Monthly Archives: December 2015

Get Carter (1971)

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*. This movie was based on a Ted Lewis novel, Jack’s Return Home, which had just been published the previous year. I’ve actually read it, and it’s sitting on a bookshelf somewhere around here, but I don’t remember much aside from the fact that it ends on a more ambiguous note (it’s not clear if Jack is killed or not).
*. Really, however, Lewis’s book and this movie are a return to Richard Stark’s The Hunter, published in 1962 and made into the film Point Blank in 1969. How strange that so much came out of Stark’s (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake) rather simple effort. There would be twenty or so more Parker novels, and a couple of other film versions of The Hunter. And there would be Lewis’s novel, and this movie, and its remake . . .
. All based on what? Just the idea, or even image, of the implacable gangster avenger meting out a kind of rough justice on other gangsters who in some way did him wrong. Why do we find this so compelling? It’s not like we can relate to these disyllabic furies (Parker, Walker, Carter, Wilson, Porter). Is it just that they’re so damn good, so professional about their business?
*. In that vein, here’s Pauline Kael describing this movie as “so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness. What makes the movie unusual is the metallic elegance and the single-minded proficiency with which it adheres to its sadism-for-the-connoisseur formula.”

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*. Get Carter is highly regarded today, and for some good reasons. I want to start off, however, by mentioning a couple of things I really didn’t like about the direction (by Mike Hodges, in his debut feature).
*. In the first place, what is it with all the over-the-shoulder shots where the face in focus, as well as most of the rest of the frame, is almost entirely occluded by another head in the foreground that registers only as a dark, blurry shadow? This is especially noticeable during the card game at Kinnear’s country house, but it crops up throughout. Does it serve any purpose? I understand they wanted to make use of long shots throughout, which involved some blockage in the foreground, but this isn’t in play in many of the shots I’m thinking of. They just seem poorly done to me, as though Hodges didn’t know quite what he was doing yet.

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*. The other negative point I have to register is how awful many of the action sequences are. Hodges just couldn’t film a fight scene, at least at this time. In fact, he couldn’t even get a punch right. He tries to disguise this through fast editing but this only makes things worse. For what is ostensibly an action film, this is a major shortcoming.
*. Now, what’s great about it? Primarily the authentic feel it has, which comes mainly from the great use of locations throughout. Realism, at least in terms of a film’s look, isn’t something we normally associate with noir or the gangster genre. Some noir films did make good use of real locations (Henry Hathaway being one director who preferred them) but nothing on this scale, and nothing quite so gritty and sleazy. Of course, filming in Newcastle helped. The urban north of England wasn’t a pretty sight, at least what I remember of it, in 1971. This is a real working class environment, one where all the most spectacular settings shout industry and labour. That doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful, because they are, but they are beautiful like the cloudy and grey skies the characters are freezing under. We’re not in L.A.

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*. Also, while I think the filming of the fisticuffs is terrible, the shootout on the ferry is terrific. Another great location put to terrific use. And remarkably given the result, Hodges didn’t storyboard. It certainly feels storyboarded, and I mean that in a good way.

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*. The movie also has a nice sense of humour that plays off well against the gloomy squalor and overcast skies. I like the restaurant planners realizing they aren’t likely to get their fees, the phone sex scene that has the landlady rocking back and forth listening in, Jack in the nude turning the tables on the two gunsels, finding Thorpe cowering in the bathroom stall, and the whole bit (which is admittedly stale) of intercutting a sex scene with close-ups of the sports car being put through its paces.

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*. Is the “What would Jesus say?” sign hanging over the bed funny too? It is meant to be ironic? I can’t tell.
*. Now just how the hell did Britt Ekland get third billing here? She’s in the movie for what? A couple of minutes? She looks good in her underwear, going through the motions of masturbation (the interruption of which leads to a great funny line as her husband wonders if she’s having stomach pains), but is she a star?

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*. Michael Caine is also a plus, and very well suited for a part that requires a lot of non-verbal performing. As in the scene where he watches his niece perform in a dirty movie, for example. Caine actually makes an interesting point in the commentary, saying that lines of “dialogue in movies are just nails to hold together the most important pauses.”

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*. This is just as true in an action film, though we don’t often think of it. Men in action are different creatures than men thinking, which is where real acting comes in. But Jack is a thinker as well as a doer, and a man of feeling as well. Though here what really stands out for me is how dominating a physical presence he is. He is a big man, and with his trench coat on he really looks a load. It’s easy to forget, at this distance, that Caine was an action star in these years, appearing in such classic action films as Zulu, The Italian Job, and the three Harry Palmer films.

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*. I’m always amazed at how big the cars were back in the ’70s. Look at the size of the Cadillacs here. You could land a plane on their hood or their trunk.
*. I’ve mentioned before how annoying I find it when a movie character can run forever without seeming to get tired (see, for example, my notes on Run Lola Run). So I really enjoyed seeing Eric collapsing after what must have been a grueling cross-country and uphill slog. It may have helped that Ian Hendry was ill and in bad shape at the time (he was an alcoholic) and was apparently really feeling it. Sad in a way, but it adds to the realism of the scene.

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*. It’s a great ending, and bold. In his commentary, Caine remarks how American actors don’t like to die at the end of movies, in part because they want to keep their character alive in case there’s any chance of a sequel, but also because they just don’t want to die. Then there’s the fact that in the book it isn’t clear what happens to Jack. So Hodges was really making a statement here that comes through loud and clear. Even more than fifty years later it still seems bold. Perhaps even bolder than it did in 1971.
*. This is probably my favourite British gangster film, and a movie I enjoy returning to. It has a remarkably well turned-out plot that, coupled with its sense of place, creates a sense of artistic unity and integrity. It doesn’t feel pat, but everything is nicely rounded off. Even the killer is seen in the opening credits sitting in a train carriage with Jack, giving his reappearance at the end the feeling of a ring being closed. As with Point Blank, the remake would only show how much had been lost.

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Point Blank (1967)

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*. The story is nothing. It’s one of the simplest, almost crudest, crime plots ever put on screen. Left for dead, the betrayed gangster is back for revenge. Or something like that (see below). The Organization are just garbage to be taken out. It doesn’t get much dumber than that.
*. There are parts of it that could have been complicated, in the way traditional noir, or neo-noir, plots are complicated, but here they’re simply left out. For example: What exactly is it that is being exchanged for all that money at the Alcatraz drop? What sort of business (criminal or otherwise) is the Organization in? We never find out.
*. While I’m on the point of the money drop at Alcatraz, you have to wonder if the Organization could have thought of a spot less convenient, or more conspicuous, in the entire state of California for this to take place. It’s like arranging to have Walker’s money handed over to him in the L.A. riverbed.

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*. At the end, the “Alcatraz drop” doesn’t even take place at Alcatraz. It’s done at Fort Point (which explains the final shot looking out across San Francisco Bay at the Rock in the distance). Fort Point is a great location, looking like the Roman Colosseum at night, but one has to wonder why they’re using a helicopter to get in and out. Or why they didn’t just meet at a quiet restaurant somewhere.

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*. The locations are so incredible and theatrical — nay, operatic! — they lend credence to the notion, held by some, that the entire film is the dying Walker’s revenge fantasy. He is dreaming in Technicolor.
*. Since this has become a favourite talking point for this film, here are my quick thoughts on the matter.
*. Con: (1) in the source novel (The Hunter by Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake) Walker/Parker is not a ghost; (2) on the DVD commentary John Boorman says he has no opinion on the matter but, tellingly, doesn’t say whether this was even an idea he was entertaining while he was making the movie; (3) I’m not sure any contemporary reviewers considered the dream explanation as a possibility, or who the first person was who suggested it and when.
*. Pro: (1) just before the title comes on we see Walker rising from the ground and saying “a dream.” This is certainly suggestive; (2) Walker is a spectral presence throughout. Note how he doesn’t actually kill anyone, and the way he fades into the shadows at the end. Also the scene where his wife tries to explain herself to him and he sits quietly beside her on the couch not saying anything. Doesn’t that make you think of Bruce Willis with his wife in The Sixth Sense?; (3) much of the film has a dream-like texture, especially in its way of slipping through different colour schemes (with Walker’s wardrobe improbably changing, chameleon-like, to fit every interior); (4) when we see Walker without his shirt on there are no scars anywhere on his body, as there surely would be if he’d been shot several times at point blank range; (5) there are a number of lines that are suggestive of his demise, most notably Chris’s remark that she thinks he really did die at Alcatraz.
*. On balance, I don’t think he’s an avenging ghost (like Eastwood’s slain sheriff come back to wreak his vengeance in High Plains Drifter), or that he’s imagining the story as he lies dying. I see the movie as being a straight-up story of a man who somehow survives being shot and comes back to get what’s his. But there’s no denying this other layer of an otherworldly, mythic quality that the film has.
*. As I began by noting, aside from the ambiguity over Walker’s real or imagined presence the story here is very simple and uninteresting. It counts for nothing. How the story is told is everything. This movie is all about its visuals (in particular its use of colour) and editing.
*. We’re immediately plunged into a dislocating montage that shatters chronology, in much the same way Nicolas Roeg would open Performance (1970) and Don’t Look Now (1973). Give Boorman credit for getting there first, but then ask yourself: Who does this today? I can’t think of many current films that take this “throw the audience into the deep end” approach, and certainly none with the same sense of style.
*. This was Boorman’s first colour film and he went all out. The film goes through various colour phases where everything from interior decoration to wardrobe matches up: the cool greys of Lynne’s house, the yellows and golds of Chris’s place, and the greens of the Multiplex Products Company office.

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*. Boorman thought the colours made things seem “not quite real,” and they do seem an odd fit for a noir film: plastic fantastic like that psychedelic sundae of cosmetics Walker smashes in Lynne’s sink. But this made me wonder about something else Boorman says on the commentary. In my notes on Where Danger Lives I mentioned how San Francisco (the initial setting of that film) isn’t a real noir town. Apparently Boorman agreed, at least somewhat, as he only wanted it for Alcatraz and Fort Point. Otherwise he says he found it “so pastelly and pleasant” that he wanted to find its opposite, “something harsher and stark.” So the film moves to L.A. But isn’t L.A. just as pastelly and pleasant here? And what could be nicer and more modern than that fully automated kitchen?
*. I like how Soderbergh brings up Antonioni on the commentary. Boorman had seen Red Desert and there’s definitely a visual influence at work here, and perhaps even a moral one as well (does the opaque Walker feel anything?). There is more to this than colour, which Antonioni came late to. The classical locations with their old-new architectural purity very much recall Antonioni’s Italian settings, as does the framing and composition.

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*. The guiding principle visually, aside from the emphasis on colour, was the use of widescreen. Boorman describes himself as “intoxicated by anamorphic” at the time and again and again he draws attention to it. We see Walker set off against strong horizontals outdoors, while the interiors make every home look a knock-off of Wright’s prairie style. The cars are as long as swimming pools, and you can crush both the front and the back without being injured in the driver’s seat (what were parking spaces like back then?), couches take up the entire frame, and bodies are stretched out on the ground (with a strip of credit cards pulled out from a pocket to emphasize the sense of length in one shot).

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*. Boorman also liked the way widescreen drew attention to the distance between characters, representing antagonism or drift. It’s certainly hard not to notice when you have gaps open up this wide.

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*. Before I leave this brief discussion of visuals, I can’t help pointing out a shot that stopped my breath the first time I saw this movie. Marvin is parked in front of Lynne’s house and we see him in the front seat of his car while his rear-seat windows reflect the house he’s looking at, using the widescreen to make a split screen effect. It was from this point on I knew I was going to like Point Blank.

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*. Lee Marvin. The strong and very silent type. I can’t help seeing him as a kind of matching bookend to Sterling Hayden. Both ex-marines, both awesome, rock-like physical presences, both possessed of heavy bass voices that make your speakers tremble.
*. For the most part Marvin is a total blank. Is he even listening as his wife Lynn goes on about how life has been without him? Is he even there? Or even better, watch him closely in the scene where he first meets Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and demands his money. Look at the sheer immobility of his face. He only has five or six lines in this scene and I had to replay it a couple of times to make sure his lips were moving.
*. The one scene where I thought he did show some emotion comes in his exchange with Brewster, and it’s actually quite funny. Indeed there’s something beyond funny, something positively weird in Walker’s reaction to Brewster asking him what it is he wants. His money. No, really? Yes, really. He just wants his money. He seems hurt, embarrassed to admit it. But that’s all he wants. Who has it? Fairfax? No, a cheque won’t do. He wants his money. Why is this so hard? You can really feel his frustration.
*. But is money all he wants? What is Walker after? Surely not revenge by this point, as Mal and Lynn are both already dead. And the money is truly no big deal. As Chris points out to him, he probably has no idea what to do with it and it wasn’t his in the first place anyway. At the end it’s left out for him almost as an afterthought and it’s not clear if he’s even going to bother picking it up.

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*. On the commentary Boorman says Walker keeps going because he doesn’t know how to stop. Once set in motion he has to follow things through to the end. I don’t find this terribly convincing, but then we know so little about Walker I think we have to just shrug our shoulders over the matter of motivation. I mean, what is Walker anyway before Mal gets him involved in his little scheme? A fisherman brought along to provide back-up muscle? The hired gun describes him as a “pro,” but a pro at what? In the novel he’s a professional thief, but there’s no sign of that here. This is just another example of information that is left out of the stripped-down plot.
*. There’s a great sequence near the beginning that makes you believe in the Walker-as-unstoppable-force idea. I just love his long walk through the airport, heels clacking on the floor, a sound that only ends with his bursting through his wife’s door. Yeah, this is a guy who isn’t stopping for shit. Or even stopping to see if there’s anyone in that bed he shoots up, which there quite obviously isn’t.
*. Or maybe it is all about the money. There’s something about money (at least in America) that is more than just a code, more than Fairfax’s insistence at the end that he’s a man who pays his debts. Walker doesn’t really care that much about losing his wife. She made her choices and she’ll pay the price either in this world or the next. But that $93,000 is different. That’s real. When you mess with money you’re messing with what Ned Beatty in Network calls the essential principle and moral law of the universe. You fuck with that and you must atone.
*. While I’m on the point of information that is left out, we might wonder what Walker’s first name is. No one knows. Apparently his wife and best friend don’t know either. He’s just Walker. Just like Donald Westlake’s Parker was just Parker. Again: not important, not essential.

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*. Manny Farber wrote a weird review of this film, calling it out for its “strangely unhealthy tactility.” I’m not quite sure what Farber was talking about, but there’s no denying how physical a movie this is. For example, I really like when Walker punches one hood in the groin (surely that had never been done before, and how often has it been done since?), or the way Mal pulls up his shirt and pats his hairy belly before going into the bedroom with Chris. Then of course there’s Chris collapsing in exhaustion after giving her all punching, slapping, and shoving the patient, petrified oak in front of her.
*. What does it all add up to? Mainly an exercise in style: an early blend of high (European art house) and low (American pulp) that somehow, magically, works. It had an enormous creative impact, in some ways defining the spirit of what would become neo-noir. Was that the real meaning of Walker retreating back into the shadows at the end? The sun was coming up on a new era, one that Walker could only visit for a certain period of time, pointing the way to before the crowing of a cock.

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Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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*. This is one of those movies that there’s been so much written about, it’s hard to think of anything new to add.
*. It’s not usually considered one of the greatest movies of all time, but it’s frequently found placed on a very short list of the most important/significant/groundbreaking. In a nutshell, it stands at the beginning of the New Hollywood, a watershed moment documented in such books as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Pictures at a Revolution.
*. What was the New Hollywood? I’d describe it as European art house comes to America, where it was adapted to more traditional forms of entertainment. Like the gangster film.
*. It’s worth keeping in mind how out of style the gangster film was by the 1960s.  After the great run of gangster movies in the 1930s the genre shifted into noir, which was something different, and in the 1950s had basically petered out. The French, however, had not forgotten.
*. The story was originally pitched to Truffaut but he was busy. But the script, which strikes me as pretty unexceptional, was perhaps the least New Wave thing about the final film. More in tune with the continental zeitgeist was Dede Allen’s editing, which remains the most contemporary aspect of the film today.

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*. It’s hard to enter into this movie today except through the critical lens, because to some extent its story is one of a shift in criticism as well. It was famously panned by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, but by then Crowther, in the words of Richard Schickel, “was a tiresome old fud, and people had long since wearied of his cluelessness.” Meanwhile, newbie Roger Ebert (only six months on the film beat) wrote a rave and Pauline Kael championed it in The New Yorker. This was a critical changing of the guard as well, and the movie became the ground where a new generation of critics would fix their standards.
*. I want to spend just a moment on Crowther’s review. Here’s the pull quote: “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair [that is, Bonnie and Clyde] as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie. . . . This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth.”
*. There are two traps Crowther’s review falls into. They aren’t what I would call critical fallacies, but they are tendencies that can lead evaluation astray.
*. In the first place, he passes moral judgment. The problem with moral judgments is that they’re your morals being applied to the work of someone who might not share them, with the critic punishing the film by a foreign code of conscience. Also, morality is elastic, by which I mean it changes and adapts to different cultural contexts. In short, it quickly dates. If you run with morality you run the risk of gaining a reputation as a prude or “tiresome old fud.”
*. The other place Crowther goes wrong is in making an issue out of historical accuracy. Again, this is not necessarily a wrong thing to do. Sticking with gangster films, it’s something that bothered me quite a bit in Bugsy, and somewhat less in Public Enemies. But the defence is too easy (even a documentary film is something other than an objective reporting of the facts), and you have to consider to what extent the filmmakers were even trying to be authentic. Here you could blame them somewhat, as Bonnie and Clyde was marketed as being a true story, at least initially. But I don’t think this was really their goal, and the sexual angle alone would suggest that they were taking a free hand with the historical record. According to Penn “I didn’t think that for a minute we were creating any kind of real world or society. . . . The movie is an abstraction rather than a genuine reportage.”
*. The main reason it made such an impact was because it was a movie of firsts. There was a lot of neophyte talent, from Dunaway and Hackman to costume designer Theadora Van Runkle. But what really surprised people, shocked them even, was the mixture of violence with sex and comedy.

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*. In the first place, the violence was real. As Pauline Kael noted, it shows us “the dirty reality of death — not suggestions but blood and holes.” The squibs helped. I mentioned in my notes on Night of the Living Dead (1968) how, on the DVD commentary for that film, they say they were the first movie to use squibs. Bullitt came out the same year and made the same claim. This movie came out a year earlier, but in fact a Polish film apparently beat all of them by twenty years. In any event, all the blood seemed like something new, at least in so mainstream a movie.

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*. Dunaway is just so good in this movie. Why have I never liked her in anything else even half as much? I mean Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown and Diana Christensen in Network are outstanding parts but I’m not sure they’re great performances by Dunaway. In contrast, Bonnie isn’t nearly as full a role, but she makes it seem even bigger.
*. By the way, and in case you’re wondering, I don’t include Dunaway’s turn as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest on this list because, while I think she’s terrible in that movie, being terrible is what the role demanded.
*. It’s important that Dunaway is so good because this is really Bonnie’s movie. Compared to her, Clyde is a senseless clod. It’s no gift of foresight that makes her so sensitive to intimations of their mortality; it’s mere obliviousness on Clyde’s part that he doesn’t pick up on the same.
*. You know it’s Bonnie’s movie because we begin with her, prowling naked in that sauna of an upstairs bedroom. I swear I can smell her every time I watch this scene.

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*. Dunaway’s close-ups, of which there are quite a few, are also more interesting because there always seems to be something going on behind her face. In contrast, there doesn’t seem to be anything behind Clyde’s good looks. I’m reminded a bit of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. It’s not quite the same dynamic, but similar.
*. Shooting through a window screen in the scene where Bonnie visits her mother is far too disjunctive visually and doesn’t work at all. It also seems as though everyone knew this at the time. Even the film’s champions singled it out for criticism. I wonder why Penn couldn’t see it.

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*. But this is the only really jarring misstep. At the end of the day this is a movie that succeeds because it’s smart, takes risks, and, that most essential element of all, just gets lucky. Talent and exuberance count for a lot, but for a production with so many moving pieces the stars have to be alignment for it to all come together. When they do, the resulting energy carries it along even through the rough patches.
*. The lesson that a great movie is in large part an accident, however, is not one that anyone learns, mainly because there’s no real point in learning it. Except to remind people that it’s probably not worth trying the same thing again.

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White Heat (1949)

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*. The return of James Cagney. Not the return of Tom Powers, anti-hero of The Public Enemy. Cody Jarrett is something else.
*. I think audiences probably found Cagney’s first appearance here striking. He’s noticeably older (nearly 50), his face both fleshier and more corrugated though his body’s still in fighting trim. And he’s scowling. Some of the charm of his earlier gangster roles has worn off, along with any moral compass.
*. One of the most striking things about this film is Cody’s violence. I’m not sure if he’s a sadist, but he’s a reflexive bully. Smushing a grapefruit in his girl’s face had wit. Kicking Virginia Mayo off a chair is just the instinctual lashing out of an angry man (and also a wonderful bit of improvisation).
*. Violence is just no big thing to Cody. He seems totally indifferent to the fate of poor Zuckie, and can shoot Parker up without dropping his chicken leg. Life and death are no big deal for him. He’s genuinely pleased with himself at the end for having made it to the top of the world, despite the fact that this means his imminent immolation.

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*. You don’t get far reading about this film before you come to Cody’s mother fixation. Quite often, as in Drew Casper’s DVD commentary, it is given a Freudian spin. I think this is mistaken. There is nothing at all sexual, or Oedipal, in Cody’s mother love.
*. What is the nature of that love, or, as Evans puts it, that “fierce psychopathic devotion”? Margaret Wycherly (“Ma”) is the classic codependent mother as enabler, caring for a son who has learned, in turn, just how to manipulate her. In the Oedipal myth the son wants to supplant his father as his mother’s conjugal partner. In the codependent relationship, as here, the son supplants an invalid father by becoming, initially through a stratagem, a patient in need of care himself. Like most such figures (think of the adult males you know, living in their mother’s basement), he is totally asexual. He can threaten his wife with violence, or goof around with her like a child, but never fuck her. He isn’t jealous of her bestowing sexual favours on Big Ed, but on his stealing her attention. She’s supposed to be worshipping him as his mother does. Anything less is a capital offence.

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*. Pauline Kael thought Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface to be perhaps “the only action picture that turns into an allegory of impotence.” I think this film is a much earlier and much more obvious case. Tony Montana has barely disguised erotic feelings for Manny. Cody only wants male pals, and even those he’s not much interested in. Like most spoiled children he doesn’t want any competition for his mother’s affection.
*. Put another way, like the typical mama’s boy he is, Cody has no real friends and one gets the sense that while he may threaten and frighten his gang members, everyone he meets (aside from Ma) ultimately despises him. As well they should.

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*. This almost total isolation outside of the mother-son dyad is the price Cody pays for his special status. In the course of the movie we see him betrayed by everyone else. Fallon/Pardo is of course a copper plant. Big Ed will cuckold him with a more-than-willing Verna. Even Cotton fails to dispatch Zuckie when ordered to do so. Without Ma he is totally alone, facing the utter abandonment that Robert Warshow saw as the fate of all movie gangsters: “No convention of the gangster film is more strongly established than this: it is dangerous to be alone. And yet the very conditions of success make it impossible not to be alone, for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in who it automatically arouses hatred; the successful man is an outlaw.” Or at least he is in America.
*. While the scene where Cody goes crazy in the mess hall when he hears of his mother’s death is justifiably famous, it’s also a bit odd. Ma is such a key role, and so well performed by Wycherly, it’s strange that she’s dropped from the film so soon and so abruptly, dispatched in silence offstage.
*. Homosocial bonds have always been a big part of the gangster genre. Think of Scarface (either version will do), or Tom and Matt in The Public Enemy, or Cagney and Raft in Each Dawn I Die. Here it’s more complicated because Fallon/Pardo doesn’t displace Verna so much as he becomes a maternal surrogate. He becomes the guy to massage away Cody’s headaches, and he comes in for Ma’s fifty-percent cut of the take.
*. I like noticing the prices on things in old movies. Two pints of fresh strawberries for 25 cents. Sold!
*. As with most of Cagney’s gangster films, or really most of Cagney’s films, it drags whenever he’s not on screen. But it’s actually a pretty effective police procedural with a real interest in the science and method used by the T (as in Treasury) Men pursuing Cody.
*. Casper refers to this as “a nod to the mushrooming technophilia in America at this particular time,” but I’m not sure America has ever not been technophilic. In any event, we see the police here using spectrographic dust analysis on Zuckie’s clothes, then trailing Ma using three cars communicating by way of car telephones, and of course in the climactic pursuit sequence triangulating the signals from the radio transmitter by using the oscilloscope. This was all pretty cutting edge.

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*. It’s also miles ahead of Cody. He’s not a complete technophobe (he uses plastic explosives to blow of the door of the train carriage, and later brings an acetylene torch to cut into the safe), but he is a blast from the past, robbing a steam train in the opening sequence like a member of the James gang and coming up with a scheme for the final heist that’s taken from the Trojan War (a story told him, naturally, by his Ma).

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*. Casper also points out how the gang in general is associated with the country and the police with the city. I’m not sure if this is significant but it seems interesting, almost as though these are latter-day Depression-era, back roads gangsters who now find themselves out of time.
*. Is that also the explanation for the wind that seems to be constantly blowing throughout the picture? Even in the prison yard you can see it tossing people’s hair about it. Is this meant to evoke the Dustbowl, or the winds of change?
*. In addition to the technophilia there’s a general interest in how things get done: the plotting of the A-B-C method of police tailing, how they set up Fallon as a plant, the argument over the “checking” of Cody’s confession in Illinois (I don’t know what this refers to but presumably it just means they’ve accepted his guilty plea), and the logistics of the money laundering service offered by the Trader. But again Cody doesn’t share in much of this. He’s even surprised that his gang has gone out and bought a fuel truck.
*. Virginia Mayo is beautiful but has just a hint of dizziness in her eyes. If that doesn’t bring her down to earth enough, she’s also made to seem low grade by being introduced as a snorer, and someone who has to spit the gum out of her mouth before kissing her guy. I like how she’s fixated throughout on money, which, as she notes, is only paper if you don’t spend it. Her final appearance is an attempt to cut a deal with the police. When they reject her she complains that Evans is only a “cheap copper.” In her vocabulary, being cheap is probably the worst thing you can say about someone, even worse than being a cop.
*. By this time it was a convention that a gangster had lots of snappy patter. Hence Cody’s line about how Verna would look good in a shower curtain, or, when Parker asks if he’d kill him in cold blood, he replies that he’ll let him warm up a little. But I couldn’t help feeling that this was a bit out of character. Cody isn’t a total brute, but he’s not a great wit either. Wit and verbal dexterity come through social interaction, and Cody (as noted above) has no friends and is at heart an introverted mama’s boy. These types are invariably awkward when it comes to conversation.

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*. Casper is of the opinion that director Raoul Walsh is underrated. I think he’s more understated. As Casper’s analysis of the cafeteria scene shows (that’s the one where Cagney is placed in long shots and even concealed a lot of the time), his personal style wasn’t of the sort that drew attention to itself. The only passage that stuck out for me was the nearly 360-degree pan around the house Big Ed and Verna are hiding out in, from the radio all the way back around to the front door. It’s an effective bit of work, progressively revealing the full situation and suggesting the way the two are trapped inside the house.
*. An explosive conclusion is one of the hallmarks of popular film. The shark exploding at the end of Jaws, the Death Star at the end of Star Wars: there’s something cathartic about blowing the bad guy up real good. It also helps if they’re on top of a building. The interesting thing here is that we never actually see Cody’s fall. He is typically seen looking upward when addressing his lost Ma, as though she is waiting for him in heaven, which is also the direction he’s blown by the final explosion. So is this the destruction of the villain, his consumption in sulphurous, demonic flames, or rather the triumph and apotheosis of a hero?
*. There’s something a little unnerving in this regard about the scene where Cody tells Pardo that he’s been walking in the woods talking to his mother. Is there a conscious echo here of Jesus in the garden? The next day, Cody will be betrayed by Pardo and executed by the authorities, his arms outstretched in a classic pose. To be then reunited with his Ma? Where?

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Key Largo (1948)

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*. There’s no shame in saying it doesn’t work any more. It scarcely worked at the time. It’s based on a talky (read: preachy) play by Maxwell Anderson that was written in blank verse and which John Huston and co-writer Richard Brooks didn’t like at all (Huston: “I hate this kind of play, I don’t like free [sic] verse. I don’t like Maxwell Anderson’s work. I don’t like him.”) They ended up doing a complete re-write, including a shootout on a boat (which was actually supposed to be the ending of To Have and Have Not).
*. In the play the Bogart character dies. That wasn’t going to happen in Hollywood. Instead he returns as the conquering hero, after an improbably arranged phone call back to Nora leads her to open the shutters to an annunciation of light.
*. I have to wonder if there’s ever been so much talent involved in a project that amounted to so little. I think the credits are probably the main reason it’s still so well regarded today. Huston co-wrote and directed. Karl Freund did the photography, Max Steiner the score. The cast was great. On paper it should have been much better. Where did they go wrong?
*. For starters, this is a Bogie and Bacall vehicle but they’re terrible together, seemingly tired of each other’s company. She is unaccountably off (Pauline Kael: “a stiff, amateurish performance”) and her husband seems lost and confused. Robinson is magnetic, though perhaps a little unsure of how seriously he was supposed to be playing things. He tries his best to get a rise out of Bacall by whispering (presumably) dirty nothings in her ear, but no dice. She’s the ice lady in this hothouse.

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*. Lionel Barrymore was in bad shape and, always a bit of a ham, he’s saddled here with the worst lines in a script that has more than a few of them. Which leaves Claire Trevor, who has a terrible role but managed to get an Academy Award for her command performance of “Moanin’ Low,” which is the dramatic high point of the movie.
*. The end of the Warner gangster line? Almost. Bosley Crowther: “This, to the old gangster-film fan, will smack distinctly of race suicide—or, at least, of deliberate self-destruction of a type through internecine strife. And this was, no doubt, an intention of those who arranged to bring two such notorious veterans of the old days together in this film. For a great deal of pertinent suggestion is unquestionably conveyed by the spectacle of one classic film thug putting the quietus on another one. Unfortunately, the staggering impact of the image itself is somewhat lost in an excess of prefatory talking, much of it along philosophical lines.”

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*. Only the opening shot of the bus on the causeway was done in Florida. The rest of it was filmed at the Warners studio in Burbank, at Jack Warner’s insistence (he was upset at the cost overruns from shooting The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on location). The hurricane footage was borrowed from another film (Night Unto Night). So, despite the semi-exotic setting and the title, this is a movie that doesn’t evoke any sense of place at all.
*. Pity the poor Osceola brothers. Or don’t. After all, they’re killed offscreen. They’re also clearly guilty of something or they wouldn’t be wanted by the law in the first place. And as Barrymore insists, everytime you try and do something good for those people it never works out (“seems like we can’t do anything but hurt these people even when we try to help them”). So there go another pair of dead Indians. Oh, Hollywood.

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*. Jeez, ol’ man Temple doesn’t half try and pimp his daughter out on the Major does he? “Why don’t you stay right on here with us Frank? You’re most welcome. Go on, tell him Nora. If he decides to stay here with us we’d be most happy. Go on, tell Frank. . . . I’d be proud to have you regard us as your family.”
*. For a morality play the moral is a mess. I guess the main point is that there are some things in life worth dying for, and that after winning WW2 America now had to face the enemy at home. This is overlain with a bunch of stuff about what makes a hero (or a coward). The problem, as I see it, is that the movie is awkward in its introduction of this theme, and I suspect not really interested in it. Huston was drawn to the material for its entertainment value but was saddled with a bunch of overly dramatic rhetoric and manouvering he couldn’t shake off. Still, at least he got a shot of Robinson smoking a cigar in the tub.

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Dillinger (1945)

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*. “Introducing” Lawrence Tierney, at least in a starring role (he’d appeared in a couple of movies before this in minor parts). For such a limited actor he had a surprisingly long career, even appearing as the gruff mob boss Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs nearly fifty years later. I don’t think he’s any good at all in this film. I don’t mind that he doesn’t look like the real Dillinger; the movie plays so fast and loose with the historical record that Dillinger might have been played by Cagney or Robinson without any harm. But there’s just no charm or charisma to Tierney — qualities Dillinger was known for and which are of assistance to a leading man.
*. More on this Explaining the career of Tierney isn’t easy. He wasn’t much of an actor, mainly looking stiff and mean. Apparently he was very difficult to get along with, and he and director Max Nosseck hated each other. He was so nervous they had to have a portable washroom unit on the set because he had to go so often. He was also a heavy drinker. And yet he lasted forever in and around Hollywood.
*. Two odd conventions of the gangster film show up again. I say “odd” because they’re not entirely historical or biographical but nevertheless became part of gangster mythology. The first of these is the way the ambitious young gangster has to climb the rungs of power, finally knocking off his own boss. We see Dillinger doing that to “Specs” Green here. The second convention is the moll who sours on the hero and takes up with one of his second bananas (in this case Helen leaving Dillinger for Tony). Taken together, the two conventions have the quality of a kind of fertility ritual being acted out. But that’s the way history transforms into myth: facts are simplified into archetypes.

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*. These are Hollywood bank robberies. In real life, Dillinger’s heists were more straightforward affairs. He never tried to rob a train either. Speaking of which, what exactly happens during the train robbery? It’s like they forgot to film all of it or something. There are no good action sequences in this flick.
*. What a weird opening. Why have Dillinger’s father introduce the movie? Especially as we never return to him later. What’s going on?
*. It couldn’t have taken Tierney six months to grow that fake moustache, could it?
*. They should have given one of the other gang members the grapes to eat. Elisha Cook, Jr. is Elisha Cook, Jr. He doesn’t need a prop to sell a character.
*. It’s a lousy little movie. In the words of John Milius a “C-level picture” that is never very interesting (Milius made his own Dillinger movie in 1973 starring Warren Oates, who he naturally affirms made “a much, much better Dillinger”). And yet Philip Yordan was, remarkably, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, which is something I can’t get my head around. It’s them crickets, I tell ya! Them crickets!

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High Sierra (1941)

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*. Bogart’s “breakout” role, and he was now over 40, playing a character with a code whose time has passed.
*. It almost didn’t happen. As it was, Bogart was bumped from star billing by Ida Lupino (the last time that would happen). Other, bigger names (Muni and Raft) had originally been wanted for the part. Bogart had been around, first attracting notice in The Petrified Forest and playing tough guys (that is, gangsters) for a decade. He’d even played opposite Lupino the year before in They Drive by Night, another film directed by Raoul Walsh. So this was all familiar territory.
*. Bogart is playing an older man here, which makes sense as he was the kind of guy who looks even older than his age (I’ve pointed out how ridiculous it is to see him playing Ann Sheridan’s kid brother in San Quentin). Here he’s Rip van Winkle, a part Pauline Kael would identify as seminal: both “the aging outlaw as an anachronism in a changing world” and “the man who just wants to pull off one more job so he can get out of what has become just a dirty business.” Michael Mann must have been taking notes.
*. It’s not just that Roy is out of time though. The gangster film as a genre was passing away. And I think it may be that meeting of the man and the moment that led to this being what David Thomson calls the “turning point” in Bogart’s career, “a key step in the transformation of Humphrey Bogart,” not just into a star but into “Bogie” the film icon.
*. What was the nature of that icon? A tough guy whose toughness is a kind of self-torture. He’s not so much reluctant at the role he has to play as physically pained by it. Every time those lips pull back and he bares his teeth in a rictus grin you sense a jab of conscience or despair.
*. It could have been creepy, or even ridiculous. As it is, the subplot involving the yokels who have come to L.A., including clubfoot girl Velma (Joan Leslie), is dreadful. Both because it’s hokey and because Roy is old enough to be Velma’s father. But then Bogart was old enough to be Lauren Bacall’s father and they got along well enough together.
*. It’s also typical of a breakout role in the way Bogart carries the movie on his back. Aside from the final gunfight in the mountains there is nothing else to recommend it but his performance. Much of the plot is either clichéd, conventional, or pathetic (it’s based on a book by W. R. Burnett, author of the novel Little Caesar and contributor to the screenplay for Scarface). It’s fun to hear Big Mac complaining about the lousy help he’s got these days — “screwballs . . . twerps, soda-jerks, and jitterbugs” — but that’s the only line I can remember. The heist is boring, the fallout rushed and silly (Roy didn’t even keep enough money to pay for gas?), and as already noted the entire Velma storyline is awful.
*. An aside: I couldn’t help seeing something of Steling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle in Roy’s nostalgic desire to leave a life of crime and go back to the farm. Both movies were based on Burnett novels so perhaps the connection isn’t all in my head.
*. Raoul Walsh had a very long, very productive career. On the strength of this he’s rated highly by a lot of critics and film historians. I don’t see where he was much more than the kind of professional you could count on to get a movie done on time. Out of his massive filmography this film is considered one of his best. Another highlight is White Heat. I like both movies well enough, but when I watch them I don’t see where Walsh was responsible for doing much that made them special.
*. I don’t even care for Lupino much as Marie. She has the look, but her voice is wrong. She doesn’t sound like a moll or dime-a-dance girl and I can’t imagine she was that thrilled to find herself in such a worthless part. Especially when the ending has her echoing Roy’s faithful mutt Pard, holding the hand the dog had just been licking. I guess Marie is showing she can be as blindly devoted and loyal as man’s best friend, but really, they could have given the dog (played by Bogart’s own dog, Zero) higher billing.
*. All that’s left is Roy alone in the mountains, that final western frontier, hounded to death by the law and thus achieving an ironic freedom. And yet who would be better suited than Bogart to play a man who sees death as an escape from the pain of existence? It was written all over his face.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

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*. Pauline Kael: “The title and the names of the stars — James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart — make it sound like a lot more fun than it is. . . . The movie has a very mechanical and moralistic view of character; nobody ever says or does anything that surprises you.”
*. I’d agree with all this, and also say the same of another movie of three veterans returning home: The Best Years of Our Lives.
*. 1939 was the end of a lot of things, one of them being the first great era of the gangster film. James Cagney was sick of these parts and Humphrey Bogart’s career was going nowhere playing an endless stream of creepy gunsels. That would soon change. Cagney would be in Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and wouldn’t play a gangster again until White Heat (1949). Bogie would do High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941. But as for now, 1939, what better time for gangster nostalgia?
*. Gangster nostalgia: a look back at the good ol’ days of Prohibition, the good ol’ days of the gangster film, and the good ol’ days (revived and improved) that the main characters here imagined they were going to enjoy on their return. No dice. When Rambo has a meltdown in First Blood about not being able to get a decent job he makes it sound like this was something new experienced by returning soldiers. It wasn’t.
*. A note on the etymology of nostalgia: it comes from a pair of Greek words meaning “home” and a wound or scar. So it’s a feeling very much in play here.
*. We start off with a written introduction to “this photoplay” by writer Mark Hellinger. He was sort of a big name at the time (dare I say he used to be a big shot?), but nobody much cared for his script, then or now. Cagney improvised a lot. I find it surprising that Hellinger would be given such prominent billing here, but writers were more important then.
*. After this we settle into a sprawling gangster film that’s overlain with a bunch of material that, while decent in itself, only weighs the movie down. Epic is a late development, a sign that a genre has begun to sprawl and bloat. There have been great gangster epics (The Godfather) and very bad ones (Once Upon a Time in America). Here we’re somewhere in the middle.

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*. The newsreel-style “March of Time” montage inserts (with special effects by Byron Haskin and composed by Don Siegel, I believe) are quite well done, especially the one for the Crash of 1929 with its ticker-tape Mammon and melting skyscrapers. But I don’t think they work with the rest of the movie. They give it a kind of epic flavour, but diminish the characters and their struggles, making them seem more like representative types.
*. The musical numbers cover a lot of hits, with “Melancholy Baby,” “Wild About Harry,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Had to Be You” all getting some air (and Lane doing her own singing). They’re great tunes, but the whole Eddie-Jean-Lloyd triangle is dull, and making Jean a nightclub singer is trite formula.
*. Am I the only one troubled by Priscilla Lane’s Jean? She is perfectly happy, at least for a while, to be a gangster’s moll (Eddie even gives her a tour of the still!), then opts for the square life while the getting is still good.
*. Then there’s Jeffrey Lynn’s Lloyd the lawyer. He’s a bore, and just as easily compromised as Jean, quickly becoming Eddie’s consigliere. He draws an arbitrary line after the warehouse robbery, but, as Bogie snarls at him, he came into this business with his eyes open.

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*. It seems almost as though the movie wants to be about the seduction of innocence, but all the main players give in to temptation pretty quickly, protesting hardly at all. I hardly think Lind is representative of “absolute good” and “the epitome of virtue and rectitude,” which is how Lincoln Hurst casts him in the DVD commentary. Everyone we meet here has dirt on their hands.
*. You should try and expand your vocabulary with every vintage gangster movie you see. I learned the word “gilpin” from this movie. It basically means a sucker. For some reason being a sucker is the one thing that Eddie is paranoid about. Perhaps he unconsciously recognizes that he’s too soft for the gangster life and it will be his undoing.

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*. When Cagney uses Lefty (Abner Biberman) as a human shield it must be one of the earliest examples of this happening in a movie. In The Black Pirate Douglas Fairbanks uses Sam De Grasse as a shield but De Grasse is already dead. Lefty is alive until he stops some bullets. This would go on to become a film cliché used for comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback.
*. It’s New Year’s Eve, so that’s supposed to be snow on the steps of the church at the end. Movie snow rarely looks like real snow, but here it looks like sand.
*. Despite its credits, I don’t like this movie much. The energy is gone, the cycle played out. Neither Cagney nor Bogart wanted to be here and it doesn’t help that we end with a long, downbeat final act. It’s just a tired movie, wearing too many clothes, and a great last line doesn’t save it.

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The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)

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*. Clitterhouse? Are you kidding? No such name apparently existed in England (where the story originated) or the United States. Were the censors asleep or was “clitoris” not a word (or part of the anatomy) familiar to many at the time?
*. In fact, and as you can well imagine, the censors did have problems with the story. That a movie such as this could have been made in 1938 is its main claim to fame and source of interest.
*. The problem is Dr. Clitterhouse. He’s a bad guy. At first a mere burglar but later a cold-blooded murderer. And yet he’s made into a sympathetic figure who ultimately gets away with it, merely remanded to the State Lunacy Commission for examination. Which isn’t even a slap on the wrist.
*. Joseph Breen wanted the script to make it very clear that Clitterhouse is insane. Somewhat ironically, this would be the central ambiguity in the film, unresolved by the farce of the trial. But I think it’s clear Clitterhouse knew what he was doing all along.
*. Compounding things, Clitterhouse not only escapes punishment by due process of law, but that process is treated as a joke, with buffoonish, yokel jurors incapable of figuring anything out and the expert testimony of Professor Ludwig treated as bafflegab and nonsense. As for the rest of the gang, they are presumably picked up at some point, though Jo appears to have got off as well.
*. Somehow (because it was pitched as a comedy?) Warners managed to get around all this and made a movie with a very dark set of morals: the ends justify the means; crime can be fun and pay as well; with enough money you can buy the justice system. What makes it even worse is the fact that Bogart’s Rocks Valentine is not that bad a fellow. Sure he tries to kill Dr. C., but he’s been forgiven that. And his plan on using the doctor as a front for his gang isn’t a bad one. As he says to Clitterhouse, the information he’s collected against the gang is only enough to send them up for life. He isn’t a candidate for extra-judicial execution.
*. It’s based on a popular stage play of the time. Surprised? I was. There’s nothing about this movie that gives such an origin away. Most movies based on plays have a stagey look and sound to them, but aside from some of the dialogue here there’s none of that.
*. It was purchased by Warners specifically as a starring vehicle for Robinson (though Robert Lord wanted Ronald Coleman as a more romantic lead to play opposite Claire Trevor). It must have made the star happy. Edward G. Robinson was a refined, highly-cultured, intellectual man whose breakout role as Rico in Little Caesar typecast him pretty much forever as a lowlife immigrant gangster. He would have preferred parts like Dr. Clitterhouse, even though the love triangle here is downplayed considerably because it was felt no one would buy it. Which is tough without being realistic, but nevertheless very Hollywood.

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*. All of the actors on Warners’ “Murderers Row” were struggling with the same typecasting. Bogart was the heavy again here, a role he’d played over and over since The Petrified Forest. Clitterhouse co-writer John Huston would be the one to finally rescue him with The Maltese Falcon, but that was still a few years away. Here, Rocks Valentine is just a caricature, shining his ring on his tie and generally looking like a guy with a chip on his shoulder.

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*. Whoa! Check out the size of the “special blend” of whiskey that Dr. Clitterhouse gives Rocks. Is that a triple? A quadruple?
*. The basic conceit is interesting — upper-crust doctor slumming it with gangsters in order to study them but himself becoming mentally and morally compromised as a result. As Richard Jewell remarks on the DVD commentary, it’s an inversion of the story of A Slight Case of Murder: instead of a gangster trying to reform his ways and enter high society, we have a stalwart of high society who descends to becoming a gangster.
*. But how do you play it? As social commentary? Comedy? Right from the time of its release reviewers didn’t know how to classify it. It resisted labels and pigeonholes, and usually that’s a good thing. Usually. But not here.
*. Why? I think mainly because it’s not funny. Of course comedy dates, and there are lots of movies from this period that must have been hilarious at the time but don’t crack a smile today. But there’s nothing remotely funny about any of this. I only thought there were a couple of scenes that were trying to be funny (and failing).
*. The result is awkwardness. We don’t know how we’re supposed to view Dr. Clitterhouse: as a naive intellectual or homicidal monomaniac. We don’t know how we’re to take the question of insanity: seriously or as a source of humour. We don’t know how to view the abridged relationship between Dr. Clitterhouse and Jo: is it impossible or just frustrated by circumstance?
*. So it’s an oddity, a weird movie that is remarkable for having been made rather than anything else. In terms of tone it’s a total mess. The leads would re-assemble for Key Largo.

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A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

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*. Comedy doesn’t age well, but I don’t think that’s the real problem with this one. The timing just seems off throughout. And I’m not sure the material was that good to begin with.
*. It’s billed as a gangster comedy, but what it plays like is a bedroom farce without the sex. We have all those doors opening and closing and different people coming out of them upstairs, just narrowly missing each other most of the time, or spying on what’s going on.

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*. Also part of the farce set-up is the social satire. The Marcos are nouveau riche, a family of proto-Sopranos or Prohibition-era Beverly Hillbillies. This is a comic stand-by, and it works well enough here contrasting high and low, criminal and legit.
*. I especially like all the cues were given for how full Marco is of himself as the Big Man. Note how often he refers to himself in the third person, and how both the outer and the inner door of his office are branded with “Mr. Marko” in brass letters.
*. I know it’s unfair to appeal to probability in a piece of fluff like this, but how likely would it be that Marko, who admittedly doesn’t drink beer, to literally have no idea what his beer tastes like, even after four years of running a legit brewery?
*. Yes, that’s the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, playing the orphanage director Mrs. Cagle. You can’t mistake that nose anywhere.

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*. Edward G. Robinson’s star was fading, but he genuinely looks like he’s having fun here with the part of Remy Marco, sending up a part that he had defined earlier in the decade, starting with Little Caesar.
*. A one point Nora tells Remy that Mary has a fiancé, but later in the movie she apparently tells him for the first time about the engagement and he is surprised. A continuity error? I don’t usually care about flagging those, but this one stood out. Especially in a film based on a play, which I would have thought had a tighter script. But there’s also a flub (harder to notice) with the names of the people who receive the various dead bodies.

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*. The gang members in their different get-ups (chef, chauffeur, butler) look like the Three Stooges. I think there’s some kind of comic principle at work there, like the one that puts together odd couples (fat guy with thin guy, white guy with black guy). You get a group of three together and they have to be mixed nuts.

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*. I’ve seen Willard Parker’s height listed as 6’5″. Robert Sklar on the commentary says 6’4″, but also notes how he looks like he’s 7′ in relation to most of the other actors. I mean, yes, Robinson was very short (perhaps 5’4″), but Parker towers over everyone.
*. The man who topples from the roof at the end is clearly a dummy, and does a perfect landing straight on his head. Nevertheless, we’re told he was only injured. I think that kind of fall would have killed him, or at least turned him into a quadriplegic.
*. The main point of interest I find in the film is its casual attitude toward death. The dead bodies go from being a classless inconvenience, to being made into a joke (treated as gag props), to becoming “merchandise.” And then there is the telephone serenade to the dying man, which is also set up as a joke. I know we’re in the world of farce here, but this strikes me as surprisingly irreverent for the 1930s.

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