Patron Saint Of The Mad Scientist: A Look At ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)

by Paul Batters

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‘Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?’ Dr Moreau

The early 1930s saw the beginnings of the classic horror cycle, spawned by the incredible success of Universal’s two big releases, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932). Both films would put Universal on the map as the home of horror and other studios also sought to cash in on Universal’s success. Even M.G.M did with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Paramount faired a little better with the brilliant remake of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932) and in the same year made another film that, like Freaks, would be banned in the U.K. Based on the story ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, its’ author H.G Wells would also denounce the film. Despite Paramount’s huge advertising campaign, it was a commercial failure as well.

It would be forgotten until revived when interest in classic horror films grew during the 1960s, thanks to television re-runs and monster movie magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

As a result, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) has become a curiosity, as much as a deserved addition in the pantheon of the mad scientist genre.

So what makes it interesting?

The story itself has all the hallmarks of the horror film with the mad scientist at its’ core. On an isolated island, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with turning different animals into humans, delving into the possibilities of speeding up the process of evolution. This is itself reflects the aberration that other mad scientists find themselves involved with. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to create life from dead human tissue, Moreau aims to transform already living animals into humans. However, the aberration does not end there, as he also aims to mate his ‘creations’. It is into this world that our heroes, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) are thrown, with Moreau’s intent to make them part of his experiments. At first, Moreau shows them his successes but also his ‘less successful experiments’ with a casual wave. Horrific enough – but there is more horror to come! Needless to say, the reviewer will attempt to avoid any further plot developments in order to spare the reader any spoilers. But of course no guarantees can be given.

Thematically, The Island Of Lost Souls does explore the classic features of the mad scientist. Dr Moreau is a man who has isolated himself from the world in his pursuits and forgone the methodology of his discipline. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sneers at the mainstream scientific world and seeks answers in the same sacrilegious way. But of course such isolation creates a greater disconnect from a moral centre which questions his actions, as well as the fundamental aspect of science – peer assessment and the challenging of theories. Moreau, as a result, becomes a man who sees himself beyond reproach and thus the danger has long set in for Moreau. His sense of himself as a ‘god’ mirrors what Frankenstein initially feels. At one point, Moreau literally plagiarises Frankenstein and states “Do you know what it feels like to be God?’ However, Frankenstein’s ‘God moment’ will not last, as he is repelled by his creation and regrets his mistakes. Moreau, however, is undeterred and like the true mad scientist, continues ‘working ‘, not merely intoxicated by his ‘Godliness’ but is completely immersed in it.

Like Frankenstein, Moreau does not wish to be at the mercy of nature. Indeed, his goal is to control it, again reflecting the perception of himself as God. His desire to mate his creations with the at-first unsuspecting heroes of the story, expands on this desire for control. Yet here runs a deeper thematic concern that Moreau is as much a prisoner of this as are his creations. His desire to be God will be his downfall, as is the lot of any mad scientist. Trapped on his own island, Moreau is also trapped by his obsession and unable to look beyond it. Strangely, the concept of reason, which is a fundamental principle of science, eludes him completely. Admittedly, Parker’s attempt to play wiser head to Moreau is not only poorly done but also futile as well as beyond the reach of Parker. Moreau has developed his own logic to suit his schemes and experiments – as any mad scientist who knows his or her business would do.

Moreau is not ‘mad’ in the deranged sense of the world, nor is he a sadist fulfilled by the infliction of pain. Indeed, he is indifferent to the pain, which he inflicts, especially when examining his creations. The scene where he is examining Lota the Panther woman is particularly horrific, not only because of the pain and disgust that it draws from the audience but more so due to Moreau’s complete disconnection from Lota’s pain and the clinical method in which he examines her. As Randy Rasmussen points out in “Children Of The Night’, Moreau is enraged at Lota’s bestial flesh regaining its’ dominance but rejoices at her tears, as they betray her humanity – the aim of his experiments.

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But Moreau as God cannot only be sustained by his own self-image. It needs to be fed and endorsed by followers – hence the congregation being his own creations. Like any god, Moreau sets the laws to be lived by, partially so that he can control them but also because it feeds his god-like status and illustrated his control over nature. The laws are spoken as ritual by the creatures and they are further controlled by the fear of the House Of Pain, the place of punishment where the breakers of the law are sent. Moreau’s whip and gun are but extensions of his will, both of which represent law and order rather than any sadistic quality.

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The greatest strength of the film is the characterisation of Dr Moreau by the irrepressible Charles Laughton. I would venture to say that his performance is beyond the film and one of the key features that lifts it out of mediocrity. The display of arrogance as an all-knowing scientist with a powerful God complex becomes apparent from the smallest gesture in the way he casually wields his whip to the use of his voice when he commands his creations. The goatee adds a satanic element, contrasting with his white suit, making for a stark appearance. But this is accentuated by the almost relaxed manner in which Laughton strides and the supreme confidence is more than apparent, particularly when he reveals his abhorrent experiments and mad scheme to Parker. Laughton dominates every scene, leaving his fellow cast members looking wooden and staid.

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However, in fairness, there is another performance, which deserves mention. It easy to miss Bela Lugosi in his extremely hirsute role as the Sayer Of The Law. Under the layers of hair, Lugosi emanates the tortured soul of Moreau’s creation, repeating the mantra of his creator’s law, “Are we not men?” It is the question, which reflects one of the great questions regarding what makes us human – is it enough to have that consciousness? For Moreau’s experiments, this is the key aspect to what it means to be human. The very asking of the question suggests that human consciousness is present. The ending of the film will suggest even more, with quite the allegory about who makes laws to govern – God or humans?

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Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman played a roll which was central to the marketing campaign for the film’s release. Beautiful and sensual, Burke is also effective in the role. Lota is the prize creation for the mad scientist and Burke successfully portrays the duality of the role.

In the end, Moreau will face the terrible and awful dilemma that seems to be the lot of the mad scientist. As tempting as it is, this reviewer will not give away that ending. Needless, to say the audience will recognize the irony for the mad scientist who becomes undone by his own devices. Despite the genius of the mad scientist, being doomed to failure seems to be his or her lot in the genre. Perhaps the mad scientist’s greatest sin is that he commits the greatest sacrilege not necessarily against God but against science itself and the laws of nature.

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The Island Of Lost Souls feels like a journey into darkness – one that is disturbing and at times repellent, particularly in view of the cruelty of the key character. The greatest irony is that the mad scientist, believing they are bringing enlightenment into the world, has created that darkness. Instead of improving the world, the mad scientist has inflicted pain, trauma and death. Moreau is the very symbol of the mad scientist and that ultimately the very person that he has fooled most of all – is himself.

The Island Of Lost Souls is available through the Criterion Collection and is a must for not only fans of horror film but also those who are captivated by the mad dreams of the mad scientist.

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.

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A Pre-Code Tale: Review Of ‘Dark Hazard’ (1934)

by Paul Batters

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“If you marry that gambler, you’ll marry into a life of trouble and disaster.”

The Pre-code Hollywood period is a fascinating time for film and still fascinates audiences today, perhaps more than ever. The time period for Pre-code is relatively brief, from 1929 through to June 1934 when the Code took hold. But what a period it was for film! Pre-Code Hollywood challenged old norms and values and saw the emerging of new stars and even new genres. Whilst Dark Hazard would not be one of the period’s ‘classics’, it is still an interesting film for fans of Pre-Code and particularly for fans of one of Hollywood’s greats, Edward G. Robinson.

Released by Warner Brothers in February 1934 and directed by Alfred E. Green, Dark Hazard has all the appearance of a morality tale but twists and turns into anything but. Indeed, a very different ending can be imagined if Dark Hazard had been made a year or two later!

Jim Turner (Edward G. Robinson) is a professional gambler, outlined in the opening scene when he wins $20,000 at the racetrack. Alongside him is Val (Glenda Farrell), who seems very at ease and in her natural environment of fast action and excitement. As Jim collects, a fellow behind him looks on begrudgingly, just before he collects his winnings of $6. But Turner’s success is short-lived, as in the next scene he is cleaned out at a casino, left to borrow $5 from the doorman for a cab ride. Jim slides from successful gambler to working as a cashier at the same racetrack where he won his fortune, seeking lodgings at a boarding house run by Mrs. Mayhew (Emma Dunn), a dour fuddy-duddy who asks for references and demands ‘good character’ of her boarders. Jim is especially taken, by Mayhew’s beautiful daughter Marge (Genevieve Tobin), who doesn’t seem bothered by his working at a racetrack.

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The pacing of the film moves fast, perhaps a little too fast. By the next scene, Marge intends to marry Jim, sternly warned by her mother that the marriage is doomed because of Jim’s past as a gambler. Marge claims Jim is all done with gambling but the warning will proves ominous. It’s only ten minutes into the film and Jim and Marge are married and living in Chicago where, working as a hotel clerk, he comes across John Bright (Sidney Toler), who constantly provokes Jim. Wanting to keep his job, Jim ignores the constant ribbing, remembering the advice of his dour and hard-hearted boss that he needs to ‘look out for number one’ and that ‘jobs are scarce’. The financial troubles of Marge’s family add to Jim’s pressures. Although he stays true to his promise to not gamble, Jim can’t help but look at the form guide, giving tips to other hotel guests who show their appreciation by sharing in their winnings.

During Christmas, Jim sneaks away from the front desk to see Marge in their room. However, Jim makes it clear why he’s there to see her and whilst there is nothing salacious about sexual desire between husband and wife, it’s certainly a reflection of the Pre-Code era that such desire is shown! As Marge shoos him back to work, Jim even begs ‘just five minutes, Marge’, as he paws and kisses her. The intimacy shown on screen, even between a married couple, would become too much for the Code after 1934.

The turn of events for Jim will come after an altercation with Bright sees him fired, with Bright daring Jim to meet him at a nearby restaurant the next morning. Jim does just that and starts a scuffle, which ends with Bright and his off-sider, calming the situation down and explaining that the whole thing was ‘a joke’ and producing one of the best lines in the film as he tells Jim ‘Don’t be an Airedale and sit down’. The scene also shows Robinson at his toughest in the film, showing no fear when he’s threatened with a gun and even daring the holder to use it.

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This impresses Bright and it turns out that he was testing Jim all along, wanting him to run a racetrack in California. Jim is ecstatic as not only is the money good but he returns to the game that he knows best, with people he can deal with. Marge is unhappy at his newfound job but goes along with him to California to a new life in a nice home with a garden.

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At this point in the film, what becomes evident is the inversed world depicted. Something, which could only happen in the world of the Pre-Code era. Jim and the people he integrates with, all operate and socialize in the world of gambling, which by all other standards is occupied by shady characters, gangsters, loose women and ne’er-do-wells. Yet in Dark Hazard, they are all honest, straightforward and stand by each other. There’s no backstabbing or exploitation and a win is happily paid and a loss stoically accepted. Val doesn’t try to juice him for his winnings at the track. When Jim loses his money, the doorman happily lends him money for a cab. John Bright, at first, exudes nastiness and appears to be a bully. Yet he’s testing Jim, seeing greater worth in him and treating him square once the joke is over. Later in California when Jim is checking the books, he finds everything is square and those involved in the day to day running of the track have also been square.

However, most of the people outside Jim’s world are quite the opposite. Despite the façade of respectability, principle and honesty, the people in this larger world are mean, double-faced and pretentious. Marge’s family is not exactly one filled with happiness nor one with principle. Mrs. Mayhew looks down her nose at Jim for his gambling, with her snooty, judgmental and disparaging remarks when he first appears at the boarding house. Hypocrisy could be added to her list of failings, as later she seems to have no qualms about sending letters to her daughter for money. Marge’s brother is a no-account and weak individual, leaning on anyone for money and apparently indulging in his own vices. Pres Barrow (George Meeker), an early boyfriend of Marge’s, looks sneaky enough and we learn that he ‘owns most of the town’, a hint at small-town corruption and entitlement. Jim’s boss at the hotel is not only mean and cantankerous but also cruel, ordering Jim to throw out a guest who is behind on the rent at Christmas. Chicago is pretty cold that time of the year!

But it is Marge particularly who disappoints. When they first meet, she apparently has no problems with Jim’s being a professional gambler. But she never accepts him for who he is and what he does, pushing him to change and because Jim loves her, that’s what he tries to do. Marge also complains about lack of money and worries for her family back home in Ohio instead of her own home and marriage. As the story progresses, Marge will disappoint even further.

The turning points in the film arrive while Jim is at the track.

The first is a reunion with Val, which obviously indicates some feelings still exist. They reminisce over some stories, which allude to intimacy beyond what the Hays Code would come to accept. Val isn’t bitter that Jim is married nor does it stop her from having other designs on him. She smiles and throws a line without any bile: ‘Another good man on the straight and narrow’, which also indicates her view of marriage and what it does to people.

The second turning point in the story is Jim’s discovery of Dark Hazard, the greyhound and it will be this meeting that will be fortuitous. Marge’s frustrations with Jim’s gambling and lifestyle will deepen with his obsession of the racing dog and it will come to represent the rift that continues to grow between them. Jim, on the other hand, cannot see what lies ahead and as with any addiction, tries to wave away Marge’s concerns without listening to her. In fairness to Marge, who finds herself pregnant, her concerns exacerbate when bills aren’t paid and the gambling increases. She is also unimpressed with Jim’s friends, particularly one evening when Val arrives with two other friends, one of which is more than inebriated. Val makes it clear to Marge that she and Jim had shared more than just friendship, which adds further fuel to the fight between Marge and Jim.

It will prove the breaking point and Marge wants Jim to leave. Jim still refuses to see the damage being caused. Indeed, Jim succumbs to a night out gambling with Val till all hours and it’s when they get back to her hotel that Val tests Jim in a very sensual way. Lying back on a divan, Val offers herself up to him, accentuating her assets and letting her body do the talking. Jim is obviously tempted but stays true to Marge and is shooed off my Val. Jim delivers a line heavy with suggestion and one which must have bothered the censors:

‘It’s the first time I ever let you down, Val’.

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Jim returns to his home at the crack of dawn, with $20,000 in winnings in his pocket. He thinks that this will pacify Marge and he even lies that he has just woken up to water the bamboo. Marge delivers her best line, with a brilliant wisecrack:

‘Looks like you’ve been watering the bamboo all night’.

The moment is taken for granted but Marge then pulls a fast one on Jim, leaving with his money and returning home to Ohio. She also leaves a note that if he truly wants to make a change and leave behind his gambling, that he can go to her and they can start again. After all, there is also a child on the way.

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As affable and likeable as Jim is – and as much as the audience is not thrilled with Marge – one cannot help but be disappointed in Jim’s decision not to follow. Marge does care for him and instead of thinking of her and his unborn child, Jim chooses gambling.

Time passes and the last couple of years have not been kind to Jim. Shabby and broke, he train hops to Ohio and ends up on Marge’s doorstep. His former mother-in-law is shocked to see him but Marge welcomes him in. He discovers that Marge is seeing her old flame Pres Barrow and that she is seeking a divorce.

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Yet despite this, Jim agrees to reform and reaches out to Marge, and they re-connect. But it will not last long – as Dark Hazard comes back into his life. Saving the dog from being put down, Jim purchases the dog and brings it home, to which Marge responds with exasperation and resignation that their marriage cannot survive. Yet for Jim, Dark Hazard is symbolic of his own situation. Like Jim, Dark Hazard is broken and given up as a failure and a has-been. Jim sees his bringing Dark Hazard back to health and success as a form of his own personal revival and phoenix-like rising from the ashes of defeat. But this desire will be the death knell for his chances with Marge. The marriage collapses into Jim starting to drink and Marge seeing Pres Barrow again and the audience cannot help suspect that Pres Barrow has been agitating behind the scene. A confrontation where Jim slugs Barrow becomes the final realization for Jim that his marriage is doomed, as Marge comforts Pres.

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If this were a morality tale, which is how it appears up to this point, the final scene would be Jim standing on a dusty road with Dark Hazard. Pathetically sharing a sandwich with the dog, Jim seems deluded as he claims that he’ll make it big again. This is where the story should end – with Jim defeated by his gambling addiction. Not only has Jim lost his winnings over time but more importantly he has lost his wife and child and any possibility of a secure and happy future. Jim’s future appears doomed.

Yet that is not the way of the Pre-Code world.

The audience discovers that Dark Hazard has recovered and Jim has been travelling around the world, making his fortune and becoming a great success. Dark Hazard has proved the winning ticket for Jim and not only is he living the good life but the audience discovers that Jim is with Val.

Jim has the final word, delivering a line which links back to an earlier attempt by Val to get Jim into bed:

“This time, honey, I won’t disappoint you!”

Oh my!

Dark Hazard is by no means a classic and to be fair is in many ways a forgotten film. (Incidentally, I first saw it on the old TNT channel and it has been released as part of Warner Archive’s ‘8th Forbidden Hollywood’ collection on DVD). Yet it perfectly illustrates the values of the time and reflects the zeitgeist of the Depression Era. Jim Turner is very much a man on his own against the world, bucking against a system that demands subservience to a failed economy. He makes his own luck and owns the losses, as much as he owns the big wins. Jim is not a violent man but he stands up for himself, when it all becomes too much. Even in this day and age, Jim’s story is one that encourages us to be true to ourselves and not lose our identity to please others.

Audiences would have admired these characteristics at a time when most people felt powerless. They would have cheered when the hotel boss got his just desserts, as he represents the type of employer that many of them would have had. But he also represents the economy, which brought so many to their knees and the lack of empathy from those in power for those who were struggling. The same could be said for Pres Barrow, the kind of small town baron who had control and power over peoples’ lives. As far as Jim is concerned, Pres interferes in his marriage to Marge and he decides to do something about it. There is futility in Jim’s punching Pres Barrow and perhaps many in the audience would have empathized with the futility of hitting out against monster that the Depression was.

On another level, Dark Hazard is the story of the rise and fall, and incredible rise again of Jim Turner – a man whose transparent independence also reveals something deeper. He is a man who prides himself on his ability to pick a winner and whose sense of self-worth is very much shaped by winning and winning big. ‘People used to pay plenty’ for his tips, he says, reflecting how he measures his self-worth. When meeting again with Val at the racetrack, she reminisces how a casino shut down its’ tables when they saw Jim approaching. Jim gets all puffed up, enjoying the story and affirming his identity as a top gambler,

In spite of the seeming moralizing of the dangers of gambling, Jim finds redemption and even greater success – through gambling!

Thus, Dark Hazard IS a morality tale but not the one you thought you were watching!

When all is said and done, the film belongs to one man alone and that is Edward G Robinson. And let’s be honest, the film only gets any viewing today because he’s in it. With the pacing and storyline slightly awry, E.G holds it together with an enthusiastic performance, with flashes of the tough guy thrown in for good measure where necessary to the plot.

Genevieve Tobin is as beautiful and angelic as always, yet I find it hard to warm to Marge. She loves Jim yet wants him to change. She pressures him with her family’s financial problems and he’s more than willing to help – yet complains about the way he obtains the answer. In some ways, Marge represents straight society with all its’ claims to propriety and decency, yet reeking with hypocrisy and condemnation. Additionally, despite her claim to love Jim, she rarely accepts his true nature despite knowing exactly who he is and what he does.

Perhaps the most under-used player in the performance is the always-electric Glenda Farrell, who lights up the screen and is quicker than what the director’s pacing allows. For my money, Farrell is the perfect partner for E.G and she plays her part to the hilt. As Val, she is certainly fun to be around and you can see Jim is perhaps still taken with her, even though he is married. The hot seduction scene is shaped as much by the sultry Farrell laying back and showing her goods, as much as it is countered by Jim’s hesitation and final refusal. Val isn’t exactly angry but certainly disappointed and her shooing him away illustrates this. I get the sense that inside Val is saying to herself ‘what happened to you, Jim? Did you lose your manhood when you got married, as well as yourself?’. This is certainly obvious when in deliberate ear-shot of Jim, she picks up the phone and asks the porter for a wheelchair, adding before the screen fades ‘No, I didn’t do anything to him’.

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But what I feel is most admirable about Val is that she doesn’t want Jim to change and encourages him to be himself – honest and true to who he is. Val is no gold-digger either nor does she waste his money. Indeed, at the end of the film we see that Jim’s spend-happy demeanor has been tempered. It’s Val who exercises some fiscal responsibility. Moreso, Val never quits on Jim and obviously loves and wants him even when he is married. Yes, there is an attempt at seduction but not because Val is a seductress in the classic sense. She wants Jim but she won’t wreck a marriage per se and sends him off home. In fact, she just might be enticing Jim to be himself and be true to his own instincts and thus be truly happy. Marge on the other hand is rarely happy with Jim and eventually gives up on him, even taking his winnings and running back to Ohio. 

In his autobiography, ‘All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography’ (1973), Robinson claimed that he ‘loathed it’ and appeared glad that it was a forgotten film. Being the consummate professional that he was, it’s hard to find that sense of loathing in his performance. 

Fans of Edward G Robinson will still enjoy this odd little Pre-Code film and indeed fans of Pre-Code will also be surprised by how entertaining Dark Hazard is. So if you have 70 minutes to kill one fine evening or on a Sunday afternoon, try Dark Hazard and enjoy the strange little ride it takes you on.

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.

Romance In Classic Film – Where Tragedy Speaks Greater Than Forever After

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Film is an incredible visual and aural expression, which an audience forms relationship with at a range of levels. Horror will draw out our fears, terrifying us and perhaps even haunting our dreams and nightmares. But we will not be terrorised by vampires and werewolves. Sci-fi astounds us with incredible worlds, strange beings and technology beyond our imagination. Yet the chances of travelling at light-speed or being trained by an old and elfish master on a distant planet are very slim indeed. Westerns still take us to a frontier, which is long gone and we ache to be the hero we see on screen. Yet the truth remains that we are not necessarily heroic nor will we face the bad guy with a six-shooter when the sun is high. We will not meet a pharaoh nor dine with a king.

But there is something that all of us will experience to varying degrees – no matter how old one is. Of all the stories that have been told on film, the love story is one that can reach everyone.

One of the great ironies of romance on film is that there is an incredible vastness to how it is portrayed. Often relegated as ‘chick flicks’ or ‘women’s pictures’, love stories have a habit of spanning a number of possibilities – beautifully produced and enduring, warm, fuzzy and perhaps a little too saccharine and even corny and then the absolutely nauseating. The love story on film is often in the eye of the beholder – one person may see romance on film as touching and sweet whereas another reaches for the bucket.

Romance on film needs to be looked at in context of the genre and an audience needs to remember that the love story can be dealt with in a variety of ways. For example, comedy can be light-hearted or even ruthless in its’ dealing with a love story. Screwball comedy is particularly adept at handling romance, with break-neck speed and examining the love story at a very different angle.

Of all the love stories ever told on film, the most beautiful, touching and enduring stories are those that are tragic. Words often become redundant when trying to encapsulate the incredible emotion when watching the film end – and two lovers part forever.

I will briefly look at five films which audiences will be more than familiar with that I believe prove my point.

Be prepared for spoilers!

Gone With The Wind (1939)

GWTW is perhaps one of the best examples of the classic Hollywood studio film – few films can boast neither such grandeur nor such an incredible cast. Yes, there is incredible controversy in how slavery, the South and the Civil War were portrayed. But that is not what we’re focusing on here, tempting as it may be.

GWTW is many stories but I would argue it is ultimately a love story – one of unrequited love. The story’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is surrounded by men who want her and declare their undying love for her. Yet her heart aches for a man she cannot have, one Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who is engaged to be married to Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though Ashley will later admit during a mad moment of weakness that he does love Scarlett, he also states that it is Melanie whom he ultimately loves and understands. Scarlett seems to pine for something that she cannot ultimately understand, which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) points out to her. However, this very truth will allude Scarlett to the very end and when she realises it will be late.

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On the flipside, Rhett Butler is ‘no gentleman’ but he is real and full of life and experience. He knows the world and understands it better than most. Despite everything, he cannot help but also fall for Scarlett, not in the foppish manner of her many other suitors but with a passion and aggression that is all consuming.

Scarlett will marry twice (not for love) but firstly for petty, immature reasons and secondly for survival. Her third marriage to Rhett will also fail, for a complexity of reasons. But ultimately it fails due to her blindness and failure to see happiness. Rhett final leaves, delivering what is probably the greatest line in cinema history. What makes it tragic is Scarlett’s epiphany that she does love Rhett. She declares she will find a way to get him back but we as audience will never know if she does. The camera pulls back, revealing a solitary Scarlett standing at Tara – and the audience cannot help but sense the tragedy of a love unrealised.

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca is perhaps one of cinema’s most loved and enduring films. It often lists higher on greatest film lists than films which are certainly much better. Some critics have declared it to be one of the best worst films ever made and Pauline Kael has even described it as ‘schlocky’. There are holes in the plot, which an ocean liner could comfortably sail through and by all reports there was daily confusion on the direction of the plot whilst filming. So why does this film endure?

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Well Bogart sure helps, as does the ethereal beauty of Bergman. And it has one of film’s most memorable and beautiful songs. But I would argue it endures because it is a tragic love story.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) seems self-assured and blasé to the events going on that have set the world ablaze. Running his club and illegal casino in Vichy French controlled Morocco during World War Two, Rick makes his money and occasionally helps some of the continental refugees to escape (betraying his supposed neutrality and disinterest). However, his world is turned upside down when the lost love of his life Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) turns up at his club with her husband escaped Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). Rick’s face contorts for a moment though he composes himself in time, saving his pain for later.

After the club has closed, Rick drinks in the dark alone, tortured by her arrival after trying hard to forget her. He utters one of the most famous lines in film history; adlibbed by Bogart himself:

We are brought up to speed when Rick relives their romance in Paris before the chaos of war will wedge between them. Experiencing their happiness, it is impossible not to recall our own moments of the joy and happiness of love. But the memories are bittersweet and the audience’s transference onto Rick and Elsa heightens that emotion. We see the reason for their parting, as Rick waiting at the train station in the pouring rain, receives a letter from Elsa stating they can never see each other again. Rick’s pain becomes ours and it is difficult not to be moved by the beautiful cinematic moment of the ink melting into the rain, as the train pulls out.

His pain is undeniable and flames when she comes to him alone. Trying to explain herself, Rick’s responds with bitter-soaked cynicism, insulting her. She turns away and leaves, realising that it is pointless to continue. As she walks out the door, Rick collapses at the table, torn with inner pain, knowing his responses achieved nothing and walking the line between love and hateful despair.

As the story progresses, Elsa’s desperation to get out of Casablanca with Victor becomes intertwined with her revived love for Rick – it even appears that Rick and Elsa will leave together. The ending is one of the greatest scenes in film and is also the reason why Casablanca endures as a great romance film. Bogart delivers a parting speech that cemented his place in cinema history.

The two are not parted by war, and only in part by the situation that war created for them. Rick and Elsa are parted by the strength of their love. Sacrifices are made but their moment together remains a testimony to the old adage that some can love more in a few days than most do in a lifetime. As both find out, they’ll always have Paris.

Which is why Rick and Elsa as a couple endure – whether they are together or not.

Now Voyager (1942)

At times a little drawn out and occasionally (and unfairly) dismissed as a ‘women’s picture’ or ‘tear-jerker’, Now Voyager is so much more. Bette Davis’ turn as Charlotte Vale, from lonely, mentally abused frump transforming into a stronger, more confident woman, is perhaps her best-known film role.

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Charlotte, suffering from a nervous breakdown after years of her mother’s mental abuse and cruel domination, goes to a sanatorium run by Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains). As part of her therapy, she later goes on a luxurious cruise where she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is travelling with friends. She discovers that Jerry is in an unhappy marriage with two daughters to a woman who didn’t want children, echoing Charlotte’s own mother-daughter relationship.

Charlotte’s nervous caution, highlighted by her fragile self-consciousness, is slowly evaporated by Jerry’s patient kindness and the two form a friendship. However, it will blossom into love, one complicated by his marriage and sense of honour.

Both Charlotte and Jerry return to their respective lives, when they return. Charlotte has gained confidence and strength from Jerry’s love and she moves forward in her life. But the memory haunts her, best expressed when her inner thoughts reveal: ‘And I have only a dried corsage, an empty bottle of perfume and can’t even say his name’.

A chance meeting at a party again finds the two maintaining convention and on the surface acting cordial. Their love affair must be kept secret for propriety but as Sarah Kozloff points out in Overhearing Film Dialogue (2005) their sotto voce revelations underneath the casual banter burst through with deep passion. It is difficult to wave such passion away, particularly when it is aided and abetted by Max Steiner’s musical score.

Charlotte faces a setback with her mother’s death and when seeking solace at Dr Jaquith’s sanatorium meets Jerry’s youngest daughter, Trina who is fraught with problems. Charlotte becomes close to Trina and it also gives her the chance to be close to Jerry. But they cannot be together as they wish to be. Charlotte and Jerry must maintain distance for the sake of Trina and the film ends with one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and memorable scenes:

Whilst not truly parting, never to set eyes on each other again, Charlotte and Jerry must face just the opposite. Whilst the film ends on a ‘high’, the audience cannot help but feel for the love that the two cannot have completely.

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean is generally associated with what could be termed big films, offering a big cinematic experience with power and scope. Think Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai. Yet earlier films such as Brief Encounter (1945) cannot be ignored when considering classic film. For the purposes of this article, it can also not be ignored as a perfect example of two lovers parting and a love never fully realised.

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Though Brief Encounter is Lean’s picture, the love story comes from the pen of Noel Coward. As David Thompson accurately pointed out in his 2010 Guardian article, the discretely gay Coward understood middle-class sensibilities at the time and showed great restraint, avoiding any suggestions of impropriety and shaping characters that were decent and ‘nice’. Lean, on the other hand, would have happily taken things a step or two further. However, the power of the film exists in the reality that the two never consummate their love.

Middle class housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson), is married to a fairly dull though respectable man named Fred. Their marriage is one of comfort, safety and fondness yet hardly inspiring of passion or fire. An innocent chance meeting with a doctor named Alec (Trevor Howard) sees a seemingly harmless friendship strike up, with regular meetings for lunch, going to the cinema, drives together and eventually the chance to take things further at a friend’s flat which ends awkwardly.

The story itself would barely hold up in an era of online encounters, Craigslist and cheap comedies depicting quite explicit casual sex. Yet therein lies the quality, depth and beauty of Brief Encounter. There is depth and power in the emotion of what could be. Far from being a melodramatic soap opera, the film’s depiction of a couple torn between loyalty to family and marriage and the possibility and hope of love and passion. One can see the desperation in their eyes as they look at each other and the agony that consumes them.

The final goodbye is perhaps where the tragedy reaches its’ zenith, as the moment is stolen from them by the banality of an acquaintance of Laura bumping into them at the station and prattling on to Laura as Alec’s train arrives. Laura and Alec’s haunting last look at each other betrays the terrible anguish of their final parting. No final goodbyes, no last kiss or last moment of passion. No words could possibly encompass the loss that each feels. Their dream of being in each other’s arms dissipates like the steam from the train engine taking Alec away. Laura returns to her husband and all ends ‘well’ in terms of a return to normality.

But there may not be one amongst us who cannot feel the anguish in their own hearts – of what could have been and what will never be. Laura and Alec are the patron saints of lost love.

Dr Zhivago (1962)

Another masterpiece courtesy of David Lean. Unlike Brief Encounter, the love affair between Yuri Zhivago (Omar Shariff) and Lara (Julie Christie) is realised and consummated, revealing a very different and interesting dynamic. A generation earlier revelled in the shy, cautious and ‘honourable’ couple in Laura and Alec – not so in the early 1960s. Changing values and attitudes in the audience saw acceptance of an extra-marital affair.

Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed, the poet/doctor Zhivago is married to a childhood sweetheart and also has a son. However, his war service during World War One sees him come into contact with Lara, also married to an idealistic yet ruthless revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtney). Entranced with Lara who also feels something for him, they maintain honour and part when their war service is over, having done nothing a la Brief Encounter.

Yet this time Lean goes further and takes the steps he would have taken had Coward not tempered Lean’s wishes in 1945. As the civil war worsens, Zhivago takes his family further east to safety in Varykino and incredibly discovers that Lara is living with her own daughter in a nearby town named Yuriatin, abandoned by her husband who is now a general calling himself Strelnikov.

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Meeting again, Lara and Zhivago finally fulfil their desires and begin a passionate love affair. However, Tonya falls pregnant, Zhivago ends the affair and is soon press-ganged into becoming a doctor for a partisan group in the civil war. Two years pass before they are reunited but Zhivago’s family are gone and the situation has worsened for both and he and Lara. As the tragedy unfolds, Zhivago stays behind so that Lara and her daughter can escape. As she leaves, Zhivago watches her and there are no words that could be written to match those within the hearts of the audience.

But perhaps the true tragedy is years later when Zhivago finds himself back in Moscow. Sick and weak and working as a doctor, he is travelling to work on the tram – a touching moment harkening to an earlier moment in the film when a younger Zhivago shares the same tram with Lara. As he sits, Zhivago sees Lara walking along the street and cannot believe his own eyes as he struggles to get off the tram. But his weak heart cannot take the excitement and a massive heart attack takes him on the street, as he reaches out to Lara, who continues on her way oblivious to him. It is a terribly tragic moment, with the chance for them to be finally reunited, stolen from them both.

Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them.

There are many films where we celebrate and cheer the couple living happily forever after, especially when overcoming incredible adversity to reach each other. The couple joining hands and walking into the sunset together leaves us warm and cosy, and perhaps even inspired. Yet it is an easy feeling and too simple a finish. We know that life is not so kind to us and certainly not as tidy as film. Perhaps what makes the tragic love story so touching and enduring is that it mirrors life a little more than the happy ending and may even reflect elements of our own lives.

Special Mentions

Wuthering Heights (1939) Directed by William Wyler. With Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Dark Victory (1939) Directed by Edmund Goulding. With Bette Davis and George Brent.

The Heiress (1949) Directed by William Wyler. With Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift.

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.

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. 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 surrounds 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 wants 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 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 tight 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.

You can watch the film on the Silver Screen Classics You Tube Channel

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.