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.

 

Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Definitive Performances Of Glenn Ford

by Paul Batters

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It really doesn’t matter whether it’s the villain or the hero. Sometimes the villain is the most colorful. But I prefer a part where you don’t know what he is until the end – Glenn Ford

When I first saw the announcement of the ‘O Canada’ Blogathon, I found myself drawn to it – particularly in light of having visited the wonderful city of Montreal on two memorable occasions. Canada holds a special place in my heart and despite being a very long flight from Australia, there lies within the hope that I will visit there again. There is an incredible amount of talent that hails from Canada, many of which are claimed by their neighbour to the south, who have made a huge impact on classic film. One such talent comes in the form of legendary actor Glenn Ford.

Hailing from Sainte-Christine-d’Auvergne, Quebec, Ford’s family would leave their homeland to start a new life in California, U.S. Obviously, the move would prove fortuitous, with the young Ford attending Santa Monica High School and finding his way into theatre. A film career that began in the 1940s, Ford gave the screen great versatility, making his mark in film noir, comedy, Westerns and war dramas. My aim here is to look at the five performances which I feel are standouts in Ford’s long career. Whilst not expecting a consensus, the hope is that readers are inspired to watch the films listed here.

Gilda (1946) – Johnny Farrell

I imagine there are no surprises here. Gilda ranks high in the pantheon of classic film noir and features Rita Hayworth in her most iconic role as the quintessential femme fatale. But Ford is outstanding as Johnny Farrell, the gambler who despite loyalty to his boss, becomes deeply intertwined with his boss’s wife, Gilda. The powerful love-hate relationship between Farrell and Gilda burns with an intensity and a fury that still steams off the big screen. Ford emotes with a power that matches Hayworth’s smouldering sexuality, and betrays a man who has been burnt and burnt bad.

Trevor Johnston in ‘Time Out’ (2011) points out that Ford gives a performance highlighted by a ‘fight not to let bitterness get the better of decency’. It’s that tension that stretches to almost breaking point, leaving the audience constantly on edge as to what the protagonist will do. Christopher Machell in ‘Cinevue’ (2016) correctly states that ‘Gilda remains a brilliantly dark exploration of the consequences of love soured into loathing’. It achieves this superbly, not only due to the brilliant performance of Rita Hayworth and the layers she brings to the role but also thanks to Ford’s interpretation within the restrictions of the Code, giving a tour de force and an equally memorable turn as Johnny Farrell.

The Big Heat (1953) –  Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion

Directed by the legendary Fritz Lang, The Big Heat is on my list of top film noirs, not least because of Ford’s determined cop and the captivating Gloria Grahame. Unlike his on-screen romance with Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Ford doesn’t engage with the sultry Gloria Grahame. But the moments shared by the two are still powerful and engaging, particularly in the exciting finale.

Ford plays the straight, honest cop, who while investigating the death of a fellow cop, finds himself sliding into a deeper and darker world, as he battles criminals and corruption to seek the truth. There are victims along the way and his family will also be in the firing line. Ford shows a man so obsessed with his own objectives that his actions hurt those around him. The ‘heat’ he generates ironically hurts those he aims to protect. As Roger Ebert points out, The Big Heat ‘as deceptive and two-faced as anything Lang ever made, with its sunny domestic tranquility precariously separated from a world of violence’. To borrow Ebert’s phrasing, Ford is outstanding at playing ‘the perfectly acceptable honest cop’…appearing as ‘quiet and contained and implacable’ yet ‘capable of sudden violence’. Variety stated that Ford’s performance ‘is honest and packs much wallop’. Absolutely.

Not only is The Big Heat a must-see film noir classic, it’s also an opportunity to see Glenn Ford at his hard-boiled best.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Richard Dadier

As a teacher, The Blackboard Jungle touches a raw nerve for me. Such a dark, cynical film depicting school students – and it’s the mid 1950s. Not only do we see belligerent and disrespectful students refusing the benefits of education but burnt-out and contemptuous teachers, violence between students and against teachers and the attempted rape of a teacher by a student, with a shocking and violent result. Into this mix, comes Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) a new teacher at an inner-city Trades School. He combats the students, the teachers and the system in his attempt to educate his students.

Dadier’s desperation to reach his student is brilliantly portrayed by Ford, who exudes the desperation and controlled fear that a new teacher will feel coupled with a passion and controlled frustration that is also felt and shown through raw emotion. Dadier calls himself a ‘bumbler’ and the honesty and accuracy as he finds his way to reach his students feels real, as exemplified by Variety’s review, unlike the usual clichéd ‘teacher/saviour’ film.

Blackboard Jungle had an incredible impact during its’ time and still holds its’ audiences attention, as we engage with Dadier and the building tension and battle of wills, reaching its’ powerful climax.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) – George Temple

 Ford’s versatility saw him star in some fine Westerns and for my money, his performance, as ex-gunfighter George Temple is one of his best. The son of a famous quick-draw sheriff, George and his wife Dora (Jeanne Crain) start a new life with new names in a small town, living an unassuming life though with little respect or consideration from the townspeople. However, that situation is going to change, more a result of Temple’s doing than outside forces. Ford walks a psychological tightrope between the desire for a peaceful, mediocre and quiet life and the truth behind who he is.

Courtesy of TCM Classic Movies

Again, Ford brings an incredible sensitivity to the role of Temple, and the inner turmoil as his past taunts his yearning for peace is brilliantly played out as the story plays out. Ford also offers us an examination of human frailty, as he succumbs to ego and fatigue of being seen as a nobody, and finds himself doubly frustrated at doing so. Director Russell Rouse drives the story beyond the standard Western with a deeper psychological examination of the gunfighter but also a powerful aspect of the human condition – escaping past sins and seeking a new start. Ford is superb in this examination and the ending is as action-packed with drama and gunplay as any Western made. What truly makes Ford’s performance all the more powerful is his ability to draw the audience into the story through deeper understanding of our own humanity rather than the classic, though clichéd, concept of wanting the good guy to win.

3:10 to Yuma (1957) – Ben Wade

 Set in the Arizona Territory during the 1880s, Ford plays Ben Wade, the leader of a gang of robbers who hold up a stagecoach, witnessed by rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his sons. Eventually Wade is captured but the gang escapes and the town fears the retribution, which will follow. The decision is made to get Wade out of town and Dan steps forward to do so. What follows is a tense ride into a violent and surprising ending, which sets the film aside as a classic western.

Ford brings depth and paradox to the role of Ben Wade, again displaying sensitivity to the role, which is initially unsympathetic. From the opening where we see a ruthless and violent man, it is hard for the audience to find any humanity in Wade. Yet his attempt to impress barmaid Emmy (Felecia Farr) reveals a gentleness and kindness that doesn’t equate with the violent man the audience sees earlier on. Again, Ford weaves the complexity of his character with balance and purpose, ably supported by a strong cast and well-written story. Critics praised Ford also recognized the importance of a role in what it had to offer, even if the part itself may appear unsympathetic or even villainous. This belief is more than evident in his forceful portrayal of Ben Wade.

 Glenn Ford was not a matinee idol and came up through a time when realism and more complex characters became de rigueur. A deeper and more psychological approach to understanding human action and emotion allowed for greater expansion in story which more than matched the technological demands for wider screens. Ford was an actor who used time effectively to draw his characters out, allow audiences to absorb his reaction and believe in the story. He famously said:

‘If they try to rush me, I always say, I’ve only got one other speed and it’s slower’.

It certainly illustrates the talent of the consummate actor – making the difficult appear simple by claiming it’s actually simple. Glenn Ford is certainly a Hollywood icon, whose Canadian heritage should list him as a worthy candidate in the ‘O Canada’ Blogathon. 

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s have a look!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Title role in ‘Spartacus’ (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

Special mentions:

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

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

Einar in ‘The Vikings’ (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what makes Detour special?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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