Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): The Best Of Barbara Stanwyck

by Paul Batters

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‘I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live!’ Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) 

Of the many great actresses from the Golden Years Of Hollywood, few could boast the career of Barbara Stanwyck. An actress with incredible range, screen presence and charisma, Barbara showed talent, which emerged during the Pre-Code Era. She would appear and make her mark in drama, comedy, the western – and of course, film noir.

With the opportunity to write for the this blogathon, it seemed fitting that I write about the first film I saw Barbara in, which left an indelible mark on me and started my interest in film noir – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). I have written about this film in a previous article on the themes of Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir.

Film noir would first make its’ powerful mark on cinema emerging in the early days of World War Two, drawing on the pulp fiction tales of private detectives, mean streets and dangerous women. But the post-war period saw a shift in the direction that film noir took, examining a greater variety of themes and reflecting the changes that emerged in American society brought on in part by the Cold War and communist phobia, as well as a growing sophistication in the expectations of cinema audiences. What became interesting was the incorporation of psychological themes and concerns, which gave greater depth and meaning. These shifts were certainly reflected in Sorry, Wrong Number.

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Directed by Anatole Litvak, Sorry, Wrong Number was one of three films which Barbara had signed on to complete for producer Hal Wallis. is a story told in real time with copious use of flashbacks. Wallis had been impressed by the original radio play script and hired the original writer, Lucille Fletcher to adapt it for the screen. This meant additional characters had to be created and the use of flashbacks to enhance and flesh out the story was necessitated. The use of flashbacks (along with narration), as pointed out by Frank Krutnik, had become a commonplace technique in film noir but would be employed in a far more complex fashion by Litvak.

The story tells of Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), the spoiled heiress to the fortune and pharmaceutical empire of her father James Cotterell (Ed Begley). As the camera moves through a large, empty and lonely house, the audience discovers that she is bedridden and unable to move from her bed. Her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) is away on a business trip and all she has to connect her with the outside world is the telephone. As she makes a phone-call, she overhears a crossed line with two men detailing a plan to murder a woman that very night. What will follow is a descent into a night of revelation and terror, which unfolds as Leona becomes more desperate with every phone call.

The use of the telephone as a carriage service to tell the story instead of a narrator is a clever if sometimes confusing device used by Litvak. Yet it is effective in discovering the characters and in particular, Leona. Her powerful sense of entitlement has seen her get whatever she wants, including her husband Henry, whom she has enticed from a friend Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) after the two meet at a dance. Stephen Farber makes the excellent point that when Leona makes the vow “I, Leona, take thee Henry…”, it is a declaration of brutal possession rather than one of love. Leona is sexually aggressive but she uses it as a form of managing a business transaction and the link with materialism is quite clear. The montage following their marriage shows them happy as they travel the world and enjoy their honeymoon but there are hints of what is to come and an overshadowing of the disintegration of their marriage.

At Leona’s core, which she declares to Sally, is the desire to get whatever she wants and the will to use whatever she can to get it. In the case of Henry, she uses money to draw Henry in. What is fascinating is Leona’s ability to read Henry and his desire to not only escape the dull, dreary working-class life he has in his hometown but to find success, wealth and power. Greed is Henry’s weakness and Leona as predator can pick this a mile away, although that same greed will be both their undoing.

But Leona’s confidence, arrogance and seeming unbridled power are shaken by the underpinning of a serious psychological problem. Whenever that power is challenged, her response is to become violently ill to the point that she becomes incapacitated. Despite Henry’s folding to the demands of his wife, and by extension his father-in-law for whom he now works, he wants more and plans to stand on his own two feet. He tries to find work with another company but this is stymied both by his father-in-law’s power and Leona’s reactions. Later, he tries to buy an apartment for the two of them and move out of her father’s house. However, the almost Oedipal fixation on staying with her father frustrates and confuses Henry to the point of anger and defiance. Leona’s struggle with his rebellion results in a collapse, which finally sees her bed-ridden with the serious heart condition that she will later discover is purely psychosomatic.

Leona is a tough character. Yet the confidence and toughness that she seems to exude tends to crumble when her dominance is truly challenged. Leona dominates Henry, who seems to be a willing victim as the trappings of wealth and privilege are to good to abandon. When Leona first shows symptoms of illness, Henry is chastised by his father-in-law in an emasculating fashion but even Henry admits that he can’t go back to his former life. Leona is ruthless in her dominance but Henry wants to be dominant as well and he enjoys the power and position he has, admitting this openly to Leona when they clash over the apartment he wants to purchase. Both Leona and Henry represent a fascinating aspect of American society in the post-war period which film noir commented on – the frustrations of a society that won the war and was heading into economic boom yet it didn’t seem to be enough. As suburbs grew and the inner cities decayed and were neglected, there still seemed to be something missing. Like Leona and Henry, paranoia and the frustrations of greed respectively are key concerns in the film.

 

Which leads the audience to connect with Henry and our sympathies lie with his desire to break Leona’s mistreatment of him. Indeed, he pleads with Leona that he could still love her if only she would be reasonable with him. But it is to no avail. Henry feels trapped and his greed sets him on a dangerous path where he will start stealing drugs from his father-in-law’s company and corrupt a meek chemist to assist him in his criminal endeavours. Whilst the code placed limits on the nature of Henry’s crime venture, it is obvious that he is dabbling in drugs and working with serious gangsters. His greed will not only place against his wife but ultimately against the gangsters Henry was working with, which will lead him to a terrible decision that he is forced to make.

 

All this will come to a head, as the fatal phone call is pieced together by Leona with each phone call and each revelation. The audience witnesses Leona’s arrogance deteriorates into terror, as Leona disintegrates into an emotional mess, crippled by her own psychological dysfunction. Such is the force of Barbara’s talent that the audience spends the bulk of the film waiting for Leona’s come-uppance only to feel sympathy for her. Not many actresses can turn an audience in such a way and the tension is palpable as we wait to see if Leona will survive the terror she is facing.

Hal Wallis had always been an astute producer who had been at the helm of production at Warners for some of their most prestigious films. He also had a keen eye for talent and when producing his own films after his time at Warners, Wallis would help start off the careers of actors such as Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Incidentally both would flourish when working with Barbara whose professionalism and patience was beyond measure.

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For the role of Leona Cotrell, the likes of Claudette Colbert and even Jennifer Jones were considered. However, Wallis knew that Barbara was ideal for the role, allowing for an actress of great calibre to work through the full gamut of emotion. Barbara also saw the possibilities of the role and according to her biographer, Axel Madsen, was even more pleased when Litvak gave both her and Lancaster all the scope and space they needed to build and develop their characters. According to biographer, Gary Fishgall, Lancaster had pushed hard for the role of Henry, as he was interested in the concept of the ‘moral weakling’ corrupted by his wife’s wealth, as well as his own greed. Like Barbara, Lancaster was excited by the prospect of having freedom to develop the character through his own interpretation via the scope that Litvak allowed. Both were able to look for the darker impulses and natures of their respective characters.

Yet with respect to Lancaster, Barbara had a greater challenge with Leona – having to traverse an extreme emotional spectrum in terms of her character arc. Not only was Leona in bed for much of the film but, as biographer Axel Madsen explains, Barbara had 12 days scheduled to complete the bedroom scenes. Barbara herself felt she needed to delve right into the emotional height of the character and was able to sustain it until Friday when shooting took a weekend break. She says that she found it difficult to pick up Leona’s desperate tension on the Monday yet I challenge anyone to see where there is any break in concentration.

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Litvak would further emphasise Leona’s bed-ridden isolation through the use of a circling camera and expressionistic techniques to heighten the tension and Leona’s growing and eventual emotional disintegration. Some critics, including the acerbic Bosley Crowther were not overly fond of the film and Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid suggests that Barbara was too strong to play such a ‘simpering role’. However, Barbara was never one to limit her abilities and her career is evidence of the varied and interesting roles and her performance as Leona Stevenson was strong enough to garner her the nomination of Best Actress Oscar. According to Madsen, she never thought she had a chance against her friend Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda or the other performances by Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne or Olivia de Havilland in that year.

Barbara was assisted by a solid cast with the young Burt Lancaster solid and dependable in his role as the frustrated and dominated husband. Ed Begley’s time on screen was minimal yet his turn as the dominant father and hard father-in-law was memorable. William Conrad reflects the new corporate criminal-type, which emerged during the 1940s and broke away from the earlier sole gangster who solved his problems with a gun. Perhaps most interesting was Harold Vermilyea as the meek and mild-mannered Waldo Evans, who showed that anyone can be corrupted and his acceptance of his fate, as he is enveloped in darkness, is as film noir as it gets. Ann Richards plays the sympathetic wife of the D.A and former girlfriend of Henry Stevenson.

But there is not doubt that Barbara Stanwyck is the star of Sorry, Wrong Number and it was a perfect vehicle to showcase her talent and a role that needed an actress of her caliber and ability. A number of critics have hailed Barbara as the first lady of film noir and whilst this reviewer feels such a title to be limiting, her tour de force turn as Leona Stevenson certainly warrants such an accolade. Sorry, Wrong Number is 89 minutes of solid thriller/film noir with Barbara Stanwyck giving a memorable performance.

This article has been submitted for the Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal at In The Good Old Days Of Hollywood – thank you for hosting! Please visit for more great articles on the amazing Barbara Stanwyck. 

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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Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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‘Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner’ – Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) Double Indemnity (1944)

Film noir was not a specific reaction to the glamour of Hollywood but an organic creation, evolving over time and stemming from a variety of creators. There have been numerous arguments, discussions and essays written about how film noir can be qualified – whether it is a genre, a style or a combination of both. Perhaps the best approach is to see film noir as R. Barton Palmer describes it – as being a ‘transgeneric phenomenon’ as it has existed ‘through a number of related genres whose most important common threads were a concern with criminality . . . and with social breakdown’. Purists suggest that film noir is a classic period from a specific time frame. Others have suggested that film noir is ever present in cinema or the very least, many of the conventions of noir are. (Yes, I appreciate the irony of using the term ‘conventions’).

However, it is beyond dispute that film noir is meant to disorient, challenge and subvert. Our sense of morality, the desire for truth and meaning and especially the very human sense of hope are all on trial in the innermost courtrooms of our minds. It achieves this in numerous ways – all which stir up powerful emotions in the audience, drawn from our own experiences with the characters. The aim of this essay is not to particularly examine how this is done but to consider what is evoked and examined in film noir – in particular the elements of fatalism and futility.

Humanity’s deepest desires are to escape our ultimate fate, find our dreams and realise our greatest hopes. However, as the title suggests film noir does not seek to comfort its’ audience and suggest that dreams can come true. In this dark and non-linear world, cynicism, alienation and despair are dominant. People do good things for the wrong reasons and vice versa. This is a world of insecurity and the people who live in it are not straightforward or recognisable in terms of classic narrative structures. They are broken, twisted and damaged – yet we travel with them on their doomed journeys. Their own hopes are not dissimilar to ours – security, stability, freedom and even love. But they seek it in far different ways – through graft, betrayal, crime and murder. Whilst film noir does not strictly intend to be a morality tale, the very nature of that world results in the protagonists being doomed to failure. As Aeon J. Skoble points out in his essay ‘Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir’, ‘killers are killed, cheaters are busted, and thieves go to prison’. Film noir is a world where the grip of fatalism around the protagonists is firm and unrelenting and all pursuits are bound and defined as exercises in futility.

Even the titles of films in the world of noir are highly suggestive of the inherent fatalism that all will not end well for the protagonists. The Killers (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), Born To Kill (1947), Kiss Of Death (1947), Force Of Evil (1948), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch Of Evil (1958) speak for themselves. The Asphalt Jungle (1948) insinuates a hard and harsh world, populated by wild beasts fighting for survival. I Walk Alone (1948) Abandoned (1949) and In A Lonely Place (1950) evokes isolation and alienation from the larger world. Detour (1945) suggests that one’s path is never straight and that bad choices lead to doom – of course the actual story itself is ambiguous when looking at the concept of choice, with the protagonist/narrator stating that fate has determined his path. The Big Steal (1949) evokes the heist film or money chase but also suggests a finality that is ever-present in film noir; that one last job will set the protagonists up for life. Black Angel (1946), Blonde Ice (1948) and Black Widow (1954) are naturals in announcing the femme fatale, as well as the all-pervading motif of darkness and danger. There’s even a hint of sadism and that love and sex bring death – again in some of the aforementioned titles as well as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Beware, My Lovely (1952).

Fatalism in film noir is particularly evident through the narrative technique of the protagonist as narrator. As they tell their story, the folly of their choices become more than evident in the tone, language and wisdom allowed through the retrospect of the telling. The protagonist often does so whilst facing their eventual demise either through death or a prison sentence, with a total acceptance of their fate and realisation of the futility of their actions. Dying from a bullet wound, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity (1944) sits alone at night in his office recounting his story on a Dictaphone to his boss and friend Keyes, with only a desk light effectively illuminating the scene. The fatalist overtones are clear and frank, with Walter stating his crimes and motivation, in short and simple language:

NEFF: I Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.

As the story is told, the audience watches his slide into the darkness and despite his own initial repulsion and awareness of what is coming, Neff knows he will be seduced by what he should run from. Again, the fatalist overtones are clear and Neff is astute enough to recognize the danger once he is in too deep:

NEFF: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

The first person narrator channeling fatalism and futility can be found elsewhere in film noir. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution. In Detour (1945), Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sits at a roadside café, awaiting his fate. In D.O.A (1950), Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is an accountant dying from being poisoned, telling the police that he’s been ‘murdered’. There are even protagonists who speak from the beyond! Think of the corpse of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a pool at the end of Sunset Boulevard (1950). As an audience, we are prepared for the inevitable but our interest is powerfully aroused and there is always room in our collective curiosity as to whether the protagonist will worm their way out or somehow escape their fate.

Fatalism and futility are perhaps most present in film noir, where the protagonists try to leave past sins behind, start afresh and live a normal life. In Kiss Of Death, former crook and informant Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) seems to find happiness with his wife and two children, living in a modest home and working in a modest job. Yet Nick’s past, personified by the maniacal Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) searches him out for ‘ratting’ on him. Threatening his newfound harmony, Nick must face the challenge if he and his family are ever to find peace. In Act Of Violence (1948), Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war veteran and former Nazi collaborator facing a similar dilemma, desperately wanting to leave behind a cowardly past and move forward only to be menaced by Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), who suffered at the hands of the Nazis after Frank informed on him. In both cases, a price needs to be paid yet as often happens in film noir, the questions emerge – what is that price and how often must one pay? Again, the futility of finding peace and stability is emphasised and escape from one’s sins is extremely rare. As Al Roberts (Tom Neal) prophetically states in Detour, ‘whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you’.

Crime Wave (1954) is a solid example of the former criminal trying to ‘make good’ but Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is an ex-con who has gone straight, supported by an understanding and loving wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) and his parole officer. One fateful night, some former criminal associates seek him out for refuge after pulling a job. He wants no part of them and bitterly ruminates over his life, that no matter how hard he tries, his past will never let him rest. Sure enough, things get worse when a tough cop Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) hauls him in, despite all the protestations from his wife and parole officer. Sims’ philosophy is ‘once a crook, always a crook’. Steve accepts his fate, despite knowing he’s innocent and even tells his wife to get out of town. Walking a fine line between his criminal past and a more secure and peaceful future, Steve does find his way out of trouble. It is not entirely a rare moment in film noir for the protagonist to find peace but that does not mean he or she will not be sorely tested by fate and be overwhelmed by feelings of despair and the forces of futility.

Despite a world heavily populated by criminals and defined by crime, violence and questionable morality, it would be a mistake to assume that they shape and form the key protagonists in film noir. Indeed, many of the central characters in film noir are ‘average people’; they are by definition the audience themselves – people with families working everyday jobs and often existing in mediocrity and anonymity. The concept of the ‘everyman’ comes to the fore – and even the private detective reflects this. It is this aspect of film noir that is perhaps the most interesting and highlights how fatalism and futility both render their omnipresence. What fascinates us are two fundamental questions – how did they end up in such a bad way and what pushed an average nobody into a darker and dangerous world? In Detour, Al Roberts is a piano player travelling to Los Angeles to meet with his singer girlfriend and accepts a ride on the way from a man named William Haskell (who as in all things noir is not what he appears to be). However, his driver is killed in a freak moment and afraid of the consequences, Al not only covers up Haskell’s death but he also assumes the dead driver’s identity and acquires his car. The hand of fate delivers Al into a terrible situation and his poor choice at that crucial moment will lead him to his doom. At the moment Al imagines he has gotten away with it, the woman he is giving a lift to, Vera (Ann Savage) reveals she knows what he is up to and takes him on a more devastating ride than he would have bargained for. Like a harridan, Vera is vengeance personified but she too will be at the centre of the second freak event, which will seal Al’s doom. As the narrator telling his story in retrospect, fatalism is at the very core of the story from the very beginning of its’ telling and Al recognises the futility in trying to beat the hand that is dealt by fate. Again, Al’s discovered wisdom rings like a death knell as he says ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all’.

Likewise, Sorry Wrong Number (1948), which highlights both elements of fatalism and futility, is a taut crime story peppered with deeper psychological tropes. Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is married to bedridden heiress Leona (Barbara Stanwyck). Coming from a poor industrial town, with a bleak childhood, Henry’s life has been non-descript and as he points out to Leona after they first meet ‘there’s nothing nice about my life’. There is an edge to Henry that suggests he wants more but sees no way of getting out of his situation. This changes after he marries Leona and a new world opening up for him. Despite his domineering father-in-law making Henry vice-president of the Cotterell pharmaceutical company, Henry wants to be his own man. He makes a number of legitimate attempts to do so but they are all ridiculed and thwarted by his wife and father-in-law. But burning with ambition, he turns to crime and he talks about ‘dreaming big’, finally corrupting one of the company’s employees to assist him in his endeavours. Though not explained explicitly, Henry is dealing in drugs, stepping into a far darker and dangerous world, specifically because he is in business with mobsters. Biting off more than he can chew, Henry even goes so far as to plan his wife’s murder for the insurance payout in order to appease the mobsters he has tried to double-cross in the process of his loftier ambition. Henry’s dreams have pushed him into a nightmare of his own making. Not only have his actions been futile, so too have they drawn others into their own doom, including Leona and the employee he has corrupted.

Perhaps most interesting in Sorry Wrong Number is the minor but crucially important character of the corrupted employee, Waldo Evans. Close to retirement, the meek, unassuming and respectable chemist is the model employee who has worked for Cotterell for years. The bespectacled and quiet-spoken Waldo also has his dreams – to finally retire comfortably in his homeland of England, with a small property where he can enjoy some horses. He admits to having tempted fate, speculating savings but failing in the attempt, and accepts that the best way to reach his goal is put a little away each week until he retires. Waldo perhaps represents us as the audience more closely than we imagine. We, too, can be tempted by the occasional gamble in the hope of escaping mundane jobs and achieving financial security for life, as Waldo admits to doing. Yet he also finds himself corrupted and is nudged into the shadows, succumbing to the seduction of serious money. Unlike Henry, however, there is a stoic recognition of the futility of his choices and the finality of what is to come. There is no hysteria or desperation in Waldo and he gives his final address as the ‘city morgue’, knowing full well that death is coming, with a calm and even formal acceptance. As he relays his finals whereabouts on the phone, Waldo is completely enveloped in darkness, indicating the finality of being pushed out of the light and that he is lost to his black fate.

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Al Roberts, Henry Stevenson and Waldo Evans are three very different characters with different motivations. However none of them are crooks, gangsters or conmen who are used to lives of violence and crime. Yet what unites all three is that they are men who have made very poor choices and are going to pay the price.

Likewise, we find ourselves puzzled how intelligent, educated and socially conservative characters find themselves lured into a personal hell. In The Woman In The Window (1944), late middle-aged Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), who is happily married with a family, finds himself taken by the portrait of a beautiful woman and seeks her out. The combination of sexual allure and romantic idealism draws the Professor into a terrible nightmare, which he desperately seeks to escape. In D.O.A, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is an accountant, poisoned by an unknown assailant at a bar. There is no antidote to the poison and Frank races the clock to find his murderer and his motive. Waldo Evans in Sorry Wrong Number is a chemist. In Where Danger Lives (1950), Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is a doctor who runs away with a dangerous femme fatale. Even those who should ‘know better’ are not immune from human frailty, and discover that stepping into the shadows will result in failure and eventuate their own downfall.

Yet within film noir there are characters that do embrace the futility of life and accept the fate that life has dealt them – to some degree. There are two narrative conventions, in terms of character, that best embody this. Neither are explicit staple characters in film noir but they certainly are the most recognisable.

The first is the private detective – perhaps the most definitive character in film noir. A ‘knight in tarnished armour’, the private detective is cynicism at its’ best. Life seems to have no meaning or purpose and whilst there is some element of moral code still present within, the private dick’s key drive is to serve his client and get paid. His morality is ambiguous and his decisions are even questionable. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is not the stand up guy we would like him to be – he’s been having an affair with his partner’s wife. Early in the film, he even shrugs off the death of his partner, although he does admit a sense of code that the murder of his partner means that he ‘supposed to do something about it’. He also has no qualms in eventually turning his lover Brigid (Mary Astor) over to the police. Admittedly, he considers all the elements and decides to do the right thing but perhaps more of out of pragmatism and prudence. Spade reasons that Brigid would always ‘have something over him’ and that ultimately she could one day turn on him. Not wanting to play ‘the sap’, as Spade calls it, sees him revealing the sublime understanding that not only is trust an unrewarding virtue but love is an exercise in futility. Indeed, trust is a certain path to betrayal and perhaps even death. Staying alone, guarded and isolated is far safer than ending up as a ‘sap’. The moment he falls in love is the moment that he is doomed. In film noir, the private detective usually escapes this fate but is destined to remain a loner. There may be the occasional and casual sexual liaison, as exhibited when Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) engages with the bookshop attendant in The Big Sleep and he will even partake in romantic involvement with a client. But a loner shall the private detective remain. He even drinks alone, with alcohol acting as both escape and armour, in response to a world he views with a deep cynical guardedness, passing as casual acceptance of life’s futility. For the private detective, there are no pretences or need for social graces and, more importantly he doesn’t care what others think. As Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) states in The Big Sleep, “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings”. Sarcasm is part of the armour but far more important is his detachment – a sure-fire example of his isolation. Jerold J. Abrams uses the brilliant analogy of the world of noir being a labyrinth. It’s a maze from which there is no escape, even if the Minotaur is slayed and ‘the hard-boiled detective knows as much—and self-consciously accepts his own isolated fate…’ Futility and fatalism are fused into one powerful entity in this instance.

The second is the femme fatale – the other definitive character in film noir. As the title suggests, this is a woman that is dangerous, poisonous and seductive; indeed, ‘fatal’ to men. All misogyny and feminist interpretation aside, the femme fatale, like the private dick is cynical in the extreme – forgoing love and relationships, outside of using her sexuality to secure stability. Love has long been forgone and she is always looking for the next ride, once she has tired of the one she is on. Trust is something she will never respect or embrace – one, because she, herself, is deeply untrustworthy and two, because she too has often been betrayed and any belief in trust has long soured. Marriage never means long-term security, as husbands are disposed of and new lovers are seduced, usually in the process of doing the disposing. However, unlike the private dick, she keeps looking for ‘happiness’ and there is a futility in this, as the femme fatale is doomed to never find it – mainly because she has no idea what she is looking for. Her road to happiness is strewn with wrecked men and the remnants of her own damaged psyche, and in the end she never finds happiness, as her lies and crimes find her out. The femme fatale is doomed to failure and here the fatalist nature of film noir is particularly evident. Interestingly enough, the femme fatale is also doomed when she falls in love. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) uses manipulation and murder in a long existing pattern that her lover Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) eventually discovers. Not only are both wrapped up in the murder of her husband but also in an investigation by the insurance company that Walter works for. Playing it safe and being cautious, Walter warns Phyllis they need to be careful. Yet Phyllis will have none of it, even warning Walter that ‘nobody is getting off’, paraphrasing an earlier statement by Walter’s boss and friend Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Phyllis seems to accept that they are doomed, although there are other machinations she has put into play, which will see Walter pay. But for Phyllis, the unthinkable happens during a climactic moment when she shoots Walter. Her mask drops and truth spills from her, admitting to Walter that she’s rotten to the core and that she loves him. It’s a moment of rare honesty and Phyllis exclaims with incredulity that ‘I never thought that could happen’. Not only does this reveal the regularity of her games but more importantly, love has stripped Phyllis of her armour and weaponry. The femme fatale is no more and Phyllis begs Walter to hold her, as he pushes the gun into her and fires.

It is easy to assume that the Production Code would have enforced filmmakers to afford ‘bad endings’ to the protagonists who do ‘bad things’. There is certainly a truth to this and film-makers could simply not escape this reality of the film-making process during the era of the Code. However, this misses the point of what underpins film noir’s dark world. They are not necessarily intended to be strict morality tales, even though an audience may learn as much from film noir. ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ is a cliché that may pervade storylines in film noir but beyond the surface glance of this statement exist depths and nuances that are far more interesting. Fatalism and futility are firmly attached to this concept, as those about to face their demise, often do so with little or no resistance. Escape from retribution may be futile but connected to this is something far graver – the pointlessness of existence. Waldo Evans in Sorry Wrong Number calmly awaits his death. Ole Andersen (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers (1946) hardly bothers to heed the warning of his coming assassins and knows he will be killed. The Maltese Falcon finds this idea permeating at every level – the hard-boiled Sam Spade is never fazed not because he’s a tough guy but because he recognises the futility of all pursuits and is guarded in his choices. The final discovery that the Falcon, which all the key players have been chasing, is a fake, best exemplifies the concept of ‘crime doesn’t pay’ wrapped up in thick layers of fatalism and futility. The chase has all been for nought, with a ridiculously huge price to pay and even Spade chuckles to himself, acknowledging the futility of it all. An inverted world of crime and darkness does seek to find balance not in terms of conventional morality but by its’ own rules and codes. ‘Rats’ and ‘welchers’ need to get what’s coming to them, with vengeance and retribution personified by maniacs (Tommy Udo in Kiss Of Death), hitmen and cold, business-like gangsters (Morano in Sorry Wrong Number). The femme fatale serves justice to those foolish enough to trust her and fall in love with her – and especially those who reject her. That does not mean that conventional morals, values and norms have no place in film noir – of course they do, as is evident in a number of films. But the protagonists usually find doom and death, not because of the Production Code demanding it in the last reel, but because in the world of film noir, nobody escapes the fate of those who step into the darkness.

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 Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

by Paul Batters

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‘Why, your types as old as history! If you cant lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down! Like dogs, if you cant eat something – you bury it!’ John Doe (Gary Cooper)

Cinema has provided heroes and heroines since its’ inception. If recent films are anything to go by (quality and depth notwithstanding), the audience interest in heroes has certainly not waned. Humans need heroes – they fill a deep need for inspiration, hope and the often a powerful desire for heroic qualities to be found within ourselves. That unfulfilled self-identification is transferred onto the screen, where we imagine ourselves to always have the right words, the right reaction and certainly the uncanny ability to successfully deal with a sworn enemy.

But the traditional journey of the hero is almost always a difficult one; a trope that can be traced all the way back to tales of Greek mythology. One of the most potent aspects of the hero’s make-up in literature and film is that of the reluctant hero. Cinema is rich with this particular figure, where the hero is plagued with nagging self-doubt and initially may hold no heroic qualities that we can easily identify. Yet what makes such a hero so compelling is that they are made from the same clay we are all made from – they are just like us and yet rise above their supposed station to make changes, save the day and stand up for what is right.

Frank Capra has made some of Hollywood’s greatest and most memorable films, focusing at times on such heroes and drawing on the literary and cinematic figure of ‘the everyman’. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are perhaps two of Capra’s most celebrated films, whose central character is the ‘everyman’ hero with Jimmy Stewart starring in both films. Stewart’s performance in both films has long resonated with audiences for obvious reasons and though they are different characters with vastly different storylines, Stewart personifies Capra’s everyman in both of these classic films.

However, another Capra film, which perhaps does not receive the accolades that the aforementioned films do, was his first with Warner Bros. after leaving Columbia. 1941’s Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is also a story of the ‘everyman’ and more to the point, the reluctant hero. Whilst not as explicit in its’ celebration of individualism as It’s A Wonderful Life, with greater focus on community, Meet John Doe nevertheless hails the role of the everyman hero and the impact that the individual can have in his or her world.

Capra was a complex individual and whilst not a focus of this article, it is important to note that Capra was a Republican despite his progressive outlook and the heroes of his films would obviously reflect his worldview. Those he collaborated with, particularly Robert Riskin, who co-wrote many of Capra’s best-known films, often swayed him towards realism, liberal ideas and progressive politics. Conservative right-wing writer Myles Connolly, who would contribute to the script of Meet John Doe, would steer Capra towards rediscovering his Catholicism, as well as feed Capra’s dislike of President Roosevelt. The Christ-like figure holding high value tenets of humility, innocence and sacrifice is at the core of Capra’s heroes and was certainly influenced by Connolly’s 1928 book Mr Blue – a book greatly admired by Capra.

Meet John Doe is the story of ex-baseball drifter ‘Long’ John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who becomes part of a publicity stunt for a newspaper. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a tough, sassy reporter just fired by Henry Connell (James Gleason), the new managing editor for the newspaper just purchased by publisher D.B Norton (Edward Arnold). Her last article for the paper features a ‘letter from a John Doe’ who threatens to jump from City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight, to protest civilization ‘going to pot’ and the ‘slimy politics’ present in the current world. The letter stirs up a hornet’s nest and Ann (eventually supported by Connell) sees the opportunity to save her job and save her own career by exploiting the situation. John is hired to claim her wrote the letter and will become the face of a ‘I Protest’ column for the newspaper, ghost-written by Ann. However, John’s companion and anti-society conscience ‘The Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) continuously speaks out against the whole situation, acting as a brake on John’s journey, which John often ignores.

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Stylistically, Meet John Doe initially displays all the hallmarks of the screwball comedy and this appears to be the template, which Capra works with. However, the turning point of the film arrives with Norton meeting with Ann and Connell. Norton has greater designs other than being a media baron and Capra lays the foundations for his key theme – the dangers of fascism and dictatorship. John is to make a radio speech (written by Ann, who draws inspiration from her late father) and at first he is nervous, unsure and even considering taking a payment not to make the speech by a rival newspaper. At first John’s concerns are selfish, especially when it is made clear to him that his plan to use the money to fix his arm will be thwarted by the truth getting out. But when he starts delivering the speech, encouraged by Ann’s idealism, he starts to become animated and his delivery arouses the audience. Norton realises something is happening, as does Connell, whose bitter cynicism from years in the newspaper game, has hardened him. Ann is moved to tears by the end of the speech but John feels like a cheat and runs off with his friend and fellow hobo ‘The Colonel’.

Here, we see the essence of the reluctant hero. Yes, he is a fake at first but he is deeply conflicted by his fakery whilst delivering what is ostensibly truth and hope in the message. John runs not because he doesn’t want to be found out to be a paid player in a publicity stunt but because he feels that he is cheating the people listening and committing a desecration of the message he is giving them. Yes he later laments his decision, telling The Colonel ‘I had the money in my hand’ but it is not delivered with real conviction and it appears that his motivation is the inspiration from Ann. On a side note, despite Ann’s telling Norton that what she wants is money, her emotional response when John finishes his speech, reveals she too believes in the message, seeing her father’s words alive in John.

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Meanwhile, a grassroots movement starts, inspired by John’s speech, and John Doe clubs begin to spring up. Ann, along with Norton track John down and they convince John to come back and help build the movement. Finally convinced, the movement begins to spread ‘like a prairie fire’ with Capra using an effective montage to show its’ growth and the energy John brings to his role.

Yet John will discover how naïve he has been and a showdown with Norton reveals his motivation – to use the John Doe Movement as a political tool for his own device to become President. Norton’s mask drops and the fascist overtones are final revealed – contempt for the masses as a ‘rabble’ and the need to rule the nation ‘with an iron hand’. At a large conference where John is supposed to endorse Norton for President, he instead states that he will reveal Norton’s scheme. John’s impassioned rebuttal fully illustrates John’s deepest feelings and his belief in the movement. But Norton makes the point that he is the ‘fake’ and that he and his retinue of industrialists and power brokers ‘believe in what we’re doing’.

But John has transcended this and goes to the conference, only to be undone by Norton being prepared and the revelation that John was and always had been a paid actor in a publicity stunt. The Christ-like element in Capra’s hero comes to the fore, with the crowd that primarily ‘worshipped’ him now turning on him and calling for his head. Begging to the crowd to ‘stick to your clubs’ and that ‘the idea is still good’ proves futile. Police get John out but his reputation is destroyed. A tearful Ann, who has lost John’s trust, despite a love growing between them, tearfully mourns how events have unfolded. Connell cynically offers a brilliant epitaph – ‘chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates’. His comment more than cements the Christ-like persona of Capra’s hero – a (not so) innocent victim crucified by evil men for political purposes.

The following montage shows a dejected figure in John Doe, all washed up and mocked by the public, finally heading towards the City Hall to redeem not so much himself but the John Doe movement and the message that he had given for so long. As tempting as it is to discuss the ending at length, I will refrain from spoilers but needless to say John Doe’s reluctance as hero has been left far behind and the power of ‘the people’ is a strong statement against the dangers of fascism and that ultimately the ‘John Does’ of the world will overcome the dictators of the world – quite a statement in 1941 with the world (and soon the U.S) in the throes of World War Two.

Capra and Riskin wrote the script and obviously drew on the formula previously used to shape their hero. John Willoughby is laconic, naïve though not stupid and a man of ‘the people’ (and a baseball player no less). But there was a problem with Capra’s hero – John Willoughby is initially a ‘fake’ and ‘imposter’. Yet whilst some critics (even Capra himself who flip-flopped on the issue) have seen this as a major flaw in the film, it actually offers a powerful dimension to the concept of the hero, and the ebb and flow of the hero’s journey becomes evident from the moment John takes on the persona of ‘John Doe’ till the climax of the film.

There are contradictions in Capra’s hero and a number of critics have made some fair comments. Critic Andrew Sarris charged that in some ways John Doe is himself a demagogue with fascist overtones yet is speaking out against fascism and demagoguery, and embracing a populist approach to galvanising people into the John Doe movement. There is constant tension between the best and worst of individualism, and the reality of political corruption. Yet what makes Meet John Doe work and thus Gary Cooper’s portrayal an inspirational one is illustrated by Jeffrey Anderson’s review in Combustible Celluloid where he states that the film is not condescending or angry, nor does it seek reward or the audience’s affirmation that John is a hero but offers hope as its’ message. By extension, Sean Axmaker in Parallax View makes an astute point:

‘Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard…’

Certainly a different approach to movements today and their appropriation by others!

John’s inspiration and authenticity is measured by his growth as a hero and acceptance of his responsibility in the role. In the end, John rejects those close to him because he can only carry out the solution he feels is necessary alone. As an audience, it is impossible not to be touched by John Doe and the hero that emerges from his earlier reluctance and even later inner conflict. It is this factor that makes John Doe even more authentic and real for all of us, as we too find ourselves struggling with the obstacles of life that seem insurmountable and too crippling to deal with. Meet John Doe has its’ flaws but to focus on them is to miss the beauty of Capra’s hero and thus the inspiration of the most simple rule – ‘love thy neighbour’.

For a viewing of the film, please click on the link below:

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