Hollywood’s Hero – The Top Ten Performances of Kirk Douglas

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‘I didn’t start out to be a movie star. I started out to be an actor’. Kirk Douglas

Since Kirk Douglas turned 100 last month (Dec 2016), I felt compelled to go back and watch some of his best-known performances. After watching a number of Douglas’ films, it is no surprise that he was such a powerhouse performer for well on three decades and remained busy well into the 1990s, only slowed down by a stroke in 1996. What makes his work interesting is the range of roles and stories that fascinate and captivate an audience and the reaching out to people with the pathos of his performances. I aim to compile what I feel are the performances, which best exemplify just how good Kirk Douglas is.

Creating a top ten list is always fraught with fault and subjectivity. Yet the attempt to do so allows for contemplation, exploration and analysis. And of course, disagreement can bring forth discussion!

So let’s have a look!

  1. ‘Doc’ Holliday in ‘Gunfight At The O.K Corral’ (1957)

The film is filled with inaccuracies and it follows the typical Western template long established in Hollywood that usually allows for a narrow approach. It was also a huge hit, in great part to the depth of Douglas as the legendary dentist, gambler and gunslinger. Douglas, offering more than the usual superficiality of the cardboard cut-out stock Western character, brings Holliday to life. Cantankerous and short-tempered yet quick-witted and charismatic, Douglas brings forth the complexity of character as well as the demons that dwell deep within, through his incredible talent.

There is always a difficulty in knowing who the real Doc Holliday was, as pointed out by Shirley Ann Linder in ‘Real To Reel: John H. ‘Doc’ Holliday In Film’ in True West magazine. As Linder states: others vilified him for an “irascible disposition,” and being “the coldest-blooded killer in Tombstone.” These would become the sources generally employed for his many film appearances. Additionally, few would-be biographers failed to note Wyatt’s further words about Doc: “Perhaps Doc’s strong, outstanding peculiarity was the enormous amount of whiskey he could punish: two to three quarts of liquor a day.” Yet it is acknowledged that most recorded comments were made by men who disliked him, including Bat Masterson who vied for Wyatt Earp’s friendship, in contest with Holliday.

Yet, Earp called him a gentleman and a great wit and Douglas’ Holliday is also dapper and charismatic, as well as a loner who seems to be forever lost in a tragic isolation. This wonderful portrayal of complexity beyond mere impersonation set the standard and is perhaps equaled by Val Kilmer’s 1994 turn in Kevin Jarre’s Tombstone.

  1. ‘Midge’ Kelly in ‘Champion’ (1949)

Champion was a very important film for Kirk Douglas. It was the film that made him a star and it would attract for Douglas his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Champion is the story of Midge Kelly and his rise out of poverty and obscurity to reach the top in the world of boxing. But this is no ‘Rocky’ type tale. Kelly is a bitter, hard and ruthless individual, shaped and scarred by a hard and brutal life. Underneath his armoured exterior is no heart of gold, as his heart has been long ripped out. Abandoned by his father and given up to an orphanage by his mother, Kelly seems to want revenge on life and his brother points this out to him, when watching him in the ring.

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Douglas again exhibits his physical prowess and dominance on the screen. His dedication to the role also entailed great preparation, though not strictly in the Method sense. The training sequence, as well as the beautifully shot fight scenes, illustrate the point. Douglas looks brutal in the ring, tempering his hunger to tear his opponent apart with the discipline of the sweet science. His proclivity to violence is not limited to the ring, however. In one sinister scene, he calmly threatens to send his girlfriend Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) to the hospital.

Taking on the role of an unsympathetic character is always fraught with danger for an actor or actress seeking to create a certain image. Yet Douglas saw the value and opportunity in such a role, particularly at a time when the anti-hero became the ‘new thing’ in cinema. By the end of the film, there is no exact redemption for Kelly – as in noir, he too must pay the price. But Douglas captivates us, as his badly beaten body shuts down while he rants – ending things on his own terms, even if it means death.

Champion sees Kirk Douglas throwing everyone off the screen, as he channels the brutal boxer.

  1. Jack Burns in ‘Lonely Are The Brave’ (1962)

 Scripted by Dalton Trumbo, it is no surprise that the thematic concerns of Lonely Are The Brave are questions that challenge authority, the concept of freedom and how the most vulnerable in society are treated. Most interestingly, the beautifully shot Lonely Are The Brave is a Western, set in a contemporary context.

Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowboy and former Korean War hero, who works and lives wherever he can find it. His rejection of modern society suggests that he is a loner yet he has his friends and decides to stand by one in particular, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) who is in prison for helping illegal immigrants. Burns decides to break him out – by first getting himself into prison.

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Burns is a heroic figure, yet Douglas’ superb performance questions how we judge the concept of heroism. He pays the price for his heroism, a pattern that seems to define his life. The ultimate tragic price for heroism also rears its’ head. There is an interesting parallel with Douglas himself – Burns rejects society and doesn’t buckle under to authority, Douglas constantly sought out interesting and intelligent films and refused to follow the ‘rules’ of cinema. As Jack Burns, perhaps Douglas channels some of his own principles. It certainly is a superb performance and one that Douglas himself was very proud of.

  1. Detective James McLeod in ‘Detective Story’ (1951)

Produced and directed by the legendary William Wyler, Detective Story, was praised at the time for its’ realism and grittiness, depicting a typical New York Precinct and the difficult work that the police have in their everyday dealings with crime. Despite the façade of toughness, there is a tragic pathos that underlies the stories of the petty criminals that enter the precinct and the detectives seem to fight against a tide that they cannot stem.

James McLeod is tough, unrelenting and determined, which Douglas directs with intensity and aggression. Surrounded by degenerates and criminals, his wife (Eleanor Parker) is the one thing in his life that seems clean, wholesome and good. His world will turn inside out, ironically as he pursues Dr. Karl Schneider (George McCready), an abortionist. Douglas conveys the turmoil and horror that turns inside McLeod, when the truth arrives at his doorstep, with a fury that burns on the screen. Forgiveness does not hold and it is easier to resort to hate which he understands better than the pain he has to work through.

Douglas is superb, as we watch McLeod try to fill the hole created by bitterness towards an ugly world, with a zealous pursuing of arrests. The ending allows for some redemption, when McLeod is the one begging for his wife’s forgiveness, and the audience cannot help but feel some sympathy for a man whose tragedy has got the better of him. A first-rate performance from the great man!

  1. Chuck Tatum in ‘Ace In The Hole’ (1951)

Ace In The Hole is oft considered a film noir classic and rightfully so. A dark and piercing insight into the world of journalism, Billy Wilder, who co-wrote, produced and directed this masterpiece, would face criticism and even legal troubles after its’ release. It was deemed too critical, too cynical and even grotesque. Perhaps the film not only cut too close to the bone but tore into the marrow. Thus, as film noir, it achieves its’ purpose superbly. Jack Shafer wrote in 2007, “If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream . . . Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form.” 

Chuck Tatum represents the worst ways in which humans manipulate the worst situations for their own benefit – thus the story acts as an allegory for such behavior. Douglas brings the ambitious and narcissistic journalist to life with cynical aplomb, delivering a performance that Roger Ebert described as ‘almost scary’. That special gift of energy that Douglas possessed is probably seen at its’ very best in Ace In The Hole – watch his face transform with a nastiness that exemplifies the ferocity in which he pursues the news story.

There is nothing pleasant about Douglas’ performance and there is no moment of redemption a la Champion or The Bad And The Beautiful, which might fit the typical character arc of a typical Hollywood film. Nor is it a clichéd and typified ‘bad guy’ cardboard cutout. Douglas is sincere and honest as Tatum and offers truth to how denigrating humans can be. For my money, this is the performance, which should have delivered Kirk Douglas the Oscar for Best Actor. It is as devastatingly relevant and sharp today as it was then.

  1. Jonathon Shields in ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’ (1952)

I admit that I have an incredible bias towards The Bad And The Beautiful – being an absolute favourite of mine. Director Vincent Minnelli shapes the film with incredible finesse and sensitivity and a very talented and experienced cast translates the story into a tour de force.

Douglas plays Jonathon Shields, the son of a famous film pioneer, who wants to make a name for himself and starts at the bottom. The story is told in retrospect from the point of view of three people; former film making partner, Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), his former leading actress, Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and his former screenwriter, James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). All three have gone onto their own successes but harbour pain, resentment and even hate towards Shields. Jonathon’s ruthlessness is evident in the first story we hear – that of Fred. Douglas transposes across powerful emotion, as the strong friendship between Jonathan and Fred collapses, in order to further Jonathan’s career.

The Bad And The Beautiful is often described an inside look at the film industry, though many critics at the time, particularly the celebrated New York Times critic Bosley Crowther in 1953, did not agree, calling it ‘choppy’ and ‘episodic’. In fairness, I feel Minnelli was not looking at the industry per se but the people within it. Crowther would also call Douglas’ performance a ‘cliché’ though acknowledged that he ‘plays the fellow with all that arrogance in the eyes and jaw that suggest a ruthless disposition covering up for a hurt and bitter soul’.

Douglas for his troubles would receive his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor and deservedly so. Whatever terrible flaws Shields has, the audience cannot help but admire his passion for film and constant quest to make the perfect film. Again, there is a physical energy that burns on the screen and it is impossible not to be drawn to Douglas, almost frenzied in his love for film. We are just as seduced as the three characters by him – even after he has hurt them. In the final scene, after all three refuse to work with him one last time, they still clamour around the phone, vying to hear his ideas – still seduced by the man. We cannot hear him but we can imagine the passion in which he is delivering his vision. Studio chief Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tells him to hang up, as the call must be costing him a fortune. But Shields ignores him and keeps talking – again revealing that film not money is what is important to Shields. Douglas shines in this role and makes The Bad And The Beautiful, a special film. It would also be the second Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Douglas.

  1. Colonel Jiggs Casey in ‘Seven Days In May’ (1964)

A gripping, political thriller, Seven Days In May was very much the brainchild of Douglas and director John Frankenheimer. The film would receive high critical praise and did well at the box office. However, its’ impact would grow over the years, considering the context of the period in which it was made and the nature of the political spectrum over the next two decades. Douglas’ desire to make the film is indicative of his constant search for challenging themes and intelligent stories. Seven Days In May is a story set ten years into the future outlining a coup d’état against the U.S President (Fredric March) by the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, led by General James Scott (Burt Lancaster).

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Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) is a man at odds with the President, yet is also a man of principle and opposes the coup. Douglas offers a masterful performance, providing a strong complimenting the equally powerful work of Burt Lancaster. Douglas stands tall in the role and his loyalty to what is right places him at odds with the man he once admired. A trait common to Douglas’ approach to acting is a vitality and physical presence that dominates the screen. This is certainly true for his turn as Colonel Casey.

The final confrontation between Douglas and Lancaster is a riveting master-class, of two opposing forces.

  1. Colonel Dax in ‘Paths Of Glory’ (1957)

Certainly one of the most controversial films regarding the military ever made, Paths Of Glory faced censorship and heavy criticism, particularly in Europe – because of its’ anti-military tone. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the WW1 story tells of three French soldiers condemned for cowardice, when their company refuses to undertake a suicidal mission against a German position in the trenches.

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Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the 701 Regiment who leads his men into the futility, also defends the three during the court martial. It is a role that typified Douglas’ belief in the importance of intelligent films and his understanding of the role is more than evident in his delivery. There is a power of emotion in the character that simmers and rarely boils over. Douglas channels the frustrations of the officer in the trenches, seeing the senselessness of the killing and idiocy and injustice of the decisions made by generals. The final scene, which sees his face turn to stone, revealing the realism of his resignation and illustrates what countless soldiers face during war, is a fitting coda.

In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, Douglas stated about Paths Of Glory: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.” The same could be said for the performance of Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax.

  1. Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Lust For life’ (1956)

Douglas reportedly found the experience of playing the tortured painter as a painful one and even his wife described his immersion in the role as ‘frightening’. Douglas takes Van Gogh beyond the popular notion of tormented artist, wracked not only by terrible mental anguish but possessed with the feverish need to express himself. That feverishness is illustrated through the physicality of Douglas and the passion in which his Van Gogh approaches his art.

The touching portrayal depicts a man desperate to reach and understand his fellow humans, as well as his own mind and soul. In Lust For Life, Van Gogh seems to be racing against madness, trying to understand his own dimensions. The audience sees the artist at work, absorbed in the emotion of Douglas as he works. What makes the performance so compelling is the incredible range and complexity of that emotion – at times, the explosive volatility of Douglas is startling and fearful, reflecting the horrifying nature of Van Gogh’s inner torment.

Douglas would receive the Golden Globe and New York Critic’s Award for Best Actor but missed out on the Academy Award. The film’s director, Vincent Minnelli, believed that Douglas should have won the Best Actor and felt deeply moved by Douglas’ work.

It is one of Douglas’ finest moments on the screen.

  1. Title role in ‘Spartacus’ (1960)

Undoubtedly Douglas’ best known and most celebrated role, the role sees Douglas at his most engaging in a tour de force that stands the test of time. The film’s production is legendary – directed then disowned by Kubrick, scripted by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo who was supported to the hilt by Douglas (who was also producer). The cast is an array of some of cinema’s greatest actors particularly Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov (who received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Thematically and contextually, Spartacus allows for some powerful revelations. Yet none of this would have been possible, without the incredible work of Kirk Douglas.

Douglas, as the leader of the slave army in revolt, again lifts the historical figure out of the pages of the past and into a passionate human, desperate for freedom not only for himself but for all who are slaves. Obstinate, proud and rebellious from the start, the fire in Douglas’ eyes reveals the very spirit that led the historical Spartacus to be the leader of a great revolt. The warm moments with his wife Varinia (Jean Simmons), the humour and ability to laugh at himself when Antoninus (Tony Curtis) plays a magic trick on him and the principle and wisdom shown when he stops two Roman masters from fighting to the death, again show the depth of character and intelligence that Douglas wanted to bring to the role.

Douglas’s Spartacus is filled with hope and dreams for the future, yet he is also a hard realist, indicated by his acknowledgement of the tragic end and what they are to face. Again, the pathos of this tragedy is left close to our hearts and as the audience we embrace it with devastating resignation. Douglas’ powerful speech on the slave army’s last night of freedom is delivered with honesty in the face of what is to come.

What is intriguing still is how an illiterate slave was able to lead and inspire thousands to follow him into battle – successfully! – against the legions of Rome. In many ways, Douglas provides the answer, as we too want to stand with him at perhaps one of the most memorable and beautiful moments in the film. (see below)

Ultimately, Kirk Douglas was an actor, rather than a star. Yet stardom came his way, despite not fitting the matinee idol mould. He provided for audiences something that audiences became intimate with – truth and honesty, physical and emotional power and an intelligence, sensitivity and belief in the roles he played as well as the audience he was working for. Watch his films and try not to be seduced by an incredible actor.

Special mentions:

Whit Sterling in ‘Out Of The Past’ (1948)

Rick Martin in ‘Young Man With A Horn’ (1950)

Einar in ‘The Vikings’ (1958)

Jack Andrus in ‘Two Weeks In Another Town’ (1962)

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Raw Noir – A Look At Edgar G Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

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‘Until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself’. 

Cinema has films that punch way above their weight. They are the antitheses of the blockbusters that fail miserably despite star director and cast, big budget and even bigger promotion. With minimal budget, sometimes an unknown or untested director and accompanying cast, a film can surprise everyone from critics to audiences. They can even endure – even if the film is an anomaly.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is such an anomaly.

As the legend goes, Detour was a ‘Poverty Row’ production riddled with mistakes from PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), shot in six days with a $20,000 budget.

The truth is a little different. The budget was a little more than the legend has it and it appears that the shooting time was a little longer as well. Another important detail; Detour wasn’t directed by some cowboy with a penchant for guerrilla filming and film-school experimentation. Instead, the man at the helm was Edgar. G. Ulmer, whose experience included working with legendary greats such as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, as well as directing The Black Cat (1934) at Universal with Karloff and Lugosi. However, Ulmer was a director who worked on the sidelines of the industry; never breaking through and often working on films whose right to exist is arguable.

Yet the fact remains that despite the truth of its’ making being slightly exaggerated, there were huge limitations in terms of budget and time.

So what makes Detour special?

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Running at just under 70 minutes, Detour exudes all the elements of film noir. Its’ themes, characters and raw imagery draws an audience in tight and does not let go, long after the final titles have faded from the screen. It is easy to look at its’ faults, which have been discussed at length many times over elsewhere. In this article, I will focus on what makes Detour a film that should be on everyone’s list of classic film noir. And I will try to do so without spoilers! But of course there are no guarantees…

Detour is the story of Al Roberts, (Tom Neal) a down-and-out pianist, trying to make it to Los Angeles to reunite with his beloved singer girlfriend, Sue. (Claudia Drake). From the start, Detour is from his perspective and narrates his story, with a greater wisdom and understanding for having lived it. As he sits in a truck-stop cafe, he appears as a tortured soul thinking back upon his incredible ordeal and going back over the sordid details. Al represents the everyman in the world of film noir – a guy who either by fate or poor choice finds himself in a dark, nightmarish world from which he is fighting to emerge from. The male protagonist seems to find himself out of his depth and facing obstacles he is not equipped to deal with. Here, Ulmer utilises lighting with the aesthetic quality of film noir, highlighting the isolation and loneliness of Roberts in his predicament as he sits in a well-lit noisy cafe. Dark shadow surround Roberts like a fog, a darkness only he can feel and see. A light shines on his eyes, accentuating the pain he feels inside revealed through his eyes, as he looks back and tells his story.

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The old adage ‘sink or swim’ comes to the fore and thus the male protagonist needs to be a quick learner, if he aims to survive. Not only does he need to dodge, avoid and get past the obstacles, he needs to learn what they are in the first place. Al Roberts creates his own obstacles, out of fear and frustration. Yet like the quintessential noir anti-hero, Roberts he doesn’t blame his choices and places responsibility on the incredulous outcomes of his circumstances. In what is probably one of the greatest lines in film noir, Roberts utters what encapsulates the very essence of what is at the core of the world of noir;

Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you’.

Yet Roberts is not exactly a naïve and innocent man without his own personal frustrations lighting a fire of discontent within his soul. A seemingly talented piano player, he plays in clubs where ‘you could have a sandwich and a few drinks and run interference for your girl on the dance floor’. The bitterness in his tone is more than evident; he’s a man unfulfilled and even when he’s given ‘a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted’.

Just what is it that he wants? Here Ulmer employs something better than dialogue. He allows the audience to fill in the blanks, inserting their own shattered dreams, real life frustrations and struggles to get by and projecting them onto Al Roberts. Thus, his journey truly becomes ours. Which is why Al Roberts comprises the many facets of the everyman and the very essence of the male protagonist in film noir. His inability to change his circumstances taunts him but like any fool, he blames everything else around him, refusing to see or deal with his own inadequacies. This personal fault will doom him to the nightmare that will take hold.

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Roberts hitchhikes a lift with William Haskell, who as he later finds out is not all he claims to be. Haskell has money and a nice car and luck seems to be going Roberts’ way. But one fateful moment during the night, Roberts will find himself at a crossroad, which offers no clear, easy or simple way out. On the surface of things, it is fate that has brought him here but it is Al Roberts that bears the weight of his own choice.

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There is some foreshadowing that is well employed and again highlights the impact that fate has on the protagonist. Whilst earlier riding with Haskell, Roberts notices some nasty wounds on Haskell’s hand. Haskell mentions that they were caused by the most dangerous animal of all; a woman. All misogyny aside, Roberts seems at first shocked but then none too surprised when it appears the woman in question was fending off Haskell’s determined advances. In the world of Detour, a woman is either a ‘Sunday school teacher’ or a whore. There is no in-between. Roberts could not in his wildest dreams, imagine how fortuitous Haskell’s vague warning could be.

The only bright spot in Robert’s life is Sue, blonde, beautiful and true to her man (as far as we know – after all we only have his word for it!). From his point of view, Sue is wholesome and sweet, an image to which he constantly returns as narrator when telling parts of the story in retrospect. Sue becomes an even greater contrast to the woman he will become caught up with.

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Of all the dangerous women in film noir, Vera would be arguably the most vicious. Unlike Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), whose danger and calculation is masked by her sultry seductiveness, Vera hides nothing and her raw emotion seethes and burns. Unlike the typical femme fatale, Vera’s physicality overwhelms and dominates Al Roberts, emasculating him at every turn, with her wild, wide eyes that carve him up every time he even thinks about getting away from her. With a hard voice that betrays nothing, Vera hasn’t the time nor the inclination to resort to seducing Roberts with soft words and sexual undertones. Instead, she tears at him with a ragged-edged tongue that rasps with a harshness that confirms Vera has had a tough time.

After Roberts picks her up in the car he has appropriated, she steps in and looks forward with a gaze of self-loathing, avoiding questions as if she is distracted by what has been behind her. She offers nothing when asked where she’s from other than ‘back there’; her tone indicating that ‘back there’ wasn’t so good and she would rather forget about it. Her self-hatred is almost pitiful when she responds to Roberts making small talk about her looking like a girl from Phoenix, responding with ‘are the girls in Phoenix that bad?’

But there is more to Vera and she knows exactly what Roberts has done and what he is up to. It seems impossible that Roberts could have picked up the one person who could send him to the gas chamber. Despite Roberts’ denials of any wrong doing, Vera attacks him with a harsh dose of reality and a deeper revelation of who she is:

‘…who do you think you’re talking to – a hick? Listen Mister, I been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?’

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There are the rare, occasional moments where Vera softens and reaches out to Roberts. Whilst staying at a hotel, she has a bath and perhaps the ritual significance removes some of the inner pain and anger she holds against life and herself. She even tries to give him some useful advice, ironically offering more than he realizes stating that ‘people knock themselves out trying to buck fate’. A moment later, her hard face falls and she speaks of people dying who would give anything to trade places with him. Her voice also softens as she reaches out and touches his arm, holding it while pleading him to listen, for she ‘knows what I’m talking about’. Rejecting her advice, Vera returns to type with her hard persona returning telling Roberts that his ‘philosophy stinks, pal!’ Later, he mentions to Vera the literary character Camille as her consistent cough returns. She seems touched by his concerns and again that self-loathing and complete lack of self-worth overcomes her as she says what a break it would be if she did die. Roberts states he doesn’t want to see anybody die and she takes a step closer to him, hoping against futility that somebody might actually care about her. She wants to be liked, even loved, yet unable to accept that possibility finds it easier to be hard and vicious. Yet she reaches out again to Roberts, placing her hand on Roberts’ shoulder and indicating quite clearly what she wants when she utters that she’s going to bed. It would be easy to suggest an array of possibilities as to her intentions; a simple hunger for straight sex from a woman from the gutter, a hurt and pained woman needing physical connection to ease her pain, another way of manipulating Roberts or perhaps she feels something for him and wants him. My personal feeling is the latter and the pain and anger she feels after his rejection of her advances certainly bears evidence to that intention. How many times has she been rejected and cast aside? Ulmer reveals more about the characters through what he does not reveal. Certainly one of the greatest strengths of Detour.

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Vera’s darker side prevails and any warmth that she may possess sours rapidly. She intends to use Roberts to the very last. Of all the problems Roberts has, Vera has become the worst and his attempts to unravel himself from her will result in a situation beyond the nightmare that he has found himself in. Again, Ulmer’s use of foreshadowing becomes evident when Vera meets a fate, which Roberts earlier claimed he dreaded and would only make things worse for him. Just how much worse becomes evident in the way Vera’s fate is realized and how Roberts own hand in the process mirrors what happened earlier with Haskell – two unbelievable turning points in the story which stretch incredulity beyond its’ measure. Yet Ulmer draws two impossible occurrences into the realm of believability and they drive the story forward. Detour is a fine test to the necessity of suspension of disbelief.

Ann Savage’s performance deserves to be honored as one of the finest in film; a gritty and powerful portrayal of not just a fallen or dangerous woman but also a damaged human wrought bad by the hard knocks of life.

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Ed Howard in his 2011 piece on Detour for an ‘Only The Cinema’ blogathon perfectly encapsulates Ulmer’s direction as ‘ragged poetry’. There could not be a more fitting description for what the audience experiences on the screen. Ulmer uses film technique in the way a poet employs figurative language and powerful imagery. It would be easy to dismiss the rawness of the film as poor work or a very budget approach to the filming process. But that would be missing the point. Detour does not intend to have the glossy, stylized atmosphere of a major studio release. It is supposed to be rough and rugged – befitting the bleak story and damaged people within it. The dark highway, roadhouse cafes inhabited by all kinds of disreputable characters deserve no less.

Ulmer perfectly illustrates Roberts’ confusion and fear during his moments of horror. The mise en scène revealing his first fatal choice is pure classic noir; the use of flashback with Roberts’ panicked narration, as he stands in the pouring rain; his face a mask of torment as his hand runs back over his head. Even as he recounts his story, the audience feels the raw horror of the moment and the dramatic music score heightens the drama. 

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Additionally, the use of music in the film successfully underpins Roberts’ journey, not only appropriate to the moment but adding a greater quality. Often a foreshadowing to what will come, Ulmer also uses music to amplify Roberts’ dirty conscience. During a dream sequence after that fateful night, Ulmer’s supposed limitations in terms of technique are more than overcome, as images of what has occurred torment Roberts’ tortured mind, while the musical score reinforces his distress. Alternatively, at one point after picking up Vera, Roberts begins to rationalize that his problems will work out and he will be in the clear. The music matches his optimism, as he imagines himself reunited with his girlfriend Sue in L.A believing his ‘nightmare will be over’. Yet the music snaps us back into the nightmare, when Vera starts questioning Roberts, knowing he’s up to something and the truth to who he is pretending to be. At the climax of the film, Roberts’ guilty and tortured conscience is further tormented by the sound of a saxophone playing, which he points out is ‘not a love song, it was a dirge’.

Roberts’ recounting of his story, as first person narrator, is all classic noir. The fatalistic tone of his first person narration during the flashbacks drives the story forward and colors the dark, grittiness with deeper greys and layers of confusion. Moreover, as he recounts his story, Roberts relives the emotion of that moment because it is as real as the moment it happened, perhaps even moreso as the full weight of the consequences he must face comes down on him. Roberts is consumed by his predicament and he thinks and re-thinks, trying to make sense of the whole situation. He seems to be doubly incredulous as he recounts his journey, especially the turning points of the tale. During the climax, Roberts finds himself in the worst position possible after Vera’s drunkenness brings out the worst in her and she intends to follow through with her threats of giving him up. Roberts dwells on the moment stating that the ‘world is full of sceptics, I know – I’m one myself’ highlighting his earlier fear that no-one will believe him in a courtroom. Ulmer’s camera goes in and out of focus, representing Roberts’ confusion as it focuses on objects that tell the story – Vera’s still face, the phone, her hair brush, a bottle of alcohol – and all while Roberts’ voice over gallops with wild panic. Roger Ebert describes Tom Neal as being able to do little else than pout yet Neal is compelling and his narration brings a raw and unsettling discomfort as we stumble along with him.

Detour is a blueprint for the dialogue of film noir. At every turn, the language is razor sharp and it cracks like a whip, against the bleak, dreary backdrop. Vera, especially, tears Roberts down and kicks him while he’s prone with harsh put-downs, dripping with malice. She even mocks the pseudo- domestic situation they find themselves in with incredible ferocity, telling Roberts at one point as he argues: ‘Shut-up, yer makin’ noises like a husband’. It’s a line of dialogue that speaks volumes. However, Roberts is no slouch when it comes to the fast-talk either. As he argues with Vera over their plans, he fights back at her greediness claiming ‘a couple of day ago you didn’t have a dime. Why you were so broke, you couldn’t pay cash for a postage stamp. But the harshness also gives way for a poetic beauty that haunts the audience with its’ honesty and emotion. As narrator, Roberts states ‘As I drove off, it was still raining and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears’. There are moments when the talk runs close to cliché – yet the overwhelming power of the story drowns any such suggestion. As dialogue should do, the story is paramount and it drives the story but there are layers of emotion that run deep in Detour.

Detour is a classic noir story. Where a man’s mistake will see punishment chase him down and retribution come in the form of a dangerous woman. The turning points drive the story forward yet as the audience we also hit the brakes hard – stunned as we try to contemplate what has just occurred and experiencing the surrealism of Roberts’ mad journey. It is a story told with the language of desperation and shaped by a rough authenticity that gives Detour its’ unique quality. Along with Roberts, we are thrown into a dark, seedy world of highways, truckers’ cafes and two-faced people. We stumble along with him, reminded by his haunting words that fate keeps trying to trip him up.

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As the story reaches its’ ending, it allows for some ambiguity and we are left guessing what Al Roberts’ fate will be, as we return with him to the present. Will he get a dose of ‘that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.’?  Will he walk away, when we discover that perhaps he has found a way out, with a touch of irony that I won’t reveal to you here. The Hays Code made very clear that crime could not go unanswered without law and justice. Yet Ulmer wraps it up by leaving us hanging or perhaps leaving the option open for the audience to choose what it wants to believe. After all, Roberts has played that game his whole life, deciding that the mistakes haven’t been his and ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all’.

It is possible to look at any deficiencies in terms of ‘rough film-making’ in Detour but that misses the point. Film noir is feeling and atmosphere more than the strict tenets of genre. It is a powerful mood of pained emotion and fatal passion. A polished and technically Grade A picture may suit the demands of some. But the world of film noir is not polished. Dangerous and doomed characters walk there and they seek redemption in the shadows, unable to find the light they need to guide them out. Al and Vera are such characters – scarred and damaged by the world and simply seeking an out. Detour is a triumph in bringing to life that very world and we are haunted by it, long after we have stepped out of it. It’s managed to do that for the last 71 years.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The dark brilliance of Val Lewton: RKO’s Other Genius

 

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‘There is no beauty here, only death and decay’ – Paul Holland ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943)

So another Halloween has passed by, where people not only decided what to wear at parties (or when trick-or-treating) or what party to go to but also what horror films to watch. TV horror marathons ensued, playing everything from classic Universal to 50s sci-fi to slasher films. It’s always an interesting time from the point of view of film fans, as we get to share with others our favourite classic (and not-so-classic!) horror films. It’s always interesting to read must-see lists and top ten lists of all kinds. At times, we even discover something new – perhaps a gem from the past that we overlooked or a little-known film that finally gets some notice.

I’ve been looking at a number of lists, posts and articles on Halloween horror viewing across a range of FB groups, links and blogs. There were the obligatory Halloween movie marathons across a range of free-to-air and cable stations. There have been some fantastic and interesting opinions and thoughts being shared. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the brilliant work of Val Lewton was often ignored. 

Throughout the 1940s, Lewton’s production unit at RKO was truly a godsend for horror film. The horror genre, long dominated by Universal Studios, had become associated with the B-feature and production values were focused more on profit gain, than creating an art form. Karloff pointed out years later that the big budgets, time and effort afforded the classic horror films of the early to mid 1930s were no longer present by that point. Monster mash-ups became the norm of the 1940s and whilst still fun, certainly did not have the quality of direction, script and setting, depth of performance nor the pathos of the original films of the 1930s. No one seemed to find another angle.

Enter Val Lewton.

Val Lewton came to RKO as head of the new ‘horror unit’ in 1942. After the huge investment and disappointing financial results of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), RKO needed to replenish the coffers and saw low-budget horror as a sure-fire success. RKO’s vice-president in charge of production, Charles Koerner set Lewton’s brief: to create films that stayed under a set $150,000 budget with a screen time that stayed under 75 minutes. There was a bonus, however. Lewton did not have his hands tied by material and thematic concerns. As a result, Lewton did have some freedom and had the opportunity to look at what he found interesting. 

By most accounts, Lewton was not a fan of the genre, believing it to be the equivalent of pulp for mass consumption. Yet he was incredibly successful in the genre and created a series of atmospheric, psychological horror films and explicitness through subtlety.

Lewton’s time as head of the unit was relatively brief and the stress took its’ toll on a man whose health was not the best. RKO went through its’ own upheavals in the late 1940s, particularly after the death of Charles Koerner, who was a supporter of Lewton. Sadly, Lewton himself would die in 1951, after having left RKO a few years before.

My intention is not to write a detailed critique of Lewton’s work nor a biography of the man. However, I feel it worthwhile to list and outline a number of reasons why the films he produced should be celebrated – especially at Halloween.

The Directors

Lewton’s unit utilized some outstanding directors, who got past the terrible titles the studio enforced on them. Jacques Tourneur is probably the most celebrated director to work with Lewton and by all reports, the two got along very well. Tourneur would direct the first and most celebrated production from the unit – The Cat People (1942) starring Simone Simon, creating an incredible film, with suggestive horror, revealed through beautiful use of light, shadow and sound. Arguably, Tourneur would direct the best that came from the Lewton’s unit including I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943).

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However, Robert Wise (who would find greater fame later in his career) was also a young, talented director, who directed both Karloff and Lugosi in The Body Snatcher (1945). Mark Robson was the most prolific director in the unit. Gunter V Fritsch co-directed with Robert Wise perhaps the most interesting and personal film for Lewton – The Curse Of The Cat People (1944) – with reflections of Lewton’s own lonely childhood in a dream-like world.

All were craftsmen employing technique and sensitivity, working within the studio’s confines to create haunting, atmospheric and thoughtful films. The audience becoming lost in the story and concerned over the plight of the characters is probably the greatest accolade a director can be given.

The Stories

Rarely does a bad title betray a good film. Selznick himself congratulated Lewton after the success of The Cat People, telling him “I know no man in recent years who has made so much out of so little as a first picture.”

We are drawn into the stories, ever so gently by the dream-like state that the directors shaped. The turning points in the stories effectively drive the story, existing for that purpose rather than a cheap moment to frighten us. The horror lies in the constant battle between what we perceive and what might be, with the plot shaped around this premise. The ‘monsters’ in these films were not manifested in creatures or ghouls but in the darker elements of the human soul – an even more terrifying prospect. Unlike the original Dracula and Frankenstein, these are not dark fairy tales but nightmarish dreams, where respite is not easily acquired.

Lewton was able to draw inspiration from a very literary field of art forms. I Walked With A Zombie obviously appropriates the classic novel Jane Eyre and Goya’s The Disasters Of War is certainly an inspiration for Isle Of The Dead. Bedlam would be inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth and The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story.

Whilst Lewton may have not been a huge fan of the horror genre and relegated it to mass consumption, he still treated his audiences with respect and intelligence. This is more than evident in the stories that were brought to the screen, within such difficult confines to operate.

Thematic Concerns

The horror is never outwardly explicit or confined to obvious make-up, special effects and automaton-like monsters that had been extended beyond their use-by-date. The ‘monsters’ are within the characters and the ambiguity is never answered directly, allowing us to explore our own human psychology. Whereas Universal’s The Wolfman (1941) sees a complete physical transformation from man to beast, the protagonists in The Cat People and The Leopard Man never seem to explicitly make that change. Any physical transformation is implied through use of light and sound. However, the deeper emotional and psychological impacts of the change are explored and drive the story.

The sheer loneliness and isolation suffered by characters is also a very real concern that is examined. The lack of understanding from others and the inability to transcend the fear become our concerns as well. Each film looks at the darkness of humanity and the difficulties in finding the light again; and the constant battle to determine what is real and what is not, in a skewed world filled with that very darkness. The existence of the supernatural, whilst obvious and overt in the Universal horror films, becomes hidden and the search for answers sends both protagonist and audience into a deeper and darker spiral. The Seventh Victim (1943) is an excellent example of this, where escape from a dark environment becomes fringed with deeper psychological issues. The city itself becomes a strange dream cum nightmare, from which the protagonist tries to emerge with sanity intact, appearing as a dark angel seeking redemption of self.

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Characterisation

Perhaps the greatest strengths of Lewton’s films are the characters. Avoiding the one-dimensional and clichéd norms that audiences may have expected from B-feature horror (or even one might add A-feature productions), Lewton’s characters not only have an incredible depth but delve into areas of the human psyche that were not normally touched on. Even the supporting cast and secondary characters have this incredible depth and back-story that add meaning and context to the greater story and experience of the film.

There are many moments where we find even the smaller roles, seemingly providing nothing more than plot device to drive the story, conveying much more than what we initially assume. Stanford University’s Alexander Nemerov in his aptly named book ‘Icons Of Grief’ expands on this point. He illustrates that Lewton’s films reflect the grief, sadness and anxiety experienced by Americans during World War Two, especially on the home front, in sharp contrast to the propaganda laden films of the major studios which promoted and expected patriotic fervor, staunch optimism and courage. He calls them ‘apparitions of sorrow’ and we see this more than evident in Lewton’s films; the strange woman that calls Irena ‘sister’ in the restaurant reflects this. She seems to be a woman desperately seeking connection. The second time she calls Irena ‘sister’, it sounds more like a plea, a desperate calling to someone in her own dark loneliness. We wonder what trauma the mute sailor in The Ghost Ship has experienced to cause his affliction and if he could speak, what would he tell? Perhaps one of the most chilling is the tall ‘zombie’ guardian in I Walked With A Zombie, a testimony to the horrors of slavery and the very ‘icon of grief’ which Nemerov talks about. Paul Holland (George Sanders) makes this point very clear:

That’s where our people came from. From the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial… I’ve told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.

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The Curse Of The Cat People is a terrible title yet Lewton and director Fritsch were able to create a beautiful and haunting tale of child psychology. The ‘curse’ is verbalized by the little girl’s father, concerned that his daughter could have the same inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. He states that he has seen it before during his first marriage to Irena (Simone Simon). Incredibly, his deceased wife has become the magical friend of the little girl. The audience also wonders what is real or not. The tragedy of loneliness and deciding what is real or not, is also evident in the secondary characters. The old woman, who befriends the girl, lives in the past and ignores her own bitter and broken daughter. In some ways, the secondary characters are the most tragic of all.

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Boris Karloff

By the 1940s, Karloff was certainly not struggling to find work. However, the quality of that work was a struggle to find. Despite his incredible stardom of the 1930s (only two stars had only their last names appear on marquees – Karloff and Garbo), Karloff’s films of the 1940s suffered from the world of the repetitive Universal horror cycle, serials and B-features. Karloff would be forever thankful for his performances in three films made with Lewton; The Isle Of The Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam. Karloff was able to extend himself beyond the usual fare that was dished up to him and gave interesting and chilling performances.

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Aside from Karloff’s work with Universal during the 1930s, his three films with Lewton as RKO are among his best and it becomes required to viewing if one wishes to see the master truly at work.

Of particular notice is his role as the war-weary general in Isle Of The Dead. An island populated by ex-soldiers, as well as local superstitious villagers is hit by plague and the general must maintain a quarantine on the island. What causes the deaths becomes conjecture and Karloff plays a role, tired of war and now imprisoned on a place surrounded by death and superstition. The fine line between Karloff’s fatigue and obsession is one of his finer roles.

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Interestingly, Bela Lugosi would also appear with Karloff in The Body Snatcher but Lugosi’s career and personal life had slid into a sad decline by the mid 1940s. 

Cinematic Technique

Within the allotted budget, the Lewton unit was able to flex and expand the tools of their trade to accommodate their objectives, as Minnelli’s brilliant 1952 insight into the industry The Bad And The Beautiful depicted in one particular scene (see below).

The perfect concoction of sound, lighting, camera angle and musical score brought to life the terror and mystery in a way that no horror film had done before. Again, the directors were subtle and even hypnotic in their approach. The very essence of film noir technique is obvious, allowing the ambiguity to come to the fore and perpetuate the sense of mystery. The directors want us unsure of our footing as we journey and thus the shadows envelope our senses, leading us to where we know not. Never is this more than evident in I Walked With A Zombie where Tourneur’s smooth and elegant camera moves through the sugar cane fields, tracking Frances Dee leading the somnambulant wife. Not a word is spoken, heightening the mystery and we cannot help but wonder where they are headed.

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As a result, Lewton’s films are a foray into a mysterious fog, sometimes blown away by a sudden horrific moment from which we struggle to recover, before the shadows claim us again. The suggested violence is often more explicit and horrific than what could have been shown. The first murder of a young girl, Teresa in The Leopard Man (1943) illustrates the point, where the desperate girl banging at the door is mistaken by her mother as over-dramatic and pointless fear, until the banging and screaming stops and bloods pours in from under the door. 

Of course the famous scene from The Cat People showing Jean Randolph ‘menaced’ by what may or may not be a stalking panther, is a film school lesson for how to use lighting and shadow to lead an audience where you want them. It may reflect the resourcefulness of Lewton and the need to stay under budget but it also indicates the insightful eye of director Jacques Tourneur (see below).

 

The ‘stalking scene’ is also a beautiful piece of work – where Turner not only uses outstanding tracking – close-up shots of our heroine walking alone but combines the moment with a clever contrast of sound and silence to heighten the tension (see below). Everything and nothing is suggested and both the characters and the audience are left wondering.

A large number of directors and producers have gone on record lauding the work of the Lewton unit, as being major influences on their careers. It is not difficult to see why.

A New Horror Angle

Lewton knew and understood that audiences wanted thrills and chills but avoided the cheap tactic to scare an audience. The slow burn is an important element to the horror. Monsters aren’t revealed because they prefer the shadows anyway. The pragmatic and economic problem of creating believable monsters allowed Lewton to seek the horror elsewhere. He revealed it in places audiences had not looked into before. To paraphrase George Sanders in I Walked With A Zombie, death is all around – even in what appears as beautiful. The ever presence of death and our futile desire to escape its’ clutches may be the real horror.

Setting

Lewton’s stories are not confined to some fictional place nor the past. He saw the themes he wanted to address present across the human experience. At no point does he lose, however, the lonely, dream-like state that permeates the journey and the atmosphere of despair, fear and terror remains. The Seventh Victim occurs in the big city, yet the streets seem deserted and terrifying because they are empty. The Cat People also occurs in a city yet Irena cannot escape what she perceives as her curse. The horror of isolation in a place surrounded by death creates the morbid setting of Isle Of The Dead. Whether the setting is Haiti, 19th century Scotland, 18th century London or contemporary small-town America, these themes and concerns loom in the mind of Lewton and the settings are shaped appropriately and convincingly. As Holland points out to the naive heroine in I Walked With A Zombie, there is nothing beautiful in the night sky or the sea, it only reflects death. The fields are not places of life and business but silent pathways to darkness. 

The house where the old woman lives in The Curse Of The Cat People, looms over the little girl. Like an old, dark house, it contains the ghosts of the past – memories of an old woman who has become shut off from a changing world. Additionally, the film is set in a real town with its’ own legends and tales – Sleepy Hollow. 

The settings are dark, morbid places where death and sadness have left a permanent mark.

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There may have been a formula to the approach, dictated by the bosses at RKO but Lewton also had freedom in regards to the material. Certainly, if the films had flopped at the box-office, it would have meant an immediate end to his time at RKO. But he made huge profits after filming under-budget and did have a champion in Charles Koerner. Lewton smuggled his material onto the screen and is still an icon to film-makers who want to circumvent the administrators, bean-counters and cynics. 

The RKO publicity machine never really promoted Lewton’s films accurately, as emphasised in the colourful and interesting promotional stunts used by the studio, and to a lesser degree the posters used to advertise the films. But audiences certainly warmed to them and they made big profits for RKO. 

Newton would produce two films which stepped outside the horror them – Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) which failed at the box office and Youth Runs Wild (1944) which Lewton was frustrated by due to the censorship by RKO that marred the film.  Whilst unsuccessful, they offer an interesting insight into Lewton’s sensitivity to themes and the desire for more literary content in his films. 

The Harvard Film Archive provides an astute assessment of Lewton’s productions:

‘…we may still find ourselves caught off guard to discover such precise characterizations and poetic effects waiting behind a title like “The Curse of the Cat People”…’

Precisely the point. Lewton still has us off-guard as we experience and enjoy his films.

Don’t wait till the next Halloween, enjoy them now!

The Films

Cat People (1942) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
I Walked With a Zombie (1943) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
The Leopard Man (1943) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
The Seventh Victim (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
The Ghost Ship (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) Directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) Directed by Robert Wise
Youth Runs Wild (1944) Directed by Mark Robson
The Body Snatcher (1945) Directed by Robert Wise
Isle of the Dead (1945) Directed by Mark Robson
Bedlam (1946) Directed by Mark Robson

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Last Of The Classic Gangster Films

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“Cheating yes, cheating if you get caught. But you don’t get caught if you take care of the right people, and this is big business. Very big business.” James Cagney The Roaring Twenties (1939)

by Paul Batters

Previously on Silver Screen Classics, I focused on William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931); one of the trio of films that would institute the hallmarks of the classic gangster film. What would make the canonical three interesting was that they were made and released during the Prohibition Era with gangsters such as Al Capone very much in the news. It was also the time of the Great Depression where questions about democracy and capitalism were being asked. And of course, in Hollywood it was the Pre-Code era, where film was reaching into areas that would soon be shut down and not make an explicit appearance for many years later.

I wanted to look at two films, which act as bookends to the classic gangster cycle and incidentally star the same actor – James Cagney. Whilst sharing some similarities, they are both different films for different reasons. It is tempting to make this a comparison between the two but that is not my objective here. Instead, any comparisons will be incidental whilst focusing on the last great film of the original gangster cycle – The Roaring Twenties.

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 Directed by Raoul Walsh, The Roaring Twenties would be released in 1939 on the eve of World War Two and like The Public Enemy, will unfurl the story of the rise and fall of a gangster. It certainly is not an original tale and even by 1939, it had become an almost clichéd one. Indeed, there are criticisms that the storyline is one that belongs in a Poverty Row B-feature and not in the pantheon of Warner Bros. films. Cagney was not overtly thrilled about the film and felt it would impact on his attempts to break from the gangster mould that had shaped his career since The Public Enemy. Yet Cagney was brilliant as Eddie Bartlett.

 Despite the trademarks of the genre present and a modicum of truth behind the charge that the film may have had a B-grade script, The Roaring Twenties stands alone as a classic Warner Bros. film. There is hardly a ‘gangster film list’ or film historian that does not claim the film as a classic. So what makes it work? With a superb cast, a brilliant director and the studio style that takes it beyond its’ origins, the film deserves to be considered as one of the great gangster films, as it would prove to be the swan song of the classic cycle.

Walsh cinematically employs a style not dissimilar to that of The Public Enemy, in that there is back-story to be told and as an audience we are treated to a social history. The approach of telling this back-story in the style of a newsreel, with John Deering as dramatic narrator, is one that audiences would have been more than familiar with. Walsh not only utilises a news-reel approach at the start of the film but it becomes a tool used at pivotal points in the story, acting as a reminder to audiences that the events of history impact on the individual and can change the direction of one’s life journey.

The ‘realism’ of the news-reel worked in partnership with the real experiences of famous crime reporter Mark Hellinger. His rubbing shoulders with underworld and Broadway figures provided material for the script. It was quite common for actual events to be used as fodder for the film factory. Yet the film betrays a sentimental tone that does not meet the toughness of the pre-Code gangster films. Indeed, Hellinger’s voice-over during the opening prologue reveals this:

Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory – and I am grateful for it.

And so the film’s tone is set– with a sense of nostalgia that will underlie the story.

The audience is taken back just over twenty years from the ‘present’ (at least for 1939 audiences) to the battlefields of World War One. As a battle rages, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) dives straight into George (Humphrey Bogart), both seeking refuge from the madness in a shell-hole. They don’t exactly hit it off and as they trade jibes, a young soldier Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) stumbles into the shell-hole as well. The lives of all three will henceforth be fatally intertwined.

Despite Eddie and George being ‘pals’ fighting side by side, Walsh establishes their very different personas early on in the story. Eddie is an everyman with whom our sympathies lie. He speaks of wanting an honest job when the war is over. In contrast, George shows signs of the ‘bad guy’ he is going to become. When Lloyd is reluctant to shoot a young German soldier because ‘he looks like a kid about 15 years old’, George takes careful aim and shoots the boy dead exclaiming ‘he won’t be 16’. George enjoys killing and it doesn’t bother him at all that he has just a killed a boy. Moments later, the declaration comes that the war is over yet the senselessness of the boy’s murder is vacant from their minds, as they celebrate and congratulate each other. Indeed, George says he wants to keep his rifle as it may come in handy. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

The audience is again treated to a newsreel with voice-over outlining the many changes that have occurred from changing fashions to sport to the ratifying of Prohibition – the last of which will dramatically change the life of our hero. The camera fluidly moves along the street as Eddie returns home to a different world from the one he left. He goes back to the ‘cheesy’, poorly furnished apartment (whose rent has gone up) that he had shared with his buddy Danny Green (Frank McHugh) in a scene that is a perfect example of Walsh’s sense of direction and humour. According to John McCabe in his biography of Cagney, both he and McHugh (in real life close friends) felt that the script was stale and weak. Given full reign by Walsh, the two re-worked the scene into a memorable and certainly humorous one. Danny, exhausted from another long shift driving a cab sits asleep at a small table. Eddie enters and plays upon Danny’s exhaustion, pouring a coffee and sitting down at the table as if he has been there all along. Danny’s reaction is priceless and lifts the homecoming scene to one of humour, warmth and simple celebration. Cagney’s and McHugh’s sense of movement, snappy dialogue and comic timing are allowed to come to the fore due to Walsh’s sense of what actors could give of their own accord, as well his understanding that the script had its’ deficiencies.

Upon his return, Eddie quickly discovers that things have changed and it is here that Walsh introduces the theme of the ‘forgotten man’. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody identifies clearly that the film ‘evokes the flailings of unformed men whom a heedless society tossed in harm’s way and then cast aside ‘. As Eddie soon finds, his old job – the idea of heaven that he described as ‘a grease bucket, a wrench, and a cracked cylinder’ – is no longer there despite the promises of his foreman before he left for war. Eddie’s rejection is further offended by two workers who throw open insults at him, testing his patience. Once again, Cagney improvises on a scene, which he felt was clichéd. Tired of ‘fight scenes’, Cagney decided to inject a quicker and funnier solution to his problem – a ‘two for one punch’. Once again, Walsh thought it worked, moving the story along with a humorous act.

Eddie’s problems are exacerbated by the events of Prohibition, again outlined by the newsreel narrator. Tired of ‘having doors slammed in my face’, Eddie accepts Danny’s invitation to drive the cab along with him. It’s better than being ‘pushed around’.

A moment of humour and what initially appears to be an unimportant aside to Eddie’s story is his opportune meeting with Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) – the girl who had been writing to him whilst he was in France during the war. His expectations of a woman with whom he can pursue a romance are quickly sunk, when he discovers that Jean is a schoolgirl. Eddie brushes her off and quickly departs, promising to meet her when she grows up and ‘gets to be a great big girl’. When she does grow-up, Jean will be the tragic target of Eddie’s unrequited love and indirectly lead to his demise.

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We are also introduced to the other woman that will change the direction of Eddie’s life and be important to him – Panama Smith (Gladys George – who was also a favourite of Walsh). Based on nightclub owner Texas Guinan, George would also employ some of the real life airs of Guinan. Although she was not the first choice for the role, which was supposed to be Ann Sheridan, George made the role hers and again we see the studio touch, with their usual strong supporting players. Again, the theme of unrequited love and the pain of ‘love from afar’ will permeate the film till its’ tragic ending, from two different angles. The two whose loves remain unanswered, will remain loyal to each other, with Panama’s loyalty all the greater – her own personal tragedy being Eddie’s blindness to the love she has for him.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, Eddie’s first encounter with Panama will be fortuitous, despite the bad luck that first transpires. Eddie is arrested while inadvertently delivering bootleg liquor to Panama. Despite Panama’s claims that ‘he’s no bootlegger. He’s on the up and up’, Eddie is arrested. In court, his war pal Lloyd defends him but he goes to prison, as he cannot pay the fine.

There is some difficulty in believing that Eddie could be so gullible and so green that he would unwittingly be caught up in such a situation. This is certainly another deficiency in Hellinger’s script, regarding the character of the protagonist. Eddie is no mug and knows the streets – he has grown up on them. Additionally, Eddie hasn’t been living in a vacuum, knowing full-well the reality of Prohibition and it can be safely assumed he would have come across plenty of shady characters driving a cab around the streets of New York. But Cagney’s brilliance makes it work; he takes it on the chin with a cynical gesture and makes the situation believable through his portrayal.

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Panama bails Eddie out, seeing an honesty and toughness in him that could not only benefit her business but also give him the chance to get out from under. Refusing a drink and asking for milk as they speak, Panama further warms to him and wants to repay Eddie for taking a ‘rap that I couldn’t afford to take’. Panama schools Eddie on the finer points of buying off the cops, a key issue regarding organised crime, which was ignored in previous gangster films, even during the Pre-Code era. ‘Tired of being pushed around’, Eddie takes it on and the thematic concern of good guy going ‘bad’ because of circumstance becomes realised. Unlike Tom Powers in The Public Enemy who is a victim of environment, poverty and in some part choice, becoming a criminal from childhood, Eddie Bartlett is a victim of circumstance. The events around him have fatally brought him to what appears to be ‘no choice’; starve or make money. Later when his lawyer Lloyd reprimands Eddie for the line of work they are in, Eddie tells him not to be ‘a sap’ and reminds him:

‘What do ya wanna do? Runnin’ around chasin’ ambulances for the next ten years? Look, take what you can get while you can get it ’cause nobody’s gonna walk up to ya and drop it in your lap. Do ya hear that? Don’t think that everything’s all wrong because you’re not starvin’ to death, ya hear?’

 Here we see the gangster code come to the surface. Whilst Eddie Bartlett is not a gangster in the mold of Tom Powers, Enrico Bandello or even a Rocky Sullivan, the economic drive is all- commanding. As the narrator again outlines the events of Prohibition, another issue previously ignored even during the Pre-Code era is the concept of an unpopular law driving more people to drink. As Eddie points out, they cannot keep up with the demand and are making more money than they could imagine. Eddie knows that it cannot last forever but makes clear to Lloyd, ‘when the gravy’s flowin’, I’m gonna be right there with my kisser under the faucet’.

Fate steers Eddie towards the very thing that will lead to his downfall; love. Whilst collecting a debt at a theatre, he notices a very pretty girl in the chorus-line and then realises that it is Jean. She is not overtly excited to see him but after some sweet-talking from Eddie, she agrees to let him accompany her on the late train home. Eddie becomes enamored with Jean and pushes Henderson, the owner of a big nightclub to take her on. Reluctantly, he does so and Eddie also quietly pays her salary. On her opening night, she sings the old standard Melancholy Baby, which will become a wistful reminder throughout the film of Eddie’s rejected love, as well as his eventual downfall.

Eddie is thrilled for Jean’s success and Panama sees how Eddie feels. She wants Eddie and tough as she is, Panama does not intend to sabotage Eddie’s feelings for Jean. As Jean’s star rises in the club, Eddie sees her gratitude as love, blind to the realities of the relationship (as well as Panama’s love for him) and plans to marry her. Panama tries to warn Eddie but he will hear none of it and for all his street smarts and ability to read and deal with the people in the racket, Eddie fails to see who does and does not love him.

Walsh moves the film’s direction back into the rhythm of the rackets and we first meet one of the major players in the form of Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), whose front is an Italian restaurant. The casting of Paul Kelly is also indicative of the Warner Brothers studio touch. Kelly had been a silent star during the 1910s and 1920s but he was caught in scandal when convicted for killing his lover’s husband in a drunken brawl. Kelly served time and incredibly rehabilitated his career, marrying his lover, Dorothy Mackaye. Mackaye also served time for her husband’s death, and used her prison experiences to her advantage, writing a book, which became the 1933 film ‘Ladies They Talk About’. Kelly’s vast stage and film experience, combined with his prison experience brought a tough realism to the role that is never over-played.

Looking down his nose at Eddie, Brown makes it clear that he sees Eddie as ‘penny-ante’. Eddie will not be held back and strikes out at a boat bringing in Nick’s illicit cargo, whilst posing as Coast Guards. Incredibly, Eddie’s old war pal George, who has long-turned gangster, is captaining the boat. Despite how incredulous the meeting appears, both Bogart and Cagney make the scene work, with a naturalness that makes the scene believable. Here they discuss a partnership and it doesn’t take much to turn George around to Eddie’s way of thinking. Eddie makes a mistake here, pooling his resources in with someone who could very well turn on him, as easily as he had turned on Nick Brown. This fatal mistake will cost Eddie dearly. Bogart brings a nastiness and coldness to his portrayal of George that will become even crueler as the story progresses.

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As the narrator informs us, the time period is now the mid-1920s, with Prohibition firmly entrenched and the crime gangs using violence and corruption to grab on to and hold on to their wealth and power. It is during a warehouse robbery that a turning point in Eddie’s personal and criminal life will occur. As Eddie, George and their gang rob the warehouse controlled by Nick Brown, George notices that one of the guards is the nasty and bullying sergeant Pete Jones (Joseph Sawyer) from their time during the war. George’s cruel and murderous streak comes to the fore as he shoots Jones in cold blood. Eddie abhors the moment but will pass it off as just one of those things. Again, he fails to recognize that he has partnered up with a cruel and vicious man. Later when George warns Eddie that the lawyer ‘kid’s gonna move in on your gal’, Eddie again ignores it even when Panama agrees with George. Dramatic irony is employed with fatal accuracy when Eddie declares that he trusts his friends. George correctly reads this as weakness, saying to Panama as Eddie walks away, ‘you know, he’s a sucker. I don’t trust mine’. It is also a foreshadowing of what will come for Eddie and whilst the audience hates to admit it, Eddie is a ‘sucker’; blind to George and his intentions, blind to Panama’s love for him and unable to see that Jean does not love him.

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For Lloyd, the murder of Pete Jones during the warehouse robbery is the last straw. He finally confronts Jean and demands that she reveal to Eddie what her true feelings are. Jean’s reluctance becomes a wedge, driving both Lloyd and Eddie to distraction. She claims she does not want to hurt Eddie but as Lloyd rightfully points out, she is hurting others as well, including herself.

Eddie’s world will begin to be shaken, ironically as Jean sings Melancholy Baby during the show at the nightclub. As she sings, Nick Brown and his boys enter and gunfight breaks out. The customers clear out in panic and as Eddie offers to buy the club from a distraught Henderson, Lloyd says he has had enough and that he’s out. As cruel as George is, he is actually correct in his assessment of Lloyd, declaring that he knows too much, through gritted teeth as he points a gun at him – in the classic way that only Bogart can:

‘You came into this racket with your eyes open. You learned alot and you know alot. If any of it gets out, you go out with your eyes open, only this time, they’ll have pennies on them’.

 Eddie manages to talk George out of killing Lloyd but again Eddie’s kindness to Lloyd will come back to haunt him, as well as be a test to his own humanity.

With the new club updated, Eddie attempts to bring some peace to the warring groups. The peace will be short-lived and Eddie will soon discover the treachery that lurks in George’s heart. Angered by how he believes he’s being treated and wanting power himself, George begins his scheming against Eddie. Here, the film’s pace begins to quicken, beginning with George’s murder of Danny and the predictable gunfight that follows at Nick Brown’s, which sees innocent people killed as well as Nick Brown and two of his hoods. As George hears the news on the radio, believing that Eddie has been killed, he is confronted by Eddie. Yet Eddie does not enact revenge or any payback and does not break their partnership in the traditional way – with a gun. Instead, he tells George: ‘The only thing that’s savin’ your neck is I can’t prove you dealt me a second. But if I ever find out, I got one in here with your name on it’. In some ways, this shows that Eddie is not a complete gangster and has too much honor in him to kill someone on a hunch. A vast contrast to Tom Powers, who would not have hesitated to gun down George. Again, Eddie’s sense of conscience will assist in his final undoing.

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However, the rug will be pulled from under Eddie’s feet when he goes back to the club to discover that Jean has quit. Panama tries to tell him that Jean loves Lloyd but Eddie will not accept the truth until he steps outside and sees them together. He knocks down Lloyd with a punch but when Jean shows concern for Lloyd, Eddie finally realises the truth and apologetically leaves them. As he returns inside the club, Eddie does something he has never done and asks for a drink. Here, Walsh revisits a theme common in a number of his films – the dangers of alcoholism and the downfall of the hero due to alcohol. But from Eddie’s individual slide into drinking emerges a greater image – of a nation that when trying to save itself from alcohol descended further into it deeper than it could have imagined. And created even greater problems than it could have foreshadowed. Indeed, this is one of the key themes that Walsh discusses throughout the film, both through the journey of the chief characters and that of a nation through the newsreels and narrator’s voice.

Eddie’s complete downward spiral will commence with the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression. Again, Walsh uses the newsreel as a reminder of its’ impact and we discover that Eddie is as much a victim as millions of others. Eddie’s ruin is consolidated by George’s business-like ruthlessness when he exploits Eddie’s position and buys his whole fleet of cabs when Eddie goes begging for money. Here, George represents the new gangster that is going to emerge – one who does not need to brawl and fight in the streets but can manipulate and flex power from an office, probably the worst result of Prohibition. So business-like is Eddie that he even plays golf in his office and he and his lackeys are dressed impeccably. George cruelly taunts Eddie and leaves him one cab to earn a living.

Despite Prohibition’s repeal and the celebrations that follow, there is no bright future for Eddie. Or Panama, whose loyalty and love is all the more touching and tragic, shining past her tough exterior and more apparent to the audience than it is to Eddie. Both are reduced to living in flop-houses and barely getting by. Eddie’s demise could not be worse, further fuelled by his descent into alcohol – again the powerful and bitter irony is more than apparent where the very thing which once brought him riches has now also caused his downfall.

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The fateful day arrives when Jean, now married to Lloyd (a successful lawyer in the D.A’s office) happens to get into Eddie’s cab. Thrilled to see him, Eddie plays it cool and distant, still hurt by the past with little hope for the future. He sees how well she is doing and meets her four year old son. Lloyd also returns home just as Eddie is leaving. Looking shabby, Eddie claims he’ll make it back to the top some day. Lloyd warns Eddie that the days of the rackets are over but in this instance Eddie is wiser and ominously tells Lloyd: ‘Don’t you kid yourself about that. They’ll always be guys tryin’ to get up there quick…’. He also makes clear to Lloyd that he should forget about chasing George, acknowledging the big case that Lloyd is preparing against George.. When Lloyd mentions that he remembers George’s warning, Eddie grimly replies: ‘So does he’.

Eddie returns to the dives and bottom-rate saloons, drinking himself into oblivion, trying to blunt the sharp pain of unrequited loved. Meanwhile, Jean is threatened at home by George’s heavies and in a natural panic, goes looking for Eddie for help. She is shocked when she finds him in a saloon ‘oiled to the gills’ as Panama sings in the background. Like Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces, Eddie is asked to do something that goes against his principles to save someone else. And like Rocky, Eddie refuses – hurt and bitter that Jean is only using him. Panama says it wouldn’t hurt to talk to George. But Eddie knows better:

‘Talk? There’s only one language George understands. And do you think I’m gonna walk into an ambush just because that big, dumb, good-lookin’ husband of hers doesn’t know enough to keep his trap shut? You’re crazy. No dice, Jean, no dice’.

 His refusal clear, Jean leaves upset but Panama continues trying to wise Eddie up. As they leave the saloon, the piano player plays ‘My Melancholy Baby’ and our heart breaks along with Eddie’s, as he stops for a moment and listens. Here, we see Cagney’s magic, lifting the scene to another level. There is no other way to play that moment, other than the way Cagney does; a wistful smile, which speaks more than anything else to the pain that Eddie feels – and a moment that reaches out to all of us who have felt that very pain. It’s a private moment for Eddie that Cagney shares with everyone.

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Perhaps the song being played, along with Panama’s urging sends him to talk to George. Looking pathetic with hat in hand, Eddie begs George to lay off Lloyd but confident and determined in his cruelty, George refuses. A defeated Eddie hangs his head and begins to leave before being George orders his henchman Lefty to give Eddie a ride. Eddie realises what’s happening and reacts quickly, hitting Lefty and grabbing his gun. As George cowers and begs for his life, Eddie does what he should have done years earlier and shoots George dead.

What follows is one of the most famous scenes in the pantheon of gangster films. Eddie shoots it out with George’s gang and manages to make it onto the street but he receives a fatal shot, just as the police arrive. Eddie’s fatalistic story is now at its tragic completion – the sacrificial figure who dies to save the husband of the woman he loves, yet never loved him. He stumbles as he is dying, onto the steps of a church, lurching before finally falling down to the bottom of the steps – dead. As Panama holds him, Scorsese’s description of the scene as Michelangelo’s Pieta could not be more fitting – the gangster turned Christ-like figure, sacrificing himself for the love of others. Eddie has redeemed himself.

It is impossible not to feel our eyes well with tears, as we hear the strains of ‘My Melancholy Baby’ and see the also tragic Panama holding the man she loves. As the camera pulls away, the final words act as an epitaph: ‘He used to be a big shot’.

In many ways, The Roaring Twenties was an epitaph for the classic gangster film and the type of gangster that was portrayed during the original classic gangster cycle of the 1930s. In real terms, everything was changing and even Eddie tries to tell George just that before the finish. In the film, the rise and fall of the gangster is not based on the ruthlessness, greed and cruelty that was evident in the canonical trio of the Pre-code era. Instead, Eddie’s rise is due to forces outside his control and his fall is a result of his principles and the most beautiful and tragic emotion of all – love. So the gangster portrayed by Cagney is a tragic figure of almost Shakespearean proportions.

The Roaring Twenties has its’ weak points. As mentioned earlier, Hellinger’s script has its’ critics – Dennis Schwartz calls it a ‘hackneyed script’ and Cagney was not a fan of the script either. Yet Walsh overcomes this through his genius as a director, sense of comedy, applying touches through music and scenery that evoke the nostalgic tone of the story and his ability to bring together a period of time and personify its’ tragic tale into the life of Eddie Bartlett. Fernando Croce in CinePassion stated ‘if Raoul Walsh didn’t invent the Warner’s style, then he certainly brought it to its electric apex’. Absolutely.

Despite the generally strong supporting cast (which was one of the great strengths of Warner Bros.), it’s difficult to see that Priscilla Lane as anything but a cute kid and as a singer, she’s merely average. Yet perhaps it is clever casting – as an audience, we may ask ‘what does he see in her?’ Despite his later musings that he prefers a hotel to a nice home, to Eddie she represents and is everything that the rackets aren’t – clean, wholesome and good. And of course, no-one can help whom they fall in love with. Additionally, Jean provides an ‘out’ for Eddie and when proposing to Jean, he adds when seeing her reluctance (thinking it’s his lifestyle), ‘I’ll get out. A few more years in this business, I’ll have enough dough…so we can settle down and forget all this. How does that sound to ya?’ As George will later correctly judge, Eddie loves Jean and there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her. As we sadly discover.

Jeffrey Lynn as Lloyd never manages to stand even close to any of the other cast members, for my money. But, as Michael Grost points out in Classic Film And Television, his casting fits a character-type familiar in Walsh’s films. Eddie describes Lloyd as ‘big, dumb and good looking’ and even George tries to makes Eddie see that he is exactly the type of guy that Jean would go for. Lloyd is the romantic rival to Eddie and will provide Jean with respectability, certainty and stability.

However, the greatest performance of all is that of James Cagney and it is his delivery of Eddie Bartlett that truly lifts The Roaring Twenties into the realm of masterpiece. Eddie Bartlett as the gangster is a myth – but it is one the audience is desperate to believe. The subtleties of Cagney’s execution of the role, as well as the power of the performance, could not have been matched by any other actor. If The Roaring Twenties is a masterpiece, it is because Cagney’s performance is one as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Public Enemy (1931) – The shaping of the classic film gangster

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‘Why that dirty, no good, yellow-bellied stool. I’m gonna give it to him right in the head the first time I see him’.  James Cagney The Public Enemy (1931)

by Paul Batters

In my last article, the focus was on the gangster film: its’ inception and how it both reflected and was created by the context of the times. As a genre, it would change almost right after it emerged – in great part due to the new Hays Code but also because it expanded into new forms, across genres and most importantly, it had other things to say.

The original trilogy looked at the rise and fall of the gangster. Little Caesar and Scarface particularly feature a cold, cruel and brutal rise to power and an equally cold and brutal fall. The final scene of Enrico Bandello is a testament to how far he has fallen. The mis en scene of a lone figure in coat and hat, seeming small as he walks by a large billboard (ironically advertising his former friend turned dancer), as the cold, harsh wind and snow howls around him, certainly illustrates how pathetic and sad Bandello looks, adding to his deluded claims that he’ll be back one day at the top.

Two films that look at the gangster’s rise and fall still hold true to the fate of the gangster being one of futility. Both would star James Cagney. Both would be made at Warners Brothers. And both would have that special stamp of production that only Warner Brothers could bring to the gangster film, in terms of script, casting and direction. Both would arguably be bookends to the classic gangster film cycle.

This article will focus on the first film; one which made Cagney a star – The Public Enemy.

Directed by William Wellman, The Public Enemy deserves its’ reputation as a classic and a landmark film. The year of its’ release saw the world in the deep midst of the Depression and it still resonates with audiences today, even if it was a product of its’ time.

Even before we are launched into the story, Warner Bros. were cautious enough to begin with a written declaration, with the claim that the intention of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than to glorify the hoodlum or the criminal”. It is easy to see such a declaration from a pessimistic standpoint as an attempt to keep the critics and social watchdogs happy. However, as Richard Maltby pointed out in his 2003 review, ‘the complex and contradictory cultural position occupied by Hollywood’s representations of criminality in the early Depression’ is what needs to be considered. Variety, in 1931, saw the film as a ‘hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster’. Warner Bros. were aiming to make a tough, violent film that grabbed everyone’s attention – and they certainly succeeded.

From the opening titles, we are greeted with a staccato version of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, which not only acts as a theme song throughout the film but speaks universally of ‘dreams fading and dying’ and ‘fortune always hiding’. Whilst the lyrics are not sung, the audience would have been more than familiar with what was a hit tune and a standard from 1919 onwards. On occasion, it returns to it’s dreamy ¾ waltz time but sharply snaps back into it’s jumpy jaunt, as if bringing us back into the harsh reality that the film purports to show its’ audience.

The use of music works in tandem with the documentary style of director William Wellman. Music acts as a ‘time-stamp’, not only creating atmosphere but also setting the context and educating us. Americans in 1931 were still under Prohibition, even though its’ death knell had sounded but they are taken back to 1909 via an opening montage of the streets, the saloon and boys buying and drinking beer – a reminder of that pre-Prohibition period. It is a quick social history lesson on why Prohibition was introduced and the Salvation Army Band marching along the street further adds to the lesson, without needing dialogue.

Likewise, the director William Wellman’s use of diegetic sound also expands the experience of stepping back in time. The camera work belies the myth that early talkies became anchored and stationery to accommodate sound equipment. In the opening scene, the camera moves with fluidity as we absorb the sounds of the streets, combining with the visual montage. Wellman brilliantly uses diegetic and non-diegetic sound, colouring the story and giving it a deeper impact in the key moments of the film.

Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are young boys – ruffians who get up to mischief, with Tom particularly drifting into delinquency. Despite the warning from his older brother Mike and the beatings from father, Tom is not tamed. Even here, the film offers commentary on the usual explanations for social ills – poor parenting or lack of it. Despite a father who is also a policeman and beats him regular, the old adage of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ seems to be ineffectual and defunct. Tom’s father does not even speak to him and it appears the only relationship they have is one of violence, in complete contrast to the one Tom has with his mother. Even as he is about to be beaten, Tom shows no fear and indeed challenges his father asking ‘Well, how do you want them this time, up or down?’ as he indicates his trousers. As Tom is beaten, he neither cries out nor breaks into tears, accentuating the challenge that all the beatings in the world didn’t work before and won’t work now. Nearly 60 years later, Scorsese will amplify the same attitude in Goodfellas, as Henry (Ray Liotta) is beaten by his father, who reflects ‘every once and a while I’d have to take a beating. But by then, I didn’t care. The way I saw it, everybody takes a beating sometime.’ Tom Powers would have agreed wholeheartedly and understood the sentiment perfectly.

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Tom and Matt’s furthering into petty crime becomes more apparent when we are introduced to the Faginesque Putty Nose (Murray Kinnel) – who runs a ‘club’ for boys as well as other miscreants. He plays a song to amuse the boys on an upright piano, which ironically will serve as his own funeral dirge later on. Putty Nose cheats the two boys by paying a pittance for the petty theft of some watches.

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Jump forward a few short years and both Tom (James Cagney) and Matt (Edwards Woods) are now young men, whom Putty Nose convinces to help in a warehouse robbery. Despite his assurances that he will help them if they face trouble, Tom and Matt find Putty Nose gone after having to shoot a policeman. So much for honor among thieves!

Tom and Matt begin playing for larger stakes and their rise in the gangster world is accompanied by cold, brutal violence. The lesson is simple – the only way to the top is through violence, intimidation and murder. Those that do not learn that lesson are not only ‘soft’ but doomed to be stepped on. Working for Paddy Ryan, their rise is as fast as it is brutal.

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As Tom and Matt drift into larger criminal enterprise, Wellman contrasts this with another issue still very familiar to audience in 1931; those young American men who would join World War One and return to become ‘forgotten men’, broken by the war in body and spirit. Later when Tom’s brother Mike returns from France and a party is thrown, he and Tom again have an altercation but it is punctuated by Mike’s haunted face, screaming that the provided keg is filled with ‘beer and blood’ (reflecting Harvey F. Thew’s novel on which the film was based). The pain of returned soldiers betrayed by their governments, the Depression and society at large, was a very real issue and though not explicitly focused on by Wellman, there is an implicit undercurrent concerning the problem. Tom berates his brother’s moral attack on his life of crime when he fires back at him saying ‘you didn’t get all those medals holding hands with them Germans’. Again, the themes of choices comes to the fore – two brothers choosing two different paths; one of honesty, truth and honor. The other one of crime, money and power on the streets. What price will each one pay?

Movies can be attacked for their lack of reality yet there is a certain truth to the gangster attitude towards women. Both Tom and Matt meet Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) at a speakeasy and take up with them. However, only Matt has greater designs on Mamie, falling in love with her and later marrying her.

However, Tom sees Kitty as a passing object to enjoy until he tires off her, which he does soon enough. The famous ‘grapefruit’ scene had been discussed at length and will not be re-analysed here except to say the following; Powers’ misogyny is evident when he arrives at the breakfast table. When asking for a drink, Kitty’s questioning his need for a drink so early in the morning is followed by a brusque ‘ I didn’t ask for any lip. I asked if you had a drink’. Tom sees Kitty as nothing more than something to sate his needs and desires. The violent grapefruit in the face highlights his lack of respect for women but also points out that he isn’t the ‘marryin’ kind’. After leaving Kitty, he and Matt are driving down Michigan Ave, only to discover Gwen (Jean Harlow). Gwen, however, knows the rules and the suggestion that she prefers bad men also makes clear that she too is not the marrying kind. But she fits his need to look successful, using her as an object to advertise his success, along with his car, his flash clothes and his reputation. The domestic life that Kitty represents is not on the cards for Tom Powers.

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A particular scene removed from the film after the Production Code was established (and subsequently edited back in) also illustrates Powers’ attitude toward women. Later in the film, Powers is hiding out in a woman’s apartment, who seduces him whilst he is drunk. His reaction is one of violence and distaste. Tom Powers is the quintessential gangster – it is he who uses and seduces, not the other way around and control must be his. A sharp contrast to the gangster portrayals by Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), where he seems to be a ‘one man woman’ and treats women with respect.

Likewise, the teaming up of Tom and Matt with the flash ‘Nails’ Nathan, also reflects the reality of the bootleg gangster. They flaunt their wealth and achieve their success through brutal violence against all who either step in their way or refuse to buy their product. Again, this is not dissimilar to the way gangsters worked during Prohibition and Wellman wants this raw realism to come across on the screen. These gangsters lack compassion and their criminal lives are normalized to such a degree that violence and murder barely make a mark on their conscience.

This cruel streak is best illustrated in two particular scenes, both which Wellman cleverly crafts.

The first is their re-uniting with Putty Nose. Now both high profile members of the Nathan outfit, Powers spies Putty Nose at a nightclub and he wants his revenge for what happened years before. It appears that Putty Nose has also moved up a little in the world, as Tom, reluctantly accompanied by Matt go back to a definitely improved abode complete with grand piano. Putty Nose pathetically begs for his life, trying to use sentimentality as his savior. He even plays on the piano for them, singing the very song he performed to them as kids (which will now become his funeral song), hoping that Tom will show a shred of compassion for him. But it is futile. It is here that Wellman’s brilliance shines – as the murder occurs off camera. The unseen violence seems even more graphic as it is left to our imagine, aided by the sound of the gun firing, followed by staggered piano keys as Putty Nose’s now-dead body falls across them. It is a cold, brutal killing, giving the moment an almost psychopathic element when Tom adds afterwards ‘Well, I guess I’ll go call Gwen..’. Matt says nothing but just contains the horror on his face. For Tom Powers, murder is as common and ordinary as blowing his nose.

The second is their response to the death of ‘Nails’ Nathan. However, rivals do not gun him down. Instead, he dies in a horse-riding accident. Again, there is not compassion even for an animal and Tom and Matt head straight to the stables, gunning down the horse in its’ stall. Again, Wellman uses sound and the violence occurs off-screen. We hear the gunshots and the horse’s grunts as it dies. Our shock is matched by the horror of the extreme violence. Again, the cold, cruel violence of these gangsters is more than apparent and actually finds basis in reality; gangster Samuel ‘Nails’ Morton was killed in a riding accident and ‘revenge’ was taken on the horse by his underlings.

An interesting aspect of the filmmaking process is the murder of Matt by the rival ‘Schemer’ Burns gang. The setting up of a machine-gun across the road from Tom and Matt’s hiding place,

Wellman’s manipulation of the new sound opportunities for story telling is not a hand that he overplays. Appropriated from the real life murder of Hymie Weiss in 1926, Matt is gunned down in broad daylight, with Tom just escaping the bullets. Hiding behind a building corner, the bullets that Tom ducks away from which strike the masonry are not special effects; in fact they are real bullets fired from a real machine-gun controlled by veterans from World War One, who knew how to use a machine gun. It would be a few years before special effects could re-create bullets being fired.

The ending combines the best of Wellman’s direction. Tom seeks revenge on those who have cut down his long time friend and decides to deal it out himself. Standing in the pouring rain, Tom’s face breaks into a terrible grin before he heads into a gunfight where he will end up second-best. Only the gunshots and screams are heard, leaving the audience to picture the scene. Tom staggers into the pouring rain, which symbolically acts as a cleansing and finality to the violence. Or so it appears.

The film’s turn as family drama also takes another step into redemption at the end of the film. Hospitalized and recovering, the family go to see him and it is the first time that Mike and Tom connect and find some reconciliation between them. The whole film sees a family fractured by Tom’s descent (or ascent depending on your opinion) into crime but also by Mike’s refusal to allow Tom any leverage in the family. The one family member who seems to suffer the most, is Tom’s mother – kind, gentle and soft, and desperate to see the family happy and re-united. Her final happiness seems secured after the hospital scene and her lively singing and demeanour contrasts tragically with what will unfold. There seems to be some hope that all will end well until the final horrific ending – which still shocks today, despite the extremely graphic violence portrayed on today’s screen.

The brilliant work of director William Wellman cannot be overstated. A veteran pilot of World War One, Wellman was often accused of being difficult, contemptuous of actors and even a bully. Yet he was also an innovator, looking outside the apparent limitations of the new sound technology (and perhaps even inventing the boom microphone!). Wellman’s pacing, sense of story and interesting use of camera shots and angles give Cagney the framework within to work. Esquire’s Dwight McDonald, known for his scathing reviews, praised Wellman’s direction of the film and his subtle use of his main actor, allowing Cagney’s portrayal to grow as the plot unfolded.

But Wellman’s greatest asset to the film, as John McCabe outlined in his biography of Cagney, was his recognition of talent. Edwards Woods was initially signed to play Tom Powers, with Cagney in the secondary role. Yet Wellman was impressed with Cagney and could see no-one else in the main role of Tom Powers. Sticking to his guns, despite the studio politics that interplayed with the decision, Wellman won through. Wellman could see that Cagney could bring to the role something that the gentle Edward Woods could not; the tough realism and New York city smarts that Cagney possessed.

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Indeed, James Cagney himself pointed out that his portrayal of Tom Powers was based on a friend of his father ‘not as a character but the way I played him’ (Cagney); a gregarious raconteur with a great sense of humor, who ended up in Sing Sing for a pointless murder. Like his father’s friend, Cagney saw Tom Powers as a ‘damned soul’ but played him without the humor as there was ‘no time to do that’.

The Public Enemy stands tall today for one main reason – James Cagney. Whilst the rest of the cast do their job well and assist Cagney in his performance, Cagney is electric and dominates the screen. Variety in 1931 lauded his performance, though were less enamored with Jean Harlow (though they felt she had great presence, Variety felt her voice needed work). Cagney is all New York – in attitude as well as dialogue and speaking voice. Unlike the other actors, who carefully annunciate their words (an expectation during the early talkies), Cagney doesn’t hold back with his fast-talking banter, bringing a ‘realism’ to the role. The audience is also drawn to the physicality and sense of movement that Cagney possessed. Being a dancer, Cagney was aware of how to utilize space around him and move with a deftness and fluidity that his fellow cast members seem to lack. As a result, the audience cannot help but look at Cagney constantly, adding his own personal mannerisms that bring a uniqueness to the role. Cagney would employ a particular gesture that his father used; a gentle and affectionate tap to the jaw – a perfect example of such a mannerism. Furthermore, Cagney’s interactions with characters are filled with an energy that never tires.

Everything about Tom Powers does not make him a likeable character; his treatment of women, his use of violence, lack of compassion and overall career choice are all character traits that are deplorable. Yet Cagney became a star – his portrayal of Tom Powers was what a great, breakthrough role is to any actor seeking stardom. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of Tom Powers. It is Cagney’s courage and determination to play the role as totally unsympathetic. And yet the audience still has sympathy and connection with Tom Powers.

Variety in December, 1930 said this in its’ review of The Public Enemy: ‘There’s no lace on this picture. It’s raw and brutal. It’s low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow’.

That review still rings true today.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Gangster Film: The Classic Era and Why It Fascinated Audiences

by Paul Batters

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“Morning, gentlemen. Nice day for a murder.” Rocky Sullivan ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ (1938)

The story of the gangster has been a part of the film experience since the earliest days of cinema. Whether we like to admit it or not, audiences are both repelled yet fascinated by the darkest elements of our society and those who live in its’ shadows without keeping regular hours.

Film has shaped an anti-hero out of the gangster. Shaped out of some romanticised notion of the gangster as a rebel against the authorities and refusing to accept mediocrity, cinema has (inadvertently or not) played its’ role in shaping this persona. Our mouths open wide in shock and horror, appalled by the brutal and sometimes-indiscriminate violence these men in silk suits perpetrate. Yet we quietly admire their propensity to deal out swift justice to those that cross them. We can be disgusted by their ease in making money from criminal activities that plague our communities such as drugs and prostitution. Yet we yearn for financial freedom ourselves, as well as a taste of the glamorous life they seem to enjoy.

Despite the gangster film making its’ appearance in film industries outside Hollywood, authentic to their own cultural and social experiences, the gangster film as we know it was shaped in the U.S. Martin Scorsese has stated that the gangster film, like the Western, is an American genre borne out of an American context. Yet despite this, the gangster figure is very much an exotic figure, within its’ own space in the cultural milieu of Americana. And whilst a construct of the cinema and far removed from the reality, the cinema gangster has proven a glamorous and exciting figure to audiences.

Whilst there is conjecture over whether the gangster film stands alone as a genre or is a sub-genre of crime, it should be noted that the film gangster across such diverse areas as comedy, the musical and even in horror. Yet in whatever way the persona is brought across in specific genres, the film gangster is definitive in how he is identified. It is a persona clearly shaped during the formative years of the gangster film in the early 1930s.

As early as 1912, gangsters were portrayed in D.W Griffith’s Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) – a short that depicted the tough street gangs of New York City, specifically the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, preying on the innocent. To bring realism to the scenes, actual gang members were hired as extras, creating an atmosphere and introducing characteristics that would later become part of the quintessential screen gangster – the cocky swagger, charm and code of honour.

Honoured as the first ‘gangster film’, Musketeers Of Pig Alley’ depicts the gangsters as how they were perceived at the time – street hoodlums and thugs, armed with knuckle-dusters, knives and bats. It would still be some years before Prohibition would backfire and literally create the silk-suited, gun-toting mobster, awash with money from bootleg money and the clout to corrupt politicians and the law. However, it holds its’ place in film history.

Gangsters would still be depicted on film during the silent era and into the early years of the talkies. But the portrayals seemed unconvincing and were often secondary to the main storyline.

All that would change with the release of three films in the Pre-Code era– two by Warner Brothers within the space of a year and another by the eccentric Howard Hughes. All three would change cinema and the reverberations from those three films are still with us today.

Those films were Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931) and Scarface (1932).

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The public concept of the gangster was now well-entrenched, not by Hollywood but by the headlines in newspapers and even what people where witnessing in their own neighbourhoods and cities. The very law whose aim was to enforce morality upon American society would in essence to do the very opposite – Prohibition would end up encouraging people to drink, there would more drinking establishments in operation than before Prohibition and it turned ordinary people into law-breakers. Everyone knew where to get an illegal drink. The 1920s was a time flush with money, especially for the new rising gangsters who not only intended to make more money but also intended to keep control of how they made it – and show they were here to stay. The public admired some of these ‘colourful characters’, providing a service against what many believed was an unjust law.

But it was the Depression that would truly cement the persona in the public’s mind as a lone wolf railing against his circumstances and making it big, only to lose it all. There might have been the underlying morality tale of the wrongs of crime but the public suffering the effects of the Depression connected – they felt the system had failed and they were powerless to act. Even the politicians had no answer. Yet the gangsters seemed to have one – and audiences admired this.

The three aforementioned films would appeal to audiences for these reasons and more. Producers were switched on enough to know that sex and violence in films meant greater profits, and with the Depression having a disastrous impact on the film industry, the studios upped the ante.

Both Little Caesar and The Public Enemy tell the story of the meteoric rise and fall of tough guys Enrico ‘Little Caesar’ Bandello (Edward G Robinson) and Tom Powers (James Cagney), marked by ruthlessness and violence. The glamor of crime was obviously appealing to an audiences but the warning of what would befall anyone entering the world of crime was also clear. The allegory was obvious – the system could not be defeated and one needed to accept the world as it was, or face the consequences that Enrico Bandello and Tom Powers would.

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Both characters had great force of personality and were individuals against the world – those who got in the way would be hurt. But there was a price to pay. Whatever those consequences may be, these anti-heroes were magnetic and exploded off the screen in a way no character had before.

Whilst Bandello and Powers were fictional characters, there was no hiding who Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) of Scarface was. The Al Capone reference was painfully obvious. Like Bandello in Little Caesar, both were also Italian, making obvious reference to ethnicity and issues of immigration. Of the three films, Scarface is the more violent and moments in the film point to actual events that audiences would have identified.

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What also unites the films is that despite the violent endings of all three films and the underlying morality tale, Bandello, Powers and Camonte were not seen as the ‘bad guy’ by audiences and it was the authorities that audiences wanted to see fail in their pursuit of these criminal upstarts. Audiences transferred their frustrations with the so-called American Dream, inept government and corrupt officials onto the authorities they saw on the screen.

Robinson, Cagney and Muni were already established actors but their portrayals would launch them into the stratosphere. All three would not necessarily be typecast and their versatility would see them in a range of roles throughout their career. But both Robinson and Cagney would play gangsters again, bringing different approaches with storylines directed by the Hays Production Code.

It was no accident that Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and later George Raft would be working at Warner Brothers – the studio that would establish and dominate the gangster film cycle of the 1930s, in much the same way that Universal established the classic horror cycle. All the major studios would make gangster films but Warner Brothers defined it. There was a stylistic imprint that the studio had, particularly in the mid 1930s to early 1940s, which stood out with a crisp, cinematic composition, fast dialogue and honed characterisation.

The new code would change the gangster genre almost as soon as it was born. Whilst sex and violence was an issue, the real concerns were that the gangster was the focus for audiences and not the authorities fighting crime. As a result, the focus would switch – in a number of ways. Gangsters could be shown in a totally negative light as plot devices for the main story as in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), The Petrified Forest (1935), Kid Galahad (1937) and The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (1938). There would also be a shift to the authorities pursuing the criminals as in G-Men (1935), Bullets Or Ballots (1936) and Marked Woman (1937). Finally, the criminal or gangster could be depicted finally seeking salvation as in San Quentin (1937), Angels Wear Dirty Faces (1938) and Invisible Stripes (1939). Incidentally, Edward G Robinson, James Cagney, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart would appear in these films, playing across these shifts, in both gangster and authority roles.

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The question arose, as it does today – what creates the gangster? Film would answer that question by raising socio-economic concerns and that environment ultimately created the gangster. This was already evidenced to some degree in the original three films; they had emerged from the ‘lower classes’. The fall out of the Industrial Revolution had seen the emergence of the working class; the masses toiling and sweating in factories and living in impoverished conditions. Class-consciousness saw a working class with the cards stacked against them and unable to break the cycle. They saw the few in the higher echelons of society enjoying the fruits of success, from which they were cut off. To paraphrase the line from dozens of gangster films, those few rebels against society made a decision – to take what they would not be given. No wonder that the audiences consisting mainly of this working class connected with the gangster. Films like Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) would make commentary on how the streets created criminals and the plight of escaping a life of crime.

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In contrast, both films also raised the aspect of individual choice. In Dead End, Humphrey Bogart’s Baby Face Martin is very much a product of environment, growing tough in the slums and as he points out ‘ I got mine, I took it’. But Joel McCrea’s Dave Connell takes a different route. Despite growing up with Martin in the same slums, he becomes an architect. But here the harsh cruel reality hits home, which Martin himself laughs at, when the most work Dave can get is painting a store front window in the neighbourhood. Depression audiences would have resonated with this – the American Dream gone sour. Perhaps crime did pay after all – even if it was in the short term. In Angels With Dirty Faces, the story commences showing two pals, also tough and up to no good, who through a quirk of fate as much as choice take two different paths – Pat O’Brien becomes a priest, James Cagney a gangster. The earlier Manhattan Melodrama from MGM saw the same theme with Gable running an illegal casino and his boyhood pal William Powell becoming a D.A. How much is individual choice and much is circumstance?

The context of the 1930s also saw the concept of the ‘forgotten man’ – the World War One returned hero to whom promises were quickly neglected once the war was over. The Depression would hit them hardest of all and again, conditions seemed to determine the path some of these men has to take, as illustrated in The Roaring Twenties (1939) – arguably the last great film of the original gangster cycle; and fittingly Cagney in the star role, finishing what he helped to start.

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The arrival of World War Two and the end of the Depression did not see the end of the gangster film but certainly saw the end of the original gangster cycle that Warner Brothers has created and shaped. Even as it was ending, a new genre was emerging, hallmarked by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Film noir would offer another slant on the gangster, along with a new outlook on crime and the dark streets of the city. But society was also changing and the old style gangster in the world of crime was also defunct. The term organised crime took on a deeper meaning, where the ‘gangs’ had now become corporate, operating with a board of directors, using business language and leaving the ‘tough stuff’ to lackeys way down the ladder. I Walk Alone (1948) made this very clear, illustrating that things had changed in response to a darker, more sophisticated world.

Time and time again, the gangster has been re-invented to suit new contexts. New interpretations also prevented the gangster from becoming a one-dimensional caricature, unless being parodied or even dusted with a little sentimentality, where Wilder did both in Some Like It Hot (1960).

Yet there is something has remained unchanged since the 1930s gangster film. Despite the end of the Hays Code decades ago and the shift in values and attitudes in audiences since, the fate of the film gangster is usually a bad one. If the authorities don’t get their hands on them, the streets eventually will and usually do. It is an extremely rare film that sees the gangster walk off into the sunset to live out their years in peace. Theirs is a violent world and to that violence they succumb – however long it takes.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Defining The Classic Film: How We Value Cinema

by Paul Batters from Silver Screen Classics

Not too long ago, I was enjoying dinner with friends, when the subject of cinema came up. The conversation jumped back and forth between favourite films, actors and actresses, the Oscars and what was on at the cinemas. The word ‘classic’ film was thrown around – one person talked about a ‘classic’ film from the 80s, another spoke of a recent release being a ‘classic and so on. I started to think about my own personal view of what is a classic film. It differed at varied degrees with the people at the table.

So I posed the question – how do we define what is ‘classic film’?

We all paused for a moment and pondered the question. Interestingly enough, a range of responses were given:

“..films that are important to you”.

“…from the Golden Years of Hollywood…the old black and whites…”

“…like ‘classic literature’, films we call classic but have never seen”. (I liked that one)

“..movies that mean something and are special to everybody”.

There were other responses similar to the above and whilst I could connect with some of those answers, others left me in opposition to what was called a classic. Examples of classic films were also thrown around and the conversation collapsed into accusations of poor taste and lack of judgement (all in an exceedingly friendly way, of course)

Reflecting on this afterwards, it was clear that what makes a classic film is our perception of its’ value – and audiences and individuals value films in a variety of ways. Indeed, the ‘success’ of a film is valued using different measuring sticks.

Counting the dollars

The first and most obvious is monetary or financial value. Let’s face it, filmmaking is about money – we call it the ‘film industry’ or ‘the movie business’. A film goes into ‘production’. Cinema has been about making money from its’ very inception. The more money made, the more movies can be made. The term ‘blockbuster’ suggests the big movie that everyone is going to see and is making a ridiculous amount of money – some could be called ‘classics’ whereas it is debatable whether some deserve to considered as such. Judging a film to be a classic by its’ financial success is, I believe, folly. Think The Wizard Of Oz (1939), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) or even a more modern cult-classic like Bladerunner (1982). All three either made a small profit or were a financial flop. Yet, they usually end up on ‘classic film lists’. Men In Black (1996) and Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985) were massive hits in their day and made ridiculously more money than the former three on theatrical release– but classics? Doubtful!

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Yet blockbusters such as Gone With The Wind (1939), Ben Hur (1959) and Star Wars (1977) certainly made money and are considered classics. The first two would also share in a swag of Oscars, with Ben Hur (1959) holding the record for most Oscars until it was equalled by James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) – a film that this writer feels should not be mentioned in the same breath as Ben Hur. All three are still watched by millions and have their place in the pantheon of classic films for a myriad of reasons.

But Is It Art?

The critics and academics value film markedly different. They see film as art and judge a film’s value by its’ artistic merits. In some ways, the critics and academics are the gatekeepers of the intrinsic worth of a film, dissecting it to find the deeper meaning and workings of what the film-makers have created. – film technique, the work of the director, the actors and all those involved in the process are disseminated. As mere mortals, we often turn to their expertise to get the heads up on whether it’s worth our hard-earned dollars to go to the cinema (assuming of course that no-one reading this downloads illegally). As often as they are correct (Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael et al), they are equally just as mistaken. We can all name those films that the critics dumped on yet have become iconic and/or box office hits. Additionally, there are movies they hailed yet barely made a squeak with audiences.

And The Award Goes To…

How we value film is also shaped by the perception of how it is valued – it is awarded or recognised by peers through formal ceremony. For example, in both mainstream and social media, around lunch tables, at bus-stops and on trains to and from work, there is discussion over who will win the Academy Award for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director etc. Bets are placed on who will win and there is great pomp and circumstance that accompanies the ceremony. There will be discussion afterwards regarding who deserved the awards and the executive producers know that their film will now have an extra boost, even gravitas, in terms of its financial and critical value.

We perceive that if films are award winners then they must be good.

Yet awards are not necessarily the perfect gauge for what will be valued as a classic film. Films we consider as classic, in quite a number of cases, were not even nominated let alone present as contenders. In popular culture, both Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) have left their indelible mark in one way or another – can you name the films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1931? (For the record, the winner was Cimmaron, a western – which has not held up over time, despite the critics’ high praise at the time). The Shawshank Redemption (1995) gained Oscar nominations but no awards and even some of the critics were tough on it. Yet how many people out there will rate it as a favourite? Perhaps even a classic?

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And as we know, the Academy Awards, for example, have been plagued with favouritism, nepotism, financial pressures and a great deal of lobbying from powerful figures and companies. So should we rely on awards to tell us what is a classic film?

Additionally, there are endless lists of ‘100 Best Films’, compiled by a range of distinguished bodies, individuals and media. In many cases, the lists are likewise distinguished and deserve recognition – although I feel it is a difficult, even futile, exercise to rank films. In many cases, interestingly enough, the number of awards won, has not necessarily played a role in determining what films make the cut on a ‘best films list’.

A galaxy of stars

Names with ‘star quality’ are often considered the markers of what makes a classic film. Indeed, Hollywood has long established this as the sure-fire audience getter. In the years of the silent era, film-makers knew that the name of the main ‘star’ was enough to secure great success – the names of Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino are still known to us. Yet there were other names just as big yet today forgotten such as Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, Olive Thomas and Harold Lloyd that are less known today or forgotten yet meant serious success at the box office. Little has changed – the movie business still markets its’ films by who’s starring in it. Even directors were and are still star material, whose names insinuate a film worthy of success. The name of Cecil B De Mille above a film title would immediately suggest as such. Yet even he had his flops.

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Again, there is a great danger in assuming that a classic film is one, which has a cast of stars, a star director, star producer and a star script-writer (yes, it’s possible to have a star script-writer – well, I’m hoping so!). Again, we can all think of films that had these characteristics and failed to ignite an audience and are forgotten. There are other films that have become classics that had none of the ‘star quality’ by which we often value a film.

And there’s the rub (for the film industry at least)– for what touches our hearts and souls at their very depths and are planted there to sustain our spirits all our lives cannot be qualified by such a formula. Thankfully, the very failure of the formula as a business plan for movie making is enough proof.

Classics across genre

Films can be considered a classic within a genre – think classic Westerns or classic horror. There are ‘cult classics’ as well and even films so bad they’re good a la ‘Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956) and our own personal ‘classics’ (we all have our guilty pleasures – taste not withstanding!). All may be worthy of a place but can they ‘break through’ genre and be universally classic for everyone? The answer from some may be – who cares? And that may necessitate further discussion at a later date. At the risk of evoking the wrath of some, I will venture to suggest that a film would have to break from being strictly a ‘horror classic’ and drop the adjective in front – to be considered a classic film in the purest sense. Evil Dead (1981) is a cult-classic and arguably a horror classic but it simply does not break through into being a universal classic and never will. High Noon (1954) is obviously on a higher plane and while technically a ‘western’, transcends into something not bound by genre and reaches us all – despite a simple plot with a greater complexity underpinning the story.

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Give it time!

 Quite often, the longevity of a film and the question whether it stands the test of time is also bandied about as a criterion for what makes a classic. On the surface, this makes perfect sense – the suggestion that a film can still be ‘watchable’ to a modern audience and that they still have something to say in a modern context.

Yet this suggestion does the innate quality and value of a film a great disservice. Whilst understandable that we will look at a film from our own context, which is unavoidable, the appreciation of an art-form must also be considered through other contexts, readings and interpretations. The inherent value of D.W Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation (1914), Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919) cannot be over-stated; not to mention the many other films that he made. Every director today owes so much to the great man – as it was Griffith who not only put up the canvas but expanded the palette – creating not only the camera angles that are the stock techniques of any director but showed how story could be told on film. Griffith’s work still fascinates in big part due to its’ historical value and the appreciation for his work in the formative years of cinema. And of course – as art.

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Interestingly, Intolerance was a failure at the box office at the time of its’ release and there are numerous reasons why. Audiences and critics were not overtly thrilled. Yet time has give it the respect that it deserves. Time allows an outstanding wine, to improve with age, to develop character and depth. The classic film becomes so in the same way. The rubbish turns to vinegar and sours – no matter how much of it sells to the public.

So what makes it a classic?

The appreciation of classic film and understanding what defines it means we all need to expand our horizons and go beyond the safe harbour of what we know. If our ships do not set sail to discover the new and take risks in doing so, we learn nothing and our understanding of film is limited. It often saddens me when I hear people say, ‘I don’t like foreign films because I hate reading subtitles” or “Black and white films are boring”. To paraphrase Scorsese in his advice to film students – study the old masters and expand the canvas.

Undoubtedly, film is valued because of what it provides to us – as individuals and as a community. Film allows us to transcend the ordinary and the banal, the boring and the normal. It can even transcend our own contexts, which will always influence our connection to a film. Whilst the element of escapism is obviously present, it is more than that – we form a relationship with film. We step into history, we fight the good fight, we live out dreams and fantasises but we also reveal and bring forth our hopes. We stand with soldiers in a trench about to throw ourselves into a futile battle. We watch a lost love leave on train as the rain falls. We cry out against the injustice of a people enslaved and watch evil at its’ worst as it sends humans into the gas chamber. We absorb the victory of the individual against all odds or a people overcome adversity. And all the while we project ourselves into those places. Film tears down the barriers we construct to display raw emotions but also to provoke us to think and dwell on the human experience. In the darkened theatre or even on the lounge at home, we also share in that experience with fellow humans. There is a great power to this, not so easily achieved and even then in a narrow field of opportunity. Film provides that wonderful opportunity.

When film does provide that opportunity, when it has an impact beyond its’ own context that can be appreciated and celebrated and when as art it inspires us, then we have a classic. Though important, ‘standing the test of time’ is not enough – because sometimes we need to meet that film half-way. But film does need time and longevity to imbed itself and become part of the cultural memory. The passing of time plays its’ role in determining what makes a classic film.

In the end, the story is what will grab us and we may emerge from that viewing (no matter how many times we view it) a different person who has gained something new. If film does this for us, then it’s in that capacity that film has it’s true value – and can and should be deemed a classic.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.