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. 

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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film is available through Public Domain and can be seen via the link below to the Silver Screen Classics You Tube Channel.

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

Five Favourite Films Of The 1950s

by Paul Batters

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

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

So without further ado…

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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

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

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

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

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

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

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

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

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

On The Waterfront (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paths Of Glory (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertigo (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rififi (1955): The Best Of French Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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Without a doubt, one of the most important and brilliantly shaped exemplars of film noir is the French crime film Rififi (1955). Directed by Jules Dassin and drawn from the Auguste Le Breton’s same-titled novel, Rififi is a lesson in how to build tension, draw on detail to build and shape meaning and reaches deeper tropes in the futility of crime and even the stupidity of those who engage in criminal activity. What also makes Rififi stand out, is its’ cynicism and gritty immersion in the world of the gangster, with violence and brutality the hallmarks of that world.

Despite its’ being described as a French film, its’ director, Jules Dassin, was an American – blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and reviving his career in France. Dassin was a talented auteur who had already made his name with films such as Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night And The City (1950), respected films in the film noir canon. But he was also very adept at comedy with The Canterville Ghost (1944) and would also make another heist film with comedic strains in 1964’s Topkapi. Yet perhaps Rififi is his finest film; one with themes that run deep and cinematic techniques that stand strong in how good cinema is created and shaped, in terms of pacing, rhythm and sensibility to mis-en-scene. If the film were cynical, dark and eviscerating, then it would also reflect the experience of Dassin’s treatment at the hands of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).

 

The story is a heist film and despite the pre-existence of one my favourite films, Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), it is easy to see why Rififi is often called the daddy of all heist films. Set in Paris, the plot seems simple enough – a group of crooks aim to pull off the robbery of a jewellery store on the Rue de Rivolli. Yet the film takes the audience further out than what might be anticipated, as we not only are taken through the intricate and painstaking preparations for the job but also the unforgettable robbery scene and the final act where the protagonist faces the reality of the situation and where his code leads him to make some tough decisions.

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Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) is a newly released ex-con, who has just completed a five-year term for a fellow gangster named Jo “Le Suédois” (Carl Mohner). Tony is approached by Mario (Robert Manuel), who suggests they rob a jewelry store by crudely smashing the front window and grabbing the jewels. Naturally, Tony declines and seeks out his old girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret). But the reunion turns sour when he discovers Mado has taken up with Grutter (Marcel Lupocivi), a nightclub owner and gangster, whom Tony is not so fond of. In his anger and hurt, he beats her, channeling five years of pent-up frustration. Going against his earlier better judgment, he re-considers Jo and Mario’s offer and agrees to rob the store but declares they will go further and rob the safe. Taking on the safe cracker, Cesar (played by Dassin himself under a pseudonym), the team is complete. The plan put in place is meticulously planned and ingenious in its’ conception. And this reviewer will leave it the audience to find out what the plan is.

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What follows is undoubtedly approximately 30 minutes of the most tense, perfectly constructed cinema ever made. As Roger Ebert noted, ‘the audience hears nothing but taps, breathing, some plaster falling into an umbrella used to catch it, some muffled coughs, and then, after the alarm is disabled, the screech of the drills used to cut into safe’. It is genius on the part of Dassin, who recognized the impact of not having the men talk as they are undertaking the robbery. The term ‘keeping the audience on the edge of their seats’ was certainly invented after viewing this scene. Interestingly enough, as a number of critics have pointed out, the scene becomes the centerpiece of the film, rather than the climax, reflecting Dassin using the heist to tell more about the men carrying out the crime than the crime itself. It is superb manipulation of the audience.

 

Needless to say, the third act will be played out with Tony facing greater difficulties than he anticipated. There won’t be any spoiler here!

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There is certainly a contrast, stylistically, with earlier films of Dassin’s, particularly Brute Force and Naked City, both of which maintain Hollywood’s stylized approach. However, Rififi feels far darker, far more rugged and as Alan Scherstuhl opines in the Village Voice, ‘throbs with his (Dassin’s) anger’. The violence, whilst not visually explicit, is certainly so from an emotional and psychological point of view. As murder is carried out, the camera moves to the face of the perpetrator and not the act of violence itself. Dassin wants us to see what manner of men these gangsters are. Tony and his gang are anti-heroes and the audience is breathless as they conduct the robbery, yet they draw us into the darkness and will not let us go so easily. Tony cuts a sad figure underneath the tough exterior; his sickly coughing a metaphor for a deeper sickness and his ability to carry out violence is also disquieting to say the least.

It would be far too easy to explain the film’s ruggedness on the meager budget. True, Dassin faced limitations but he was no maverick and had already proved that he was a skilled director who had worked on a number of strong productions. Interestingly, Jean Servais, the film’s star, had his own troubles for some time, struggling with alcoholism and seeing his career stumble. Dassin would also use the locales of Paris with sublime naturalness, bringing an even greater realism to the screen. Grim and gritty at times, Dassin also uses those locales to convey Tony’s isolation and desperation, in the streets of Paris.

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Cole Smithey in 2014 made an interesting observation about the key characters:

‘Rififi’s criminal anti-heroes are made up of outliers who, like Dassin, are struggling to squeak out a living in a foreign land. The gang members have names with an attribution that separates him from the local Parisian culture. Jo le Suedois (or “the Swede”) is the father of Tony’s godson, and the thief Tony went to jail to protect. Tony is referred to as “le Stéphanois,” an allusion to the Saint-Étienne region of eastern central France from which he hails…’ 

Smithey’s point is a poignant one – Dassin’s directorial vision sees the gangsters ultimately as outsiders to what constitutes a civilized society and walking down different streets with another set of rules in place. Break those rules and death may arrive at your door.

 

Upon its’ release, Rififi was heralded as a powerful film, remarked upon for its’ realism and tension. Legendary French film critic and director Francois Truffaut famously declared, “out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. Contemporary critics seem to generally be in unison with Truffaut, with Sherilyn Connelly stating quite accurately, ‘…if elements of it (the heist film) seem overly familiar now, that’s only because they were done first here, and picked up by every heist film that followed’. Yet Rififi does more than set the tone and standard for the heist film – it also delves deep into the soul of humanity, looking into the aftermath of the heist with focus. The revelations shouldn’t shock us yet they do. The concept of honour amongst thieves is one we have seen time and time again fail to ring true. As one of the prime lessons of film noir, the audience sees the fatalism and futility in the desperate actions of the characters and their humanity is not only misguided but frail and weak as well.

Rififi would basically establish the sub-genre of the heist film and receive great praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Dassin must have felt vindicated as a director and there must have been some satisfaction when he received the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.

Chris Cabin in Slant Magazine beautifully described Rififi as being ‘soaked to the bone in dread’, which of course reflects the fatalism that so often permeates film noir. But it also reflects Dassin’s own sensibilities in the face of his own difficulties. The protagonist, Tony, is not unlike Dassin himself – holding to a particular belief and code, only to find that not everyone sees it that way and finding the rug pulled out from under him in the process.

But hey – isn’t that film noir?

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.