The Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

by Paul Batters

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“I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” – Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) 

Every small town has its’ secrets and stories and Hollywood has found no shortfall in material in telling those stories nor directors wishing to tell them. Usually, Hollywood had depicted small towns as idyllic places, where values and morals to be admired where prevalent and family life created a world of stability and normality. This is certainly true in the Andy Hardy series, the then popular Henry Aldrich series and films such as Meet Me In St Louis (1944) and Our Town (1940), which was incidentally directed by Sam Wood. Capra’s films certainly celebrate the small American town, untainted by the complexities of the big city, as well as ‘the people’ characterised as being the ‘salt of the earth’.

Kings Row (1942) stands tall as a tale of an American Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, with all the A Grade production values that were a staple at Warner Bros. Directed by Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, Goodbye Mr Chips, Pride Of The Yankees), Kings Row is a powerful film, with outstanding performances from its’ principal players and a talented supporting cast. Whilst certainly not a forgotten film, Kings Row is often overshadowed by some of the other big releases from Warner Bros. around the same time such as Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1943). It certainly deserves our attention, as it is one of Warner Bros. finest productions and despite the surface themes of romance, relationship, loss and tragedy, there are far deeper concerns that are addressed in the film. At its’ very core, Kings Row is a story that reveals the uglier and darker undercurrent of the American Midwestern town, tearing down the façade of respectability, polite society and propriety to reveal hypocrisy, perversion, familial dysfunction and corruption.  This essay does not aim to avoid spoilers but to discuss these issues and examine their purveyance in the film. (So readers be warned!)

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From the opening scene, punctuated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s excellent score, perhaps one of the finest ever written for the silver screen, the focus is on the town. The audience’s focus is drawn to a sign which declares Kings Row is a ‘good town’, one which is a ‘good town to live in and a good place to raise your children’.  The camera moves across tree-lined streets and picket fences before being drawn to the characters. But the inference is quite clear, as Wheeler Winston Dixon points out, that the film intends to be a stinging indictment of American society…and a dystopian vision of the dark underside of Midwestern small- town life’.  

As the audience is going to discover, to go against the small-minded and morally suffocating rules and expectations of society means a heavy price must be paid.

The story has a two-fold focus in terms of the protagonists; specifically the close friendship of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan), though it is Parris  with whom the audience connects with first and foremost.  Parris and Drake share a friendship since they were children and though different in demeanour, they are similar in their strength if character.

Parris is a young and gifted student being raised by his grandmother Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) whose values and beliefs she has bestowed upon Parris, as well as her love and kind nature. Unbeknownst to Parris, his grandmother falls ill with cancer but she covers it up, not wanting to cause worry for her grandson. Parris, too, is a kind, thoughtful and passionate young man who begins studying medicine with the brilliant yet reclusive Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). His childhood friendship with the doctor’s daughter Cassie (Betty Field) will eventually develop into love and they pursue their passions despite the doctor’s warnings and Cassie’s growing anxiety. The two will consummate their love, although naturally this is only suggested in the film but the results will have dire consequences for Cassie.

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However, these ‘star-crossed lovers’ are doomed to a greater tragedy than Parris’ initial concerns for Cassie could anticipate. Cassie fears that she is going mad, as her mother did, and it appears that her insanity is not entirely an unfounded fear. As the audience discovers later in the film, Dr. Tower also suspects that Cassie has gone mad.  What follows is a shocking turn in the tale (which incredibly survived the Breen Office), is the murder-suicide that occurs in the Tower household. Cassie is killed and Dr Tower then turns his murderous hand on himself.

Parris is horrified and wracked with guilt that he earlier dismissed Cassie when she declared her fears to him. He also discovers that the authorities want to speak to him but before he races to the Tower house, Drake stops him and goes instead, claiming he had been seeing Cassie. Drake sacrifices his own reputation in the presence of Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) the father of Louise (Nancy Coleman) the girl he has been ‘seen’ with. Yet his faux declaration turns out to be unnecessary as Parris discovers that he is the recipient of something he never expected. Nevertheless, it adds further condemnation of Drake’s moral character (or lack thereof) in the eyes of Dr. Gordon.

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Parris will face greater challenges, with the death of his grandmother who, along with the tragedy of the Towers, spurs him to leave the town and seek something greater. Yet Drake also senses that Parris needs to leave and, sharing the deeper sentiments of Dr Tower, does not want to see his friend stay in Kings Row to become a mediocrity, with his potential drowned by the town’s darkness. Parris does leave for Vienna where he will pursue his career in medicine but specifically the new field of psychology.

Drake, will remain in the town and face his own challenges, not the least of losing his family fortune to an unscrupulous banker. Yet it does result in finding something stable and lasting in Randy (Ann Sheridan). The no-nonsense and tough Irish girl comes from the other side of the tracks and her hard-working family accepts Drake without judgment, indicating that the ‘poorer’ part of town has rejected the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘respected society’. 

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Kings Row spans a period of approximately 20 years, from the childhood of the principal characters into their adulthood. Of course, the tale being told is not only that of the people in the town but of the town itself. The divisions that exist in Kings Row are marked not only in the town’s psyche and fabric but by the very physical differences, classically signified by the train tracks. Drake’s ultimate slide from society is marked not only by his financial fall but also primarily by his moving over the train tracks to be with Randy. Ironically, his ‘punishment’ for doing so, is the horrific accident (and unnecessary operation that follows), which will give Ronald Regan his most famous scene in film history and a heck of a line of dialogue.

When Parris does return home, the expectation from the town is that he will set up a practice in Kings Row but Parris is not so sure. However, he will discover something that may keep him there and may give him the peace and stability that has eluded him.

His reunion with Drake is bittersweet and the love that they share is certainly undiminished by time apart. Yet Drake’s problems runs deeper than his physical trauma and Randy is hopeful that Parris’ return may help. The momentous climax is powerful and emotional, not only placing the cherry on top of Reagan’s performance but also reaching a finality for the key characters in conquering their own obstacles and defeating the very forces of the town, which had sought to crush their individuality.

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Stylistically, Kings Row is a dark melodrama, with Gothic undertones and is beautifully shot by legendary cameraman James Wong Howe, whose perceptive eye finds the inner emotions of the characters, as well as the nature of the town. The wide-eyed panic in Cassie is disturbing and her anxiety and terror reflects an undertow of repression in the town. Terrified of her own thought processes, Cassie tries to reject Parris but her love for him initially prevails only to be de-railed by her own dread and the final act of horror that will befall her. The camera focuses on her face, illuminated in the moonlight like a phantom and the accompanying score not only enhances the tragedy of Cassie’s mental state but also foreshadows the final moment of madness to come. Later, Louise will also face mental illness and instability, also impacted on by a cruel and domineering father. Again, the repressive climate of the town, which discourages individuality and demands subservience to what is considered ‘decent society’, has meant terrible repercussions.  Insanity is a long-running convention of the Gothic genre and in Kings Row it seems to be way too prevalent. But more pointedly, the town of King’s Row seems almost totalitarian in its’ societal laws and expectations. Patriarchy may be the most obvious reason for the power system in place but men also fall prey to the claustrophobia of the town’s façade of propriety; Drake pays a heavy price for his individuality and refusal to bow to the town’s societal norms and Dr Tower faces isolation (even if partially self-inflicted).  Parris will declare Dr Tower as a brilliant man whose intelligence and forward thinking is wasted in King’s Row. What compels him to remain in a hick town with such narrow-minded and stifling repression? It takes great strength of character and true principles set into foundations of integrity to withstand the onslaught.

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Certainly the town of Kings Row understands the art of the cover-up – so much so that even the ‘best’ that the town has to offer, i.e. Parris, has learned how to do it. Parris is more than happy to commit Drake’s former flame Louise to a mental asylum, to protect Drake from Louise revealing the truth behind her now-dead father’s operation on Drake. Parris would know full well the horrors of such a committal yet he is initially happy to humour Louise into a false sense that he will help her. In truth, this is not the act of a honourable doctor and our high opinion of Parris is rattled. But it fits perfectly with the very atmosphere of the town. To protect Parris from scandal when Cassie is murdered, Drake is happy to lie that he was seeing Cassie and ruin his own reputation, which he claims is ruined anyway.

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Perhaps the darkest element of the story deals with the secondary characters and the plot device upon which the film will turn and provide Drake’s character arc. The sadistic Dr. Gordon is later revealed to a self-appointed judge and jury within the town, abusing his position as a doctor and committing unspeakable and abominable operations upon those he considers due punishment for their transgressions. The fact that the good doctor is never questioned suggests the nature of the town protecting him and his activities – and it seems that his practice as a doctor is not exactly unseen by others. Parris, when discovering his grandmother is unwell and being treated by Dr Gordon, questions his mentor Dr Tower about Gordon’s reputation, professionalism and practice. The tone in which Parris asks his questions and the nature by which Dr Tower answers certainly suggests that rumours exist and Dr Gordon is whispered about. But Gordon’s abuse is not merely the act of a wayward or ‘mad’ doctor; it becomes the allegory for the abuse of power and authority by those who have it. Gordon is not only a doctor but in some sense a ‘respected’ leader within the town and its’ high society. His wife will certainly not question him and when his daughter threatens to expose him, he suggests how he will deal with her and seems more than ready to commit her.  The power of patriarchy is more than evident. 

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As a result, Drake’s ability to disempower what Dr Gordon has done to him, with help from Parris and Randy, is a great victory over this long-established patriarchy and becomes a moment of courage as Drake takes ownership of his liberation, breaking the imprisonment of his condition.

It is actually quite a feat that Kings Row was made from Henry Bellamann’s 1940 novel in the first place. Upon its’ release, the novel was a massive success, with studios engaging in an intense battle for filming rights. However, turning Bellamann’s novel into a film that would meet the requirements of the Production Code would be extremely difficult. Not only does the murder-suicide occur but also the original motive behind it is far more sinister and darker than what anticipates the heinous act in the film. As critic Tim Dirks points out, ‘Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower’s diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris’. Parris and Cassie are certainly in love and there are allusions that the two are consummating their love. In the film, Dr. Tower’s motives are designed as almost valorous and noble. Parris interprets the doctor’s act as an attempt to ‘save’ Parris from the same fate as Dr. Tower – marrying an unbalanced woman and finding himself locked for life in a small town with small-minded people. Indeed, Parris even calls Dr. Tower a ‘brilliant man’ for his foresight, as well as his genius as a doctor. Murder-suicide is a heinous act and not one of brilliance or courage, yet there is a twisted logic in Kings Row, which has even reached Parris.

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Arguably, these considerations may not necessarily condemn Parris as a character and the difficulties and complexities of situations that we all encounter in life may have to deal with choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, it may appear that in Kings Row, such choices become very apparent and if the audience looks carefully, a darker and more sinister reality exists behind the picket fences and claims of being ‘ a good town’.

 Kings Row is a superb film which allows the audience to become consumed in the drama and absorbed by the depth of its’ characters. The quality of production typifies Warner Bros and Hal Wallis, then Head Of Production at Warners, knew how to build a picture and shape it to its’ finest results. The pedigree of Sam Wood as director is well known although by all reports he was less concerned with the visual impact of the film (still beautiful by James Wong Howe’s impeccable standards) and more so with the building of the key characters, particularly Parris.

There is a great courage in the production of this film, as already discussed and the more explicit themes and concerns of the novel are still present in the subtle and nuanced development of the story. Ultimately, Kings Row is far more than a melodrama but a revelation of the darkness of some places, where facades of propriety, community and ‘goodness’ are stripped down to reveal hypocrisy and abuse of power. On a larger scale, Kings Row becomes an allegory for the sinister corruption and hypocrisy that may not only exists in our own towns and cities but within our society as a whole. As an audience we learn that there is a price to pay if we care to challenge it, ignore it or even escape it; and we may well ask if that price is worth paying if it means our integrity and sense of self remains intact.

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.

Update: The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

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A huge thank you for the great support so far and have been humbled and excited by the fantastic response! Obviously, it’s still some time away but as far more experienced hosts know, it’s important to be organised and get ahead.

Please don’t forget to share on your own social media, as the more participants the merrier! If there is a fellow blogger you think would enjoy taking part, please let them know. 

Below are the current topic choices and again a warm thanks to the participants! 

Pride And Prejudice (1940) – Old Hollywood Films

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlett Claw (1944) – Pale Writer

Little Women (1994) and (2019) – Pale Writer

Nickolas Nickleby (1947) – Caftan Woman

Oliver Twist (1948) –Caftan Woman

Dragonwyck (1947) – Down These Mean Streets

Crimes At The Dark House (1940) – The Old Hollywood Garden

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) – Overture Books And Films

Lord Of The Flies (1963) – Cinematic Catharsis

The Scapegoat (1959) – Realweegiemidget Reviews

Great Expectations (1947) – The Poppity

Oliver Twist (1948) – The Poppity

Camille (1921) – His Fame Still Lives

Anna Karenina (1935) and (1948) – Robert Short

Ben Hur – Taking Up Room

The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) – Silver Screenings

Wuthering Heights (1939) – Silver Screen Classics

Jane Eyre (1943) –  Thoughts All Sorts

Moby Dick (1956) – Dubism

The Ministry Of Fear (1944) – The Wonderful World Of Cinema

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – 18 Cinema Lane

War Of The Worlds – Midnite Drive-In

The House Of The Seven Gables (1940) – Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

Hans Christian Andersen (1952) – The Classic Movie Muse

The Prince And The Pauper –Backstory: New Looks At Classic Film

Wilkie Collins and his underrepresentation in classic film – Hollywood Genes

In Cold Blood – Are You Thrilled

My Cousin Rachel – Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

Some wonderful writers are taking part and I trust that you are excited as I am to see some of the great chosen topics. Please check the list carefully and hopefully it will inspire your own choices, as well as give you some ideas on what to do. (The list will be regularly updated as well).

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Announcing The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

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I am very pleased and excited to announce my first hosting of a blogathon – namely the Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

And of course you are all kindly and heartily invited to partake!

Classic novels and plays have provided cinema with some of the greatest stories of all time. They are part of the fabric of culture and have been powerful in helping us to understand ourselves. Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have mined the richness of classic tales for the silver screen. Some of our most beloved films have been based on the works of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, to name a few. Indeed, many classic novels have been produced many times.

So, the main focus of the blogathon is to celebrate, examine, critique and review those films that have been based on classic literature!

As already mentioned, the concept of ‘classic literature’ reflects what has been traditionally considered by scholars as those books and plays which have had a considerable impact on the development of literature. They have set the standards for and established certain genres and have given us some of the most recognised stories and characters.  So this blogathon aims to keep the focus within those boundaries – but of course that leaves everyone plenty of options!

Please have a look at the rules below and I TRULY hope you will take part!

Outline Of Rules

  1. This blogathon is not just restricted to reviewing actual films based on classic literature. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g comparisons of films based on a particular text, discussion of the textual integrity of films based on classic literature.
  2. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.
  3. This blogathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all period will be happily accepted.
  4. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.
  5. The blogathon will take place between April 3rd and 5th, 2020. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts. 
  6. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, you can so in the following ways:

 – please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover

 – or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about this blogathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of these ads to advertise the event.

Looking forward to seeing you in April!

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The CMBA Profiles Silver Screen Classics!

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It was with the greatest thrill that the CMBA contacted me to inform me that they would be featuring my blog for their first CMBA profile for 2020. Needless to say, I was extremely excited, honoured and humbled by this incredible news!

As bloggers will tell you, being recognised is a great boost to the confidence and being acknowledged is an affirmation of one’s work.

My deepest and sincerest thanks go to the CMBA for the opportunity to be profiled!

For those interested, the link below will take you to the interview on the CMBA Page:

CMBA Profile: Silver Screen Classics

 

 

Death As Redemption in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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If there is one aspect of the noir universe which is a norm, it is the presence of violence and death. The dark streets are not only literal but metaphorical realities, where all manner of individuals become drawn into, seduced and even captured by the shadows of their own pathology. Anyone who has watched a noir film knows that there is a stark, cold fatalism with little empathy for those who test it. Everyone pays for their sins and indeed they may do so with interest. Like the loan shark who has their mark on a hook, the individual continues to pay and escape seems impossible.

There is another harsh reality that the only form of escape is ‘the big sleep’ – death. It is an inevitability that haunts all in the film noir universe and one that they are desperate to escape, despite this fatalist understanding. Having written on the nature of fatalism and futility in film noir before (see link here), this article will try to avoid these themes were possible and focus on the concept of death in film noir as also being a form of redemption – an understanding that sins must be paid for.

At the ultimate moment, it is arguable whether we seek redemption for past sins. There are enough stories of ‘death-bed confessions’ to fill a multitude of stadiums – and whilst on the face of it, such confessions seemed cliched, the truth is that such confessions are made during the last gasps of someone’s life. At the other end of the scale, even the most reticent to admit fault and seek forgiveness (at least in film noir) WILL pay the ultimate price.

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Death as redemption in film noir is accepted at different stages in the arc of a character. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of this, is in a film noir classic and a template for its’ tropes, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Fatalism is evident at the start of the film, where a badly wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) goes into the insurance office he works at, to spill his guts on the Dictaphone of his boss and close friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). His opening lines are clearly the beginning of a confession; a mea culpa which will drive the story right to the very end. Neff doesn’t look for excuses nor does he try to explain away his sins by blaming others. Walter’s sins are his own and he takes full responsibility for them. True, in the dying moments of the film after being discovered by Keyes, Walter asks his friend to turn his back as he makes his getaway. But the truth is that it’s a half-hearted appeal for mercy, like a man on the scaffold hoping against hope for a pardon. As Walter collapses at the doorway, Keyes stays with him. Smoking a cigarette (and a beautiful touch with Wilder reversing the motif of Keyes never having a match), Walter waits for justice and redemption to arrive.

The ending is slightly ambiguous in terms of the nature of that justice. The audience never learns Walter’s fate – does he bleed to death in the doorway? Or is he taken to hospital only to recover and be executed for murder? In a now famous image amongst classic cinema fans, Walter Neff stands grim-faced in the gas chamber as Keyes looks on outside. But the scene was cut and the audience is left with a far-better ending. Walter seems to accept his fate and the acknowledgement that he needs to pay for what he has done.

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Out Of The Past (1948), one of the finest examples of film noir, employs a similar approach to death as redemption. Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a private detective who has been hired by bad guy Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer). But whilst Jeff initially believes he has found happiness with Kathie, he discovers the truth too late and that Kathie is a classic femme fatale, who has duped both Jeff and her former lover. In the end, there is a chance for escape but Jeff takes a different option. Rather than running off with Kathie and her former lover’s money, he instead betrays her to the police. Despite her threat that she will throw him under the bus as well, Jeff still betrays Kathie, who fatally wounds him with a bullet. It is Jeff’s moment of redemption; he has ‘done the right thing’ in the face of so many wrongs and paid the ultimate price. Kathie will now face justice but the irony of course is that he has been redeemed through her murderous act of revenge. As Mark Conard points out, Jeff has made a ‘presumably redemptive sacrifice’.

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But for Jeff it is also the end of great misery and unhappiness. Tortured by his choices, death has now removed all his pain and misery as well. In The Killers (1946), the Swede (Burt Lancaster) is a former boxer whose story is one which sees bad decisions made to impress a woman. His involvement in a bank robbery, even after a stint in prison, further exemplifies how far he slides into the darkness. All he finds is incredible misery and the woman he loves, Kitty (Ava Gardner) has used and duped him as well. When death finally comes to him in the form of the killers, the Swede accepts his fate and indeed even welcomes it. There is a relief in death, as an escape from the pain he has endured.  However, though he does not seek redemption per se, he doeshave regrets and acknowledges that he must accept the consequences for his choices. Whilst it may not be a question of a strict code of right and wrong, the Swede “got in wrong” and strayed from who he was. His death will now right that wrong, and again he will make payment for his crimes.

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is an excellent example of the protagonist finding redemption, and incidentally relief, through his own execution. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a man haunted by the murder he has committed for Cora (Lana Turner), the woman he loves. Their passionate relationship is one which is punctuated by betrayal, mistrust and sexual desire, and they are both riddled with moral corruption. Both will also pay for their sins – Cora through a car accident whilst Frank is driving and Frank as he sits on death row awaiting execution. Ironically, he is tried and convicted for Cora’s death and whilst initially protesting his innocence, Frank accepts that he has to pay for the murder he did commit. But of course, redemption runs deeper in the world of film noir. Frank believes that both he and Cora are paying for her husband’s murder and his acceptance of this acts as his redemption as well. Even more so, Frank is also devastated that Cora died not knowing how much Frank loved her and he prays that somehow her spirit will know this. In the end, Frank and Cora both pay and Frank’s final prayer is that by accepting his fate, redemption will mean that they are together in the next life.

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In Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) escapes from prison with the help of his girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) but facing the complication of a dangerous mobster Rick (Raymond Burr) who wants Joe dead. In the finale, Rick and Joe, both wounded in a gunfight, with Rick thrown to his death. However, Joe also dies in the street with an acceptance of his fate and Pat noting that “This is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.”In essence, Joe’s dying face is not one contorted by fear, pain or panic but one filled with contentment. In some way he has found redemption, through the understanding that he needs to pay for his sins and that his death makes things right.

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Of course, the deep-rooted cynicism of film noir would suggest that redemption is never available. The hard and bleak reality is that attempts at happiness (or perceived happiness) through crime are futile and hopeless. Yet an extension of that hopelessness and futility is a final desire for redemption and the desperate need for it. It also needs to be remembered that those caught up in the dark shadows are not necessarily professional criminals, gangsters and cops/private detectives (who are used to walking tough streets) but ordinary people who are drawn into the depths. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is drawn into a world of crime because of his deep-rooted dissatisfaction in both his personal and professional life. At the very last second, he desperately realises what he has done but its’ too late to turn things around.

Ultimately, everyone pays a price. Femme fatales rarely walk away and even the innocent are wrongly accused or face prison or death. Yet death brings a finality which cannot be reversed. As a result, it brings a new dimension whilst drawing on tropes as old as religion – that redemption is possible, if the price is paid. In the world of film noir, that is the ultimate price.

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 Sunshine Blogger Award – Brightening Up A Blog!

by Paul Batters

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It’s a real thrill to be acknowledged by a fellow blogger whose work you respect and enjoy. We rarely receive that acknowledgement and to be nominated by by Zoe K at Hollywood Genes is certainly thrilling! I cannot thank you enough for your kindness, Zoe!

As Zoe pointed out in her acceptance, it’s a great deal of fun to receive the award because the questions allow for introspection that we rarely give to ourselves.  So without further ado, let’s get into the conditions for the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The Rules

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  2. Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
  3. Nominate eleven bloggers.
  4. Create eleven new questions for your nominees to answer.

Here are my answers to Zoe’s questions:

The Questions

1). Whose biography would you want to write and why would you pick that person?

James Murray. I became fascinated by his story when I read ‘Hollywood Babylon’ as a kid (which I know is heavy with inaccuracies) but was even more fascinated after finally watching ‘The Crowd’ which is one of my favourite films and an exceptional artwork. There are myths regarding James Murray’s life that need to be cleared up and indeed there’s a lot we don’t know either. There’s something tragic about his story and so many themes to examine that I think it would be challenging and very interesting to research and find out more about the man.

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2). What is a film that people would be shocked to find out you haven’t seen?

I’ve avoided many of the Marvel and DC films, particularly the most recent ones. I’m so tired of ‘over-the-top’ CGI nonsense and noise. And for the record I was a huge Marvel comic fan from the 70s onwards (and still am!). But if I had a free ticket to go, I wouldn’t nor couldn’t be bothered to see any of those films. Not judging anyone who likes them – it’s just my taste.

3). Which favorite book of yours has never been made (or made properly) into a movie? If it were, who would you cast in the lead roles?

Definitely Budd Schulberg’s book ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ – not because it’s a favourite per se as many books I love have been made into films but because it’s a powerful book and should be made. I know and understand the stories behind why it’s never been made as a film, as it is a terrifyingly cynical view of the film industry.
In terms of casting, it’s very difficult which might also explain why it was never made. But I’ll take my best shot, using actors from the classic era.

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Al Mannheim: Dana Andrews
Sammy Glick: Frank Sinatra
Cathy ‘Kit’ Sargent: Teresa Wright
Sidney Fineman: James Gleason
‘Sheik’: Anthony Quinn
Laurette Harrington: Martha Hyer
Carter Judd: Jeffrey Hunter
Rosalie Goldblaum: Cathy O’Donnell

4). Which blog post did you spend the most time researching and/or writing and what was it about? 

It would have to be ‘Fatalism And Futility In Film Noir’. It’s over 4,000 words and I really focused on it a great deal. Of course I re-watched the films I discussed a number of times, as well as read some critical work and reviews to immerse myself in the essence of what I wanted to write. I think it came out ok!

Here’s the link: Fatalism And Futility In Film Noir

5). When and why did you start blogging?

I began in 2016 for a few reasons; I have always loved classic film and wanted to write about it. The advice that kept popping up in my face was quite simple – just DO IT. It was also an avenue to developing an idea for a book (which I am still working on) nI finally took on the challenge and whilst I have been disillusioned and disheartened at times, I’ve tried to remember why I started writing in the first place and I am starting to get my mojo back.

It’s also a desire to keep alive an appreciation of classic cinema, at a time when it is slowly being eroded away and diminished by so many factors. Researching and writing about classic cinema is also a fantastic way of learning more and I wanted that to be a key part of the reason I started blogging.

The key with writing is simple yet difficult at the same time – just WRITE. Even if they come out terrible, the process is still cathartic as well as being a learning opportunity.

6). You’re hosting a themed Halloween party. Which book or film would you use as the theme and in what ways?

It would be Roman Polanski’s film The Fearless Vampire Killers – simply because it would give everyone a chance to become a creature of the night. Everyone of course would be dressed in period piece, the party would be held in a beautiful old ballroom for everyone to dance the night away and the hired staff (suitably attired) would be on duty to provide everyone with enough food and beverages and keep them satisfied.
For those who are interested, there would be viewing rooms with different classic and not so classic horror films playing – and of course the decorations would be appropriate to the evening.

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7). What was the last film you saw that really blew you away and why?

The Irishman. Not only were there incredible performances from De Niro and Pacino, but there was also the reminder of why I miss Joe Pesci so much on the big screen. Ray Romano was no slouch and perfectly cast. A tour de force of a film!

8). Marry, Kiss, or Kill: Which film character would you marry, which would you share a hot, pre-code kiss with, and which would you kill like a noir anti-hero or villain(ess) with a score to settle? (And why did you pick these 3?)

Marry: Nora Charles (Myrna Loy). That is assuming Nick was deceased and she was available. (I know that sounds awful but…it is Myrna Loy after all! To spend a lifetime with such a gorgeous gal would be heaven!)

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Kiss: Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). Locking lips with a hell of a sexy pre-code dame like Joan Crawford would send the temperature soaring!

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Kill: Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). He’s a sadistic, mad dog and dangerous as hell!

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9). Which film character’s closet would you love to raid?

Why any character being played by Cary Grant of course!

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10). Recast Star Wars using early Hollywood (silent to 1940s) actors and actresses then recast Casablanca with modern actors and actresses (1990s to today).

I’ve also placed the original players next to the recast actors and actresses.

Star Wars 
Luke – Jackie Cooper

Han – Clark Gable

Leia – Olivia de Havilland

Obi-wan Kenobi – Sir Cedric Hardwicke

Darth Vader – Claude Rains (Voice)

Grand Moff Tarkin – Boris Karloff

Casablanca
Rick – George Clooney

Ilsa – Monica Bellucci

Victor – Christoph Waltz

Sam – Jamie Foxx

Captain Renault – Jean Dujardin

Major Strasser – Mads Mikkelsen

Signor Ferrari – Anthony Hopkins

Ugarte – Steve Buscemi

 

11). You were working in the lab, late one night, when your eyes beheld an eerie sight. What was it and what did you do?

The hour was beyond the clock, as I looked dazedly upon my work. Was it finished? Was it complete? Was what lay before me everything that I had sweated, ached and poured my heart out for? Or was there more to do?How long had I toiled and found myself lost in the seemingly infinite depths of trying to perfect my creation! Yet at every turn there were obstacles; some I had placed there, the rest beyond my control – or so I told myself. The distinction between perseverance and madness had long blurred and I could not remember the last time I had spoken to someone about the weather or sat at the table to eat. Indeed, what was finally driving me to complete my work was something I could not ascertain, even when I deigned to find some moments of peace in disturbed sleep. Even then the only reason I closed my eyes was a justification to allow myself to recover to continue my work.
And so at that point, I slumped in my seat and felt my arms fall lifelessly by my side. It was enough. There was no more that I could do.
Yet something compelled me to turn to my right, as if a presence was watching me. Finding myself torn between daring to look and pretending there was nothing there, I nonetheless apprehensively turned slowly towards an apparition beyond my wildest nightmares.
Staring at me was a figure so grotesque that I could not scream. As I opened my mouth in silent horror, the figure did the same, as if it were mocking my terror and laughing inside at my frozen fear. Its eyes were large and dark, sunken in what appeared to be the hollows of a long dead oak, with hair hanging down bedraggled over its’ face. Its pale face was fixated on me like a predator eyeing its’ prey and as I instinctively raised my hand in some pathetic attempt to fend it off, I saw it too raise its’ fiendish arm as if ready to strike.
Rising slowly out of my chair, the figure also stood and I knew that at any moment, it may rush at me and inflict violence upon me. Determined to defend myself, I saw its’ face contort into a horrific mask of contemptuous violence.
My fists clenched into red knuckled balls of fury.
And waited. Bracing myself for the attack to come.
But then I noticed a change in my tormentor’s face, as it looked at me questioningly. I, too, found myself staring back, realising that I knew who it was and the realisation hit me like a thousand thunderbolts all at once…
I touched the mirror with the tips of my fingers before turning back to my creation and hitting the ‘Publish’ button on the screen. Sleep beckoned…

The 11 Nominees For The Sunshine Blogger Award

Down These Mean Streets – Musings Of A Noir Dame

Four Star Film Fan

Wolffian Classic Movies Digest

B Noir Detour

Noirish

Queen Of The Lot Blog

Diary Of A Movie Maniac

Cinema Essentials

The Classic Movie Muse

Moon In Gemini

Once Upon A Screen

The Questions

My questions are a mixed bag of my own and others that Zoe.K was given so I hope you find them interesting!

1. Which actor or actress who hasn’t received an Oscar do you think deserves one? And for what film?

2. Who is your favourite child actor and name a film they were in which you love.

3. If a biopic was made of you during the classic film era (1920s to 1960s), who would you like to play you and why?

4. Which famous starry couple (of any time and place) would you want as neighbours?

5. Of all the classic monsters, which one do you feel associated with and why?

6. Is there a classic era actor/actress that you have a crush on?

7. If there was ONE actor or actress (living or deceased) whom you could interview for your blog, who would it be and why would you choose that person?

8. Which film character’s closet would you love to raid?

9. Marry, Kiss, or Kill: Which film character would you marry, which would you share a hot, pre-code kiss with, and which would you kill like a noir anti-rhero or villain(ess) with a score to settle? (And why did you pick these 3?)

10. Of all the classic film studios, which is your favourite and why?

11. Choose a film where you would love to change the ending. Explain what that change would be and why you would do it.

Well, I hope you take part and of course totally understand if you cannot or would prefer not to. However, I thoroughly recommend it as it’s a great deal of fun and certainly is a pleasure and honour to be nominated. Happy blogging everyone! And I’m looking forward to reading your responses.

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.

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): The Essence Of Gothic Horror

by Paul Batters

 

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On those cold nights when the winds howl, the rain is falling and perhaps even the lightning startles the dark sky, who has felt the need to immerse themselves in the deep abyss of a Gothic tale? Whether it be a book or a film, the atmosphere of dread, gloom and fear takes us down dark corridors through ancient mansions and past a myriad of doors behind which are secrets which shock us to the bone. We seem to be drawn to what lurks in the shadows and our curiosities are aroused. The Gothic tale, born in the era of Romanticism, has been interpreted and presented in fascinating ways and its’ themes and tropes are ever-present in popular culture. Whilst initially the classic Gothic tale was bound to its’ British and European origins, it has found life in the ‘New World’, with the term American Gothic also becoming a mainstay in literature (think Edgar Allan Poe!).

But with the birth of film, there was a new way of telling stories and Hollywood was not slow to exploit Gothic literature to not only tell stories but use the visual medium to its’ own advantage and establish a new way of telling stories. From the silent era to the present, Gothic horror has both fascinated and terrified us. Of all the directors who were adroit in bringing Gothic horror to the screen, none were as expert or as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. He was no stranger to Gothic literature, having made Rebecca(1940) and even drew on Gothic tropes when making Notorious (1946); and of course would later re-visit Gothic horror with The Birds (1963).

Hitchcock had long been considered a master of the thriller by the time he made Psycho. Loosely based on the infamous Ed Gein case, the film has oft been considered the beginning of a new wave of horror film and in some regards a precursor to the slasher film that would emerge in the 1970s. Yet it is far more than that and indeed. As Misha Kavka points out in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction:

“Gothic film brings a set of recognizable elements based in distinct visual codes. Such codes constitute the language, or the sign system, of the Gothic film”

If ever a film had all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, then Psycho has them in spades.

(Warning! Be prepared for spoilers!)

The House

The infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) house is perhaps the most powerfully visual and recognisable Gothic element in the film. Once we start to unpack the powerful symbolism of the Victorian mansion, we discover there are incredible depths to what it reveals.

Art historian Rose Heichelbech states that Hitchcock used Edward Hopper’s The House By the Railroad (1925) (below) as the basis for the Bates’ Mansion. But unlike the bright water colours of Hopper’s work, Hitchcock has drained the colour through filming in black and white, leaving a house bathed in greys which give the house an omnipresence which informs the film. Sitting high on the small hill and imposing in its’ nature, its’ looming dominance highlights the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother (which of course taps into another Gothic theme later to be explored). Later when Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman speak of being unable to escape ‘traps’, the house certainly comes to mind as what Norman finds inescapable.

 

House by the Railroad, by Edward Hopper

Not only does the house become a symbol of dominance and a foreboding presence over the characters but it is also a strong symbol of values and morals that belong in another era, in complete contrast to the present which could be represented by the Bates Motel below. Both buildings also represent Norman’s fractured state of mind, which in the end will be challenged to the point of breaking completely. In fact, despite the motel also suggesting a new progressive world on the move and the house representing ‘stability’, both are isolated from that same progress; particularly with the new highway built away from the motel. Like the classic Gothic house in literature, those who live there are thus isolated from society, wallowing in their stagnation and living in seclusion from the changes that are occurring in the larger world. They grasp onto the past with desperation which is also transforms into madness and insanity.

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The house holds a fascination for the audience, especially one so old and steeped in history. What secret does it hold inside? What if those walls could talk?  Indeed, the house remains one of the best advertisements for the film and would feature in trailers at the time. Hitchcock knew that the house had a life and spirit of its’ own – as it always has had in the Gothic tradition.

Dark Secrets

If Psycho holds its’ audience with incredible tension from the opening, it’s through the power of secrets. In Gothic literature, secrets run deep and dark, and their exposure reveals trauma, anxieties and conflict. In Psycho, these are already evident in a sexualised and lascivious way, as we become voyeurs to the illicit affair between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). But far darker are the secrets that will only slowly be revealed regarding Norman. All appearances will be shattered and the dark secrets within the Bates family exposed.

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Again in terms of the house, the audience is desperate to look inside and see what it is hiding. When that chance arrives, we discover a house filled with antiquity and bejewelled in trinkets and fashion from a different era. Of course, the most shocking and terrible secret will be revealed in the deepest and darkest place in the house – the cellar. As in Gothic literature, the terrifying familial secrets in the Bates family provide the psychological reasoning for Norman’s mental state and perversities.

Corpses and Corruption

By corruption, the Gothic trope of death and decay comes to mind. But what also permeates is the corruption of the mental state and the decay of a family into madness. Strangely enough, corpses are not left to rot per se but are ‘stuffed and mounted’ (through Norman’s ‘hobby’ of taxidermy) and of course, he goes much further than that!

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Norman sustains his insanity via the corpse of his mother and though physically dead, her presence is elaborately constructed and becomes a reality in Normans’ world. Any Freudian can go into great detail about the Oedipal complexities at play.

Madness and Insanity

The incredible twist in the tale hits the audience in the climactic scene in the cellar, where the truth behind Norman is revealed. Initially, the audience believes that Norman is a shy yet pleasant enough young man, who may have some serious mother issues – until his perverse ‘peeping Tom’ moment as Marion gets ready for her shower. The audience is also led down the garden path, when Norman and ‘Mother’ conversations  are heard. Yet even then there is no indication of what will follow.

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When Norman states with a smile ‘She just goes a little mad sometimes’, it becomes the forewarning for what will come – Norman as his own mother committing horrific crimes on his behalf. His personality is constantly at war with himself until the ‘mother’ part of him ‘wins’ the battle.

In Psycho, insanity and madness result in horrific violence and the infamous shower scene (which has been definitively unpacked and analysed a thousand times over) shifts the film’s narrative from the heroine to Norman Bates. The moment still shocks and is much a rape as it is a brutal murder. Again, the climax will reveal the full and terrible truth to Norman’s insanity.

And of course, the split personality is also suggestive of the darkness of secrets, and what is revealed to and hidden from the world.

The Heroine

Marion is the classic Gothic heroine – finding herself in danger and indeed even placing herself there, initially through her own act of stealing the money. Her own conscience pursues her, and she constructs conversations which question what she does. What makes Marion a classic Gothic heroine is that like her predecessors in classic Gothic literature, she’s a breaker of convention and seeks independence to find happiness in her life. The traditional role constructed for her by middle America is not enough.

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Her pulling into the Bates Motel is a fateful one, a trope also present in Gothic fiction, and of course the pouring rain and gloomy atmosphere further adds to the strong Gothic overtones. The stormy night is an ominous sign that something bad will happen and indeed it is a terrible shock to the audience when it does. Marion’s horrific ending in the shower, is a ‘punishment’ for her deeds (as much as a reflection of Hitchcock’s pathology) but it also reflects the physical and emotional pain that the heroine traditionally experiences.

Mood And Atmosphere

From Saul Bass’ opening credits, underpinned by the anxious musical score and split titles, the tension is heightened and the audience knows they are going to be weighted down by it. The audience peering into the window find an attractive couple half-undressed but despite the sexualised scene, their conversation is one of despair and hopelessness, already setting a negative tone.

Marion’s flight from Phoenix with the stolen money thus drives the narrative into one of heightened tension, which is worsened for us by her interactions with the cop and the car salesman. Her nervous and an anxious state therefore becomes ours.

But of course, as Marion drives through the stormy night to find refuge in the Bates Motel, it evokes for the audience the familiar Gothic trope of the traveller lost in the storm and finding themselves in an old isolated house filled with dark secrets and danger (i.e Wuthering Heights, The Old Dark House). Again, the looming shadow of the house with darkened skies above it adds to the gloomy atmosphere.

Of course the audience enters the house itself, it is antiquated and frozen in another time, as well as being terribly silent and filled with shadows.

And of course the decision by Hitchcock to film in monochrome certainly helps shape the Gothic atmosphere!

Psycho would become one of Hitchcock’s most successful and well-known films. It is not only a superb thriller which still never fails to shock; it is also a superb example of the Gothic horror film.

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This article has been proudly submitted for the Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Gabriella at Pale Writer . Please click on the link to read other fantastic entries!

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.