Monday, December 3, 2018

Niagara (1953)

“Obviously ignoring the idea that there are Seven Wonders of the World, Twentieth Century-Fox has discovered two more and enhanced them with Technicolor in Niagara…For the producers are making full use of both the grandeur of the Falls and its adjacent areas as well as the grandeur that is Marilyn Monroe.”
A.H. Weiler, NYTimes January 22, 1953
In a similar fashion, the trailer starts like this: “A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control! Niagara! And Marilyn Monroe!”

Neither review nor trailer were exaggerating. It’s hard to figure out who’s more magnificent. The mighty Niagara Falls with their unstoppable power or Marilyn with her uncontrollable passion. Two forces of nature. Directed for Fox by Henry Hathaway, Niagara was made first and foremost to promote the studio’s fastest rising star Marilyn. And she turned in a star-making performance. The poster for the movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen hitting home its message none too subtly. It depicts a larger-than-life Marilyn seductively draped across the cascading Falls with the water flowing over her scantily clad body.

Niagara is gorgeously vibrant candy color Noir with visuals that literally jump off the screen. The heightened idealization of Technicolor makes this movie look sensational. There’s no reason why Noir has to be in black and white. Eddie Muller stated that Noir is a state of mind and I couldn't agree more. Marilyn Ferdinand of the wonderful blog Ferdy on Films put it like this: “Technicolor in the right hands fits noir like a blood-stained glove”. Color works perfectly within the framework of Noir. It can paint a world as black as the darkest night. Evil doesn’t need dark alleyways to flourish, it can lurk in bright daylight.
Niagara is a movie where the darkness is interior. Inside the mind of a woman with murder in her heart and inside the mind of a man with shell-shock who’s completely shut in by his misery.

The picture is another Noir beyond the Mean Streets of Megalopolis. No snazzy nightclubs, seedy roadside motels, gambling dens and beatings in dark back alleys. Instead we get beautiful sights, wide-open spaces and nice simple clean cabins with a magnificent view of the Falls. Niagara is a happy spot for lovers and honeymooners.

The Falls play an important role in the unfolding events. Big parts of the movie come off like an advertisement for holiday makers as the attractions of Niagara Falls—the Maid of the Mist, the Cave in the Winds etc.—are prominently displayed including signs so we know what’s what. Joseph MacDonald was the cinematographer and he doesn’t just capture the majesty of the landscape for its own sake. In Noir - as indeed in most genres - there is always a co-relation between environment and crucial elements of the film. The landscape not only sets the stage for the players to interact and play out the drama. Niagara’s beautiful attractions become essential to the plot. A setting turned into a character, a landscape turned into a metaphor.

Before passengers go on the Maid of the Mist they have to leave their shoes behind. This plot point will later become relevant in the identification of a corpse. The Falls themselves with their swirling mists and choppy waters are an image for the destructive power of out-of-control and sometimes murderous passions that nothing can stop. Fittingly we see Rose and her lover kissing passionately under the Falls.

The story is barely more than routine. Young sexy wife wants to do away with aging hubby. Name all of the movies which Niagara pilfers elements from and the usual suspects are all there. In fact I expected the postman to ring twice to pick up his slightly stale plot.

Belated honeymooners Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams/Max Showalter) - Mr. and Mrs. Everyman - arrive at their Niagara Falls cabin only to find that Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have not vacated their cabin. Polly soon discovers that Rose isn’t the devoted wife she pretends to be. She has a boyfriend on the side. She’s bored with her life, her husband, her marriage. Rose and her lover boy Patrick (Richard Allan) are planning to kill George and make it look like suicide. Another one of Noir’s ironclad plan. What could possibly go wrong? Just when they think they’ve covered all the bases the plan goes sideways. It is Patrick who gets killed, in self-defense. Now George is on the lam and he still has a score to settle with Rose. He finally tracks her down in a bell tower.

Niagara isn’t the best thriller I have ever seen. The romantic drama is less than spectacular which has a lot to do with the fact that Rose’s scenes with lover boy are fairly underdeveloped and leave something to be desired. Their relationship is never fully explored. If the movie has a weakness it’s Richard Allan who was an ill-advised casting decisions. He’s a charisma-free zone. It’s no wonder he never had much of a career. Yet none of that really matters. Two stars in this picture do is the heavy lifting, Technicolor and Marilyn. They’re the glue that hold the movie together.

Niagara so often gets slapped with that fuzzy and tired blanket label Hitcockian. I don’t quite agree with it myself, unless you consider every good thriller Hitchcock-inspired. Niagara has a blonde but not Hitchcock’s preferred icy-cool patrician goddess. The suspense is there but Hitchcock’s psychological complexity is missing as is his deliciously twisted perversity - always so latently obvious (not an oxymoron) in his films. It was the Voodoo that he did so well. 

The bell tower scene however would have done Hitchcock proud and he must have at least taken a little peak at it before he made Vertigo. The visuals are simply breathtaking. Indeed, Technicolor can produce Noir shadows too. In this scene the colors are ever so slightly desaturated. When George finally has Rose cornered the shadows let the tower appear like a prison cell.

The dark roots of Hollywood’s most famous platinum blonde bombshell.
Even nowadays most people would be able to put a name to a photo of Marilyn Monroe though they may have never seen any of her movies. She is synonymous with the term sex symbol. The ditzy, flouncy and bouncy nitwit, for all her obvious assets oddly innocent and vulnerable, she was and still is the most iconic blonde bombshell the world has ever seen. Most of her films were comedies where she - without even wanting to - simply sets the hearts of the entire male population on fire with her guileless exhibitionism. (I say hearts because I’m trying to be delicate). She was seemingly unaware of her sex appeal and oblivious to her own potent effect though as any woman can tell you it takes a lot of strategic planning to be so oblivious. Lorelei Lee or Pola Debevoise were manipulative but essentially good-natured. There was a certain lovable goofiness about them. In Marilyn’s comedies she played her persona for laughs. 
Yet before her screen image solidified into the naive temptress there was a different Marilyn, one we’ve never seen before and sadly would never see again. The Marilyn of Noir where her sex appeal was much more dangerous. In Don’t Bother to Knock she plays a mentally disturbed babysitter. She’s psycho Marilyn, the blonde bombshell’s evil twin sister. 

With Niagara Marilyn gained entry into the Bad Girls’ Club. Here she isn’t hampered by the knowledge that she is Marilyn, the naive sexpot. Rose Loomis isn’t a cuddly sex kitten (not that there’s anything wrong with it), she’s all grown-up in every way. In a deliciously slutty turn she’s introduced laying in bed smoking, wearing nothing but that impossibly bright red lipstick, writhing seductively under the sheets, legs apart. This is an image as boldly sexual as anything she’s ever done in her career. Her glow leaves no doubt as to what must have transpired not too long ago. The post-coital cigarette is another giveaway. I’m a bit surprised Joe Breen and his holy crusaders against wickedness let this one slide. Rose puts the cigarette out when she hears her husband come in and pretends to be asleep so she doesn’t have to deal with him. He most certainly wasn’t the lucky guy. Rose despises her husband and withholds sex. She changes her mind about that only once, on the morning he’s supposed to be murdered. Sexual favors are supposed to get him into a compliant mood.

A similar erotically-charged scene occurs when at an impromptu party at the hotel Rose requests her favorite record Kiss to be played. The song reminds her of her lover. The way she sits there enraptured and sings along Rose is clearly wrapped up in some steamy memories of lover boy. Not surprisingly her husband storms out of the room and breaks the record with his bare hands in a fit of fury. He knows she doesn’t put on that show for him. The tune will play a role again a bit later. The bell tower is supposed to play it as the agreed signal between Rose and Patrick that the deed has been done. When Rose hears the bells she walks away smiling wickedly. Little does she know the murder didn’t quite go as planned.

I have to take a little detour here and talk about Marilyn’s outfits. They’re not just to die but to kill for. There is that dress. You know which one I mean. THAT dress. THAT fuchsia dress. Yes, it needs and deserves its own introduction. It’s the sexy dress to end all sexy dresses. It’s a law unto itself. Of course you have to know how to wear a dress like that. Marilyn does. As Polly says: “For a dress like that, you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about thirteen.” To paraphrase Paul Newman, this is the kind of dress you wear when you want to wake up in the morning and smile.
There is also THAT red lipstick which always stays on. In bed, in the shower, even in hospital in a coma! That boys and girls is determination I admire.

No matter what you think about Monroe, her persona or her acting, there’s no denying that she was one of the sexiest women ever. The way she sashays, wiggles and jiggles her way through the movie is something to behold. Like Jell-O on springs! In fact Niagara is the film usually credited with the birth of THE WALK. As Ray says when Rose walks by: “Get out the firehose.” But it’s hard to put out the fire when she’s constantly adding fuel. Rose is a woman on a mission and her every intention is in her walk, her smile and her body.
Considering she was the sexual icon of her day, the studio unfortunately never again tapped into her talent to play a Thoroughly Rotten Dame.

Because she is so absolutely gorgeous we can’t believe she as bad as she at first seems. A definite miscalculation. She comes with a little twist though. Rose is undoubtedly calculating and duplicitous but she’s not just out for herself. Sex is not merely a means to an end. Rose isn’t looking for a disposable sucker to bump off her husband so she doesn’t get blood on her mink. Here is one femme fatale who is purely and solely motivated by lust. Not greed, not power, not money, but simply sexual desire. She can barely control her own libido. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe that Rose would always go where the boys are. That’s how she gets her kicks. One has to see the look of naked lust on her face when she meets her lover in the souvenir shop.  Her lover in turn is so besotted that he’d commit murder for her.

In most Noirs, the femme fatale uses sex to gain power or wealth. In Niagara, sex isn’t a tool to get something else. It’s the crux of the matter. Rose herself is firmly caught in the web. 
Though George is supposedly the mentally unbalanced half of the couple, there is something vaguely unsettling about Rose’s single-minded pursuit of sex.

Rose possesses another trait necessary to the femme fatale. On top of looks she possesses cunning reasoning. Rose is a dangerous woman who has at least enough brains to concoct a plan to murder her husband and involve the Cutlers as unknowing witnesses in her little charade to paint her husband as unstable. It is necessary for the suicide ruse to come off. Ray and Polly are like pawns in her game. When George breaks the Kiss record, the Cutlers empathize with Rose, assuming she’s in danger of becoming a victim to her husband’s volatile temper, but she’s far more in control of the situation than they suspect. It’s just all part of the setup. 
Still, in the end we do feel sorry for her when George kills her simply because she was such an intensely alive creature who was desperately grasping at life.

As for people who say Marilyn was not an actress, well they’re probably right. The jury is still out. I never considered her much of an actress myself. In Niagara she uses the same tricks in the book that she always does. The wide-eyed innocent come-hither look, the breathy little girl voice, the half-opened mouth. It’s just this time around they have a darker undercurrent. Marilyn’s greatest achievement on film was being Marilyn.

If this sounds like a slight it isn’t meant to be in the least. The jury - that would be me - has decreed that it’s absolutely beside the point if she was a good actress or not. She plays certain roles very well because they fit her like a glove. There are many actors who have a limited range, but within that range they are unbeatable. Just as Joan Crawford had roles taylor-made to suit her persona and image, so did Marilyn. If the role suited her she was very effective and instinctively and naturally knew what to do. She didn’t so much seem to play a role but live it. On screen she just IS. Her sheer magnetism beats great acting every time.

Many people have bemoaned the fact that Monroe’s sexuality was exploited. Cow patties I says. I settle for showcased. Beautiful people are always “exploited”. It comes with the territory. Here Rose’s entire demeanor and her in-your-face sexuality demonstrate her effect on men. Her physical attributes express her character.

Monroe exits the movie about two thirds of the way through and her absence causes a problem. The movie loses some steam however the exiting climax makes up for it later.

One wonders how Rose and George ever ended up together. They’re the perfect picture of a dysfunctional marriage. We only get to know that George rescued her from a life as a waitress in a crummy little joint. George Loomis is a wreck of a man, a failed sheep farmer who was sent home from Korea with battle fatigue and spent some time in a mental hospital for soldiers. Unfortunately the PTSD aspect of the story is never further explored as it very likely would have been just a few years earlier. One wonders though where most of his battles were fought, on the battlefield or closer to home.
After he came home from Korea he went wrong though somehow it's easy to believe he’s the type who would always draw the short straw. A perfect patsy. Another Noir sucker who is a hapless pawn in the game of an evil woman until he turns the tables.

Cotten conveys a sense of utter weariness and desperation very well. He’s a guy who’s hit rock bottom and he’s not likely to go much farther up because all he has is his own sense of inadequacy. We simply have to feel sorry for him in his brooding unhappiness and bitterness. He’s trying to battle his demons but somehow he can’t stop himself. He can’t control his love and in the end he can’t control his hate.
George is entrapped by his misery, loneliness and fury. It’s a prison he cannot escape from because the most confining prison cell is the darkness of one’s own mind.

The opening sequence features a nihilist voice-over by Cotten that is quickly dropped right after. Traipsing around early in the morning at 5 am George is visiting the Falls but he has no idea why. It is as if they were calling to him. 
“Why should the Falls drag me down here at five o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help?” 
Right away there is the implication of serious mental problems. The magnificent Falls contrast sharply with his insignificance but their tumultuous restlessness resonates within him. Later he will tell Polly something about love and marriage using the metaphor of the Falls:
“You’re young. You’re in love. Well, I’ll give you a warning. Don’t let it get out of hand like those falls out there…Did you ever see the river up above the falls? It’s calm and easy, and you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down and it gets going faster, hits some rocks, and in a minute it's in the lower rapids, and nothing in the world -including God himself can keep it from going over the edge.” 
It is no surprise that in the end he goes over the Falls to his death. Once he’s killed the thing he loved the most, there’s nowhere else for him to go. “I loved you Rose, you know that.”

Jean Peters as Polly actually has more screen time than Monroe. She’s no slouch in the looks department herself, but it’s hard to compete with Monroe. Peters has a thankless role. She’s supposed to be “the plain one” and I find it admirable that she actually took the role. Anne Baxter turned it down because she didn’t want to compete with Monroe.
Ray and Polly are the normal couple, they're the foil for Rose and George. Polly - though “just” a housewife - is levelheaded and gutsy and would deserve a better husband than Ray. The guy is clearly punching above his weight. Polly tries to be a friend to George but he’s beyond help.
That Peters herself could be very sexy she would show with her next movie Pickup on South Street. In her own words, playing the siren didn’t come naturally to her and she always credited Monroe with showing her the ropes.

Now for the negatives. Just one actually but it’s the elephant in the room. Eager beaver Max Showalter, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and cornier than an Orville Redenbacher factory. As an actor he’s a blunt object. He’s more irritating than a persistent rash in a very delicate place. He takes books on his honeymoon and goes on fishing trips with his boss. The ultimate company man. Anything for a raise, sir!

It’s never quite clear if this portrayal of bungling dopiness is all Showalter’s doing or if there was intent on the producers’s part. But as Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator Charles Bracket was one of the screen writers/producers on the film, there’s a good chance the little stab at corporatism was intentional.

I wouldn’t call Niagara a bona fide classic but it’s incredibly watchable despite its shortcomings.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Waterloo Bridge (1940)

In commemoration of Armistice Day, Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the World War I blogathon. My entry is mostly about the 1940s version of Waterloo Bridge though I’d like to draw some comparison to the 1931 version.

“I loved you, I've never loved anyone else. I never shall, that's the truth Roy, I never shall.” Myra Lester
Waterloo Bridge is based on the eponymous 1930 play by Robert E. Sherwood, made into a pre-Code movie the following year by James Whale for Universal. In 1940 MGM gave it the gloss treatment with big stars Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor and direction by Mervyn LeRoy. MGM banked on Leigh’s and Taylor’s star power. They banked right. The chemistry between the star-crossed lovers is wonderful though Leigh originally wanted her husband Olivier to play the role. But it all worked out for the best. Taylor and Leigh got on very well on the set and both later cited Waterloo Bridge as their personal favorite. Though Leigh is fantastic in the role, this is not a one-woman show. Leigh and Taylor are aided and abetted by a great supporting cast.

Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg lovingly recreated a wonderfully dewy, shimmering and ethereal London on the MGM backlot.

Many insults could be hurled at Waterloo Bridge. Yes it's a weepy, yes it’s overly sentimental, yes I promise you will need that entire box of Kleenex, but in the hands of talented actors the film manages not to drown in cloying soap suds. It evades the pitfalls of nauseating Hallmark Channel sappiness (with apologies to Hallmark Channel fans). It is an incredibly affecting and haunting movie that reflects on love, loss, unnecessary suffering and bittersweet memories that shape people forever. I’ll be damned if it isn’t mesmerizing even to viewers who usually don’t care for melodrama. Waterloo Bridge doesn’t apologize for its overt romanticism and it is its genuinely-felt sentiment that makes the movie virtually bullet-proof. It entirely succeeds at what it’s setting out to do. Stun the viewer into wondrous awe. It has lost nothing of its power.

The story is told in flashbacks by a grey-haired distinguished looking Taylor who is reminiscing about love found and lost. It is clear from that moment that we don’t have to get our hopes up for a happy ending. The tragic denouement is telegraphed a mile away. Another war romance condemned to failure, over before it ever really began. The mood is melancholy and somber throughout. The film is steeped in doom. 

The date is September 3, 1939 and Germany has just declared war. On the eve of his deployment to France, Scotsman Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) - on his way to Waterloo Station to join the troops - stops at Waterloo Bridge where over 20 years earlier a chance meeting changed his life forever. He met the love of his life - ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh) - during an air raid. A whirlwind romance follows. It quickly becomes clear that both are meant for each other. Roy has his orders to leave the next day to the front and Myra doesn’t for one minute believe that they will see each other again. Against the explicit order of her tyrannical dance instructor Mme. Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) - who believes that ballet and love do not mix - Myra meets Roy for dinner. They want to get married but there’s a law prohibiting marriages after 3pm and Roy must catch his troop train. Mme. Kirowa has no compunction about summarily firing Myra for insubordination. "War is no excuse for indecorum.” Her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) lays into Madame and shares Myra’s fate. Quickly they find themselves broke and hungry. Mistakenly the newspapers list Roy as being killed in action, a soul-crushing blow for Myra. She gets sick and has to pay medical bills. She and Kitty see no other way than turn to prostitution. 

Unexpectedly Roy comes back and wants to pick up where they left off. Those terrible years in the trenches were nothing but a bad dream. Now that he’s home he can focus on beauty and happiness. He introduces Myra to his family. For a little while Myra believes that she can wipe the slate clean and that her fairy tale may still come true. Roy’s family welcomes her with open arms but all throughout this dream-come-true Myra feels that she is not good enough and may sully the honor of Roy's family and regiment with their marriage.

Certain implausibilities in the plot don’t bear close inspection. Robert Taylor doesn’t fool anyone as a Scotsman. Thankfully he’s not even trying to put on a dodgy British/Scottish accent. And buying Taylor as an Edwardian aristocrat would require a suspension of disbelief of cosmic proportions. He’s thoroughly all-American middle class.

Continuing down this tiresomely nit-picky path, albeit set during WWI, the costumes and hairstyles of the actresses are clearly contemporary 1940. How can Myra and Roy fall in love to fast? Why the hell does Myra make the stupid decision not to tell her future mother-in-law why she is so upset in the restaurant? One word from her would have changed her fate.
Answer: we wouldn’t have a compelling movie otherwise. Giving a hoot about these little bumps is what we were put in this world to rise above.

Many decisions of the protagonists only make sense in the very special universe melodrama operates in where contrivances and coincidences are not weaknesses but part and parcel of the genre. Complaining about far-fetched circumstances in melodramas is like objecting to the lack of realism in an abstract painting. 

Robert Taylor, impossibly handsome and dashing, turns in a very sensitive performance. For most of his career he was seldom accused of being a great actor. I think he got an unfairly bad rap. He was always a pro and here puts his whole heart into his role and treats it with real respect. What Taylor had in spades was screen presence, that certain magic that tops - to me at least - an Oscar-worthy performance every time. Taylor developed into an if not brilliant, then at least very competent actor whose later roles were a far cry from his early pretty boy ones. For someone who’s by many considered not an actor at all he turned in many good performances.

Roy’s attitude towards life is an almost over-confident and optimistic  one. He embraces life to the fullest, he loves the excitement of being alive. Roy simply knows he’ll make it through the war alive because now that he has found his love there is no way he can die. The gods must, simply must be on his side. They couldn’t be so cruel and take happiness away from him.

This being a romance, the unsavory aspects of war stay in the background. The audience doesn't see the unspeakable carnage of the Great War, no shell-shocked men broken in mind and body coming home to a world forever changed. The film focuses on the gallantry of the young men - Roy thinks there’s a certain amount of excitement in war - and that it is perfectly fine.
Still, that innocence is lost forever is made blatantly clear through Myra’s fate, a stand-in for innocence lost on a much grander scale. War makes its own rules and nothing would ever be the same after 1918.

Waterloo Bridge was Leigh’s follow-up movie to Gone With the Wind. Myra Lester is a far cry from little Miss Rich Bitch Scarlett O’Hara, the role that had catapulted Leigh to superstardom.

Leigh was a marvelous actress and her performance here is flawless. She glows with an inner radiance that is unearthly and elevates the art of suffering to new heights. She effortlessly goes from young innocent who’s even mistaken for a school girl to brassy tramp plying the oldest profession in the world back to a woman who hopes to be reborn through love.

Myra’s attitude towards life is quite different from Roy’s. Much less confident, delicate and fragile, she’s very young and very innocent. She is quite fatalistic and doesn’t believe that people are necessarily in control of their destiny. Not having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Myra knows that life doesn't always work out the way you plan and to expect too much will only lead to dashed expectations. A rose-colored belief in a happy ending won’t automatically make it so. War means short-lived happiness, parting, hardship, death. Myra’s fatalism has deep roots. There seems to be an underlying maybe not even consciously-realized belief in Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
In fact Roy remarks on the fact that someone so young should be so defeatist. Myra considers Roy an incurable romantic. It is as if Myra thinks too much happiness is tempting fate, the gods may strike her down for it.

Out of sheer desperation Myra and Kitty turn to prostitution. Of course the 40s version had to bow to the dictates of Joe’s Purity Squad. This being post-Code the matter is only obliquely referenced. The word prostitute is never uttered. It doesn’t need to be unless the viewer is purposely obtuse. The ‘40s version may be more sanitized than the earlier one, but as we all know, any screen writer worth his salt was able to circumvent the pesky confines of the Code and make the subject blatantly clear. The Code really doesn’t work against this version. It in no way hampers the impact of the story. The entire subject matter is handled with subtle allusions while at the same time leaving no doubt as to what’s going on. 

The way it is conveyed that Kitty has become a prostitute is well-handled. Coming home in the early hours one morning, Kitty - all tarted up - encounters a beat cop…and hesitates in her tracks. She doesn’t want to be picked up for streetwalking. Then before she enters her own flat she wipes off her too-liberally applied lipstick. With a few quick strokes, the audience understands perfectly.

It is most important to note that nowhere does the movie feel compelled to condemn or look down upon the choices Myra and Kitty have to make. The script takes a remarkably compassionate and lenient view. The audience feels nothing but sympathy. There is a telling bit of dialogue by a defiant Kitty about a world in upheaval and her wish to go on living no matter how. Myra believes Kitty is walking the streets to support her:
“No I didn't! I'd a done it anyhow. C'est La Guerre. No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours, 'cause they know it may be their last…We're young and it's good to live. Even the life I'm leading! Though, God knows - I've heard them call it the easiest way. I wonder where they thought up that little phrase? I know one thing. It couldn't have been a woman.”
Not only does she justify prostitution as a means of support, she also emphatically denies that this is an easy way to make a living.

Special mention has to go to Virginia Field as Kitty - the BFF we all want to have. She should have at least got an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress for it. Kitty’s character is a bit anachronistic, she seems to be in the wrong movie. She’s not so much a girl from the 1910s, instead she oozes 40s street-wise dame attitude. Before being a ballerina she used to be a chorus girl - at that time considered barely a step up from a prostitute - and has more grit and worldliness than Myra. Loyal and without self-pity in the beginning she takes it upon herself to take care of her more innocent friend and earn money for both of them. Being a prostitute hasn’t cost her her humanity.

It is rigid Madame Kirowa - a portrait of rectitude etched in acid - with her hard-and-fast rules towards romance who comes off as thoroughly unappealing and judgmental. She calls Myra a “camp follower” who should be in another profession than dancing for nothing more scandalous than one evening out to dinner with an officer.

I’ve seen many reviews who blame “society” (eternally ill-defined terminology of course) and the English class system for Myra’s suicide. One review even called the movie a tragic story of class struggle. I’ll spare you that interpretation. This is not a film about class warfare. This is what happens when people let preconceived notions and ideology write their reviews. Apart from Mme. Kirowa LeRoy portrays every character with sympathy and understanding. Everybody proves to be far more tolerant and open-minded than we might expect, almost too much so. Our expectations about the behavior of the supposedly of so stuffy and class-conscious British society are completely disappointed. If we expect stereotypes, we don’t get them.

Running true to aristocratic form, both Roy’s mother and his uncle the Duke should at least look down on Myra, for being a dancer and for being of a much lower social class. The Duke however doesn’t believe in "correct marriages”, for him marrying outside his class might bring fresh blood into the family. He also dismisses many of his peers as people with "limited social ideas.”

Roy’s mother (Lucile Watson) is willing to receive Myra with open arms, even after their initial failed meeting. When Myra finally gathers enough courage to tell her what she had to do to survive the war Lady Margaret professes sympathy with her. She doesn’t want Myra to rush off and leave Roy without even giving him a chance to understand.

Roy doesn't judge either, his love is blind. He only wants Myra to reverse her decision. He can acknowledge that civilians had to do things to survive that they would never have thought about in peacetime. War damaged those left behind too.

Myra simply can’t tell Roy what she has become. She cannot come to terms with her situation and feels beyond redemption. So she sees only one way out. She steps in front of an oncoming army truck. Myra is no Scarlett who’d simply tough it out. She’d rather perish.

It is Myra’s own defeatist attitude - her belief in her own inadequacy - that is her downfall in the end. Not society, not class conceit and not her fiancé’s family. The great tragedy is that Myra had been forgiven, her sacrifice was unnecessary. In a way Myra’s fate is a self-fulfilling prophecy because somehow deep down she never really believed in that happy ending.

Waterloo Bridge is a film full of memorable scenes. Kitty and Roy searching for Myra in every dirty dive in London. Myra crossing Waterloo Bridge contemplating how to earn money and knowing full well she cannot rely on the kindness of strangers. Suddenly she hears the voice of a man behind her propositioning her - unseen to the audience. She accepts.

Myra going to Waterloo Station one evening on the prowl for nightly customers, in a cheap satin dress, with a stone-hard face and a coquettish smile for the men descending from the troop train…when unexpectedly Roy comes back from the dead. Every emotion is in Leigh’s face. Shock, happiness, disbelief, desperation, shame. LeRoy was a veteran of Silent films and this is how he has Leigh play it. Back to the basics. Norma Desmond was right. They didn’t need dialogue. They had faces.

Of course one of the best scenes ever to make it on film - any film - is the dinner at the Candlelight Club. The orchestra plays Auld Lang Syne, the Farewell Waltz, in memory of absent friends and lovers. The melody weaves itself through the entire film. It is to this song that Myra and Roy share their first dance and kiss while each musician in the orchestra plays his piece and then extinguishes the candles beside him in a poignant symbol of farewell until there is nothing but darkness left. 'Til they meet again.

Much is made of the comparison with the 1931 version. For many the ’31 version is superior, for me the later version wins hands down though I’m a pre-Code fan. The MGM version has all the gloss, lavish production values, polish, perfect set designs and incredible cinematography we’ve come to expect from the studio. And for once polish beats gritty realism.

The ’31 film isn’t helped by a fairly unsophisticated performance by Kent Douglas as Roy who was not the most charismatic actor on the Universal roster though he is serviceable. Mae Clarke is very good as Myra but not in the same league as Leigh either looks or acting-wise. Occasionally both actors slide into the overly declamatory acting style of the early talkie era.

From the opening radio announcement to a stunned and silent crowd that war has been declared, to an aged Robert Taylor standing on Waterloo Bridge fingering the good-luck charm Myra once gave him, the 1940 version has an emotional wallop that can’t be beat. The bookending of the story with yet another war to end all wars can’t have failed to strike a chord with contemporary audiences.

Where the pre-Code version should score is with a hard edge. After all I’d heard about it I expected the early version to be unapologetically frank. For a pre-Code film I found it unusually subdued and restrained. Here too the world prostitute is never uttered. Salaciousness is suspiciously absent except for one scene in the beginning showing the scantily-clad dancers's dressing room antics. There are no happy sinners in this pre-Code, just a bitter former chorus girl trying to get by.

Astonishingly the pre-Code version puts a lot more emphasis on class-consciousness than the 40s version. Roy’s mother can see what her son evidently cannot, that there is a huge chasm between Myra and the Cronins. She makes it absolutely clear that there can and should be no future for Myra and her son. Mother can acknowledge Myra’s intrinsic goodness but that doesn’t mean she could ever overlook the stigma of Myra’s profession. Glenn Ericsson wrote a review for the TCM site where he strangely states about Myra’s predicament:
“Sherwood's play and the 1931 version examine this injustice [Myra being considered a fallen woman] and make a plea for understanding; MGM's version simply accepts it as The Way Things Must Be. Roy's Mother (Lucile Watson) clearly has great affection for her future daughter-in-law yet offers no encouraging words when Myra reveals the truth -- a piece of clever screenwriting, considering that nobody ever states anything directly. Myra is damaged goods, so "case closed” …MGM’s Waterloo Bridge reinforces a harsh status quo: "He must never know!”
In fact it is the other way around. In the pre-Code Mrs. Cronin - gentle, smiling but nevertheless cruel - leaves no doubt that Myra can under no circumstances marry her son.

It’s hard to decide which ending is the more pitiful. In the pre-Code Myra’s situation with Roy has been happily dissolved when a bomb goes off next to her and kills her. The ending is almost Noirish. Just when we think all’s well that ends well, fate steps in. The utter randomness and arbitrariness of death.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but the 1940s version is fantastic. It is one of Hollywood’s greatest tragic love stories, full of self-inflicted suffering and what ifs that will forever remain unanswered. Maybe to be of lasting endurance a love story has to be tragic, at least on film. A “what could have been” is often more powerful than the realization of it.

Waterloo Bridge is a film for the history books, well, at least my history book.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Roadblock (1951)

“You’re a nice guy, Honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” Diane
Roadblock is a fair to middling offering in the Noir canon, made on a dime by Harold Daniels for RKO. Daniels's career was a largely undistinguished one and healthy helpings of schlock and camp were his meal ticket. Roadblock is a no-frills B movie without many subtleties, paint-by-numbers but moderately entertaining nevertheless. As we’ve seen with The Narrow Margin a shoestring budget does not have to equate unspectacular filmmaking but unfortunately Roadblock is hampered with a script that doesn’t add up and Daniels was not the man to rise above mediocre material. The dialogue is quite good but not even Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is up to par.

Roadblock’s plot line follows the well-known Noir trajectory. A straight-arrow insurance investigator crosses over to the dark side because of his love for a rotten dame. If you think you’ve seen it all before you’d be right. You have. Many times. And better. This film has all the classic Noir ingredients and obviously pilfers bits and pieces from more well-known films, such as Double Indemnity. It also borrows - very unconvincingly - stock footage of a car accident from High Sierra.
The best thing about the picture are the opening and closing sequences, the middle not so much.

The movie starts off with a bang. A man witnesses a deadly shooting and is taken hostage by the killer. The witness admits he’s on the run from the law and is willing to offer the loot from his bank robbery in exchange for his life. At the hiding place all of a sudden the “murder victim” shows up, alive and kicking. It was all a setup. Insurance investigators “Honest” Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) faked the deadly shooting to scare the bank robber into showing them where the stolen money was hidden. 
Interestingly our first impression of Honest Joe is that he’s a violent thug. In the end he will be just that and the “murder” foreshadows Joe’s descent into crime. 

Unfortunately soon the movie takes a nosedive. On his way back to LA Joe meets Diane (Joan Dixon) at the airport. Passing herself of as his Mrs. Diane cons the airline attendant into selling her a plane ticket for half price. And then seats herself right next to Joe on the plane, acting as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Joe is angry and calls her a chiseler who takes him for a soft touch. But Diane knows a sucker when she sees one. She knows his anger is just a front and she has him hooked already.

Joe is drawn to the dame like a homing pigeon the minute he claps eyes on her, but she makes it abundantly clear that she’s an expensive plaything. She has ambitions way above his pay grade. That thing between them would never work out because mink and ermine don’t come cheap and you can’t buy those goodies on a measly $350 a month insurance investigator salary. Apart from that she’s the personal property of mobster Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) who slithers around with reptilian grace and who can and gladly does supply her with the finer things in life.
Happiness can't buy you money shrugs the dame and Joe takes this to heart. To offer gold-digger Diane the lifestyle she is accustomed to, he comes up with a plan to rob the mail train for a million dollar cash shipment. His partner in crime: Diane’s cast-off sugar daddy Webb. Bit awkward but not a bad idea really. Then all of a sudden the movie goes sideways. Diane changes her mind. She doesn’t want money anymore, she just wants Joe. How touching. So the two get married.
Diane wants him to call off the mail robbery but it’s too late for Joe. The mob won’t cancel the job. After the deed Joe and his partner Harry are assigned to investigate the crime. Very soon Harry puts two and two together and sees that Joe was the inside man on the robbery. Joe’s not the only one who’s good at his job. The noose quickly tightens around his neck.

McGraw plays it differently here and maybe that’s what doesn’t sit well with me. McGraw could play both sides of the law, tough cop or tough gangster. Either way, it was deeply unwise to mess with him. But the emphasis was always on tough. What he couldn’t really play was suckers pining for a no-good dame. It’s out of character. He of the granite jaw and gravelly voice starts out as the guy we all know and love, a gruff and uncompromising insurance investigator who doesn’t stop at much to get his man. Then almost out of the blue he abandons his principles.

Mobster Webb says to him: 
“It took reform school and several jails to built my character, but you’ve been square all your life. Now suddenly you decide to steal.”
Perceptive. Joe going bad after so many years of rectitude just doesn't add up. His descent into crime is too abrupt and so is Diane’s change of heart. This being a B movie with a runtime of 73 minutes this picture - like so many of its kind - had to have an uncomplicated shorthand, it had to kick its story straight into high gear. B movies rarely had the luxury to dwell on their protagonists’s inner lives and struggles. But Joe’s epiphany comes too sudden. This is the first serious hiccup in the film.

Of course in Noir the hero goes bad for a dame. In many of the genre's films it is suggested that beneath a character’s virtuous façade obsessiveness, irrationality and violence were lying in wait the whole time. In Noir crime is not an aberration but a temptation lurking in every heart. Anyone, in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything. Suddenly formerly upright Noir characters cross the line and see what they’re really capable of. Once the floodgates open, there’s no turning back.

But for this setup to work there must be an antihero who suffers the torment of the damned while deciding to go bad for a dame. We don’t get that here. The transition from incorruptible investigator to criminal is too abrupt.
Another aspect of Joe’s character is unfortunately not explored. How much pushing did it really take? Joe seems to take to crime like a duck to water. He may have been calculating the odds his entire life, we never find out.

Joan Dixon - one of Howard Hughes’s protégés whose career never amounted to much -  is very alluring and beautiful as Diane though without a doubt an actress of limited range. But she handles her role of icy temptress very well. 
Diane is thoroughly efficient. She’s not so much gold-digging as strip-mining and very good at separating men from their hard-earned money. She knows the effect she has on men.
Diane: “One day you'll want something really expensive which you won't be able to afford on a detective's salary.”
Joe: "Like what?"
Diane: "Like me"
Here we run into hiccup No. 2, the character of Diane. Eddie Muller called her “an intriguing spin on the standard issue femme fatale” in his Noir Alley introduction. For once I can’t agree with him. Diane and Phyllis D aren’t exactly sisters under the mink and that’s the problem. Her transformation from gold-digger to loving wife who renounces her gold-digging ways again comes too fast and is not quite believable. Right when Joe decides to risk it all in a harebrained get-rich-quick theme and win the love of Diane, she blows her femme fatale credentials to bits and pieces and decides she loves Joe for his beautiful, upstanding and unblemished soul despite his sadly anemic bank account. This twist feels false as it doesn't operate as a natural part of the overall narrative. The movie wants to have us believe that Joe breaks bad and Diane breaks good, all out of gooey love. It’s regrettably treacly. It stretches credibility to the max. Their change is never really explained. Character development is sorely lacking.

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson is right when he says Diane’s character is almost unplayable. There seem to be several Dianes. Diane No.1 makes it clear she’s an expensive plaything and belittles, lures and rebuffs Joe because she considers him a square; Diane No.2 does a 180 after getting sloshed and crying into her martini at a bar for five minutes because it’s Christmas (!), renouncing a life of luxury to turn into a happy newlywed overnight. Did she get a lobotomy?

From then on too much time is spent on the happiness of the young couple and as such the pacing was off. This is a crime movie, I wanted to shout at the screen. It’s supposed to be mean and nasty. Some people liked the twist on the femme fatale trope, I like my Noirs dark.

In a way Noir’s irony comes into play. Joe really didn’t need to commit the crime to win Diane. However one interesting question remains. How creditable is Diane’s change? Webb is a bit more clear-sighted than Joe and warns him. Once the bloom of first love wears off, she’ll go right back to her old ways. “Once a girl gets the feeling of mink around her shoulders, she doesn’t forget it.” And my guess is deep down Joe is well aware of the fact. After all there’s the letter from another cast-off rich lover in Texas that she’s kept and who she occasionally mentions to Joe.

In the end the movie is not entirely successful. Still, it has its moments. The last scene with a high-speed chase through the dry LA riverbeds - one of the first to be filmed there - is very good. We’re almost waiting for the giant ants to pop up. They don’t, they hadn’t hatched yet. 

This is where the roadblock comes in, the dead-end marker indicating the end of the line. A none too subtle metaphor for Joe’s failed life that has reached the point of no return. 

The last scene is pure Noir and almost redeems the movie. The cops kill Joe in a shootout. After crying a few crocodile tears over his dead body, Diane simply and almost dismissively walks away from the scene where her husband has just been gunned down without looking back, presumably right back to that guy in Texas who still wants to marry her. I guess I’m just a cynic.