Category Archives: 1940s

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)

*. I mentioned in earlier notes how Claude Rains and Vincent Price were both one-and-done in their roles as the Invisible Man in The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns respectively. Virginia Bruce was good in The Invisible Woman, but Universal only saw the distaff version as a novelty act. Which means that Jon Hall, who played the title role in Invisible Agent, is the first actor to return to the part.
*. But not, curiously enough, the same part. Hall is playing a different character here, though just to confuse things even more he has the same surname (Griffin) as the three previous Invisible Men. Actually, there is no plot continuity whatsoever between this movie and any of the previous films. The formula for invisibility has been independently discovered by John Carradine, whose doorstep Griffin just happens to find himself on one night.
*. I guess Jon Hall was a property Universal was trying to build up at the time. He gets his name in a big splash — “Universal Presents JON HALL in” — before the title screen. Vincent Price didn’t even get top billing in his movie.
*. H. G. Wells is also mentioned in the credits, as this story was apparently “suggested by” his novel. I doubt even that much was true.
*. Hall isn’t bad, but he has the blandness of the typical leading men of the time. He’s hard to distinguish from co-star Alan Curtis, with their matching moustaches, and has none of the personality of Rains or Price or even Bruce. There are less effects than before, and they’re less imaginative and ambitious. Contemporary critics complained of the lack of novelty. Note that there are two scenes where Griffin looks in a mirror while invisible (though wearing a shirt) and in both cases we don’t see his partial reflection. Given how complicated a shot this was to achieve in the first movie I’m not really surprised, but it gives you some idea of how they were scaling things back.
*. The main drawback here is the story. It’s far more complicated than it needs to be, to the point where I actually had trouble following it. Griffin has escaped from an asylum in South Africa after murdering some orderlies. He travels to England where he confronts an old friend with having left him for dead while exploring for a diamond mine. To be honest, I couldn’t figure out the levels of culpability here. Anyway, Griffin wants his share of the money from the diamond mine and when his old friend doesn’t want to pay up he gets Carradine to turn him invisible. Then he has a plan to get all the money and the friend’s daughter too.
*. I don’t see where the movie needed so much of this. Griffin’s obsession with the daughter is a particularly big stretch, as it just serves to introduce the traditional love triangle that Universal seems to have thought essential. As a result, the film only sort of wanders around for a bit before coming to an end.
*. A silly eulogy for Griffin. “He’s to be pitied, really. He probed too deeply in forbidden places. What a man earns, he gets. Nature has a strange way of paying him back in its own coin.” Maybe. But I have no sympathy for Carradine’s scientist after what he does to that magnificent Saint Bernard. He should have been left to burn.
*. This is widely, and I think correctly, viewed as the least of the original run of Invisible Man movies. Not completely without interest, but little better than the usual B-movie fare of the period, which wasn’t that good.

Invisible Agent (1942)

*. I’ve mentioned before how the figure of the Invisible Man is a blank slate that almost any type of character or genre can be written upon. That’s the case again here in the fourth instalment of the initial run of these movies. It has only a very loose connection to The Invisible Man, with the hero in this film being Griffin’s grandson, and has skipped over the plot of The Invisible Woman entirely. But then that latter movie was an outlier in a lot of ways.
*. We’ve also brought things up to date historically, so that Griffin is fighting Nazis. Everyone was fighting Nazis in 1942. Even England’s greatest detective had enlisted in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. So instead of being a villain the Invisible Man is now an action hero, parachuting into Germany to find out about German plans for a sneak attack on the U.S. Instead of the monocaine or duocaine, or whatever the secret formula for invisibility is, driving him insane, it only acts as a narcotic, causing him to fall asleep at various inopportune moments.
*. There are comic bits too, as the Nazis are not unlike the bumbling gangsters in the previous film. But there’s also a distinct strain of cruelty that’s new to the series. Griffin is threatened with having his fingers sliced off with a paper cutter. An old man has his fingers broken during an interrogation. Griffin is caught in a fishnet laced with some nasty-looking hooks. “Naturally,” a doctor says later, as he’s cutting the net from Griffin, “he’s lost a lot of blood.” “Oh, naturally,” Baron Ikito, who will go on to commit seppuku, insouciantly replies.
*. “I can’t tell you Japs apart,” our hero snarls. Not even when Ikito is being played by Peter Lorre? Did the Tojo glasses fool him? Or his proficiency with judo and karate?

*. I jest, because Lorre turning Japanese is even less convincing than Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice (where Bond was at least only supposed to be disguised as Japanese). That said, Lorre and Cedrick Hardwicke stand out here as the Japanese and German heavies respectively. A contemporary review in the Hollywood Reporter praised the film for presenting villains who were actually pretty smart, and this does add something to what is an otherwise predictable plot.
*. Ilona Massey as the love interest and Jon Hall as the invisible man (he’d be back in the next film in the series too). Effects again by John Fulton, with a few wrinkles thrown in with the usual repertoire of mysterious footprints and floating cigarettes and glasses of brandy. I liked Griffin stripping out of his clothes while in his parachute harness, and the expedient of his covering his face in cold cream was something new. But I also had to wonder why he was bothering doing that. I mean, obviously the cold cream made him easier to film so there were less of the expensive process shots to engineer, but why does Griffin want to make his face and hands visible anyway? He just puts the cream on and then falls asleep.
*. Not a bad little entry in the Universal catalogue. The ending in particular is pretty impressive, with Griffin dropping bombs on a German airfield. And yet it’s not all that memorable. After Rains and Price, Hall is a bit of a zero. As much as I like Fulton’s effects (and he was nominated for an Oscar here), there’s nothing all that special to any of them. But for fans of the films of this period I think it still rates above average.

The Invisible Woman (1940)

*. The opening pratfall, which will be far from the last, with the butler slipping and falling down the stairs, effectively sets the tone for what’s to come. This isn’t a scary or thrilling movie, or even one that wants you to invest much in its drama. It’s a romantic comedy with a lot of slapstick elements. As you might expect in a movie from a director who was one of the original Keystone Kops and starring Shemp Howard as one of a trio of bumbling gangsters.
*. Along with the change in tone comes a complete dismissal of the original plot. The story has nothing at all to do with either The Invisible Man or The Invisible Man Returns. The professor here has no connection to Griffin or his brother, and his method of turning people invisible isn’t some elixir but a combination of an injection and the usual room full of lab equipment that had become standard in such movies ever since Frankenstein.
*. An invisible woman, but is she a feminist? There is a subplot involving sisterhood among the models at the fashion house where Kitty works, and we’re on her side when she turns the table on her mean boss. It’s also neat how Kitty proves that a woman can do a man’s job (as guinea pig), and that she’s adventurous enough to be excited at the thought of turning invisible. Hell, she’s even a free drinker too. She’s also very much the driver of the action, with the professor and the playboy being a scatterbrain and a fop respectively. Even the professor’s assistant (Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West) is far more capable than the fainting butler who is always threatening to quit. In all these ways I think it can be viewed as quite progressive, even as it’s a tease.
*. It’s a slight movie, but hard not to enjoy for its quick 70 minutes. There’s a lot of nodding and winking at Kitty’s invisible state of nudity, and the framing of the shot where Dick (Dick and Kitty, groan) grabs her hand (so she says) is downright bold. But none of it is leering or lewd.
*. Virginia Bruce filling in for a reluctant Margaret Sullavan. John Barrymore, apparently in rough shape, playing a character so distracted it doesn’t matter. Effects by John Fulton that play all the same stunts, with the addition of the aforementioned risqué humour of Kitty’s stripteases down to nothing. But it’s good clean fun.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

*. The Invisible Man Returns was a bit of an exception to the original run of Universal monster features for a couple of reasons. In the first place there was a gap of seven years between the original film and this, the first sequel. Second: the star had left the building. Lugosi, Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. would come back many times to play Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. But Claude Rains was one-and-done as the Invisible Man.
*. Without Rains the studio went about looking for another unknown to take the lead. They struck gold, again, with Vincent Price (who would be one-and-done in the role as well, unless you count the cameo voice at the end of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein). As far as great voices go, they hit two home runs. And with John Fulton still doing the effects work the pieces were in place for a worthy sequel.
*. But there were problems. The script went through many drafts, director Joe May spoke no English, and for some reason a lot of money was sunk into turning the Universal back lot into a mining town, complete with escalator. Cedric Hardwicke, who got star billing, didn’t like working on the film. They were behind schedule and over budget, leading to a lot of long days (and nights).
*. They were probably lucky to end up with a movie as good as they did. There’s a somewhat interesting plot, with Price beginning the movie on death row after being falsely convicted of killing his brother. He enlists the help of the brother of the original Invisible Man to turn him invisible so he can get out of prison and clear his name. Or at least take vengeance on the real killer (Hadrwicke), who has his eye on Price’s mining company. And his woman too, naturally. This all comes with the usual invisible shenanigans, all capably supervised by Fulton.
*. Not a special movie in any way, or particularly memorable aside from being (arguably) Price’s first horror film, but it’s better than average B fare with a decent climax on the escalator they built. At least that part was worth the expense.

Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)

*. Dr. Renault’s Secret is an archetypal B-movie, not just for being inexpensively made so as to play at the bottom of a double bill but for the way it presents such a stew of familiar genre elements. Watching it one is struck by how many other movies, or types of movies, it seems to be referencing.
*. Many of these genres were already well intermixed, all circling around the idea of man’s animal nature. Dr. Renault (George Zucco) has done some experimenting and turned an ape into a man (J. Carrol Naish). So it’s one of a sub-genre of ape movies that were popular at the time, as well as such stand-bys as the werewolf and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stories. You can also see something of The Island of Lost Souls in Dr. Renault (who is basically Dr. Moreau without the island) making his own Caliban and then keeping him in line with a whip.
*. The movie Dr. Renault’s Secret was paired with, The Undying Monster (another B-movie), fished in the same waters, with an old family curse being linked to lycanthropy. And in fact the source material here had a history as well. It’s based on a novel by Gaston Leroux named Balaoo that had been filmed in 1913 as Balaoo the Demon Baboon and in 1927 as The Wizard.
*. The familiarity goes even deeper. When Dr. Forbes shows up at the tavern in the opening scene and asks if he can get transportation to the Renault place I expected everyone to go silent or maybe spit up their ale. Renault whipping Noel and locking him up reminded me both of Island of Lost Souls and Frankenstein. What little mystery there is to the proceedings comes about partly because we expect a reclusive scientist like Dr. Renault to have a weird, lurching attendant, only named Igor. That Igor in this case is the experiment counts as a twist.
*. It’s not much of a twist that we sympathize with Noel, or that he’s the Beast who has fallen in love with the Beauty (Renault’s daughter). Nor is the idea that the ex-con Rogell (Mike Mazurski) is more of a monster than Noel that surprising. All of which contributes to making this a classic B-movie. Meaning it’s a reasonably deft rearrangement of genre elements, well-produced and photographed but not adding up to much. It’s quick though, and like the best B-pictures it makes something decent out of a whole lot of what’s ordinary.

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.