir: A Biography, Pascal Mérigeau writes that, ´Renoir knew that he wouldn´t be able, as he´d confirm after the project, to attempt something that I´d wanted to do for a long time: a film about what you´d call sex today..but envisioned from the point of view of the purely physical,¨and that it would be impossible ¨to tell a story about love in which the reasons for attraction between the different parties were purely physical, a story in which sentiment would play no part at all¨ (location 11636, Kindle edition).
The film has a discourse on art by someone who should know: Renoir fils learned a thing or two about it from his father and his friends: the painter who can no longer see, who’s vision is entirely encapsulated in paintings increasingly gaining in value because he can no longer make them, who’s tied to the past in those works and thus also imprisons she whom he loves most, a woman who might only be staying with him for what those paintings are worth…it’s almost too much as a plot though Bickford is wonderful as the blind but still controlling husband, his gaze almost always in the right place so it rouses suspicions as to whether he really is blind.
The nightmare sequences at the beginning and end are wonderfully modernist. The first one, which starts the film is below:
…and useful to compare to the one near the end:
Renoir is extraordinary in creating a mood, a sense of physical compulsion in which questions of morality are over-ridden by desires that can’t be fully comprehended. Mérigeau writes, ‘there´s nothing to please a viewer who may have been attracted to the idea of seeing a film noir. Although it truly is a film noir, it contains no crime other than those that might exist in the minds of the characters, who need to get rid of their traumas, obsessions, and fantasies if they are ever to escape their deep, adherent isolation’ (location 11738)
The ending makes no sense to me. It is perhaps arrived at too quickly and I plan on looking into the production history of the film at a later point (and due to the wonders of social media Adrian Martin has kindly pointed out to me that Janet Bergstrom has written a dossier on the troubled production, Janet Bergstrom, ‘Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,¨Film History 11 (1) (1999) 114-125) ..But I loved it in spite of that and plan to see it again.
The Woman on the Beach was Renoir’s last American film, one in which he says, ‘I wanted to proceed more by suggestion than by demonstration: a film of acts never carried out..This gives the film an ambiguity that well-complements its intensity: strong feelings not quite understood but carried on into actions, many of them later regretted.
It´s a film Renoir tried to forget, without ever quite disowning. It´s certainly imperfect. But it´s also a very beautiful film, a hypnotic presentation of a lulling into sexual desire and physical compulsion that deserves to be seen again and again in spite of its faults
Pascal Mérigeau: Jean Renoir: A Biography, RatPac Press, 2016, translated by Bruce Benderson with a Foreword by Martin Scorsese.
Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) is a vet suffering the after-effects of his wartime experiences. But it wasn’t the fighting that got to him. He had a good war. What caused his fall was a woman, a woman whom he married and whom he caught in bed with a fellow soldier from his own squadron, his best friend. He killed the friend, was court-marshalled for it, and let off lightly due to his wartime record. His life is like a ride on the Styx, on his way to the underworld, and he’s never been able to trust a woman since. He’s going out with Fran (Lizabeth Scott) and she’s crazy about him but he can’t commit. The past is a darkness he carries throughout the film.
Danny has fallen low. His father was a West Point man. He graduated from Cornell. As the film begins he’s lucky to escape a police raid on a gambling joint he’s got a share in. Danny and his friends hustle Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) out of a 5000 check and Arthur commits suicide as a result. But it turns out the mark has a psycho brother, recently in from Montreal, who’s discovered the cause of his brother’s death and is out to kill each of the people involved in the hustle, one by one.
The story is rather hackneyed and the device of showing the murderer only by a ringed hand (see above) until the end is worse than that. But this is a film that vibrates with longing and disappointment. It’s Charlton Heston’s first Hollywood film. He gets an ‘Introducing’ credit. But his is the leading part and he comes off as a star from the first: the handsome face, the deep voice, the huge height softened by an endearing duck waddle of a walk. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther declared him a new star: ‘tall, tweedy, rough-hewn sort of chap who looks like a triple-threat halfback on a midwestern college football team…He has a quiet but assertive magnetism, a youthful dignity and a plainly potential sense of timing that is the good actor’s sine qua non. (p.47).‘
Heston is very good, an indication of the actor he could have been had he not seen himself as an exceptional person destined to tower over ‘great’ roles, by which he usually meant merely historical personages. He’s down and out here, anguished and troubled. Young still with a potential future ahead of him; and though he’s burdened by the past, he´s not yet been done in by it. Heston is all brooding intensity here, always present in relation to other actors, and capable of exciting bursts of action.
In his biography of Charlton Marc Eliot writes that Heston himself didn’t really like the film: ´Dieterle was a good director and I gave him a good performance, if no more than that…’ With the passage of time, however, Heston grew less kind about his first film outing: ‘I don’t think Dark City is a good film…It’s like The Movie of the Week, strictly a television movie….after you’ve done six or seven films, you can survive a mediocre one. But when a mediocre one is your first film, it’s a little dicey (p.48).’
To call this a television movie is indeed to disparage just how much Dieterle does for the film. The opening sequence (see stills above) is rendered dynamic by the moving camera, the canted angles, the close-ups of things like microphones when the police barge in. Look at how beautifully Dieterle deploys film form in the clip below: the close-up on the mark, the camera moving backward to encompass everyone around the table; the choice of dissolve to edit with to convey the passage of time; the interesting choice of angles, often keeping the cards within the frame, and so on.
I resent Heston´s statement because he´s incapable of noticing or appreciating just how much the filmmakers are doing for him personally, that he comes across as a star in his first Hollywood outing is not entirely due to him. See in the clip above how the light favours Heston in almost every instance. Even when it´s sidelight it´s to show him to advantage (see how the light hits his lips below and not his friend on the left)
Even the narrative is designed to favour him. Lizabeth Scott is given some great songs to sing: ‘I Don´t Want to Walk Without You’, ‘A Letter From a Lady in Love’, ‘That Old Black Magic’. ‘I Wish I Didn´t Love You So’, ‘If I Didn´t Have You’. Whilst she constantly demeans her own skill in singing, she´s actually not bad. She sings her feelings for him in the nightclubs, and it´s all unrequited. He doesn´t want her to crowd him, fence him in: for him, it´s a casual affair. But note that in their conversations, she´s given the job of recounting plot that usually befalls supporting or even bit players whilst he´s given the star´s job of reacting, feeling. The narrative favours him in lighting and even in the shadowiest of composition.
I´m sure the filmmakers didn´t intend to do in Scott but her June Allyson haircut is definitely not to her advantage. Also, for all her fame, Edith Head isn´t doing her any favours here. That ridiculous thing glued to her chest in the third picture below, the way the top falls over the skirt in the second, the bunched up stuff on her right shoulder in the first. Mind you Scott is playing a simpering masochist of a part, and the songs are great. But she´s not filmed with half the attention Heston is.
The movie has many pleasures, including a brilliant bit with a cat (see below):
Dark City has a great supporting cast, including Viveca Lindors playing the part of the mark’s ex-wife, and a metaphor for what might have been for Danny. It also has a great noir look executed by cinematographer Victor Millner (see below):
Dark City is not a great film but it’s a very enjoyable noir with an intense performance from Heston made more brilliant by its setting: achieved by creating an underworld he can travel through, positioning him amongst two pulls (Scott and Linfors), enveloping him in a cloud of torch songs sung to and for him, and shining a light on him throughout. Ingrate.
One of the reasons I love noir is because it puts failure front and centre, as theme, plot, setting, characterisation. In noir we see men who can´t cope with the aftereffects of the war, social ideals of who they should be, women who are smarter than they are, feelings they should be able to control but can´t. Noir understands and heroicises failure without ever quite redeeming it
. In Guilty Bystander, Max Thursday (Zachary Scott) used to be a cop but took to drink. Now he´s working in a fleabag hotel, ostensibly as a house detective but really just dossing in between drinks. His ex-wife (Faye Emerson) turns up to tell him their son´s been kidnapped. Will he be able to put the drink aside and save his son?
The narrative takes us through dimly lit corridors, passageways, subway stations and what used to be called the tenderloin: cheap dives, doss houses, docks, abandoned warehouses. The underbelly, dimly lit.
Zachary Scott, probably best remembered as Mildred Pierce´s weak, amoral and incestuous lover, is perfectly cast here. That handsome face and velvety eyes, but slight, weak willed, his hands shaking due to drink and his mind flitting from desire to oblivion, The plot is pulpy, and not very well conveyed, I got lost in bits of it. But it doesn´t matter. What makes this film are the way it´s lit, the shadows and bars, the hard-boiled dialogue that sometimes crosses over into the risible, a surprising villain, and a last great performance from Mary Boland as Smitty. The film ends with happy families that are easy to ignore and easier to forget. What one remembers is the trembling, the shadows, the bars that symbolically convey the protagonists many and varied forms of imprisonment, A true B, newly restored, and worth seeing.
Image-notes in chronological order:
When Shelley Winters took on small roles because they were great parts, she had herself billed as Miss Shelley Winters, like Miss Ruth Chatterton or all the other stars of yesteryear with pretensions to being great artists. The appellation never felt pretentious on her, partly because she was a great artist, partly because she was the kind of gal who told her audience about her annual trysts with Burt Lancaster.
In the great scene below Miss Shelley Winters as ‘Dixie Evans’ reveals how the studios in the classic era exploited bit players like her, women who were already damaged in some way, hired them for their figures, kept them hanging around with bit roles, exchanged sexual favours for the expectation of larger roles that never came, and used them to entertain visiting dignitaries. Cheaper than hiring hookers. Odets knew how to write, albeit a bit floridly, and he was part of that world and knew what he was talking about. And Shelley had been one of those girls for a long time before her eventual success, and had roomed with Marilyn Monroe: she also knew and she could certainly act it out and communicate it.
A film noir travelogue, part of the runway production of the 50s but in minor key, black and white but cinemascope, American stars on the way down (Victor Mature), European stars on the way up (Anita Ekberg) with local stars in key roles: Trevor Howard is the villanous dope smuggler, insouciant, heartless, a prefiguring of Bond but accenting the seamy, the sordid, the dark. Sid James makes an appearance, and an impression, as the barman of a junkie hot-spot.
The film has a great opening shot which plays over the credits of a car going through Manhattan´s downtown and into Times Square. It´s my favourite sequence in the film, and is so good the Arrow Academy blu-ray shows it to you again, without the titles super-imposed. It´s just a travelling, shot from within a moving car, but it shows the huge theatres of the time, the Astor, the Capitol and so on, with the huge electronic marquees showing the big attractions of the era (Judy Holliday in The Solid Gold Cadillac, mixed in with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner in The Mountain, and Elvis Presley and Debra Paget, plus films like Teenage Rebel and so on) in twinkling lights at night. A cinephile dream of a shot for those who love the night life as much as the night
The film itself is a pulpy noir with great atmospheric low-key lighting as you can see below. Victor Mature is Charles Sturgis, a New York Cop. His sister has been killed and in order to find the killer, he goes to London and joins forces with Interpol. Clues lead him to follow Gina Broger (Anita Ekberg) who eventually leads him to Frank McNally (Trevor Howard)
Glamorous locations (New York, London, Lisbon, Rome, Naples, Athens):
Via chasing the dope-fiend we get to experience some of the great capitals of Europe, shot on location, and pre-figuring some of the work producer Albert Broccoli would go on to do with the Bond series.
Director John Gilling has a good eye for compositions (see below) and there is much of interest visually in the film. However, whilst it´s always interesting to look at, it also feels not fully realised, as if the compositions don´t convey enough about characterisation or drama and fulfil only the role of eye/catching atmospherics.
Again, pre-figuring Bond but on a smaller scale are some of the action set-pieces in the film, as you can see below, chases over the rooftops of Athens, fights in the docks of New York, interestingly visualised by having to run over barrels or being lifted up by cranes.
A fascinating noir, interesting for all the reasons mentioned above and more, but not quite one of the best: Victor Mature looks like he´s been shagging all night, bored and half-asleep, rousing energy only when it´s time to hit someone. Anita Ekberg looks extraordinary but is only used for her looks. Trevor Howard looks much older than his years, a thought quickly erased by the vivid performance he ends up giving. Gillings shot everything slightly wonky, which I¨m sure is meant to have an expressive effect but ends up also being irritating. And the treatment never rises above the pulpiness of its material, both a weakness and a strength.
A film noir I hadn´t seen before. Cheap, pulpy, lurid, hard-boiled, and rotten to its core. Just the way I like ’em. A bag of cash is thrown into the wrong car and the rest of the film is about everyone it doesn´t belong to trying to get their hands on it. Lizabeth Scott makes a bid to be the most fatal of femmes in the whole of film noir. She lies, and lies and lies. She cons and schemes and scams and is also able to come up with a new story every time she´s cornered. She´s so cool and collected she drives even Dan Duryea to drink. ´Don´t ever change,’ he tells her, ‘I wouldn´t like to see what you´re like with a heart’. Good thing because her heart is nowhere evident. Men fall like flies. Scott is totally inexpressive and completely great. She only livens up when her eyes focus on cash, diamonds or furs. Her heart beats only to the good life and she positively glistens to a kill. As to the saps…I mean the men… Oy, vey! The film is nothing special visually. Except for Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, the cast is second-rate. But it´s got real narrative propulsion and completely basks in the seamy underside of life like great pulp is meant to. I loved it.
The Arrow Academy transfer is a pleasure to watch with very fine extras by Alex K Rode and a documentary on the film´s restoration. A must have for noir aficionados.
Considered by some to be his best film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious comes to the mac in a beautiful 4k restoration. We explore its sumptuous close-ups, complex characterisation and smart, effective editing, which elicited big responses from the audience. We also have an argument about focus pulling.
Below, you can see several screenshots and four clips of moments and scenes to which we refer in the podcast.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
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.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
I’ve seen this great heist film, one of the very darkest of noirs, before. What makes this noir different from all the others is that each character is not only mired in an underworld of greed, corruption and crime but also possessed of a kind of grace, be it Dix Handley’s (Sterling Hayden) code of honour in relation to his friendships and his dignity, or the kindness that’s at the core of Alonzo D. Emmerich’s (Louis Calhern) elegant putridness.
What struck me most this last viewing were the following:
a)It hadn’t quite registered before how striking and original are the compositions of the images in the film. I’ve included a selection below; everything is elegant but also off-kilter, like throwing a curve to the classical; motivated, expressive, almost standard; but by not quite being so making one see things afresh. Often, the camera is placed quite low so one’s always looking up at characters that loom but that are also hemmed-in by ceilings, lamps, shades, doorways
b)I was struck anew by Sterling Hayden’s handsomeness in this film. His Dix Handley is someone who once had it all but lost it, doing his best to get it back but also prone to quick excitement and danger, making a quick buck with a gun but losing it just as quickly on the track. The scar on his face a symbol of the scars he carries inside. The combination of Hayden’s handsomeness, the sadness in his eyes, and the elegant resignation of his bearing evoke fatality (see below). A man dreaming of the fields and horses of his youth but taking a detour on the road to nowhere.
c) Seeing Marilyn Monroe, in one of the first roles in which she made an impression — the other this same year was as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Acting in All About Eve — one is struck again by her charisma. She commands attention and gives this odd impression of being at once amateurish, inept — her line readings are hesitant, artificial — and authentic; of completely being that young girl using herself up with old men who can buy her the things she hopes will make her happy. She’s both fake and real, and at each instance sparks a dialectic where through the falseness she evokes something real and true, the surface but a pathway to depth.
d)I’d forgotten that the ‘Doll’ in the film is played by Jean Hagen, later to be everybody’s favourite character from Singing ‘in the Rain, the immortal Lina Lamont (‘I caiiin’t staaanhd it’). If, like I, you’ve wondered why the purveyor of such a great performance never became a star, you’ll find your answer here. Her ‘Doll’ is needy, loyal, desirious. The film gives her great moments, like the one below where she turns to Dix and takes her eyelashes off. But she also comes across as studied, and artificial, she’s ‘acting’ her carefully considered performance and comes across as too much and too coarse next to Haydn’s pointillism. She’s a better actress than Monroe but her ‘Doll’ comes across as less authentic, real and believable than Monroe’s Angela Phinley.
e) What struck me anew watching the film is how beautifully fleshed out all the supporting characters are. Thus Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is not only a safe-cracker but a family man with a child that’s ill and a wife who wants him out of the game. Good at his job, part of a large extended Italian family, a guy who’s kept awake nights by the health of his baby and not by the dangers of his profession. Or Dix’s pal, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), not only loyal to a fault but strong also, protective of the weak (his kicking out of the truck-driver who hates cats); victim of a life-long derision and abuse due to his being a hunchback (the conversation with Ciavelli’s wife) and putting his whole body into railing against injustice (the jail scene). Each character is given so many facets that when they come to the fore in the moments they´re given, they do so on top of carefully textured depth and evoke a character in a world that is connected to but also distinct from the film’s main narrative. Of these, the one that stands out most is Sam Jaffe’s Doc Irwin Riedenschneider, the mastermind of the heist: intelligent, cool, a man who goes about his business weighing the odds calmly until distracted by a pretty girl. The role and Sam Jaffe’s performance of it are surely one of the treasures of film history.
f) The last thing I wanted to comment on here was the symbolism of the final shot. The whole film has taken place at night, in the darkness, viewed only through shafts of light, in the city, the Asphalt Jungle. Dix’s drive has been to return home, to the horse and the farm that were taken away from him. He admits this history to Doll, this past that’s sparked a longing much stronger than his for her, a desire for a place — whether she’s in it is by the bye –a quarter of the way through the film. The only moment of greenery and light is in that shot. He reaches the farm only to die on it, the horses that were his dream and his friends, now licking his corpse. Is it heavy-handed? I don’t think so. For Dix what drove him into the Asphalt Jungle was that loss, regaining the farm and the horses has been what’s propulsed him through the narrative; and in a world where there’s no way out, it makes sense that the only way he’ll reach that farm is as a corpse.
The Asphalt Jungle gets greater with each viewing.
We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.
We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.
We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.
Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?
And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
From the very beginning of La Diosa arrodillada, the viewer is plunged into a heightened world of dreams and desires, a world of feeling which the characters express through diaries, letters. They speak to each other in a heightened tone, with poetic language and presented to the viewer through symbolic use of imagery. The films is, to borrow J. Hoberman’s words, ‘part film noir, part grand opera’.
La Diosa arrodillada opens with Raquel (María Félix) eagerly awaiting her lover Antonio (Arturo de Córdova) at the airport. She smiles with pleasure at his arrival, and before he sees her, thus conveying to us that her feelings for him are real. In the first few lines of dialogue, we know they’ve done this before, that their time together is fleeting and precious, snatched from other commitments and obligations. There’s then a dissolve. We first see a carafe of wine, smoke curling up the frame. We hear her voice, ‘to think I never ask you anything. I’ve never wanted to ask you anything’. The camera pulls back. ‘That’s the proof of our love’, he responds, ‘We must never interrogate the past if we value our love’.
‘But it’s so difficult to be strong when alone’, she says, ‘and we see so little of each other. Let’s never abandon each other. It would be like death.’
‘If so, let’s close our eyes and live that dream’.
Cut to an extraordinary close-up of Félix, as if in orgasm, saying: ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed to prevent my soul from escaping this dream. That is my promise Antonio’.
From the beginning we’re plunged into a world of feeling, dreams, a place where life is to be lived in the intense now without regard to the past and bracketed away from the future and from the society that intrudes on this world of feeling and may shatter it . But these wishes won’t come true; the promises won’t be kept. The world will intrude. They try to do what they think is right but are propelled by a force of desire they can’t control; he especially as despite the film’s title, this is not the story of a kneeling Goddess but of a fallen man.
What drives the narrative engine of The Kneeling Goddess, the motor of all noir, is desire. In this case, Antonio’s for Raquel. The film tells us this most directly. When he returns home to his office and his wife, Antonio looks outside, to a sign urging lovers to ‘Use Desire, the Perfume of Lovers’. The film doesn’t want us to miss this so the score urgently and loudly underlines its significance.
‘What do you understand by desire,’ Antonio asks his butler? ‘what one longs for, what one wants..’. ‘Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s a force that obliges you. That propels you to obtain what you want, and to keep it if you’ve already obtained it. Isn’t that right?’
‘But that force can grow, take shape, take on a life of its own, become stronger than you, and could end up destroying you. And what’s worse destroy all those closest to you.’
Antonio looks of a picture of his wife, who’s been in ill in a sanatorium in Cincinnati, probably the reason he hooked up with Racquel in the first place. It’s at that moment that Antonio decides to stop seeing Raquel. Raquel, however, has beat him to it, leaving a letter for him, saying she’s got a past, one she doesn’t want to divulge to him, and in spite of her promises, can’t continue seeing him. He never gets that letter because, reminded of how much he loves his wife and how much his wife needs him, he ends up not going to Guadalajara to see her and thus does not receive her brush-off.
But fate won’t let them be. When he returns home, his wife has been completing work on the garden. They’ve put a fountain. And she decides that the only thing missing, is a statue, something like the Venus de Milo. He goes to a gallery and finds the statue he’s looking for, a statue clearly modelled on Raquel, who he finds there, half-dressed after having posed for the sculptorp. It’s called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’, she informs him, ‘but it’s really just a woman on her knees, the way men like to see them be.’
In the clip below, you can see, how Gavaldón shows us the effect of that statue, of Raquel, on Antonio and his marriage. He becomes transfixed. His wife watches the statue take hold of him. There’s thunder, lightning, rain. Like Sirk, Gavaldón is not afraid to externalise feeling. But unlike Sirk, Gavaldón does not ironise, distance, or make strange. The obsession depicted comes from the heart and is meant to be understood as such. When he returns to his study, we hear him tell himself in voice-over:’ there’s nothing worse than fooling yourself. All my struggle has been for nought. I understand it’s stronger than I’. Reason and will recede, and he succumbs to desire and the unconscious.
Thus begins Antonio’s decline. Once he was a happily married man, a rich industrialist with his own chemical company. Soon he’ll be chasing through the tropics following a cabaret singer selling more than songs in cheap dives. His wife is surrounded by friends, chandeliers, formal paintings of herself, she plays classical music. Raquel in contrast is shown naked in marble, showing off her body in Panama’s Paradise singing popular song and embracing unknown sailors. The film is not afraid of over-emphasis and the contrasting ways in which each woman in Antonio’s life is symbolised is consistently and continually underlined.
Time is a persistent theme in the film. At the beginning, Raquel wants to deny the past and the future and live in a continual present. They have little time. Later on, Antonio’s wife dies. In an extraordinary scene, Gavaldón shows us the married couple, the wedding cake celebrating their anniversary in the foreground, the statue that threatens the marriage behind them in the background. In seconds, Antonio will put poison in a drink. His wife will see him put that poison in one of two drinks. Is the poison for her or for himself? We don’t know but in the next shot an obit shows us the wife’s already a goner.
Raquel believes he may have done it out of love for her. This rather thrills her. It might be what made him go to Panama, to get drunk watching her sing of the treachery and uselessness of love and marriage and allowing herself, like Gilda, to be felt up by the men in the audience. When she asks him why he’s followed her to Panama, he, drunk on the floor with alcohol, and drunk in the head with desire for her, cups her breasts and then moves his hand up her throat and tries to strangle her. Time as feeling in the film stands still; time as narrative gallops along at an insatiable pace.
The question of time is uttered constantly in stylised language and shown to us through a symbol that encapsulates so many of the film’s themes. A lighter (see below), that is also a watch, and that has a secret compartment which can carry poison. Thus, a desire that sparks, that will burn, with an intensity that can only ever be delimited before it is extinguished, and that carries a poison through which one can kill oneself and possibly others. All encased in time. It’s brilliant.
Like in a musical, the songs in the Panama Paradise sequence are used to comment on the story. The first part of the number, starts with Raquel partner’s singing to us: ‘I just screwed up, I got married, and fell into the woman’s trap’. She in turn begins her song by saying how women have to act submissive and be smart to catch a man. ‘I confess I don’t know what love is’ ‘You have a heart of crystal,’ sings her partner.
Then the tone changes and Raquel goes onto perform her solo which begins in the talk-singing style later made famous by Rex Harrison and which begins the clip above. ‘I’ve known love. It’s very beautiful. Burt for me it was fleeting and traitorous. It made dishonest what was once glorious. My law is pleasure…for money,’ and then she begins the song proper. Love was her cross and her religion but love’s revenge was marriage, after which their love became only pretend, a farce they’re now condemned to keep on repeating.
The last bit of the number, a duet once more, sings of the glories of not getting married and that to be happy one must never listen to one’s heart and forget about love. Something that Antonio, in the audience, and having drunk his way to unconsciousness due to his feelings for her, is beginning to learn. But as the song ends, a coochie dancer appears, shakes her bum, and lets the audience in the scene and the audience watching the film know love’s got little to do with anything: that it’s all about the sex.
David Melville notes the comparison to Von Sternberg in this sequence: ‘This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy’.
Raquel only begins to be sure of his love once she suspects he may have killed for her. This paves the way for getting married and the return to Mexico,. As you can see in the fantastic sequence above, the film turns quasi-Gothic, like a combination of Rebecca and Suspicion. She wears black, wonders around the house at night, finds his bedroom locked to her. She sees that the portrait of Antonio’s dead wife dominates the living room, that her reminder is everywhere in the house. He in turn spies her contemplating his dead wife’s painting, which he then becomes obsessed with. This is dark, murky, territory, where the darker feelings that edge and constantly pull on desire — guilt, disgust, fear, jealousy — are symbolically visualised.
The picture of Raquel that drives Antonio so wild with desire, The Kneeling Goddess, is meant to be of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And María Félix is often adorned with feathers, beautiful, but a bird of prey (see examples above).
Raquel is also often associated with animals. The Giraffe print in the Schiaparelli-esque dress on the left, the mermaid or siren look in the picture on the second from the left, the spider web dress in the second from the right, and of course in fur on the right.
As Moviediva argues, ‘La diosa tackles one of Gavaldon’s recurring themes, death, in this case the death of a man’s spirit, as he is corrupted by his love for a femme fatale. He loves the use of mirrors, used to demonstrate duality, and here, also the decay of the hero’s morality. Because there was no Production Code in Mexico, this film is surprisingly sexy for a 1940s film’. Indeed as you can see in the images above, whereas the wife was always associated with high culture, refinement and respectability, Raquel is constantly associated with sex, a Circe who will drive men to ridicule and ruin. As J. Hoberman writes, The Kneeling Goddess ‘is the most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes …(and María Félix is) a femme fatale to rival any from 1940s Hollywood, Félix embodies a moral ambiguity beyond good and evil.’
Paco Ignacio Taibo has written that when the film came out in Mexico it was denounced as an ‘insult to the morality of the country’, an attack on Christian morality, There were demonstrations. Taibo is particularly harsh on the film’s wardrobe, which as you can see from my comments above, I heartily disagree with; and also with the film’s dialogue: ‘I’ve had to fight very hard to win your heart’; ‘I’ve tried to fight a fire with a sea of dynamite’; ‘You either give yourself to me or destroy me’.
I see the dialogue as one of the film’s strengths. It is like opera, it is meant to ‘sing’ a realm of feeling. External realism has very little place in film’s of this type. Like in many film noirs, melodramatic passion is what’s on visual display; how desire can drive a man to his doom, desire for whom, and how. As we can see in the final sequence, where Raquel runs to the jail to inform her husband that he’s been declared innocent, that the night is gone forever, all whilst images show her and then him and then them, imprisoned by their past, their desires, their actions: the dream they wanted to hold onto by closing their eyes turned into a nightmare, his fears regarding his desires, being proved all too true. And then the film, rather than ending on him ends on her, in the mansion that is now hers, looking at the statue that she posed for, and pondering that power of that which it represents. What is the significance of her look as the camera follows her gaze and tracks into a closer look at the stature? It’s a great sequence in a truly great movie (see below)
We are joined by Celia Nicholls, film wiz extraordinaire, for a discussion of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a careful drama following a Protestant minster’s personal crises and relationships with his parishioners and community. Comparisons with Robert Bresson, informed by Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, are drawn; we consider how trite or meaningful we find the film’s moral questions; and we pick apart the film’s flat aesthetic and occasional flights of fancy.
Muerte de un cliclista/Death of a Cyclist is a salutary reminder that even under the most totalitarian of regimes protest is possible. But Juan Antonio Bardem’s triumph is not only due to his making a Communist film at the height of the Franco regime: this film also has a remarkable way of framing the action, quite extraordinary compositions in 4:3 ratio (see below), an evocative use of space, original modes of cutting, and a way of building scenes to daringly extreme close-ups, rhythmically, in a way that conveys all the necessary story information whilst creating tension. It’s not only a landmark in Spanish cinema but a great film tout court.
In his autobiography, Y todavía sigue: Memorias de un hombre de cine, Bardem insists the film is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection (p.204). But it bears more than passing similarities to Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which Bardem had by then seen and subsequently acknowledged as an influence: Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) were teenage sweethearts. She left him to marry a richer and more influential industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso) but they’re now once more involved. Returning to Madrid from one of their trysts in the country, they run over a cyclist. They get out of the car to see whether he’s alive and find out he is. But instead of getting help they flee, worried that if others are involved, their affair will be uncovered and their social position ruined.
Back at work, Juan reads in the paper that the cyclist has died. He’s so distraught that he inadvertently fails a female student when she should have passed, a mistake witnessed by great numbers of people in class. What was previously selfishness now becomes murder. At a party, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that he knows what’s happened and threatens blackmail. The rest of the film is a combination of tense Hitchcockian thriller, populated by characters suffering from Antonioni-esque ennui and framed in compositions very much influenced by the Italian modernist’s work, and peppered with sequences that owe a debt to Italian neo-realism, particularly in its Spanish variant such as in Surcos. Compare the sequence in Surcos (below) to the one that follows from Muerte de un ciclista.
The film is an indictment of the Franco regime. The culture depicted is one riddled with corruption. Juan’s brother-in-law is the reason he’s got his post at the University. And he could even be made Dean should he wish to on the basis of this connection. The brother-in-law is satirised giving one of those inflated, smug and florid speeches one so associates with the era. We see the mother who’s had everything in life categorised and measured and has problems understanding that which isn’t. She loves her son, but also understands he doesn’t share her values, not least her pride in having two sons fallen in the war. We see newsreels as of yore of Maria José, dressing up and looking glam, ostensibly to give money to the poor, whilst we know she let someone die because he was an inconvenience. We’re also shown those in power, like Juan at the university, so careless of those in his charge, he fails his student even without looking at what she’s done and potentially ruins her life. There’s a line spoken by Juan’s sister, at one of those boring cocktail parties that seem to make-up their life, where she jokes that the bracelet Maria José’s husband has given her comes at the cost of a thousand impoverished workers.
This viewing is the first one I’ve recognised the extent to which the Civil War permeates everything. It’s visible in the bombed out buildings by the tenement flats of the dead cyclist. It’s referred to in conversations with the mother. It’s what interrupted Juan’s love affair with Maria José and gave her the opportunity to marry a richer man. But more importantly, the trenches were Juan fought the war (on the Nationalist side), where he daydreamed of her, are visible from the very place he and Maria José let a poor cyclist die. The culture he fought for, the one his two brothers died to build, is the same one that allows him and his like to walk away from someone they’ve just run over with their car and let die.
It’s interesting that David Melville Wingrove, in an excellent piece for Senses of Cinema, assumes Juan fought for the Republicans, whilst I assume he fought for the Nationalists. I based the assumption on the his social class, his mother valuing the ‘glory’ of their name and revelling in a particular Nationalist discourse, his ‘fallen’ brothers, his position at the university, and the knowledge that such a representation of of an ex-Republican combatant would have been unlikely to be permitted representation. It’s worth saying that on his piece on the film in Antología crítica del cine Español, Casimiro Torreiro cites José María García Escudero, ex and future Director General of Spain’s Ministry of Film and Theatre, writing in the pages of Arriba, a Falangist paper, as naming Juan as ‘one of our ex-combattants (un ex-combatiente nuestro).’
Still, I don’t think the side Juan fought on, so important in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, is ever explicitely stated.The fact that he fought in the trenches on the outskirts of Madrid means nothing as the gun could have been facing in either direction. Upon reflection, it might have been left deliberately open: and whatever side one assumes Juan fought in brings interesting, if different, dimensions to his character, and to the story. Seeing him as a Republican would explain his being the ‘black sheep’ of the family; his needing to rely on the patronage of his brother-in-law; his ennui and immobility during much of the film; and his being fired up by the protests. What’s really important in the film is Juan’s acknowledgment that the war is something that affected everybody, that ‘you can blame everything on it’ and the film’s use of it as a context in which Juan must live his existential crisis and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
If in Death of a Cyclist the rich are lazy, bored, corrupt and careless. they’re also made alluring: the men by loving and having a conscience, Maria José by looking so exquisitely beautiful. The poor are of course victims at the beginning and shown at the end to have the conscience and sense of responsibility the rich lack. The class that comes off worst here is the middle one, those with position, but who have to work for a living, like Rafa, the blackmailing art critic. What is it that the cinema of this period has against critics? They’re either bitchy (All About Eve) or murderous and perverse (Laura) and why is evil and deviant sexuality so often associated with modern art as here and in Phantom Lady?
Juan’s unjust and careless failing of Matilde (Bruna Corrà), the young student has resulted in the students protesting against the faculty (see below). This is shown to us through one of the many brilliant cuts in the film, where Rafa’s blackmail scheme has been foiled and in frustration he throws a bottle through the window of the restaurant where they’re all celebrating a wedding. Cut to a similar window being destroyed but this time at the faculty where Juan works as an assistant Professor of Analytic Geometry. The end of the threat of blackmail is thus inter-linked with the student protest. Certainly, Juan sees it as a way out of the ennui and hopelessness he’s been suffering from: ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ he says to Matilde of the protests against him, ‘This selflessness, this unity, this solidarity…your problem — my unfairness — has become their own…They’ve made me feel young and noble and selfless again’.
The student protest, pointedly designated an ‘insurrection,’ is a turning point in the film. From, this point onward, the tragic denouement is set. But let me linger for a moment on the significance of the film’s representation of this uprising. It was of course illegal. And the sight of the students against the army in front of an institutional building (see above) must have been an extraordinary sight in the totalitarian Spain of 1955. But the critique is built into the very fabric of the film. See for example, how Juan and Maria José’s secret meetings take place in either the circus or the Church, rendering with an equivalence clearly not noticeable to the censors of the time.
Above: We are shown Juan and Maria José (centre) discussing their murder at the circus (left) and with a mass at church in the background, right: both Circus and Church rendered as equivalent ritual distractions and ideal settings for discussions of crime and murder
Once Juan has his consciousness raised and found a purpose for living, the film returns to the noir structure it started with and denies the adulterous couple the happy ending that had in any case begun as an impossibility. The film returns us to the same setting, the place where Juan once fought for the repressive culture he now lives and in and where he dreamed of Maria José. As you can see below at the beginning (image on the left) Maria Jose is running towards Juan who is running after the cyclist. By the end (centre image), in the same setting, she is walking away from him. The distance between the couple is evident in both frames. By the image on the right however, in one of the many beautiful compositions that characterise this film, she’s descended from being the selfish and careless person who runs away from an accident to someone who actively plans to murder.
Rafa is the blackmailer. But as in so many noirs, Maria José is the femme fatale and the true villain of the story. She’s the one who’s driving when they run over the cyclist. The film often deploys unexpected cuts, through her, so as to show the lover when the husband is expected or vice-versa. She’s the one who married for money, avows her love to whichever man she’s with, and tries to hold on to her social position and worldly goods no matter the cost. If Juan changes from pointless ennui to self-liberation inspired by social protest, her trajectory is from that of careless selfishness to outright murder. It is interesting that we see her in newsreels collecting money for charity (see below left) but often, and throughout the film, pictured in, next to, or in font of a bed (see below right). In spite of the film’s left leanings it still hasn’t progressed to the point where it doesn’t blame the woman for everything.
As is shown in every frame visible in this post, the compositions are extraordinary. The other remarkable aspect of the film is the editing, constantly surprising and most effective. In the clip below, for example, note the associative cut, on smoke. Juan exhales the smoke in his bedroom, Maria José blows it away but then we notice that she is not with Juan but in her own bedroom at home, as she leans over, and we’re shown he husband entering the picture. It’s brilliant and one of many examples of unexpected and inventive cuts on action, on things, across people and spaces, even a liberal use of jump cuts.
The scene above deserves its own blog post. But I here simply want to show it to you as a way of bringing the discussion of framing, composition, and editing together in an extraordinary scene in which we are shown Rafa telling the husband of his suspicions. The flamenco blocks out the dialogue, the editing rhythmically raises tension. What is being said? How does it affect them? The camera goes from close-ups back to showing the guilty couple in a social setting, the tension builds through the increase in the close-ups, systematically, whilst occasionally returning them and us to the knowledge that their personal drama is being played out in public. It’s a great scene and characteristic of the cinematic brilliance evident throughout this great film.
The DVD is available on a great print through Criterion.