Pre-Code Lubitsch

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My piece that ran at the Dissolve

“Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.”

What a stunningly erotic line; pleading for not only devotion, but also larceny, both monetary and sexual. And what a perfectly Lubitschian line, layered with meaning, hunger, sincere feeling, ironic humor, and even sadness. “Don’t leave me, but do steal, swindle, rob. And on top of that, stroke, seduce, and ravish me,” robber Lily (Miriam Hopkins) seems to be saying to her live-in lover, gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall), in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece Trouble In Paradise.

Most, possibly all, of the multiple themes of Lily’s romantic entreaty could apply to Lubitsch’s comedies made between 1929 and 1934, most co-scripted by Samson Raphaelson. (Though not his one drama of the period, 1932’s Broken Lullaby.) These movies offer not just a twist, but a twist atop a twist, and a joke atop the joke: the “superjoke,” as Billy Wilder called it. Those themes repeat: the lively, often-painful love triangle, the sexual and romantic jealousy, the thrill of sex, and in this case, the carnal kicks co-mingling with the art of stealing, an act more erotic than gold-digging. (Gold-fleecing is much more penetrating.) And then—important during one of the worst economic times in America’s history—there’s Lily and Gaston’s hard, artful work, something to respect, to take pride in.

Stealing is magical in Trouble In Paradise. Sleight of hand is more titillating than Don Juanery. (Don’t hook, darling: crook.) Prostitution is too easy, too boring—about as boring as marriage could possibly be in this world. Here’s the power and thrill of pre-Code Hollywood, propelled into elegant, inventive, intelligent orbit within the luminous world of Ernst Lubitsch.

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The Motion Picture Production Code was adopted under Will H. Hays in 1930, but not fully enforced until Joseph Breen got his mitts all over it. (“Pre-Breen” is a more appropriate term than “pre-Code,” Thomas Doherty writes in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, And Insurrection In American Cinema 1930-1934.) Pictures were submitted for review, Trouble In Paradise among them. Lubitsch was told to remove some of the more “scandalous” lines, including “Oh, to hell with it!” But countless movies flaunted the “Don’ts” and "Be-carefuls” the Code warned filmmakers about. Just a handful of the transgressions indulged in films ranging from scrappy Warner Bros. gangster pictures to glossy MGM melodramas: criminals getting away with it, sex before marriage, adultery, drug addiction, drunkenness, mockery of matrimony, and suggestion of nudity. (Check how many times Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dress and undress in William Wellman’s Night Nurse.)

6a00d83451cb7469e2019b0041b4cd970b-400wiFrom 1929’s innovatively crafted talking musical The Love Parade (Lubitsch’s first sound picture) up to 1934’s Code-rupturing threesome in Design For Living, Lubitsch worked strictly at sophisticated Paramount. (Also released in 1934, The Merry Widow was an MGM picture.) There, he became one of the studio’s top directors, a name audiences remembered just as they would Frank Capra’s—rare for a director at the time. For a brief spell, he was even Paramount’s Head Of Production, which, according to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, was possibly related to the director’s quiet turmoil once Breen took over, and Lubitsch needed to “get out of the line of censorship fire and take some time to figure out what to do.” After all, Lubitsch's comedies were about sex, love, joy, and the messy human complications that come from voluptuous adventure. Breen and the Catholic Legion Of Decency held such ardors suspect, a wicked playground for lotharios and trollops.

For Lubitsch, a romantic triangle or adultery wasn’t just the side story, it was often the central plot, making his pre-Breen pictures as gracefully scintillating as William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women or Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell. According to the Code (as quoted from Olga J. Martin’s Hollywood Movie Commandments, quoted in Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood), a love triangle needed “careful handling,” especially if “marriage, the sanctity of the home, and sex morality are not to be imperiled.” Furthermore, adultery was a forbidden subject and “never a fit subject for a comedy.” Lubitsch disagreed: He found it a comedic, musical, elegant, fantastical, oh so real-life.

1932’s One Hour With You concerns both triangles and adultery, and has its own sticky history between George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch. Originally assigned to direct One Hour With You, Cukor was doing such a frustrating job that the exacting Lubitsch took over the production, according to Eyman: “For the next six weeks, Cukor sat quietly on the set, drawing his salary, confining most of his conversation to expressions of approval after each Lubitsch-directed scene.” The result was a direction credit for Lubitsch, a lawsuit from Cukor, and a compromise with the added credit, “Assisted by George Cukor.” As Eyman wrote, “Lubitsch pictures could not be mass-produced.”

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Despite the picture’s difficult production, it’s a fascinating, joyfully randy work about, yes, cheating. Colette (Jeanette MacDonald) is married to impish Andre (Maurice Chevalier), who can’t help but succumb to her horndog best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). He even sings his dilemma directly to the audience, praising his wife’s virtues while gleefully returning to the potential mistress with, “Ohhhh! That Mitzi!” When the deed is done, Andre again breaks the fourth wall and asks, in song, “What Would You Do?” inquiring of men—and, since this is Lubitsch, women, who aren’t exempt from the equation—how they would handle such a pickle: “Do you think you could resist her? Do you think you would have kissed her? Would you treat her like your sister? Come on, be honest, mister!”

Never mind that that the song explains and excuses his indiscretion; it’s so damn charming that viewers feel mischievously complicit with Andre. (I wonder how many couples gave each other the side-eye during his ode to adultery, or even a jab in the ribs.) Chevalier’s considerable Gallic delights help him get away with such things, but even us non-Chevaliers, we’re all human, we all transgress. Be honest. Grow up. Get over it.

And yet Lubitsch isn’t merely flip here; he understands the pain Andre and his Mitzi have caused the distraught Colette. Even Colette’s lovesick revenge kiss with poor Charles Ruggles (which becomes another amusing Lubitsch twist on deception) is tinged with sadness. She can’t even cheat properly! And Ruggles, well, he doesn’t have a chance next to that dashing so-and-so Chevalier. Pain presents itself in all Lubitsch’s comedies, with some characters standing on the precipice of tragedy.

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In 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Chevalier’s Niki is forced to marry a besotted princess (Miriam Hopkins) after she mistakenly accepts his smile and wink, when in fact, he’s directing the amour to his girlfriend, beer-drinking band leader Franzi (Claudette Colbert). Stuck in an unhappy marriage with the ridiculously prim, innocent Princess Anna, Niki refuses to sleep with her, leaving her to play a sad game of checkers on the marriage bed with her blowhard father, King Adolf (a wonderful George Barbier), which is simultaneously hilarious and poignant. (The father-daughter relationship becomes increasingly touching as the movie progresses.) Franzi has tearfully left Niki with a garter to remember her by, but she later becomes his mistress, trysting with her lover while his wife putters around the palace, unfulfilled and heartbroken. This is a comedy musical?

Lubitsch goes even further. Once Anna discovers the affair, she summons Franzi to the palace. (In a kinky touch, Niki has been using the police to arrest Franzi and deliver her to their rendezvous spots.) The confrontation is surprising—both women flop on the bed to blubber their eyes out. Franzi realizes Anna is no enemy and takes pity on the square, surprisingly sweet princess, teaching her how to play a jazzy piano, wear silky négligées (to the tune of “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”), and let down her prissy, pinned-back hair. The mistress instructs the wife how to properly make love to the man the mistress loves. Well, they both love him, but someone has to get their man. The princess reigns (although she’s much less self-sufficient than Jeanette MacDonald’s Queen Louise in The Love Parade, or Countess Helene Mara in Monte Carlo), and Lubitsch allows sacrificial Franzi a mournful exit with the self-defeated, undeserved line, “Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”

Perhaps this is a flawed, too-easy resolution to the aching triangle, but it’s also an ironic twist. It’s the aforementioned “superjoke.” With The Smiling Lieutenant, Wilder perceived the superjoke as “the wrong girl gets the man.” Some joke. And yet it works, leaving viewers with the shot of Colbert dejectedly waving from behind her back so Niki and Anna can dig into their final scenes of jazzed- and juiced-up foreplay, and finally, a whole lot of sex. Poor Franzi. It was fun while it lasted.

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In Trouble In Paradise, the short but memorable affair is not only fun—if that is the right word for a thing so elegant—it could have been marvelous, Gaston says. “Divine,” agrees Mme. Colet. But what can transform such smooth, dreamy sophistication into something clumpy and common? The cops. And so Mme. Colet, knowing Gaston intended to rob her but has fallen in love with her, watches him flee into the night with his other lover. She’s understanding enough to allow him to nab her pearls as a parting gift for Lily, and like Franzi in The Smiling Lieutenant, she’s left alone. Such is life. Gaston and Lily ride away in a cab, culminating their sex-as-stealing one-upsmanship, with Gaston grabbing Mme. Colet’s stealthily snatched wad and stuffing it into Lily’s purse. That purse sits on her lap, or, if one wants to be Freudian about it, between her legs.

And so the crooks get away with it. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte and James Cagney’s Tom Powers would have been impressed, had they lived. Even they have to pay for their crimes in pre-Code films—but what spectacular endings those two were granted. Gaston and Lily aren’t gangsters or killers; they’re aristocrats incognito (the reverse of Jack Buchanan’s sweet incognito hairdresser in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, also released in 1931.) But they do indeed break that bendable code by making lawlessness so sumptuously attractive that pickpocketing is not only exceptionally suave, but synonymous with sex.

And yet within this dreamscape so graceful that it feels musical, with its fluid panning shots, meaningful use of clocks, knowing shadows on beds, superbly climbed staircases and perfectly timed edits, is a waft of Depression-era actuality. Gaston gently complains, “You have to be in the Social Register to keep out of jail. But when a man starts at the bottom and works his way up, a self-made crook, then you say, ‘Call the police! Put him behind bars! Lock him up!’” Reading that, not with Herbert Marshall’s exquisite cadence in mind, and instead with James Cagney’s rat-a-tat pugnacity—well, the two men could have shared a drink together. Marshall may have seen too sophisticated, too elitist for Cagney, but he wasn’t a snob. And between the two of them, they had the streets and boudoirs covered. And even better in Lubitsch-land, in which a bit part is often allowed a big moment, they could have invited the fellow who contributes to Trouble In Paradise’s famous opening shot, the garbage-man gondolier.

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The love triangle is nearly solved in Lubitsch’s most liberal and, to many, still-shocking pre-Code film: 1933’s extraordinary Design For Living, adapted from Noël Coward’s play and co-scripted by Ben Hecht. It features Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper as three Americans living in Paris. Quickly, as people this attractive and likable so easily do, they fall for one another. All of them. Hopkins’ Gilda makes love to both George (Cooper) and Tom (March), but how can that continue? And what to do? Gilda the proto-feminist declares her conundrum: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.” Well, which hat will she choose? She makes it easier. “Both,” she answers.

The triangular remedy is that they’ll live together under one roof, in supposed platonic bliss. All three shake on it, with the provocative decree: “No sex. A gentleman’s agreement.” No sex? In Lubitsch? Well, that will make for some especially thick sexual tension, and an impossible utopia. When Tom leaves for London, lovelorn Gilda and George inch closer and closer with intensely palpable sexual yearning. Thankfully, Gilda tears right through it: “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

But she does have a heart, and eventually, she can’t contribute to the bust-up of these two best friends. Entering complacent safety by marrying dreary Mr. Sensible, Edward Everett Horton’s Max Plunkett, she abandons her bohemian life. In a move that would barely make it into a comedy today, Tom and George track down Gilda and rescue her from marital suffocation. And that’s it: She leaves her husband for not one, but for two men. She may as well have given what Charles Laughton delivers at the finale of “The Clerk” (1932), Lubitsch’s contribution to the omnibus film If I Had A Million– a raspberry.

And as in the end of Trouble In Paradise, they flee in a cab, only this triangle remains intact, and facing an uncertain, doubtlessly drama-filled future. How thrillingly radical, heartfelt, precarious, and sexy this all is. And the production code? You can practically hear it smashing like a mirror dropped on a marble floor.

No other Lubitsch pre-Code film could match the audacity of Design For Living, until recently considered flawed or even minor Lubitsch. A disappointment upon release, Design For Living was deemed a poor adaptation of Coward’s play, and Cooper (who is terrific) too rough and unrefined. Over time, though, the picture has collected fervent defenders and, in 2011, a lovingly issued Criterion edition (for which I wrote the essay).

Smooth Chevalier returned to Lubitsch with 1934’s The Merry Widow, the director’s most opulent, effervescent musical. It’s also darker and more reflective, with an intriguingly somber tone threaded through its merriment. Though the picture received mixed reviews, and wasn’t an enormous American hit (it did better in Europe), the New York Times effused, “It is a good show in the excellent Lubitsch manner, heady as the foam on champagne, fragile as mist and as delicately gay as a good-natured censor will permit.”

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Well, the censors didn’t permit about three minutes of it, with numerous cuts to deflect from the fact that Chevalier’s playpen was indeed a whorehouse. But viewers knew, and know, what it is, and they know what Chevalier’s Captain Danilo is doing there with his “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (This isn’t a triangle, but an orgy.) He does, however, fall for one girl—Jeanette MacDonald’s Madame Sonia—and goes so far as to romantically proclaim a promise of marriage at the end the picture. And it is romantic. Was Joseph Breen, now chief of the Production Code Administration, swayed by that French rouge? Was he wooed?

The Merry Widow marked the last Chevalier/MacDonald collaboration, and a new era for Lubitsch. Masterpieces were ahead (NinotchkaThe Shop Around The CornerTo Be Or Not To Be), all with that endlessly mentioned Lubitsch touch, but his pre-Code pictures are rebellious wonders. These movies weren’t getting away with murder, no, but their flesh-and-blood raciness, their erotic, elegant triangles were enough to make Breen clutch his killjoy pearls.  May we, courtesy of Gaston, offer Mme. Colet’s?

 

Originally published at The Dissolve


New Year Hangover with The Thin Man

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Nick Charles likes to drink. Nick Charles likes to drink a lot – copious amounts of alcohol – one glass emptied in one hand, the other reaching for another with an elegance and panache that’s as graceful as a tipsy, never fully drunk dancer. Indeed, he compares the mixing of drinks to dance, breaking it down to a bartender: “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”

In his lush waltz time (or maybe a fox-trot), he’s gulping his wife’s drink down before passing her the empty glass, to which she takes with amusement. She, as in Nora Charles, drinks too, with merriment and style and with a routine like Nick, and she also consumes liberally, almost as much or as much as her husband. It’s not too hard to keep track of who drinks the most as it would appear to be Nick, though he may just be seen onscreen imbibing with exceptional volume. I have no idea how much Nora’s putting away during her walks with Asta, their pet terrier. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter – they both drink enough and with such brio, that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s George and Martha, had they been around, would raise their glasses to them as kindred dipsomaniacal spirits. But George and Martha, as intelligent and as morbidly funny and as mean and finally, as poignant as they are, could never contend with Nick and Nora Charles. Nick and Nora would roll their eyes and throw down a wicked bon mot over their “Hey, swampy” insults – for they’re never sloppy or mean or ugly about their drinking – and think of the bemused looks they’d give one another around George and Martha’s “truth or illusion.” (I am imagining Nick and Nora in George and Martha’s academic abode, sitting on that couch, laughing when George busts out that umbrella gun, and then wanting to leave because they’d rather drink in their sterling, silvery apartment, crawl into their silk night clothes and order in a “flock of sandwiches,” and then drink more). So, George and Martha could never “get” them as guests. You can’t get people who are that shimmering and witty while drinking – a happily married couple and who aren’t shocked by profuse alcohol consumption. Maybe they should be frightened those two could represent their future but… let’s not spoil things here, and, they’re not thinking of that. Nick and Nora, a real team, are in love and live life entirely the way they want to – they’ve created a world of their own that’s sophisticated and mischievous and intelligent and funny and full of adventure, and, yes, beautiful clothes. And the correct intoxicants. And crime, buffered by their glittering bubble. As such, they appear to be one of the most positive and positively happy couples in filmdom. A marriage of equals. And two playful quick-witted lovebirds who, as I’ve stated numerous times here, drink a lot.

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This glamorous twosome are William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora, in W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man, an exceptional merging of mystery and seminal screwball and modern marital allure, adapted from the popular Dashiell Hammett novel (his last), who also drank (in an understatement). It’s said that Hammett’s relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman was the inspiration to create these heavy drinking characters, and likely so, but The Thin Man is a much more idealized version of the Hammett-Hellman union and the drinking. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were a married couple, and they lightened up the darker edges of the novel, and perhaps their own marriage played a part (wouldn’t we all want to be Nick and Nora Charles?). Still, as Hellman wrote of Hammett in the New Yorker, after his death: “For years we made jokes about the day I would write about him. In the early years, I would say, ‘Tell me more about the girl in San Francisco. The silly one who lived across the hall in Pine Street.’ And he would laugh and say, ‘She lived across the hall in Pine Street and was silly.’ ‘Tell more than that. How much did you like her, and—?’ He would yawn: ‘Finish your drink and go to sleep.’” Nick would tell Nora the same, except he’d “gallantly” finish her drink for her.

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We first meet Nick at a bar talking fox trots and waltzes when it comes to creating cocktails – he’s only slightly slurred in his speech, not quite lit and immediately charming as William Powell always is. (The word charming seems almost needless when you simply read his name – if you know William Powell you already know he is.) He comes face-to-face with a young woman, not his wife whom we’ve not met yet. Gasp! No, no, it’s nothing like that and Nora wouldn’t bat an eye anyway. She trusts her husband or she’s perfectly fine with a flirt. One life to live and all that. Also, he’s a little tipsy. This woman is lovely Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan), who remembers Nick back when he was a full-time employed detective, back when she was a little girl: “You used to fascinate me, a real live detective. You told me the most wonderful stories. Were they true?” He answers, “Probably not.” Nick once worked on a case for her father (the titular “thin man” which sounds so ominous), and now he’s gone missing. She’s worried, he was supposed to be around for her upcoming wedding, it’s nearing Christmas and… she has a strange family.

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Dorothy’s father, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) who is sweet to her but not so lovable in real life (or at least he chooses shifty romantic interests) is divorced from her somewhat ridiculous mother, Mimi (Minna Gombell) and is in a rocky relationship with his two-timing secretary, Julia (Natalie Moorhead), who keeps company with some shady-looking so-and-sos. Naturally, there are problems, and both ex-wife and girlfriend are concerned about his money which raises suspicion. Meanwhile, Mimi has re-married some deviously handsome fellow named Chris (Cesar Romero) who doesn’t work and is sensitive to his idle pointed out (“You’ve hurt his feelings!” Mimi exclaims), and her son, the Leopold and Loeb-looking Gilbert (William Henry) is a strange kid who likes to spy on people, listen in on phone calls (when accused of eavesdropping, he says, “Of course. What’s an extension for?”), digging into the gory details of true crime and then, the more dramatic parts of Freudianism – the Oedipus Complex and a mother fixation, of which he states he has. (OK, so he’s not that weird – not by today’s standards anyway.)

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This is the family Nick and Nora will get dragged into, somewhat (no one can really drag these two anywhere), after the retired detective decides to take on the case and digs in deeper after Julia is murdered. Now the father is not only missing but the prime suspect as well. This all happening around the flurry of Christmas parties and cocktails and drunk friends calling their mothers and strange men showing up at the door in the middle of the night, Nick and Nora contend with a family so screwy that no one in it needs to drink to appear under the influence. In the novel Gilbert is experimenting with harder drugs like morphine and curious about cocaine (“that’s to supposed to sharpen the brain, isn’t it?” he asks) and though there’s not a mention of that in the movie, you can imagine quite a few of these characters snorting or injecting something illicit as they bounce around the rooms. But Nick and Nora just drink – and with unflappable tolerance. After all, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed the year before in 1933, thus ending national Prohibition, so, drink away! Of course, Nick and Nora always drank as everyone did under Prohibition, but never mind that, celebrate! Celebrate more. And have another. Have six, and order five more as Nora does when she is finally introduced in the picture.

And what an introduction – she comes into the bar with Asta (Skippy) in tow, arms full of Christmas presents, and falls flat on her face. Elegant, gorgeous Myrna Loy takes a tumble and manages to be elegant and gorgeous about it. And funny, with a timing and wit all her own. She also walks in on her husband’s impromptu meeting with his pretty potential new client, Dorothy, and is amused by the possible job. You see, these two don’t need to work since, as Nick jokes to his wealthy wife, “I’m too busy seeing you don’t Iose the money I married you for.” But Nora is up for the thrill and for the seedier amusements of life (“Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.” she says with loving sarcasm) and she wants to help out poor Dorothy. Eventually, Nick will relent and, as the complicated case continues on, Nick and Nora never abate with their merry lives, throwing one hell of a Christmas party in a beautifully shot and timed sequence that proves how well they can handle their liquor – everyone else singing “Oh Christmas Tree” are soused out of their minds. But there’s Nick and Nora, floating around the rooms, wise-cracking, ordering food, drinking (of course), taking in Dorothy and then Mimi and then even Gilbert who starts confusing drunks by using the term sexagenarian (“A sexagenarian? But we can’t put that in the paper.”) Nick escorts Gilbert out easily and amusingly, by grabbing his hat and walking towards the door as Gilbert exclaims: “Hey, that’s my hat!” To which Nick says, “Come and get it, while it’s hot.” Why this is both so funny and so graceful is almost mysterious in its simplicity, effortless but not effortless. It’s just as Roger Ebert said of Powell: “William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.” Well, it does matter, particularly in the later My Man Godfrey where Powell says, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” but I entirely understand Ebert’s point. Much of the joy is merely listening to Powell, which makes all of the sequels to The Thin Man and, particularly, the Lux Radio Theater versions, so enjoyable and such an art form, and one nearly lost.

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Myrna Loy also makes it look all so easy. Loy hadn’t been this funny yet and had often been cast as the “exotic” or the vamp, which she is not here, but she is most certainly not the opposite – “normal” long-suffering wife, arms akimbo waiting for her hubby to finish his latest shenanigan. She’s right there with him – joking, sleuthing, drinking. Loy had previously starred with Powell in Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama (their first of fourteen films together – six being the Thin Man pictures) and their chemistry was so perfect, so natural, like two people who finish each other’s sentences, that many fans thought they were a couple in real life. Loy is crisp and sweet, elegant and goofy and bemused, never annoyed – quick to make a playful sour face or sit patiently on Christmas morning (in her new fur coat, no less – their lounging clothes are spectacular here) as Nick horses around with his present – a B.B. gun – he’s lying on the couch and taking shots at the Christmas balls on the tree. You know, everyday Christmas morning things. “You act as though it were the only Christmas present you ever had,” she wryly observes. It’s a lovely, almost subversive little moment of their lives together – these two adults who’ve bonded, not by children (unless you count Asta), but by fun that verges on the precipice of irresponsibility. But who are they responsible to? Each other. And are they letting each other down? Not a chance.

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(remarkably shot in around two weeks) is a wickedly fun, sexy, intelligent intoxicant. You get something of a contact high watching the dazzling, slightly anarchic Nick and Nora imbibe, tossing off their good-natured barbs with such elegant ease. And the picture remains a still-modern depiction of what is, let’s face it, an aspirational marriage. A daring merging of darker crime elements with screwball comedy (decomposing bodies as dinner repartee), the picture was something of a risk, and one that paid off. As detailed in Roger Bryant’s “William Powell: The Life and Films,” Samuel Marx, then the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s story department said: “I’d bought this sprightly detective story for fourteen thousand dollars, and we had no idea whether this kind of comedy would go. It had two unprecedented elements… they were having fun with murder, and they were a married couple who acted with total sophistication… The matrimonial combination… even that was a risk because in those days you got married at the end of the movie, not at the beginning. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be fun.” Nowadays, it would be the drinking that wasn’t supposed to be fun. With The Thin Man you get both. And most especially, you get Nick and Nora Charles – tipsy and witty and living in a world of their own making. A world that’s crazy anyway, so why the hell not live it the way you can? As Nora says at their doozy of an Agatha Christie-like, suspect-filled dinner party: “Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”


New Year's Eve & The Thing

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“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” – MacReady (Kurt Russell)

There are many scenes in John Carpenter’s masterpiece The Thing that make me feel, not just scared, but a chill deep in my heart – intensifying the icy environs these unfortunate men are surrounded by; permeating the picture with unexplainable horror and an all-consuming paranoia. A paranoia these men don’t want to feel for one another. Anxiety, distrust, death. But there’s one early, chilling scene that could have played it quite simple – it’s a character reading from notes. You’ve watched scenes like this in movies before and either, they explain too much and you listen to the necessary information, with a yes, yes, I get it, or they’re merely easy exposition. This is what is happening, audience, they say. But the way Carpenter times the reading, and the way he shoots it, in such an enclosed space, the cold whirring outside, and the way the actors react to each other, one alarmed and warning, the other annoyed, tired and then … concerned, it’s both powerfully scary and, really, extraordinarily sad. Dear god, what are these men going to do?

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It’s when R.J. MacReady (a magnificent Kurt Russell) sits in the Bombardier Skidozer outside with Fuchs (Joel Polis), after their chief scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley) has gone crazy and locked himself in his room. “There’s something wrong with Blair,” sensitive Fuchs tells an already exasperated MacReady who didn’t want to have this private discussion in the first place. The Skidozer seems the only place they can talk privately away from the outpost – the cold raging outside of them while the men deal with a body in their Antarctica research station (which will already become a doubled-up terror on top of this scene). Fuchs continues, “He’s locked himself in his room and he won’t answer the door. So I took one of his notebooks from the lab . . .” MacReady looks over at him with a slightly annoyed, “Yeah?” Fuchs reads from Blair’s notes: “It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now it wants life forms on earth …” MacReady cuts him off, “It’s getting cold in here Fuchs, and I haven’t slept in two days.” He’s both not wanting to hear this shit and not prepared to hear this shit. But Fuchs persists, “Wait a minute, Mac, wait a minute.” He reads: “It needs to be alone and within close proximity with a life form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark …” O.K., at this point, and when I first saw the movie, that scared the hell out of me – that this destructive, all-consuming force needed to be near you, that it was a chameleon, that it sat in wait to strike, and that it comes for you in the dark. This is one of the things you fear as a child, as you close your eyes and hope nothing is hiding under your bed. It’s also the dread of whatever you might fear in a person you don’t trust, or, even more terrifying, what you don’t trust in yourself. It’s anxiety personified.

MacReady_and_ClarkBut MacReady grows further annoyed, “So is Blair cracking up, or what?” he asks. Fuchs then reads with insistence: “There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet.” MacReady’s face is leaned to one side looking at Fuchs, Fuchs looking back at him, seriously. MacReady says nothing and yet, he’s saying everything as he looks over – Russell is subtly revelatory and multidimensional in his horror here – he’s fearful, he’s also just beginning to think. The camera, perfectly, shoots the men from outside the Skidozer, further showing how small they are amidst this unrelenting force, this powerful tool will become a useless vehicle – it’s merely a meeting area at this point. And with this, Carpenter lets those words sink in: “They’re not dead yet.” Cut to Windows (Thomas G. Waites), shockingly walking in on a consumed body in the corner, snakelike tendrils wrapping around the thing – what on earth is this creature? “They’re not dead yet.” No, they’re not. And as the movie goes on, we learn they are never going to stop.

It’s that unstoppable dread filmed with beauty and horror (gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey – Ennio Morricone’s score is commanding as well) and deliberate pace that makes The Thing so artfully, potently scary and, by the end, both effective and poignant. That this group of isolated men working at this research station in all of their varied positions and personalities (I’ve read some complaints there’s little to distinguish these men and I’ve never understood this critique – you grow to like and care about all of these very distinct guys) are forced into a position of distrust due to this alien, assimilating creature is part of the tragedy. Watching men who work, drink, quip, and lead a rather lonely existence all shoved together out there at that outpost having to turn brother-against-brother while attempting to save themselves or take charge (which MacReady does) ratchets up the intensity, but it also adds depth and nuance to their predicament. The picture never addresses anything obviously, and intriguingly, allegorical ideas abound in The Thing – the idea of being taken over by an ideology, a wave of panic, disease – it’s all there. My fear while watching the movie is the horror of one’s own self, of never-ending anxiety, and how that kind of inner panic might look like when turned inside out.

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This is where the brilliant tension mixed with the gore, effects and creature designs (by Rob Bottin) work in perfect, terrifying unison. You’re stressed and maybe even horrified as each new set piece occurs (and each one is beautifully conceived), wondering what on earth the next thing will look like. That the monster is not one unified creature but rather a shape-shifting horror we can never quite place (at one point I stared at a thing like disgusting stalks of vegetables, snakes, teeth, intestines and eyes) that it becomes some kind of personification of the horror inside a person. When we say we feel all “twisted inside” or we can’t breathe from panic or our hands feel like jelly – the most horrifying dread someone like Raskolnikov ever pictured emanating from him. Kafka’s anxious nightmare – you can’t even escape anxiety when stationed in Antarctica and worse WHEN STATIONED IN ANTARCTICA – claustrophobia and snow-capped agoraphobia mixed together. I even thought of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” when observing these creatures, a painting stimulated by intense anxiety and distress in his life. As he wrote of the work’s inspiration:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

What would Munch make of The Thing?

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The picture was adapted by Bill Lancaster from John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella “Who Goes There?” (Also loosely adapted by Howard Hawks for The Thing from Another World) and it’s a fantastical setup that well understands the insanity and panic of the horror. (Carpenter was also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft — The Thing is considered the first part of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” rounded out by Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness). Indeed, Carpenter understands the shock and terror so well here that characters stand in near-breathless disbelief and disgust, and, at times, in a darkly comic stupor. Carpenter (and the terrific actors) never make any of these men unaware of how simultaneously terrifying and surreal this all is – there is never a stupid, overly clever quip, or an easily brave move, or a perfectly heroic moment (though there are brave and heroic moments in that these men don’t all run away or, into walls in an insane panic).  These men are surviving the best way they can and the humor and humanity come out organically from their predicament. When Norris (Charles Hallahan) turns into that demented spider-like head-creature-thing (I have no other way to describe it) and Palmer says: “You’ve got to be fucking kidding…” it supremely funny because, we are all thinking the same damn thing. And when, near the end of the film’s brilliant centerpiece – the blood test – Gary (Donald Moffat) yells: “I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” it’s such a simple and honest, yet hilarious thing to holler after everything that has just occurred, that it works as a kind of relief.  Sadly, he won’t be tied to that fucking couch – he’ll eventually be dead.

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Which leads to the picture’s enigmatic, and in my mind, elegiac, even beautiful ending. Childs (a wonderful Keith David) and MacReady are the last men standing – one of them could be infected. What do they do? Kill each other? No. Turns out, they’ll just have to trust each other – they’ll have to wait and see. That’s damn touching, and, depending on what kind of person you are (I’ll put aside other theories) this could be read as hope for man while hopelessness abounds – a choosing to trust and maybe even love when you’ve got god knows how many days or seconds left to your life, over violence and doubt. As the tagline of the film said – “Man is the Warmest Place to Hide” – that’s true for the soul-sucking creature, yes. But for a human being, warmth and faith are more comforting than leaving your friend out in the cold.

originally published at the New Beverly


Wintergreen: Electra Glide in Blue

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“Loneliness can kill you deader than a .357 Magnum.”

As John Wintergreen, the diminutive motorcycle cop of Electra Glide in Blue, Robert Blake reveals dueling forces of masculine assurance and short man insecurity with such kindhearted peculiarity, you feel both charmed and embarrassed for him. It’s familiar and, yet, curious – off – there’s something different about this guy. And strangely, it feels different because he seems a nice person.  Imagine that? A nice person. Cop. A moral person. It’s almost, oddly, creepy. But it’s lovable and disarming and a little threatening in that specific way that only Robert Blake, the actor, exudes. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.

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Wintergreen is ambitious but he also seems a little lonely, a little sad, frequently sweet, and at times, perceptive when he sees through bullshit. Knowing how tough the world is out there, he also seems, in moments, a little stupid. And all of this is gonna hurt him in the end. Not just because he’s too nice of a cop, but that seems too obvious a reading for this beautifully made, wonderfully idiosyncratic picture (by one-time director James William Guercio). Instead, he just feels doomed.  You look at him riding around the expansive, gorgeous John Ford-Monument Valley and you think… eventually he will fade into this landscape, or he’ll wander the place on his motorcycle, writing up speeding tickets until he’s turned to dust. You feel this before the picture’s unforgettable ending and he feels it – he worries about it. What kind of life is this? How will he leave his mark? As a speck on the landscape hassling motorists, saddled up on two wheels next to his goofy jerk-off partner? He wants to use his brain, to be respected. He also wants to be a big man, he wants to be something like a famous person, he wants to wear the right getup, that big hat, and that fancy suit – he wants to stand out. In the end, he both stands out and fades into the landscape, violently in death – but in a simultaneously ignoble and gorgeous way. Fragility and misunderstanding and cruelty and death in one six-minute reverse tracking shot that’s so moving and so gorgeous, he becomes one with the blacktop and the sky. It’s not the way Wintergreen would want to go, and it is indeed tragic, but it’s one of the most beautiful moments in 1970s cinema – a shot to watch and ponder, your emotions and thoughts moving to mysterious places. Electra Glide in Blue is a picture about the ugliness of human nature, but the beauty of it too, expressively and aesthetically – right down to the glory of Robert Blake’s pint-sized body, zipped up in his motorcycle gear, chomping gun, walking in those boots in the heat, the leather rubbing up against itself – that delicious sound of leather. You can practically hear Lou Reed singing, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather…”

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And Blake (however you feel about him personally -- I am speaking of him in this movie and others) has his own kind of beauty and eccentricity (watch his Perry Smith from In Cold Blood and take in his stirring soulfulness as a child actor, as well as other roles, BustingBaretta oh dear lord, Lost Highway). He can play the tough guy as terrifying, or as a touching act of overcompensation. In Electra Glide in Blue, he’s a tender macho man who uses his stature as a sort of characteristic attraction, a selling point – he tells the pretty ladies about it right away and compares himself to Alan Ladd. As Wintergreen, his introductory scene is all sex and strength. He’s satisfying a woman named Jolene (Jeannine Riley) and she is clearly happy about it. The camera moves to shots of his body – the image lingers on his back while he works out in his underwear. Already in the process of some serious masculine validation, by her and by the camera, he’s all muscled-up; barely breaking a sweat as he performs the pull-ups he likely does every day (or every time he steps into his little abode). He’s proven to be a wonder in the sack and, ever virile, he’s ready to go at it again. No rest for “Big John” (as she calls him). It’s a lot of showboating and swagger and Robert Blake burying his face in a woman’s breasts (he calls them his “Valley of the Dolls”). I watch this and think, this should play so silly, but instead it seems intriguingly amused, self-conscious on purpose, and poignant. Right away one feels Wintergreen needs that validation – it’s not merely the strutting display of a cool ladies' man – it feels deeper than that, thanks to both Blake’s offbeat charm and guilelessness and Conrad Hall’s inimitable, often sexy cinematography that uses Blake’s short stature as part of the picture’s visual style. Electra Glide in Blue is indeed a movie about cops, about the clash between 1970s counterculture with the cop culture, but it has also been called everything from fascist (I'm open to argument -- but I don't think it is) to the anti-Easy Rider (it’s not that either – not really, even when we see Wintergreen target practicing on a poster of Easy Rider). When I watch it, I’m struck by how much it observes masculinity – in all of its toxic, loving, sexual, fetishistic, and friendless manifestations – and how much being emasculated or alone can break one down. And how it can break one down within a close-knit corrupt cop culture -- that doesn't jibe with independent thinkers like Wintergreen. So, Blake’s Wintergreen -- this is a lonely man.

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One very desperate, lonely creature is played by Elisha Cook, Jr. (the king of the emasculated, the double-crossed, the patsy, the recklessly overcompensating), as Crazy Willie, a loony old man, hysterically scuttling through the Arizona heat like a bug about to be smashed. Crazy Willie informs patrolman Wintergreen and his partner Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) of his friend’s death – a suicide. When Wintergreen observes the scene of this dead hermit – his detective skills kick in and he views this not as a guy who offends himself, but as a homicide. He’s adamant about it and maybe a little too overexcited. He’s at first scoffed at – just a dumb patrolman who should stick to his bike and shut up — but the big man, Detective Harve Poole (a fantastic Mitchell Ryan), agrees with Wintergreen’s original supposition. In an amusing scene in which the coroner (Royal Dano) leans over the body, pulling out a .22 bullet from a skull, a cigarette dangling from his mouth (ashes likely dropping into body cavities – eh, he’s dead), an investigation begins. Money is missing from the victim too – $5,000 – who stole it? This could all be left as is, and you sense cases like this often are, but Poole gets on top of it, really, it seems, to fuck with hippies. But Wintergreen doesn’t know this at first – he’s just thrilled he’s been transported to homicide to ride along and observe Poole. And he gets to wear that hat.

That hat. This makes for another standout moment involving attire, mirroring the picture’s credit sequence, which soaks in close-ups and freezes on Blake’s almost fetishistic dressing in leather. We see that beautiful ruffled white shirt laid out on Blake’s bed – Doo Wop music playing in his little house as he dance-dresses into his new important clothes. The ruffled shirt seems a bit much, but Wintergreen clearly loves the flair, and who can blame him? No shame in looking good while using your mind. He puts on his hat, and his head bobs to the music, and places a cigar in his mouth. He’s smiling, so happy that his life means something as defined by these clothes. It’s joyful and ridiculous – poking fun at the male peacocking, but knowing everyone does shit like this. It ends with Robert Blake walking out into the hot night, realizing he’s forgotten to put on his pants. Amused with himself, he dances back inside. It’s a lovely, cool/uncool moment. And endearingly embarrassing.

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But Wintergreen knows this job is about more than his clothes –though he’s not quite prepared with just how awful Poole is. Harassing hippies, without care if they’re innocent, Wintergreen can’t stomach the treatment – he feels more akin to the outsiders (we learn earlier that Wintergreen is also a Vietnam vet) and he observes Poole’s methods with concern and disgust. Why anyone at the time of this picture’s release thought it was pro-cop, I have no idea. Even if it’s pro-good cop (and just the one), that doesn’t mean much of anything either in this film’s existential universe -- up against that kind of system. Being a "good" cop is met with no rewards, nothing, it even seems a bit idiotic, at least in terms of having any kind of a fulfilling life. When you see how Wintergreen’s giggling, numbskull partner Zipper lives (and cracks up), lazing about reading books for a paycheck and then stealing the missing $5,000 to buy a new bike, he just seems insane. Not happy. Is anyone happy in this movie? Crazy Willy is upset his hermit friend was mingling and working with younger people – left out of his friend’s affection and perhaps… love? Everyone else is grimly getting by while Wintergreen’s squareness is so square, he’s actually the most rebellious. It’s not a movie where tough guys gleefully hate hippies, even if, by film's end, two hippies turn vile but… human beings can be vile. The movie does not play as an indictment on the longhaired – it’s more meditative and mysterious than that, more randomly absurd.

What makes sense (it’s not right, it just makes sense considering how important potency is in this picture – two legs straddling a bike, big hats over long hair on men and, of course, girls) is what really gets to Poole, what really breaks up his partnership with Wintergreen: a woman. And his sexual prowess. It all returns back to Wintergreen’s introductory scene and those “Valley of the Dolls.” Jolene.

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Poole wants to introduce Wintergreen to his sexy lady friend – Jolene – the hot number who works in the town’s popular watering hole. But Jolene is more than just a piece of ass – and the picture (scripted by Robert Boris from a story by Boris and Rupert Hitzig) – nicely gives her a big moment in which she proves as much. She also seems to hate Poole, whom she is indeed sleeping with. But as Poole learns (and as we know), she’s also sleeping with Wintergreen. Jolene unleashes not just her rage at Poole, but her anger that all of her dreams as a dancer, of making it in Hollywood or making it anywhere, are done for, and here she is tending bar. She lost a husband because she wanted a career (imagine!) and now she’s stuck. Enflamed with her sexual power over these guys with guns, she can abuse this man (and perhaps, men) by … emasculating him. She’s nasty and sad and sympathetic all at once with Jeannine Riley giving her moment tremendous humanity, even if she’s overacting a bit. She seems like she would really act up this moment – in real life – this bar, with just the two men present after closing time, is her stage. She reveals that she’s not only just fucking Wintergreen, but that he’s better at it than Poole. Far better at it. She shames Poole so much that the two lawmen just sit there awkwardly, stone-faced. And when Poole finally, nearly hits her – she laughs in his face. Wintergreen sits knowingly, understanding it’s over. He’s not rising in the ranks.

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Given the way Robert Blake (the real man) writes about this movie, he’s as disenchanted with so-called bullshit artists and something small (in this case, the picture) not succeeding, as much as Wintergreen is about his position in the police force and the corruption therein. The movie comes with interesting, troubled production history and suffered an overhyped release (the publicity of the film was just too much – both mirroring and opposing the film’s study of masculine overcompensation: “An American Movie by a New Director. James William Guercio” the ads blared – the original New York Times review is as snarky as something from a Gawker column). But whatever happened in terms of the making of the film, Electra Glide in Blue is an extraordinary picture, both of and out of its time, and shot, unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. A merging of a John Ford western – the endless vistas and loneliness of Monument Valley with the personal, at times, kinky details and close-ups of faces, guns, meat, black leather, breasts and Stetsons – it feels old school and experimentally modern. And Robert Blake, a weird kind of square is the perfect protagonist for this kind of vision. All leather-clad and Blake-speak, he’s almost a hipster – he’s something, that’s for sure. But he’s by the book, a square, and yet, anti-authority when authority is proven corrupt, which it seems to always be. He walks through these frames with such a potent combination of vulnerability and morality, and with such weird style, aided by the brilliance of Hall (who had also worked with Blake, exquisitely, in In Cold Blood), that both of them seemingly know they’re breaking rules of expectations. They’re terrifically in unison here. But Blake was heartbroken about the movie. In his autobiography, he devotes an entire chapter, not-so-subtly called, “Electra Glide in Bullshit,” in which he doesn’t hold back with his contempt for Guercio, citing much more directorial credit to Hall and himself. And he ends the chapter like the dying Wintergreen on the road. This is Robert Blake (think what you want) but this shit is personal And lonely: “And as for the character, I played… I love you and goodbye for now. And so long, sweet little film, I’ll see you on the other side.”

originally published at the New Beverly


Quentin at the Castro


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It was a joy discussing movies with Quentin Tarantino on stage at the Castro Theatre this last Monday -- about his newest book, Cinema Speculation.  Quentin and I discussed (of course) movies, actors, directors, and more, from his book -- and it was free-form and bounced all over in a beautiful way -- he dug in deep. It was a wonderfully immersive,  cinephile-heavy evening at a beautiful historic theatre, The Castro. Thanks so much, Quentin and The Castro.

And read Tarantino's Cinema Speculation -- a fascinating book -- rigorous film study, memoir, insider knowledge, stories, and of course, cinema speculations. And more. It's so smart and unique -- and so entertaining to read. An essential film book--  a one-of-a-kind with the distinctive voice and opinions of Tarantino. I'll write more but for now, thanks again for the talk, Quentin, and to those who made it out there.

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top photo courtesy Castro Theatre 


Falling in Love Again: Woman on the Run

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Norman Foster’s sublime, complex Woman on the Run asks – those marital bonds: What does it do to people? Or, rather, how do people perceive them? And, more specifically, how do women? And for women living in 1950? In San Francisco. In a small apartment. With no kids. And her husband’s pet dog. (Good for her, I say -- she is not doing what is expected of her).

But here, we see, this is a marriage where perhaps the couple is invisible to one another. They have lost their way. They sleepwalk through the motions -- maybe dreaming of another life, floating in some marital netherworld they never anticipated.

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We see this through steely, smart Eleanor (a wonderful Ann Sheridan), who, when the cops come to question her (her husband has bolted from the scene of a crime and they are suspicious as to why -- was he involved?), she walks around her small kitchen and coolly reveals rows of dog food cans. She doesn’t cook much, obviously, and she makes that fact known, almost as a matter of sardonic pride. She’s no Donna Reed type. She also doesn’t see her husband much. He does his own thing (he’s a painter – she shows his work to the detectives, praising some of it), and she does her own thing. It’s quite a modern arrangement, really. It would seem that, in 1950, this was not the norm in movies, especially when the woman will not become an easy “femme fatale”  -- a bitch out to destroy her poor husband. Nothing is unrecognizable in the movie  – people, and relationships, are complex. Humans are human. And odd. And frustrating.

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It’s an unusual, intriguing set-up. After Eleanor’s husband, Frank (Ross Elliott) witnesses a murder, he immediately goes missing. Why? Who cares about the cops, we wonder why? And most importantly, Eleanor wonders why. So, it is not the cops (who try to find him) but Eleanor who winds up the one doing arduous detective work to track down Frank. As said, when you first meet her, she seems to barely care he’s gone. He’s always gone, it seems, and their marriage is so damaged, she’s hardened into grim acceptance. That’s just how it is. Still, she’s no rat (see, she does care about marital bonds –thou shall not rat your husband seems implicit – or maybe that’s just me). But then she isn’t even sure what she would be ratting out – she has no idea what is going on. And then she learns that Frank needs life-saving heart medicine – she didn’t know this about him either.  This concerns her and so she teams up with a reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and scours San Francisco (the film utilizes striking and nicely lived-in locations in the city) to find her missing heart-afflicted husband. It can’t be purely medical that she’s out to restore his heart.

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You’d think the title -- Woman on the Run, a film noir (though it feels a lot more than that – it goes beyond genre) would simply be about a woman fleeing – and as described earlier, fleeing a bad marriage. But it isn’t really about that – this is a woman who is, essentially, fleeing from the nosey, rather sexist interrogations of police detectives who bugging her husband and judging her for her unconventional life. Frank’s the one who has fled, but, now, she is fleeing to figure out what in the hell is going on and where in the hell he is, and, really who is she? She’s fleeing from her own mental prison and it’s a fascinating beautiful thing to watch – and in in the end, incredibly romantic. With style, beautiful grit, and hard-boiled empathy, Woman on the Run dissects the sacred union without any artifice. It’s a tough movie, but damn if you’re not enormously moved by the end.

With that, the picture upends expectations of the cynical wife in this noir landscape – as she searches for him, and talks to locals at bars and various areas in San Francisco, she starts learning how much her husband actually loves her. How much he brought her up to others. She was on his mind. And she starts feeling things again. She starts understanding him more.

Baroquely beautiful, absolutely brimming with style, and even surrealistic at times, Foster’s Woman on the Run still feels firmly grounded in reality. The director’s mentoring and work with Orson Welles (Foster collaborated with Welles on It’s All True and directed Journey Into Fear) is felt throughout (with help by DP Hal Mohr). And marriage is the focal point (with a script by Alan Campbell, who had recently divorced Dorothy Parker, the two got back together after this picture was made, another curiosity). 

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Sheridan (the “Oomph girl!” – a moniker she detested. She once said: “Oomph" is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”) gives one of her greatest, perhaps her greatest performance here: Tough, but vulnerable, jaundiced but sophisticated, she’s able to light up when she really starts to see that her marriage has been muddled by a dreary fog. And they both (she and her husband) let it happen. It’s powerful and disarmingly moving that the picture’s finale occurs on what’s often representational of love: a rollercoaster (up and down and up and down and a lot of screaming and laughing and fear) and Sheridan is so moved to finally see her husband, that she screams his name with fear and love. It’s a beautiful moment.


What’s intriguing about Woman on the Run is that the picture isn’t trying to wag its finger at Sheridan for being such a hard-boiled cynic – a “bad” wife.” She’s presented with empathy and complexity and it’s not all her fault things have stagnated in her marriage. It’s not all her husband’s fault either. They both need to work on things. But this is about the “woman on the run” – Sheridan – and she needs to find her life and resuscitate her marriage, so, after she finds herself running from the police, she eventually will find herself running from the reporter (who reveals his true, evil intentions later in the movie). She can’t trust anyone. Really, she can only trust the one she was so dismissive about from the start – her husband.  

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Sheridan plays a woman who appears to have a hard heart tamped down by disappointment and marital atrophy – but as the movie reveals, she is full of love and understanding once she really opens herself up again. Marriage is viewed through a dreamy, demented landscape here, but it’s part of the institution’s tumultuous journey. A key moment in Woman on the Run occurs when, before Frank flees, he’s asked by an inspector if he’s married. His answer: “In a way.” Yes, in a way. But by the end of the movie, what that really means, romantically, is, it’s their way.


Sugar Torch: Samuel Fuller at Columbia

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From my August 2018 Sight & Sound piece:

Sugar Torch is running – someone wants her dead. It’s terrifying and visceral and, in the end, very sad.

Sugar’s plight opens Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono and immediately grabs us. Like a pulpy headline or a Weegee photograph, we are drawn in by a stimulating blend of blatancy and mystery – when something is so in your face that you’re knocked off balance, perplexed but enthralled. We just watched Sugar, the tall blonde gyrating on stage, smiling and winking with a kind of paroxysmal madness, shaking it in a downtown Los Angeles Burlesque House. Her dancing is aggressively sexy and bizarre – we hear but never see the audience. She looks to be performing for darkness, or maybe in a hallucination. The dance is brief, told through jump cuts, making it all the more surreal. She ends her performance, walks back to her dressing room and … gunshot. It then becomes verité – Sugar runs outside clad in her shimmy costume, desperately scared and screaming, quite the sight running down a populated L.A. street at night. The poor woman runs right into traffic and is shot down, collapsing dead between two cars. It’s fast and it’s sad. It’s quintessential Fuller.

“Motion as emotion.” That’s how Martin Scorsese described Fuller’s films in his introduction to Fuller’s fantastic autobiography, A Third Face, and Sugar Torch is certainly that.  Scorsese wrote, “When you respond to a Fuller film, what you're responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller's pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it's being lived with genuine passion.”

It’s a beautiful, perfect description of Fuller, and something we feel and see either writ large, or in glimpses within this box set of Fuller’s films with Columbia – there’s something remarkable even in the pictures he wrote but didn’t direct, and pictures the American maverick wasn’t too happy about when placed in the studio and director’s hands.

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Fuller loved the pulse and rigor of writing – he started out as a 17-year-old crime reporter, tapping out pieces for the New York Evening Graphic, merging real life with sensationalism but always after the truth, words jumping from the page to create their own visual poetry. And he understood people in all of their drama, vulnerability and complexity. When he was working the Upper West Side, he’d phone stories in to his editor from a friendly brothel, where he’d gotten to know the women so well that he didn’t feel any urges toward them – they became friends, people he respected (something he revels with his female characters in many of his films). He listened and observed and surely took notes. At a young age, he defended the marginalized while standing in the thick of a good yarn, something that never left him. When he enlisted in the Army during WW II (and the wartime service that would inform one of his great works – The Big Red One) he wrote that, “fighting-didn't really give me a hard-on. What kept going through my brain was that I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness.”

This Blu-ray set allows us a fascinating look at Fuller’s early beginnings as a screenwriter and, one would suspect, a look at some of the films that, when altered, prompted him to tackle directing himself and made him fiercely independent.

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Fuller was a writer among four (with Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson and Myles Connolly) in the earliest picture in this set, Harry Lachman’s It Happened in Hollywood (1937). Somewhat Reminiscent of A Star is Born (they were released the same year) or Singin’ in the Rain, the story finds a Tom Mix-fashioned cowboy star (played by Richard Dix) struggling to make the transition from silent pictures to talkies. It’s an endearing movie, and often quite smart, and Dix is likable (along with Fay Wray), but we wonder how much further Fuller would have taken this story had he written it himself.

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You wonder the same of D. Ross Lederman’s Adventure in Sahara (1938) the least notable among this set (screenplay by Maxwell Shane from Fuller’s story), but a relatively entertaining and quick (clocked right at an hour) adventure yarn. It’s a revenge tale set in the French Foreign Legion that features a good story and some lovely cinematography by Franz Plane, but moves along without much bite – you strain to find Fuller in this one. It does, however, come with an amusing real-life story: Fuller made the treatment up, on the fly, as he pitched to Columbia, borrowing from Victor Hugo and Mutiny on the Bounty. As Fuller wrote, “See, studio heads back then may have grown up selling furs instead of reading French literature, but they loved a good story. So, thank you, Monsieur Hugo, for saving my ass with your wonderful novel Ninety-Three.”

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It’s easy to discern how Fuller’s own experience must have informed the Power of the Press and the film, directed by Lew Landers and written by Robert Hardy Andrews (from a story by Fuller) has some keen musings about media, isolationism and patriotism, but it’s ultimately disappointing, particularly for such a potentially compelling story. We spend a lot of the time hoping (and perhaps we shouldn’t be hoping) for the picture to explode into full-on Fuller, but, alas, it never does. It’s worth viewing for the story and the actors, however (a principled Guy Kibbee and a villainous Otto Kruger stand out), even if it’s a bit too much speechifying. His next effort would prove to be far more interesting even if not perfect, and in the end, vexing for Fuller.

Directed by Douglas Sirk and written by Fuller, Shockproof is a well-cast, finely modulated thriller/melodrama that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. The story is of Griff Marat, a parole officer (played with passion by Cornel Wilde) inexorably falling in love with his parolee charge, Jenny Marsh (Wilde’s real-life wife Patricia Knight) and losing everything he once held dear as they become first, lovers and then, wanted fugitives. The combination of Fuller’s and Sirk’s sensibilities does mesh in an intriguingly odd way and, is at times, beautiful and powerful (a scene where a parole-breaker jumps to his death rather than risking imprisonment is potently horrifying), and the film exhibits enough visual style to hold the improbable melodrama at its core. Griff’s household, though sweet, is in a way, a variation of the suffocating cells Jenny has spent years in:  all steep expressionist angles and multi-level Victorian woodwork -- there is no escape from institutionalization. Marriage or jail appear to be two forms of doom hanging over her head.

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After the shooting of Jenny’s lover – Harry Wesson, played skillfully by John Baragrev (he manages to make Harry both repellent and suave, cheap and elegant) “The Lovers,” as the tabloid press calls them (also the original title of Fuller’s screenplay), head down the Mexico way, but are ensnared by the authorities. The film is moving straight for an American tragedy and its visual invention keeps up but, then, the tone abruptly changes, and everything is neatly wrapped into an unconvincing happy ending. The tampering of this film (the ending was written by National Velvet’s Helen Deutsch) left both Sirk and Fuller disappointed and was likely a decisive factor in Fuller’s decision to eventually helm and produce his films himself.

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Even though he didn’t write the screenplay, Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson — who directed the terrific, tough-as-nails Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, and The Phenix City Story), is truer to Fuller’s spirit and voice. Not a surprise since it’s adapted from Fuller’s best-selling 1944 novel, The Dark Page (with screenwriters Eugene Ling, James Poe, and Ted Sherdeman). An intense, at times, touching, well-engineered thriller the story looks at a ruthless tabloid editor Mark Chapman (played with mean, barking zeal by Broderick Crawford) who murders his long-estranged wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and has to stay one step ahead of his two ace reporters (played by Donna Reed and John Derek). The film is full of Fullerisms, mostly hollered by Crawford, and not only does it chastise the circulation-chasing tabloid press and unscrupulous investigative techniques, but it also populates the film with skid row characters, Lonely Hearts meet-ups, and assorted urban lowlifes. Chief amongst them is a moving ex-reporter -- down on his luck, played with vulnerable integrity by Henry O’Neill. Derek seems uncomfortable at first, and green on screen, but his character grows on you – he’s not all that he’s puffing himself up to be and his lightweight qualities next to Crawford and Reed start to make sense. But the film rests on Crawford’s tense shoulders— all of his inner turmoil and ambivalence sweating out of him.  He loves Derek’s character like a son and seems compulsively spellbound by the increasing circulation that his own tragedy brings him – even if it means chronicling his own destruction.

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And now back to Sugar Torch (played by Gloria Pall). She’s an important side-player (and one who doesn’t live long) to one of Fuller’s most innovative and daring films, The Crimson Kimono (which Fuller produced, wrote, and directed) but her awful death, though pulpy and loud, presages the quieter troubles and passions the other characters will experience within themselves. After Sugar is murdered, the film cuts right to a close-up of detective Joe (James Shigeta) – the Japanese-American cop who will, with his partner, best friend, and war buddy, Charlie (Glenn Corbett), crack the case of Sugar and a sad love triangle. And then, become involved in a triangle of his own: he falls for Joe’s love, Chris, and she falls for him.

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A rare picture for its time, it examines the struggles of an interracial relationship and Joe’s concerns about how he is perceived in a racist world. And then, how he must come to terms with his friendship to Charlie. Interestingly, Charlie is not shown as intolerant, and though hurt, he handles Joe and Chris’s relationship with maturity. Fuller fought for this more agreeable depiction of Charlie – the studio felt that Chris needed a reason to leave him other than her love for Joe. Fuller felt, no way. Presumably, that would read as insulting to Chris’s attraction to Joe. Chris loves Joe – they have more chemistry and more in common and more of a connection – she doesn’t need a reason to leave beyond that. It’s a complicated, touching approach – modern for its time.

And its modern approach is helped by the Los Angeles Little Tokyo locations – those Fuller stylistics – close-ups that make us almost taste a person’s sweat, and those impressive long takes – including one rather complicated single-shot scene showing Charlie and Joe waking up in their shared apartment that is so naturalistic in style and acting, that we absolutely believe these guys are buddies. The movie feels real.

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And that reality spilled into the filmmaking process as well. After shooting the extremely dangerous Sugar-running-opening, Fuller reflected later about how no one on the street (these were reportedly not paid extras, but real people) gave a damn about this poor woman. In The Third Face Fuller wrote of watching that scene with head of Columbia, Sam Briskin: “When I looked at the rushes with Sam Briskin, we realized that nobody, not even a passing sailor or a homeless drunk-was paying any attention to the big, scantily clad gal running along that downtown street. Nobody gave a damn. ‘What the hell's wrong with this country?’ asked Briskin.”

What the hell is wrong with this country could be asked of Underworld U.S.A. (or what the hell is wrong with everyone?) – a movie where the good guys and the bad guys are all bad. Who knows? The picture showcases some of his most beautifully designed and staged shots while it digs deep into violence and revenge. Fuller’s visual invention and edgy violence feel almost avant-garde here. The morally complex story of retribution showcases many of Fuller’s trademarks: An older woman that knows the ways of the world (think Thelma Ritter in Pick Up on South Street), a woman (named Cuddles – so touchingly played by Dolores Dorn) who would be considered a tramp but is given real pathos and depth (think Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss), a protagonist taking the path of crime to transit into a moral awakening, criminals hiding within the respectability of institutions, stainless steel pulp dialogue and gripping, at times, disturbing violence.

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The film is built around a remarkable Cliff Robertson as Tolly Devlin, whose face is perpetually twisted, his eyes darkened with wrath. He’s got a reason – as a kid (played with impressive aplomb and perfect mimicry by David Kent) he is scarred for life the night he witnesses the deadly beating of his father in a dank alley. Earlier that night in a dispute over a pickpocketed wallet, Tolly had received an injury over his right eye and that scar remains on the adult Tolly, God’s lonely avenger. He will track and terminate each of the killers even if, as shown in a concise, elliptical sequence, it means pursuing increasing prison time. That’s in order to reach one of the murderers, imprisoned in a maximum-security facility.

And so you watch this scarred kid and, then, young man, just keeping going and going and going … Tolly will infiltrate the crime syndicate, playing a dangerous game in which he uses the criminals and the chief of police with the same ruthlessness.

The violence in the film pushed the limits of censorship at the time and Fuller had to make compromises to tone the movie down, and yet it is still hard-hitting. An example: in an impeccably choreographed scene, an All-American-looking contract killer (constantly wearing shades) played to creepy-cool perfection by Richard Rust, runs over the young daughter of a snitch (the shot of her dead returns in a newspaper photo). Fuller uses every resource to deliver the impact of this killing – setting up the unmerciful forces that Tolly will face if found out.

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One of the simplest, most beautiful shots in the film also showcases Tolly walking relentlessly on a mission to end it all, to do the right thing. The camera leads him on, staying ahead of him, in a beautiful, dynamic shot as he faces off the crime boss at a pool where he does business (Fuller liked the idea of these guys spending their time in clean places – he wanted you to practically smell the chlorine). In a bout of fiscal probity, Fuller will powerfully reuse the same rig (likely a crane) to deliver Tully’s final steps out of the place, wounded and faltering, this time, his back to us. Fuller also uses beautifully designed transitions and ellipsis to chronicle the passage of time and its fluid nature in a spare 99 minutes – it works perfectly. At its core, this resource, resolute syntax also makes the decades between Tolly’s youth and his adult age, blurry, fluid, as if hatred has made time irrelevant.

And the film ends on a most symbolic image: Tolly, now dead, acquiescing, but incapable of letting go, dies with a clenched fist. His fist isn’t just about violence, it represents his emotional fight as well, which recalls Fuller discussing in an interview how he preferred “emotional violence.”

As the great man said, “You don’t have to be violent with your fist, a voice can do it as well. One word can cut the hell out of your heart.”

Originally published in August 2018 at Sight & Sound Magazine