Category Archives: 1940s

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

*. James M. Cain went to Hollywood in 1931 to work for Paramount and spent the next 17 years working there, moving among all the major studios. All that he would have to show for those efforts, however, were screenwriting credits for Stand Up and Fight (1939) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944). Not much to brag about, but it was also during this time that he wrote a string of bestselling novels, beginning with The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934.
*. Postman, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity would all go on to be made into hit movies. So why did Cain have so little success actually writing for the screen? I don’t know. Perhaps he was just too rough around the edges. While the 1946 film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice has the same basic story, it feels very different than it does on the page.
*. Some of the legal machinations are left out (making Cora’s getting off a little too easy), the cat lady has disappeared (though one scene with lions had apparently been filmed), and, of course, the corrupt seediness of the novel is downplayed. The racial angle is dropped, so Nick Papadakis is no longer a Greek but a gently befuddled Brit by the name of Nick Smith (a wildly miscast Cecil Kellaway who, as Manny Farber put it, “makes an auntie out of the hash-house owner”). Cora, gleaming in white ensembles and with platinum bobs, can no longer be mistaken for a “Mex.”
*. Farber was particularly harsh on this tidying up. “The story calls for particularly feverish, dissatisfied people living in an environment that might well drive them to adultery and murder. Garfield, Turner and Kellaway, instead, looks as fresh, upper-class and frozen as tulips, wear Saks Fifth Avenue clothes or better — and lots of them: the hobo, for instance, comes off the highway in a sharp, two-toned affair. The lunch stand is large, too sumptuous for highway hamburgers, and has the dummy look of studio houses. The country around it is dappled with dew. The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables . . . ”
*. A lot of this is just what happened to any novel made into a Hollywood movie at the time. But while it may not be kitchen sink realism it does at least show us a kitchen sink. If you wanted something more along these lines you’d have to wait for the postman to ring again in 1981.
*. Cora also doesn’t beg Frank to “Bite me!” and “Rip me!” (meaning rip her clothes off), and is given stronger motivation for wanting to get rid of her husband. She’s an ambitious woman, and Nick is not only much older, he wants to sell the diner and retire to his childhood home so that Cora can be a nurse to his paralyzed (“half-dead” in her words) sister. Bad enough, but there’s even worse. His childhood home isn’t in sunny southern California but — oh dear God no! — Canada! That sinks it. She’s going to have to kill the old bastard.
*. But the movie didn’t have to be explicit because it had something the novel could never hope to evoke in language. It had Lana Turner.

*. “No actress,” in David Thomson’s summary judgment, and if you watch her high-school emoting in the scene where the hospital calls and tells her that Nick is going to live I think that’s a fair call. But as Thomson goes on to say, she “had the unanimated, sluggish carnality of a thick broad on the make.” Which is Cora Smith, so it’s no surprise Cain thought she was perfect in the role. If your hormones don’t start to pump as soon as the camera pans up her legs then something is wrong with your pump. This is sexuality incarnate, cheap and lush. It doesn’t matter if she’s ironing or doing dishes or just stirring something on the stove, she’s a domestic Venus you want to fuck. There is no point using more delicate language. Bite her, rip her, fuck her. She’s not a subtle presence.
*. Take that sultry presence away and is this a great movie? I’d call it no better or worse than an average noir. The direction by the unheralded Tay Garnett is professional. Nothing about the production, from the design to the editing and photography, stands out. John Garfield does look the part of the drifter loser, but somehow never has much of a spark with Turner (apparently Turner was disappointed they hadn’t been able to find someone who was at least attractive, though there are also reports that they had something going on behind the scenes). Hume Cronyn is the only other standout in the cast, and there’s a scene where he’s laying down the rules to Cora where you wonder how much fun it would have been to have the two of them getting friskier. One can only fantasize.
*. The script neuters Cain pretty completely, even going so far as trying to explain the notoriously vague title. I did like the bit where the girl Frank picks up in the parking lot doesn’t mind getting out of her car because “It’s a hot day and that’s a leather seat. And I’ve got on a thin skirt.” In the 1940s that was considered dirty talk, and indeed it still sounds a little dirty today. To be fair, at the time this was a pretty daring picture.
*. In other words, it’s the chassis of a solid story turned into a star turn. Really Turner’s only star turn. That’s its claim to classic status, and it’s irrefutable.

Dragonwyck (1946)

*. A movie best known today for some of its credits, though these aren’t the ones it would have been identified with at the time. In 1946 this was a Gene Tierney vehicle, because Darryl Zanuck thought she was the most beautiful woman in the history of the movies. It was also an Ernest Lubitsch production (he was slated to direct before getting ill), but his name was taken (at his request) off the credits because of his creative differences with fill-in writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz, whose first film as director this was.
*. So at the time you wouldn’t have thought much of the name of Mankiewicz, or of Vincent Price (another fill-in, in his case for Gregory Peck). Price’s billing is even below that of Walter Huston’s.
*. But as Steve Haberman points out on the DVD commentary Dragonwyck is the movie that, in the rear view mirror, can be seen as launching Price’s career in a certain type of role: what Haberman calls “the prototypical Vincent Price character.”
*. What’s that? A sinister, decadent, and usually somewhat depraved aristocrat associated with various characters out of Poe (it was the Poe connection that actually allowed Price to finally understand his character here). There’s often a dead wife floating around somewhere too. Price would even joke that this was the first of his “dead wife” movies. He’d do countless more.
*. In Dragonwyck this figure is made a little more interesting because he’s crossbred with a Byronic hero manqué. The poltroon Nicholas Van Ryn is so anachronistic he’s ready to restart the American Revolution all on his own, but isn’t quite up to playing the Prince Prospero of the Catskills. It’s quite an anticlimax when Miranda (Tierney) climbs the tower to his secret chambers and finds not a Bluebeard stash of corpses but only a drugged-up derelict.
*. Though perhaps underwhelming, this is at least something a bit different. The thing is, it’s just thrown into the mix with a whole bunch of other stuff that doesn’t stick together. As Lucy Chase Williams puts it, Dragonwyck showcases “all the tried-and-true elements” of the gothic romance genre, but they’d don’t cohere.
*. To take the most obvious example, what is with the story of Van Ryn’s great-grandmother Azilde, her portrait, and the haunted harpsichord? What does any of that have to do with the rest of what’s going on? Whenever it gets reintroduced it seems shoehorned, not to mention baffling. And why did Van Ryn have to bring that oleander from Rappacini’s garden into his wife’s bedroom to poison her? Wasn’t that a bit suspicious?
*. Even the romance angle is both weird and disappointing. Why does Miranda marry Van Ryn? She doesn’t seem in love with him so is she just a gold-digger? That’s not very sympathetic. Nor is there much chemistry between her and Dr. Jeff (Glenn Langan), who represents the new aristocracy. He’s just another one of those tried-and-true elements that go into the romance formula. He’s young, good-looking, a doctor. Of course they’ll get together after a suitable period of mourning for ol’ what’s-his-name.
*. This is a movie that makes you think of lots of other novel-movies — from Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Uninvited, down to all the later Poe/Price entries — only it’s not as good or quite as much fun. As a foreshadowing of that later development Dragonwyck is noteworthy, but despite its top-drawer talent (Mankiewicz, Alfred Newman’s music, Arthur Miller’s photography) and prestige-picture budget (nearly $2 million), it’s not much of a movie. Still worth seeing for all of the reasons mentioned, but unlikely to be a favourite.

This Gun for Hire (1942)

*. Surely most actors know that bad guys are the best parts. I can’t see why anyone would have thought that the romantic leading man Michael Crane was going to be the star of this piece. Not only is the character of the hit-man Raven more interesting, it’s also a bigger part. And so Alan Ladd would be launched on his way to a kind of stardom here, while Robert Preston . . . not so much. It’s just like no one can forget Richard Widmark, or remember Victor Mature, in Kiss of Death.
*. I was surprised to see Graham Greene’s name in the credits. It’s based on a novel of his called A Gun for Sale (1936) that I don’t believe is even in print anymore. I haven’t read it. That should have been another tip-off to anyone that playing the bad guy was going to be the juicier role.
*. An aside: Greene’s story would be filmed again in as Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only film directed by James Cagney.
*. Casting the baby-faced Ladd as Raven here was a bit of a leap. He reminded me of the equally pretty Alain Delon in Le Samouraï. At 5’6″ he wasn’t a looming physical presence either, but playing against the 5’2″ Veronica Lake probably helped (they’d work together three more times, with The Glass Key being the next up). Meanwhile, do we ever see him in the frame together with Preston?
*. The casting also makes Ellen’s falling for Raven even more problematic. Isn’t it kind of obvious that she feels a lot more for him than she does for her husband-to-be Mike? Even after Raven tries to kill her, and has gone back on his word to not use his gun and shot a police officer, she still won’t give him up. That’s just weird.
*. The supporting cast is great. I like seeing Laird Cregar in anything, and Tully Marshall dipping his biscuits in milk is wonderful. Some of the minor characters are fun too. I really like the nurse at the end getting his licks in at Brewster.
*. Having built him up, the character of Raven is actually less interesting the more time you spend with him. Apparently all he needed was some psychotherapy to deal with a childhood trauma. And the thing for cats is too pat. I liked him better the way he’s first introduced, being almost needlessly cruel. Though not quite the sadistic psycho Widmark would play a few years later. That really was a jolt.
*. I’m always surprised at the economy of the noirs of this period. There’s a lot of plot to get through here, and they do it in 81 minutes, with two music/magic show numbers thrown in for good measure. The action moves at a good pace and transitions well through Raven’s various near escapes. It’s not quite one of the greats, but solid from the beginning almost to the end. That tacky coda is just a bit too much.

Notorious (1946)

*. A lot of people tout Notorious as their favourite Hitchcock film. Drew Casper, for example, at the end of his DVD commentary. But I don’t think as many people would call it his best.
*. What I think people like about it is that it’s a complex but passionate love story with two stars (Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant) at their peak of loveability. I like that part of it too, though I have some problems with the rest of it. Minor problems, because I do think it’s a great movie, but problems nonetheless.
*. In the first place there are its signature Hithcockian flourishes. I say flourishes because, despite Hitch’s insistence about how “technique that draws attention to itself is poor technique,” they’re hard not to notice. Indeed, I think our attention is drawn to them.
*. Chief among these is the dramatic descending crane shot to the key in Alicia’s hands. It’s justly celebrated and well conceived, but the technology really wasn’t developed enough to do it properly. If you watch John Bailey’s scene analysis done for Criterion he talks about how Bergman gets pushed to the side of the frame and how the focus is lost right at the end. Similarly, the scene at the racetrack with the process shot of the horses reflected in Alicia’s binoculars is a flashy idea, but it doesn’t work because both images end up being blurred.
*. Instead of shots like these, or all the close-ups of keys or tea cups, which I find a bit too obvious, what I really like are little things like the play of Alex Sebastian’s shadow on the door to his bedroom, where he’s getting dressed, while Alicia sneaks up to steal the key. It’s a lively shadow, and it’s impossible to judge from it where Alex is in the next room. He’s there, if only in shadow form, but he’s not. And is he about to appear in physical form? How far away from the door is he? There’s no way of knowing, which makes it all the more dangerous.

*. The other aspect of Notorious that I find exasperatingly Hitchcockian has to do with Ben Hecht’s script. Or really Ben Hecht’s and Hitchcock’s script, as there was a lot of collaboration. The script usually gets a lot of praise as a masterpiece, but I again draw back from the signature elements.
*. Most of all it’s the MacGuffin that disappoints me. Saying this, I assume most fans of the Master will roll their eyes. The MacGuffin isn’t supposed to be anything, and Hitchcock derided people who expected plausibility from his scenarios. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of guy I am. So why this gang would be storing pitchblende in wine bottles made no sense to me. Except that it introduces the ridiculous business about the party running out of booze, which drives the suspense. Similarly, what did poor Emil do that was so bad it required his elimination? Nothing much, except the plot demanded he be eliminated to show just how ruthless the Nazis were. I think that’s weak screenwriting.
*. Again it’s the subtleties and the little things in the script I enjoy the most. Like the line “A picnic? Outside?” And the whole understated reworking of the Bluebeard motif, with the new bride allowed the run of the house but for the one room she’s forbidden access to. But there’s also the complexity of the romance I mentioned earlier. That’s a function of the script too and it deserves praise.

*. The biggest curveball with the script is the character of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Don’t we feel a little sorry for him? Roger Ebert: “By the time all of the pieces are in place, we actually feel more sympathy for Sebastian than for Devlin. He may be a spy but he loves Alicia sincerely, while Devlin may be an American agent but has used Alicia’s love to force her into the arms of another man.”
*. When you think of it, Alex really sticks his neck out for Alicia, even putting his life on the line and crossing his formidable mother (Hitchcock and his mothers!) to marry her. And how does she treat him? Getting squired away by Cary Grant at the end? She’s still Sebastian’s wife, damn it! Sure he’d been trying to kill her in a particularly insidious sort of way, but that’s only after he finds out she’d turned on him first. One gets a tingle of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo here, waking up to the fact that he’s been played for a sucker.
*. And there’s the matter of casting. Even when playing a villain (the Invisible Man, Hal the computer) Rains has lots of charm. Unlike Clifton Webb, who Hitch had initially suggested for the part. I wonder if at this point Webb was tired of that role. He’d just been Lydecker in Laura and Cathcart in The Dark Corner.
*. But then you have to look at it from another angle. Ben Hecht was certainly not someone inclined to go easy on Nazis and in his drawing of Alexander I think he’s actually doing something even more acidic than just the usual villainous Nazi. Alex isn’t an Aryan superman. Claude Rains was even three inches shorter than Bergman, which could have been concealed but isn’t (though Rains did wear elevated shoes, and walked on a ramp in some shots, the height differential if often quite noticeable). He’s also a wimp, a momma’s boy, and a cuckold. A different kind of villain then.

*. Just as Alicia is a different kind of heroine. This was Bergman’s second turn in a row as a very unconventional female romantic lead: the professional woman in Spellbound and the self-destructive fallen woman here. In his DVD commentary Richard Jewell points out Bergman’s desire to be cast against type, as for example in her swapping roles with Lana Turner in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). Plus there was the way Hitchcock liked to subvert a star’s persona (as per Drew Casper in his commentary).
*. Alicia is certainly a bit of rough. She’s not just an alcoholic but one who drinks and drives (which was a crime, even in the 1940s). She’s also a loose woman (in earlier drafts of the script a prostitute), which frankly makes Sebastian’s marrying her even more of a romantic gesture. Surely he had better, and safer, options.
*. You can, and many have, analyse every frame of such a carefully contrived film. I keep wondering about Alicia’s double-whorl ‘do at the party. Are they horns? Eyes? It seems they’re a deliberate statement of something, being so over-the-top. Not that Bergman can’t pull such a look off.
*. The ending is another point that makes one wonder at how Alex is portrayed, and his role in the film more generally. Why end with him? Is it that Devlin, for all his rakish charm just isn’t that interesting? Perhaps, and again there’s a feeling that Sebastian’s is the tragedy here. Love saves some and destroys others.

Phantom Lady (1944)

*. I think we’re all familiar with the femme fatale in film noir. Less celebrated, because far less common, is her opposite. I don’t know if this character has a name, but she is a dominant force for good who doesn’t aim at the destruction of the sappy male lead but rather works to effect his salvation.
*. Lucille Ball’s character in The Dark Corner is one such figure, and in this movie “Kansas” Richman, played by Ella Raines, is an even stronger example of the type. When her boss, a man she has long carried a torch for, is sent to death row for the murder of his wife she has to prove his innocence by locating a “phantom lady” who can provide him with an alibi.

*. In his essay on Phantom Lady Alastair Phillips begins by noting how the novel the film was based on was by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym William Irish), who had also written the short story that inspired Rear Window, and that it had been produced by Hitchcock’s former secretary Joan Harrison. This leads to the following observation: “both films have similarly passive male leads and active female protagonists called upon to take a determining performative role in order to resolve the central narrative enigma.”
*. I think we can state what’s going on here in even stronger terms. Jeff is somewhat passive in Rear Window (he does what he can, given the condition he’s in), but Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is totally absent throughout most of Phantom Lady, being in jail awaiting execution. A couple of years later, in Black Angel (which basically has the same story, also by Cornell Woolrich), the female lead would at least have the assistance of a male partner. But here the police detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) is no help to Kansas at all in her investigations. Kansas is a one-woman show, making the corny ending with her glowing over Scott’s proposal literally being dictated to her by way of Dictaphone, even more ridiculous than it is conventional.

*. The rest of the movie is very uneven, though Robert Siodmak’s very capable direction gives a touch of style and coherence. The main problems have to do with the plot, which sort of wanders in and out of focus. Scott is convicted on what seems to be some pretty flimsy evidence. In fact, I’m not sure what evidence there was, aside from his being married to the murdered woman. The cops who show up at his apartment, however, are so sleazy that I wouldn’t put it past them to have planted something.
*. The crazed killer, imaginatively rendered by a game Franchot Tone, has no real motivation, aside from being a psycho artist. Best not to trust those types. Indeed, the movie has a pretty casual attitude toward psychology, from the detective’s theorizing over paranoiacs to the depressed, or just excessively grieving, Miss Terry (that is: “mystery”).
*. But there are highlights as well. Elisha Cook, Jr. steals every scene he’s in, as per usual. Here he’s a skirt-chasing drummer who memorably beats himself off at a night club when the leggy Kansas goes into vamp mode. Apparently there is some argument over whether Dave Coleman or Buddy Rich were playing the drums on the soundtrack. That people puzzle over this is natural if you watch Cook, because he obviously isn’t playing the drums.

*. I’m not much of a car guy, but my eyes did widen a bit at Franchot Tone’s ride. Trivia tells me it’s a 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible De Luxe Coupe. Wow.
*. Presenting the trial as a series of reaction shots was kind of neat. What really impressed me though was the clerk taking shorthand. How many people even know shorthand today? I have to think that’s a vanishing skill, if not effectively extinct.
*. Above average noir, with enough original elements (even if they are kind of silly) to be entertaining. Raines is good in the lead. There are some effective sequences, including one really good pursuit that winds up on an elevated train platform. The story doesn’t hold together at all, but it’s a quick bit of fun.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

*. Ride the Pink Horse is often described as an oddity, so let’s talk about some of what’s odd about it.
*. The title screen is odd. “Universal International Presents Robert Montgomery” fills one screen, followed in the next by “as Lucky Gagin in Ride the Pink Horse.” The title shares the screen with the main character’s name, and in fact the character’s name is in print twice as large as that of the title. This is odd because (1) we never hear Montgomery’s character referred to as “Lucky” in the film, and (2) the name “Lucky Gagin” could hardly have been a selling point since it was just something they made up. In the novel by Dorothy Hughes he’s called Sailor.
*. Lucky Gagin’s romantic interest is a girl played by 18-year-old Wanda Hendrix. In the book the character, Pila, was 14. But is it a romantic interest? On the DVD commentary noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini describe their relationship as “borderline taboo.” In the film the character of Pancho dismisses Pila as being “too skinny” for Gagin on a couple of occasions, without making any reference to her age. This is a girl who still likes to ride carousels! Such talk between men in their forties struck me as a little uncomfortable, especially given the fact that Gagin is the rich American come to throw money around Pila’s dusty hometown. Odd doesn’t quite cover this. Or the way she’s cast as a maternal figure, nursing Gagin with a bottle after he’s wounded. That’s some weird iconography.
*. Another oddity: guns are brandished but I don’t believe we ever see (or hear) one being fired. This despite the fact that in the novel the bad guy (an American senator named Douglass, who is a nastier piece of work than he is here, having arranged his wife’s murder) is shot by Sailor at the end. Could anything be more anti-climactic than the way Retz arrives at the last minute to save Gagin and Pila, and then just gets the all-important cheque from Gagin?
*. But the ending is even stranger than this. For one thing, it’s upbeat, to the point where Imogen Sara Smith (interviewed on the Criterion DVD) is led to consider the movie a sort of anti-noir. On the commentary track Silver says how it’s “very atypical of how one expects any film noir to resolve itself.” Then add the fact that the final dialogue is all in Spanish. Throughout the movie Spanish dialogue gets used, without subtitles or translations, quite a bit. But to wrap things up with Pila telling the story of her adventures to her friends in Spanish as Retz and Gagin walk away is weird.
*. Pauline Kael found the title “inappropriate.” That’s one way of putting it. Read literally, it only refers to a rather insignificant part in the movie. But it also has a more suggestive connotation that I don’t know if they were aware of.
*. Sticking with Kael, here is her take: “One of a kind; no one in his right mind would imitate it.” In particular, Kael called out its broken English, and not just that coming from the actors playing Mexicans. “Robert Montgomery . . . speaks in a tough-guy lingo that isn’t just broken — it’s smashed.” And this leads me to what I think may be the oddest thing about Ride the Pink Horse.
*. If you looked at the talent involved I think you would be pretty sure of one thing going in, that the script would be a gem. As noted, it’s based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes, a more than capable author of tales like this (she’s probably best known for In a Lonely Place). Producer Joan Harrison I believe wrote a draft of a screenplay, and she had a solid track record as a screenwriter too, having worked on a number of Hitchcock’s films (including Rebecca). The screenplay itself though was credited to Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who were pretty much Hollywood all-stars. What could go wrong?
*. The odd thing is, I think it’s the script that lets Ride the Pink Horse down. Montgomery’s direction is fine, and even accomplished in many ways, ably assisted by the photography of Russell Metty (who would go on to do Touch of Evil). Montgomery makes a decent noir hero, projecting both cynicism (but not too much) and vulnerability (but only in an unfair fight). The supporting cast is capable. Thomas Gomez actually got an Oscar nomination for playing Pancho, which is hard to believe given the role. Fred Clark is very good as the hard-of-hearing villain Frank Hugo, but why bother with his hearing-aid contraption? It’s never used for any kind of plot purpose, and surely something could have been made out of the fact that he’s deaf.
*. But the story itself is of little interest, and at least to my ear it doesn’t have much of the seasoning you’d expect from Lederer and Hecht in the dialogue department. In terms of its basic structure I’ve already mentioned how it just sort of peters out at the end, with the hero semi-conscious and an arrest of the villain being made as we fade to black. The character of Marjorie, who had some potential, disappears. Gagin’s plan never adds up. It struck me as kind of dopey to begin with, and then as things went along I became unsure what his goal was. To get some money or to avenge Shorty? If revenge, why doesn’t he just kill Hugo? If it’s money, it’s kind of strange that he wants twice what Shorty was asking when Hugo is willing to pay him ten times as much.
*. To be honest, I don’t get the love for this one. It got a Criterion release, leading to it being discussed as some kind of lost treasure or at least underappreciated. Call it the Criterion effect. Despite its many quirks, however, it’s a pretty tame noir with a pagan-Catholic Mexican flavour (accompanied by a lot of unquestioned, casual racism on the part of our hero Gagin), some nice long takes, and not much else to set it apart from a mass of similar films. Not a bad film but not a must-see except for genre fans.

The Dark Corner (1946)

*. I’ll lead off with some thoughts on the cast.
*. Lucille Ball receives top billing. Before she was “Lucy,” after which audiences wouldn’t be able to imagine her in a role like this. According to the DVD commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini she “hated the movie and hated being in it.” She was a professional though and I don’t get any sense of that distaste on screen.
*. Clifton Webb just a couple of years after Laura, and playing the exact same role of Waldo Lydecker. Except here he goes by the name of Hardy Cathcart. Another snobbish and jealous connoisseur with a penchant for collecting beautiful young women, but without as many good lines (the only memorable one here being “How I detest the dawn. The grass always looks like it’s been left out all night.”). And Hitchcock had wanted him to play another similar part, Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (also 1946). The typecast was in.
*. Mark Stevens. My initial notes just say “lightweight.” According to Silver and Ursini he was trying to ditch his pretty-boy reputation and change his image into that of a tough guy. It doesn’t work, but to be fair it’s not all his fault. Bradford Galt isn’t a tough guy. Or, as the commentators put it, “the toughness is very thin in this character, very thin.” Despite being a private dick with a criminal record and a bottle of booze in the top drawer of his desk he doesn’t scare anyone. Even William Bendix (an actor at this time probably best known for comedy radio work), playing a professional heavy, has to pretend to be soft with him. But when Galt smears him with ink it seems less tough than bitchy.

*. What mainly undercuts Galt’s toughness is the way he falls apart, so that his secretary (Ball) has to carry him over the finish line. He is totally dominated by a woman who embodies the new independence of the postwar American female. She is the one who plays baseball at the fair while he watches. She also watches girly shows with him at the peep-show machines. And at the end she proposes to him, while allowing him to save a bit of face.
*. This is not entirely new. The sad sack loser is as much a traditional noir hero as the hard-bitten tough guy. In fact most noir heroes are weak in some important way. But here it reflects a broader failing of American masculinity. Isn’t Cathcart a wimp, hiring out the dirty work: first using Galt to get rid of Jardine and then Stauffer to get rid of Galt, before finally dispatching Stauffer in a sneaky way. And doesn’t Mari handle Cathcart in the end? It’s the women who get things done.
*. It’s a smart movie, full of artfully-arranged mirrors and shadows, and clues being dropped that will be picked up later. The ink on the jacket, the key chain, the girl with the pennywhistle. And I like the way Kathleen and Brad (to get them in the right order) put things together at the end. It’s far-fetched, but not outside the realm of all possibility.
*. That said, I also find it a bit dull. I don’t think many people rank this among their favourite noirs. Almost everything in it feels second-rate. But that’s still pretty good, and not even much of a criticism for an avowedly B genre.

Spellbound (1945)

*. I think Spellbound disappoints most people. It certainly disappointed me the first time I saw it. The reason is simple: it’s best known for featuring dream sequences “based on designs by Salvador Dali,” but these amount to only a couple of minutes of screen time and they don’t give us anything but recycled imagery from the surrealist canon. Indeed, there’s even an in-joke with a man cutting a tapestry painted with an eyeball in homage (or mockery) of Un Chien Andalou. Which had, after all, been nearly twenty years earlier.
*. Aside from the dreams I think the only other thing people know about Spellbound is that it makes a total hash of psychoanalysis. Which is something Hithcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht were both well aware of (Hitch called it “pseudo-psychoanalysis”), despite the movie getting a sort of seal of approval from David O. Selznick’s therapist.
*. Some of what was shot for the dream sequences ended up being cut but it seems like not much was lost. Bergman’s claim of twenty minutes was almost certainly a big exaggeration, though it’s a number that I find still being tossed around in the literature. According to James Bigwood, referenced in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness in Light, it “might have been forty or fifty seconds longer than it finally wound up.” This makes sense. Dreams speak in a kind of super-condensed shorthand, especially in Freud’s theory of dreams, so it would be crazy to drag one out for twenty minutes. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any movie dream sequences that go on nearly that long. Mia Farrow’s inception-night dream in Rosemary’s Baby, for example, or William Hurt’s peyote spirit walk in Altered States only last for about as long as the dreams do here.
*. It’s long been a bit of movie mythology that Saul Bass actually directed the shower scene in Psycho. He didn’t, but it does seem as though William Cameron Menzies designed and directed the dream sequences in this movie. There’s probably some truth to the tales of how Hithcock planned everything out in advance, either through storyboards or in playacting scenes (which he apparently did a lot of with Ben Hecht while working on the script for this movie). On set, his direction was often reported to be automatic. Peck even mentioned thinking he was asleep.

*. So I’m not upset about the lost dream sequences. What’s more disappointing is that a love triangle involving Murchison (Leo Carroll) lusting after Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), which Selznick was really pushing, was dismissed by Hitchcock. I can’t figure out why. Watching Spellbound today it’s the sexuality of Petersen that is the most interesting part. She’s another of Hitchcock’s ice queens (or “human glaciers”), only this time she melts. Which is to say she takes her glasses off and lets her hair down and falls in love. She also mentions wearing more “feminine clothes,” though I think she’s well turned out right from the start.
*. Wouldn’t it have made more sense then to play up the angle of her being the unattainable prize driving the killer mad? As is pointed out on the DVD commentary by Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg, all the doctors at Green Manors are “clearly infatuated with her.” She’s a woman in a man’s world, and not just any woman but Ingrid Bergman. Who could turn into Rhonda Fleming, Dr. Petersen’s unleashed id, if the right guy came along.
*. We can laugh at the love-at-first-sight business, but let’s face it, if two people as beautiful as Bergman and Gregory Peck were to meet up in such an environment it wouldn’t take long for them to pair off. It’s natural selection. Leo Carroll couldn’t be seen as any kind of competition, though that might have given him some extra motivation.

*. Almost everyone refers to this movie as being the first to deal with psychotherapy (Hitchcock himself called it “the first attempt at psychiatry in film, don’t you know”). This may be technically correct on some level, but it made me think of Cat People (1942), which also has a therapist looking to treat a character’s anxieties by way of a kind of dream analysis. Either way, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy was a hot topic, meaning it was commercial.
*. Miklós Rózsa did the score and it won an Oscar. Neither Selznick nor Hitchcock thought much of it. The theremin (the use of which Rózsa pioneered) strikes an appropriately odd note, but I think the love theme is too conventionally romantic most of the time, and this is hardly a conventional romance.
*. There are the usual Hitchcock preoccupations. The backbone of the story is a manhunt, with an innocent man, girl in tow, on the run from the authorities. Improbabilities in the plot more gigantic than usual, and perhaps more gigantic than in any other movie he made, are only waved at. Unfortunately there are few signature suspense scenes to liven things up, and we rarely feel any sense of threat. Pauline Kael dismissed it as “a disaster” and “a confection whipped up by jaded chefs.” I feel where this is coming from.
*. The twist, and it is quite a significant twist, is that the hero is Bergman’s Dr. Petersen. She is strong, resourceful, intelligent, brave, and very cool under pressure. For all his rugged good looks, Peck is just luggage, and given to fainting spells. Which makes it all the more disappointing that at the end it looks like she’s going to become Mrs. John Ballantyne. Or will she? I mean, it looks like she’s going to be the breadwinner so maybe she can just keep Peck as a toy boy. That seems most appropriate.

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

*. I know I’m in for a good time when I see Technicolor announced. I love these early Technicolor movies, and in fact Dr. Cyclops was the first American horror film made in three-strip Technicolor. Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum had been made using the two-strip process.
*. I hope you enjoy, with me, that glowing green lab, looking like something Mario Bava was making notes on for future use. What with the weird spangle of lights we might as well be in an aquarium — a feeling that’s only deepened when Dr. Thorkel puts on his radium suit, which looks like some kind of Victorian diving apparatus.
*. Alas, despite this promising opening, which includes the usual warning directed to Thorkel about how “You are tampering with powers reserved to God!”, I have to rate Dr. Cyclops a disappointment.
*. The one part of the movie that gets a lot of praise is the performance of Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel. He’s certainly weird, but I’m not sure it’s a great performance. It’s more a case of a strange character with a striking appearance (a large man with a shaved head and small, thick-lensed glasses that make him look like a demented jeweler).
*. Thorkel is a mad scientist, sure. And, like all mad scientists, when people call him mad it only makes him angry. But is he a sadist? There I’m not so sure. His cruelty is inextricably bound up with his curiosity in the outcome of his experiment. This makes his cheery demeanour all the more disturbing.
*. However you want to read him, Dekker is the only member of the cast who holds our attention. The rest of the film is just waiting to see what sort of visual trickery they’re going to come up with next. Dr. Thorkel, you see, has discovered a way to (temporarily) shrink other living creatures, making this yet another movie about tiny people wandering through giant sets. Not that far removed from the explorers of Skull Island in King Kong, which is no surprise given that Ernest B. Schoedsack had a hand in both films.

*. Unfortunately, there’s a strange energy deficiency noticeable in the proceedings. When we first meet the character Stockton he’s reclining in a chair with flies crawling over him. His indolence strikes what will be a recurring note. Dr. Thorkel later proves to be a real sleepyhead. Upon discovering that he can now control life absolutely he immediately nods off. The later plan to kill him will involve rigging his shotgun to shoot him while he sleeps.
*. I think there might also be something related to this in the lack of urgency shown by the little people when they first escape. What do they do when they get out of Thorkel’s clutches? Remarkably they’re discovered in the next room, setting up a commune. Eating. Reading. Sewing new clothes. Apparently getting away was not a high priority.
*. Why do people keep cats? Every time we have one of these movies about people being shrunk the cats show their true stripes and try to kill their now tiny owners. That’s what your cat would do to you too, if they had the chance! They’d eat you! Dogs meanwhile, can be counted on to show a certain residual loyalty.
*. Sticking with the cat, could they not have found something in the sound library that sounded more like a cat? Even before the group shrinks its growls sound like a guy doing a very bad imitation of a cat. Which doesn’t sound like a cat at all.
*. So I like the Technicolor. Even more than the effects, which I don’t think are all that good. And Dekker’s Dr. Thorkel is a uniquely creepy mad scientist. The story here though is a waste of time, and something about it feels off in an uncomfortable way. It’s not just the air of laziness, but things like the casual way Dr. Bullfinch is disposed of. I usually give credit to a movie that gets under my skin, but in this case it’s a feeling I didn’t appreciate.

The Big Clock (1948)

*. Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock is a suspense classic, not because it’s particulary well written (it isn’t), but because of its brilliant central concept: a man caught investigating himself, as part of a plot to frame him for murder.
*. Such a great idea was a lock to be made into a movie, and the film rights were actually sold before publication (based on the success of Fearing’s previous novel). But the movie very freely adapts the book in ways that are both obvious and instructive. In fact, I find this to be one of the most interesting page-to-screen transformations in Hollywood history.
*. In the first place, film being a less cerebral and more visual medium, the title of the novel, which is only a metaphor for fate, is made literal with the presence of a giant clock device in the Janoth building, not to mention countless references to clocks and the passing of time. References that I think should have been left out. Fearing’s metaphor was strained enough, but the amount of shoehorning that has to be done to introduce it here is so obvious and awkward that it gets to seem ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that there’s no payoff. Clocks have no real function in the plot. I was even unsure what the point was in the resetting of the smashed clock in Pauline’s apartment. It’s worth pointing out that on its first publication the title of the story was The Judas Picture. But The Big Clock just sounded better.
*. Another point common to most book-to-film adaptations of this period is the censoring of the source. In the novel George Stroud is clearly having an affair with Pauline Delos (the name of the Pauline York character in the movie, played by Rita Johnson). Even more shocking, Janoth kills Pauline when she accuses him, with some justification, not of having a series of affairs with his secretaries but of being his associate Hagen’s homosexual lover. Pauline, in turn, is described as bisexual. We’re less judgmental about these things in the twenty-first century, but in the 1940s this would have been a sort of behaviour too degenerate even for a heavy in a mainstream Hollywood picture. As it is, George Macready gives Hagen a slight lisp, which was probably code enough.
*. Another example of the same cleaning up is that the painter Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester) has a brood of children by a series of former husbands. In the book, when she is asked about the father(s) of her children and her own marital status she loudly responds that they are all love children and that she has never been married. A little too much even for a comic character in a movie.
*. The sexual politics exercised Molly Haskell, who took The Big Clock as representative in its portrayal of women in the movies of the time. They are there for “distracting not only the hero but the audience from the fun and danger.” George’s wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) is a drag and a nag, even though the film was directed by her husband John Farrow (Mia would be one of their seven kids). “Indeed,” Haskell goes so far as to say, “the murderer (Charles Laughton) is by far a more sympathetic character than the wife.” This says something about screen vs. page values as well, as Georgette is actually a far more sympathetic character in the novel.

*. The final element in the page-to-screen transformation has to do with the ending. Fearing’s novel ends on a comically abrupt note. A hostile corporate takeover puts an end to the investigation like a deus ex machina, and a coda tells us that Janoth has committed suicide. This is hardly justice, not to mention rather dull. So here we get some gun play and a rather silly use of an elevator shaft, with some comic business involving Lanchester and one of her long-lost husbands. I don’t care much for the ending of the film, but I acknowledge something had to be done to fix what Fearing had come up with.
*. The Big Clock is not a movie that gets a lot of attention these days. Charles Laughton’s Janoth is the best thing in it, though Charles Laughton is usually the best thing in any movie he appears in. Unfortunately he’s stuck playing behind a ridiculous moustache here. Farrow fails to exploit the excellent premise for all the tension and suspense it is so rich in. Perhaps recognizing the unfulfilled potential, later remakes of the same concept — most notably Police Python 357 (1976) and No Way Out (1987) — would try to do better.
*. My response to this movie is mixed. Judged on its own it’s a solid little thriller, but given the strength of the material and the cast assembled I’m disappointed it didn’t turn out better. I don’t think the problem lies with the way Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay adapts the novel. I think it really needed a Hitchcock at the helm to milk more out of the numerous tension-filled traps in the plot. The camera work here is pedestrian, preferring to follow scenes through single long takes without focusing on the various key items that should be obsessive points of interest. This same lack of tension also led me to think Ray Milland was miscast as George. Wouldn’t he have been better as Janoth? I’m sure Laughton could have done a great turn as George if the roles were flipped. That might have been something odd and wonderful.