Bert Gordon – Arch Villain: The Performance Of George C. Scott in The Hustler (1961)

by Paul Batters

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“You gotta be hard, Eddie”  – Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) The Hustler (1961)

How many stories feature the protagonist facing a villain? The character of the villain has been at the heart of storytelling since humans started telling them. The villain is an important part of the construct of storytelling and there is a range of reasons why.

In terms of human history, film is a very new method of telling story. But the importance of the villain as a crucial character still applies. Since the beginning of the film industry, we have seen heroes and heroines on the screen battle and attempt to overcome a villain hell-bent on the hero or heroine’s destruction and/or failure.  We often apply a range of adjectives and descriptors to the villain in a story and they remind us of our own darkness and the ugliness that humanity possesses. We ask the question ‘how can they do that?’, without asking ourselves the same question. What does it take to push a human into the darkness?

Villains come in the shape of murderers, criminals, monsters, serial killers, dictators, femme fatales, gangsters and even schoolyard bullies. Often they are visible and in some cases caricatures. Yet perhaps the most dangerous villain of all is the one that is not so visible – at least initially. They look like us. They ride the elevator into our workplace. They walk down the street and into the same cafes and order coffee as we do. And they even catch cold like us. Yet underneath they harbour black souls and are as destructive as a prehistoric beast arisen from its’ slumber. They use and crush their fellow humans for their own gain, with a callousness and cruelty that can steal one’s breath. They can entice us into their web without our knowing, buying into their charisma and believing their promises.

Bert Gordon in The Hustler (1961) is such a villain.

Written, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, The Hustler is a powerful film that examines human frailty in its’ pursuit for fulfilment and need for realising one’s self. Arguably, Paul Newman’s performance as ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson is perhaps his finest portrayal, playing a pool player existing on the edge of society.  His struggle to overcome the obstacles in his path, often flummoxed by his own passion becomes complicated by two relationships: one being Sarah (Piper Laurie) the woman who loves him and the second Bert Gordon (George C Scott), the man who wants to own and exploit him.

Our first glimpse of Bert Gordon sees him in his natural habitat, a card game. The fact that he’s drinking milk as he plays, suggests that Bert stays in control in a world where most are hard and heavy drinkers. A professional gambler, who knows the odds and plays to win, leaves the card game to watch Eddie play the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), whom Bert ‘owns’ and bankrolls. 

Like a predator watching prey, Bert sits by quietly, his eyes gleaming – immaculately dressed and seemingly not perturbed by Eddie’s winning against Minnesota Fats. But Bert reads the situation like a pro, especially when Eddie’s ego gets the better off him and his winning streak begins to turn sour, assisted by his consumption of bourbon. Bragging, Eddie tells Minnesota Fats:

‘I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I’m the best there is. Now even if you beat me, I’m still the best’.

We here Bert Gordon for the first time, making a cold and accurate assessment with a controlled growl of a voice, as he tells Fats:

Stay with this kid. He’s a loser’.

Despite directing his comment at Fats, it is clear that Bert is speaking to Eddie, already using a psychological switchblade on Eddie to push him into defeat. Or perhaps to test Eddie and see if he can win? Either way, it’s a taste of things to come.

Eddie soon finds himself involved with Sarah (Piper Laurie) a woman who ‘has problems’, including drinking and loneliness.  They are both lonely people, but they also seek different things. But there is no doubt that Sarah loves him and has her own problems with accepting this, partially out of fear of losing him, as well as her own personal inadequacies. In the end, Bert and Sarah will fight for Eddie but for very different reasons.

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When Eddie encounters Bert again, it is at a card game and Bert decides to school Eddie on the art of winning.  Bert likes any game, not only where there’s ‘action’ but where he can control the odds and win. In the process of maintaining control, Bert drinks milk claiming that ‘it’s good for you’ and though he can drink, he does so only on a rare occasion. Again, he calls Eddie a loser who looks for an excuse to lose, talking straight and hard that it takes character to win, despite having all the talent in the world. Bert knows that Eddie is good and points out that he had never seen Fats hooked before but as he also declares in his schooling of Eddie, ‘you don’t win by yardage’. The way to judge a winner, he adds, is by who is standing at the end. Refusing to buy Bert’s terms, Eddie tells him aggressively to ‘kiss off’ but Bert is not perturbed and smiles at him like a shark showing his teeth. Bert offers Eddie a warning that ‘the word is out’ on him and he could get himself hurt. Sure enough, Eddie is going to get hurt and while hustling pool for cheap money, gets set upon. Not only is he beaten up but his thumbs get broken. It is a brutal and vicious attack that leaves Eddie helpless as he stumbles back to Sarah’s door.

After a slow and difficult recovery, where Eddie has had time to think, he incredibly seeks out Bert and offers the revelation that ‘twenty percent of something is better than a hundred percent of nothing’. There is something else that both Eddie and Bert are hungry for, despite Eddie realizing too late what the price is for that hunger – and that is to win.

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Bert has plans to go down south to Kentucky during the Derby and use his connections to start making money through Eddie. He points out to Eddie that he always picks up the tab: signifying that far from being a generous man, it is more the case that Bert pays for what he owns in the same way that a horse–owner takes care of his horse. But there is a complication in Bert’s plans, as Eddie wants Sarah to come along. Bert recognizes what Sarah is – a danger to his plans to own Eddie outright. Sarah is a rival for Eddie’s heart and soul and love is the one factor that Bert cannot connect with nor have in his way. As far as Bert is concerned, Sarah must be removed from the situation.

Travelling to Kentucky by train, Bert starts his campaign early even though there is the appearance of friendliness. His cold, evil persona is evident at every moment, with his shark-like smile ever apparent. Leaning back to eye her like a predator eyeing a weakness, Bert is sizing her up for the kill and considering the way in which he will dispose of her. He drops the word ‘cripple’ during a discussion, knowing that Sarah has a slight limp, which she is self-conscious of. Eddie stands up for her but Sarah tries to show she isn’t bothered, despite understanding full well what Bert is up to. He will be dismissive of her presence by pretending not to remember her name, which may appear like bullying but it is a slow kill where he first intends to break her, before he ensures his personal victory.

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But the veneer drops along with the smile when the two are alone in the hotel they have arrived at in Kentucky. The pretense also drops away as Bert shows his true colours. Voice hard and rough, Bert stakes his flag in the ground and growls at her:

‘Listen, Miss Lady Bird. You’re here on a rain-check and I know it. You’re hangin’ on by your nails. You let that glory whistle blow loud and clear for Eddie, and you’re a wreck on a railroad track. You’re a horse that finished last. Now don’t make trouble, Miss Lady Bird. Live and let live – while you can!’

The menace behind the mask is frightening and Sarah is intelligent enough to see what she is up against. It is a warning above anything else. It initially appears that Bert is drawing a line in the sand and will even tolerate her presence.  But before long, Bert begins his dismantling of Sarah, pulling her fragile psyche apart like a boy pulling wings from a fly. It is a deliberate breaking down of her defenses and a method of prying her from Eddie, so that Bert has complete control over his investment.

It is at the party where Bert will show what a cold villain he truly is. The real battle for Eddie’s soul begins when he plays the party host in a game of billiards. It is a brilliant power play on Bert’s part and Eddie becomes the battleground where Sarah and Bert will do battle. Sarah throws herself at Eddie’s feet, openly attacking Bert and imploring Eddie to get away from him. Newman beautifully imparts Eddie’s acceptance of Sarah’s truth but like an addict who cannot turn away from the terrible affliction that grips him, and his self-disgust finds him turning to Bert. Like a drug-pusher, Bert casually knows how to hook Eddie in and win him over anything that Sarah has to offer, even truth. He does not even deny what Sarah declares, knowing full well that all it will take is to feed Eddie’s addiction and Bert will win the day.

Sure enough, Sarah leaves the battlefield broken but the war is not yet over. However, she will make a terrible sacrifice to save Eddie.

The victorious and satisfied Fast Eddie Felson cleans the party host out and Bert seems satisfied as well. Suggesting to Eddie that he’ll give the kiss off to Sarah for him, Bert reminds Eddie that ‘you need to be hard’. Eddie’s non-committal to a decision shows his lack of courage in making a final choice – he wants the action of the game but cannot bring himself to tear Sarah away or hold onto her either. Eddie decides to walk back to the hotel. In the meantime, Bert returns and the final tragedy will unfold.

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Without giving too much away, it is a moment where our admiration for Sarah reaches its’ greatest height as she ‘wins the war’ for Eddie’s sake even if it means losing everything. Sarah knows who Bert is and when he claims he ‘only wants the money’ Sarah smiles wryly and accurately describes Bert as a ‘Roman’, who wants to win everything. Bert takes the bait and shows his true colours, revealing the cold, hard villain that underlies the supposed hard-business never personal façade that gives him his edge.

Eddie learns his lesson in a hard yet life-defining way. There will be a final showdown where Eddie will reclaim his sense of self but it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Eddie has learned who Bert Gordon is but has learned it too late. He tells Bert that ‘the cost is too high’ and Bert relents but gives him the quiet warning, smiling all the while:

George C. Scott’s performance is one of incredible measure, where his cold, calculating persona is superbly coloured by a dangerous charisma and a commanding presence. Scott gives a clear sense of Bert’s villainous nature, one which needs to win completely – to not only pocket the winnings from the action but to destroy those around him as well. Eddie’s final assessment of Bert shows that he has finally learned what Sarah was trying to reveal about Bert, that beneath the mask the face is twisted and evil.  Eddie turns Bert’s words on himself and calls Bert a loser, declaring that Bert is dead inside and can’t live unless he makes everything else dead around him. Bert seems chastened but like any villain, who is even momentarily beaten, he will continue in his ways, for there is no other path for him.

The Hustler is an outstanding film with penultimate performances from Paul Newman as Fast Eddie and Piper Laurie as Sarah. But George C. Scott steals almost every scene that he is in, with the subtleties of a super-villain whose wielding of cold manipulation like a weapon is akin to watching a master at work. The truth remains that for the hero to shine, the obstacles that he or she must face must be great in their scope. The ultimate obstacle for the hero is the villain – and in The Hustler, that obstacle in Paul Newman’s way is perfectly personified by the performance of George C. Scott as Bert Gordon.

This article is an entry into the Great Villain Blogathon of 2019, kindly hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows And Satin  and Kristina of Speakeasy.  Many thanks for letting me take part! Please click on the following link to read some fantastic articles on great villains in classic film – Great Villain Blogathon of 2019

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

 

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Dirty Harry (1971): Clint Eastwood As The Iconic Cop

by Paul Batters

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‘Now you know why they call me Dirty Harry…every dirty job that comes along’  Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)

The depiction of the police on film is one that courts controversy and can rarely placate all and sundry in an audience. Certainly, the depiction of law enforcement has changed dramatically since the days of Breen Code but societal values and perceptions have also played an important role. Until the 1960s, the police on film were rarely depicted in a negative light and if there was corruption, it was only one or two bad apples not the police institution itself.

Yet the 1960s saw wholesale changes, with the collapse of the studio system, the new wave of film-makers and the obliteration of the Code. But perhaps most importantly, the 1960s was a time of change, challenging the status quo, Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and the birth and growth of the counter-cultural movement. For the first time, popular culture challenged traditional power and authority and the revelations of the time (Nixon, Watergate, assassinations of leaders, the Vietnam War) meant that people would never trust power and authority in the way they always had ever again.

But it was also a time of conservative backlash and a strong response to the perceived collapse of law and order. Nixon was elected to power, as Noel Murray points out, and reactionary politics was in the culture – think All In The Family and the film Joe (1970). Both spoke to the same platform that Nixon claimed; the silent majority who were tired of dirty hippies, long-hairs and smart-ass university types telling them how to live and what direction the country should go in.

Which is why Dirty Harry is both an anomaly and an understandable statement of its time.

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Roger Ebert’s own review back in 1971 opened with a fascinating overview of criticism of the film being labelled ‘fascist’. He opines that the term had been overused and ‘best confined to a literal meaning’ rather than being used to label anything that is undesirable. In the context of the late 1960s/early 1970s, this is a fairly astute viewpoint, particularly as Ebert goes on to declare that the use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe Dirty Harry is actually quite justifiable. And there’s plenty of evidence in the film to fuel this criticism.

Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1971, Dirty Harry would be one of the highest grossing films of 1971. It would also assure Clint Eastwood as one of the top stars in Hollywood, with his directorial debut in Play Misty For Me already in the can and only just being released a couple of months earlier, also playing its’ part in assuring Eastwood’s currency in Hollywood. Emmanuel Levy points out that it outraged many liberals when it was released and you can see why.

Clint Eastwood plays Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop who is after a dangerous psychopath named Scorpio (Andy Robinson). With an obvious nod to the real-life Zodiac killer, Scorpio taunts the SFPD that he will kill more unless his demands are met. From the get-go, the audience discovers that Callahan is not your average cop. Despite his dedication to the job, he has little regard for the authorities despite being a cop working to stamp his authority on the street. His first interaction with the Mayor (John Vernon) is both humorous and brazen in its feelings towards those in higher office. Indeed, it sets the tone for the zeitgeist of the times; a lack of respect or trust in authority. But it also establishes how Callahan deals with perps – and his ‘policy’ is direct and to the point:

Callahan runs his own show and the audience also discovers that he gets into trouble for crossing over the line. Yet his calm demeanour, perfect one-liners and fondness for his .44 Magnum create a persona that would permeate into many future roles for Eastwood. His character’s proclivity to use all three is discovered early in the film, when he deals with an attempted armed bank robbery.

His lack of desire to work with a new rookie partner, Inspector Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), further suggests the ‘lone wolf’ who prefers to work alone without limitations and thus more effectively by his reckoning. Callahan cannot help but gently mock his new partner’s university education, further reflecting the right-wing ideology that critics suggested permeated throughout the film. But he has no choice, as ordered by his direct superior Lt. Bressler (Harry Guardino), and they embark on the search for Scorpio. Chico also discovers early on why Harry has the reputation that he does.

Initially, there’s a humorous ‘wrong number’ when they track the wrong guy and Chico jokes now he knows why he’s called ‘Dirty’ Harry. Even Eastwood is stumped for a retort.But things get serious and tragic when a 10 year old African-American boy is shot in the face by Scorpio, meeting his earlier evil prophecy in his letter to the SFPD that he will shoot a ‘Catholic priest or a n…..”. As  Callahan correctly surmises, the next victim could very well be a priest as Scorpio ‘may think he owes himself a padre’ and they set up an operation to get their man during a late night Novena at a Catholic Church. The operation does not go to plan and a cop going undercover as the priest gets killed. Not only does the killings heighten the sense of tension and terror but the desire for Callahan to finally get Scorpio. It’s a perfect emotional manipulation of the audience by Siegel and has become part and parcel of ‘law and order’ films ever since.

The use of dark humour and Callahan’s seemingly casual demeanour in dealing with problems is perhaps a facade for his coping mechanism. Take in point the ‘suicide scene’ where he has to deal with a jumper that is first mistaken for Scorpio. Whilst he handles the jumper with casual indifference, it’s a ply to get him down but his face is tired and his voice loaded with cynicism, betraying the truth behind the facade. Later, when he is speaking to Chico’s wife, she asks ‘why do you do it?’ and Callahan can only respond that he really doesn’t know.  The two moments link as evidence that Harry Callahan is a man who is tired and jaded with the whole of society and the damned institutions that run it.

Finally, Scorpio abducts a teenage girl and threatens all manner of horrors if his demands are not met. To show his intent, he includes in a package sent with a letter of his demands, the girl’s panties, a lock of hair and a tooth pulled out with pliers. Callahan believes she’s probably dead but agrees to be the bagman taking a bag filled with money to Scorpio, in the hope that the girl will be saved. What follows is a cat and mouse game where Scorpio sends Callahan all over town, from phone box to phone box until the final confrontation in the city park at night. Of course on the way there, there’s a dash of homophobic reference thrown in for good measure when Callahan comes across ‘Alice’ who will ‘do anything for a dare’.

The masked Scorpio meets with  Callahan, who forces him to disarm and give him the bag of money, after which Scorpio brutally beats him. But Chico has been following and after a gunfight, Scorpio gives an animalistic and terrifying howl as Callahan plunges a hidden switchblade deep into Scorpio’s thigh. Scorpio gets away but is injured, as is Chico in the exchange of gunfire.

The following scene is perhaps the most infamous in the film, where Callahan tracks Scorpio down to a football stadium. The arrogant Scorpio is now a simpering coward, begging for mercy but Callahan will not relent. Repeating over and over in tears ‘I have rights, I want a lawyer…’, Callahan demands to know where the girl is and begins to torture Scorpio by standing on his badly injured leg as he points his gun at him. The camera, obviously placed on a helicopter, hovers back into the blackness as Scorpio’s howls fade out as well into the backdrop of the city at night. It’s a jarring and terrifying scene  and one of the most memorable.

It feels like the story has come to an end. As the sun rises, a tired and hurting Callahan watched from afar as the missing girl’s dead naked body is pulled out from a grave. The sombre music reflects everyone’s mood and it’s also a Pyrrhic victory for Harry Callahan.

Here the shift to audience outrage takes form as Callahan is informed that Scorpio will walk because his rights have been violated, including key Amendments in the Constitution, as well as the Miranda and Escobedo rulings. It touched a raw nerve with audiences in an America torn by civil strife and riots, as well as the fear and terror of urban decay and the proliferation of the serial killer (in all manner of forms – here manifested in all those forms by Scorpio). In the D.A’s office, Callahan’s incredulity and anger mirrors an audience who, like Callahan are also ‘all broken up about (Scorpio’s) rights’. Callahan declares that ‘the law’s crazy’ and also assures that he will stay on Scorpio’s tail (no pun intended by this reviewer).

Callahan starts following Scorpio, whose wearing of a twisted peace sign as a belt buckle as he stares at kids in a playground, is highly suggestive of a constant underlying tone in the film; that America’s failings are a result of bleeding heart liberals whose progressive ideas are causing its’ societal and political woes. Now if only the police could do their job without being held back by ridiculous laws seems to be the sentiment.

The eventual showdown will results after Scorpio hijacks a school bus and takes the children hostage. It is a terrifyingly cruel scene as Scorpio manically terrorises the children on the bus. Somehow, Callahan is on the ready and as the bus goes under an overpass, he leaps onto the bus and makes chase after the bus comes to a halt.

WARNING! Be prepared for spoilers!

As Callahan chases Scorpio through a processing mill, the psychopathic killer comes across a boy fishing at a nearby pond and uses him as a human shield. It seems there’s nothing Callahan can do. But with all the flash and cool that he possesses, Callahan wounds Scorpio with a lightning fast shot, freeing the boy who runs away and leaving the two to face each other. It’s what the audience has been waiting for, with the coup de grace yet to come.

Callahan repeats with controlled aggression, the now famous line he used at the start of the film with the failed bank robber. This time – Scorpio will test his luck and Callahan blasts him to kingdom come.

In the background, a faint police siren can be heard and it’s easy to imagine what Callahan is thinking – why do I need to justify my actions against this maniac? His disgust can be felt as he holsters his weapon, looks into the distance and takes out his badge. A moment’s pause sees him throw into the water and then the credits begin to roll. According to Peter van Gelder, Eastwood was not too keen to toss the badge, seeing it as a gesture of abdication. But Siegel made him see that it was more an act of protest and disgust than anything else.

Legendary critics like Ebert called the film ‘morally fascist’, as did Pauline Kael. But Kael adds an important assessment of the film:

“It’s hard to resist, because the most skilful suspense techniques are used on very primitive emotional levels…You have but one desire: to see the maniac get it so it hurts”. 

And there’s the rub. Whatever elements of fascism one wishes to find, it’s impossible to deny that it’s a damn good cop thriller and perhaps one of the best. Noel Murray puts it perfectly:

“Thanks to Siegel’s lean direction and Eastwood’s cooly laconic lead performance, Dirty Harry’s vision of a world gone mad is effective enough to make even a card-carrying ACLU member cheer for Harry’s vengeance”.

Siegel keeps the film tight and any fat has been trimmed off to keep the story moving and the dialogue drives the story without wasting words. As a director, Siegel has an instinct for pacing and it’s what makes the film such a solid thriller as much as a cop film. Interestingly enough, for all the charges of fascism, Siegel declared himself to be very much a left-leaning liberal who just wanted to make a commercially successful cop-thriller. Despite speculation that both Siegel and right-wing Eastwood must have clashed on the film, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Both were aiming to make a successful film and ultimately as Siegel stated, his making a film about a ‘hard-nosed cop doesn’t mean I condone hard-nosed cops’.

Many of the tropes we find in later cop films and even vigilante-type stories such as the Death Wish series find their origins in Dirty Harry, particularly when it comes to the bad guy. Whilst Scorpio is without a doubt based on the real-life Zodiac Killer who plagued California during the same period of time, Scorpio does incorporate characteristics of numerous psycho-types that would terrify anyone. Andy Robinson is perhaps one of the most disturbing creeps ever brought to the screen and time has not diminished his outstanding performance. By all reports, Robinson struggled with key aspects of the performance, particularly in two areas – the use of guns (which he personally hated and needed intensive training with) and the school bus scene. According to Peter van Gelder, Robinson could not stomach the violent cruelty he was supposed to dish out to the children and only relented when Siegel himself started dishing it out, just to get the scene over and done with. If Robinson was struggling with it, there’s a challenge to spot it because it’s one of the most disturbing and manic moments in the film and difficult to watch.

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Eastwood was not the first choice for the role but he turned out to be the best. Like the lone gunman or the man with no name, Harry Callahan stands alone in the SFPD and in the pantheon of cops on film. The role would deliver a franchise of successful films, with Sudden Impact (1983) perhaps being the most successful. But the original is still the best and whatever one thinks of the film’s politics, it is impossible to deny it’s one of the greatest cop films ever made.

This article is an entry into the 2019 Cops Blogathon kindly hosted by Dubism. Many thanks for letting me take part! To all readers and visitors, please click on the above link for more great articles!

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.

Five Favourite Films Of The 1950s

by Paul Batters

It’s always a tough gig trying to compile any favourites list and when it comes to film, I personally find it particularly difficult to do. But after seeing this blogathon hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café, the challenge was too tempting to let slide. The following five films are cinematic classics that have deeply moved me and ones which I have developed a profound connection to. They are also films which I have watched time and time again, only to discover something new during every viewing. Most importantly, they are timeless for the powerful performances of the key actors and actresses, the thematic concerns and the cinematic quality of their production.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. And yes, yes and yes, there are other films which could be added, dropped or given an honourable mention. But these films are what stand out for me.

So without further ado…

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Without a doubt one of the finest films in the pantheon of film noir, The Asphalt Jungle is also the quintessential heist film. Directed by John Huston, it also contains one of the greatest lines in film noir and one which sums up the core value of noir – ‘Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavour’.

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Starring Sterling Hayden as a small time hood named Dix, he’s a tough, no-nonsense man who has principles as well as a dream to get back to his childhood home. The whole cast is outstanding and each character embodies the foibles, dreams and weaknesses of humanity, seeking a way out yet finding themselves moving deeper into the darkness. Dix becomes part of a gang put together by Doc (Sam Jaffe), a gentlemanly crook whose scheme of a big jewellery robbery is funded by Emmerich (Louis Calhern) a corrupt lawyer, who has his own plans. Their meticulous plans will become undone by greed as much as the hand of fate in a taut and superbly crafted story.

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There’s no slackness and no loose ends, and Miklos Rozsa’s score underpins the desperation of men seeking to get out from under. We’re left feeling as desperate as the men on the screen, hoping against hope that they will make it – to wherever it is they are going. Grim but exciting and riveting from start to finish, The Asphalt Jungle is mandatory viewing not only for those who love film noir but for any fan of classic film.

Incidentally, I’ll be writing a review of The Asphalt Jungle for the 2019 Noirama Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

Vincente Minelli’s bittersweet poem to Hollywood pulls no punches, revealing the nature of the industry and the people who work within it. The story focuses on director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and their personal and working relationship with producer Jonathon Shields (Kirk Douglas). Minelli made it a point thatthe characters’ humanity was integral to the success of the film and that they were not immune to weaknesses, which were counterpoints to their strengths.

The harsh reality behind the magic of film is brought forward through three different stories told in retrospect. Yet all three are intertwined and ultimately centred on the ruthless yet brilliant and emotional Shields, who has given them their career breaks yet also betrayed them, professionally and personally. Douglas plays Shields with incredible sensitivity and depth, delivering the personal pain, passions and difficulties that film-makers face. The other key players are also superb and for my money it is one of Lana Turner’s most memorable performances as the alcoholic actress, who falls in love with but is eventually spurned by Shields.

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There’s plenty to pull apart as the characters and scenarios are drawn from Hollywood history. Georgia Lorrison is based on the daughter of legendary John Barrymore, Diana. The European director von Elstein is certainly a nod to the European directors who came to Hollywood such as von Sternberg and von Stroheim. Watching Shields and Amiel work on ‘Doom Of The Cat Men’ is without a doubt an homage to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO and the making of The Cat People (1942). According to a number of reports, Shields was based on David Selznick, whose life and career certainly shows parallels with the obsessed producer.

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The Bad And The Beautifulis not nostalgic or sentimental; there is a deeper undertone of harsh realism that counters any such possibilities, without it being an expose. But it’s impossible not to feel for the characters and despite their ruthlessness, selfishness and complexities, like us, they love film and are ultimately moved by its magic. As a result, I’ve always been deeply moved by The Bad And The Beautiful.

On The Waterfront (1954)

If ever there was an actor on the screen whose brilliance was matched by apathy to the industry, it was and still is Marlon Brando. There are countless actors and film-makers who turn to On The Waterfront as their inspiration for becoming involved in film, and it is impossible not to argue with them.

Elia Kazan’s grim crime drama tells of the corruption deeply entrenched in the unions which control the New Jersey docks but more importantly it highlights the impact that it has one the longshoremen and their families. The harsh, cold setting and stark story is a contrast to the colour extravaganzas of the musicals that were popular during the period. It was a gutsy picture for Kazan to make, aided by Schulberg’s superb script. There are some deeper criticisms that emerge, focused on Kazan’s testimony for HUAC which have been discussed at length elsewhere.

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The cast is strong and Eva Marie Saint’s debut as Edie stands tall with Karl Malden as tough priest Father Barry (who for my money deserved the Best Supporting Actor), Rod Steiger as Charley and Lee J. Cobb as the crooked union boss, Johnny Friendly.

But the fact remains that the film is Brando’s and the incredible performance as ex-boxer Terry Malloy is one of the greatest in film history. Brando is natural, realistic and adds subtle touches which add a beautiful element to his performance. Terry is torn between the rules that he has known all his life, the cynical harshness that has shaped his reality and the tenderness and desire for something more that is drawn from deep within by his love for the delicate yet strong and determined Edie.

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The most famous scene in the film has been paraphrased, satirised and almost exhausted to the point of cliché. But the cab scene between Terry and his brother Charley is a powerful scene and deservedly one of the most celebrated and lauded scenes in film history. Brando would declare that he initially hated the scene and bemoaned Steiger’s ‘always wanting to cry’ in dramatic scenes. Yet years on, Brando would come to terms with the universality of the scene and be at peace with it. Malloy is channelling what nearly everyone feels at some point in their life – that there was a moment in time, a chance, where they could have become more than what they are and reached heights that met their dreams and potential, which never eventuated for whatever reason.

On The Waterfront is a powerful and provocative film and the ending which sees Terry stand up for a chance to make a difference and that he even though he’s ‘lost the battle’, he can ‘still win the war’ is inspirational. For me, it deserves to be recognised as one of the finest films of the 1950s.

Paths Of Glory (1957)

Paths Of Glory is a masterclass of cinematography by Stanley Kubrick and one of the key reasons why I feel it is an exceptional cinematic experience. The cold realism of the horrors and cruelty of war are experienced by the audience, through the camera’s presence with the soldiers during battle. It is a stark contrast to the conventional war film with dramatic music being absent and the use of silence to heighten tension, with the aim of realism being well-established.

Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax in the French army during World War One. An intelligent man who is leading his men into battle, he is also well aware of the futility of war as well as the stupidity of the orders from high-ranking officers. Douglas offers a strong, tempered performance, balancing the character’s frustrations with the unprincipled, contemptuous and disgraceful Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

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Thematically, the film examines the brutality and cruelty of humans during war and the contempt that the military has for the men who are doing the fighting and dying on the battlefields.

Dax leads a futile attack on Anthill, a position held by the Germans which Dax knows is doomed to fail. Dax tries to lead his men as best he can, despite the madness of the orders given but the shelling of his own men by French artillery sees disaster result. Brigadier-General Mireau (George MacReady) decides to court-martial 100 of his men for the failure, in an attempt to deflect blame from himself.

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Dax, a former lawyer, defends three of his men in a trial which is at best a travesty of justice and procedure. Despite his honourable attempts, Dax knows it is a pointless defence, mirroring the futility of the battlefields.

An anti-war film it is but it is also more than that – it is a strong indictment against injustice, corruption and the cruelty of humans at their worst. It is as much an anti-militaryfilm as well. It was a film with a rawness that would be banned in some countries due to its’ anti-military tone.

Paths Of Glory is one of Douglas’ best performances in a film that is testimony to the genius of Stanley Kubrick.

Vertigo (1958)

I recently wrote about Vertigo( see link ) and cannot speak highly enough of what I believe is perhaps Hitchcock’s most beautiful film. It leads the audience through the mental anguish of former cop turned private investigator Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) and a mash-up of his obsession founded in dream and nightmare. Kim Novak was never more ethereal and captivating as Madeline and Bernard Herrmann’s score is, as Martin Scorsese declares, a spiralling and circular movement that lifts and drop the audience along with Scottie’s journey through obsession.

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The plot won’t be discussed here but needless to say it touches the audience with its’ themes in ways that few films ever could. It becomes personal and deeply intrusive into our own psyches.

It’s no mistake that Vertigo has consistently made the top ten lists of many film critics, film magazines and institutions, such as the AFI and Empire.The BFI’s magazine, Sight And Sound, more recently listed it as the greatest film made, leap-frogging Citizen Kane. Hitchcock constructs his film with all the cinematic tools at his disposal with incredible depth and consideration. Whilst certainly existing in the stylistic and tonal registers of film noir, it is also a deep psychological thriller.

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Jimmy Stewart as Scottie is the everyman caught up in and duped by circumstances that he initially cannot see but there could be endless conversation over his choices and the nature of his obsession with Madeline. Madeline is also a victim of her own trick because she falls in love with Scottie as well, something she did not expect to happen.

For me, Vertigo is one of the greatest films of all time and deserves to be in the canon of the best films of the 1950s. For more on my thoughts of Vertigo, you can visit the link here: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958): The Art Of Obsession

Film should be deeply personal, even though we cast a critical eye on the films we watch and absorb. At the end of the day, Hollywood is trying to make a buck but that’s also because film-makers want their films to be seen for an emotional response and connection with the audience. It’s why classic film endure and why they always have something to say.

This article has been submitted for the 5 Favourite Films Of The 1950s Blogathon which was kindly hosted by Rick at Classic Film And TV Cafe. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please click on the above link for some other great articles!

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.

Possessed (1931): The new and sophisticated Joan Crawford

by Paul Batters

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 “There’s everything wrong with me…My clothes, my shoes, my hands and the way I talk. But at least I know it.” Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) Possessed (1931)

It’s no surprise that Joan Crawford is one of the great legends of the silver screen. Her career spanned five decades, with appearances in an incredible number of films across genres and eras. It is easy to forget that she began her career during the silent era and indeed became an established star, before her successful move into talkies at MGM. Her life story is one of determination, endurance and overcoming the adversity of an incredibly difficult early life. Unfortunately, the narrative has tended to focus on gossip, her infamous ‘dual’ with Bette Davis and the equally infamous claims made in her daughter’s book Mommie Dearest, which was also brought to the screen with Faye Dunaway playing the actress. Scandal and sordid stories have over-shadowed the reality that Joan Crawford was perhaps one of the most hard-working actresses in Hollywood history, who supported many up-and-coming actors and actresses, as well as making a fair share of enemies.

It’s also a shame that her best known films are those in her late career or at best the films she made from the 1940s onwards. Yet there is an incredibly rich array of films to enjoy prior to this period in her career. With the growing interest in Pre-Code film, the films that made Joan Crawford a major star during the early 1930s are becoming better known and available to film fans. For my money, Possessed (1931) is one of the best of her films from the Pre-Code era and perhaps one of the best she made with her on and off-screen lover, Clark Gable at MGM. It’s also one of her most important films, for reasons I will detail briefly.

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Crawford was certainly a well-established star at MGM by 1931 yet was still in the shadows of stars such as Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo., despite being one of the studio’s highest grossing actresses. True, she would outlast and perhaps even surpass both but her frustrations in 1931 were very real that she would forever be given Shearer’s ‘cast-off’ roles. However, Possessedwould seal Crawford’s stardom and her persona would greatly appeal to Depression audiences; the rags-to-riches girl who reached her dreams and left poverty behind. There would be a number of films which Crawford starred in that used a similar theme but there is something more about her role in Possessed. It would be one of the first films to put the nail in the coffin of the ‘flapper’ persona and bring forward a far more sophisticated identity. The determined girl rising out of poverty from the lower classes, which as Bob Thomas pointed out was far more appealing, saw a new woman who celebrated independence and a refusal to accept ‘one’s lot in life’.

In some ways, the persona of poor girl makes good or to be more precise ‘shop girl makes good’ was not exactly untrue and this is one of the reasons why Possessed resonated with audiences and still stands as testimony to the strength of Crawford’s Pre-Code films. Of course, Crawford’s image was greatly enhanced by a new sleek sophistication, aided by MGM’s costume and make-up department but to dismiss her as anything but a clothes horse is a clear mistake and an act of disrespect to her acting ability.

Possessed is a story of Marian Martin, a woman who is unabashedly out for herself, reflecting a strong sense of a woman who desires her own identity, freedom and escape from poverty and mediocrity. Marian wants to be liberated from Smalltown, U.S.A, which during the era meant a small-minded town, working for peanuts in a dirty factory and ending up married with kids and old before her time – at least in the context of the story. She sees her future as being bound to Al (Wallace Ford), an uninspiring man who also works in a factory. Marian cannot see a way out but senses there is more out there for her.

A chance encounter near the railway station is a flashpoint moment where Marian sees the ‘other side’. Looking in the first class carriages, she gets a glimpse of those living the glamorous life; the sumptuous food being prepared, a girl in lace getting changed, a couple in their best threads dancing. It is perhaps a nonsensical and unrealistic moment but director Clarence Brown is making more of a symbolic gesture, with each carriage offering a fleeting look into another world as Marian looks in from the outside.

But a chance stop sees Marian conversing with a very tipsy Wally Stuart who offers her champagne and his address if she ever makes it to New York. Stuart also offers some advice which Marian perhaps already knows yet is unsure how to act on:

“There are two kinds of people. The ones ‘in’ and the ones ‘out.”

Returning home to an angry Al, who discovers the piece of paper with Stuart’s name and that she has been drinking, Marian finds courage and her voice, declaring that her life is her own and nobody else’s. Marian is taking a chance on a drunken promise but it’s all she needs to leave and start a new life. Yet when she arrives at Wally Stuart’s home, he meets her in dual disbelief as he cannot remember talking to her and is surprised that anyone would believe him while he was drunk at any rate. Indeed, Stuart tries to dissuade Marian with some fairly dark dialogue – “The East River is full of girls who took advice from a man like me” – but he is also testing Marian and goes through a roll call of excuses as to why she is in New York, with a ‘heard-it-all-before’ cynicism. Yet Marian is steadfast and true to her individuality, declaring that she is there for herself and no-one else.

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What is obvious is a powerfully- feminist overtone that present during the Pre-Code Era, with women refusing to accept their role in life to be decided by men and additionally that they would do whatever was necessary to determine their life journey. Marian is spirited and willing to take a chance, even the most minute chance, to rise above the limitations that stand before her – if she doesn’t take that chance. Ultimately, Marian realises that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain and staying where she is will give her assurances in life but also stagnate her. Marian makes this clear to her own mother:

‘If I were a man, you’d think it would be right for me to go out and get everything I could out of life and use everything I had to get it. Why should men be so different? All they’ve got is their brains and they’re not afraid to use them…well, neither am I!’ 

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This brave and bold belief almost comes undone when she goes to New York but fate has her meet wealthy lawyer Mark Whitney (Clark Gable) who admires Marian’s spunk and her honesty in what she wants out of life. Before long Marian and Mark are in a relationship and in the Pre-Code era that means they are ‘living in sin’, as a couple outside the institution of marriage.

The story then jumps three years later and the audience discovers that the couple are together, with Marian a sophisticated, refined and highly polished partner to the now politically-aspirational Mark. But there is more to the two than a couple enjoying the high-life, with Marian certainly in love with Mark, and the fact that he is still with Marian after three years suggests that Mark is also devoted to her. However, he avoids talk of marriage, partly because he’s been previously bitten hard and also because of his political ambitions which could derail if their marriage failed. Marian accepts this, yet during a party, Marian is reminded of her more humble origins when a colleague of Mark brings his rather common and vulgar ‘mistress’. In the eyes of society, a woman is not respectable unless she is married.

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But for the couple, things will get even more complicated when Marian’s old boyfriend Al arrives back in her life, seeking not only to get her back but to also exploit Mark Whitney for business opportunities. This complication will not only threaten the couple but Mark’s hopes for his political career and even his desire to marry Marian may results in a scandal.

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Marian is left with an incredibly difficult decision and the audience is left wondering what she will do?

This reviewer will leave that for the reader to discover!

It is a fatal mistake to dismiss Possessed as another ‘rags to riches’ story or a typical Crawford vehicle of the ‘shop-girl made good’ plotline that she did so often. Neither are true. The film is a far more sophisticated story and the ending is one of high drama and more adult thematically. As biographer Donald Spoto points out, Crawford as Marian ‘struck a powerful, responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances…Crawford (was) sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable yet determined…’ It is a film which highlights a woman’s strength to seek something greater, not about a woman using sex for material gain. It is a film which is more about sacrifice than greed, love than sex and hope than the despair of being a ‘kept woman’. Again, to quote Spoto, Possessed is more than movie with a pretty face. But with respect to her performance, it’s hard to ignore how beautiful, sexually alluring and glamorous Joan Crawford is in Possessed.

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Indeed, the key characters in Possessed are also far from caricatures and deeply-layered people which resonate through their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. Crawford’s superb performance is not only drawn from her innate understanding of Marian but because of her also due to her strong sense of Marian’s character arc and how to build on and develop it, and ultimately deliver it. As a result, Marian becomes a deeply fascinating individual whose is anything but selfish despite her earlier declarations to all who will listen that to the contrary. What is most important about the role, as already mentioned, is that Marian represents a new woman of the early 1930s which leaves behind the hedonism and superficial desires of the dancing flapper of the 1920s. The role also revealed that Crawford was a far greater actress than some critics gave her credit for.

Likewise, Mark Whitney is an interesting character, far removed from a typified playboy lawyer using Marian for sex. He has a damaged past, deeply hurt by failed love, and makes no pretence  regarding his relationship with Marian. Yet he does love her and this comes to the fore during the crucial and pivotal moment in the film. Gable shows solid acting chops through a balanced performance and as for Crawford, Possessed was an important film for Gable. It gave him a more rounded and interesting role, removed from the heavies and one-dimensional roles he was usually getting at MGM. However, unlike Crawford, Gable was not a major star but this was a huge step in that direction.

Possessed is a well-crafted film, with solid pacing and edited into a tight 76 minutes. The script by Lenore Coffee was a great asset to the film’s director Clarence Brown, who was not only well-known and reliable for bringing in films under time and budget but was a fantastic director. Brown’s time at MGM saw him work with some of the studio’s greats including three films with Greta Garbo. Crawford would always praise Clarence Brown for his brilliance as a director and a man who helped her greatly in terms of her confidence and technique.

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Brown was also savvy enough to pick up on and utilise the ‘volcanic attraction between his stars’, as Crawford described it. According to Gable biographer Warren. G Harris, which would also be confirmed by Crawford, the film’s stars would become engaged in a full-fledged affair, with the passion and emotion existing both on and off screen. The chemistry is there to see on the screen and both sizzle when they are together. Fact and fiction comes into play and blends on the screen in a highly sexual way – one scene shows them arriving late to a party, with a strong hint that their tardiness is due to something more than being unable to get a cab. One wonders if there were times they came to the set, still in the excitement of off-screen interludes. This is not meant in a crude, cheap or voyeuristic way but which cannot be ignored in what it gave to the romance we see between the key characters on the screen. Indeed, Crawford would later state that the affair which began there would last a lifetime (on and off) and was a wonderful relationship between two close friends who knew each other and held no pretensions. L.B Mayer, with typical iron-fisted cruelty, would kill any hope of a more meaningful relationship, by threatening their careers.

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Yet despite such interference in her life, Crawford would always be thankful to MGM for giving her the life and career that she had. In fairness, Crawford gave plenty in return, in films like Possessed, which were box-office hits for the studio but in helping to shape the studio as a place where magic was made. The 1930s was a golden era for Crawford, and her films during the Pre-Code era were highly successful. But Possessed is arguably the best of them, as well as one of the most important films of her career. And one of Joan Crawford’s finest performances.

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 article is an entry in the Joan Crawford: Queen Of The Silver Screen Blogathon, kindly hosted by Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film. Please visit for some fantastic articles! A huge thank you to both these wonderful bloggers for hosting and allowing me to take part. 

Alfie (1966): Michael Caine and the meaning of life

by Paul Batters

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‘I don’t know, it seems to me that if they ain’t got you one way, they’ve got you another. So what’s the answer? That’s what I keep asking myself. What’s it all about?’ Alfie (Michael Caine) in Alfie

To declare that Michael Caine is a cinema icon is an understatement. For over six decades, he has graced our screens in a myriad of roles and has been unafraid to tackle characters that others would have not dared touch. And he has certainly not slowed down. Still seeking challenges and refusing to believe that age is a determinant for ambition, Michael Caine is very active and has stated that retirement is simply not an option.

It has been quite some years since Caine appeared in his breakout role in Alfie (1966) but it is easy to see why it made him a star. As the Cockney Lothario who charms his way through a bevy of women, Caine found himself a major star upon the film’s release. Caine himself stated that he never imagined Alfie would be anything other than a British film for British audiences that would do modest business. But this started to change during filming, with Caine pointing that despite initial doubts, mainly about himself, the feeling soon developed that ‘maybe we got something here’. For Caine, his realisation that they ‘might be on a winner’ was when he heard the laughter from those watching the rushes.

Quite a number of reviewers and critics have stated that Alfie is a timeless classic, and this reviewer certainly agrees. It is more than the story of a self-centred Cockney charmer who leads a hedonistic and selfish lifestyle. It is also more than a walk-through London in the Swinging Sixties. Alfie poses questions and challenges for audiences to ponder – today as much as it did in the 1960s.

Despite its’ reputation, Alfie is not a film which celebrates hedonism or sexual exploitation; nor does it set the main character up as a hero to be worshipped. On the surface, Alfie is a character who uses his charm, charisma and good looks to seduce women and use them in every way he can for his own pleasures. They cook his food, wash his clothes and of course provide him with plenty of sex. And certainly, there was something enticing about the character’s swinging lifestyle, humour and intriguing nature that made the film a hit. As biographer William Hall has noted, ‘Women adored the hooded gaze, the slightly mocking approach, the deadpan throwaway lines. Men in their turn had a sneaking admiration for the self-made cavalier, raunchy, honest to a fault with himself, unashamed of his own rough edges and totally his own master’.

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Yet despite this, Alfie’s character arc shows a man who does not have it all. A feminist critique could offer plenty in terms of the male gaze of back-slapping admiration of a man bedding many women, fitting the sexual fantasy of partners-a-plenty. But the film questions whether this is admirable. Indeed, Alfie is a condemnation of that very sentiment, with Michael Caine himself describing Alfie as a ‘no-good layabout’ and a despicable individual.

What makes Alfie work is its’ incredible authenticity, which gives the film its’ lasting strength. There’s no pretence to Alfie and the brutal honesty of the character removes any possibility of superficiality. This is achieved from the very opening scene of the film, when we are introduced to the main character by Alfie himself. Breaking the fourth wall, Alfie narrates in real time and tells his story as it happens, complete with his deepest insights, observations and philosophical interpretation. Alfie’s intimacy with the audience is a fundamental factor in the film’s magic – he speaks to us as individuals rather than a whole group or crowd. It’s highly personal, intensely intimate and thus honest (at least to a point). The audience becomes Alfie’s ‘confessor’ and at times it feels like we become his ‘best mate’. Yet Alfie could just as well be speaking to a mirror of himself, seeking to justify his thoughts, feelings and actions, and therefore bouncing his thoughts around to try and gain some perspective.

Alfie’s philosophy of life and his ideas on women become obvious immediately. The audience first discovers that Alfie is having an affair with a married woman named Siddie (Millicent Martin) whom he objectifies by calling her ‘it’, which is perhaps one of the most offensive aspects of his behaviour. Yet his objectification of women is also Alfie’s armour against intimacy and deeper emotion. After dropping Siddie off at a train station, he goes to see Gilda (Julia Foster) who is deeply in love with Alfie and very much in need of more than what he gives her. She pushes away a kind and gentle bus conductor named Humphrey (Graham Stark) who loves her as a result. Like all the other women he uses, Gilda is also objectified and treated miserably. But Alfie simply states that a woman can be quite happy ‘if she knows her place’.

Yet Alfie’s relationship with Gilda is about to change when he discovers that she is pregnant. It is an unwanted complication to his easy-going life, and he makes this clear as he gives the audience a run-down of the many women he is regularly seeing and having sex with whilst also seeing Gilda. He tries to break it off as well as convince Gilda to give the child away but to her credit she wants to keep the child. The eventual birth of a baby boy sees something happen in Alfie, which he admits has broken through his armour and will haunt him throughout the film. He becomes attached to the boy named Malcolm, even though he still objectifies Malcolm’s mother. Alfie explains that any ‘bird’ can be replaced but a child is special and individual. Yet he is not beyond disowning Malcolm as ‘my sister’s (child)’ when picking up a woman in the park.

His attachment to Malcolm will also not prevent him walking out on Gilda and his son, when the challenge to the status quo arises. Humphrey has been calling on Gilda and declares he loves both her and the boy. It becomes a line in the sand which Alfie refuses to cross and reveals Alfie’s despicable nature when he says to Gilda, ‘I don’t know what love is the way you birds go on about it’. Neither does he care about or want Gilda’s respect, to which Alfie declares ‘I don’t want no bird’s respect, I wouldn’t know what to do with it’. For Alfie a woman is present to serve his base needs and nothing else. It’s a terrible indictment of the emptiness and emotional void underneath Alfie’s charm and charisma. Alfie’s abandoning Gilda, however, will not ease his problems and his peace of mind will not be eased either.

A moment of vulnerability highlights the fragility of Alfie’s sense of self when he discovers he has tuberculosis and has a mental collapse. The scene in which he discovers he is sick is also underscored by his leaving Gilda and her refusal to take him back but more so by losing the relationship with his son, Malcolm. The lead-up to discovering he has ‘shadows on his lungs’ is brilliant and the interplay between the doctor (Eleanor Bron) and Alfie is an incredible and masterful display of dialogue from Caine. It is a combination of humour and tragedy in the best traditions of Greek drama and certainly highlights the absurd parallels of both running alongside each other.

While convalescing though, Alfie pulls himself back together and returns to form in his seducing of his nurse Carla (Shirley Anne Field) much to the horror of his fellow patient Harry (Alfie Bass) and his wife Lily (Vivien Merchant). Alfie tries to impart his cynical philosophy on Harry via a cruel hypothetical scenario of Harry dying and his wife and kids forgetting him. Naturally, Harry becomes deeply upset and his usual kind and humble demeanour breaks into a violent attack on Alfie, which is quickly subdued due to his illness. It is a poignant moment which highlights the damage that Alfie inflicts along the way:

Perhaps the most appalling act Alfie carries out is the seduction of Harry’s sheltered and loving wife, Lily. Taking advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability, Alfie exploits her and adds that ‘it will round off the tea nicely’. His unthinking cruelty is also revealed in his blunt assessment of Lily’s sexual experience (or lack thereof) after he seduces her. Lily woundedly replies that she has never been with anyone but Harry, her husband and the audience cannot help but feel dismal towards Alfie.

Alfie certainly is a predator, using his guile as well as his charm to entice women into his world. Whilst some of his partners are willing and seeking a good time, others are exploited in their vulnerability like Lily, as well as a young girl from up north named Annie (Jane Asher) whom he picks up at a truck stop. Assessing that she is running away from a failed relationship back home, Alfie uses his wiles to manipulate Annie and she ends up not only as a domestic servant but a sexual object for his satisfaction. Reading her diary and picking up her sadness from the songs she listens to, Alfie states that ‘it punishes itself’ by washing, cooking and cleaning’ (and giving her body for sex) which Alfie happily obliges to his advantage.

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But again, Alfie’s vulnerability will be tested when he also begins a relationship with an older American woman named Ruby (Shelley Winters) whom he seems to respect because ‘she knows what she wants and she’s gonna get it’. Despite claiming he could easily settle down with Ruby, he still objectifies her, repeating ‘she’s in beautiful condition’, as if she’s a car with a great chassis and a good motor running.

Yet the most controversial moment of the film (in the context of the 1960s) is the abortion scene where Lily comes to Alfie’s flat, pregnant and ready to meet a pre-arranged abortionist (Denholm Elliott). Even at this point, he accepts no responsibility and calls her a ‘fallen woman’ and that he is just ‘trying to help a friend’. Alfie makes the honest assessment, though deflecting it as being male, that like ‘all men’ he only wants the pleasure and no part of the pain. Yet when Alfie sees the aborted foetus, the mask drops and he breaks down in tears, fleeing his flat. Distraught, he realises the enormity of what has happened to the one friend that the audience sees he has, admitting his selfishness: “I was crying for my bleeding self”. Again, it’s hard evidence that Alfie damages those he is involved with.

The trauma of the abortion, combined with Annie finally leaving him after he drives her away, finds Alfie driven to seeking deeper meaning in his life and he decides to ask Ruby to marry him. Yet for once, Alfie will be the one used and deeply wounded. The one woman Alfie claims to respect and love is also in bed with another man when he arrives to see her. Ruby tells Alfie that he’s too old – a cruel rejection which Alfie can do nothing about. It is the turning point of the film which leaves Alfie reaping what he has sown, in a twist of dramatic irony that is all too obvious to him as well as the audience.

The final scene sees him standing near when where the audience saw him at the start. Incidentally, he sees Siddie but she has no interest in him, seemingly after he has let her down. It is a strong revelation that change has occurred for all the characters and those that have crossed paths with Alfie end up the worse for it. Though scarred by him, they become emboldened to do something about their lives – while Alfie remains trapped in his limited world. Gilda discovers her self-respect and finds happiness with Humphrey. From her awful pain grows a demand for respect in their relationship and the realisation that she deserves more than what Alfie is offering. Annie eventually leaves with a quiet dignity well beyond her years. Harry is cuckolded and Lily forced to have an abortion. Even Siddie loses respect for him and decides to invest her time and emotions into her husband.

Indeed, there are many others that Alfie has let down and the audience witnesses their feelings towards him. The waitress at the truck stop seems to be pleased that he may get into trouble after she has also been stood up. The driver he steals Annie from eventually physically attacks Alfie. Gilda certainly loses respect for him and it is doubtful if Annie ever respected him at all. Two acquaintances are able to easily exploit his fragile ego, which do not suggest friendship of any sort. Even the crowd that cheer him at the truck stop, are cheering his sexual exploits but is this something that suggest an honourable man? Ultimately, Alfie is a man without honour, whose words and actions reflect a selfish, self-centred and irresponsible man without any concern for the impacts of his actions on others.

Worse still, Alfie is ultimately a lonely man trying to fill a void which has been consciously or inadvertently created by himself. He seems to have only one friend, who is also a Cockney con-artist. At the end of the film, the void is worse than ever and Alfie is left alone and despondent, a victim of his own personal philosophy on life. It is not a case of ‘karma’ finally getting him but that Alfie’s own choices have led him to this point. There is no fulfilment in his life and Alfie makes the point that one would think he’s had the best of it and come out in front because he has taken so much from others and given little or nothing in return. Yet, he does not have peace of mind. And his final question ‘what’s it all about?’, muttered by Alfie as he pets a lonely stray dog, may suggest that perhaps he has learned something and could transform himself, after all.

Alfie is a film which succeeds because it’s an incredibly well-crafted film and deceptively so. Director and producer Lewis Gilbert crafts a story where we alternate between liking a loveable rogue yet seeing a cad at the same time. The dialogue is tight and natural, driving the story along without pretension. The supporting cast is incredibly strong and even though the likes of Shelley Winters and Denholm Elliott play small roles, they are crucial ones and their impact is central to the story. Caine in his autobiography believes that Elliot acted him off the screen and gave high praise to the now deceased actor.

The outstanding score was provided by jazz legend Sonny Rollins and Caine would also state that he became a jazz fan as a result. Rollins’ depth and sensitivity underscores key moments in the film, which give the story a deeper impact. And of course, the title track written by Burt Bacharach, would be sung by Cilla Black to promote the film in England and by Cher for the U.S release. Personally, I am not a huge fan of Cher but she delivers a knock-out performance.

But ultimately, the film belongs to Michael Caine and his turn as Alfie is an incredible feat of acting. There is such impressive balance in his performance that the audience is torn between loving Alfie and wanting to knock his block off. The delivery of the dialogue is done with amazing precision, finesse and talent, and with such natural feeling. Caine has to work between the action on the screen and the personal asides to the camera, which he achieves with amazing fluidity, allowing the audience to slip in between effortlessly. It is an incredibly far more demanding role than what it may seem and Caine delivers such a natural performance that it is easy to forget this. As a result, it is the perfect evidence of a strong actor who can draw us into the journey.  Caine would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, which he would not win. Yet his turn as Alfie is an Oscar-winning performance and it should go down as ‘one that got away’.

Alfie is a far more layered film than it may initially appear, and whilst often humorous, it does challenge the nature of human selfishness and individual desire, hedonism and the concept of what happiness truly means. Ultimately, we are all challenged to contemplate our own roles in our personal relationships and life journey. Like Alfie, we find ourselves reflecting on our lives and asking ‘what it’s all about’?

 

This review of Alfie (1966) has been submitted to the The Second Marvellous Michael Caine Blogathon kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thank you so much for hosting and allowing me to be part of this great blogathon! Please click on the link to read the other great entries on the wonderful Michael Caine.

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 Special Thank You To The Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB)

by Paul Batters

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All writers crave notice and recognition. It’s important to know that one’s voice is being heard and not ignored. As all writers know, writing can be a very lonely experience and the support for one’s articles is not always supported by even those closest to us. 

However, there is an incredible world-wide community of classic film bloggers who I have come to know, respect and honour for their own work, Being part of that community and recognised by it, is worth the late nights and lonely hours of writing. 

Recently, I received notification that I had been accepted into LAMB (Large Association of Movie Blogs). Needless to say that I was thrilled and honoured, knowing that a number of writers whom I respect are also part of this association. It not only means formal recognition and certainly means far more than an additional ‘widget’ on the blog page. It means that your work is appreciated and the links to others in the film blogging community becomes stronger and more defined.

To LAMB, my thanks to you for allowing me to join! This great opportunity is more than appreciated and I am looking forward to learning more and connecting with other classic film aficionados. 

To fellow LAMB film bloggers, it is an honour to be in your company. 

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.

 

Dangerous (1935): Bette Davis And Her First Best Actress Oscar Performance

by Paul Batters

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Every actor or actress seeks a role that will challenge them to new heights, as well as offer them range, depth and a chance at immortality in the pantheon of legendary performances. For those stars of the Golden Years of Hollywood, the chance to achieve this faced all manner of obstacles – most notably, from the studios themselves. Most stars buckled under, aware that the studios were too powerful and their livelihoods were at stake. Others fought back, in a variety of ways, to win the roles that would be game-changers in their careers. Perhaps one of the most famous stars to do so was Bette Davis.

From her arrival in Hollywood, Davis was a woman who wanted to act. She looked for exciting roles that would give her the chance to show her abilities and her battles with Warner Bros. are legend in Hollywood. The first few years of her career were dominated by pedestrian programmers and melodramas, films she found deplorable and an attempt to turn her into a blonde sex-symbol, resplendent in slinky gowns showing off skin in films such as Ex-Lady (1933). But Davis wanted to establish herself as an actress and it took a great deal of gumption and courage to take the unsympathetic role of Mildred Rogers in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, for which she won rave reviews and missed out on an Oscar nomination. Despite wide agreement that she at least deserved a nomination, some stories suggest that Jack Warner himself campaigned against a nomination for Davis, not wanting a more determined and difficult star on his hands (not to mention a Warner Bros. studio actress winning for a rival studio).

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But it would start to change things for Bette Davis. Despite a short-term return to programmers, Warners realised they had to start finding better films, particularly to capitalise on her talents. Bordertown (1935) would be one of those films but it would be her performance in Dangerous in the same year, that would win Davis her first Oscar for Best Actress. Hollywood folklore has long claimed that Davis’ Oscar win was a consolation for not being nominated for Of Human Bondage.Regardless, it placed Bette Davis in the pantheon of great stars who were unafraid to take on unsympathetic and difficult roles, instead of building a persona that meshed with audiences.

According to Ed Sikov, Davis didn’t like the script for Dangerous at first, finding it ‘maudlin and mawkish’. As he goes on to say, this may have been the driving force behind what was a strong performance; the desire to transform what was an ordinary script, with what Davis felt were initially ordinary characters into something greater. Many of her earlier films were still entertaining and did well at the box office, simply because Davis’ acting was so vibrant; as Sikov states the poor nature of scripts she was given ended up putting ‘fuel in the fire of her performance’. This is certainly true for her performance in Dangerous.

Hal. B. Wallis worked to convince her to take the role but Davis also saw the wisdom in a role that she could give depth to on her own terms. Additionally, the role of Joyce Heath, a self-destructive and alcoholic former Broadway star was based on one of Davis’ own idols, Jeanne Eagels, a star of stage and the silent screen who died of a drug overdose in 1929.

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From the opening scenes of the film, Davis portrays Joyce Heath with the realism of a tragic drunk whose existence is solely based on the next available drink. Wandering from cheap dive to cheap dive, she is noticed by young architect Dan Bellows (Franchot Tone) who not only was a fan of Joyce but claims he was inspired to become an architect because of her. Dan is also engaged to beautiful and wealth socialite Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), the complete antithesis of Heath.

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Dan makes it his mission to ‘save’ Joyce and he brings her to his country property, to dry her out and give her a fresh start. But Joyce’s alcoholism is far gone and her frantic search for alcohol at his country home shows Joyce’s desperation and awful addiction. Davis plays the scene with layered quality that outdoes the film and indicates why she saw the range that the character offered to show her acting chops. Davis also conveys Joyce’s fragility with solid interpretation, as seen below:

Joyce insists that she’s a ‘jinx’, a part she seems to play and has become typecast in. The film’s title kicks in with greater meaning and she insists to Dan that he shouldn’t get involved with her. Yet does not heed Joyce’s warning and decides to resurrect her career but investing in a Broadway production and her return to stage stardom. As critic Emmanuel Levy points out, Joyce is aware of Dan’s engagement to Armitage yet encourages his attentions and before long Dan falls for her, breaking off his engagement. In the era of the Code, Joyce is already displaying the ‘dangerous’ nature of a woman stealing another woman’s man (albeit only an engaged one). But Davis was also aware that this gave her character the range that made a performance fascinating and interesting.

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Joyce’s happiness is played by Davis with soaring delight but it comes crashing down and will be sunk further when Dan asks Joyce to marry him. But there is a problem – Joyce is already married to Gordon Heath (John Eldredge) who still loves her, despite being ruined by her and their not living together. More importantly, Gordon will not give Joyce the divorce that she so desperately wants. Her pleading Gordon for a divorce is one of the highlights of the film and is a showcase of Davis again showing her range. The scene hems in the intensity to allow the tension to build and send the scene into the extremes of a murder-suicide. Not many actresses at the time would have dared step into such a scene, yet it highlights Davis’ energy and she takes the scene from pure soap opera into Oscar winning material, at least regarding her performance.

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Joyce’s desperate need for happiness after her misery sees her slide into a moment of tragedy. This review will not delve into what happens but the turning point in the film is Joyce’s confrontation with her ineffectual husband, whose milquetoast presence is almost pathetic. The extreme moment’s results will give pause for Joyce and the final choices she must make.

Davis carries the film with a strong performance in a film that has already been described as a soap opera. The plot is pretty thin, even for a pedestrian soap opera but Bette Davis makes it believable. This reviewer cannot claim to be a huge fan of Franchot Tone but Bette’s declaration that she had fallen for him in real life, certainly shows on screen. There is certainly a heated sexuality that flows from Davis on the screen, particularly in the scene when Dan and Joyce are caught in the rain on his property. However, any sexual chemistry shared informs rather than dominates the performance. 

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 Tone’s performance is solid and of course his off-screen affair with Davis is now legendary in how it apparently began and fuelled Hollywood’s greatest feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, his then off-screen fiancée. This has been written and spoken about an exhausting rate elsewhere but this reviewer will add that Dangerous may also hold an interest for film fans for that particular reason.

Whilst the supporting cast do their job, the film is Bette’s and a vehicle for her talents. Biographer James Spada states that Bette felt she ‘was well aware that she wasn’t being showcased at Warners, the way she would be at another studio…’. However, Dangerous gave her that chance and she grabbed at it with both fists, raising the picture quite a few levels above the production value that Warners had assigned to it. Again, Spada notes that audiences saw and felt a ‘kinetic quality about Bette’ and the critics also raved about her performance as Joyce Heath, with Andre Sennwald of the New York Times stating that Bette Davis was fast becoming ‘one of the most interesting of our screen actresses’.

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Dangerous would not only be her first Oscar but it would be the first that Warner Bros. would win for Best Supporting Actress. Whilst she would still fight with Jack Warner over roles, the shift would soon happen when she won her second Best Actress Award for Jezebel (1938) (previously reviewed in this link). Hollywood folklore also claims that after winning the award for Dangerous, the trophy would be named ‘Oscar’ by Bette herself after her first husband.

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Dangerous is not in itself an entirely memorable film in terms of plot and production. But it is important and memorable for the performance of Bette Davis. It shows that she was the consummate professional in working hard to lift a film out of mediocrity but it also highlights her amazing talent. Her performance in Dangerous was enough to excite audiences and critics, and it is certainly a film that is entertaining and enjoyable because the great Bette Davis made it so.

 

This article on Dangerous (1935) is a proud entrant in The Fourth Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, proudly hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Hollywood. Thank you so kindly for hosting and the opportunity to be part of this wonderful Blogathon celebrating one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses.

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.