Category Archives: 1950s

Arrière Saison (1950)

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*. The title is correctly translated on the Kino Avant-Garde 2 disc as “late autumn.” Looking for more information online I was surprised to find it more generally translated as “backward season,” which is not just incorrect but meaningless. Did Google do this to us?
*. Does the season have any special significance? The most obvious response would be that it refers to the time of life of the two protagonists, the woodcutter and his wife Jeanne, but they look a little young for that. This may, however, be the effect of our own elongated sense of age and we need to think ourselves back to a time when 40 was the old 60.

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*. Their age means something. In the first place, this is a film about routine. Jeanne and her husband have settled into a routine that has him coming home for lunch and then again for dinner. Their lives are arranged around mealtimes. They could probably set their clocks by their stomachs, but it looks like they don’t even need clocks any more.
*. You could smile (I did) at the Frenchman not even taking off his beret to eat his lunch of stew with a baguette and a glass of wine, but for me this was less a nod to a stereotype than an affirmation of the value of routine. It’s not just the same dull round that the stir-crazy dog does in its pen but something that orders and gives some meaning to what would otherwise be meaningless lives.
*. Has the routine become something automatic? Yes. Note how Jeanne actually leaves a pot cooking on the stove when she leaves. She isn’t being careless or deliberately leaving a mess though. Instead, she’s being conscientious. It’s a sign that while she’s bored with her life, she still cares about her husband.
*. Things are not happy on the home front. There are no kids, and if we take it that the late-autumn age of the couple means something then it’s unlikely there are going to be any.
*. That poor dog. I felt worse for it than I did for Jeanne. The obvious parallel between them (she is trapped behind glass, it is stuck behind chicken wire) leads one to think the worst of her situation.
*. Didn’t they have chainsaws in 1950? Actually . . . it’s complicated. But portable, one-man chainsaws didn’t come into mass production until after WW2, so it’s not surprising that everyone is still using axes here.

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*. The title cards announce this as a “poetic essay.” Was French Impressionism the nearest film ever came to poetry? And if so, why? What was the zeitgeist?
*. The title cards also tell us that this will be a short film without dialogue because words would add nothing. Which is true, since no one in the film speaks. Routine means they don’t have to. The woodcutters know their jobs. Jeanne and her husband don’t exchange even the briefest of pleasantries. He says nothing to her when he comes home, and nothing when he leaves.
*. Their silence leaves everything open to interpretation. Are they tired of each other? No longer communicating? After she leaves, does spend his feeling on the unimportant wood? Or does he take for granted that she’ll return (because she’s done this before)? He does leave the key for her in the flowerpot.

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*. Dimitri Kirsanoff had done Ménilmontant almost a quarter-century earlier. I don’t think this film is an advance, but it does show an artist who stuck to his aesthetic guns.
*. It’s a difficult film to interpret, in part because I think the way we look at it today is probably different than how it would have been viewed or was meant to be viewed at the time. Does Jeanne’s return make her a failed feminist, unequal to Ibsen’s Nora? Or is she affirming something about her marriage? Today, of course, we come to these questions with different feelings. As Pearl Jam put it, in a song about domestic violence, “She feeds him. That’s why she’ll be back again.”

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The Strange Door (1951)

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*. You know when you see the name Charles Laughton in the credits that the movie is at least going to be worth watching. Not that all his films were good, but he was always good in them.
*. He’s terrific here, hamming it up as the sly, soft-spoken Sire de Maletroit, affecting a nervous hand and punctuating his lines with all kinds of pregnant beats. It’s a great performance, but Laughton so rarely delivered anything less.
*. The story is loosely, very loosely, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short: “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door.” The film has little in common with its source. All that happens in the Stevenson story is that Denis is captured by de Maletroit and made to marry Blanche, who has compromised herself by carrying on an affair, thus bringing the Maletroit name into disrepute. After a (chaste) night spent commiserating together, Blanche and Denis fall in love and are happily married the next morning. There is no back story involving Blanche’s mother and her father is long dead.
*. There’s also no character of Voltan, the dim but honest jailor played by Boris Karloff in the movie. It’s not much of a part and one suspects they were just trying to come up with something to get Karloff in the picture (it would reunite him with Laughton for the first time since 1932’s The Old Dark House).

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*. I wonder what film was the first to use that “walls-are-getting-closer” trap. Something from the silent era no doubt. It’s probably best known today from the scene in the Death Star’s garbage compactor in Star Wars.
*. It’s a good-looking production, but aside from Laughton’s character there isn’t much to care about. Luckily, he’s given lots of chances to shine. Given how little there was to work with in Stevenson’s story the script tosses him a treasury of juicy lines. I think my favourite is when Denis reproaches him for killing Count Grassin (another character not in the source story), saying that he could have saved himself an unprovoked murder. De Maletroit responds: “‘Unprovoked?’ Well, I won’t dispute that point, but it did upset me.” That’s gold!
*. 1951 seems late for a film like this, and it doesn’t show up on many radars today. But it is worth hunting down, and if you’re like me you’ll want to come back to it every now and then just to savour Laughton doing his inimitable thing.

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The Sniper (1952)

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*. Eddie Muller, providing the DVD commentary for The Sniper, nicely summarizes two of its main claims to fame. It’s “really one of the very first serial killer movies and it’s interesting to note that it was a very empathetic and sympathetic portrayal of the subject.”
*. While I’m at, I’ll give its other source of special interest, which is the location photography in San Francisco.
*. I’ve mentioned before (in my notes on Where Danger Lives) that I don’t think of San Francisco as a noir town. Muller, who wrote a book on noir and grew up there, would probably have a different opinion. My feeling, however, is that The Sniper isn’t really a noir picture. This has less to do with its subject matter or the way that it’s shot as it does with its message. It’s an idealistic movie, with little of the engrained cynicism of noir. The scene in the mayor’s office is really the only flash of cynicism, and it’s presented in a judgmental, negative light.
*. That idealism is sincere, but I think it works against the movie. In 1952 a serial killer was still seen as a social problem, making The Sniper into a message picture. It was produced by Stanley Kramer (who specialized in this sort of thing), and the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Edward and Edna Anhalt. The Anhalts had just won a screenplay Oscar for Panic in the Streets and would be nominated for this film, but I think their script here is deeply flawed.

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*. Some of its flaws are excusable. At the time this was quite a daring film, but they couldn’t have a sex killer enjoying killing people and we’re finally left in the dark as to Eddie’s motivations for declaring war on “womankind.” Muller can’t figure out the “incredible leap” that the homicide chief makes in even determining that these are sex crimes. But of course they couldn’t say or show much more than they did. I assume Eddie is lustful but impotent in some way, but beyond demonstrating how inept he is at picking up girls that’s as far as things could go.
*. The rest of the screenplay is quite stiff. The psychiatrist (Richard Kiley) is a righteous blowhard, and Muller says he “might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘I am the conscience of the screenwriters and the producers’ around his neck.”
*. The psychiatrist as hero, however, was big in the 1950s. He’d show up again in movies like The Three Faces of Eve and Suddenly Last Summer. I think this is a profession that has fallen off its pedestal in our own time. Today a psychiatrist is more likely to be presented as an irresponsible pill pusher.
*. For all their research, however, I also had problems with the big speech the Anhalts give the psychiatrist in the mayor’s office. In the first place, he says the “legal definition of insanity” goes back to “an old English law, a law passed when they were still burning witches.” The laws he is referring to are known as the M’Naghten rules, which arose from a British case of 1843. They were not still burning witches in 1843.
*. Then there is the matter of Albert Fish. Apparently the Anhalts were inspired to write the screenplay based on their research into the crimes of Fish, but Fish was a totally depraved old man whose crimes (including cannibalism) had almost nothing in common with those of Eddie Miller in this film. Furthermore, the psychiatrist says that a judge of the supreme court held that Fish “undoubtedly killed at least fifteen” victims: “He was executed for one but sixteen were dead.” I don’t know where this information is coming from. Fish is known to have had three victims, and is suspected in the deaths of a half-dozen more. Yet Muller on the commentary piles on, saying that the psychiatrist is “soft-pedalling” Fish’s crimes because “there are stories that his victims numbered in the hundreds.”
*. In all of this Muller has to admit that director Dmytryk “couldn’t find a way around the pedantic nature of the screenplay.” In particular, the police-procedural stuff (the police chief lecturing his team, the meeting with the mayor at his office, the speech by the psychiatrist during the same) is deadly dull.
*. There are a few great sequences in here — Eddie burning his hand on the stove, going crazy at the amusement park, and shooting the man on the tower — but these all involve the killer. The rest of the movie drags.

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*. And it’s the script that’s at fault. Nothing the police do is of much use. When they show up at the murder scene in the park we’re given a background chorus of voice meant to show us how upset the public is getting at the fact that the killer hasn’t been caught. The voices say: “Why don’t you do something, earn your money!” “Ah, they’re always there after it happens.” “Getting so you can’t even go to a park on a Sunday.” “Some police force!” This sounds every bit as tired and generic typing it as it does listening to it in the film.
*. How cute is it that the owner of Alpine Cleaners & Dyers is a guy named Mr. Alpine?
*. How cute is it that the lead detective, played by Adolphe Menjou, is Lieutenant Frank Kafka? Though note that in one scene he is clearly addressed as Tom Kafka. I wonder if they changed it during shooting at some point — figuring Kafka was bad enough without calling him Frank too — and then didn’t fix the continuity error.
*. There are a some things to like. The scenes I listed earlier stand out as memorable. The use of the San Francisco locations to emphasize the city’s verticality is also very effective, with numerous shots of people going up and down steps and countless overhead shots as Eddie looks down on his prey (later reversed as the police adopt the sniper positions on rooftops to hunt him).

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*. I also found it interesting how much development the script puts into the antagonism between the sexes. Though I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was. I mean things like the women coming out of the theatre and complaining about men, the doctor bandaging Eddie’s hand while telling him about the proper division of labour in a household (stoves are “strictly a woman’s business” so they can “do all the cooking”) and how they get you “coming and going,” the people arguing outside of Darr’s apartment (women can’t trust men any more, men can’t trust women), the landlady telling Eddie that she thinks mothers should teach boys to cook just as well as girls, the guys working at the cleaners complaining about their wives, and satirically suggesting they could provide a few names of “dames” the sniper could kill.
*. Is this meant to show that Eddie is only a more extreme representation of the eternal conflict between men and women? Does that make him more sympathetic, or less?
*. I like how Muller points out that twenty years later “Dirty” Harry Callahan would be hunting down another crazy sniper terrorizing the streets of San Francisco, and showing far less concern for the killer’s mental health. Does anything date like a message picture? I do feel sorry for Eddie at the end, but those tears look so fake.

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The Mechanics of Love (1955)

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*. A typical complaint about porn films is that they are too mechanical. The physical act of intercourse resembles nothing so much as the movement of a lubricated piston or simple plumbing operation. The figures can be arranged in different positions (there are even books on this), but in the end it’s pretty basic stuff. Imagination can only take you so far.
*. The Mechanics of Love isn’t porn because its purpose isn’t arousal. Our first shot of the “girl” lying naked in bed makes her look like a corpse, not a ripe fruit. The boy undressing to join her appears to be tired from a long day at work. Surely what follows will be mechanical.
*. And then the film changes language as a pillar rises and a pot is brought to boil. This is the second act in a love story with a three-part structure: beginning (disrobing), middle (coitus, leading up to orgasm), and end (relaxing). The middle part, the mechanics of sex, is written in symbols. Some of these (the pillar, the pot, a swing, a drill boring into a piece of wood) are obvious, while others are left mysterious (a drawer opens to reveal a roll of tape, a pair of scissors, and some pencils).
*. This finding of visual metaphors for sex would be sent up in later movies like Deep Throat, and taken to absurd lengths in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear where a scene of passionate coupling turns into a montage of flowers opening, the raising of an obelisk, missiles launching, a train entering a tunnel, a man being fired from a cannon, torpedoes being shot from a submarine, oil derricks pumping, and a basketball player throwing down a slam dunk while fireworks burst above him. But the association of the organic with the mechanical has always invited laughter, and indeed some have even seen it as the foundation of most jokes.
*. The Mechanics of Love announces itself as a “film poem” by Willard Maas and Ben Moore, not so much (I think) for its use of the spoken word — the lines delivered (mechanically) by the girl and the boy — as for the stream of images set to zither music that plays like a wind chime in a growing storm. It’s the oldest, most familiar story in the world (boy meets girl), and the only point seems to be to defamiliarize the mechanics of it by translating them into a different form.
*. It’s sometimes asked why porn actors aren’t charged with prostitution, since they’re clearly being paid for sex. The legalities of the debate aside, sex on film might not be sex just as a picture of a pipe isn’t a pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe. Laundry and a table of fruit isn’t sex, but it’s a representation of sex because it’s what we see or what we think of when we’re having sex, or because it’s a visual rhyme for the act.
*. A film is mechanical too. It’s a machine in the sense that William Carlos Williams referred to a poem as a machine made of words. And better yet, it’s made with machines, like cameras and editing boards.
*. So boy meets girl. They look tired and unenthusiastic. They both talk, but not so much to each other. They recite lines. They go through the motions. They are imagining being something else, being someone else, doing something else, doing someone else. After it’s over they lie in bed. He’s asleep, or pretending to be asleep. She’s perhaps wondering what it all meant.

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The Way to Shadow Garden (1954)

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*. A film by “Brakhage.” If you have to ask his first name, he isn’t going to tell you. And he was only twenty years old!
*. This was made a year after Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection, and while I don’t think the two films are all that similar they are related in some interesting ways. Both movies, for example, deal with characters who become unhinged for no apparent reason before walking off into a forest/garden.
*. In both films we end on a sinister note. In Unglassed Windows the two women are absorbed into foliage, almost as though being swallowed up. In this film it seems significant to me that the negative technique used to film the garden doesn’t represent the man’s own point of view but that of the camera looking at him. He’s the one being hunted.
*. From the days of Oedipus, attacking your own eyes has been a way of showing that you’ve seen too much. It’s an effort at un-seeing. What it means here, however, is more ambiguous.

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*. Already we can see Brakhage finding his own film language. What he did using minimal camera movement within a mostly static composition was amazing. There are shots that seem to pulse with a life deeper than the frame. The man’s silhouette writhing in the doorway is a good example, though even this is an overstated moment by Brakhage’s standards. He is a director of profound subtlety.
*. That said, I don’t find this a very interesting film. Brakhage clearly was losing interest in telling a story and seems mainly to have just wanted to try out different effects. Some of these are actually pretty good (all things considered). I like the way the camera seems to pass through a cloud of smoke, for example. But in the end any attempt at understanding the film is frustrated by the lack of information we’re given. A mood is evoked, some tricks are played, but it doesn’t add up to very much.

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Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953)

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*. I can’t help you with what the title refers to. Sorry. “Unglassed” isn’t a word you hear every day, but I don’t know if its use here is significant of anything.
*. Stan Brakhage was an influential American experimental filmmaker known for his many short films, composed over a long career. This one is an early work with an actual narrative and it isn’t very well known. You won’t even find much information, much less discussion of it, online.
*. The story has a group of six young people (four men, two women) out for a drive. Their car breaks down and five of them head off to investigate an abandoned mine (the sixth person, the car’s driver, goes for help). Two of the men jealously confront each other over one of the women. They get in a fight and one is killed and the other seems to commit suicide. The other man, a reader who is always carrying a book around, heads off on his own. Then the two women walk into the forest.
*. There is no audio (though you can watch a version with a musical accompaniment). The acting has the large mannerism of silent film, which would normally seem out of place but work here, perhaps because of the empty space we’re in.

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*. That sense of emptiness, or isolation, is a theme throughout the film. We begin with shots of the mine that have the buttressed geometry of Sheeler’s (post)industrial visions. Then, even within the closed confines of the car, the six people, with the exception of the two lovebirds, appear withdrawn into themselves. The reader reads. The other woman is doing needlework. The jealous man observes the couple. The driver drives, his eyes on the road. They are together alone.
*. It’s worth watching the movie with no audio just to enhance this effect. We can see the characters arguing with each other but it’s like they’re on the surface of the moon, with no atmosphere to carry sound waves and thus totally cut off from one another.
*. I wonder what the book is that the one fellow is reading. I can’t make it out, but it seems like it might, or should, be relevant.
*. The abandoned mine is a location that recalls the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India. They are empty but operate as a kind of echo chamber for all of the sexual tension. The woman-in-the-middle is the one who wants to visit the mine, but she is also the one who becomes most discombobulated when she gets there.
*. Once she starts wandering around, the mine starts to seem a very threatening place. A bright blade of a board with nails sticking out of it is foregrounded in one shot, seeming to be pointed at her like a knife. A broken window frame lying on the ground is like a trap she’s afraid to step in. The machinery starts to spin. This place is dangerous. They probably shouldn’t be walking around such a site without wearing safety boots and hardhats.

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*. Finally, the woman breaks down and screams. Why? Why does Adela scream in the Marabar Caves? It’s a question without an answer, like what happens to the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock (to take another example). Obviously (as in both those other cases) it has a sexual significance, but beyond that we’re guessing.
*. The violence that follows is almost perfunctory, as though the two jealous lovers know their fate already and just have to play out the string. And then something magical happens that lets us know we’re really in the hands of a filmmaker who is an artist. The two women walk away from us, literally disappearing into the forest.  Tellingly, they go in different directions, moving away from each other as well as the camera. That feeling of separation and isolation we began with is reaffirmed, and we end as we began in a deserted space.
*. I find it a haunting and suggestive film, its sense of closure provided by an evocative persistence of vision. It’s an origin myth for a ghost story. You can bet that the driver isn’t going to find anybody when he comes back. They will have all become shades.

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Written on the Wind (1956)

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*. Camp? And by that I mean, is it a joke? Perhaps not intended as a joke — camp doesn’t allow for too much of that — but a joke nonetheless.
*. So: camp? Damn, it’s a hard label. For one thing, is it a judgment that we can only make in hindsight? Did audiences in the ’50s, who made this movie a hit, think it was camp? Or does it just seem ridiculous in retrospect? Or, another possibility, do we take it more seriously today? Douglas Sirk’s stature as an auteur has certainly grown, especially after being adopted by the European art house. At the time this film was made he was generally thought of as a hack.
*. Perhaps another word fits better. Kitsch? J. Hoberman: “Written on the Wind is not simply kitsch — it has the lurid classical grandeur that suggests Norman Rockwell redecorating Versailles.” Not simply kitsch then, but something more and something different. As Hoberman concludes, “Written on the Wind is not simply epic trash, but meta trash.” What non-meta label fits it then?

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*. Well, here’s another word: melodrama. I think we can almost all agree that Written on the Wind is melodrama. It is melodrama writ large. But is melodrama by definition kitschy? Campy?
*. David Thomson is sensitive to the cultural cachet of the genre. Indeed in his entry on Douglas Sirk in his Biographical Dictionary of Film he even says that melodrama contains “the roots of cinema”: “Cinema — as an entertainment, an art form, an academic topic, or an institution — is addicted to melodrama.” Ergo Douglas Sirk is an absolutely essential filmmaker.
*. An aside: is this still true? While melodrama may have been the soil that cinema sprang from, is it still addicted to emotion and feeling? We live in a heartless age.
*. There’s also an uncomfortable gender angle to the genre argument. Melodrama is primarily a form of romance, and Written on the Wind is clearly a woman’s picture. Indeed the overly emotional script make it play like a kind of flip book of Lichtenstein’s True Romance blow-ups: frames of what might be comic-book panels, with bright colours and beautiful faces delivering dialogue bubbles containing such corny lines as “I love you, Mitch. I’m desperate for you.” “Please don’t waste your life waiting for me,” “I’ll wait, and I’ll have you — marriage or no marriage.” “Somebody just stole my magic dancing slippers.” “You’re a filthy liar!” “I’m filthy, period.” And so on and on.

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*. So that’s another label, albeit one that nobody at the time or, I think, ever since, has argued against. Even the internal studio memos were clear that the movie “should be largely geared toward woman appeal” (because of the appearance of hearthrob Rock Hudson). And it’s worth keeping in mind that as ridiculous as so much of the romance claptrap is in this film, it’s no more ridiculous than a lot of action conventions or horror clichés. In looking down on such pictures we may be guilty of a little sexism as well as snobbery.
*. But without its camp value would a movie like this have any value at all? Who among us would want to watch a run-of-the-mill mid-’50s soap opera? Are there half as many fans of Magnificent Obsession out there as there are of Written on the Wind? This movie is often seen as the precursor to TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty, but who on earth watches them today? The reason this film has lasted is because it’s so crazily over the top that it becomes, another magic label, subversive.
*. Of course, you have to read it ironically. This is what makes everyone, or nearly everyone, see Sirk as a subversive artist. You can’t believe in his vision of America. It’s so obviously not real. There’s no need to call in Brecht: we know we’re watching a play. Nothing could be more artificial than those pink hallways in the Florida hotel, the silly toy cars the Hadley kids drive, the old swimming hole set, or all those painted backdrops. It doesn’t even matter that the cars (Kyle’s is a 1953 Allard J2X and Marylee’s a 1953 Woodill Wildfire) and the grotesque flowers in Marylee’s room (anthuriums) are real. They look plastic and fake.
*. And this is not to mention the film clichés you have to laugh at: the pages from the calendar being blown backward (over a whole year’s worth!), or the jukebox that plays throughout the fisticuffs at the diner. I wonder what the first film to do that was. Probably some Western with a player piano.

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*. And yet. Roger Ebert: “To appreciate the trashiness of Written on the Wind is not to condescend to it. To a greater degree than we realize, our lives and decisions are formed by pop clichés and conventions. Films that exaggerate our fantasies help us to see them — to be amused by them, and by ourselves. They clear the air.”
*. But do they clear the air? Or do they feed the heart on fantasies? I wonder how much our sweet tooth for such confections is born of nostalgia, and how much of it expresses a desire to believe in this kind of nonsense: the god-like wealth, the celebration of privilege and materialism that comes complete with the darkies serving dinner (Sam) and drinks (Ben). This was the American dream, and it’s become our dream of the American ’50s.
*. I want to stick with this point about fantasy and realism for a moment. When you watch a lot of these kinds of movies, from this period, you’ll probably notice how tacky their sense of luxury was. This could be the result of several things. In the first place, the art director might be consciously going for an artificial or tacky look. Here, for example, Julia Heron, one of the set decorators, “had to deliberately use some bad taste” (according to a studio press release) to make the Hadley home look more vulgarly ostentatious. Another possibility is that the 1950s really were a tacky time, or at least they look that way to us. We can notice the same thing in movies set in the 1970s. But I prefer a more basic explanation: that in the 1950s production design just wasn’t ruled by the same canons of verisimilitude. You weren’t trying to design a home or an office or a restaurant that looked “real.” I don’t think this was peculiar to Sirk either. It was the Hollywood studio aesthetic.

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*. Here’s Ebert again: “Films like this are both above and below middle-brow taste. If you only see the surface, it’s trashy soap opera. If you can see the style, the absurdity, the exaggeration and the satirical humor, it’s subversive of all the 1950s dramas that handled such material solemnly.” I think the line that this is both above and below the middle-brow is key. It is trash and meta trash. I just have a lingering, uncomfortable feeling that this kind of thing can be taken more seriously than critics might want us to believe. That is, audiences can and do take it as real.
*. In brief, it’s a movie that can be read on different levels. Trash or meta trash, sentimental or subversive, fake or symbolic. Those plastic cars and flowers are obvious character keys: yellow for Kyle, glistening red for Marylee. Texas is a Wild West state where everyone is quick to draw their pistols. The bartender draws his to break up a bar fight, and Jasper even pulls one out of a drawer with the cops — albeit his cops — right there in the room.
*. But Kyle’s pistol is a shiny, pearl-handled lady’s gun, and he sleeps with it tucked under his pillow. When Lucy finds it, she takes it from him and throws it away. No missing the symbolism there!
*. Or take this reading (courtesy of Peter William Evans) of the pink corridor in the Florida hotel, another bit of bright phoniness that triggers our symbol-radar: “The watery setting of the hotel and the oneiric, shocking-pink-lined passage invite speculation on notions of rebirth, of intrauterine memory and of a motherless son’s search for an absent mother.” Phew! And I just thought it was a vagina.

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*. How much is being repressed? Thomson: “surely Sirk, who made eight films with Hudson, knew his innermost yearnings. And thus the real secret text in the film is the unspeakable attraction between Stack and Hudson, and the relative emotional homelessness of the women.” Personally, I didn’t think this was all that clear. Mitch is in love with Lucy and Kyle seems more envious and resentful of Mitch. Apparently, however, Sirk had wanted to make Kyle’s homosexuality more explicit but couldn’t because of issues with the censors.

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*. The incest angle is also hinted at, but again I didn’t get the sense that there was much to it. Mitch says he loves Marylee like a brother, and I suppose we’re left to wonder just what that might mean. And Marylee warns Kyle that if Mitch steals Lucy then the two of them will be left alone to wake up to one another. But the siblings don’t seem to have any erotic connection, and Mitch is so asexual you don’t feel the spark of anything indecent coming from him.
*. The theme song, music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sammy Cahn and performed by The Four Aces, is justly celebrated. For some reason it’s been stuck in my head for years, the fitting melos to this drama. And yet do the lyrics mean anything? Who is the faithless lover whose kiss is written on the wind? Isn’t the problem that everyone in this movie is too damn faithful?

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*. How dull both Mitch and Lucy are. Kyle and Marylee are the only people we want to watch (just as James Dean remains the only reason to watch Giant, even with Elizabeth Taylor in full bloom and throttle). The freaks fascinate us, getting to chew all the drapes and smash all the china while even Hudson was put off by playing yet another square. Stack and Malone would both get Oscar nominations, and Malone would win (a contemporary contra opinion can be seen in Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review, which called both their performances “absurd”). Meanwhile, the leads were justifiably ignored. I like Lauren Bacall, but when she wasn’t motivated she could really mail it in. And what was there to motivate her in this part?
*. The original script made it clearer that Marylee — yes, Marylee! — is going to take over running Hadley Oil at the end of the movie. That’s what having her sit under the giant portrait of her father while picking up the model of the oil derrick (Hadley No. 1) was meant to signify. I was shocked when I found this out. I don’t see Marylee as running anything.
*. Presumably the company will now be run by a trust while Marylee is left to fondle that golden dildo as a substitute for losing the one true love of her life. I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, but in fact she’s a lucky girl. Mitch didn’t deserve her. Now she has her money and her independence, a good toy is all she really needs.

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Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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*. It’s hard for me to talk about Douglas Sirk. He was very good at what he did, but what he did doesn’t interest me much.
*. Because it’s genre work? Melodrama? Soap opera? Women’s pictures? That probably has something to do with it. But I think more than that it’s because they’re such period pieces, and their vision of America in the 1950s seems so totally unreal today. It’s a Technicolor Neverland of endless bounty, artificiality, and style.
*. But was it Neverland? Women really did wear gloves. Some men wore ascots. Every room might have been filled with floral arrangements. Four million dollars, the net worth of playboy Bobby Merrick, was a lot of money (today it wouldn’t be a down payment on that lovely lakeside property). You really could smoke in a hospital bed, at least if you had a private room. I’m not sure about the saloon doors on the hospital rooms, but they’re in the 1935 version as well so maybe they were a thing.
*. I would still call it a dream reality though, and one that probably has some influence on the mythologizing of that time and place in American consciousness. This was the golden age that (some) Americans always want to go back to. Strong families. A strong economy. Everybody rich, and white.
*. What special quality defines this vision of America? It’s clean. The cars shine as brightly as the men’s Brylcreemed hair. The men’s cheeks are also shaved clean as babies, without a hint of shadow even after a long night of drinking. If a drop of blood were seen at the Brightwood Hospital I think the doctors and nurses would faint on the spot. Not that they could have shown blood anyway (censorship issues), but still it would have upset the hygienic order of the place.

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*. Douglas Sirk’s reputation continues to rise. I’m still unsure. His melodramas are both professional and personally distinguished. He was obviously an intelligent, cultured man and very critic-friendly, which helps. But the question continues to nag: was he only slumming it with these sorts of movies, or were they his love letters to America? Did he think they were a joke? Was he really subverting the genre of melodrama, or was the genre itself subversive?
*. Sirk apparently never even read all of Lloyd C. Douglas’s book and seems to have thought it was trash, a “stupid story.” But then he thought trash books made good film projects because you couldn’t mess them up. He also said that there is “a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”
*. It’s easier to see this connection with craziness in the case of a movie like Written on the Wind. There the element of subversion is more obvious: the split between what Kathryn Bigelow in her video tribute describes as a nihilistic, psychological interior (sickness, madness) and a lush and exotic exterior. The one reality literally subverts the other.
*. In this film, however, it’s not so clear. We miss the craziness of Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, who were the only couple worth watching in Written on the Wind. Here we’re left with the squares.
*. Especially boring squares at that. Thomas Doherty’s DVD commentary notes on a couple of occasions the “distinct lack of romantic sparks between” Wyman and Hudson. Hudson simply worships her while she learns to tolerate his adoration. There is no hint of physical consummation (that would be dirty), and Doherty correctly sees only “affection without passion.” This isn’t just a matter of a strict production code. It’s a total lack of chemistry.

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*. Wyman was nine years older than Hudson, which is interesting. Also interesting is that this is less than the age gap between Irene Dunn and Robert Taylor.
*. Some things have changed in twenty years. There’s a soaring chorus of back-up vocals. Helen Philips is a stronger character. Robert Merrick doesn’t win a Nobel Prize (yet). The first object of Merrick’s charity isn’t some panhandler but a guy with a dead baby and a wife in the hospital. A more deserving case.
*. The religious angle is toned down. Randolph doesn’t have a Bible to hand Merrick. Indeed there is only one brief mention of Christ, and not by name but only as an upright guy who paid the ultimate price for his exercise of Personal Power.
*. That Personal Power angle is the most bizarre thing in the film. I’m using ironic capitals to suggest the Tony Robbins connection. It doesn’t seem at all Christian to me but rather a kind of New Age engineering: establishment of contact with the source of infinite power allows one to fulfill one’s destiny, but you have to keep it secret in order to insulate yourself. I don’t think this qualifies as a mechanical interpretation of the Gospel.

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*. No, this film isn’t a personal favourite. It looks pretty in a fake way. The story is rubbish. I didn’t find anything moving about it at all, which seems to me the most important test. Today I think it’s mainly appreciated by cineastes and fans of camp. As for Sirk, one respects him but still.
*. Perhaps I’ll end with this. David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, rates Sirk (and melodrama) quite highly. Now here he is on horror director Wes Craven: “over the years maybe the most odious thing about him is the postmodern self-reflection of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream pictures, which amounts to a frenzied, disdainful redoubling of nastiness because no one really believes in it. That is a dreadful manipulation of his own audience, with a view to excusing him and letting him feel superior.” An educated, intelligent man (at least “intelligent enough to know how surely the darts of horror do penetrate the vulnerable mind” and become very rich), Craven created efficient if lowbrow genre trash that was later adopted by academe and “people who write learned treatises on the imagery . . . who have learned to gaze through the revolting fury of his films and see tenure beckoning.”
*. Is this just a difference in taste? Thomson is no great fan of horror films and thinks melodrama underappreciated. But how different are Sirk and Craven? Couldn’t you just wtich their names and change “horror” with “melodrama” in what Thomson says? I don’t know if there’s any way to reconcile the two assessments except to say that there was much to admire and appreciate in the work of both men. And something to despise.

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Executive Suite (1954)

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*. If you’ve been reading these notes for a while you’ll know I have a fascination with things that are fashionable and then are fashionable no longer, or how some films date while others remain timeless.
*. Some of it is due to the subject matter. Some of it is due to changes in the way films are made — for example a style of directing or acting coming into or going out of vogue. Sometimes what changes are audience expectations. Some of it is the result of technical advances. And sometimes it reflects a larger cultural change.
*. That last point is what I think happened here. This is a good movie, but even as you’re watching it you’re aware of how representative it is of a time that is no more. Not because the clothes have changed, but because our attitudes and values have. Capitalism in the twenty-first century is something different than it was in the age of the man in the grey flannel suit.
*. The seeds of that change are here though. And they are nicely explicated by Oliver Stone in his DVD commentary, which is something I want to spend some time talking about.
*. If you’ve listened to Stone’s commentaries on Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps then you aleady know how important an influence Executive Suite was on him. He can’t stop talking about it. In part because he thinks it’s a great movie but also because of the vision of American business that it presents.

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*. Underlying Stone’s analysis is a view of American history which I’ll get to. But let’s begin with Avery Bullard, who is an old school captain of industry. He’s introduced in a provocative way, with the camera giving us his point of view until he collapses on the sidewalk. We never see him, even an image of him reflected in a mirror, and his empty chair at the head of the boardroom table becomes a weighty symbol throughout the film.
*. In fact, Bullard seems to have been all things to all people. Julia adored him, Alderson accepted his place as his number two, and Walling flat-out idolized him (“He was a great man. The greatest man I’ve ever known.”). Shaw seems to have honestly thought that he was sympathetic to his approach to running the business, and perhaps he was. Erica (Miss Martin) remains totally loyal to him even after his death. The workers liked him. Louis Calhern’s Caswell is the only one who takes a swipe at him, and nobody approves of that.

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*. Stone says that Bullard “looms like a god, or Hamlet’s father, over the ensuing drama.” I hadn’t thought of that. It put me in mind of The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Not stopping there, Stone goes on to compare him to Alexander the Great because “his ego takes over and he leaves no heirs” which leads to a “war of successors.” Hm.

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*. In the struggle among the successors Stone sees the coming “battle for the soul of America.” In the red-white-and-blue corner we have all-American hero Don Walling (William Holden). He doesn’t really belong in the boardroom, feeling more comfortable with his workers down at the Pike St. plant. He doesn’t get his picture in Fortune magazine but likes to get his hands dirty building things. His wife is Mrs. Cleaver June Allyson, a girl next door who can play catch with her son and run a household at the same time (with the help of a maid, naturally). These two are so apple-pie even Stone feels somewhat embarrassed by them, while admitting that Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek in JFK are their doppelgangers.
*. Indeed, Don Walling may be the real John Galt: the heroic engineer battling against the bureaucrats and the bean counters who don’t have the best interests of the People at heart (a point that today’s worshippes of Ayn Rand have largely lost sight of).

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*. In the evil corner is Loren Shaw (Frederic March). He represents heartless corporate scheming, a cancer of corruption that, in Stone’s view, would grow throughout the ’50s and come to fruition with Vietnam. His type is not John Galt but Robert McNamara, the whiz kid accountant who ran Ford before running the war in Southeast Asia. Shaw also represents, sticking with Stone’s analysis, the movement away from production and manufacturing toward the triumph of the financial sector (a real transformation, to be sure, but not something that happened until much later).
*. That is the Oliver Stone version of history, and it holds up pretty well. He readily admits that “America went the other way,” taking a direction different from where we see it going at the end of this film. The Robert McNamaras won. And as for the much-maligned K-F line of crap furniture built by Tredway, it would conquer the world as Ikea. But this is a movie, and we needed a happy ending.
*. Stone doesn’t just accept that ending, he applauds it. This may seem odd, given that the ending is a lie, but Stone doesn’t mind. It fits with his idealism, which he confesses to at length in his Money Never Sleeps commentary. For Stone, movies are supposed to be about “the triumph of humanity.” This is the spirit that made Hollywood great, and he is unhappy about there being less of it today.

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*. I like Oliver Stone, and I think this is a wonderful commentary. But there are a lot of “huh?” moments. They begin with his admitting that he hasn’t read the novel the film is based on but that he thinks it (the novel) has great plot points and “you have to admire it for its complexity of thought.” How would he know this? The complexity of thought, and the plot points too, might have come from Ernest Lehman (who would go on to do the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, which was based on his own novella).
*. Another great Oliver moment comes during the final scene when Shaw loses the vote to be made the new director and Stone says “he just lost his ass.” What?
*. Of course it’s a theatrical piece. I doubt it’s a very realistic depiction of how such a succession crisis would be handled. I don’t even understand why Shaw tears up the letter transferring the stock to Caswell at the end, since it was made out pre-emptively by Shaw in his role as president and thus was no good. But ripping it up makes for a  nice, theatrical gesture.
*. How seriously can we take Holden at the end? His company will “never ask a man to do anything that will poison his pride in himself or his work.” That’s a statement that would have no credibility whatsoever today.
*. But this was such a different time. Listen to Barbara Stanwyck’s advice to June Allyson at the end: it’s not her place to undertsand her husband, it’s inevitable he will ignore her and make her feel cold, but this is all right because he’ll always come back in the end, making her realize how fortunate she is to be his wife.
*. These are all aspects of those larger cultural changes that I suggested date this film the most. Business has changed. Ethics are for losers. Women are no longer expected to quietly stand behind their man.

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*. I’m not sure the rest of it holds up that well. The ensemble cast is good, but I just didn’t think anything lived up to the first few minutes. The credits rushing up to fill the screen with the clanging of the bell (the only music in the film). The way we follow Bullard out of the building, the camera taking his point of view. The sudden shock of his death. And the interesting business, pointed out by Stone, of his death being followed by two crimes: Caswell shorting Tredway’s stock (which I don’t think is, technically, a crime) and the anonymous man in the street stealing Bullard’s wallet. As on the street, so in the tower. As on earth, so it is in heaven.

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The Big Heat (1953)

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*. I like crime dramas as much as the next guy, but I feel that they get more than their fair share of love and affection from film historians, cinephiles, and critics. Sometimes it seems as though every little noir — and noir was a B-genre in the first place — has to be touted as a minor masterpiece.
*. The Big Heat is a good example. I don’t think it’s anything special. Fritz Lang directs, but doesn’t seem particularly interested in what’s going on. I’ve read a lot of praise for his sense of style, but I don’t see much of it here. Certainly no more than in any comparable noir product.
*. Glenn Ford is, as in Gilda, upstaged by his co-stars. This is a point worth expanding on. David Thomson makes a big deal about Ford as righteous avenger in this film, but really he isn’t. He just doesn’t have that manic gleam in his froggy face, and we never see him get that upset over his wife’s murder. Instead there’s a cut from her being pulled from the burning car to a meeting in the commissioner’s office after the funeral. Ford tries to look stern, and says a lot of tough things about the cops being rabbits as he goes out on his “hate binge,” but he never crosses over a line of decorum. He doesn’t try and beat information out of Atkins (the auto wrecker), or out of the widow Duncan. He just has to impotently walk away.

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*. Instead, the real story of vengeance is that of Goria Grahame coming after Lee Marvin for throwing a pot of scalding coffee in her face. That is the film’s defining moment (Scorsese was impressed, and would re-use it in Cape Fear). It is Grahame’s role as lady avenger, complete in face mask and fur, that is the movie’s strongest narrative line. She’s the one who finds out where the widow Duncan is staying and hunts her down. She’s the one to exact retributive justice on Vince Stone.

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*. The rights of the disabled have come a long way. The accountant at the Victory auto yard, who walks with a cane, doesn’t want to say anything bad about Atkins because “not many people would hire someone like me.” To be an accountant? To sit at a desk and do the books? All she has is a gimpy leg.
*. The script is nothing special. The plot is straightforward. There are only a couple of zinger lines, one of them served up by Lang when we see the spread of Atkins’ fat ass as Bannion asks where “Slim” is (the other is Grahame’s line when she enters Bannion’s hotel room and calls it “early nothing”). There is no sexual tension with Grahame because Vince just likes to slap women around and Bannion is in mourning and she’s just a B-girl anyway. Finally, the crime boss Lagana is a non-entity with an unexplained mother fixation, someone to be dismissed almost as an afterthought with a headline.
*. So it’s not an essential movie, even within its genre. It is worth tracking down though, if just for Grahame’s turn as a Fury in fur. In the end, Bannion is only here to clean up her mess.

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