Big Eyes, Black Hair, and Out of Her Mind

September 12, 2012

This is a post about one film, Where Danger Lives (1950), and by extension, all those  femme fatale sisters to Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) that prey on weak, flawed, emotionally impotent young men.  Oh, and they’re nuts too.  I am thinking of  Ann Savage in Detour, Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and Ann Byth as Veda, the helium voiced neurotic daughter of Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford).

Where Danger Lives was directed by John Farrow, married to Maureen O’Sullivan, who has a small and awful part in the flick, and father to Mia.  The story seems too slow at times, and it almost veers into comedy on a few bits.  What stays with you is Margo’s character, her looks,  and the fantastic scenes with noirish lighting.

Robert Mitchum is Dr. Jeff Cameron, a fine young man who lives to help his patients.  The film starts with his tender ministering to a girl in an iron lung, and a young boy with a neck brace.  His girlfriend Julie (Sullivan) helps, and looks on approvingly. We hardly see her out of her mask.  A young woman is rushed in, an attempted suicide, and Cameron is put on the case.  The big hunk saves the helpless beauty’s life, but who is the strong one?

As she wakes from her stupor, Margo notices the big handsome guy taking her pulse, and she  instantly takes his, so to speak. Clasping his hand, she whispers sultry nonsense while nurse Julie gives Cameron the eye.  She takes off for home before Doc can look in on her next morning, and sends him a telegram, begging him to visit her:  she owes him an explanation.

That cat on the doorstep will be important later on…and not in a good way.  She looks healthy enough; so much so, Cameron forgets all about Julie.    Still, for the moment, he’s just being the doctor, trying to make sure she doesn’t try to kill herself again.  She’s so weak, needs his protection, his help…

Margo refuses to submit to proper care, so Cameron goes for the phone, and grabs her wrist when she tries to interfere.  You can tell by the look on her face that she’s thrilled to have her arm twisted by him.  “You’re hurting me!”  She says it like an invitation to sex.  The good doctor still has a few wits about him, and he’s thinking, “What’s with this dame?

We learn later that Cameron is not, repeat not a psychiatrist, so how could he tell that Margo is totally crazy?  Perhaps her eyes distracted him?  He’s a man who is easily diverted from the straight and narrow, a classic noir type.

Next thing we know, Cameron is walking through a club in a very long tracking shot filled with extras coming and going.

He sees Margo’s back, waiting for him in a booth.  Lots of shots with windows and mirrors in this one.  He bends over behind her to greet her…

She turns, and begins to slip the mink stole from her shoulders…

This action, as the mink drops away, is as close to stripping as you can get without actually doing it.

We learn that they have been seeing each other for a week.  She says her father insists that she leave that night for the Bahamas:  she must obey, or she’ll be cut from his will and have nothing!  He only wants her, of course.  Oh, it’s not to be. After a last kiss, he gets drunk, and gets an idea.

A totally drunk Cameron takes a cab to the house to retrieve Margo.  Claude Rains has one scene in this film, and he makes the most of it.  He’s Frederick Lannington, father…er…the husband of Margo, and he wants to tell Cameron what a “long road” he’ll be going down, with “no turning back,” if he runs off with her.  He sees right through Cameron, saying “her clinging vine act makes you want to protect her.”  Margo pulls out the stops, pretending that he bloodied her by ripping an earring off her.  Cameron responds on cue.

A fight ensues, and Lannington beats Cameron with a poker before he’s knocked out with a fist.  Cameron goes to get some water to revive him, but he’s suffering from a concussion.  He’ll be in and out of lucidity for the rest of the picture, a damaged, weakened male, in thrall to la belle dame sans merci.  While Cameron’s out of the room, Margo finishes off  hubby with a pillow

Only in his concussed and lust-besotted state would an intelligent doctor with a thing for helpless people listen to Margo’s pleas and decide to flee with her to the Bahamas.  She’s convinced him that he killed Lannington with his punch, accidentally, of course.

Their escape has several vignettes that border on screwball, and includes a lot of sharp characters and ironic misunderstandings. They flee the airport at the sight of some cops looking for Lannington (Cameron poses as him.) but they are only trying to deliver a bon voyage message.  Later, they narrowly avoid a police blockade, supposedly set up to catch them, but it’s just the agriculture department looking for contraband vegetable imports. They end up in a scruffy border town where they are ‘arrested’ by a bunch of cowboy types who inform them that because they are not wearing whiskers, they must make a donation to the local fire department…or get married.  They choose the latter.

Things don’t go well when they share a room.  Margo rips the power cord out of the radio:  she doesn’t want Jeff to hear the news – he’ll learn that she has a long history of hospitalization for mental illness.  She doesn’t like to be pitied!

When they finally make it to a seedy border town, they are tricked into giving up their last valuables to pay to be smuggled across the border.  Jeff begins to have his doubts, about her, and about whether he’ll survive his head injury.

He tries to talk sense to her after she finally admits that she killed Lannington.  He’s too weak to restrain her as she follows her own ideas, and decides to smother him the way she did hubby.

Margo thinks Jeff is dead, and she goes out to cross the border on her own.  She didn’t do the job right, though, and he follows her. She shoots at him, and is shot by the police.  Cameron gazes pitiably at her dying figure while the cops say he’s the accomplice.

Ha!  A final dollop of scorn from the dangerous woman as she informs the police that he could never kill anyone!  Didn’t even have the sense to know that she had done it!  (Ah…Jeff is in the clear now!)  No way he could ever have given her what she wanted, what she needed.  She loathes him. “Nobody pities me!”  She dies…

Steve recovers from his concussion, and in the last scene, Julie returns to him.  Uh…why?  Because somebody said they needed a happy ending.

I never posted about Mildred Pierce, so here are two images of Veda the Destroyer in all her glory.

Click for the action!


Coketown Liebestod

June 17, 2012

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is generally classed as a noir, but it certainly did not seem like one for the first thirty or forty minutes: so much so, that I almost gave up on it. Instead, we are presented with a pretty standard melodrama of class, childhood oppression, and murder most foul hushed up in exchange for climbing the social ladder. At Film Noir of the Week, the reviewer says it sometimes seems like Grand Opera. (Its conclusion is close to Wagnerian.)  Despite its slow start, after the set up is over, the story takes a dive into pure, blackest noir, thematically, if not stylistically.  That is, the lighting, music, narration, and the like don’t have much to do with film noir, but the characters and the story…Yes!

The plot has many complications, but it is rooted in the lives of three youngsters in Iverstown, a mill-town, presided over by Martha’s mean aunt, who has made Martha her heir.  Martha is not grateful, because the aunt despises Martha’s dead parents: her father, a former mill worker, and her mother who was fool enough to marry him. Walter is the “scared kid with glasses,” desperately in love with Martha, and Sam is the rough kid from the poor side of town for whom Martha feels a magnetic attraction.  And so, one fatal night, Martha lets her Aunt have it, Walter sees all, Walter’s father hushes it all up so his son can grow up to marry Martha and finally bring some wealth and class into the struggling petty bourgeois O’Neil family.  Just one thing:  the kids think Sam saw it all before he hightailed it out of town, but he didn’t see anything in fact.

Walter does grow up to marry Martha, but he remains the scared kid with glasses, even as he is running for attorney general and getting tough on crime.  Martha calls all the shots – what she says in town goes, while Walter spends his free time in a melancholic, drunken stupor.  His election is a sure thing – no point in taking odds on it.

What makes this movie go is the characters, and the great actors who create them.  Van Heflin is Sam Masterson, the kid who skipped town, and ends up coming back after seventeen years, purely by accident.  He’s an interesting character:  sterling war record; wandering gambler; heart of gold, but he beat a wrap for manslaughter.  He’s no goody two-shoes.  He frequently twirls his fingers in an odd way when he’s conversing, which emphasizes his observing, somewhat aloof, outsider nature.  He’s not afraid to take a rough revenge on a private dick who tried to scare him out of town on O’Neil’s orders.  And he seems to be irresistible to women:  O’Neil’s secretary just melts under his gaze.

Toni (Lizabeth Scott playing an innocent this time) is one of the girls drawn to him.  He meets her coming out of the building where he grew up.  She’s not quite as pure as she seems, but a nice kid, and he’s the perfect gentleman, it seems.  She has parole conditions to meet – he helps her out by getting her a room at his hotel.  Their rooms share a bath.  He recommends reading Gideon’s Bible, and he loves to quote the story of Lot’s wife:  a nice noir theme – don’t look back.  To me, this all seems pretty racy for 1946:  adjoining rooms after a cozy dinner, Toni rapturously showering, washing away her not so pleasant past and being reborn into a new future…with Sam.  Were they just reading, or like Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s poem did they read no more that evening..? Then Sam is awakened by two sleazy police detectives who are obviously working on O’Neil’s orders.  They’ve jailed Toni on phony charges – a bid to dig us some dirt on Sam.

Barbara Stanwyck is Martha, who is revealed during the film as a full-blown femme fatale, but one who plays it classy.  She doesn’t usually need to go for the throaty, seductive talk – she has the power and the money to get what she wants.  But she is also a prey to her own desires, and they are pretty strong.  She wants what she wants.

She builds her inheritance up into a gigantic financial empire.  She transforms the mansion into a place of white and pink instead of gloomy brown and black.  She holds her own against Sam’s attractions at first.  Later, she comes to Sam’s hotel to pick him up for a “business dinner,” and it’s like the scene in The Ten Commandments when Pharaoh’s wife visits Moses in his slave hut:  Oh, the furniture, the bottle of scotch!  Just how I imagined such an ordinary hotel room would be!

Kirk Douglas is marvelous as Walter, a man consumed by self-loathing and his hopeless love for Martha, whose love, if not her body, is unattainable.  She plays him like a fiddle:  alcohol is his solace.  Their relationship is one of submission, domination, and perversion.

The only romantic coupling (only implied, of course) that is wholesome, is that of Toni and Sam.  The violent sexual nature of the bond between Sam and Martha is displayed when they revisit the woods where they used to hideout as kids.  They find a campfire, which ignites old memories.  The conversation that ensues reveals to Martha that Sam knows more than she thought about a lot.  She isn’t happy.  Her passion aflame, she tries to follow through on it.

She’s no match for Sam, physically, sexually, or morally.  But he just can’t resist her.  A real film noir pickle.

As their combat becomes sexual conflict, then submission, her hand relaxes, and drops the fiery brand into the fire.  The flames rise up violently: the next shot shows the smoky ashes.  The deed is done, the battle over, for now.  The movement of her hand will be echoed in the Love-Death finale.

In this complicated story, things take a while to come to a head, but the three kids find themselves together again, at the head of those fateful stairs.  Drunken Walter falls, and Martha sees a chance to rearrange her living arrangements, if she can just convince Sam to go along.  It worked once before, long ago.

No dice.  Sam is essentially decent, and he leaves, intending to never return to Iverstown.  And he leaves Walter and Martha to their private hell.  Walter knows the score now:  he sees that Martha is really a sicko, but he loves her.  “Kiss me, Martha.

He knows there is only way way to end this for both of them.  She feels the gun in her gut…and she does not fight it.  It feels right.  She pulls the trigger herself.

A puff of smoke.  She is done with this awful life.  She looks up, to the beyond, almost ecstatic.  The music swells.  It’s Tristan und Isolde in Coketown.

Sam hears the shot, turns to look back, sees the murder-suicide run to its conclusion.  He is sick.  Best to leave town, and not look back.


Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


Faerie Queene: Whore of Babylon

December 14, 2011

One of my favorite images from The Book of Revelation, WOB for short, makes an appearance in Spencer’s Faerie Queene.  The valiant knight, Redcrosse, physically weakened after drinking from a magic fountain that induces sluggishness, is morally compromised through fornication, physical or allegorical, not sure which, with the evil Duessa, a lady of all things false, who is disguised.  He is then assaulted and nearly killed by a giant, Orgoglio, borne of Earth’s womb, who is stayed by Duessa’s entreaties, she desiring to keep the knight for her own pleasure.  The hideous giant is much taken with Duessa, and decks her out with a seven-headed serpent that recalls the WOB, which allegorizes the Church of Rome, at least for the Protestants.

So daunted when the Geaunt saw the knight,
His heauie hand he heaued vp on hye,
And him to dust thought to haue battred quight,
Vntill Duessa loud to him gan crye;
O great Orgoglio, greatest vnder skye,
O hold thy mortall hand for Ladies sake,
Hold for my sake, and do him not to dye,
But vanquisht thine eternall bondslaue make,
And me thy worthy meed vnto thy Leman take.

He hearkned, and did stay from further harmes,
To gayne so goodly guerdon, as she spake:
So willingly she came into his armes,
Who her as willingly to grace did take,
And was possessed of his new found make.
Then vp he tooke the slombred sencelesse corse,
And ere he could out of his swowne awake,
Him to his castle brought with hastie forse,
And in a Dongeon deepe him threw without remorse.

From that day forth Duessa was his deare,
And highly honourd in his haughtie eye,
He gaue her gold and purple pall to weare,
And triple crowne set on her head full hye,
And her endowd with royall maiestye:
Then for to make her dreaded more of men,
And peoples harts with awfull terrour tye,
A monstrous beast ybred in filthy fen
He chose, which he had kept long time in darksome den.

Such one it was, as that renowmed Snake
Which great Alcides in Stremona slew,
Long fostred in the filth of Lerna lake,
Whose many heads out budding euer new,
Did breed him endlesse labour to subdew:
But this same Monster much more vgly was;
For seuen great heads out of his body grew,
An yron brest, and backe of scaly bras,
And all embrewd in bloud, his eyes did shine as glas.

His tayle was stretched out in wondrous length,
That to the house of heauenly gods it raught,
And with extorted powre, and borrow’d strength,
The euer-burning lamps from thence it braught,
And prowdly threw to ground, as things of naught;
And vnderneath his filthy feet did tread
The sacred things, and holy heasts foretaught.
Vpon this dreadfull Beast with seuenfold head
He set the false Duessa, for more aw and dread.

 


The Homecoming

November 20, 2011

Perhaps I should not write a word about this 1973 film adaptation of Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming.  After all, silence, heavy and oppressive, is such a major element in the dialog.

A man comes home to his father, uncle, and two brothers, after having been away and out of contact for nine years.  They are working class Londoners; he has become an American philosophy professor:

Take this table, see, but what do you do once you’ve taken it?” “He’d probably sell it…Chop it up for firewood!  Har har ha!”  Love that skewering of philosophy chat.

He brings a wife, pretty, very pretty, and respectable…but she was different before.  The brother who is a pimp (a very young Ian Holme) senses that right away.  Nobody can process reality, let alone speak the truth aloud about anything.  The uncle who finally succeeds in uttering an indisputable fact falls dead from the effort.  Sex and family power relations render the atmosphere between the characters as thick as molasses:  their words send out shock waves with a physical impact.

Here’s a clip of the scene shown in the header image, a point in the play when everything begins to turn around the central axis of power, sex, and the fear/loathing of women.  Vivian Merchant plays a very different kind of femme fatale, but she herself was destroyed utterly by the breakup of her marriage to Pinter.


Impact on Softy

July 23, 2011

Over at Film Noir of the Week, they call Impact a diverting diet-noir.  I guess so.  I did watch the whole thing.  The only things in it that really grabbed me though were Ella Raines, who as the review noted, makes an awfully cute grease monkey in a small town in Idaho, and this scene.  Walter, agonizing over whether to return to San Francisco to declare that his wife failed to kill him, and thus taking her off the hook for murder, asks what he has to be thankful for in life.  “A barren frustrated boyhood,” giving his love to a woman who tried to kill him?  He says he feels stripped bare, degraded, and that he will “always think of her with nausea.”  Pretty grim and noir, that.


Human Desire

July 16, 2011

Human Desire, another noir-ish effort from Lang, a German in exile who seemed at home in Hollywood.  It’s based on the Zola novel, La Bête Humaine, which I have not read, but I’ve read enough of  Zola to know the terrain.  As for that title…is there another kind of desire?  Zola’s title, The Human Beast, seems to capture the logic more accurately.

Zola’s realist novels usually present a milieu in tremendous detail, with lots of atmosphere:  a mining town; an enormous urban food market; a department store; and the setting is almost a character in the book.  In this film, the world of railroading is the setting, and we get into it by way of the credits followed by a long sequence that shows the men at work driving a train to its destination.  Glenn Ford plays Jeff, the Korean War vet, happy to be back home at work.

While riding home as a passenger on a train, Jeff meets Vicky (Gloria Grahame), the wife of a fellow railroader.  She has obvious charms…

…but he doesn’t know that she and hubby have just murdered someone on the train.  As in M, the killer has a special relationship with his knife and what it represents.  Vicky’s husband (Broderick Crawford) is much older than she, jealous, and not up to keeping her satisfied, but he’s very handy with a blade.

The whole town knows what’s going on between Jeff and Vicky.  While he’s been at war, the little girl in the rooming house where he lives has grown up, and she tries to save him from himself, for herself.  She comes to meet him at work, a little girl dwarfed by the big machine.  They have their talk, but Vicky has her hooks into Jeff.  She retreats, defeated, a nice contrast of womanly flesh and brute machinery.

Grahame is marvelous as a brassy fatal woman, but she just can’t get Jeff to knock off her husband, although he is tempted.

He’s a flawed noir hero, but not flawed enough for her.  He sends her walking.  As usual with Zola, there is a churning pot of sex, lust, greed, spiritual corruption, and violence, but Jeff is too good for it.  He goes back to the working life, and we know he will return to that spicy brunette who wants him.  Now I have to read the novel.

Grahame’s life might be the stuff of a Zola tale:  it was stormy, and included a divorce from one husband who caught her in bed with his thirteen year old son.


Balmy and Clod

June 17, 2011

I remember in sixth grade after a vacation, sitting and listening while each classmate was asked what he or she did over the break.  Several girls responded in this fashion:  “On Monday, I saw Bonnie and ClydeOn Tuesday, I saw  Bonnie and Clyde again.  On Thursday, I saw…”  I saw it too, but only once.

Some people criticized the film for glorifying a couple of outlaws – the usual culture-war stuff in the 1960s and early 70s.  Watching it yesterday, it seemed to me that the bank robbers were portrayed as utterly pathetic losers, uneducated and ignorant, stifled by their small-town lives in an era of economic disaster.

Clyde announces his masculine deficiencies right off, at the very start of the film.  First, symbolically:  He declares to Bonnie that he cut off some toes to escape work detail in prison.  Secondly, after a small robbery and heady getaway, he rejects Bonnie’s frenzied sexual advances and declares, “I ain’t no  lover boy.”  He’s a great shot with a pistol, though.

I was prepared to not like this film – another over-rated artifact of the 1960s effervescence – but, in fact, it is very good.  Spare, and very dark.  The editing is so crisp, keeping the pace going, and commenting on the smallness of the characters and their foolish, clueless self-aggrandizement.  Of course, it all builds towards that concluding fusillade, that made the film such a favorite for my sexually precocious, or curious, female classmates.  Doomed lovers are always a popular theme.

Clyde is impotent, although he does manage to perform at last, near the end.  They drive towards the final ambush, eating fruit, dribbling juice down their faces.  (Reminded me of the pre-sex meal scene in Tom Jones.)  Of course, sex is not what’s coming, or is it?  Sex-Death, the eternal couple, dancing on display here.  Eros and Thanatos.  Bonnie, cheated of earthly ecstasy, seems to achieve it in death.  The stylistic and thematic debt to the too-little-known Gun Crazy is enormous.

And of course, there’s this!


Criss Cross – Jungle Fantasy

June 12, 2011

One of the best of film noir, and this scene says it all.  Yvonne de Carlo (later of Munsters fame) is dancing with Tony Curtiss, his first screen appearance.  More on this film in this earlier post on film noir.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers