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. 

The Frankenstein Monster: Boris Karloff And His Incredible Portrayal

by Paul Batters

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Of all the monsters in the pantheon of the ‘children of the night’, perhaps none have had such an impact on the sympathies of an audience as the Frankenstein Monster. Many films have been made where Shelly’s Gothic tale is told or at least appropriated. Yet none have ever been able to match Boris Karloff’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s near-immortal creation.

This discussion does not aim to focus on the mechanics of the film-making process of the first three films nor their storylines; insomuch that if they are brought up, it’s done so as a reflection of Karloff’s performance. Indeed, a great deal of discussion and discourse has already covered the making of the three films I would like to focus on. If anything, this is a celebration of Karloff’s portrayal.

In popular culture, the Frankenstein Monster has become reduced to a mindless brute – a near-indestructible automaton whose brain can be as interchangeable as a car-battery and is easily identified by his stiff walk and arms stretched out in front of him. With respect to Universal Studios, who played just as important a role as Dr. Frankenstein in bringing him to life, they are greatly responsible in creating this image. Indeed, mention the name ‘Frankenstein’ and the vast majority of people will identify the name as that being of the Monster and not the family name of its’ creator. Even in the Universal world, three other actors other than Karloff (Lon Chaney Jnr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange) all portrayed the Monster to varying degrees of success yet adding to the demotion of the Monster from the brilliant portrayal borne of Karloff to the aforementioned description. If ever a creature from the dark went through a more incredible array of change in character, none were marked than the Frankenstein Monster.

What audiences need to be reminded of is the pathos and touching humanity that truly embodied Frankenstein’s creation, reflected so beautifully by Boris Karloff. As a result, I will speak of the Frankenstein ‘trilogy’ because they feature the great man and are without a doubt the best of the Universal films, after which admittedly they would later denigrate into exploitation, particularly after Karloff left the role.

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Frankenstein (1931) deserves its’ place as one of the most important films in cinema, let alone its’ position as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Unlike its’ equally important predecessor Dracula (1931), it has held up well and has some of the most memorable cinematic moments in film history. As important as James Whales’ direction was, his pick of a 44-year old bit part actor was far more important and fortuitous. Whale could see there was something about Karloff’s face and personality that he couldn’t quite put his finger but knew intuitively would work. If the film and of course the Monster belongs to anyone, it’s Karloff.

The birth of the Monster is without doubt one of the greatest moments in film. The mad machinery will galvanise the Monster, the moving of the hand and the hysterical rantings of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who is in the incredible heights of rapture as he ‘knows what it feels like to be God’, all remain as iconic moments in classic horror. Even here, without seeing Karloff’s face, he is able to act with one hand to convey life coming to what had moments before been a dead cadaver.

But out first view of the Monster’s face is that moment when Karloff became the star. Whale built the tension even further by having Karloff walk in backwards to be followed by that slow turn and the close cutting to that horrific face. Lurching forward at his creator, he shuffles forward following Frankenstein’s commands to sit in a chair. The stiffened movements are like that of a child learning to walk but the doctor’s creation is not a child. He’s a reanimated human jigsaw, complete with a ‘criminal brain’ – a plot device non-existent in the novel, which would forever be associated with the Monster. Initially there appears to be no emotion, and Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyes and sunken cheeks evoke in the audience a dread and horror that will soon turn to empathy and understanding. And it’s all a result of Karloff’s mastery. Again, without any words, his pleading eyes and desperate need for warmth and light, breaks the dread  we feel but he is soon faced with not only being ignored but then completely rejected and treated horrifically at the hands of his creator, his former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and his cruel and sadistic assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). By the time we see the Monster in chains in the bowels of the place where he was born, the audience begins to wonder who the real monsters are, with Karloff beautifully portraying a poor and confused being who did not ask to be born and surrounded by hostility from his first interactions with humans.

But murder will follow; Fritz will pay for torturing the Monster once too often and then Dr Waldman before he is about to dissect and examine the drugged Monster. Karloff portrays the Monster with a hungered and desperate confusion, but he is also far more complex than it may appear; a far cry from the mindless shell that stomps around in later films. Karloff’s Monster is the abandoned child who knows nothing of the world and when he finally does find a human connection with a small child (Mildred Harris), it will end in tragedy. As an aside, the re-edited version that was re-released in 1938 and would show on TV screens for decades, was un-intentionally far more suggestive of the Monster doing something far more horrifc to Maria. 

When both creator and creation finally do face each other again, Karloff exudes menace and anger at the God-parent who has rejected him. Dragging Frankenstein to the top of an old windmill whilst being pursued by the enraged villagers, Karloff’s Monster is again surrounded by hostility and violence. His end comes as he is consumed by the flames that he so fears and does not understand, panicked and screaming in terror (a far cry from the final Universal film of the classic horror monsters which shows him walking stupidly into burning flames). It is a terrible end for a being that did not ask to be created, abandoned to the cruelty of a world he does not understand, all beautifully conveyed by the mastery of Boris Karloff.

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But of course it is not the end. Universal realised that the real star of the film was not Colin Clive but Karloff and the resulting Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), is a far better produced film, with a beautiful musical score by Franz Waxman (which was notably absent from the first film) and far greater liberties taken by Whale as director in terms of themes. The film, thus, is a masterpiece with the story continuing where the last film left off. There are some cast changes and the inclusion of Una O’Connor as Minnie, a servant in the Frankenstein household, reflects Whale’s eccentric humour. (As an aside, I find O’Connor’s screeching an almighty annoyance and her being in the film is superfluous). As the audience discovers, the Monster has survived but burnt and injured, fleeing into the woods for refuge. But not after committing two more murders.

Again, Karloff’s portrayal transcends the make-up and indeed his work from the first film. Wracked with hunger and desperate for basic human connection, his struggles seem to be over when he meets a blind hermit (O.P Heggie). The kindness and genuine humanity of the scenes that follow are touching and beautiful, and Karloff shines as he hears the prayer of gratitude given by the blind hermit, seemingly amazed by the beauty of words he has never heard before. As the hermit cries, a tear also runs down the Monster’s cheek and he comforts the weeping old man. Here Karloff shows that his portrayal is not of a Monster but a lost soul, who seeks only friendship and love. Much has been said and disputed about the scene; regardless it is as the Hermit states ‘two lonely souls who have found each other’.

Another first for the Monster is that he learns to talk. It appears he has been living with the Hermit for some time, as wounds have healed and he has learned to speak. The words, of course, are basic and the word ‘friend’ is closest to the Monster’s heart. Karloff was against the Monster speaking, feeling that it meant something was lost. With the greatest of respect to the man, this reviewer feels it does not detract from the portrayal and indeed holds firm textual integrity with the original novel, where the Monster not only speaks but is articulate. His desperate need for expression starts to grow and after losing his friend and sanctuary in the Hermit, he is again pursued and abused.

Despite being captured and briefly shown in the now famous ‘crucifixion’ pose (hence highlighting his treatment as an outcast and misfit outside the sensibilities of society to be persecuted), he breaks out, using his incredible strength and thus also planting a seed to another important trope. Karloff again shapes a menacing figure as he makes his way through a graveyard, only to enter a crypt and marvel at the face of a corpse. Despite the necrophiliac-like suggestion, the Monster finally has someone who will not reject him. But during this fateful moment, he will meet and make a new ‘friend’ in the form of the notorious Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) whom the audience knows is planning to create life from the dead with Frankenstein. It is also an important moment of consciousness for the Monster as he verbally acknowledges that he knows Frankenstein made him from the dead, after which the Monster intones: ‘I like dead’. Pretorious responds, ‘You’re wise in your generation’. But here the Monster will be manipulated (or allow himself to be) in order to achieve his deepest desire, a friend – or more to the point, a ‘wife’.

Karloff presents a cruel side to the Monster as he joins Pretorius in forcing and bullying Frankenstein into creating a friend for him. But his brutal menace melts when he first sees his ‘bride’ (Elsa Lanchester). His happiness turns to depression and resignation, noting that his rejection by the world is now complete. Deciding to end it all, he tells Frankenstein and his wife to ‘Go! You Live!’ but warns Pretorius to stay and as he declares ‘We belong dead’, the lever is pulled and the whole laboratory with the Monster is blown to atoms. Again, we see the Monster shed a tear as he looks longingly at his ‘wife’, still desperate for love.

Karloff’s expression of the Monster transcended the first film, not only because he actually spoke but because Karloff was given greater screen time and there was the recognition that he was the real star. If empathy with the Monster was felt by the audience, it is most evident in Bride Of Frankenstein. The damaged Monster is not only physically hurt but wounded deep within, so much that he wants to end his life. Karloff is superb and whilst the film could not have existed without the first, it is an outstanding film. Again, as he did in the 1931 production, Karloff surpasses the make-up with a powerful range of emotion conveyed through his incredible skills and the intuitive powers he held as an actor.

Bride Of Frankenstein was the high point of chiller genius at Universal, and whilst there were solid and successful films in the horror cycle which followed, it is difficult to place them on the same pedestal. The amount of horror films began to dwindle afterwards and the few that were released did not have the level of quality that had first enthralled audiences. But other changes had occurred as well; the new Breen Code, the banning of horror films in Britain and even changes at Universal Studios itself would all have a major impact. However, in 1938, the double billing of Dracula and Frankensteinwas a huge hit and Universal decided to start a second cycle of horror, starting with the production of Son Of Frankenstein (1939).

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The casting of Basil Rathbone as the late Baron’s son, Wolf, was quite a coup and the focus of the film does move to him. Without the direction of James Whale (who had lost the desire to direct), the appointment was given to Rowland V. Lee, who whilst competent and interesting in his vision, cannot bring to the screen the magic touch of Whale. It also didn’t help that the script was incomplete and changes were consistently coming in each day. More importantly for this discussion, the former looming presence of the Monster was reduced to a haunting spectre at least until later in the film. After the heights of the first two films, Karloff’s portrayal becomes somewhat muted, explained in the plot as the result of the psychological and physical traumas that he has endured. Whilst in the previous films, the Monster was a figure of fear, menace and horror, he would be now reduced to one of curiosity. Indeed when the audience first sees the Monster, he is weak, barely alive and in a coma. But the inherent scientific curiosity of Wolf demands that he bring the Monster back to consciousness. 

The sets are fantastic and Rathbone’s performance is memorable, as well as that of Lionel Atwill as the Police Chief. But ironically, the one man who steals the film from everyone, even Karloff,  is Bela Lugosi as the evil and twisted Ygor. It is perhaps the meatiest and most interesting role since his star turn as Dracula, and if ever there was the ‘sideman’s revenge’ for Lugosi, than this was it.

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There ARE moments where the Monster’s humanity shines through; his anger at seeing himself in the mirror and the depths of his self-consciousness emerging, the relationship with Peter, the Baron’s son and the howl he gives when he find Ygor’s body, perhaps reminiscent of his role in The Old Dark House as Morgan, the brutal butler weeping over the body of Saul. But sadly, there is the foreshadowing of the tropes that will soon take hold in the mind of the public when it comes to the Monster. He follows the commands of Ygor without question, and whilst this emerges to some degree in Bride Of Frankenstein, there is a sinister motive to the Monster’s relationship with Pretorius. Now, he is nothing more than a mindless slave being used for Ygor’s mad schemes. This will be repeated ad nauseum in future films. Gone is the desperate and futile search by the Monster for his sense of self and an answer to his creation. The range of emotions once present are missing and we see a Monster that is flat and limited in scope.

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Additionally, the concept of the Monster being almost ‘super-human’ and indestructible emerges, particularly when Wolf states: Two bullets in his heart but he still lives! And even when he is pushed into a boiling pit of sulphur at the end, the audience has already been trained that it’s not really the end. Karloff is still imposing as the Monster particularly in the final scenes but he could see the writing on the wall. He would never play the Monster again in a major film and lamented the direction in which his beloved Monster was headed. Son Of Frankenstein is still a lot of fun and deserves applause for its’ strong cast and exceptional photography. It’s a tight film and the direction holds it together, with an eerie atmosphere on an outstanding designed set. But something seems to be amiss.

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Karloff would never pour scorn on those actors who followed him in the role, for he was too kind and humble to do so. He did, however, feel that the make-up was doing all the work, even during the filming of Son Of Frankenstein. He felt that the character ‘no longer had any potentialities’ but added that ‘anyone who can take that make-up every morning deserves respect’. Karloff adored the Monster and would forever state that he owed it everything, giving credit to everyone from Whale to make-up artist Jack Pierce, characteristically excluding himself. It must have deeply affected this true gentleman when the Monster became the butt of jokes, which he had always hoped would never happen. When asked to assist in the promotion of Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he reportedly stated that he was happy to do so ‘as long as he didn’t have to see the picture’. Indeed, as much ‘fun’ as the Universal Pictures of the 1940s are, the menace of the Monster from the early 1930s means that the films initially were not meant to be fun and the dark fairy-tale essence of the first horror cycle is missing.

Sadly, to a public long trained to accept popular culture’s depiction of the Monster (now named Frankenstein), the brilliant portrayal of Karloff seems distant. Yet if one truly wishes to discover the origins of the cinematic Monster, they need only need turn to the original trilogy and watch a master at work. Karloff always praised others, such as Jack Pierce for the make-up. But Karloff did what no-one else has been able to do – he transcended the make-up and costume and blended it into his own fascinating and deeply motivated portrayal. Karloff claims he owed his career to the Monster but the Monster owed everything to Karloff 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. 

A Little Sunshine To Brighten The Grey: Receiving The Liebster Award

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Recently I received the most pleasant and humbling surprise, when I found myself nominated for the Liebster Award by Erica at Poppity Talks Classic Film. Erica is a fellow classic film fan and blogger whose wonderful support has helped keep me inspired and connected to writing my own blog. Her own outstanding blog featuring exceptional writing and is a must to visit and follow for its’ high standards and highly intelligent insights into classic film. Most importantly, Erica’s passion and love for classic film is wonderfully infectious and best of all, one will always learn from her writing. I am deeply honoured and humbled to be nominated by someone who is an exceptional writer and comes at a time when my own personal doubts have taken their toll. Erica, your nomination will never be forgotten, and my thanks and appreciation are beyond words!

As bloggers may know (and using Erica’s own words), The Liebster Award is thought to have originated around 2011 and “is a way to be discovered but also to connect and support the blogging community.”

After receiving a nomination, you earn the award by following a series of steps.

They are as follows:

  1. Thank the nominator in your award post.
  2. Place the award logo somewhere on your blog.
  3. You must state 11 facts about yourself.
  4. Complete the 11 questions that your nominator provided.
  5. Nominate as many bloggers as you’d like (11 is the maximum).
  6. Ask your nominees a series of questions (11 is the maximum).

So as they say in classic comedy: ‘and away we go!’

11 Facts About Myself

1. I am a recovering chocaholic – whose habits have had to be curbed for health reasons. To say this is a personal tragedy is an understatement, in the pursuit of preventing a further and far greater tragedy (in my humble opinion).

2. Aside from watching classic film, a little slice of paradise for me is a breakfast on my own near the ocean where I grew up. Poached eggs on thick wholemeal toast with a side of crispy bacon, a cappuccino and the Sydney Morning Herald (an outstanding Australian newspaper). It’s also an integral aspect of my own personal mental health plan.

3. Books are one of my key vices and old books are my weakness. I struggle to part with them and need extensions to house the books waiting for a home. I mainly purchase books on classic literature, history, politics, biographies, music and of course, film.

4. I love a good cigar – my favourite is a Monte Cristo No.2. But I’m very partial to H. Upmann, Cohiba and Casa Torano. Accompanied by a Cles Des Duc Armagnac or a good port, and a good friend to share it and chat with is also a slice of paradise for me.

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Robert Donat Aiming a Muzzle-Loader Gun

5. My favourite exercise is swimming and outside of winter, I try to swim at least 1km a day.

6. As much as I loved playing basketball when I was young (and I mean loved), I see no point in being a spectator at a game. You may as well give each side 80 points and ten minutes to play. (I know that sounds bad).

7. As a child I had two major dreams – to become a fast bowler for the Australian Cricket Team (my hero was 70s/80s legendary Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee) and to become Ace Frehley, the lead guitarist for Kiss (my other hero). Preferably both consecutively. (Well, I was a kid…)

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8. On my bucket-list is attending the TCM Film Festival and finally getting a chance to meet some of the wonderful classic film fans I’ve met through blogging and social media.

9. My father was English and so I am a bit of an Anglophile. There was a steady television diet of British comedies and drama as I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s – and I still watch them.

10. My love for 1970s American cop shows borders on obsession with a growing DVD collection including Kojak, The Streets Of San Francisco, Starsky And Hutch, Police Woman and other titles.

11. A very embarrassing admittance: I cry like a baby when I hear The Way We Were by Barbara Streisand. (Look we all have our triggers!)

11 Questions Provided By Erica

1. What kind of toppings do you like putting on your pizza?

I used to be a multiple topping guy but these days I keep it plain and simple – ham and cheese with oregano. Or pepperoni.

2. Who was you first celebrity crush?

Kim Wilde (80s British singer). But I think I was also a little in love with Lyndsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman).

3. Name one classic film star, one contemporary film star and one modern film star who you find to be overrated. Why?

Classic Film Star – June Allyson. Never warmed to her and doesn’t have screen presence for me.

Contemporary Film Star – Julia Roberts. Just ugh!

Modern Film Star – Nicholas Cage. Looks permanently constipated and he just grates on me.

4. Have you ever flown first class?

Yes. From Chicago to L.A. I was upgraded and very surprised! I was flying from Montreal back to Australia and had to make three flight. Even if it was only a four hour flight from Chicago to L.A, I absolutely loved it and appreciated the break from Economy.

5. What is your favourite holiday to celebrate?

Christmas. Without a doubt! In Australia, it’s in the middle of summer and during our big school break, so it’s a wonderful time. I still get a fresh tree and refuse to go plastic. Sadly, television has become disgraceful and woeful in presenting classic film and television shows but I’ve made up for it. My kids all know and love the Rankin Bass Christmas shows (which I have on DVD) and a multitude of classic Christmas cartoons. As a family we all watch the familiar classic Christmas films such as Miracle On 34th Street (1944), A Christmas Carol (1938), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and so many others.

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6. Is there anyone in your close inner-circle who shares your passion of film?

I have a great work colleague whom I consider a close friend and future collaborator on various projects. We share a love for all things entertainment from classic film to Z-grade shlock horror.

7. If you have Twitter, have you had any meaningful exchanges with celebrities and/or people who you admire?

I have a strange love/hate relationship with Twitter. It actually makes me feel very alone and ignored! Yet when I do get notice, it’s from some very kind and wonderful people who are mainly fellow classic film fans and bloggers.

8. What is your most cherished box-set of films?

VERY hard to choose but I think it would go to the Marx Brothers Paramount movies box-set. It’s a beautifully presented set and the black-and-silver themed artwork is on point. For me, the best of the Brothers can be found in the Paramount films and the true essence of their comedy. A close second would The Thin Man boxset.

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9. What is your favourite kind of food to snack on while watching movies?

Popcorn and Coke No Sugar – both the size of Mt Everest if possible.

10. Which celebrity death affected you the most?

I was greatly saddened by the death of Prince whose music I loved. I saw him on tour in Australia in 1992 but missed out the last two times. What an absolute genius! However, every time I hear of the passing of a classic film or television star, I naturally feel a sense of loss.

11. If you had the choice to travel in a time machine with a 50/50 chance of being able to come back to the present, would you decide to go?

The temptation would be terribly great, but I think I would decline. I couldn’t leave my kids! Although the chance to visit the 1930s would be fantastic.

My nominees for the Liebler Award

Tynan at Four Star Films

Zoe at Hollywood Genes

Paul at Classic Film Journal

The Brannan Sisters at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society

Heather at Meet Me At The Soda Fountain

My 11 Questions For The Nominees

  1. If you could star with a classic film actor and classic film actress, who would they be and why?
  2. Who is your favourite director?
  3. London or Paris? Why?
  4. What has been the most challenging blog post you have had to write?
  5. What is the next book you plan to read from your reading list?
  6. Describe your perfect day (within the bounds of reality).
  7. Who had the greatest influence on your developing a love for classic film?
  8. What iconic car from a classic film would you love to own?
  9. List your favourite quote from a classic film and why you love it so much.
  10. Name a classic film villain you love to hate and why.
  11. If you could possess a super power, what would it be and why?

I truly hope the nominees will accept!

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. 

 

 

 

 

This Gun For Hire (1942): The Film Which Won Alan Ladd His Stardom

by Paul Batters

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Gates: “You must have a girl or…friend?” 

Raven: “Why?”

Gates: “Live alone, work alone, hey?”

Hollywood will often cater film around its’ stars – after all, it’s a business wanting to make profits and a sure-fire way of doing so is give audiences what they want. The studio system drove but was also sustained by the system of stars that audiences clambered to see on the silver screen. Hollywood has also faced the criticism of being conservative (and perhaps even more so today!) where films that were safe, focusing on star personas rather than taking risks, were suffered by stars who hated being pigeon-holed. There are many stories of actors such as Humphrey Bogart and actresses like Bette Davis who either felt stifled or even fought the system for better roles.

But there is something else that excites audiences and that is the emergence of a new star, especially when that emergence was unexpected. Alan Ladd was such a star and the war era film noir classic This Gun For Hire (1942) was the film.

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The title of the film itself speaks volumes in terms of the usual tropes to be found in film noir. And if it reflected any of the characters in the film, it without a doubt is both the calling card and epitaph for Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd), a professional hitman who is double-crossed by his employer Willard Gates (the brilliant Laird Cregar). After Gates pays Raven in marked bills, the crooked businessman claims the money as stolen and police detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is put on the case. Crane’s beautiful girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is a nightclub performer, who ends up working for Gates in one of his L.A clubs but will discover more than she bargained for.

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As in all things noir, the film develops into a tale driven by fear, mistrust, misunderstanding and the paranoia which was all pervading in the climate of World War Two. Raven not only becomes a man on the run from the law but a man with nowhere to go. His past is one of pain and personal anguish, enduring betrayal and hardening to its’ impacts. Raven is a man seemingly not given to warmth or sentimentality, yet his interactions with a stray cat, which he feels an affinity with, suggests something more. Like a cat, Raven is a loner, not relying on anyone to survive and walking in the shadows. Forever the loner, Raven is not the society type.

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His moments with Ellen are ones where he almost sheds his armour, suggesting a man who is not completely far gone. True, some of the pop psychology a la Freud bleed into the development of Raven’s character – the poor abused boy who is a victim of circumstance at every turn – and there is the danger of cliché. Yet somehow it works, and Ladd has us believing his personal narrative. In essence, Ladd is portraying one of the first anti-heroes, and is a trailblazer for the next generation of actors who would make their name playing the anti-hero. In many ways, it would also be a problem for a Hollywood firmly under the auspices of the Code.

Phillip Raven is also a man who is immersed completely in his dark world as a killer and has no qualms about pulling the trigger. His gun is the only thing that he trusts, and he has found this out the hard way. In this case, the betrayal of his employer will catapult him into a more dangerous world, where espionage will test his mettle. But the audience is under no false pretences of the nature of Phillip Raven. In essence, he is a terrible individual who has killed innocent people as well as those who perhaps ‘deserve’ their fate. Ladd’s portrayal is cold and brutal when we see him carry out his first hit. His eyes are piercing, betraying at hint of triumph just before he dispatches his victim. The cold professional is even more marked when the victim’s mistress enters the room and with a chilling monotone, Raven says “They said he’d be alone”,before he shoots the woman through a door she has found refuge behind.  Even Ellen, the woman with whom he has formed some connection, is only saved from being killed by a timely turning point in the story.

Both Raven and Ellen are drawn together through the element of fate, a powerful trope in film noir, by their association with Gates – Raven as a hired killer for the man, Ellen hired as a singer in one of his clubs. Both are thrown into circumstances neither have asked for and yet their fates are intertwined. He becomes her rescuer and then her captor during the film’s later desperate moments. Yet Ellen still tries to help him, moved by his personal revelations as well as hoping to appeal to something deeper within him.

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Ladd carries the weight of the film from a lower-billed position, way above his tournament ranking. The cliché that he ‘steals the picture’ rings true, with a performance finely tuned into the lone killer, driven by personal fears and mistrust. Despite the knowledge that Raven is a professional killer, the audience is hoping for his eventual escape from his predicament. Indeed, despite Raven being a killer, he is not an anomaly in the world of film noir. He may be an outlaw on the run, but he is betrayed by a so-called respectable businessman and drawn into a world of corruption, espionage and blackmail.

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And despite everything – all the toughness, cold-heartedness and gunplay, Raven shows that he cares for Ellen.

The chemistry between Ladd and the gorgeous Veronica Lake works wonders on the screen. Lake is more than a one-trick pony and this reviewer has seen some unkind remarks about her ability as an actress. She proves those critics wrong, playing the singer with a loving and sympathetic heart, and looking gorgeous all the while. It’s no mistake that the two would be paired again in other film noir classics.

The storyline for This Gun For Hire is slightly preposterous and the coincidences hard to swallow. Yet the audience is content to put that aside, thanks to Ladd and his interactions with Veronica Lake. Director Frank Tuttle does keep the film tight and well-paced, as well as beautifully shot. Robert Preston is solid, as are the supporting cast, although Marc Lawrence as Tommy is perhaps underused.

However, Ladd deserves all the attention he received for his performance. It would be ground-breaking for the young actor and the critics raved about the emergence of this new star. His partnering with Veronica Lake would become the basis for some other great films and one of the hallmark partnerships in the pantheon of film noir. This Gun For Hire will keep you riveted till the very end, thanks to the iconic performance delivered by Alan Ladd.

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. 

Vale Bill Collins: The Man Who Brought Australia ‘The Golden Years Of Hollywood’

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It’s been some time since I’ve written, being deeply depressed and despondent regarding writing and the lack of response and interest that writers usually face. I’m sure those of you are reading this and write know what I’m talking about. At the point of almost giving up, I find myself looking back to a man who introduced and nurtured a love for classic film to generations of Australians after he passed away recently.

His passing offered a chance and moment of retrospect, in being reminded of why I fell in love with classic film in the first place; and why I shouldn’t give up writing about classic film.

Below is a far overdue tribute to Australia’s ‘Mr Movies’ Bill Collins who passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84 on June 21stthis year.

Recently, classic film fans in Australia and indeed many Australians who grew up watching TV from the 60s through to the mid 90s, were saddened by the passing of one of television’s most beloved celebrities. He was not a famous actor or director, but few knew cinema like he did. He was not a singer or musician, yet he loved musicals, and few would have had the record collection he owned. He was not a talk show host, yet he interviewed many great actors, actresses and film-makers. He did something which seemed fairly basic and unimportant on the surface – he introduced films on television. Yet nobody could equal what he did and the fact that we will no longer see him do it, is a great loss to fans of classic film. They called him ‘Mr. Movies’ and his name was Bill Collins.

Bill Collins was famous on Australian television for the burning passion, incredible knowledge and deeply informative introductions to the classic films that he presented on Australia television.  Trained as an English teacher, Collins was a man with a passion for literature and theatre and taught in high schools in Sydney’s inner-west during the early to mid-60s. Always the great film fan, Collins was already writing film reviews in the 1960s before starting with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC or Canada’s CBC. From this point on, Bill Collins movie presentation career never looked back and whilst he was no longer in the classroom, he would remain a passionate teacher and we were happy to be students as we learned about the films he was presenting.

In the days before Pay-TV (cable to American readers), videos, DVDs and online streaming, Bill Collins was one of the most important presenters of classic film. He would work across a number of Australian television stations. But he really found home at Channel 10 in 1980, where he reached a national audience every Saturday night on ‘Bill Collins Golden Years Of Hollywood’ for nearly 15 years.

Saturday nights on Channel 10 were a ratings winner. As the song ‘That’s Entertainment’ began and a montage of Hollywood images played, families across Australia settled in to hear and see ‘Mr. Movies’ introduce the first film of a double feature from the classic era. Collins would give background to the key players, the artwork from his incredible collection of posters and lobby cards and discuss almost every element of production from the direction to the musical score. And of course, he also shared some juicy and fascinating gossip. His incredible knowledge was matched by an oft-described over the top manner which a few criticised as being saccharine and even over-compensatory. Cinephiles would also criticise Collins for his overt nostalgia and the lack of distance from a film needed to provide a more focused and balanced critique. But nobody could deny his passion and love for film.

Collins was also an extremely busy presenter. Whilst Saturday night’s program was the main event and jewel in the crown, Collins would also present Saturday and Sunday afternoon films, late Friday night film noir classics and would continue to present films from the modern era on regional TV stations across Australia. Despite the charge that he was too kind to the films he presented, the truth is that Collins could often be scathing and honest in his assessment. He was particularly brutal towards the 1984 remake of The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray. And I can still remember his controlled yet poor assessment of First Blood, which he presented on WIN’s Sunday night film (the regional station in our area).  

He could be imperious, demanding that we watch the film and declaring that it was impossible not to love the film. There was certainly a powerfully nostalgic theme running through the whole package and persona of Bill Collins – but that is why he was so loved as well. It was a very personal approach that Bill Collins offered as he leaned forward as if speaking only to you as an individual and bringing his teacher-like persona into your living room. The literary background to the man was also revealed through his discussion of the book of the film, often a beautiful edition again from his own private collection. And being a lover and aficionado of the musical (and music in general), he would usually show a copy of the soundtrack as well, which would be part of his extensive collection of books, albums, film posters and other memorabilia.

What was particularly impressive about the man was that he presented with no script and no auto-cue. Every line Bill Collins delivered was “off the cuff”, which added to the intimate nature of his connection with the audience. We would often be told (or rather ‘ordered’) that we ‘could not help but love this film’. And often he was right.

Bill Collins noted that by the early to mid 1990s, something was changing in television and the long-established formats, as well as the personnel. Video had been around a while (and there was even a Bill Collins Classic Series!) but the advent of Pay-TV would change the face of Australian television permanently. But that wasn’t the end of Bill Collins, with the man moving to the newly formed Fox Classics. To the credit of the bosses at Pay-TV, they let Collins do things the way he always did, and Saturday nights felt the same again.

Sadly, that began to change in 2018 with a winding down and an eventual retirement in September, 2018. Pre-recorded introductions were available to be streamed but it wasn’t the same. The eventual sad news that Bill Collins had passed away has seen not only the end of an era but is a watershed moment in the decline of classic film on Australian television. Fox Classics has become a shadow of its’ former self, with poor and bizarre programming. Doubled with the loss of TCM after 20 years on Australian Pay-TV, classic film fans are looking to other streaming services, DVDs and even returning to traditional television to watch classic film. But it’s not getting easier and even the purchasing of classic film on DVD has become more difficult and expensive, thanks to Federal Government legislation (making it difficult to purchase classic films on DVD from overseas sites) and the huge price hike in international postage.

So, the lament and sadness in Bill Collins’ passing is even greater than ever. As a tribute to the great man, on the Saturday after his passing, Fox Classics aired a special screening of Gone With The Wind, with the great man introducing what was his favourite film and the film he attributed to beginning his romance with classic film. As I sat and watched, I realised it really was the end of an era and that I would never again see or hear Bill Collins introduce a classic film.

There have been other presenters and there may be other presenters. Yet none of them will match the charisma and passion that Bill Collins nor the longevity and enormity of his career and his personality. If there was a ‘king’ of classic films in Australia, Bill Collins would have worn the crown.

What is left is a wonderful legacy and an incredible amount of gratitude for a man who set alight in me a love for the Golden Years Of Hollywood. He gave Australian film fans so very much and we won’t forget him.

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. 

Scarlet Street (1945): Joan Bennett – The Dangerous Femme Fatale

by Paul Batters

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How can a man be so dumb… I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you…sick, sick, sick! Kitty March (Joan Bennett)

Film noir has always fascinated me. It’s grip on my imagination and my love for classic film has become intertwined, for a whole combination of reasons. Perhaps one of the most fascinating themes that emerges in film noir is how ordinary, everyday and even boring people are drawn into the web of a darker and more dangerous world. It’s why Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of film noir’s best examinations of that very theme. And why it is also one of Joan Bennett’s exciting roles as the femme fatale, Kitty March, which this article will specifically focus on.

The master director had used the three principal actors – Bennett Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea – the previous year in the superb The Woman In The Window. Such was its’ success and so effective was the combination of the three that Lang brought them back for his screen adaption of Georges de La Fouchardière’s 1931 novel, La Chienne (The Bitch). What Lang created was a film noir masterpiece, with a delving into darkness that leaves the audience breathless in its’ audacity, despite the Breen Code firmly in place. Jeffrey Anderson has claimed that Scarlet Street is perhaps the darkest of Lang’s American films – and he’s probably right.

The story tells of a quiet, meek and placid cashier, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) who is also henpecked and bullied by his domineering and difficult wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan). Caught in a loveless marriage and an uneventful life, Christopher dreams of a life where there is some affection, love and excitement to break the dull life that he leads. One of the few escapes and joys that he has is art, particularly painting. 

Fate steps in one afternoon, when he comes across Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being menaced by a hood on the street. Assisting her during this altercation, Christopher then offers to take her home, first stopping somewhere for tea, where he reveals to Kitty his love of painting. Kitty mistakes him for an art dealer of sorts but there is also more than meets the eye to Kitty. Whilst the Code strangles out what she actually is, there is enough left to insinuate that Kitty is a prostitute and the man who had earlier assaulted is her pimp/boyfriend Johnny (Dan Dureya). The two come up with a plan for Kitty to fake romantic feelings for the hapless Christopher, as well as offer her place for him to paint there in peace.

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It doesn’t take long for Christopher to fall in love with Kitty, who leads him along, as they sell his art. But Christopher is also drawn into crime, stealing from his employer as well as his wife. Christopher, drawn in by Kitty’s play, drifts further and further into her plans; even happy enough for her to take credit for his art and not seeing a penny for his troubles.

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But further complications will arise, and Christopher will try to save his relationship with Kitty by asking her to marry him. What follows is one of the most shocking scenes in classic film and still shocks by its’ raw violence, savagery and sheer audacity. And this writer will not divulge anything further.

Kitty March is an interesting femme fatale and one which Lang examines brilliantly through a seasoned performance from Joan Bennett. As already mentioned, there are strong insinuations that she is a prostitute. Yet there is far more going on. Like any relationship based on exploitation and dominance, it becomes hard for the audience to understand what hold Johnny has on Kitty. Interestingly enough, Johnny comes across almost as ineffectual as Christopher and there is nothing physical, ‘manly’ (for want of a better term) or particularly roguish about him. Yet Kitty loves him despite it being a one-sided love, where Johnny’s only interest is to exploit her. She accepts this willingly and takes part in the exploitation of Christopher, where she employs her skills as an ‘actress’ to lead him down the garden path. As Johnny exploits Kitty through her love for him, so too does Kitty exploit Christopher via his weakness for her. Indeed, her own sexuality seems to find expression, only through the language of exploitation, degradation and masochism.

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Bennett is outstanding as the cold-hearted femme fatale and she proves to be just so, as the audience will eventually discover. She weaves through the complexity of being the manipulated and the manipulator, being preyed upon by Johnny whilst preying on poor Christopher’s inadequacy. Her brassy and vulgar ‘writing off’ of the pathetic and hapless man she has been duping, is cruel beyond description. And nothing could be more pathetic than the look on Bennett’s face and the Queen of Sheba posturing as Christopher kneels at her feet doing her toes.

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Of course, what Bennett also brings to the role is a duplicity in which she cons others but is also conned herself. The femme fatale constantly ducks, dives and dodges what fate is ready to give her, as punishment for Kitty’s many and varied sins. Christopher is only one of many men that she has used and exploited, and as the audience discovers, sex is not the only thing she will exploit. But again, there is more to Bennett as the femme fatale and reviewer Wess Haubrich is correct in his assumption that Kitty does not want to be here where she is. She is the classic femme fatale, in that she is looking for a way out but knows no other way. Kitty is also a damaged woman, with dashed dreams and a bleak future. But therein lies the cruel reality of the world of film noir, as Christopher, too, has dashed dreams and tries to rekindle them late in life. Perhaps Kitty understands Christopher better than she realises, with both seeing years pass and their dreams not only unrealised but shattered and lives unfulfilled.

Lang as director exploits his skills as well, with the depth, brilliance and intuition of a man who helped develop the artist’s palette in the first place. The master of Expressionism finds meaning in the subtleties as well, such as the use of mirrors (particularly around the bed) to highlight Kitty’s duplicity and the sordidness of what happens in her bed. The cigar smoke rising around Christopher’s head at the start of the film certainly suggests the start of a descent into the hell defined by Dante. And of course, there is the great irony that there is acting within acting, where the audience is also allowing itself to be manipulated.

It’s easy to compare Joan Bennett’s performance as Kitty with the previous year’s performance alongside E.G Robinson in The Woman In The Window. But that’s missing the point. The nuances of Bennett as the dangerous woman that Christopher falls for remove Kitty from being cliched. She’s dangerous yet vulnerable, cruel yet kind to the man who treats her bad and loving only to a man who doesn’t love her.

Scarlet Street is not only a superb example of a taut film noir masterpiece from Fritz Lang; it’s also a solid performance from Joan Bennett.

The film is available through Public Domain and can be seen via the link below to 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 Seven Year Itch (1955): Sex And Sizzle in the 1950s

by Paul Batters

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When it’s hot like this – you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox – The Girl (Marilyn Monroe)

The seasons hold powerful symbolism in a number of ways and cinema audiences have made those connections for decades. There is a romanticism about Spring (the blooming of love, rebirth, discovery), a bittersweet emotion is often connected to Autumn and Winter can represent far darker elements whilst alternatively evoking memories of cosy fires and (at least in the northern hemisphere) scenes of Christmas.

But Summer is a whole different thing. Hot summers evoke hot passions, the full flowering of life and living life to the fullest before everything turns back to the long, cold winter. Despite a celebration of summer generally being linked to youth and the young, that doesn’t mean that the more mature don’t share the same desires. Just as the young make discoveries and want to experience the world, those somewhat past the initial full-bloom of youth have just as much a desire to party. They also seek out to re-spark the excitement that was once there and perhaps lament decisions which have seen them in marriages that have left them stilted.

The concept of the ‘seven-year itch’ has become cliched in an age where divorce, separation, multiple partners and affairs are de rigueur. Indeed, the concept of marriage is one which is not a permanent state, nor does it prevent people from seeking partners or sexual excitement from outside the marriage. However, the ‘seven-year itch’ was a new, psychological concept in the 1950s and at a time when the sex comedy became an institution in film for a more hip and sophisticated audience.

 

As a result, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) sought to look at the phenomenon. Tom Ewell plays Richard Sherman, a middle-aged executive from Manhattan, who lives a straight, vanilla life. He begins to reminisce about his past and the possibilities and opportunities he left behind, particularly with those of the opposite sex, and the obvious mid-life crisis comes into play. But what also emerges are his own insecurities and worries, and as the audience will discover, his imagination runs rampant and we are left wondering how much of what we see is reality or Richard’s fantasy.

With the arrival of summer, Richard sees off his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and son Ricky (Butch Bernard) as they go on vacation to Maine. It’s a hot, sultry summer, which of course is suggestive of the heat that Richard will begin to feel. Remaining at the publishing company he works for, the climate of sexuality is constantly hinted at; such as the title of Little Women being changed to ‘The Secrets Of A Girl’s Dormitory’, complete with highly suggestive cover. Or when he goes to a vegetarian restaurant (to watch his health) and the waitress (Doro Merande) asks for donations for the cause of ‘nudism’:

Waitress: Nudism is such a worthy cause. We must bring the message to the people. We must teach them to unmask their poor suffocating bodies and let them breathe again.

Returning home to an empty house, Richard has also been immersed in a manuscript – “Man and the Unconscious” by psychiatrist Dr. Ludwig Brubaker (Oskar Homolka). It is this book which drives his imagination into over-drive, as well as his mid-life crisis, and he begins to dream up all manner of scenarios. (Later, the famous beach scene from Here To Eternityis hilariously satirised, with Richard romping with his wife’s best friend Elaine). But Richard is also convinced that he is falling for the seven-year itch, where all married men are tempted to engage in extra-marital affairs after seven years of marriage. He also becomes convinced that he is irresistible to women and that women have been throwing themselves at him for years. All in his imagination of course.

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It’s at this point that he comes into contact with the new neighbour in the apartment building. Known as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), this new neighbour is almost impossibly beautiful and oozes sexuality. Eventually inviting her in for a drink after a slight mishap, The Girl seems to be innocent in her sexiness and has no intention to seduce Richard. Yet he is under the misapprehension that he is definitely in with a chance, fuelled by his present condition and his misguided and deluded belief in his own personal attractiveness. Again, there’s plenty of fantasy as Richard’s mind invents all manner of seduction scenarios in which he conquers her. Richard drifts between fantasy and reality throughout the film. 

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Richard is inherently a good guy going through a personal crisis and no seduction occurs. However, the torment has a hold on him, and he seeks advice from Dr. Brubaker, whose book he has been reading. He’s even convinced that his wife and son will find about his imagined indiscretions and his guilty conscience is transferred onto his wife, whom Richard discovers has come into contact with a former beau (Sonny Tufts). But Richard is also becoming more paranoid that his innermost thoughts, as well as his sexual urges will be discovered by all, especially by his wife. His paranoia sees him imagining The Girl (working in a toothpaste commercial) broadcasting what he was been up to. It seems that Richard’s imagination never seems to let up.

Again, Richard drums up all manner of scenes between the two and he uses these as an excuse for revenge by inviting The Girl to dinner. To escape the hot summer evening, a movie in an air-conditioned theatre is suggested, going to see The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The interesting conversation they share is followed by one of the most iconic moments in film cinema history:

Contrary to popular belief, the scene filmed on location at Lexington Ave was not rendered useless by the noise of the crowd watching. The scene was re-shot on a sound stage and both scenes were used in the final cut.

In the end, the sexual tension is more in the mind of Richard though The Girl holds a definite affection for him. Richard eventually comes to his senses and realises that he has a problem with an over-active sexual imagination. Yet The Girl commends him for it:

The Girl: I think it’s just elegant to have an imagination. I just have no imagination at all. I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination.

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The ending is a little sappy and to be expected for a sex comedy of the 1950s. Whilst it feels dated and even redundant, there are some funny moments, often emerging in the imagination of Richard Sherman. Tom Ewell is fantastic in the role and he brings forth a wry humour that makes it a fun, memorable performance. But if the film is particularly memorable, it is thanks to Marilyn Monroe whose characterisation of innocent sexuality works well in tandem with Ewell’s performance. There is an unfortunate truth the role plays up the ‘sexy dumb blonde’ persona that plagued Monroe’s career and the now iconic scene of her standing in the sexy white halter-neck dress above the grate, certainly fed that persona.

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Drawn from the George Axelrod’s play, the film loses much of the impact of the stage version, due to the restrictions of the Code that was in place. Whilst The Seven Year Itch is still enjoyable, it becomes a light-hearted comedy with only some of the sizzle. Billy Wilder is one of the greatest directors, with a litany of great films across film noir and comedy that were not only ground-breaking but are templates for genius on film. The Seven Year Itch is not one of them, although it did well at the box-office on release and was generally well-received.

The film is perhaps best remembered because of Marilyn Monroe’s dominating sexual presence and the title which would become part of the lexicon of popular culture. In Cahiers du Cinema, Wilder would state that he was not happy with the film and would also describe it as a ‘nothing film’. Wilder had been commissioned by Fox to make the film and the restrictions in place would be too much for the director. Yet he still manages to add some beautiful touches to the film, specifically via the sexual urges of the main character in the presence of Monroe, as well as his talent for farce and cynicism. But as stunning as Monroe was on screen, Wilder found her exhausting to work with although it would pale in comparison to the difficulties, he would face with her a few short years later in Some Like It Hot.

The film certainly looks good, with Wilder using colour and Cinemascope to project the vivid imagination of Richard Sherman with great effect. There’s enough here to keep one entertained with a good dose of satire as well. Derek Adams in Time Out makes a valid point that what seemed ‘fresh and risqué in the ’50s, now appears a little obvious and over-plotted’. Wilder would have agreed with the sentiment.

For a film set during the heat of summer, there’s still some of the sizzle that one would expect in a sex comedy starring Marylin Monroe. Without the restrictions in place, and Wilder freer to pursue the original story, The Seven Year Itch may have been more of a scorcher.

This article is an entry into the Hotter N’Ell Blogathon kindly hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog . Please click on the link to read other great 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.