Great Films Of The 1970s: The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)

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by Paul Batters

“Gesundheit” – Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau)

The heist film is always one that draws in an audience at a number of levels. Like a number of other like films in the early 1970s, the term ‘multiple jeopardy’ could apply. But I don’t think it trips into that very clichéd formula, which it could quite easily have done. The Hollywood Reporter points out that The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three had a plot that was “perfect for the national obsession with disaster.” But it isn’t truly a disaster flick a la The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. In my humble opinion, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three fits more with what critics Emmanuel Levy and Dave Kehr call a focus on ‘urban paranoia’. After all, the story is set in New York, which during the 1970s and into the 1980s became synonymous with crime and danger. True, there aren’t the visuals of typical urban decay or graffiti scarred trains and subways, but we get the gist of it.

The plot is simple enough and certainly not complicated. Led by Mr. ‘Blue’ (Robert Shaw), four disguised men with equally colorful names hijack a train and hold the passengers hostage, demanding $1 million in cash or they will start shooting the passengers one by one. Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the Transit Authority is trying to not only negotiate the situation but also keep the hostages safe and eventually catch the crooks. At its’ very core, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a heist film.

On the surface, you could argue that there’s nothing impressive about the plot. Filler for cable TV? A made for TV midday movie? Absolutely not.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is far better than that!

So what makes it work?

The Setting

From the opening scenes, the feel and atmosphere of the film exudes New York attitude at its’ finest and reflects the concept of urban paranoia. This is probably best expressed by John H. Dorr in his original release review in The Hollywood Reporter:

‘New Yorkers, packed together closer than any other people and living under the constant threat of municipal breakdown…’.  

The over-the-top bustling business of a major city is at every turn and there is even a feel of barely controlled chaos, from the efforts of the police to the general running of subway system, where naturally the bulk of the story is set. People are tired, fed-up and cynical and they deal with this specifically through raw humour that is expressly resigned to the fate of living in New York.  The characters of course are as much part of the animal that is New York as much as they are their own individual people, reflecting attitude that could be clichéd but actually reveals real humanity and their coping mechanisms for living in such a tumultuous city. The street scenes are also ultra-busy and even chaotic as the police try to grapple with the hostage situation and the usual New York traffic at the same time.  Even the mayor, assisted by the excellent and under-used .., wants nothing to do with his own city.

Of course, the irony is that the centre of it all occurs underneath the city in one quiet carriage filled with frightened people and a gang of four led by Mr. Blue. Filmed on the tracks of the famous the Court Street station in Brooklyn (also used in numerous films including The French Connection and the Pelham remake), it allowed for the realism that made it all work so well.

The diegetic sounds of the subways and trains also adds to a film that has a strong sense of realism and gives it, its’ gritty and raw atmosphere.

The Plot

It’s actually simple enough and almost too easy to follow. Yet we are all still wondering how the hell the gang is going to get away with it – and that’s what keep us hooked. Of course, in the course of determining how they will get away with it, there are the sarcastically soaked comments (“They’re gonna fly it to Cuba”) and even Garber offers his theory: “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred.” The truth is that no-one except the gang has an idea.

What also makes the plot work is that our focus is permanently affixed on the plot and not interrupted or distracted by side stories a la other films of the era (such as Airport, Earthquake etc). As Roger Ebert opined, ‘the hijack is worked out in a straightforward, plausible way; the film concentrates on the communications between Walter Matthau, trying to buy time, and Robert Shaw, maintaining credibility…’.

And the ending – one of the best and this reviewer won’t spoil it for you.

The Cast and Characterisation

The performances of Walter Matthau as Lieutenant Garber and Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue are the keystones to the film’s success. The contrast in characters could not be further from each other with Roger Ebert describing ‘these fine, detailed performancesWalter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel..’. Matthau’s Garber is a joy to watch, with that perfect balance of grim humor, pragmatism and resignation whilst Shaw is icy and calculated, carefully annunciating his words without panic. But whilst Garber flexes his quick lip with everyone else around him, he’s professional and serious as he deals with Mr. Blue. Both lock in a tense arm wrestle as the time ticks away and their interaction drives the story forward. The tension is taut, timed and the perfect driver for this tale. 

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But it’s the supporting cast and incidental characters which also make the film work and give it depth and strength. Amongst the hijackers, Hector Elizondo as the psychotic Mr. Grey is believably dangerous and adds to the ongoing tension from the moment he lecherously flicks his tongue at an attractive lady on the train to his penchant for violence, as he casually tells a passenger that he ‘will shoot your pee-pee off’ whilst chewing gum, and looking for any excuse to commit an act of brutality. Martin Balsam as the nervous, former Transit employee with a grudge gives a solid and measured performance that he always delivered as an actor of his caliber.

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Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll, the bad-tempered controller, is a contrast to the relatively calm Garber and Jerry Stiller as Lieutenant Rico Patrone (‘who on weekends works for the Mafia’) shares Garber’s wry humour. Tom Pedi as the angry Transit supervisor who perennially yells finds an unsuspected fate that offers a quick turn from the humor. Even the short scenes with Lee Wallace as the Mayor and Tony Roberts as Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle are not overdone and add to the tension of the film, again perfectly peppered with humour.

Even the small, incidental roles are worthwhile. Waiting for the train he is about to hijack, Mr. Blue looks at the dandified Vietnam vet who catches Blue looking and asks ‘what’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?’ After brief contemplation, even the cool and deadly Mr. Blue cannot help but almost smile.

The Director

Joseph Sargent has spent the 1960s directing television before moving into television films and cinema releases in the 1970s. Best known for this film being reviewed, it was also his best work.

In terms of how characters are utilized, the director Joseph Sargent is astute in the concept that less is more. None of the characters are over-used and Sargent makes sure that the key focus is on his two main stars, Matthau and Shaw and the tension between them in resolving the hijack situation.

Sargent keeps the film taut by allowing some insight into the heist, with the plan going into action as soon as the film starts. He allows for some slackening just to hook the audience, relieving the pressure with incidental humor and then reeling us in, as the action gets more and more serious. As a result, Sargent shows himself as a director sensitive to the audience’s sense of story development and as Ebert mentions does not allow the film to fall into cliché but makes the story more than believable. The audience is constantly manipulated and just as we feel we have found the rhythm of the film, Sargent shifts the gears a little so to speak. Tension is manipulated with the subtle touch which assists in hooking the audience and at no point is it drawn out and over-cooked.

The Dialogue

Aside from what people say, how they say it is the greatest revealer of how people feel, what shapes their thoughts and what world they live in. The dialogue is all New York and reflects the frustrations living in a chaotic city, managed through cynical humor, heavy sarcasm and combative tones.

From start to finish, it’s sharp, quick and fully-loaded.

The key dialogue between Matthau and Shaw is particularly interesting because most of it happens over the train’s radio connection. The cool and measured tone of Shaw up against Matthau’s gravely, Lower East Side accent dripping with sarcastic asides and insults, works beautifully. But there is a bitterness to the humour and an acidity that is hard to miss between the laughs of the audience.

However, all the characters seem quick to insult with the fast talk and acidic sarcasm. Again, the dialogue is reflective of living in a chaotic New York. Contextually it was a time when New York was also bankrupt, suffering from urban decay and gang activity and a rising crime rate.

The Musical Score

It’s one of my favourite 70s film scores and it’s heaving basslines drive deep like the very subways that crisscross underneath New York City. Composed and conducted by David Shire (also responsible for The Conversation and All The President’s Men), the score is ‘every bit as vital to the film’s tempo, tone and key scenes’ as Steve Grzesiak correctly states. The funkiest horns stab across smooth and slippery percussion, giving the audience a sinister feel and a sense of mounting tension.

It’s a multi-layered groove that fits like a glove, reflecting the unpredictability of living in New York City, where you could be on your way home from work and find yourself taken hostage.

According to Grzesiak, ‘Shire was hired quite late and wasn’t given a huge amount of time to work with…’ but that’s what perhaps it ‘works in his favour’ so that when ‘the music starts up again, it actually feels like it matters’. There’s no wasted space or time and like the rest of the film, it leaves the music tight, taut and building the tension.

Final Comments

Michael Sragow in The New Yorker makes an accurate assessment of the film as ‘once, just a solid thriller, now a time capsule spiked with amphetamines. It doesn’t rely on the sparkles, noise and CGI that cinema has relied on for some time. Instead, we are gifted with a tough film that is trimmed of the fat. It shows what can be done with amazing talent, substance and lack of pretence. The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3 is rarely spoken of when talking about films from the 1970s. But it should be and often.

This entry is inspired by Movie Rob‘s Guesstimation Series with a focus on New York Films of the 70’s, which he graciously allowed me to choose. Please visit Movie Rob to see his incredible reviews on great films from the 1970s. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Rob!

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.

Top Five Classics For Comfort – The Films We Turn To

by Paul Batters

Cinephiles, film fans, critics and academics have all locked horns, run debates and published on the question of what are the greatest films? Lists have been compiled by some of the most respected publications and the most learned, whilst the rest of us pour over these lists and either nod in agreement or guffaw in disgust. Case in point – some agreed wholeheartedly and others were shocked when Sight And Sound removed Citizen Kane (1941) from its reign at the top of the list and gave Vertigo (1958) the number one spot. There was then and still is plenty of discussion around such decisions and that’s as it should be.

However, when it comes to the question, ‘what films do you turn to for comfort?’, there are no incorrect answers. It’s totally subjective and that, too, is as it should be. We turn to some films that are particularly special to us, especially when we need that boost to our spirits or simply something to make us feel good inside or even an escape to somewhere else.

Taking this opportunity for the CMBA Comfort Classics Blogathon, here are five of my favourite Comfort Classics.

  1. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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There are a few who condemn this film as the exploitive death knell of the classic Universal monster era and such criticism is understandable. Yet in fairness, any such exploitation was happening before the comedic duo crossed paths with our favourite monsters, and the shine and quality of the early 30s period was long gone. But it’s still a film that’s filled with fun and for many, including myself, it’s one of the first experiences of a wonderful partnership that stands the test of time.

As a child in the late 1970s in Australia, video was rare and most films appeared on television once a year. As a result, some films were a major event! When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was scheduled (usually a midday treat on a weekend), neighbourhoods were cleared out as kids raced home to watch.

The story revolves around two hapless baggage handlers Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) who get all caught up in a mad monster mystery, crossing paths with the tormented Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr), who is trying to finally destroy the plans of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). There are plenty of scares and Bud and Lou pull off their routines with perfect timing and slick delivery. For me, some of the most effective moments are Bud and Lou’s scenes with Chaney, leaving the audience terrified whilst we are laughing.

The combination of horror and comedy made the film a smash hit at the time and helped not only to revive the duo’s slightly slipping popularity but also gave them a new template to work with. For many fans of Abbott and Costello, their meeting with the Universal monsters remains their favourite and the one that is best remembered. Those cold winter afternoons warm up for me whenever I slip Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein into the DVD player and the magic of childhood returns.

  1. King Kong (1933)

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The mightiest of monster movies – with the one true king being a 50 foot ape rampaging through jungles (both literal and urban ones) whilst holding onto a gorgeous girl screaming for her life. Does pure escapism get any better?

Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s incredible fantasy-action tale utilised Willis O’Brien’s then ground-breaking (and incredibly painstaking) stop-motion animation technique that still thrills. It was a gamble by RKO, spending nearly $700,000 during the Depression and long after the studio closed down, it’s still reaping the rewards. It’s got everything and as Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) declares to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) – ‘it’s money and adventure and fame…it’s the thrill of a lifetime!”. And there certainly is plenty of adventure, thrills and lots more besides. From the moment Kong first appears to his final fall from the Empire State Building, King Kong does not disappoint. The battle between Kong and the T-Rex is like watching a prize-fight (which was apparently inspired by the film-makers’ love of boxing and wrestling) and Kong rampaging through New York is pure mayhem.

Driven by Max Steiner’s superb score, King Kong deserves its place in cinema history but it also holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I watch it, before long I find myself transported to Skull Island to watch Kong in his kingdom, lament his capture and mourn his demise. It truly is a silver screen ‘thrill of a lifetime’ and a classic I turn to for a comforting dose of escapist fun.

  1. The Thin Man (1934)

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Not many films have that perfect combination of mystery, comedy and a little dash of screwball with a screen couple radiating incredible chemistry like The Thin Man (1934). It was a ground-breaking film which not only gave birth to one of the most successful and loved series of the classic era but would see Myrna Loy break the typecast roles she had been playing. Her comedic chops came to the fore, melding perfectly with William Powell, whose wit and ad-libbed moments brought a new sophistication to comedy. The sheer magic of the two on screen has a beautiful naturalness without any confection and that undoubtedly was the key reason for the film’s (and the subsequent series) success.

The Thin Man, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is far more than a mystery. Neither was the well-paced film simply a vehicle for Powell and Loy. What emerged was something special that was not formulaic but formed from the natural chemistry of the two stars from a well-crafted script and the intelligent foresight of director W. S Van Dyke to let magic happen and ‘catch it’ when it happened. But that did mean that the shooting had to be tight and the cast had to know their dialogue.  

As much as I love the series, the first film is particularly magic for me. The feel of spontaneity, the playfulness and the witty banter makes for a fun filled 93 minutes. With Powell and Loy, there’s romance without the corn and sex without the sleaze. No wonder it was a huge hit on its’ release in 1934 – it’s still a huge hit for me and one I turn to often. Like Nick Charles with a mixer, it’s the perfect comfort cocktail. And boy, is Myrna Loy gorgeous!

  1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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Something tell me this film is on most people’s list and I imagine that’s not much of a surprise. The Wizard Of Oz is that trip over the rainbow that is clearly for ‘the young and the young at heart’. It gets the full MGM treatment, which means the best production quality, with a talented cast and of course some of the most famous musical numbers in cinema history.

For me, The Wizard Of Oz is not only a comfort classic but also holds a strong personal memory. As a child in Australia, colour television did not come to Australia until 1975. When my father brought home a colour television in 1976, the first film we watched as a family that evening was The Wizard Of Oz. That moment when sepia changes to bright Technicolor was a true moment of magic and no matter how many times I watch it, I still get teary.

I’m not particularly a fan of the musical but The Wizard Of Oz has a special place in my heart, and it is a film which I will often turn to for an indulgence.

  1. Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

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A murder trial may seem like the strangest subject for a comfort classic but Billy Wilder’s superb court-room drama is the perfect film to lose oneself in. Tight and taut, with the superb touch of humour that Wilder knew how to add without ruining the tension of the story, Witness For The Prosecution perhaps sets the bar for the classic shocking plot twist.

The film showcases incredible talent not only in its key stars but in the incredible supporting cast, mainly from a range of quality British actors and actresses. For all the brilliance that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich bring to their performances, the film’s true star is Charles Laughton who is superb as Sir Wilfrid Robarts. The sharp wit, acerbic manner and dazzling mind of the highly respected yet unwell barrister keeps the audience hooked into the story without chance of escape.

I’ve watched the film countless times with a complete and full awareness of how the plot will unfold and what the now famous twist will be at the climax of the film. Yet I am always riveted by the story and the beautiful craftsmanship that goes into shaping the film. The energy in the courtroom never dissipates and the flashbacks add depth and value to the story. There’s no fat to be trimmed and each moment in the film is an important layering to character development as well.

It’s an impeccable film and one which I thoroughly enjoy. More than a favourite, it’s like an old friend whose conversation I always find sanctuary in. Witness For The Prosecution, like that old friend, never fails to disappoint.

This entry is part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association Spring Blogathon: Classics For Comfort. It’s been a pleasure to take part and a special thank you to the CMBA for running a blogathon that is much needed at this time! Click on the link to discover what other bloggers have revealed about their comfort classics.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To remake or not to remake? The question on rebooting classic film.

by Paul Batters

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Recently, Harrison Ford made an interesting declaration regarding one of his most iconic characters, which is also part of one cinema’s most financially successful franchises – Indiana Jones. Famously close-mouthed about previous roles, the actor made the comment in anticipation of the Disney announcement that a 5th instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise would be released in July 2021. Basically, Ford claimed the role as permanently his, stating:

‘Nobody else is gonna be Indiana Jones! Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone…’

Whether this declaration is tongue-in-cheek or serious, I cannot ascertain nor does it particularly matter for the purpose of this article. The vast majority of fans would probably agree with Ford, as Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most loved action heroes. (If his friend George Lucas is anything to go by, there is little to be held sacred in remaking or re-hashing films. Star Wars, anyone?)

But it does raise an interesting question – are there screen characters which should never be re-visited?

It’s also a polarising question and one which probably raises another more divisive question – should classic films be re-made? Cinema is certainly in a strange place at the moment, and there have been consistent attacks on the state of film-making with criticism aimed at the lack of creativity, the focus on special effects and CGI and particularly the obsession on re-makes. The Marvel and DC domination has been discussed ad nauseam and the recent Godzilla movie speaks to this issue as well. (What’s the current tally of Godzilla movies since the 1954 original?)

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The criticisms are not unfounded, and this reviewer certainly agrees with the aforementioned sentiments regarding cinema’s current sins. However, are these problems simply a contemporary phenomenon? Or has Hollywood been re-making films and re-casting iconic roles since its’ earliest days? 

Indeed, the ‘re-make’ has been a part of entertainment that goes back to ancient times. Initially, the ancient Greeks, who created the concept of drama, would see performances only the once and their plays were unique, one-off experiences. However, over time, those plays were performed again and again, particularly during the Hellenistic period. It was also meant that those plays stayed alive and they are still with us today. Consider the plays of Shakespeare. They have been performed, interpreted and even changed (depending on context) since Elizabethan times. King Lear has been interpreted through a whole range of approaches from a medieval Japan context to one set with 1950s Eastern Bloc /Cold War aesthetics! The richness of these stories in language, theme, character and emotion are still alive because they have been performed for hundreds of years. And of course, the Bard’s stories have been interpreted for the screen. Think Olivier’s 1945 film version of Henry V, which is often considered one of the finest screen interpretations of the play. Does this become the one and only version, never to be remade? What of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo And Juliet (1995)? It is not the first nor will it be the last telling of the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers.

The truth is that some of our most loved, revered and celebrated films are remakes, whether we realise it or not. We often chide Hollywood for remaking films within only a few years of each other but actually it’s been a practice since the silent days. By the time, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was made in 1932 at Paramount, the story had been filmed at least 8 times, with three versions being made in one year! (1920 to be precise, two in the U.S and one in Germany).  John Barrymore’s 1920 turn as the infamous dual personality was a benchmark performance but March as the doomed doctor is perhaps the most superb in sound film history, with even the great Spencer Tracy unable to reach audiences in the 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman.

The same is true for quite a number of films based on classic literature such as A Tale Of Two Cities, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and A Christmas Carol – all being filmed numerous times. By the 1935 MGM version, David Copperfield had been made 3 times. The story of Oliver Twist was on its’ 8thversion in the loved 1968 musical Oliver!(with the film being made 6 times during the silent era!).  William Wyler’s Ben Hur is often cited as the greatest epic ever made and a standard by which other ‘big films’ are measured. Yet it too is a remake of the 1925 silent epic starring Roman Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. (Ironically, the recent remake of Ben Hur was critically panned and financially an unmitigated disaster).

Interestingly enough, Cecil B. deMille is an example of a director who revisited earlier films he had made and gave them a new perspective. The Squaw Man (1914) would be remade two more times in 1918 and 1931! Of all the films he made, his most celebrated, known and loved is his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956), a far superior remake of his own 1923 silent version. In this case, the original is not the best. The 1956 version is the quintessential epic tale, resplendent in Technicolor, with all the kitsch, pageantry and excitement of Biblical proportions that are synonymous with deMille and the epic film.

But not only have epics and tales from classic literature been remade to great or greater success. Contemporary stories have been revisited as well. In the world of film noir, one film which justifiably makes every top five list was on its third remake when it was redone by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon (1941) remains one of the greatest films ever made, far out-pacing it’s prior two incarnations which would have become little more than a footnote in cinema history. The previous 1931 same-titled version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels is a little stilted, whilst its’ 1936 remake, Satan Met A Lady, starring William Warren and Bette Davis feels more like a typical Warner Bros. programmer and was even considered by critics at the time, such as Bosley Crowther, as ‘inferior to the original’. Neither are remarkable and again, the original is not the best. Huston’s version of the Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction novel, would help to create the tropes and cinematic expression for film noir, and Bogart’s performance as private eye, Sam Spade has become legendary and would make him a star.

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Unfortunately, there is sometimes an element of exploitation that comes with the remake. But Hollywood is a business and driven by profit. If an audience responds, then it the film is deemed a success. The horror genre is one where the remake is a constant, driven by the profit margin rather than artistic merit. That has certainly been the impression felt with Universal’s recent attempt at ‘re-booting’ the classic Universal monsters with disastrous results. (This writer feels that Universal was making an attempt to trash its’ legacy!) The classic monsters were first seen in monochrome but would be remade in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain by Hammer Studios, complete with full-blown colour, gore and sex. Exploitive? Perhaps. Yet audiences saw a new interpretation of the undead Transylvanian count – from a dream-like, hypnotic and slow-speaking Lugosi to an animalistic and vivid Christopher Lee, complete with bloodied fangs. Horror fans often find it difficult to choose, with the character of Dracula ‘belonging’ to both actors. Yet Lee would be less successful with the Frankenstein monster, as would many who preceded and followed Lee, and the monster has been firmly associated with the brilliant performance of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 film and its’ two sequels. Still, the Hammer remakes resonated with audiences, offering something new and exciting.

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Yet there are characters that belong to certain actors and actresses and their ownership of those performances are complete. It is impossible to think of anyone else but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or for that matter, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. And of course, Gone With The Wind is a film that no-one would dare remake. The same could be said for Casablanca,again a film with iconic performances from Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a song that had stood the test of time in its’ poignant definition of love and of course some of cinema’s most famous lines. How could it be remade? The story of Robin Hood has been told numerous times, with mixed results and mixed reviews. Arguably, the role was firmly identified with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of the great silent stars, after his 1922 film was a huge hit; until Warner Bros. remade the film in full colour in 1938, with Errol Flynn. A natural for the role, Flynn has owned the role since, despite numerous A-listers taking on the role over the decades.

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There are countless other roles and films which, if recast or remade, would results in loud cries of protest. And perhaps rightfully so. Could The Wizard Of Oz be remade? (Actually, it, too is a remake!) How about Edward G. Robinson as ‘Little’ Caesar Bandello? Imagine a ‘reboot’ of Chaplin’s work. Or Hitchcock’s films. (It’s been done!) Singin’ In The RainDouble Indemnity? The Godfather? Metropolis? Duck Soup? Some Like It Hot?

In the end, a remake will work or fail if it resonates with the audience. For better or for worse, that’s the lowest common denominator that determines a film’s eventual worth andif it will stand the test of time. For silent films (and indeed even some sound films from the golden years of Hollywood), this has proved difficult. Aside from cinephiles and classic film lovers, silent films find difficulty in gaining traction in a mainstream market and for audiences not exposed to silent film. Additionally, we have audiences trained to expect blockbuster films over-cooked with CGI and action every 30 seconds. A silent film, without sound, colour and very different contexts finds it difficult to gain a foothold.

But all the technological advancements in the world cannot replicate, re-design or replace the impact of story.

It takes a fair amount of courage and risk when a remake is given the green light. It means big shoes to fill and an attempt to draw out a performance from under the giant shadow of its’ predecessor. Cinematic history shows that it does happen. But there are films that are like classic works of art. Can a work by Monet or Dali be redone? Should a piece of music by Mozart or Brahms be re-written? And the importance of textual integrity cannot be over-stated either. The recent tragedy of the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will see deep discussion and debate on how to ‘remake’ what has been lost or damaged. Will it be in keeping with the historic and architectural integrity of the building? Will it be true to the cathedral’s past whilst reflecting the modern era (or does it have to)? And how will people react in the present and in the future to any change or lack of change?

The remaking of classic film shares a similar dilemma.

There are advantages to classic films being remade. It sounds almost unthinkable but Nosferatu (1922) would be successfully remade by Werner Herzog (in an English AND German version!) in 1979 with the famed Klaus Kinski in the title role, to great critical and commercial success. It is an impressive film, with stunning visuals, incredibly deep pathos and emotion, and Kinski is outstanding as the vampire. As a result, it also brought new interest in the original 1922 film. If remakes can arouse interest, educate audiences and broaden the experience of cinema, whilst offering a new and exciting perspective/interpretation, then it serves a great purpose.

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But just because classic films can be remade, does not mean that they shouldbe. As already mentioned, Universal came close to trashing their own legacy with the attempted (and hopefully permanently aborted) reboot of the classic horror monsters, which felt watching someone take fluorescent spray cans to the Sistine Chapel. But as audiences, we do need to set aside prejudged notions and allow for new interpretations of stories. This is what provides a richness to cinema and art. Multiple and contemporary readings offer greater insights and new interpretations offer inclusivity to modern and future audiences – and there is great value in that prospect.

But new is not enough. ‘New’ for the sake of ‘new’ does not do justice to a work of art. Nor does new mean better. What is also important to recognise is that masterpieces do not and cannot be replicated. Nor do they need to be. We can already enjoy what exists, revisit them time and time again and walk away re-spirited, revitalised and emotionally moved.

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.

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. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): The Art Of Obsession

by Paul Batters

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‘Scottie, I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again, I couldn’t run away. I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you and I wanted you. Oh, Scottie, oh Scottie, please. You love me. Please keep me safe, please…’ Judy Barton (Kim Novak)

The experience of cinema is an intensely personal one, not simply in terms of what we like or dislike but how a film or a performance can touch us and leave a deeply lasting impression. A film can caress us, soothe our emotions or it can jar us with a violent intensity that shakes us to our core and challenge our values and beliefs. Speaking for myself, Vertigo is a film that haunts me – it is has done so since the first time I saw it and does so after every viewing.

Vertigo has had a polarising effect, to some degree. A film that was famously panned on release by The New Yorker and Variety and disliked by Orson Welles, was stilled liked and favourably reviewed by the acerbic Bosley Crowther. The film barely broke even at the box office with fans thus showing their disappointment. Despite eventually removing the film from circulation and outlining his own criticisms, Hitchcock would himself go on record during an interview with Francois Truffaut that Vertigo was a favourite. It would be re-released after Hitchcock’s death and following a restoration and showing in San Francisco in 1996, the film’s reputation has become almost obsessive amongst film critics and cinephiles. Perhaps more than any other event to cement its’ reputation was Sight And Sound leapfrogging Vertigo over Citizen Kane as the most influential and greatest film ever made.

Yet there has been much critiquing over Hitchcock’s depiction of women, most recently and famously by Anne Bilson in The Guardian, which whilst not denigrating the value of the film certainly brings into questions the motivations of its’ director. Additionally, critics in recent times have spoken much about the nature of the ‘male gaze’ and the stylising of Hitchcock’s ‘sexual creepiness’. Whilst tempting to analyse the mis en sceneand how Hitchcock achieves his vision through via his framing of Madeline (Kim Novak), my aim here is to look at what I feel is a key theme of the film and one which Hitchcock addressed in a number of his films: obsession.

Much has been written about Vertigo and I don’t want to spend time simply recounting the storyline. It is far better to watch the film and for those who have seen it, it would be superfluous to detail the plot. However, as a quick reviser, I will attempt a run-through for the purpose of focusing on the discussion point.

The film tells the story of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a former cop who has retired due to his developing a combination of acrophobia and vertigo. After a period of recovery following the traumatic end of his career, he is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who wants Scottie to keep an eye on his wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Initially reluctant to take the job, he accepts it and the seeds to his obsession are planted. 

Scottie relents and begins to follow Madeline, saving her from an attempted suicide and eventually falling in love with her. Tragedy ensues after expressing love for each other whilst visiting the Mission San Juan Bautista, the childhood home of a woman named Carlotta who committed suicide and whom Madeline has become obsessed with. Despite the moment of truth, Madeline breaks away from Scottie, who paralysed by his acrophobia cannot prevent her from running up the bell-tower and plunging to her death.

Her death is deemed a suicide and whilst Scottie receives no blame, he falls into deep depression and catatonic state, leaving him institutionalized. Upon his release, Scottie seeks out the places that Madeline visited and incredibly sees a woman that resembles Madeline. She claims her name is Judy but there is an incredible twist. Madeline and Judy are the same woman, as she had been impersonating Madeline as part of a murder plot. But by the time Scottie discovers this, Judy has fallen for Scottie and continues the pretense, hoping that they can be happy together. But Scottie is still obsessed with ‘Madeline’ and forces Judy to change her appearance to look like the woman he still loves. But whilst they seem to be happy, Scottie will discover the truth and his world is again turned inside out, leading to the incredible climax. 

So how does obsession rear its’ formidable self in Vertigo?

The title itself is multi-layered and suggests more than just Scottie’s medical condition. The nature of vertigo is the inability to maintain balance, perception and focus and certainly Scottie suffers from this. The end of his career sees the beginning of a trauma from which sees him struggle with his own sense of identity and worth, particularly with his ‘failure’ during the rooftop chase at the start of the film. Already, Scottie faces a vulnerability, which of course will open him up to the intimacy of romance and need for the woman he will fall for. But the title also pre-supposes and foreshadows the further depths of confusion and depression that Scottie will fall into much later. More importantly, Scottie’s obsession with Madeline is also a form of vertigo, where the dizzying heights of his desperate fixation cause him to lose sight of his reality. This confusion is also emblematically symbolised in the use of mirrors which allows for a different gaze and the suggestion that all is not what it seems, as well as the concept of voyeurism.

The first time that Scottie sees Madeline is perhaps one of the most complex, highly stylised and brilliant scenes Hitchcock ever framed and shot. It is in Ernie’s Restaurant that Elster has convinced Scottie should come to surreptitiously familiarise himself with Madeline in order to follow her. Again, there has been much detailed analysis regarding this incredible moment, but it needs to be examined with obsession in mind. Here, Scottie’s obsession will be anchored and Hitchcock will play with our perception of what we view as an audience. The scene begins with the camera merging both the viewpoint of Scottie and the audience, with the camera languidly moving through the restaurant, decked out in lavish, rich red tones to see in the background the back of Madeline, resplendent in green. The gaze is Scottie’s but it becomes ours and we are clued in to something special happening, with Bernard Hermann’s haunting and beautiful score underpinning the moment. But Hitchcock’s stylising of the scene, using the physical frames in the restaurant to frame Madeline is symbolic of Scottie’s own fascination. He will later idealise her and attempt to frame Judy in the same way, with an obsession that is all consuming.

As Madeline leaves, she pauses for a moment where a close-up of Madeline establishes her ethereal and ghostly beauty, in a voyeuristic moment for Scottie but also for the audience. His illicit looks betray more than he intends and Hermann’s score lifts the scene into a transcendental moment. Scottie is trying to appear nonchalant but he cannot hide his awoken feelings for Madeline and the truth is that he’s hooked. Indeed, she is so breath-taking that the audience is perhaps also becoming obsessed during the close-up, whilst feeling Scottie’s desire to look at her as the camera inter-cuts between them.  It is an obsession that will consume Scottie and one he will not recover from.

Yet deception also walks arm in arm with obsession, most evident with Madeline’s fixation on Carlotta, the beautiful woman from the past who committed suicide. Gavin Elster believes Madeline is haunted by Carlotta’s spirit and sets the context for why Scottie is supposed to follow her. But this obsession on part of Madeline is false and part of the charade in drawing Scottie in. Or is it? Is Madeline starting to fall for her own deception? Much like the classic femme fatale in film noir, deception is an art by which the femme fatale gets what she wants and/or leads the unwitting fool down the garden path. Scottie starts to see her more and more as a spirit or some kind of phantom, aided and abetted by Madeline’s talk of the past and the strange and mysterious demeanour she channels. And of course, this feeds his obsession to the point where there is no turning back. Director Martin Scorsese makes the point that when first seeing Vertigo as a teenager, he did not fully understand it but he was deeply drawn into the film and was impressed by the camera work showing Scottie follow Madeline around. He makes the point that Hitchcock crafts Scottie’s descent into obsession with subtle poetry.

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Mark T. Conrad in Philosophy Of Noir (2006) raises an interesting point which adds meaning and understanding to Scottie’s obsession; the problem for the protagonist with their own existence and the meaninglessness of life. Scottie is an unmarried man with a career in tatters due to a traumatic past. The woman he has fallen in love with is someone he is watching and following around, and yes there are obvious voyeuristic elements here (which speak deeply to Hitchcock’s own obsessions and psycho-pathology). But the real obsession begins after Madeline’s apparent suicide, where Scottie has lost the woman he loves in an incredibly tragic and appalling manner. Unable to cope, he falls into catatonia and is institutionalised. Hitchcock depicts Scottie’s mental collapse in an alarming yet fascinating way and though eventually released, he begins to frequent the places that he visited with Madeline. There is nothing left for Scottie but to relive the moments he had with her, with all the sad and pathetic reality of a broken man who has nothing left but memories to obsess over. As an audience, it is impossible not to feel incredible pathos for Scottie, desperate to see her again. Perhaps one of the most intriguing moments is Scottie returning to the restaurant where he first saw he. It is the hope of the hopeless and Hitchcock brilliantly frames the scene exactly as he did previously, so that for a fleeting moment the audience believes they will see Madeline as well, only for the spell to be broken by harsh reality.

His chance sighting of Judy, during his desperate search, fuels his obsession and here we see Scottie lose himself completely to his absorption in Madeline. The incredible and uncanny resemblance (sansHitchcockian blonde hair and dress-suit) to his lost love tips him into following her and eventually making contact. At the risk of revelation of the film’s twist, the audience discovers that Judy and Madeline are but one and the same woman, with Judy being paid to impersonate ‘Madeline’ in a murder plot and make the death look like as suicide. The audience knowledge of this, adds a powerful dimension to what will follow. The audience discovers that Judy/Madeline also loves Scottie and her reluctance to see him becomes intertwined with her desire for him. But the complexity of Judy’s position becomes problematic as Scottie’s obsession is relentless in his attempts to turn her into the physical embodiment of Madeline. “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you,”he implores her but the audience realises that it does. There exists the fear that he will discover the truth and any hope of love being realised will become extinguished. Yet for all her concerns and the eventual realisation that Scottie’s obsession blinds him from seeing the truth, Judy will do what he asks, with the hope that he will love her. As she begs him, If I do what you tell me, will you love me? it is impossible not to feel deep sympathy for Judy, despite the subterfuge she has engaged in and still involved in. She is a woman frustrated by a man not loving her for who she is but what his obsessive and idealised vision of her is – imprinting on her being what he desires, using her as a mannequin for his own needs and wants. Yet she continues with the illusion – love has tragically misguided her as well.

Jim Emerson brilliantly channels gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe when he states, ‘Scottie is so obsessed with creating his “work of art,” that he doesn’t even notice that he’s draining the very life from his subject’. And herein lies the tragedy of the story and the damaging aspect of Scottie’s obsession. Unable to deal with his reality, he cannot make the physical connection with any flesh and blood woman, whether it’s his ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) or Judy. It is a heart-breaking moment when she exclaims, ‘“You can’t even touch me!”; fully aware that he prefers the illusion of Madeline (the character she created) to the actual woman before him.  It will take a complete transformation for Scottie to respond physically as well as emotionally.

The scene where Scottie’s obsession is completely realised is perhaps one of the most beautiful and tragic ever filmed. Finally yielding to Scottie, Judy had dyed her hair. The risk that Scottie may discover the truth is now greater than ever but it is still not enough – Scottie states that her hair isn’t up the way it should be. Judy is afraid yet also hurt that he does not love her for herself. When the final step must be taken, Judy goes into her bathroom and emerges, completely transformed into Madeline. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and beautiful score reaches its’ powerful crescendo as she stands ghost-like before Scottie; a phantom that takes him back to that moment during the earlier garden sequence, when their love was first realised. The symbolism of green is never more marked in the film than this moment, a symbol of re-birth, as critic Jim Emerson suggests, as well as the constant love that Scottie has felt – and I would suggest his obsession. As they embrace, Scottie’s world now seems complete and the room bathed in green, suggests that romantic renewal.  Yet it also suggests that the illusion has also won over and reality has taken a back-seat to fulfil Scottie’s obsession.

But Judy/Madeline has also bought into the illusion and this is evident as she moves forward from the ghostly stance at the bathroom door into a close-up. Her reluctance morphs into what seems like a look of victory, as she sees Scottie is finally fulfilled and his re-shaping of her realised. Yet watch the moment when she steps closer; her own surrender is obvious and her love for Scottie tragically evident. The look in her eyes and the slight turn of her face betrays her own ‘happiness’ that now Scottie can love her completely and that the two of them can find happiness. Bathed in the symbolic green of love, the camera swirls around the couple as they kiss and embrace. It should be the culmination of everything they have wanted. Even if it is an illusion.

It is an illusion that will come crashing once reality hits their relationship, like a stone smashing a mirror. And therein lies the tragedy of obsession – that Scottie’s fixation on an illusion could never be sustained and when the truth is revealed, it is almost too painful to bear. And yet even at the critical moment during the climax of the film, when Scottie and Judy revisit the scene of the earlier trauma, there is a moment where their love is realised as the illusion is removed. Has Scottie overcome his own psycho-pathological problems?

Much has been recently written about the misogyny of the film, in terms of the male gaze as developed by theorists such as Laura Mulvey, and a somewhat justified feminist perspective of the obsession of men to reshape women according to their standards. Yet recently Anne Billson in The Guardian stated that ‘Vertigo…mercilessly scrutinises romantic love while swooning over it’and ‘it is not an example of misogyny, but an overblown, beautiful and tragic deconstruction of it’. In essence, there is also the interesting allusion that in the arena of love, lies and deception are commonplace.

Scottie is ultimately a man without an identity; one which has been shattered by his traumas resulting in a loss of sense of self. To find meaning in a meaningless world, Scottie becomes a man obsessed and even when the fixation (as far as he knows) is gone, the obsession remains even after complete mental collapse. It is arguable that Judy is the typical femme fatale in film noir who has fooled Scottie and led him on through deceit. Yet Judy is also a victim of the illusion, as much as the creator of it and her sense of identity is also obliterated to meet Scottie’s obsession.  And arguably both Scottie and Judy have been manipulated and been taken advantage of by Gavin Elster, who has used Scottie’s weaknesses to establish his murder plot. Conrad describes Scottie’s vertigo as being ‘spiritual’ as much as psycho-physical and this has also led Scottie into his obsession, as he searches for something deeper to fill the void. Scottie’s love and obsession for Madeline transcends death and her ‘re-birth’ also transcends reality whilst simultaneously bringing the illusion to life.

Obsession is not only a theme instilled in film noir but one long-investigated by Hitchcock and one that has perhaps never been better examined in any of his films. Despite the reluctance of audiences and critics to embrace the film on its’ initial, Vertigo has established itself and held onto its’ lofty place in cinema. It’s a film that is stylistically resplendent but not for its’ own sake and reaches incredible depths of meaning and denotation far beyond what other films which they could achieve. Hitchcock uses very cinematic technique at his disposal, in the way a master painter uses the palate and expands the canvas in a way never done before. If we as an audience are still obsessed with Vertigo, it’s not without good reason.

This article was to have been submitted for the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – but is ridiculously late! My sincerest apologies to a kind and wonderful host, as well as being a passionate cinema buff and writer! 

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 Classic Movie Bloggers Association

by Paul Batters

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As I am sure all writers and bloggers know, writing is an extremely rewarding experience. The opportunity to express feeling and share ideas, is at the very core of our humanity, yet is often very difficult to do. In writing down our thoughts, we place ourselves out in the open, where we can receive praise, ridicule or indifference. It can be difficult when our writing is ignored but the thrill of someone responding seems to override any negativity – at least it does for me!

The classic film blogging community is one that is supportive and passionate about their love of classic cinema. I have been fortunate to connect with some amazing people and it’s a real buzz to share that love and passion for classic cinema with people from the other side of the globe.

Recently, I received what I feel is a great honour – admittance to the Classic Movie Bloggers Association (CMBA). To not only have the backing and support of peers but also join their illustrious company is a milestone for myself as a writer on classic film.

To the CMBA, a truly sincere and humble thank you for allowing me to join! It’s a great opportunity and I am looking forward to learning more and connecting with other classic film aficionados. Thank you to those members for their show of confidence.

Additionally, my congratulations to fellow new members:

Erin Graybill and Cinematic Scribblings
Carol Saint Martin and The Old Hollywood Garden
Gabriela Masson and Pale Writer
Erica D. and Poppity Talks Classic Film

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.

A Patch Of Blue (1965): Overcoming Adversity And Despair

by Paul Batters

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Selina D’Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I’m glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D’Arcy: I didn’t want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.

Hollywood is often accused (and not without good reason) of focusing on the glamorous and dealing in illusion. At the risk of stating the obvious, the very nature of art is illusion and any attempt to portray reality is going to be limited by or affected by the perception of the artist and the creative elements at their disposal. Yet within those bounds is a near infinite array of methods in portraying a narrative. Even the attempt to portray the harsher realities of the life experience are fraught with difficulty and the aim of the film-maker is to present a story that the audience perceives as real, feeling the reality and experiencing the journey of the characters on the screen. Of the many challenges in expanding the audience’s understanding of the human journey, one is presenting the experience of human disability and giving it authenticity as well as dignity. The opportunity for exploitation, cliché and stereotype, as well as an uniformed narrative, is always present and it takes great sensitivity and understanding on all the key stakeholders in a film production to assure that the story remains genuine.

A Patch Of Blue (1965) is a film, which initially seems in danger of falling into cornball cliché and syrupy storyline. The plot seems simple enough – a young, blind woman who lives a sad, cruel and lonely life befriends a kind, black man and they eventually fall in love. However, the convictions of the performances and the development of the story take our experience far beyond the usual themes and tropes that one may expect. Indeed, the director Guy Green is said to have called the initial premise of the story ‘corny’ but credited the writing of the original novel by Elizabeth Kata as giving it the depth, sensitivity and quality that made it work.

Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman) is a young girl living with her abusive mother, Rose-Ann who works as a prostitute, and her alcoholic grandfather. Her existence is one of loneliness and neglect, exacerbated by her lack of education and most of all, her blindness. However, her world begins to change when she befriends Gordon, a young African-American man, who is kind, patient and values her humanity. Gordon feels for her situation and their relationship forms not out of pity but from true friendship.

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Gordon meets her regularly in the park where they first met, where he guides her in developing self-confidence and independence. Selina tells Gordon how she came to be blind; a story so cruel and tragic that the audience cannot help but be as moved as Gordon is. Gordon and Selina become closer and the discovery of their friendship brings things to a head when Rose-Ann finds them in the park where they meet, unleashing an ugly scene. But it also reveals Gordon’s strength of character as he defends and protects Selina, who is unable to defend herself.

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However, friendship has blossomed into something more and Selina declares her love for Gordon. Gordon seems unsure and does not want to take advantage of Selina’s love and innocence, especially since he is a good and decent man. But this reviewer believes that there is love in Gordon’s heart, assured by his willingness to see her chance to grow as an individual and give time for her to find herself.

The film’s ending holds a gentle power that transcends all clichés and leaves the audience with a sense of hope for humanity.

The context of the film cannot be overlooked and allows for greater insights into the film than one may initially perceive. Filmed and released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it also reflects the artistic shift, as well as the political and social shift, that was occurring in the U.S. True, a key theme is the ugliness and cancerous nature of racism and the film challenges many of the precepts of hatred that racism aims to perpetuate. It also brings to light the power of love to conquer division and whilst we may smirk at, sniff at and inflict a sarcastic smugness toward this theme, there is nothing clichéd about the deepest human experience of love nor the political realities of such a theme.

The original story gave a very different and sadly pessimistic twist to the film regarding the girl’s blindness and her discovery that her friend is actually black. Yet Sydney Poitier’s personal commitment to the film saw him involved in the script and its’ development into a more hopeful and uplifting story. The film certainly reflects the idealism of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement in challenging long-established norms and values, as well as the hope that love and righteousness would overcome the bitterness, hatred and division that had underscored American society for so long.

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Yet the key characters are more than just symbolic devices for a message. Selina’s journey and the overcoming of her own adversity is a poignant and powerful story. She is not a figure to be pitied and Hartman’s portrayal does not seek to evoke pity or any superficial pathos. Selina’s blindness is a harsh reality brought about by the cruelty of her circumstances. Additionally, the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of her abusive mother and lack of support from her alcoholic grandfather is not meant as a ploy to elicit simpering melodrama or tears from the audience. Her life is what it is and indeed further exemplifies the exploitive nature that some will go to with someone who has a disability – even if that person is a member of their own family. Incredibly, there does not seem to exist within Selina any bitterness or anger, perhaps because her world is so limited and she knows no other life but moreso because her innate spirit is whole and unbroken, even if her physical self lacks sight. The biblical evocation of being blind yet being able to see certainly comes to mind.

If pity is drawn from the audience, it is not simply because Selina is blind but for other tragic reasons. The constant abuse and lack of any comfort, support or love in her life brings angers as much as pity. Her disability is ultimately only one of the factors that have limited her life and within this framework lies the tragedy of Selina’s life. The crippling effects of neglect and cruelty perhaps even outweigh her disability but one of Gordon’s greatest gifts, other than his friendship and love, is that he helps Selina to find her way to develop and grow. Ultimately, as the film beautifully conveys, her disability is not what truly isolates her and once Gordon guides her, Selina begins to grow and seek out more.

Again, there are complexities to Selina’s self-discovery and her pronounced love for Gordon is not mere infatuation or misplaced gratitude for his friendship. Her heart and soul are immersed in the love she feels for Gordon. It must be remembered that she is young and her sudden newfound freedom and sense of discovery finds her elated. To Gordon’s credit and a strong show of his own love for her, he encourages and explains to Selina that she needs to go to school and discover more about herself – to gain an education, find her independence and sense of identity before any commitments can be made. What is beautiful about their relationship is that it far from a one-sided one; Gordon has also grown and learned from her and found a new self-awareness through her honesty, her responsiveness to him and especially her love of and for him. Despite her ‘blindness’, she sees Gordon’s goodness and kindness, in spite of his own self-doubts. It is this interaction that lifts the film from the superficial into something far deeper.

Director Guy Green shows great sensitivity in showing how Selina experiences the world through her senses. From the joys of beautiful sounds to the terror of being alone and sadly the horrific experiences of rape, Green allows the audience to step into Selina’s world and share these sensory moments from her point of view, giving us a powerful and emotional experience. The film’s soundtrack scored by Jerry Goldsmith offers a beautiful layer of beautiful melodies that underscores the story and lifts it into a stronger emotional experience.

The brilliance of Sydney Poitier is evident in his Golden Globe nominated portrayal. Wesley Lovell in Cinema Sight stated that Poitier is strong and stoic, conveying the confidence all great actors possess. These qualities come to the fore in his defense of Selina against Rose-Ann, her cruel and racist mother but also through his kindness and patience. It is the perfect accompaniment to the sensitive qualities of Elizabeth Hartman, whose innocence and limited screen experience certainly does not suggest lack of talent. On the contrary, Hartman’s performance deservedly saw her nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Again, Lovell suggests that her haphazard naiveté helps give the character an add dimension. Hartman comes across as a beautiful spirit aching to soar, trapped in the circumstances of her family and her blindness. Gordon gives her the opportunity to fly.

 

 

Shelly Winters portrays the repulsive and deplorable Rose-Ann beyond the reaches of the superficial, indicating a woman broken by life. Whilst it is easy to despise the woman who has made Selina’s life a misery, Rose-Ann is a woman also trapped by her circumstances, her lack of education and blinded by her own racism. For Rose-Ann, Selina represents her own failing as a mother and her disappointments as a woman. In many ways, Rose-Ann is also disabled and does not have the strength or fortitude to break from it; so imprisoned by her hatred and bigotry. It is a performance which Roger Fristoe on the TCM Website correctly describes as ‘shrewish’ and would garner Winters the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It is important to remove the easy-to-fall-for jaded cynicism in which we view such stories. The New Yorker would call the film ‘forgettable’, which is unfair from this reviewer’s point of view. A Patch Of Blue is far from forgettable and challenges us to see our fellow humans who have a disability to not necessarily look beyond it but embrace it as part of their humanity and value the whole of the individual. Indeed, the character in the film with the greatest insights and understanding is the one who is physically blind yet whose heart has not been blinded by hatred nor twisted into bitterness by life’s cruelties. Selina shows us the simple beauties of life and thus the significance of the title comes into play; the sole visual memory of that she holds of the blue sky before she became tragically blind.

A Patch Of Blue is a film that still holds its’ simple beauty and its’ subtle and gentle power through the performances of Hartman and Poitier and the sensitivity of director Guy Green.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Disability In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood at https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com.  Please click on the  link for access to more articles for this blogathon. 

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.

City Lights (1931): Charlie Chaplin’s Most Poignant Masterpiece

by Paul Batters

The films of Charlie Chaplin are perhaps the easiest to watch and the most difficult to write about – easy because they are such an incredible joy to the heart and soul of the individual and difficult (for myself at least) because it feels like sacrilege to even try and analyse the work of the great master of cinema. Chaplin’s works are true masterpieces of cinema, reaching across time and space with powerful emotion, shaped and built with precision in every aspect of the film making process. Despite the enormity of the work that Chaplin put into his films, they remain deeply personal in how they touch us and the Little Tramp remains a character that we all find in a facet of ourselves. For me, City Lights (1931) is an incredible blend of pathos and humour that is also one of his most emotional and touching films, where we all find ourselves hopelessly lost in the sheer beauty of the story whilst still laughing at the Little Tramp. Indeed, City Lights (1931) just may be Chaplin at his most poetic.

The many films of Chaplin reveal an incredible richness not only in story but also in tones and qualities. For all the pathos and sentiment that is evident in City Lights, there is also Chaplin’s classic irreverence for pomposity and hypocrisy as well as slapstick and farce.

The great Roger Ebert, in his review of City Lights beautifully describes the beauty of Chaplin in the following way:

‘Children who see them at a certain age don’t notice they’re “silent” but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again’.

The film opens with a classic dig at the aforementioned pomposity and hypocrisy. The scene reveal a group of well-healed citizens and dignitaries around a monument to ‘Peace And Prosperity’ that is about to be unveiled. After a series of long-winded speeches, where Chaplin effectively uses sound to convey the meaninglessness of their words, the monument is unveiled to reveal the Little Tramp asleep in the arms of one of the monument’s statues. What follows is a hilarious scene, with an apologetic Tramp getting himself near impaled on the sword of one of the statues, followed by a perplexed and angry crowd holding onto their wrath when the National Anthem is played. The Tramp tries to be upstanding, even in his ridiculous position but cannot contain himself, as he soon uses the features of the monument in a farcical display before making his getaway.

The Little Tramp goes from one situation to another, when the pace of the film shifts to perhaps one of cinema’s most touching and beautiful moments. Crossing the street, with a deft stop-short and duck from a traffic cop, the Tramp nonchalantly steps through a car and out onto the sidewalk. This hilarious moment becomes something more when he encounters a beautiful flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on the street, who has been ignored by well-to-do passers-by. In the process of selling a flower, the Tramp discovers she is blind and gives her the only money he has to purchase the flower. However, his earlier exiting from the car and the owner of the vehicle returning leaves the flower girl thinking that the kind purchaser of her flower is a rich man. Here, Chaplin’s craft is at its’ most superb by using sound without using sound as a plot device which sets the tone of the whole story and sets up the ending. For all the Tramp’s mischievousness, his truly kind heart is revealed when he sees her mistaking him for the man who re-enters his car and tips away, not wanting to ruin the moment for the flower girl. But he is taken by her and sits quietly nearby, just to be near her.

Later that evening, the Tramp saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) who is attempting to commit suicide. In the midst of tragedy, Chaplin uses the moment for brilliant dark humour when the rock the millionaire uses to drown himself, ends up tied around the Tramp’s neck. Drunk and despondent, the millionaire invites the Tramp to his home where they drink champagne and he even gives the Tramp money after a night on the town. As they drive, the Tramp sees the girl selling flowers on her corner and stops not only to purchase all her flowers but also gives her a ride home in the millionaire’s car. Thus, the blind girl’s misguidance that her kind benefactor is a millionaire is further perpetuated.

But the Tramp’s rich new found friend sours when the millionaire sobers up and refuses to acknowledge him, having him thrown out of the house. But later the millionaire, drunk again, sees the Tramp on the street and again invites him home.

The Tramp seeks the flower girl and finds the humble home where she lives with her grandmother (Florence Lee). He discovers that the girl is very ill and unable to sell flowers, which the grandmother takes up instead. The Tramp, determined to help her, becomes a street-sweeper to help pay the rent and buy groceries. He becomes that determined to help that the Tramp even takes part in a boxing match, desperate for money after losing his job. A comedy of errors sees the Tramp face a serious fighter and not the intended opponent. The fight is hilarity unconfined and one of comedy’s most famous boxing scenes. But as all comedy peeled back, it reveals deeper tragedy, when the Tramp is badly beaten and the prize money is not forthcoming.

A third meeting with the again-inebriated millionaire will prove a mix of fortunes. The Tramp tells the story of the blind girl and how an operation will save her and her sight. Moved by the story, the millionaire gives the Tramp a great deal of money but again fate steps in to blacken the moment, when two burglars break in and attack the millionaire. By the time the police arrive, the burglars have fled and the Tramp is blamed for the robbery when the millionaire, affected by the attack and his alcohol intake, cannot remember giving money to the Tramp.

Knowing he is doomed, the Tramp evades the police and manages to get the money to the girl before he is captured. In a heart-rending scene, he explains to the flower girl that he will be going away for some time. The police finally arrest him and he is taken to prison.

Much focus has been made on the famous ending and it would be remiss of me not to honor it by mentioning it. I have refrained from over-cooking what has become cinema folklore and has been discussed at great length elsewhere. After his release, the Tramp returns to the flower girl’s corner to find she is not there. What follows can be best summed up by watching the very scene itself, and consider the words of Chaplin himself, whilst viewing it:

“I’ve had that once or twice, he said, …in City Lights just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

Chaplin’s genius crafts the film in its’ entirety, employing subtle touches to bring the close to a personal and emotional ending. The construction of the film flows into this perfect finale, and our love and admiration for the Little Tramp is perhaps never greater – as we see him willing to suffer and risk all, so that she can be saved and find happiness. For all the love he has for her, the Tramp is even willing to risk losing her. Chaplin leaves us breathless as we anticipate the finale, drawing us into the tragic comedy of the Tramp’s journey.

It was a unique film, up to that point, in terms of Chaplin’s methodology in creating it. From its’ inception in early 1928 (from which a number of scenarios were considered) till its’ final release in January 1931, Chaplin found himself on an odyssey. According to David Robinson’s biography, Chaplin described the process of constructing a film as like being in a labyrinth and trying to find a way out. Nothing could be truer in this statement regarding the approach to City Lights. It was also a film where the incredible workload taken on by Chaplin meant a severely diminished social life, with his focus on writing, production, directing, editing and starring in the film. Amazingly, Chaplin would also write the musical score as well, to the astonishment of the industry.

When conceiving the story in 1928, sound had made its’ appearance with Warner Bros. release of The Jazz Singer (1927) and the first all-talking film Lights Of New York (1928). The challenge to have the Tramp speak was enormous but whilst the idea was a novel one, Chaplin was concerned at a number of levels – how would the Tramp speak and sound, would the character lose his universal appeal by talking and how would the Tramp act once the language of pantomime was abandoned. More to the point, whole audiences worldwide would be alienated once the Tramp spoke in English. Additionally, sound techniques were still primitive and not particularly successful and the perfectionist in Chaplin would not have tolerated such shortcomings. In the end, Chaplin refused to have the Tramp talk and the film would remain silent, save for a few moments where sound is brilliantly employed to drive the story.

Pre-production would continue through most of 1928, punctuated by personal tragedy, when on August 28th his mother Hannah died. The tragedy of his mother’s life, the difficulty he had with his mother’s mental illness combined with his own tragic, Dickensian upbringing, is well-known history for Chaplin fans. He was deeply affected by her death and pre-production halted for some weeks. Psychiatrist Stephen Weismann in his 2008 book ‘Chaplin: A Life” believes that Chaplin certainly transferred his mother onto the blind girl in City Lights, with the drunken millionaire representing his absent father. It is a theory that certainly holds water, with the Tramp still accepting the drunken millionaire’s invitations despite being rejected and the desperate desire to save the Flower Girl, easily reflecting Chaplin’s own childhood parental fantasies and hopes for happiness.

By the time of the film’s completion in late 1930, silent films had literally disappeared and were considered passé. Yet despite Chaplin’s initial nervousness, City Lights would be an incredible financial and critical success. The critics raved. Irene Thirer in her Daily News review said:

‘City Lights is excruciatingly funny and terribly, terribly sad. It makes you chuckle hysterically. You have the greatest time imaginable, and yet, occasionally you find little hurty lumps in your throat’.

Critics are still raving about it today. Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader has called it, ‘a beautiful example of Chaplin’s ability to turn narrative fragments into emotional wholes’.  Dan Jardine is Slant Magazine accurately describes it as, ‘the work of a master craftsman in full control of his craft’. Mark Bourne from Film.com perhaps put it best:

‘That final scene. Last week, CNN asked — in “The Screening Room’s Top 10 Romantic Moments” — whether this was the most touching film moment of all time. Could be. Either way, if it doesn’t move you, you’re beyond human reach’.

Watch the film and tell me that your heart doesn’t break before it’s put back together again.

This article is part of the 2018 Charlie Chaplin Blogathon and hosted by Christina Wehrner at https://christinawehner.wordpress.com and ‘Little Bits Of Classics’ https://littlebitsofclassics.wordpress.com. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/the-charlie-chaplin-blogathon-has-arrived/

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.

Celebrating Bette Davis in Marked Woman (1937)

By Paul Batters

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‘If this is what you call living, I don’t want any part of it. Always being afraid. Never knowing from one day to the next what’s going to happen to you. I’m fed up with being afraid…’ Mary Dwight Strauber (Bette Davis) Marked Woman (1937)

April 5th is the birthday of one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses – Bette Davis. She was a rebel who refused to buck under and be beaten by the studio system, and proved that acting was an art form that transcended the superficial. Her impact on the screen can be felt today and is potent as it ever was. In celebrating her birthday, and as part of the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, I will be focusing on a film that broke new ground for Bette at a pivotal time in her life and career. It would help lay the foundations for some of her most celebrated roles, which soon followed.

Marked Woman (1937) was an important film in the career of Bette Davis. She had just famously lost a highly publicised and very public battle with Warner Bros. after walking out on the studio and leaving for Great Britain. Bette had tired of the poor and mediocre roles that she was constantly being offered. Her incredible performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), should have won her a Best Actress Oscar but Warner Bros. had worked to squash any chance of her winning, since she had made the film outside the studio. Her being awarded the Oscar for Dangerous (1935) the following year, was seen by some as compensation for losing the previous year but it also galvanised Bette into seeking better working conditions as well as better roles. Jack Warner had not been not so forthcoming but things were going to change.

Film historian Alain Silver points out that audiences of the period wanted to see stories that were real; particularly since at the time of the film, American audiences were emerging from the Depression. Despite all claims in the opening titles of characters and events not resembling any in real life, audiences were fully aware of what they were seeing on the screen. Hollywood biographer Charlotte Chandler also states that Jack Warner saw plenty of material in the newspapers he read daily and was especially interested in gangster news stories.

Perhaps the biggest story in the gangster world during 1936 was the successful prosecution of kingpin Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Considered one of the creators of the modern Mafia in the U.S, Luciano would be hounded and finally imprisoned by the crime-fighting crusader District Attorney Thomas E Dewey. But Dewey didn’t do it alone. The poetic justice of the case was that the chief witnesses against Luciano were prostitutes who were part of his criminal empire. Warner Bros. saw the story as a natural, as well as a vehicle for Bette on her return to the studio. According to biographer James Spada, Bette jumped at the role and found the script refreshing in comparison to prior projects. However, she was also returning to improved conditions in her contract, which suggests that her protest was not a complete loss and the profits her films were making was also not completely unrecognised by Warner Bros.

Of course, the Code was in full enforcement and the earlier liberties taken by the industry prior to 1934 could not longer be taken. Instead of prostitute, Bette and her co-stars would be called ‘hostesses’ working in a ‘nightclub’ – calling it a ‘clipjoint’ was about as controversial as was allowed by the Code. They ‘entertained’ clients by dancing and drinking with them. Terms like ‘pimp’ and ‘hooker’ were simply never to be uttered. But the audience could not be fooled and they absolutely understood what they were seeing on the screen. Even the opening titles and artwork showing scantily clad women in suggestive poses (which incredibly passed the Breen Office) are give-aways to what the story will be about.

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The film opens with a shot of New York lights and a clock showing 3.30 a.m. As the camera moves into a nightclub called Club Intimate, gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) is taking it over and making changes, informing the girls that work there, that he is now in charge and everyone works for him. The girls know the score but Mary (Bette Davis) speaks openly and unafraid. Vanning warily admires her toughness and they seem to reach an understanding.

Exhausted, Mary walks home with the girls she both works and shares an apartment with. As they discuss Vanning’s takeover and what they are going to do, Mary declares that she ‘knows all the angles’ and intends to ‘beat this racket’ and ‘live on easy street’ for the rest of her life.

But things will get complicated, when the girls spend the evening at the club with a group of out of town clients. Mary’s client reveals that he cannot pay and is trying to pull a fast one. Despite all her claims of playing the angles, she helps the client but Vanning’s boys are not fools and the client ends up dead. The next morning, Mary’s innocent and younger sister Betty (Jane Bryan), who is set up in school and oblivious to what her sister is, pays a surprise visit, only to be hauled in when detectives come to question Mary.

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Frustrated by the thwarted attempts to prosecute Vanning, assistant District Attorney, David Graham (Humphrey Bogart) decides to get tough on Mary and the girls. Mary denies all involvement and stands up to Graham but Vanning’s lawyer instructs her to play along with their plan. Graham ends up humiliated in court and Mary escapes any charges. However, Betty discovers the truth about her sister and the humiliation almost becomes too much. As a form of defiance and anger, Betty ends up going to one of Vanning’s parties but she finds tragedy there instead at the hands of Vanning’s brutality and anger. When Betty doesn’t come home, Mary is distraught and confronts Vanning who denies any wrongdoing. Turning back to Graham, Mary discovers what has happened to Betty.

Graham obviously feels for Mary and tries to convince her friends to testify who refuse. Mary now finds herself alone, as the girls are afraid of what will happen if they ‘talk’. But Vanning is not leaving things to chance and turns up at the apartment with some of his henchmen. What follows is a harrowing and brutal scene, despite the action happening behind a closed door. Mary is badly beaten and awakes in hospital, with terrible injuries including a knife wound to her face. Her beating finally convinces the others to testify and the film ends with a tense courtroom scene.

Marked Woman is classic Warner Bros. fare, utilising familiar faces both in the cast and behind the camera. Directed by Lloyd Bacon and produced by Hal Wallis, it is a film that bristles with sharp story development and tension that the primary characters convey effectively. Bernhard Kaun’s musical score is also effective and provides an undercurrent that serves the production well. There are even moments of humour such as Vanning telling a henchmen to take the dog for a walk and the cameo appearance by Warner Bros. stalwart Allen Jenkins as Louie the door to door salesman. But otherwise, the film is tough and gritty, with Eduardo Ciannelli brutal and nasty as Vanning and the girls hardened and buckled under the weight of their lives. Lola Lane as “Gabby” Marvin is particularly a stand-out as one of the girls, whose sad past and personal tragedy is evident in her own courtroom testimony, as well as her resignation to the life she has left.

In sharp contrast, Jane Bryan (in her second film) as Mary’s younger sister Betty is all sweet innocence and goodness. Bryan’s performance is solid and her fate is a perfect counter to the corruption, degradation and hard reality that her sister is caught up in. Bryan was in awe of Bette and was impressed by her demeanour on the set, despite having to return to the studio. Bryan called her ‘terrific’ with a ‘kind of inner power that came through her skin’. Bette would take her under her wing and Bogart would also act as big brother to her, supporting Bryan when she felt intimidated by others on the set, especially Lane and Methot.

An interesting aside is the performance of Humphrey Bogart as prosecutor David Graham, the Dewey inspired crime crusader. It was a complete removal from the roles he had been associated with, with Bogart this time on the right side of the law. It was a step-up in terms of supporting roles and there is certainly fire in his courtroom performance. At a personal level, it would also be the film where romance would develop with his future wife Mayo Methot, who as the aging hostess plays a role closer to reality than we are comfortable with. It is almost painful to see the obviously aging Methot being told she’s too old by Vanning, and her ruminating as she paws at her pudgy and aging face back at the apartment the girls share. There were also hints of the problems that Bogart and Methot would face in their marriage, which would see tragedy for her later in life.

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Without any doubt, the film belongs to Bette Davis. Tough and unrelenting, she takes the opportunity of a meatier role and gives a strong performance. There are moments that are just as powerful a testimony to her ability as any of her more celebrated roles. One particular moment is outlined by Ed Sikov in his biography, where Mary fools Graham into thinking she will testify truthfully and instead plays along with Vanning’s plan in the courtroom. Her hysterical crying in Graham’s office and apparent acquiescence to Graham’s demands, almost fool us until we see her masquerade when Graham looks away. The triumph in her having fooled Graham shows her to be a calculating woman, who is always acting as part of her job as a prostitute. As Sikov suggests, Bette in this scene ‘is performing a performance of hysteria, a redoubled acting job and one of the best scenes in her career’.

Bette’s interpretation of a fairly clichéd scene lifts it out of formula, leaving it both powerful and effective. After Betty goes missing, Mary confronts Vanning demanding to know where she is. Her anger seems pointless when she blurts out to Vanning:

And get this straight. If I find out that you or anybody else has laid a finger on her…”

Vanning cuts her off and snarls:

You’ll what?”

Our expectation is for Mary to fold and slink away. But there is a slight pause that Bette weights perfectly before responding with sharpened eyes that cut like glass before responding:

“I’ll get you. Even if I have to crawl back from my grave to do it.”

Her desire for realism and an escape from superficial glamour would find realisation in Marked Woman as well. For the hospital scene after receiving the terrible beating, the make-up department did their job but Bette would later claim that she ‘never looked so attractive’. According to Ed Sikov, Bette left the set for lunch but went to her doctor who created a more realistic result on her face. When Hal Wallis saw the results of gauze and bandages, he burst out laughing at her tenacity and let Bette have her way. As a result, the audience is shocked at the sight of her beaten face, emphasizing the brutality of the earlier violence in the apartment.

 

Bette never lets up in Marked Woman. Her incredible range of emotion and pathos from hard and cynical prostitute to being beaten and broken but courageous in her final courtroom appearance reveals what an amazing talent Bette Davis was. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the story but the fact that the chief characters are prostitutes is remarkable enough. Bette keeps the story fresh through the strength of her performance and whatever she may be in the film; the sympathy of the audience is clearly aligned with her journey.

Within a short time and having to endure a couple of further frustrating roles, Bette would finally wield greater power in her choice of films. Marked Woman would begin that process, with the film proving a solid success as well as positive reviews at the time. Warner Bros. realised that they needed Bette in their stable of stars and were willing not only to pay her more but give her better conditions and – more importantly better roles. She would always battle with Warner Bros. and was a trailblazer in doing so. Films such as Jezebel (1938), The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), All This And Heaven Too (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and Now Yoyager (1942) should all be rightfully celebrated as masterpieces in the canon of Better Davis films. However, to miss Marked Woman (1937) would be to miss a solid film and an important one in the great lady’s career.

This article is art of the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon and hosted by ‘In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood’. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/announcing-the-third-annual-bette-davis-blogathon/

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.

Donald Crisp: One Of Hollywood’s Great Character Actors

by Paul Batters

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Cinema is an art form, which, unlike most other art forms, is a team effort. The need for a range of skills and talents does contradict, with the upmost of respect, the belief of the great Frank Capra that a film should be the vision of one man – the director. The work behind and around the camera is tantamount to the success of the performances before it. The magic that we see on the screen is amplified by the work of others.

Audiences tend to focus on the performances of the stars in major roles, which is understandable. However, the purpose of this article is to look at the character actor – the actor or actress who allows for and creates the space for a major star to extend their performance. At times, their work is that good that it goes un-noticed or it can even steal a scene. For all the brilliance of Bogart in Casablanca (1942), it was certainly assisted by the likes of Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt and Sidney Greenstreet. As fantastic as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are in Double Indemnity (1944), Edward G Robinson arguably steals the show when he is on the screen.

For my money, perhaps one of Hollywood’s most prolific and important supporting actors was the magnificent Donald Crisp.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a biography but offer a reflection on one of classic Hollywood’s most familiar faces.

British-born Donald Crisp’s career spanned an incredible 55 years, with an amazing array of roles on the screen and an equally amazing involvement and perhaps more important role behind the scenes (not only for his time as a director of approximately 25 films). His first role was in a short called The French Maid (1908) during the earliest years of the American film industry, with his final screen appearance in Spencer’s Mountain (1963) as Grandpa Zebulon Spencer. (The film incidentally would later be developed into the 1970s family drama The Waltons).

Let’s look at some of his important, ground-breaking roles.

The Birth Of A Nation (1915) – Ulysses S Grant

Crisp cut his teeth on an array of roles in silent shorts, including the ground-breaking gangster film The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) but it was his fortuitous meeting with D.W Griffith that saw his career in film expand. He worked with Griffith in a number of productions with perhaps his first most notable role as General Ulysses S Grant. Whilst not a major role, Crisp was portraying a significant historical figure and even the publicity shot reveals a great actor’s calibre to stand in the role. Indeed, Melvyn Stokes points out in his book D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ (2007) that Crisp as Grant seems to step out of the pages of history.

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Broken Blossoms (1919) – ‘Battling’ Burrows

Another D.W Griffith classic, Broken Blossoms is a love story between Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) and Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) whose father is a brutal prizefighter. Set in London’s’ Limehouse district, the story of interracial love was certainly highly controversial for its’ day. Crisp brings a cruelty and sadism to the role, taking pleasure in beating his daughter. His identity and sense of self is limited to the physicality of his fists but there is more to Crisp’s portrayal than a one-dimensional character. As Ed Gonzalez illustrates in his 2003 review in Slant Magazine, ‘Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a monster, but Griffith understands the man’s frustrated desire to lash out against something (here, his own daughter) in the face of economic and masculine defeat’. Needless to say, Crisp channels this interpretation quite well and elicits from the audience incredible depths of shock and horror at depths of viciousness of his character.

The Black Pirate (1926) – MacTavish

Perhaps one of Fairbanks’ greatest films, it was also one of the best produced and an early two-tone Technicolor classic which featured all the hallmarks of the swashbuckler adventure. As the one armed pirate, Crisp also brings some humor, again a staple element of the swashbuckler classic seen in countless such films to follow. The film holds up well and arguably far better than many of Fairbank’s other films, ably assisted by Donald Crisp as the pirate with a heart of gold. Watch the ending to see MacTavish’s response to the happy ending. Interestingly there is some dispute over Crisp’s apparent removal as director of The Black Pirate.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) – Burkitt

A powerful historical drama with outstanding performances from Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. Its’ historical accuracy does and should come under heavy scrutiny but never should the work of the supporting cast. Donald Crisp plays Burkitt, a tough English sailor who develops a burning hatred for Bligh and is tempted to mutiny along with a handful of fellow mistreated comrades. The turning point for Christian’s final push into mutiny comes with his witnessing of Burkitt beaten and in shackles. Gable’s inability to maintain composure is made even more believable when coupled with Crisp’s channeling of the dehumanized sailor. As usual, Crisp gives everything to the small but important role in the development of the story.

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How Green Was My Valley (1941) – Gwilym Morgan

Undoubtedly his most famous role and the one that most associate with Donald Crisp, Ford’s classic is a masterpiece and a superb example of storytelling on film. Crisp as the Morgan family patriarch is one that moves the heart and stirs the spirit. His performance of a stern yet kind and loving father is impossible to ignore and it would win for Crisp the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. To quote Peter J Patrick from Cinema Sight in 2016, ‘Long established as one of the screen’s most reliable character actors, his performance here transcends them all. The voiceover relating to his character can also be applied to the actor and his long held position as one of Hollywood’s greatest: “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.” Thanks to the magic of the movies, it’s evergreen’.

For a more detailed thematic review of How Green Was My Valley (1941), go to: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/john-fords-how-green-was-my-valley-a-thematic-review/ 

Lassie Come Home (1943) – Sam Carraclough

MGM capitalized on Crisp’s Oscar winning father role for their Technicolor hit starring Roddy McDowell, as well as reuniting the two again in the father/son relationship. Crisp’s performance, as the father dealing with difficult times, was called ‘four-square’ by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Lassie Comes Home could be easy given over to a saccharine overdose, if not for the fabulous cast and directorial efforts of Fred Wilcox. However, Crisp is not one to recycle former work but builds on familiar tropes with a seasoned turn as the father trying to raise his family out of poverty. He would play the role again in two sequels.

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The Valley Of Decision (1945) – William Scott Snr

Crisp would again play the father role but one of a very different nature to what he had played in How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home and National Velvet. As the steel baron whose powerful hold on his family becomes challenged, Crisp gave a commanding performance as the father who opposes the relationship between his son Paul (Gregory Peck) and the Irish house maid Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson), whose father had been crippled in the Scott mill. The complexities and social issues that arise concerning families, class and relationships, as well as the plight of workers in the 19th century. As Cliff Aliperti’s 2011 review for Immortal Ephemera points out, Crisp’s gift to the film comes with the ‘tender moment with Garson after discovering just how she feels about his son, and immediately thereafter, the uncomfortable moment where Duryea convinces him that they need to call upon the strikebreakers’. It is often those moments by a character actor that offer depth to the layers of a powerful film.

The Man From Laramie (1955) – Alec Waggoman

For a short period of time, Crisp retired from films but returned in 1954’s Prince Valiant. Thankfully he did so for his turn as the formidable and cunning landowner in opposition to Will Lockhart (Jimmy Stewart) is a winner. The Shakespearean overtures (think King Lear) become obvious but are well crafted into a classic Western. Crisp is hard-nosed as the cattle baron, who has survived and thrived because he has been ruthless with those who have crossed him. The film exhibits Crisp’s versatility, as well as the character’s ability to shape his way through the film around the work of his fellow cast-mates, while assisting them in shaping their roles for the screen.

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Looking at only a handful of roles does not do justice to honor the incredible body of work in which Donald Crisp was engaged. Crisp proved the go-to actor for some of Hollywood’s A-films for the major studios, working with many legendary actors and actresses. Admittedly, and unbeknownst to many at the time, he was a Hollywood power broker who through his membership of the Bank Of America arranged financing for many films, including those he worked in. However, the focus here is not his financial pull but the work he gifted the films he appeared in.

If there are doubts regarding his genuine talent, attributing his appearances to his financing abilities, one only need see Crisp on the screen. His clear and expressive voice combined with a versatile physicality makes for a potent character actor. Crisp used his voice superbly, evoking a range of emotion and reaching audiences with a familiarity borne of experience and understanding. Crisp’s work is incredibly far-reaching and chances are audiences have seen him in many of their favourite films. Yes, there is truth in his being typecast – father roles abounded after How Green Was My Valley,  right up to one of his final films for Disney’s Pollyanna (1960). His silent film days saw him play tough guys and villains and finally judges, police officers, doctors, sea captains, ministers, clergymen and military men, through the 1930s and early 1940s. 

And therein lies the talent of Donald Crisp – his adaptability, his transformation into character and understanding of his own dimensions as an actor.

From the subtleties of small but important parts to key supporting roles, Donald Crisp is one of Hollywood’s memorable faces, who was both a pioneer and a long serving performer.

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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be prepared for spoilers!

Gone With The Wind (1939)

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

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

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

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

Casablanca (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Voyager (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Encounter (1945)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Zhivago (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Mentions

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

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

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

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

Hollywood’s Hero – The Top Ten Performances of Kirk Douglas

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‘I didn’t start out to be a movie star. I started out to be an actor’. Kirk Douglas

Since Kirk Douglas turned 100 last month (Dec 2016), I felt compelled to go back and watch some of his best-known performances. After watching a number of Douglas’ films, it is no surprise that he was such a powerhouse performer for well on three decades and remained busy well into the 1990s, only slowed down by a stroke in 1996. What makes his work interesting is the range of roles and stories that fascinate and captivate an audience and the reaching out to people with the pathos of his performances. I aim to compile what I feel are the performances, which best exemplify just how good Kirk Douglas is.

Creating a top ten list is always fraught with fault and subjectivity. Yet the attempt to do so allows for contemplation, exploration and analysis. And of course, disagreement can bring forth discussion!

So let’s have a look!

  1. ‘Doc’ Holliday in ‘Gunfight At The O.K Corral’ (1957)

The film is filled with inaccuracies and it follows the typical Western template long established in Hollywood that usually allows for a narrow approach. It was also a huge hit, in great part to the depth of Douglas as the legendary dentist, gambler and gunslinger. Douglas, offering more than the usual superficiality of the cardboard cut-out stock Western character, brings Holliday to life. Cantankerous and short-tempered yet quick-witted and charismatic, Douglas brings forth the complexity of character as well as the demons that dwell deep within, through his incredible talent.

There is always a difficulty in knowing who the real Doc Holliday was, as pointed out by Shirley Ann Linder in ‘Real To Reel: John H. ‘Doc’ Holliday In Film’ in True West magazine. As Linder states: others vilified him for an “irascible disposition,” and being “the coldest-blooded killer in Tombstone.” These would become the sources generally employed for his many film appearances. Additionally, few would-be biographers failed to note Wyatt’s further words about Doc: “Perhaps Doc’s strong, outstanding peculiarity was the enormous amount of whiskey he could punish: two to three quarts of liquor a day.” Yet it is acknowledged that most recorded comments were made by men who disliked him, including Bat Masterson who vied for Wyatt Earp’s friendship, in contest with Holliday.

Yet, Earp called him a gentleman and a great wit and Douglas’ Holliday is also dapper and charismatic, as well as a loner who seems to be forever lost in a tragic isolation. This wonderful portrayal of complexity beyond mere impersonation set the standard and is perhaps equaled by Val Kilmer’s 1994 turn in Kevin Jarre’s Tombstone.

  1. ‘Midge’ Kelly in ‘Champion’ (1949)

Champion was a very important film for Kirk Douglas. It was the film that made him a star and it would attract for Douglas his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Champion is the story of Midge Kelly and his rise out of poverty and obscurity to reach the top in the world of boxing. But this is no ‘Rocky’ type tale. Kelly is a bitter, hard and ruthless individual, shaped and scarred by a hard and brutal life. Underneath his armoured exterior is no heart of gold, as his heart has been long ripped out. Abandoned by his father and given up to an orphanage by his mother, Kelly seems to want revenge on life and his brother points this out to him, when watching him in the ring.

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Douglas again exhibits his physical prowess and dominance on the screen. His dedication to the role also entailed great preparation, though not strictly in the Method sense. The training sequence, as well as the beautifully shot fight scenes, illustrate the point. Douglas looks brutal in the ring, tempering his hunger to tear his opponent apart with the discipline of the sweet science. His proclivity to violence is not limited to the ring, however. In one sinister scene, he calmly threatens to send his girlfriend Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) to the hospital.

Taking on the role of an unsympathetic character is always fraught with danger for an actor or actress seeking to create a certain image. Yet Douglas saw the value and opportunity in such a role, particularly at a time when the anti-hero became the ‘new thing’ in cinema. By the end of the film, there is no exact redemption for Kelly – as in noir, he too must pay the price. But Douglas captivates us, as his badly beaten body shuts down while he rants – ending things on his own terms, even if it means death.

Champion sees Kirk Douglas throwing everyone off the screen, as he channels the brutal boxer.

  1. Jack Burns in ‘Lonely Are The Brave’ (1962)

 Scripted by Dalton Trumbo, it is no surprise that the thematic concerns of Lonely Are The Brave are questions that challenge authority, the concept of freedom and how the most vulnerable in society are treated. Most interestingly, the beautifully shot Lonely Are The Brave is a Western, set in a contemporary context.

Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowboy and former Korean War hero, who works and lives wherever he can find it. His rejection of modern society suggests that he is a loner yet he has his friends and decides to stand by one in particular, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) who is in prison for helping illegal immigrants. Burns decides to break him out – by first getting himself into prison.

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Burns is a heroic figure, yet Douglas’ superb performance questions how we judge the concept of heroism. He pays the price for his heroism, a pattern that seems to define his life. The ultimate tragic price for heroism also rears its’ head. There is an interesting parallel with Douglas himself – Burns rejects society and doesn’t buckle under to authority, Douglas constantly sought out interesting and intelligent films and refused to follow the ‘rules’ of cinema. As Jack Burns, perhaps Douglas channels some of his own principles. It certainly is a superb performance and one that Douglas himself was very proud of.

  1. Detective James McLeod in ‘Detective Story’ (1951)

Produced and directed by the legendary William Wyler, Detective Story, was praised at the time for its’ realism and grittiness, depicting a typical New York Precinct and the difficult work that the police have in their everyday dealings with crime. Despite the façade of toughness, there is a tragic pathos that underlies the stories of the petty criminals that enter the precinct and the detectives seem to fight against a tide that they cannot stem.

James McLeod is tough, unrelenting and determined, which Douglas directs with intensity and aggression. Surrounded by degenerates and criminals, his wife (Eleanor Parker) is the one thing in his life that seems clean, wholesome and good. His world will turn inside out, ironically as he pursues Dr. Karl Schneider (George McCready), an abortionist. Douglas conveys the turmoil and horror that turns inside McLeod, when the truth arrives at his doorstep, with a fury that burns on the screen. Forgiveness does not hold and it is easier to resort to hate which he understands better than the pain he has to work through.

Douglas is superb, as we watch McLeod try to fill the hole created by bitterness towards an ugly world, with a zealous pursuing of arrests. The ending allows for some redemption, when McLeod is the one begging for his wife’s forgiveness, and the audience cannot help but feel some sympathy for a man whose tragedy has got the better of him. A first-rate performance from the great man!

  1. Chuck Tatum in ‘Ace In The Hole’ (1951)

Ace In The Hole is oft considered a film noir classic and rightfully so. A dark and piercing insight into the world of journalism, Billy Wilder, who co-wrote, produced and directed this masterpiece, would face criticism and even legal troubles after its’ release. It was deemed too critical, too cynical and even grotesque. Perhaps the film not only cut too close to the bone but tore into the marrow. Thus, as film noir, it achieves its’ purpose superbly. Jack Shafer wrote in 2007, “If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream . . . Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form.” 

Chuck Tatum represents the worst ways in which humans manipulate the worst situations for their own benefit – thus the story acts as an allegory for such behavior. Douglas brings the ambitious and narcissistic journalist to life with cynical aplomb, delivering a performance that Roger Ebert described as ‘almost scary’. That special gift of energy that Douglas possessed is probably seen at its’ very best in Ace In The Hole – watch his face transform with a nastiness that exemplifies the ferocity in which he pursues the news story.

There is nothing pleasant about Douglas’ performance and there is no moment of redemption a la Champion or The Bad And The Beautiful, which might fit the typical character arc of a typical Hollywood film. Nor is it a clichéd and typified ‘bad guy’ cardboard cutout. Douglas is sincere and honest as Tatum and offers truth to how denigrating humans can be. For my money, this is the performance, which should have delivered Kirk Douglas the Oscar for Best Actor. It is as devastatingly relevant and sharp today as it was then.

  1. Jonathon Shields in ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’ (1952)

I admit that I have an incredible bias towards The Bad And The Beautiful – being an absolute favourite of mine. Director Vincent Minnelli shapes the film with incredible finesse and sensitivity and a very talented and experienced cast translates the story into a tour de force.

Douglas plays Jonathon Shields, the son of a famous film pioneer, who wants to make a name for himself and starts at the bottom. The story is told in retrospect from the point of view of three people; former film making partner, Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), his former leading actress, Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and his former screenwriter, James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). All three have gone onto their own successes but harbour pain, resentment and even hate towards Shields. Jonathon’s ruthlessness is evident in the first story we hear – that of Fred. Douglas transposes across powerful emotion, as the strong friendship between Jonathan and Fred collapses, in order to further Jonathan’s career.

The Bad And The Beautiful is often described an inside look at the film industry, though many critics at the time, particularly the celebrated New York Times critic Bosley Crowther in 1953, did not agree, calling it ‘choppy’ and ‘episodic’. In fairness, I feel Minnelli was not looking at the industry per se but the people within it. Crowther would also call Douglas’ performance a ‘cliché’ though acknowledged that he ‘plays the fellow with all that arrogance in the eyes and jaw that suggest a ruthless disposition covering up for a hurt and bitter soul’.

Douglas for his troubles would receive his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor and deservedly so. Whatever terrible flaws Shields has, the audience cannot help but admire his passion for film and constant quest to make the perfect film. Again, there is a physical energy that burns on the screen and it is impossible not to be drawn to Douglas, almost frenzied in his love for film. We are just as seduced as the three characters by him – even after he has hurt them. In the final scene, after all three refuse to work with him one last time, they still clamour around the phone, vying to hear his ideas – still seduced by the man. We cannot hear him but we can imagine the passion in which he is delivering his vision. Studio chief Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tells him to hang up, as the call must be costing him a fortune. But Shields ignores him and keeps talking – again revealing that film not money is what is important to Shields. Douglas shines in this role and makes The Bad And The Beautiful, a special film. It would also be the second Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Douglas.

  1. Colonel Jiggs Casey in ‘Seven Days In May’ (1964)

A gripping, political thriller, Seven Days In May was very much the brainchild of Douglas and director John Frankenheimer. The film would receive high critical praise and did well at the box office. However, its’ impact would grow over the years, considering the context of the period in which it was made and the nature of the political spectrum over the next two decades. Douglas’ desire to make the film is indicative of his constant search for challenging themes and intelligent stories. Seven Days In May is a story set ten years into the future outlining a coup d’état against the U.S President (Fredric March) by the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, led by General James Scott (Burt Lancaster).

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Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) is a man at odds with the President, yet is also a man of principle and opposes the coup. Douglas offers a masterful performance, providing a strong complimenting the equally powerful work of Burt Lancaster. Douglas stands tall in the role and his loyalty to what is right places him at odds with the man he once admired. A trait common to Douglas’ approach to acting is a vitality and physical presence that dominates the screen. This is certainly true for his turn as Colonel Casey.

The final confrontation between Douglas and Lancaster is a riveting master-class, of two opposing forces.

  1. Colonel Dax in ‘Paths Of Glory’ (1957)

Certainly one of the most controversial films regarding the military ever made, Paths Of Glory faced censorship and heavy criticism, particularly in Europe – because of its’ anti-military tone. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the WW1 story tells of three French soldiers condemned for cowardice, when their company refuses to undertake a suicidal mission against a German position in the trenches.

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Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the 701 Regiment who leads his men into the futility, also defends the three during the court martial. It is a role that typified Douglas’ belief in the importance of intelligent films and his understanding of the role is more than evident in his delivery. There is a power of emotion in the character that simmers and rarely boils over. Douglas channels the frustrations of the officer in the trenches, seeing the senselessness of the killing and idiocy and injustice of the decisions made by generals. The final scene, which sees his face turn to stone, revealing the realism of his resignation and illustrates what countless soldiers face during war, is a fitting coda.

In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, Douglas stated about Paths Of Glory: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.” The same could be said for the performance of Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax.

  1. Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Lust For life’ (1956)

Douglas reportedly found the experience of playing the tortured painter as a painful one and even his wife described his immersion in the role as ‘frightening’. Douglas takes Van Gogh beyond the popular notion of tormented artist, wracked not only by terrible mental anguish but possessed with the feverish need to express himself. That feverishness is illustrated through the physicality of Douglas and the passion in which his Van Gogh approaches his art.

The touching portrayal depicts a man desperate to reach and understand his fellow humans, as well as his own mind and soul. In Lust For Life, Van Gogh seems to be racing against madness, trying to understand his own dimensions. The audience sees the artist at work, absorbed in the emotion of Douglas as he works. What makes the performance so compelling is the incredible range and complexity of that emotion – at times, the explosive volatility of Douglas is startling and fearful, reflecting the horrifying nature of Van Gogh’s inner torment.

Douglas would receive the Golden Globe and New York Critic’s Award for Best Actor but missed out on the Academy Award. The film’s director, Vincent Minnelli, believed that Douglas should have won the Best Actor and felt deeply moved by Douglas’ work.

It is one of Douglas’ finest moments on the screen.

  1. Title role in ‘Spartacus’ (1960)

Undoubtedly Douglas’ best known and most celebrated role, the role sees Douglas at his most engaging in a tour de force that stands the test of time. The film’s production is legendary – directed then disowned by Kubrick, scripted by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo who was supported to the hilt by Douglas (who was also producer). The cast is an array of some of cinema’s greatest actors particularly Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov (who received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Thematically and contextually, Spartacus allows for some powerful revelations. Yet none of this would have been possible, without the incredible work of Kirk Douglas.

Douglas, as the leader of the slave army in revolt, again lifts the historical figure out of the pages of the past and into a passionate human, desperate for freedom not only for himself but for all who are slaves. Obstinate, proud and rebellious from the start, the fire in Douglas’ eyes reveals the very spirit that led the historical Spartacus to be the leader of a great revolt. The warm moments with his wife Varinia (Jean Simmons), the humour and ability to laugh at himself when Antoninus (Tony Curtis) plays a magic trick on him and the principle and wisdom shown when he stops two Roman masters from fighting to the death, again show the depth of character and intelligence that Douglas wanted to bring to the role.

Douglas’s Spartacus is filled with hope and dreams for the future, yet he is also a hard realist, indicated by his acknowledgement of the tragic end and what they are to face. Again, the pathos of this tragedy is left close to our hearts and as the audience we embrace it with devastating resignation. Douglas’ powerful speech on the slave army’s last night of freedom is delivered with honesty in the face of what is to come.

What is intriguing still is how an illiterate slave was able to lead and inspire thousands to follow him into battle – successfully! – against the legions of Rome. In many ways, Douglas provides the answer, as we too want to stand with him at perhaps one of the most memorable and beautiful moments in the film. (see below)

Ultimately, Kirk Douglas was an actor, rather than a star. Yet stardom came his way, despite not fitting the matinee idol mould. He provided for audiences something that audiences became intimate with – truth and honesty, physical and emotional power and an intelligence, sensitivity and belief in the roles he played as well as the audience he was working for. Watch his films and try not to be seduced by an incredible actor.

Special mentions:

Whit Sterling in ‘Out Of The Past’ (1948)

Rick Martin in ‘Young Man With A Horn’ (1950)

Einar in ‘The Vikings’ (1958)

Jack Andrus in ‘Two Weeks In Another Town’ (1962)

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

Raw Noir – A Look At Edgar G Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

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‘Until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself’. 

Cinema has films that punch way above their weight. They are the antitheses of the blockbusters that fail miserably despite star director and cast, big budget and even bigger promotion. With minimal budget, sometimes an unknown or untested director and accompanying cast, a film can surprise everyone from critics to audiences. They can even endure – even if the film is an anomaly.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is such an anomaly.

As the legend goes, Detour was a ‘Poverty Row’ production riddled with mistakes from PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), shot in six days with a $20,000 budget.

The truth is a little different. The budget was a little more than the legend has it and it appears that the shooting time was a little longer as well. Another important detail; Detour wasn’t directed by some cowboy with a penchant for guerrilla filming and film-school experimentation. Instead, the man at the helm was Edgar. G. Ulmer, whose experience included working with legendary greats such as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, as well as directing The Black Cat (1934) at Universal with Karloff and Lugosi. However, Ulmer was a director who worked on the sidelines of the industry; never breaking through and often working on films whose right to exist is arguable.

Yet the fact remains that despite the truth of its’ making being slightly exaggerated, there were huge limitations in terms of budget and time.

So what makes Detour special?

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Running at just under 70 minutes, Detour exudes all the elements of film noir. Its’ themes, characters and raw imagery draws an audience in tight and does not let go, long after the final titles have faded from the screen. It is easy to look at its’ faults, which have been discussed at length many times over elsewhere. In this article, I will focus on what makes Detour a film that should be on everyone’s list of classic film noir. And I will try to do so without spoilers! But of course there are no guarantees…

Detour is the story of Al Roberts, (Tom Neal) a down-and-out pianist, trying to make it to Los Angeles to reunite with his beloved singer girlfriend, Sue. (Claudia Drake). From the start, Detour is from his perspective and narrates his story, with a greater wisdom and understanding for having lived it. As he sits in a truck-stop cafe, he appears as a tortured soul thinking back upon his incredible ordeal and going back over the sordid details. Al represents the everyman in the world of film noir – a guy who either by fate or poor choice finds himself in a dark, nightmarish world from which he is fighting to emerge. The male protagonist seems to find himself out of his depth and facing obstacles he is not equipped to deal with. Here, Ulmer utilises lighting with the aesthetic quality of film noir, highlighting the isolation and loneliness of Roberts in his predicament as he sits in a well-lit noisy cafe. Dark shadow surrounds Roberts like a fog, a darkness only he can feel and see. A light shines on his eyes, accentuating the pain he feels inside revealed through his eyes, as he looks back and tells his story.

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The old adage ‘sink or swim’ comes to the fore and thus the male protagonist needs to be a quick learner, if he wants to survive. Not only does he need to dodge, avoid and get past the obstacles, he needs to learn what they are in the first place. Al Roberts creates his own obstacles, out of fear and frustration. Yet like the quintessential noir anti-hero, Roberts doesn’t blame his choices and places responsibility on the incredulous outcomes of his circumstances. In what is probably one of the greatest lines in film noir, Roberts utters what encapsulates the very essence of what is at the core of the world of noir;

Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you’.

Yet Roberts is not exactly a naïve and innocent man without his own personal frustrations lighting a fire of discontent within his soul. A seemingly talented piano player, he plays in clubs where ‘you could have a sandwich and a few drinks and run interference for your girl on the dance floor’. The bitterness in his tone is more than evident; he’s a man unfulfilled and even when he’s given ‘a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted’.

Just what is it that he wants? Here Ulmer employs something better than dialogue. He allows the audience to fill in the blanks, inserting their own shattered dreams, real life frustrations and struggles to get by and projecting them onto Al Roberts. Thus, his journey truly becomes ours. Which is why Al Roberts comprises the many facets of the everyman and the very essence of the male protagonist in film noir. His inability to change his circumstances taunts him but like any fool, he blames everything else around him, refusing to see or deal with his own inadequacies. This personal fault will doom him to the nightmare that will take hold.

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Roberts hitchhikes a lift with William Haskell, who as he later finds out is not all he claims to be. Haskell has money and a nice car and luck seems to be going Roberts’ way. But one fateful moment during the night, Roberts will find himself at a crossroad, which offers no clear, easy or simple way out. On the surface of things, it is fate that has brought him here but it is Al Roberts that bears the weight of his own choice.

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There is some foreshadowing that is well employed and again highlights the impact that fate has on the protagonist. Whilst earlier riding with Haskell, Roberts notices some nasty wounds on Haskell’s hand. Haskell mentions that they were caused by the most dangerous animal of all; a woman. All misogyny aside, Roberts seems at first shocked but then none too surprised when it appears the woman in question was fending off Haskell’s determined advances. In the world of Detour, a woman is either a ‘Sunday school teacher’ or a whore. There is no in-between. Roberts could not in his wildest dreams, imagine how fortuitous Haskell’s vague warning could be.

The only bright spot in Robert’s life is Sue, blonde, beautiful and true to her man (as far as we know – after all we only have his word for it!). From his point of view, Sue is wholesome and sweet, an image to which he constantly returns as narrator when telling parts of the story in retrospect. Sue becomes an even greater contrast to the woman he will become caught up with.

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Of all the dangerous women in film noir, Vera would be arguably the most vicious. Unlike Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), whose danger and calculation is masked by her sultry seductiveness, Vera hides nothing and her raw emotion seethes and burns. Unlike the typical femme fatale, Vera’s physicality overwhelms and dominates Al Roberts, emasculating him at every turn, with her wild, wide eyes that carve him up every time he even thinks about getting away from her. With a hard voice that betrays nothing, Vera hasn’t the time nor the inclination to resort to seducing Roberts with soft words and sexual undertones. Instead, she tears at him with a ragged-edged tongue that rasps with a harshness that confirms Vera has had a tough time.

After Roberts picks her up in the car he has appropriated, she steps in and looks forward with a gaze of self-loathing, avoiding questions as if she is distracted by what has been behind her. She offers nothing when asked where she’s from other than ‘back there’; her tone indicating that ‘back there’ wasn’t so good and she would rather forget about it. Her self-hatred is almost pitiful when she responds to Roberts making small talk about her looking like a girl from Phoenix, responding with ‘are the girls in Phoenix that bad?’

But there is more to Vera and she knows exactly what Roberts has done and what he is up to. It seems impossible that Roberts could have picked up the one person who could send him to the gas chamber. Despite Roberts’ denials of any wrong doing, Vera attacks him with a harsh dose of reality and a deeper revelation of who she is:

‘…who do you think you’re talking to – a hick? Listen Mister, I been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?’

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There are the rare, occasional moments where Vera softens and reaches out to Roberts. Whilst staying at a hotel, she has a bath and perhaps the ritual significance removes some of the inner pain and anger she holds against life and herself. She even tries to give him some useful advice, ironically offering more than he realizes stating that ‘people knock themselves out trying to buck fate’. A moment later, her hard face falls and she speaks of people dying who would give anything to trade places with him. Her voice also softens as she reaches out and touches his arm, holding it while pleading him to listen, for she ‘knows what I’m talking about’. Rejecting her advice, Vera returns to type with her hard persona returning telling Roberts that his ‘philosophy stinks, pal!’ Later, he mentions to Vera the literary character Camille as her consistent cough returns. She seems touched by his concerns and again that self-loathing and complete lack of self-worth overcomes her as she says what a break it would be if she did die. Roberts states he doesn’t want to see anybody die and she takes a step closer to him, hoping against futility that somebody might actually care about her. She wants to be liked, even loved, yet unable to accept that possibility finds it easier to be hard and vicious. Yet she reaches out again to Roberts, placing her hand on Roberts’ shoulder and indicating quite clearly what she wants when she utters that she’s going to bed. It would be easy to suggest an array of possibilities as to her intentions; a simple hunger for straight sex from a woman from the gutter, a hurt and pained woman needing physical connection to ease her pain, another way of manipulating Roberts or perhaps she feels something for him and wants him. My personal feeling is the latter and the pain and anger she feels after his rejection of her advances certainly bears evidence to that intention. How many times has she been rejected and cast aside? Ulmer reveals more about the characters through what he does not reveal. Certainly one of the greatest strengths of Detour.

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Vera’s darker side prevails and any warmth that she may possess sours rapidly. She intends to use Roberts to the very last. Of all the problems Roberts has, Vera has become the worst and his attempts to unravel himself from her will result in a situation beyond the nightmare that he has found himself in. Again, Ulmer’s use of foreshadowing becomes evident when Vera meets a fate, which Roberts earlier claimed he dreaded and would only make things worse for him. Just how much worse becomes evident in the way Vera’s fate is realized and how Roberts own hand in the process mirrors what happened earlier with Haskell – two unbelievable turning points in the story which stretch incredulity beyond its’ measure. Yet Ulmer draws two impossible occurrences into the realm of believability and they drive the story forward. Detour is a fine test to the necessity of suspension of disbelief.

Ann Savage’s performance deserves to be honored as one of the finest in film; a gritty and powerful portrayal of not just a fallen or dangerous woman but also a damaged human wrought bad by the hard knocks of life.

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Ed Howard in his 2011 piece on Detour for an ‘Only The Cinema’ blogathon perfectly encapsulates Ulmer’s direction as ‘ragged poetry’. There could not be a more fitting description for what the audience experiences on the screen. Ulmer uses film technique in the way a poet employs figurative language and powerful imagery. It would be easy to dismiss the rawness of the film as poor work or a very tight budget approach to the filming process. But that would be missing the point. Detour does not intend to have the glossy, stylized atmosphere of a major studio release. It is supposed to be rough and rugged – befitting the bleak story and damaged people within it. The dark highway, roadhouse cafes inhabited by all kinds of disreputable characters deserve no less.

Ulmer perfectly illustrates Roberts’ confusion and fear during his moments of horror. The mise en scène revealing his first fatal choice is pure classic noir; the use of flashback with Roberts’ panicked narration, as he stands in the pouring rain; his face a mask of torment as his hand runs back over his head. Even as he recounts his story, the audience feels the raw horror of the moment and the dramatic music score heightens the drama. 

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Additionally, the use of music in the film successfully underpins Roberts’ journey, not only appropriate to the moment but adding a greater quality. Often a foreshadowing to what will come, Ulmer also uses music to amplify Roberts’ dirty conscience. During a dream sequence after that fateful night, Ulmer’s supposed limitations in terms of technique are more than overcome, as images of what has occurred torment Roberts’ tortured mind, while the musical score reinforces his distress. Alternatively, at one point after picking up Vera, Roberts begins to rationalize that his problems will work out and he will be in the clear. The music matches his optimism, as he imagines himself reunited with his girlfriend Sue in L.A believing his ‘nightmare will be over’. Yet the music snaps us back into the nightmare, when Vera starts questioning Roberts, knowing he’s up to something and the truth to who he is pretending to be. At the climax of the film, Roberts’ guilty and tortured conscience is further tormented by the sound of a saxophone playing, which he points out is ‘not a love song, it was a dirge’.

Roberts’ recounting of his story, as first person narrator, is all classic noir. The fatalistic tone of his first person narration during the flashbacks drives the story forward and colors the dark, grittiness with deeper greys and layers of confusion. Moreover, as he recounts his story, Roberts relives the emotion of that moment because it is as real as the moment it happened, perhaps even moreso as the full weight of the consequences he must face comes down on him. Roberts is consumed by his predicament and he thinks and re-thinks, trying to make sense of the whole situation. He seems to be doubly incredulous as he recounts his journey, especially the turning points of the tale. During the climax, Roberts finds himself in the worst position possible after Vera’s drunkenness brings out the worst in her and she intends to follow through with her threats of giving him up. Roberts dwells on the moment stating that the ‘world is full of sceptics, I know – I’m one myself’ highlighting his earlier fear that no-one will believe him in a courtroom. Ulmer’s camera goes in and out of focus, representing Roberts’ confusion as it focuses on objects that tell the story – Vera’s still face, the phone, her hair brush, a bottle of alcohol – and all while Roberts’ voice over gallops with wild panic. Roger Ebert describes Tom Neal as being able to do little else than pout yet Neal is compelling and his narration brings a raw and unsettling discomfort as we stumble along with him.

Detour is a blueprint for the dialogue of film noir. At every turn, the language is razor sharp and it cracks like a whip, against the bleak, dreary backdrop. Vera, especially, tears Roberts down and kicks him while he’s prone with harsh put-downs, dripping with malice. She even mocks the pseudo- domestic situation they find themselves in with incredible ferocity, telling Roberts at one point as he argues: ‘Shut-up, yer makin’ noises like a husband’. It’s a line of dialogue that speaks volumes. However, Roberts is no slouch when it comes to the fast-talk either. As he argues with Vera over their plans, he fights back at her greediness claiming ‘a couple of day ago you didn’t have a dime. Why you were so broke, you couldn’t pay cash for a postage stamp. But the harshness also gives way for a poetic beauty that haunts the audience with its’ honesty and emotion. As narrator, Roberts states ‘As I drove off, it was still raining and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears’. There are moments when the talk runs close to cliché – yet the overwhelming power of the story drowns any such suggestion. As dialogue should do, the story is paramount and it drives the story but there are layers of emotion that run deep in Detour.

Detour is a classic noir story. Where a man’s mistake will see punishment chase him down and retribution come in the form of a dangerous woman. The turning points drive the story forward yet as the audience we also hit the brakes hard – stunned as we try to contemplate what has just occurred and experiencing the surrealism of Roberts’ mad journey. It is a story told with the language of desperation and shaped by a rough authenticity that gives Detour its’ unique quality. Along with Roberts, we are thrown into a dark, seedy world of highways, truckers’ cafes and two-faced people. We stumble along with him, reminded by his haunting words that fate keeps trying to trip him up.

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As the story reaches its’ ending, it allows for some ambiguity and we are left guessing what Al Roberts’ fate will be, as we return with him to the present. Will he get a dose of ‘that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.’?  Will he walk away, when we discover that perhaps he has found a way out, with a touch of irony that I won’t reveal to you here. The Hays Code made very clear that crime could not go unanswered without law and justice. Yet Ulmer wraps it up by leaving us hanging or perhaps leaving the option open for the audience to choose what it wants to believe. After all, Roberts has played that game his whole life, deciding that the mistakes haven’t been his and ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all’.

It is possible to look at any deficiencies in terms of ‘rough film-making’ in Detour but that misses the point. Film noir is feeling and atmosphere more than the strict tenets of genre. It is a powerful mood of pained emotion and fatal passion. A polished and technically Grade A picture may suit the demands of some. But the world of film noir is not polished. Dangerous and doomed characters walk there and they seek redemption in the shadows, unable to find the light they need to guide them out. Al and Vera are such characters – scarred and damaged by the world and simply seeking an out. Detour is a triumph in bringing to life that very world and we are haunted by it, long after we have stepped out of it. It’s managed to do that for the last 71 years.

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

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