Big Combo Encore

November 15, 2012

I just watched The Big Combo (1955) again – one of my favorite film noirs.  (I talked about it earlier in this post).  Fantastic cinematography, and a great cast of characters.  It has a rich trove of noir themes, woven together with subtlety and skill.

One reason I like these old B-movies is that they work within a genre, with familiar situations and themes, and we usually aren’t very surprised by the plot developments. (Do we need surprise to enjoy something?)  We’ve seen it all before; we know how it will all end.  It’s familiar.  The repetition of stories and conclusions accumulates to give the latest one the force of myth.  No self-conscious striving after effect or novelty.  Not that the great ones didn’t innovate, but it was within the limits of the genre.

Cornell Wilde plays Lt. Larry Diamond, a man with a mission.  He wants to rid his town of The Big Combo, but the outfit is really just one single man, Mr. Brown.  He’s obsessed with Brown, a cold, murderous accountant turned mob leader (Richard Conte) because Brown has quite a girl – Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a society chick who’s fallen pretty low down.  Diamond is in love with her, from afar; wants to save her, but she tells him there’s no saving her.  She’s lost in a maze, and all paths lead back to Mr. Brown.

She’s a bit of a masochist, this lady, but Mr. Brown also knows how to keep her satisfied.  Pretty explicit for 1955.

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This Diamond fellow, isn’t so pure either, despite his wish to be the knight to rescue Susan.  In fact, he has a problem with women in general.

While he longs for the cool blonde girl who loves classical music, he keeps his needs in check with Rita, a stripper at a club where he hangs out.  She loves him and will do anything for him, but she just ends up getting filled with lead by two thugs who think they’re knocking off Diamond when they break into his darkened apartment.  She was all dressed up and waiting for a big night with him after work… So, he wants the masochist who won’t have him because she represents something beautiful and pure to him even though she’s as deep in the mud as you can get.  And the girl who loves him with a heart of gold, he treats like a worn out bathrobe to throw away when he’s done with it.

But Susan is otherwise engaged.  Fante and Mingo, Brown’s thugs, always keep an eye on her comings and goings.  At least those two have a loving relationship:  they’d die for one another, but they end up double-crossed by Brown and dying together.  They aren’t effeminate like the flirty thug in Odds Against Tomorrow: their homoerotic bond is thoroughly masculine.  I think the filmmaker uses it to convince us that we really are in the underworld, where such deviant relationships are taken for granted.  Is this retrograde or progressive?  They are totally against the stereotype of homosexuals as weak and unmanly men.

The film makes use of the abuse of hearing aids as an instrument of torture.  Mr. Brown borrows the device from his No. 2 man and shouts and  plays loud music into it to show Diamond who’s boss. (He removes the aid from Mr. No.2′s ears when he kills him.  “I’ll do you a favor; you won’t hear the bullets.”  We see the shooting from the victim’s point of view, without sound.)

First is first, and second is nobody.”  That’s his slogan, and he has nothing but contempt for Diamond whom he describes as steady, intelligent, and with a hankering for a girl he just can’t have.  A nobody.

Yes, that girl.  She’s at a club when she meets her old piano teacher.  The man is delighted to see her again, and eagerly asks how she is progressing with her music.  She has to break the news to him that she has given it up…such a wasted talent!  She asks him to dance with him while Fante and Mingo look on, making sure there’s no funny business.  Suddenly, she starts to swoon.  “I’ve taken some pills…I think I’m going to die!”  There it is, Sex & Death, Eros & Thanatos.  In her attempted suicide she looks just as she did when Mr. Brown was bringing her to an orgasm.

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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!


Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert's other sentimental "hero," Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!


They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.


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