I’ve returned to the world of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips with their fantastic "Criminal" -- running monthly, starting January 2019. My essay for this issue is on Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple -- look for it!
Blood Simple is a lonely movie. The movie sweats, cries and bleeds loneliness. The road the two lovers, Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) drive down at night, opening the film, is lonely. Never mind that they are together and about to consummate their union in a hotel room – it’s a lonely road – as remote as Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” as friendless as Tom Neal hitching a ride in Edgar G. Ulmer’s down and dirty Detour ...
“Shelley did it superbly, with perhaps the thought of her own daughter contributing to the sense of loss and horror she conveyed as the girl’s mummified body crumbles in her hands.” – Curtis Harrington
Auntie Roo is a sad woman. And Christmas would be dismal without the children. Not her children, but the children, the orphans. So, the children must visit. And Auntie Roo must entertain. She will shower the kids with presents and fill them up with treats and laugh and sing and it all sounds so sweet. And some of her loving generosity is sweet but … Auntie Roo is not well. She is, in fact, dangerous.
And yet, we don’t dislike Auntie Roo. Not entirely. As Shelley Winters plays this disturbed, lonely lady in Curtis Harrington’s dreamy-creepy Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, we can only feel sorry for her, no matter how crazy and, at times, terrifying she is – snatching children, screaming for her dead daughter, tending to a mummified corpse… Yes, that’s right. Tending to a mummified corpse. We should be scared of her, perhaps even disgusted by this freaky soul, but we’re more perplexed and intrigued. And importantly, we (or rather, I) have sympathy for her. Much of our sympathy has to do with director Harrington’s sensitivity and insight towards the addled woman at the center of this dark fairy tale, and much of this has to with the performance of a brassy, bereaved Shelley Winters. She is wonderful here – weird, lonely, irritating, vulgar, funny, pathetic and very human – Winters fleshes out what could have been a one note crazy person with almost embarrassing vulnerability.
Winters always had a very specific quality of a wounded obnoxiousness that was very much her own, and in certain roles, it could alternate from whiny and pathetic, to irate psycho, to hilarious dame within seconds. No one whines like Shelley Winters (“Ohhh…. I’m lonely!” she moans to Humbert Humbert). Her whining is funny and mortifying and sad and you cringe because it’s just so nakedly needy. You want her to stop and yet her timing is so perfect, you wince, and then you want her to continue. Continue the annoyance, Shelley! At times, she plays aggressively needy to the point of dominance. Like she knows she’s being irritating and does not give a shit – like she’s actually getting off on how annoying she is. In her most pitiful roles, she could feel suffocating to her co-stars and even to the viewer (think George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun), and we feel simultaneously terrible for wishing she’d go away and for her really, truly going away (in the case of A Place in the Sun – tragic Shelley dies). We can’t stand her, and then the poor woman does something or has something done to her that breaks our heart. Winters showcased a complexity and depth that went beyond “the cow…the obnoxious Mama…the brainless baba…” (as James Mason’s Humbert wrote of her in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita). And she was brave to play such braying, potentially unlikable parts. Brave to be dumpy, brave to be annoying, brave to be braying.
And she’s often given such little honor in her more piteous performances, which makes her watery death in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter so poignant, both narratively and stylistically. Shelley is snuffed out, but she is composed in such a hauntingly beautiful shot, that liquid submersion, that Laughton granted her one of the most lyrical deaths in all of cinema. There she is sitting in her watery grave – her hair waving with the seaweed. It’s transcendent.
In Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (set in Edwardian England) she is not afforded such beauty in death, but it’s not an ugly death and we’re not, in fact, hoping she will die, which is interesting. And the moment she’s on screen, we’re curious about her character right away, ready to see what Shelley will do next. Will she complain? Cry dejectedly? Yell at a man? No, her first moment is quite gentle – she is singing, and with nary a whine. Decked out in a maroon gown, a diamond tiara, a diamond necklace, and long white gloves, the sparkling, though faded and melancholic Rosie Forrest (a.k.a. Auntie Roo) sits next to a child’s crib alone, singing the British and Irish Folk song, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.” This surely wasn’t just some song Harrington plucked out for old time affect – it seems intentional in tune and lyrics. A song notable for its haunting refrain of “thyme” – a doubling that means your virginity or your purity, or a way of expressing time… Let no man steal either one:
“Come all you fair and tender maids That flourish in your prime. Beware, beware keep your garden fair. Let no man steal your thyme; Let no man steal your thyme. For when your thyme is past and gone, he’ll care no more for you, and every place where your thyme was waste, will all spread o’re with rue, will all spread o’re with rue. For woman is a branchy tree, and man’s a clinging vine, and from your branches carelessly, he’ll take what he can find, he’ll take what he can find.”
Will spread o’re with rue… Roo?
There doesn’t seem to be any suitors for Rosie nor does she appear to want one. No man will steal her time. Oh, but the right child – that is different. And it’s not like the world wants Rosie in that way anymore, which is a shame (she’s often fabulous), but the world isn’t a kind place to aging women in mansions who… dance, hold séances, wriggle into costumes for entertainment and, well, bray. Her husband, a magician, is gone forever (she’s a widow), and she lives in an enormous home favored by the town’s children of the town for looking like a gingerbread house. It’s a cheerful place, it would seem, but it’s really not at all – it’s shadowed with death and decay. You see that in the first scene too. After Auntie Roo sings the pretty but ominous tune, she peers into the crib to view a young blonde girl – a delusion – that’s what she thinks she sees (or wants to see). In actuality, it’s the mummified corpse (it had to be said again) of her dead daughter – a dusty gross thing she will place in a coffin. In a dreamy black and white flashback shown later in the picture, we see that her darling daughter suffered a tragic accident on the staircase banister – which seems absurd and almost funny but it’s told with such a fever-pitch of “Oh my god!” that it works. This needless tragedy has made the poor woman lose her mind, and you can understand why, though her methods of remembering the dearly departed are obviously troubling.
But back to that mummified corpse – the picture presents the revelation as a shock but somehow it doesn’t play like one – not to me anyway. I think, what else would Auntie Roo be singing to? As the picture surveys the creepy room with its dolls and stuffed animals (shot by cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, whom Harrington wasn’t pleased with – you can see how a moodier look would have been preferable and the cinematography hampers the film a bit) a corpse is not a stretch – even in the first scene. And this could be to the picture’s detriment, but it’s not. The movie works more as a character study and less as a horror movie (which viewers likely expect), or even as a straight-up psycho-biddy – a.k.a. movies in which aging actresses go insane, commit murder or serve rats for lunch. The psycho biddy, hagsploitation or the more preferable, respectful term – Grande Dame Guignol – is a genre I love, no matter how varied the quality of pictures are among them. Some are borderline exploitative, some quite sensitive, but most are full of intriguing insights and psychodrama with fantastic, operatic performances by actresses – movie stars— who don’t just chew the scenery, but tear up the screen, bravely showcasing the unfair horror of aging from a perspective of such intense female fear (and male sexism) that some of these pictures border on the surreal.
My god, it should not be so scary to age, but in Hollywood, that kind of fear twists into the darkest places imaginable, both absurd and entirely believable. There’s an uneasy feeling to some Grande Dame Guignol – that the films are seeking revenge on such beautiful stars, that audiences, and particularly men, enjoy watching such iconic beauties looking so ravaged and crazy. That they love to see the mighty fall. I love watching them, not because of faded beauty, but because the women are powerhouses and still striking and electric on screen. To me, these actresses are so fearless, so charismatic, and interpreted these parts with such specific style and soul (if we count this movie as one of the first – Gloria Swanson – in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. is truly her own work of art – and still gorgeous, I might add), that I can only look at their visages with respect and sometimes awe. Shitty men reveling in their demise? I don’t know except, fuck that and fuck those guys. One should admire these actresses for taking these parts and never coasting, giving these films their all (like Joan Crawford in William Castle’s incredible Straight-Jacket). Bette Davis and Joan are the Grande Dames in Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and, my god, what performances. What a look and edge Bette crafted – her Baby Jane Hudson is so in your face and shocking that she’s as punk as Johnny Rotten. To rebel and stir it up as a young man? That’s to be expected. To rebel and cause audible gasps an older woman? And as an older actress? That takes some serious guts.
With Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, Harrington delves into this aging, strange, sad woman and two strange, sad children who enter her life with scares not always coming from crazy Roo. The woman can’t let go of her tragic past, she can’t stand to be alone, and the children, chiefly the brother, wants to keep his sister to himself. In his typically esoteric and compelling way, Harrington updated the “Hansel and Gretel” story wherein the mean lonely witch isn’t always so mean, and the nice abandoned kids aren’t always so nice. It’s a fascinating way to tell the story – with so many shadings – it’s never that simple.
The meaner kid (though that’s too easy a word to describe him) is orphan Christopher Coombs (Mark Lester), who has a vivid imagination, enough to frighten the other children at the orphanage where lives he with this little sister, Katy (Chloe Franks). He’s close to his sister, and he looks out for her, but he’s an odd child. He seems a bit… obsessed with her. But like obsessive Auntie Roo, he doesn’t want to be alone (though he would never believe he had anything in common with that woman). Every year a handful of the most well-behaved kids in the orphanage are allowed to spend Christmas at Auntie Roo’s impressive gingerbread-looking house, only Christopher and Katy are punished (for Christopher’s willful imagination), and not allowed to attend. But they sneak in anyway. They’re discovered and reprimanded, but sweet-psycho Roo accepts them – chiefly because she thinks she recognizes her deceased daughter Katherine in young Katy. Could she be? And if not, perhaps she can make her be. This is when things start going even nuttier.
Auntie Roo is charitable with the all of the kids – she throws them a lavish Christmas morning complete with loads of presents under the gorgeous tree. What orphan wouldn’t want to spend the holidays with Auntie Roo? She even sings a song and dances for them— to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Tit Willow.” But Christopher is suspicious – he sees Katy and himself as a version of Hansel and Gretel and this woman is going to keep them, fatten them up, maybe even eat them. It’s a unique device – Christopher imagining and narrating in his head these scenarios of Roo being a witch. He even climbs into her dumbwaiter and spies on her – she’s singing “Let No Many Steal Your Thyme,” and he witnesses Roo placing her daughter’s corpse in a small coffin, wearing all black and a black veil. Well, that is something. His imagination doesn’t seem so mischievous or wrong at this point – and it’s not. Auntie Roo may not be a witch, but she’s certainly alarming. But no one is going to listen to Christopher because, like the eye-rolling a “daffy” older lady often gets, many people don’t respect children, or believe them. With that, Roo and Christopher are somewhat united, and this is part of the picture’s complicated magic.
What I love here is that cultured, innovative, cineaste Curtis Harrington (his entire life was fascinating) – shows such respect and even reverence for certain actors (and all kinds of artists), and actresses in more specific cases, that he understood them for being beautiful, odd-looking and even fading. In older actresses, particularly movie stars, he still saw and appreciated their charisma. From his adoration of Marlene Dietrich (and her mentor, Josef Von Sternberg, of which Harrington wrote a monograph of in the 1950s), to Simone Signoret (whom he worked with in Games and spoke highly of his entire life – she warned him that she was “fat” before starting the picture), to Gloria Swanson (his star of the TV movie Killer Bees, of which he said: “Gloria showed only love and acceptance toward the bees as we poured them on her skin. Kate Jackson, on the other hand, shuddered and was repelled by them.”), to Bette Davis, whom he wanted to work with, and many others. Harrington found these older actresses vital, still interesting, still stars. And in this picture, he allowed Winters a little more depth than a casual moviegoer might expect from a movie within this genre – although, as said, these actresses always gave a lot within the Grande Dame Guignol.
And he allowed her to be something many can relate to – lonely. Not just pathetic, not just silly or scary, but lonely. Yes, she’s frightening, she’s even funny at times, but she’s grieving and she’s going insane. But Harrington isn’t exploiting this predicament for laughs or easy terror, just as he wasn’t with his fantastic What’s the Matter with Helen?(another one of the greats in the genre Grande Dame Guignol) featuring stellar performances by Winters and Debbie Reynolds (who looked gorgeous). Watching Winters end that picture playing “Goody-Goody” on the piano – with that madness, desperation and sadness in her smile, is truly haunting and incredibly sad. It’s one of Harrington’s greatest pictures among such interesting work, and he really got Winters, no matter how much off-screen drama occurred with the actress.
Here’s how much he got actresses/movie stars: In his excellent autobiography, “Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood,” he wrote a lovely recollection from the time he was working with Jerry Wald, after he’d directed his avant-garde short films and before his hauntingly beautiful Night Tide was made. One day, he took in the astounding star appeal of Joan Crawford. Harrington talks of watching dailies of an older Crawford in Robert Aldrich’s masterful Autumn Leaves, which he called a “revelation”:
“For the first time, I became aware of what the term ‘movie star’ means. The word ‘star’ in the context of a top movie personality is very appropriate, since astronomically speaking, a star is a body that is illuminated from within. This illumination from within is what I witnessed that day in a projection room at Columbia Studios. The shoot had taken place during the summer. The camera was set on a close-up of Joan Crawford between takes, looking very wilted and ordinary, fanning herself in the heat. Then the clapboard was thrust in front of her, the clapper lowered, and a voice said, ‘Scene eighty-four, take three.’ In that split second, I witnessed an ordinary, exhausted woman center all of her energies and come vibrantly alive as Joan Crawford, the Movie Star. It was a metaphysical experience.
”Metaphysical. I’m not sure he felt this strongly about Shelley Winters – she was never Joan Crawford – but he understood Winters’ power and star quality and unique neediness. And he understood her pathos. As Roo holds a séance conducted by fake psychic Mr. Benton (a great Ralph Richardson) with Auntie Roo’s shifty, psychopathic butler Albie (a creepy Michael Gothard) included – they have been tricking her – and you hate them for it. You don’t laugh at her, you realize what awful people are exploiting her. One of the servants, Clarine (Judy Cornwall), is providing the ghostly voice of Roo’s dead daughter, making Roo hold on to hope even more, and Benton to rake in even more dough, that bastard. They’re so unscrupulous, such scumbags, that they don’t feel a thing when a beseeching Roo hollers out for her child: “Oh, Katharine stay! Stay my darling. Please forgive me! Forgive me! Give me another chance! I love you so much! Oh, Katherine! I need you, stay with me! I’m so lonely, stay with… Katherine!!”
Dear lord. It’s an intense scene – Shelley howling her desolation (she does this a lot throughout the movie, horrifying and sometimes darkly funny). But after this outcry, the picture does a quick, smart cut to Katy shot from outside of a doleful window at the orphanage, from which she is staring into the grey and depressing landscape. Katy doesn’t know it yet, but she will become Roo’s obsession, and the picture hints that perhaps she is some kind of reincarnation of Roo’s dead daughter. And, so, after Auntie Roo’s Christmas get together is over, Roo really does snatch Katy. Christopher was right in his worry and, yet, you still don’t like him all that much. He’s always scaring people, his sister included, and he doesn’t seem like a good influence on her mental state. He manages to break back into Roo’s house to “save” his sister and I always think, maybe Katy would be better off with Auntie Roo. And, indeed, at one point, Katy does tell her brother that she’d rather live with Roo.
Christopher is having none of this and plans their escape while stuffing Roo’s jewels in the back of the teddy bear (reminiscent of Pearl’s doll in Night of the Hunter), Roo gave to Katy (it was her daughter’s before, and the stuffed animal even sits at the séance). But the kids are soon caught and then stuck with Auntie Roo – enduring her combination of creepy sweetness (some of it genuine, some I don’t know what the hell she’s doing) and horror (watching Christopher watch Roo eating is something else – hilarious and bizarre). Christopher has had to survive, and you can’t blame the kid for being hardened and crafty and even a liar and a thief – but there’s a gleam in his eye whenever he sets to antagonizing Auntie Roo, and it looks murderous. Like you can see it – that his future will lead to violence and sociopathy. Though he certainly hates Roo for a solid reason (kidnapping), and he really, truly views her as a witch (he takes his fairy tales seriously, but then perhaps, he takes them seriously when convenient), you feel his fairy tale also fits his purpose of destroying someone. Burn the witch!
You can feel the rot in this kid and Lester plays Christopher with such mystery and contempt that the horror shifts – who are we rooting for here? We should be hoping the kids are free but… we don’t want to see Auntie Roo obliterated. I don’t, anyway. And though these kids must escape, he and Katy take to some drastic, cruel measures to get the hell out of there: they lock Roo in a room and set it on fire. Yes, they burn poor Auntie Roo to death – and that lovely gingerbread house goes up in flames. Whoever Slew? Now we know. But no one else in the movie does.
When Dr. Mason (Pat Heywood) understands what the children have been through, he says: “Poor little devils, they’ll probably have nightmares till the day they die.” Maybe they will. Maybe. Christopher, with his refrain of the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” closes out the movie with this: “Hansel and Gretel knew that the wicked witch could not harm anyone else and they were happy. They also knew that with the wicked witch’s treasure they would not be hungry again. So, they lived happily ever after.”
Well, I suppose. But I kind of despise Christopher for torching Auntie Roo. And this will sound wrong, but I do hope he wakes up to one of those nightmares Dr. Mason reckons will occur. Chiefly, one of Auntie Roo, or rather, Shelley Winters, standing there in that gown and gloves and tiara and mummified corpse child, singing softly:
Beware, beware keep your garden fair. Let no man steal your thyme; Let no man steal your thyme. For when your thyme is past and gone, he’ll care no more for you, and every place where your thyme was waste, will all spread o’re with rue, will all spread o’re with rue.
June: “Why did you go to see that girl in the diner?”
Eric: “What girl?”
There’s a sickness hanging over Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel that clings to every location, every set, every fluid camera move, and every off, but very human expression on the actor’s often haunted faces. And it's all heightened by the attraction to one woman -- Stella. Oh, Stella (Linda Darnell), the young beautiful waitress at Pop’s Eats whom men want to save, paw, marry, or again, paw. And of course, more than just paw. What a guy wouldn’t do for a tumble. And what a guy would do when he knows he’ll never get a tumble. But one of those guys isn’t just your usual lust-filled creep, one of those guys will be a murderer. And right away, we see the impending sexual doom -- we don't know who or exactly what, but we see it.
When the movie opens and our hero (or anti-hero), the traveling con man Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) steps off the bus and into this dark and misty California beach town, he walks into Pop’s, we take in this gorgeous image and feel it -- suffused with sex and danger and seedy hometown rot -- the entire picture, shot by Joseph LaShelle, is bathed in this scummy beauty. There’s just men in that diner, and they’re all wondering about one thing -- Stella. Where is she? Why has she been gone for so long? Dear god, did she off herself? One imposing, gravely looking man, ex NY cop Mark Judd, (Charles Bickford) says, “Not Stella. Back in New York, I handled 31 suicide cases personally. Everything from poison to jumping in front of the Flatbush subway. Stella's not the type.” OK. So, what type is she, I ask the guy bragging about personally handling suicide? It already appears that nobody truly cares or bothers to actually understand Stella. They just want her to be something to them. And in Fallen Angel, she’s not the type all of these men want her to be. And this goes beyond Stella -- all of the film’s characters, male and female, go against their societal norms of “type.”
We’ll be rooting (if that’s the right word) for con man Eric Stanton against the mysterious, almost kinkily violent cop, even when we know Eric is treating another woman (lonely June, played by Alice Faye, who doesn’t want to remain as innocent as see seems) like garbage, and we’ll be disgusted by kindly old Pops who runs the diner, just as Stella is. Pops (Percy Kilbride) hasn’t done a thing to her (on screen anyway), and yet, right away we understand why Stella spits at him, “You make me sick.” Pops has given her the feeble “I told you so” about some cad she went on a date with and he gets … “You make me sick.” Not, buzz off, Pop, or, stay out of my business. Her dismissiveness is seething with the interior dialogue of I know what you want. I know why you “care” so greatly about me and my bad date. I know why I have this job. Ick. Pop. His “paternal” affection might be the creepiest of all. Who knows what she’s had to endure or listen to while she’s re-filling the ketchup containers at closing time.
So, the moment we see her bitterly slump back into the diner, hungry and with tired aching feet -- a low rent Laura returning from the dead (indeed, this was a follow up to Preminger’s hit, Laura, with the same leading man, and a similar story of one-woman obsession, only with down-and-outers and much more desperation) – we don’t think she’s trouble, we think these men are. Oh sure, check out the gorgeous supposed femme fatale in the beautiful, lush Darnell who was only 21 when she made this and yet feels like she’s had decades of shit heaped on her (it doesn’t take too many years for a woman to understand this). She’s matter-of-fact tough and fixated on money and marriage, but not really bad.
Everything about her, from the weary way she walks around the diner and hands back change to customers -- this lady is sick of it all. And Darnell is so excellent here, that, like all of these men, we don’t want her to go out of town too long either. We want to see her on screen -- in this diner -- a limbo of lust. The filmmakers agreed and pumped up Darnell over star Faye, cutting out some of Faye’s scenes and even supposedly her singing number (!), something that upset Faye, mirroring the “innocent” she plays in June. June is the woman Eric marries in order to fleece her, so he can marry sexy Stella and give her what she wants over some tumble in her crummy little apartment -- money. Eric even cuts his wedding night short and leaves his wife alone to see… Stella. He wakes up on the couch in the stately home with doilies and nice curtains that his new bride shares with her spinster sister, Clara (Anne Revere) and his wife … forgives him -- what the hell is wrong with this woman? He also learns that Stella has been murdered.
This leads to who did it? Eric will be a suspect, as will June’s sister, as will Stella’s almost steady, Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot) who gets an interrogation and beating so sickening and vicious by Judd (who is now handling the case) that we wonder if this is his disgusting thrill. (It is -- he’s a sick man, quite literally) Even Pop is considered a possibility, not a surprise in this world (scripted by Harry Kleiner from Marty Holland’s novel), where everyone has motive beyond their obsession. Yes, there is Stella, but there’s loneliness, bitterness, impotence, and what the hell am I doing with my life? Do I matter at all in this universe? All of this existential angst narrowed in on this poor woman whose dark world seems only lightened by the song she obsessively plays on the diner’s jukebox and one that hovers over the movie, again, like a dingier “Laura” (the song -- “Slowly” -- perhaps a sexual pace she wishes men would follow). Another joy: in her introduction scene, Stella scarfs (though somehow daintily scarf) down a hamburger (she’s hungry, and she’s eating that thing, but she’s not gonna mess up that perfect lipstick), after walking in the night when a guy got too fresh. Watching Darnell eat that hamburger is such a real joy and so convincing you’ll crave a creepy Pop’s burger too – this hamburger won’t let her down.
I’m not going to spoil the ending and reveal who did it. But I will say it wasn’t Eric. The double-cross to June wasn’t something he could probably really go through with and he certainly wouldn’t murder someone, as shifty as he is. I’ll ruin one thing though – June stays with him -- even after he married her for money, left her alone on her wedding night and was in love with another woman the entire time. It seems like an easy resolution, the two of them driving off together in the end with June asking where to, and Eric answering, “home.” Now he’s a settled, domestic fellow with this nice little wife? Not a chance.
In fact, it’s one of the grimmest “romantic” endings I’ve ever seen. Eric has told June that it wouldn’t have lasted with Stella, and he’s probably right, but … this is the answer? Poor June, she’s not gonna have a good life. And Stella… why does she have to be dead? She’s the one with everyone’s number. She knows, like Preminger knows, like the writers know, what lurks in the heart of anyone putting on their best face: “You talk different, sure, but you drive just like the rest.”
“Why are you miserable? Cause you haven't got any dough? And why haven't you got any dough? Because you're too scared to go out and get it yourself. You want it to come to you. Well, nothing comes to you, Harry. Nothing except one thing... death. Death comes to you... comes to everybody. Only everybody thinks they'll live forever.” Claude (Vince Edwards), Murder By Contract
In Irving Lerner’s Murder By Contact, Claude doesn’t like women. And more specifically, he doesn’t like killing women. Since it’s his job to kill people, presumably all kinds of people, this comes as a potential moral jolt when he announces his aversion to the two mob men facilitating the murder. Claude (he has no last name) has been hired to knock off a person named Billie Williams – this person is going to testify to a grand jury against a gangster – and Claude’s taken a train all the way from New York City to Los Angeles to accomplish the hit. He’s been leisurely about it. The moment he stepped off the train (in Glendale, I’m thinking he’s not going to be seen at a bigger station), he’s had the two men who picked him up drive his handsome mug all over the place— he wants to see the sights. It’s altogether weird, normal, sinister and funny.
Claude wants to take in the Pacific Ocean. He wants to swim. He wants to go deep-sea fishing. He also wants to think. And he wants to make sure there’s no funny business going on. By the time he’s ready to accomplish his task, we’re nearly a half an hour into the picture and Claude has tested the men’s patience so much that they can’t figure him out. One likes him, he likes listening to him talk; he even dries his back after Claude swims (he seems a little in love with him, in fact). The other more cantankerous fellow who mockingly calls him “Superman” thinks he’s a pain in the ass and even weirder than the average contract killer. But they wait until he’s well-rested and ready and then finally, they venture up to the potential dead person’s house. Claude spies a woman walking in the living room. Is that his wife, he asks? That’s the target, the two men say. Claude panics. A woman? No one told him it was a woman. This is the part of the movie where you think Claude has a moral code when it comes to the opposite sex.
It’s not as simple as all that.
Nothing is simple in Lerner’s lean, low budget 1958 masterpiece (shot in eight days), a noir of sorts, but something cooler (as in crisply composed) and modern that it’s hard to classify simply as noir. And it doesn’t need to be classified. More in common with films that followed it – the assassin as monk of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, the assassin as organized list maker, working out to keep himself murderously awake in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (no surprise Scorsese reveres this movie and worked with Lerner) and the deadpan style of Jim Jarmusch – Murder By Contract is entirely its own dissolute creature. A movie of sunny wide open spaces in which rot and existential dread cling to the jaunty, jaundiced characters like the smog we don’t see (it’s too bright), the light and L.A. neighborhoods (shot by Ace Lucien Ballard) and the anticipatory, evocative music (scored with a spare guitar by Perry Botkin recalling The Third Man – Scorsese has also cited this guitar score as an influence on The Departed) underscores that it is a movie of the late 1950s, when stability and a nice house were a yearned for and achievable American dream, but a questioned dream like – so many other things in a consumer-driven society.
You may end up, metaphorically speaking, like Claude’s target, the night club singer Billie (Caprice Torie) – depressed, stuck inside under guarded watch with the television blaring all day, eating your delivered soup and sandwiches, slamming the keys to your piano in anguish as you play a lovely classical piece only you care about. That’s no way to live. And this is no “femme fatale,” this is a woman sitting in a prison, smoking all day with literal killers (and now Claude) lurking all around her. By the end of the film, as scared and as tough as she is, part of her seems like she doesn’t even give a shit anymore. This is her life now. Keep playing the piano.
Lerner, with a background in ethnographic filmmaking (one early 1940’s documentary stars Pete Seeger and features Woody Guthrie, among others) connected killing with business, a common trope in this kind of movie, but he (and screenwriter Ben Simcoe) took it one step further with the killer (played brilliantly by Vince Edwards, also in Lerner’s fatalistic City of Fear), yearning to make a fast buck so he can get to the unglamorous business of buying a house and settling down. It’s such a normal desire for such an abnormal character. Or is he so abnormal? He’s new to the game, no spotty past to speak of. He’s never been to prison, he doesn’t even carry a gun, he just wants to make large sums of money to fast track a more leisurely life. That he has to unleash a cold-hearted psychopath makes no difference to him. Business, he says, business:
“Now, why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody’s willing to pay. It’s business. Same as any other business. You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat cutting. Same thing. There are a lot of people around who would like to see other people die a fast death or they can’t see to it themselves. They got conscience. Religion. Families. They’re afraid of punishment here, or hereafter. Me. Ha. I can’t be bothered with any of that nonsense. I look at it like a good business. The risk is high but so is the profit. I wasn’t born this way. I trained myself. I eliminate personal feeling…. I feel hot. I feel cold. I get sleepy and I get hungry.”
Claude’s focus and methodical approach (Lerner and Ballard frame this beautifully) is partly what does him in. Women are hard to kill. They blur his focus. He spits: “It’s not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of money. If I’d-a known it was a woman, I’d've asked double. I don’t like women. They don’t stand still. When they move, it’s hard to figure out why or wherefore. They’re not dependable. It’s tough to kill somebody who’s not dependable.” He also says, “The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on, it just can't stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.”
It’s an amusing speech, both awful and sexist and weirdly, not sexist at all. He’s saying, they – women – need to know things. That’s not really an insult exactly, and, yet, of course it is, coming from Claude because he doesn’t like them wanting to know things. Still, it shows that they’re not hard to kill because they’re stupid, but likely because they are observant, smart. But then Claude is not an easy guy to read – even when he says he doesn’t like women – so who knows how much he actually hates women. Women may not be dependable to him but, without really knowing it, he’s describing women as complex, curious.
The movie showcases this with Billie and two other women – a sad, sloppy drunk painting the apartment she’s afraid of being kicked out of and a call girl who has endured who knows what in her line of work. Both drunk and call girl inadvertently help Claude, and Billie, in the end, tells him to leave, she won’t nark him out. These women are hanging by their fingernails to live in a world that is crushing them down and breaking their spirit, and whether or not Claude cares, the film takes the time to care. And they are outsiders, like Claude, who, in a bracing scene with a male hotel room service attendant, surely remembers what it means to be a wage slave. That Lerner gives all of these women enough time in their brief moments to reveal their shattered selves inside their outward, supposedly, untrustworthy exteriors gives Murder By Contract a depth that seeps into Claude, who, by the end, simply can’t kill Billie.
Does he have a crisis of conscience? And, if so, why does he suddenly feel something? He appears almost sickened when pulling off his tie and readying to strangle Billie, poisoned by a heart. Perhaps he’s spent so much time trying to kill her (in other unsuccessful attempts) that while watching her sad, trapped life, he now feels a connection to her that’s both empathetic and terrifying. The American Dream is now kaput. The guy who just wanted a damn house winds up dead under Billie’s nice home, trapped like a rat. Claude says earlier, “The only type of killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger.” Billie is no longer a stranger. In Murder By Contract, that revelation is now scary, tragic and strangely beautiful.
Originally published in Ed Brubaker's Kill or Be Killed
“It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” -- Nathanael West, Day of the Locust
I've got a few pieces in this August's Sight & Sound.
The cover story is a compendium of writers discussing novels and short stories about movies & moviemaking -- I write about Horace McCoy's "I Should Have Stayed at Home" and nathanael West's "Day of the Locust."
My other longer piece is on the great Samuel Fuller and his movies at Columbia -- I write about seven of his pictures, including two of my Fuller favorites, Underworld USA and The Crimson Kimono, along with the charming It Happened In Hollywood, the very short (!) Adventure in Sahara, the needs-more-Fuller Power of the Press, and the impressive Scandal Sheet.
On shooting The Crimson Kimono's dangerous opening, in which stripper Sugar Torch runs for her life down a busy downtown LA street, Fuller reflected later about how no one on the street (these were not paid extras, but real people) gave a damn about this poor woman. In “The Third Face” he 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.”
At the beginning of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, John Cassavetes’ Nicky is holed up in a seedy motel room in Philadelphia, terrified and desperate. He’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown and looks like he’s been up for days with his messy, bed-head hair, handsome, haggard face and wrinkled white dress shirt sticking to his thin frame in an angst-filled, ulcer-ridden sweat. He’s stooped on a dingy bed and staring nervously rat-eyed at the dirty, chain-locked door, hoping no one busts through. He’s got a gun. Of course he’s got a gun. This place is the kind of fleabag hovel where people shoot through filthy locked doors or bribe front desk clerks who’ll look the other way when an offender blasts through those grungy openings and commit whatever bit of unpleasantness that happens on the other side. The joint is haunted with the lives of those who hide in the rooms, sitting on bed-bugged blankets full of dope, hope and desperate dreams. Nicky isn’t dreaming, his life is a wide-awake-nightmare. But he does have hope – he hopes to stay alive.
He's got a good reason to be scared – he’s heard there's a contract out on him. He calls the buddy he’s known since childhood, Mikey (Peter Falk) and begs for help. Nicky knows Mikey’s going to come up, even if Nicky throws down a towel and nearly knocks Mikey with a bottle. You feel for him. Mickey reassures him, spending the entire movie with his pal. Mikey’s an old friend and Nicky can trust him. Oh… hold on. Can he? Is he on the level? When you eventually learn that Mikey is not on the level (and you don’t catch this right away), and once you realize that the hit man (played by Ned Beatty) on Nicky’s trail is being aided along by Mikey, you start to piece together that this friend isn’t the one Nicky should have called. You’re on Nicky’s side. You think. Keep watching. No, you’re on both of their sides because, what kind of hell are these men trapped within? What kind of life is this? Is Mikey really going to deceive Nicky?IsNicky maybe a sociopath?
As the night wears on and these two talk, fight, hit each other and smack a troubled, sensitive woman, the friends reveal more and more about themselves and your emotions shift all over the place. Whatever alliances you had, whatever charm you’ve felt from these two guys, all that has been dragged around and sullied, dirtied up like that door in Nicky’s dumpy motel room. And May shoots it that way, never allowing a glamorous moment to enter the frame. You can practically smell the bars they’re drinking in. And yet, you don’t want to get out of this movie, you don’t want to unlock the door and make a run for it. You like being stuck with these two small-timers, you’re fascinated and drawn to them, and you wonder where this is all gonna end … who is going to make it through the night?
That is the genius of writer director May and her actor’s Cassavetes and Falk. In one night, in the ghostly urban environ of Philadelphia (a decidedly less romantic place than New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles, or at least May shoots it that way, haunting, at times oddly beautiful), we tag along with two scumbags who talk in junky beat-up bars and on city busses or in the streets and we are enlivened, anxious, depressed, disturbed and empathetic. By trusting the chemistry and brilliant interplay between Cassavetes and Falk, May not only shows her subjects as flawed, violent, vulnerable, selfish, guilt-ridden and manipulative men carrying around decades of resentment (as many friends do) but men who are constantly on the precipice of violence, emotion or literal, and violence ready to do them or someone else in. You feel jangly and uncomfortable watching these two – you are waiting for a shoe or two or three shoes to drop. Maybe on Falk’s head.
There’s nothing noble about these guys – when they stop off at Nicky’s mistresses apartment, Nicky spouts some hollow “I love you” line so he can nail her on the floor, while Mikey’s hunched over in her depressing kitchen, waiting for them to finish and for his turn. When Mikey’s rebuffed, he smacks her. Just as feel like Mikey’s a real son of a bitch, you feel sorry for him minutes later (in spite of yourself) when he accuses Nicky of setting the scene up to embarrass him, to hurt his male ego. But then you start to believe Mikey when he claims she’s just a psycho and needs to be coddled with sweet talk before the act, and then you realize you’re buying this atrocious behavior. God, you’re right there on the street with them. Nicky breaks Mikey’s watch – his father’s watch, something that holds sentimental value. What an asshole, you think. But they’re both assholes. You want to keep on with them regardless. They’re so compelling that they make unlikable characters not, lovable, but magnetic and, at times, totally recognizable. It’s what people call a “high wire act” and the artists walk it bravely. Too bad some critics in 1976 didn’t think much of this movie ( not all of course) - a movie that now stands as one of the most underrated works of the 1970s. What were they thinking?
This was considered, by some, a darker turn for May, who had directed the brilliant comedies A New Leaf (which she wrote) and The Heartbreak Kid (written by Neil Simon) prior to this, though it’s not like those two films were light comedies. The Heartbreak Kid is as bleak as anything in Mikey and Nicky (maybe even bleaker) but we don’t get to see the sunny beauty of Cybill Shepherd running around in a bathing suit to quell any of the acidity (though her brittle beauty is the catalyst towards selfish, terrible Charles Grodin marital doom). Instead we see the perpetually ruffled and combative Cassavetes’ protagonists (and of course May was compared to Cassavetes’ own films – Husbands being a chief picture) skulking around in a paranoiac frenzy. And she captured their movements, their words, their chemistry, creating a world that feels empty (the streets) and full all at once. Full of fear, full of possible love that probably won't happen. Full of deceit. What she does with the darkness, the bars, the hotel rooms and the talk -- it's all perfectly realized -- and she keeps you off kilter in a way where you can't take your eyes away from these two supposed low-lifes.
She shot a lot on this one. The movie carries a notorious production history (it’s been talked about retrospectively enough, but May notoriously went over budget, reportedly shot more film than Gone with the Wind and, at one point, reportedly hid reels somewhere in Connecticut). She didn’t direct another film until her vastly underrated, excellent Ishtar came out eleven years later. Well, that’s a shame.
Mikey and Nicky is also funny, grooving on the darkly comedic and very human rhythms of Cassavetes and Falk through which even their explosions of violence play as darkly humorous, at least for a moment, until you’re taken aback and saddened by the needlessness of it all. It’s painful and poignant and challenging and funny and finally, heartbreaking. The picture ends as you might expect it to and yet, it feels totally surprising, this rush of emotion you feel as Nicky bangs on Mikey’s much nicer door, nicer than the one in his crappy motel room. He’s yelling in misery: “Mikey, you son of a bitch! You bastard! You bastard! Mikey!” His life is nearly over and damn, you really feel it. You believe it. You believe every second of this movie. A line uttered earlier by Mikey is now, not so much funny as more awfully prophetic, circling back to desperate Nicky screaming at his door: “It’s very hard to talk to a dead person. I have nothing in common.” Maybe Mikey’s telling himself that at this anguished moment. Maybe not.
A bit from my piece in the newest Kill Or Be Killed:
By the end you see where and it’s not through some sunny field – it’s staggering in a gutter with Shelley Winters close behind. That Nick is brilliant John Garfield in director John Berry’s tough, poignant and doomed (on and off the screen), He Ran All the Way – a movie that opens with this beautiful loser tossing and turning in his bed, sweaty and convulsed in bad dreams. But he wakes up to something worse – reality – his mother (a harsh as hell Gladys George). After hollering at him for moaning in his slumber (no maternal instinct in this woman), she pulls open the dingy shades of his room and screeches: “If you were a man you’d be out looking for a job!” His reply? “If you were a man I’d kick your teeth in.” This ain’t no happy family. But family will become something important to Nick in this picture – even if he has to force his way into one.
Read it all (my essay on "He Ran All the Way") in the newest and final of Ed Brubaker's "Kill Or Be Killed" -- out now. Pick it up or order here.
“There was just this scene of one woman seeing another who was helpless and in pain. It was so real, I responded. I really reacted to her. She moved me so that tears came into my eyes. Believe me, such moments happened rarely, if ever again, in the early things I was doing out there.” – Anne Bancroft on Marilyn Monroe
The moment Marilyn Monroe walks into the hotel of Don’t Bother to Knock – we are enthralled. It’s her first scene in the movie and without knowing anything about her beautiful, troubled Nell, and what her beautiful, troubled Nell has been through, we feel a pall hanging over this young woman. Monroe, on sight, is that powerful. Monroe’s tentative gait and unsure eyes enter the space (its own kind of asylum) where the lounge singer, Lyn Lesley (a grounded, lovely Anne Bancroft) sings swoony tunes in a cowboy themed room. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition – a nervous 1952 Marilyn (ten years before her death) – less made up, darker blonde hair, simple dress – passes the poster of glamorous Bancroft – not knowing she’ll be in a room with that woman’s soon-to-be ex, cocky pilot, Jed (Richard Widmark). That’s not so surprising – a seduction with Widmark. This is Marilyn Monroe after all, and even clad in simple frock and sad expression, she’s stunning to behold. But what feels unexpected is that the most understanding characters, the ones who will really sit down with this poor young woman and approach her with kindness, will be that hotel chanteuse and that cocky pilot. There’s no irredeemable cad in this picture and there’s no femme fatale either – even if the movie’s poster blared: “A wicked sensation as the lonely girl in Room 809!”
The scene continues and we’re further drawn to Nell. She walks up to a man she knows – the elevator operator (Elijah Cook Jr.) – and she smiles. It feels disarming to us, and it surprises him, possibly angers him: “What’s the smile about?” He asks. “You seem so different in those clothes,” she answers with a curious mixture of eager happiness, even some relief. It’s a nice comment that is met with the slightly defensive: “I’m different all the time.” Immediately I’m thinking – let her say something nice, jeez. And then I think, he’s probably right – that he is different all of the time – and not in a good way. Cook Jr. excels at being so simultaneously wormy and woeful that right away you feel … she ought not be around this guy. Later you’ll learn he is indeed, not so nice to her, even as he’s supposedly doing her a solid. We don’t know how to feel about him.You see, not long ago, she was released from an insane asylum in Oregon, and she’s come to stay with him, her Uncle, in New York City. He’s gotten her a gig to babysit the child of some swanky hotel guests that night and she wonders if she’s ready for it. He thinks she’s getting better. He should have listened to her hesitation.
Nell reads to her little charge and then quickly puts the girl to bed. She eats the chocolates she turned down originally (a wonderful little moment) and walks through the suite, performing a beautiful, silent scene lasting two minutes where Monroe’s expressions, body language, how she reacts to objects, everything, comment on both her hope and her turmoil. Nell turns the dial on the radio (in a lovely, lingering touch, Lyn’s songs are piped into the rooms – Jed cannot escape her), then clicks off the radio, almost annoyed. She is drawn to the vanity table and puts on the mother’s perfume and diamond jewelry. There is something so touching and intoxicating about Marilyn placing those earrings next to her face – Norma Jeane to Marilyn – her skin lights up. And then she hears an airplane and everything darkens. She becomes haunted, her worried eyes moving towards the sound, her body twisting towards the window. It’s mysterious, but telling; it’s filling in details and nuanced. Nothing about this is easy, acting wise, and Marilyn makes it look effortless.
Director Roy Ward Baker shot on a short schedule, in sequence and reportedly printed the first takes. If true, she is all the more impressive. (As much as I revere TheMisfits and Marilyn in it, I have seen interviews with Arthur Miller in which he says The Misfits was her first real dramatic role and I never understand what he is saying -- Don't Bother to Knock was certainly a dramatic role. As were Niagara and Bus Stop and River of No Return, and there's drama and pathos in her comedic roles, as well as her smaller parts in pictures like Clash By Night and The Asphalt Jungle.)
Watching her act silently, you further understand why she was one of the most brilliant models of all time. As I wrote of her in an essay for Playboy, she had the God-given talent, artistry and charisma to turn on that inner light, and she had the intelligence to dim that light as well, to create darker, erotic images, sad images, vulnerable images. If she was scared, she was also brave.
In another room, there is the man who will take all of her in – Jed – restless and stinging after Lyn has dumped him for being, well, a cad. “You lack an understanding heart,” Lyn opines. In an incredibly erotic flirtation, he spies Nell from his window to hers (the use of space in this picture is wonderfully utilized –black and white cinematography by Lucien Ballard) and when lonely Nell signals him from her room, he comes over for a good time. He puts up with her odd behavior until it gets a little too much. Widmark is fantastic here – he moves from sexy to smug to sympathetic and we never doubt it. He’s turned on and then he’s concerned and then he just wants to get out. But he can’t shake how sad this woman is. When she comes on strong, something most men would dream of, he exclaims, confused and annoyed: "You bother me! I can't figure you out! You're silk on one side and sandpaper on the other!" MM answers, tragic: "I'll be whatever you want me to be!" He asks the sensible, perplexed question: "Why?"
Well… she has cracked, that’s why. But not because she’s wicked. Her husband died and she remains debilitated by a deep mourning that fogs her mind into thinking Widmark is her dead love. She wants to resurrect caring, protection, escape. Her life was hard. Her parents whipped her. She’s attempted suicide. And who knows what is happening with that Uncle. She’s holding on and protecting herself. She’s vulnerable while deep rage pours out of her. That death and that abuse makes her cling to Jed and terrify the child (she ties her up so she’ll be quiet, and in another scene, you get the sense she might push her out of a window), and Marilyn showcases this with such raw intensity, such honesty, that she is genuinely disturbing. We are truly concerned for her. But Nell doesn't really mean any harm – and Jed doesn’t think so either. She needs help, and, perhaps, she yearns to be herself, to be appreciated, and to be appreciated for not being what everyone wants her to be. Normal. What does that mean?
There’s such a prophetic sadness to Monroe’s complex performance, and knowing all we do (or think we know– there are so many books – MM manages to be ubiquitous and mysterious at the same time), it most likely wasn't a stretch for young Marilyn to understand the pathology and despondency of her character. As Donald Spoto wrote: “Marilyn made of Nell not a stereotypical madwoman but the recognizable casualty of a wider urban madness… As she said her lines that winter … she may well have thought of her own girlhood; when she spoke of the character’s loneliness in an Oregon asylum, the memory of her Portland visit with Gladys [her mother] may have come to mind.”
It’s a heartbreaking portrait, and a movie that sympathizes with Nell, but the moral of the story comes somewhat at Nell's expense – Widmark’s Jed becomes the decent man for not giving into temptation with the damaged woman. He finally shows an “understanding heart.” It’s almost heroic because, in real life, many men wouldn't be sensitive enough to resist. And you know that Nell will learn that soon enough. Likely, she already has.
“You talk different, sure, but you drive just like the rest.” -- A tired-of-it Linda Darnell as lovely Stella, the woman who can't get every damn man OFF HER BACK, and who has everyone's number in Otto Preminger's wonderfully dime-store "Laura" -- "Fallen Angel" -- the movie I dive into in this month's "Kill or Be Killed." I love this gorgeously shot movie (by Joseph LaShelle) and all of the performances. I even like the weird kinda "happy" ending that is entirely dysfunctional. And, of course, how Linda Darnell eats a hamburger. Out today. Pick it up now!
“I let you in because, well, housewives can get awfully bored sometimes…”
“What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you.” So asks Arthur Kennedy’s upright husband to Lizabeth Scott’s kinked, cryptic wife in Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, a movie as much about one woman suffering her own private hell (an infernal boredom with the late 1940’s bonds of traditional marriage, a disgust with patronizing rich people) as it is about a coveted bag of loot. And of course, murder – murder enacted by this “femme fatale” who hides her new furs in a comfy, nutritious place – the kitchen.
Read it all (my essay on "Too Late for Tears" starring the fantastic Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea) in the newest of Ed Brubaker's "Kill Or Be Killed" -- out now. Pick it up or order here.