Category Archives: 1940s

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

*. A great movie, but hard to talk about for a couple of reasons. In the first place there’s the mountain range of stuff that’s already been said, which is pretty much everything by now as it’s been picked apart frame by frame. And second because of its status as cinema’s great lost masterpiece, unlikely now to ever be reconstituted.
*. What we have is a bowdlerized fragment, slapped together after RKO panicked when it didn’t play well in Pomonoa and Welles was (stuck?) partying down in Brazil. Apparently the working print was 132 minutes, but Welles had already cut 22 minutes from that for the Pomona screening. Still more was then cut and the ending was entirely reshot (along with some other scenes), for a final running time of 88 minutes.
*. So it’s not the movie Welles made. One question then is how good that movie, which we don’t have, originally was. We can only speculate. Welles thought the final edits (directed by Robert Wise) were done with a lawnmower, and that before the cuts and reshoots it was a better film than Citizen Kane. I think that’s unlikely, but not impossible, which is rating what’s left very highly indeed since I was never one to argue with Citizen Kane‘s perch atop the list of greatest movies ever made (and I would certainly argue, strongly, against Vertigo knocking it off).

*. From what we can reconstruct of the (or an) original version I think it would have been terrific. In particular, the problem of the terrible ending of Tarkington’s novel had been mostly solved, taking the story in a “darker, harder dimension” (Welles) not in the novel. But the reshot version not only took away this ending but made its most egregious substitution in the final scene. More than that, however, there is the loss of any sense of rhythm, pace, or shape to the story, especially in the more mangled second half. The tragedy of the Ambersons is a slowly developing photograph, but that’s not how it plays here.
*. That said, it’s worth nothing that Robert Carringer (the authority on this subject) says that according to everyone he talked to who had seen it the film was unplayable in its original form. I’m not sure why. I also don’t understand the frequent line about how it wasn’t a film for the public taste during wartime (Pearl Harbor was attacked just as they were finishing up filming). Why not? This seems reductive reasoning.
*. I say the tragedy of the Ambersons more than just the story of George’s comeuppance. One of the great strengths of the story is how the tragedy is that of several families, all inextricably bound up in each other. George, Isabel, Eugene, Fanny, even the old Major. Aren’t they all tragic figures?
*. And aren’t the greatest tragedies about the destruction of a family, or families, more than that of a single tragic hero? I’d say that’s true from the Oresteia through Hamlet up to such famous American tragedies as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie. A hero’s downfall may be unfortunate, but a whole family is a tragedy.
*. Saying it’s an ensemble tragedy also gets us away from talking about George. According to the DVD commentators on the Criterion release George is a big problem audiences have always had with the movie, due to his being so unlikeable. If I could, however, I’d like to say a few words in his defence.
*. Yes, Georgie is a snob and a mama’s boy, but that’s the way he was raised. Does he ruin his mother’s chance for a loving relationship with Eugene? Well, isn’t she a bit (or a lot) to blame for that? And why is Eugene so firm that George should have a profession? Why should he have a profession if he doesn’t need one, as he clearly doesn’t seem to. Meanwhile, the adults in his family are all pretty much stupid and useless. Aside from the Major none of them seem to be capable of doing anything, and they are the ones in the positions of most responsibility.

*. And is George such a snob, strictly speaking? He doesn’t disapprove of Eugene because of his social rank. After all, he wants to marry his daughter. He seems more upset about his mother loving anyone but himself.
*. I also think George is redeemed quite a bit at the end. He shows character in adversity. He even accepts responsibility for Fanny, which I didn’t see as necessary, and becomes “the most practical young man I ever met” in the eyes of someone who should have been one of those most looking forward to his comeuppance. Though clearly George isn’t that practical in his choice of profession. He’s never learned practicality.
*. On the same subject of how we see poor Georgie, isn’t it unfair that his Oedipal syndrome is played up so much when nothing much is said about Lucy as Electra? Yes, George throws a monkey wrench in his mother’s affair with Eugene, but Eugene has already exercised a veto on Lucy marrying George. So he can keep her all to himself? That’s not very nice.
*. Yes, I admire the facility Welles had with a long take. And it’s a shame that what he considered the best of them, the ball scene, was cut here. But there are other places where I found myself wondering why he wasn’t mixing shots up a bit more. Why bother playing the scene with George eating the shortcake with Fanny as a fixed-camera long take? It seems dull and inexpressive to me.
*. The photography, mostly by Stanley Cortez, is a marvel. I’d forgotten just how dark a movie this is. The number of shots where pools like ink or curtains of black velvet overwhelm the field is really noticeable. A few of the better known examples:

*. Of course this darkness has thematic content as well, representing the growing gloom that is overtaking the Amberson family, swallowing like that closing iris on the motor vehicle. Apparently the film’s final shot was going to be another shot of a vehicle riding off into the darkness as well. Another part of that “darker, harder dimension” Welles wanted to evoke.
*. It’s a critical commonplace that Ambersons was Welles’s own swan song, or Waterloo. I’ve never entirely understood why Hollywood had it in for Welles. Too young to have so much talent? But the movie biz has always loved its wunderkinder. Spielberg and Coppola weren’t hated. But something about Orson set them off. Talent is less tolerable than success.
*. There’s no denying it’s a movie that was wrecked through editing and reshooting. But still there’s something so suggestive in what remains, from the stills of lost footage to the scraps of drawings and script that were never shot. We all carry in our heads versions of movies we never really saw, memory doing its own editing job. The Ambersons Welles made will never be found, but what’s left is a magnificent ghost that’s been haunting me since the first time I saw it. Does the imagination dwell the most on a movie seen or a movie lost? It’s not a movie I go back and rewatch very often, but I think about it a lot.

Criss Cross (1949)

*. I was a bit surprised to find several essays by film scholars about Criss Cross when I did my usual dip into background reading for these notes. They pointed, without elaborating much, on its similarities to The Killers (same director, same star, same flashback narrative). They praised its stylishness and plot. They rated it very highly.
*. I say this was surprising because Criss Cross doesn’t strike me as a very enjoyable movie at all. The long flashback in the middle is very dull and doesn’t even do an adequate job of explaining how Scott (Burt Lancaster) wound up in this jam anyway. Was the heist his plan all along, or just something he came up with on the spot to explain a dalliance with his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who is now married to the hood Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea)? Also: why did Scott and Anna break up in the first place if they’re both still so obsessed with each other? Also: how exactly were the two double-crosses supposed to work? Did Scott always plan to screw Slim over, or did he change his mind when Pop got shot? I couldn’t follow any of this.
*. I haven’t read the source novel but apparently the film was initially just supposed to be a heist picture and then a love triangle got grafted onto the story later (something Lancaster wasn’t happy with). I don’t know all the ins and outs but it does have that feel of something sort of put together on the fly, leading to the kind of unanswered questions I just mentioned.
*. Worse than the script however are the two leads. I like both Lancaster and De Carlo but they come across as robotic here, and don’t share much chemistry at all. Lancaster demonstrates range by stripping down to his wifebeater, again. The ending comes as quite a surprise, but that’s largely because De Carlo didn’t give me any idea of who Anna was. Even at the end I found her a cipher. I guess she was the femme fatale, a woman stronger than the crooks and saps she’s surrounded by. But maybe she really loved Scott. I don’t know.
*. The end is actually pretty good. The heist is explosive and is followed by a hospital scene that is wonderfully suspenseful, if improbable (did hospital rooms have dressers like that in the 1940s? was it so easy to check out?). And then there’s a final showdown that does not play out the way I was expecting at all.
*. So full credit for all that stuff. There are some really good things in Criss Cross, I think mainly courtesy of Robert Siodmak (who only gets carried away in one silly contortionist overhead shot). That said, the script is a mess of stiff dialogue (“verbose, redundant and imitative” in the judgment of a contemporary New York Times review), with voiceover from Lancaster that sounds like someone reading voiceover. As I’ve said, Burt’s really mailing it in here. I’ll do the same.

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.