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
It’s easy to make fun of C.B. De Mille films: they’re crass, melodramatic, too partial on the workings of society and extremely facile on the workings of the human heart. But by golly can he do narrative and spectacle.
The Greatest Show on Earth is widely considered the worst Oscar winner for Best Picture in history. But I found it moves along at a merry pace, managing a large cast of characters relationships and conflicts with ease – the viewer always knows where s/he’s at – and De Mille knows how to render the spectacle of the circus cinematically spectacular.
The colour is that candy-floss early fifties technicolour, on the garish side but intense and heart-lifting; the circus stunts are filmed so as to convey the wonder and danger: can it really be Cornel Wilde on the trapeze? Look, it’s Betty Hutton’s face that appears as the swing tilts towards the camera! It really is Gloria Graham riding that elephant!
Each star is given their moment in the narrative and the spectacle: Betty Hutton on the trapeze and singing with James Stewart on a trampoline; Stewart himself clowns around not too successfully whilst being chased by the police for the murder of his wife; Cornel Wilde showing off his body and overcoming a physical disability; Gloria Grahame riding her elephants and looking for love; Dorothy Lamour sings a song in a hula skirt under the big top, looks beautiful and moans a lot about everyone else; a very young and spectacularly handsome Charlton Heston is the boss man women fight over (see clip at the end).
The audience under the big top is always referred back to, sometimes jokily as when Hope and Crosby appear as part of it, and their wonder at what they are seeing becomes ours. De Mille’s camera rarely loses sight of the Circus in general and the big top in particular, and if he sentimentalises what it represents, he honours the mental and physical skills necessary to perform the quite extraordinary feats we see under the big top.
On top of that there are cars crashing into trains, lions and tigers on the loose, many of the great Ringling and Barnum & Bailey circus acts of the day, filmed at leisure and with the certainty that they will please — they do.
What doesn’t are the hokey narration by C.B. himself, the gender politics so typical of its day, Betty Hutton’s nervy performance and anything in the film to do with love and relationships. But it’s amazingly easy to draw the veil over all of that. A colourful and crude spectacle that still work on the level it originally intended.
A catty fight, a bit of a bitch-fest, sadly typical of the relationships between women in 1950s cinema ….and not uncamp.
A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.
The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film, to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.
In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.
The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’
To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.
Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating? Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.
Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.
There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance. Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).
In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’
Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.
The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).
First meeting with Gloria
Earl’s a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.
In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.
Second Meeting with Gloria
One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.
There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky, my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.
In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.
The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:
Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.
The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”
It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.
One of those all-star multi-strand melodramas so typical of the 1950s (Not as a Stranger, The Best of Everything, This Earth is Mine). But this one directed by Vincente Minnelli, and perhaps only he could get away with structuring all of the drama around the hanging of drapes: Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) wants some chic ones from Chicago; Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) wants some practical ones, at a discount; and Doctor McIver (Richard Widmark) and Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) have a project to get the patients at the psychiatric institute (Jon Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant etc) to design their own. Charles Boyer is Dr. Devanal, the former head, now usually too soused to do much except letch around between institute and motel room , spicing up the intrigue and thickening the plot as the drapes go up and down.
The standout performances are Grahame’s, all seething sexual frustration as the girl who every guy but her husband is hot for, and Gish who does something much deeper and complex with her performance of Miss Inch, the administrator desperate to be needed and hiding it all an aggression born out of a lifetime’s neglect.
The worst performance, and its worth mentioning because she spoiled so many 50s movies, is Bacall’s. She’s a sour, haughty and humourless presence here as in so many movies of this period (Written on the Wind) and later (Murder on the Orient Express). Here she looks great, which hasn’t always been the case when photographed in colour. But even her glossy tawny looks can’t hide a performance that is all attitude without emotion and seems composed entirely of poses.
In interviews, Bacall’s talked about how in this movie Minnelli cared only for drapes and the only thing he contributed to her performance was to move her knee from one side to the other. What she doesn’t mention is that that’s probably the best anyone could have done for her (See her performance in How to Marry a Millionnaire — at least *here* she’s photographed beautifully and looks terrific). Minnelli knew about drapes and about moving the camera and arranging people within the cinemascope frame in ways that are still tremendously exciting to watch. What Bacall accuses Minnelli of is in fact what she herself is guilty of: great surface with nothing evident underneath.
Readers interested in questions of the representation of gays and lesbians in cinema might find it interesting to know that the character played by Oscar Levant, Mr. Capp, was a homosexual fixated on his mother in William Gibson’s original novel. The Hays Office prevented the character from being so characterised in the film. Perhaps because of that, Minelli visually coded the character of Mrs. Delmuth as lesbian in what for the 1950s passed as the strongest and most clichéd terms possible: with the short hair, the men’s shirts and in jodhpurs, wearing riding boots, and later on in the film, at the woodwork shop, working at her lathe. The title of Mrs. a cover and alibi for the visual representation where dress nonetheless trumps address. I at first and tellingly thought the part of Mrs Delmuth was played by Mercedes MaCambridge, one of the most vibrant and exciting signifiers of lesbianism in 50s cinema, but I see that the role is actually played by Jarma Lewis. The confusion is, as I hope you can see below, understandable.
James Dean was originally cast as the troubled young artist but studio politics prevented the casting. John Kerr, who would subsequently be cast as the homosexual youth in Tea and Sympathy, is dull in spite of all the histrionics his character is given to perform, rather a feat.
If the film is a visual treat, the sounds are no less of an achievement: According to Laurence E. MacDonald in The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, the score for The Cobweb is ‘basically atonal’ and is considered to be ‘the first Hollywood film score to contain a twelve-tone row. The main-title music features two elements that return throughout the score: agitated figures for strings and glissandos on the kettledrums. These elements account for much of the imapct of this score, which is understandably a difficult listening exercise for viewers’ (p. 157′)
James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.
The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.
It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.
The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.
It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?
It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).
Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson intriguingly writes that ‘in the decades since its first showing, it has grown easier for audiences to imagine a question mark in the title and to realize that the idyllic Bedford Falls of 1947 has turned into Pottersville, the drab plan of heartless capitalism pursued by the town’s tycoon (played by Lionel Barrymore)..think of that story shifted to the era of 2008 and the anxieties of middle-class existence. Once upon a time It’s a Wonderful Life was a Christmas staple, but try showing the picture to a modern young audience without rueful irony crushing nostalgia.’ I wonder if he’s right.
Addendum 2: According to Nicky Smith: ‘It’s a fascinating experience at the cinema. Middle aged blokes absolutely love it. And listen for the rustle around the auditorium as people gradually realise that George ‘s best friends are called Bert and Ernie’.