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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

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

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

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

Pride And Prejudice (1940) – Old Hollywood Films

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

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

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

Nickolas Nickleby (1947) – Caftan Woman

Oliver Twist (1948) –Caftan Woman

Dragonwyck (1947) – Down These Mean Streets

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

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

Lord Of The Flies (1963) – Cinematic Catharsis

The Scapegoat (1959) – Realweegiemidget Reviews

Great Expectations (1947) – The Poppity

Oliver Twist (1948) – The Poppity

Camille (1921) – His Fame Still Lives

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

Ben Hur – Taking Up Room

The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) – Silver Screenings

Wuthering Heights (1939) – Silver Screen Classics

Jane Eyre (1943) –  Thoughts All Sorts

Moby Dick (1956) – Dubism

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

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – 18 Cinema Lane

War Of The Worlds – Midnite Drive-In

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

Hans Christian Andersen (1952) – The Classic Movie Muse

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

Wilkie Collins and his underrepresentation in classic film – Hollywood Genes

In Cold Blood – Are You Thrilled

My Cousin Rachel – Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

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

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Announcing The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outline Of Rules

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to seeing you in April!

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Death As Redemption in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

by Paul Batters

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

Raven: “Why?”

Gates: “Live alone, work alone, hey?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.