Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ace in the Hole (1951)

“I’m in the boat, you’re in the water.”
Right after the critical and commercial success of Sunset Blvd. Wilder turned his scathing view to the exploitation of the news media. He had given his home studio Paramount nothing but successes so far though Sunset Blvd. ruffled a few feathers in Tinseltown. This time around Wilder didn’t limit his criticism to Hollywood but cast his net much wider. Ace in the Hole is a bitter and poisonous story with a clinically unflinching outlook on mankind’s basest behaviors. Where Sunset Blvd. failed - that is ruin Wilder’s career - Ace in the Hole almost succeeded. Now regarded as a great classic, the picture was a critical and commercial failure at its initial release and sparked the outrage of Hollywood big shots, columnists and the great unwashed alike. Bosley Crowther of course did his customary hit job on the movie, sprinkling his review with darling little nuggets of wisdom: 
“Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque…disgusting and shocking to observe”. 
He - like most critics - considered himself a newspaperman and as such within the target range of Wilder’s criticism. I’ve seen Ace described as satire several times but it’s anything but. It’s simply an accurate representation of reality.

Wilder’s vision of a media which gleefully exploits the agonies of a dying man just because it’s hot copy is unrelentingly grim and unrelentingly unrelenting. The movie is not only prophetic but it’s more important than ever. It was a harbinger of things to come in relation to today's 24/7 tabloid journalism, disaster tourism, fake news, Twitter soundbites and all-important ratings. But Wilder went a step further. He did not only accuse the media of being driven solely by greed, he doesn’t spare the general public either. Wilder implicated literally everybody in the crime. With the arrival of hundreds of onlookers - who come to see the spectacle and turn the misfortune of another into a Big Carnival, the film’s alternate title - Wilder shouts out to the world that Everybody Is Evil, Dirty and Morally Bankrupt. Just the ticket to make them come and see your movie. Nobody likes to be told they’re blood-sucking leeches. Graham Daseler put it like this in his review Evil Under the Sun: Ace in the Hole: “You can skewer the press and the politicians and even the movie business, as Wilder had in Sunset Boulevard, and get away with it, but you can’t bite the hand that feeds you.” That’s a surefire way to lose an audience. 

Wilder doubtlessly went for the sledgehammer approach with Ace. He liked to push buttons, envelopes and everything else and always had a propensity for cynicism but even for Billy Wilder, this movie is pretty Billy Wilder.

The failure of Ace in the Hole truly stung Wilder. He considered it the best picture he ever made. He learned a valuable lesson though. A picture needs a measure of humanism at the core. Following the disaster, he softened his films with some humor and heart.

Noir beyond the City
Far from the Mean Streets of Gotham or Megalopolis - where life should be safe, peaceful and calm -  we find the Mean Outbacks of Rural Noir.
There is no doubt that Noir and the City have a symbiotic relationship and go hand in hand, most of the time. The city provides a psychological and aesthetic framework for Noir. But a gritty urban setting does not have to be the defining boundary of the genre. Noir can exist perfectly fine outside this particular environment. In Noir’s less-traveled hinterlands evil can hide too. It lurks even in the pristine heart of nature. In the mountains, in the deserts and in the forests where inhospitable wilderness offers nothing but a place to die and life is distilled to the primitive. Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Hitch-Hiker, Pitfall, On Dangerous Ground, The Prowler and Moonrise weaken the argument of The Asphalt Jungle: that the city itself is the corrupting force, that if people only stayed in pastoral backwaters they would never turn to crime.

The barren and dry grounds of the blisteringly hot New Mexico desert don’t offer a tranquil retreat. Instead they prove to be the perfect backdrop for a picture about greed and corruption. It is true that Noir’s protagonists quite often simply transport their city mentality to a rural setting, thus bringing Poisonville and Hate Street to the country. Tatum - the man from the city -  acts as a catalyst but the evil was in Escudero long before he came. It barely needed an incentive.

Ace in the Hole is Noir through and through even though it dispenses with femmes fatales, gangsters, chiaroscuro lighting and Fate. Instead there is a sense of futility, desperation, entrapment - literally and figuratively - and a darkness of vision that is almost unparalleled. Molly Haskell wrote in her Criterion Collection article Ace in the Hole: Noir in Broad Daylight: “The noir is interior—inside a mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and suffocating, and inside the mind of a reporter rotting from accumulated layers of self-induced moral grime.” Ace in the Hole is daytime Noir.

Stuck in sun-baked Siberia
Kirk Douglas plays disgraced newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum who - due to some unsavory misdeeds - was run out of several towns and now has to work for a small-town Albuquerque newspaper, the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin headed by Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall). It’s the ninth circle of hell for Tatum. One fine day he stumbles across Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped alive in a cave that collapsed on him. In a bid to milk the story for all it's worth and get himself back into the Big League, Tatum engineers a scenario to keep the man trapped for as long as possible creating a media circus in the process. Throw into the mix Minosa’s money-grabbing and hateful wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who’s not in the least cut up about her husband’s ordeal, and we have a powder keg waiting to explode.

Douglas was an actor who considered subtlety a waste of time. He gleefully chews off vast lumps of scenery and spits them out again. He - like Joan Crawford and Burt Lancaster - went in for the Bette Davis school of acting who maintained that “Acting should be bigger than life.” I like subtle performances but I adore Douglas’s larger than life and over the top theatricals that are incredibly entertaining. Here he is at the top of his game. Snarling, blustering, threatening and full of furious energy and ferocious determination Douglas commands the screen entirely. And he’s not afraid to show the audience something else: seediness.

Tatum used to be a hot shot reporter back East but boozed himself out of every job. After being fired from 11 newspapers for reasons including - but not limited to - lying, cheating, provoking a libel suit and fooling around with the boss’s wife - the big papers aren’t interested in him anymore, there’s too much dirt on him.
Now he’s washed-up and scraping the bottom of the barrel but he keeps on digging. The guy coulda been a contender, it’s just his greed and amorality - in a word his personality - get in the way.
Noir is the genre of last chances and Albuquerque is Tatum’s last chance. Tatum is the Noir (anti)hero in exile, a man on the run who can’t escape his past. He’s on the run from his mistakes, his responsibilities and from himself. But he’ll be in the money again, of course he will. He just forgets one thing. There’s no place to hide. Robert Mitchum put it perfectly in When Strangers Marry: “Places are all alike, but you can’t run away from yourself”. The coffin lid has already closed, he just doesn’t know it yet.

His shenanigans got him a lousy reputation, a reputation he somehow relishes though. Why else would he brag about his exploits and misdeeds in the big city to Boot? 
To get out of this backwater he needs real news, hard news. Unfortunately for Tatum a year goes by without anything materializing. He’s nearly suffocating with boredom. The big chance comes when Boot sends Tatum and impressionable gopher/assistant photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) to cover a rattle snake hunt. Careful: heavy-handed symbolism here!

"I wish I could coin 'em like that"
Tatum must be one of Douglas’s most unsavory characters, and that’s saying something. From the way he swaggers into the Sun Bulletin, lights a match on the return key of an employee’s typewriter and yells to see the boss, Tatum exudes a brash and aggressive confidence. He acts as if he owns the place. Hovering between arrogance and desperation, he pitches his services as a reporter to Boot for $50 a week telling him he’s worth $250. 

Never let facts get in the way of a good story
He may be immodest but he has a point. He does know all the angles. He gives Herbie and the audience a lesson on how to make a compelling story out of even the most trivial event, like the aforementioned rattle snake hunt: 
“Give me just 50 of them loose in Albuquerque…the whole town in panic, deserted streets, barricaded houses…50 killers on the prowl…one by one they start hunting them down, they get 10, 20…they get 40, 45, 49…where’s the last rattler? In a kindergarten, in a church, in a crowded elevator? Where? Stashed away in my desk drawer…the story is good for another three days…when I’m good and ready we can come out with a big extra: Sun Bulletin snags No. 50”. 
From that moment on we know with absolute certainty that Tatum doesn’t play by the rules. This is not the first time he has cooked up his own story. Boot has his motto - TELL THE TRUTH -  embroidered and framed several times on the newspaper premises. It’s the paper’s guiding ethics and for someone like Tatum this is a rather quaint notion. It smacks of utter naiveté. Tatum needs ethics like he needs the plague. He puts his own spin on the little bromide, he literally embroiders the truth.
There’s something else he believes in: “I can handle big news, little news and if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog.” That’s what he’ll do with Minosa. If the big story will not come to Tatum, then Tatum must go and create the big story.

The cave Leo is trapped in is an ancient Indian burial ground where he prowled around to steal some artifacts for selling at his trading post. To the Navajos the dwelling is known as the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures”. Tatum doesn’t see the irony he only sees the story before his eyes. “Curse of the old Indian chief, white man half buried by old Indian spirits. What will they do? Will they spare him? Will they crush him?” He finally hit the jackpot. When a guy like Tatum smells blood, he won’t let off.

“Bad news sells best, cause good news is no news.”
For maximum possible impact Tatum needs disaster. When Herbie says they shouldn’t hope for a tragedy Tatum replies: “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about them.” We know for a fact that this is not true. The engineer in charge of Minosa’s rescue declares that all that would be needed to get Minosa out is strengthening the walls of the cave and the job would be done in about 18 hours - but that wouldn’t give Tatum his story. So he contemplates what would happen if rescue workers were to delay the rescue for a couple of days.

It is here that Tatum’s utter ruthlessness really comes out. He suggest drilling a hole from the top of the mountain to extract the trapped man which is an unnecessarily slow process of several days. Damn a man’s life, full speed ahead. He brokers a deal with corrupt Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) to let him have his way and keep other reporters away. Tragedy equals opportunity. Leo Minosa may be barely alive, but the entrepreneurial spirit certainly is. Kretzer is up for re-election and if he plays his cards right there’ll be a “hero of the hour” headline in it for him. For Tatum there may be a Pulitzer Price in the offing. For Lorraine it means cold hard cash so she plays along. Minosa's health is rapidly deteriorating. But that is no reason to close the cash register. Business is business.

Print the legend
Tatum quits the Sun Bulletin and sells his daily updates directly to his ex-boss in NYC.
"I'm on my way back to the top, and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that's all right with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a brokenhearted wife for Leo, then that's all right too!"
The idea of the Fourth Estate as a guardian of truth and justice is a big joke to Tatum, because for him the story is always more important than the truth. The courageous reporter, the grieving wife, the dutiful sheriff…all lies.

The Big Carnival’s in town
Then another joyous event occurs. A vacationing family - the Federbers, “Mr. and Mrs. America” as Tatum calls them -  stop at the trading post after reading about it in the morning edition of the Sun Bulletin. They alter their vacation plans just to have a look at a death watch.

A veritable mob soon descend on Escudero like locusts, with Tatum controlling the entire story beginning to end. The area becomes a tourist attraction complete with amusement park rides, concession stands and a tacky theme song. Busloads of people come from far and wide. One man’s agonizing and miserable death in a dirty hole becomes a raucous party for the onlookers. The public as bottom-feeding leeches whose human interest is nothing but a front for morbid scandal-mongering.

Some viewers were wondering why everybody lets Tatum run the whole show. The answer is easy. The guy is a force of nature with plenty of swaggering confidence and animal charisma. Everyone is seduced by it, even the paper’s old-maidenish secretary who giggles and simpers every time Tatum talks to her. He comes off as the coolest of cats. 
Tatum is a master manipulator. Fear and/or the promise of glory, money and fame are great motivators to make people play his game. Herbie has a bad case of hero worship and even Boot, who sees through Tatum right away and should know better, still gives him a job. With Lorraine he bets on her sexual desire for him. Even if she hates him for being smarter than she is, she still has the hots for him.
Tatum may be a liar and a bastard, but he’s also a mover and shaker, someone who makes things happen. Ace in the Hole doesn’t have a femme fatale, instead we get an homme fatal. 

He’s in a league of his own when it comes to unscrupulousness and selfishness. He has no illusions about himself, he embraces his rotten nature wholeheartedly and doesn’t wallow in self-pity. There wouldn’t be anything remotely likable about him if he weren't played by Douglas. Somehow Douglas makes this huckster unforgettable and almost likable. He's compulsively watchable even if he is loathsome.

Tatum acts like a director - and a dictator -  on a film set. He sets out a blueprint, creates a story, drums up publicity, devises characters for his charade and makes them dance to his tune: when Lorraine doesn’t want to play the grief-stricken wife, he slaps her hard twice and tells her not to wipe away the tears. They’re useful for his story. It’s no way to treat a lady but then she’s no lady.

Jan Sterling’s bottle-blonde pouting floozy Lorraine is a hard-nosed dame with a spine of steel and the soul of a cash register. She’s pure unadulterated vitriol. Another exile from the big city who wanted more out of life than being stuck in the middle of Nowhere, NM toiling away in a dusty curio shop/diner. Her life’s been one big disappointment. She considered Minosa her ticket out of a bad job as a dime-a-dance girl. When they met Leo told her he had 160 acres and a big business. He just neglected to tell her it’s a 160 acres of Badlands and a shop that doesn’t generate any money. Lorraine is a gold digger who didn’t strike it rich when she married the wrong guy. Now she’s dangerous because her ambitions were thwarted.
The first shot of her sums up her whole character in one quick stroke. Standing at the mouth of the cave her husband is trapped in, she follows the rescue operation with a look of contemptuous boredom while sucking on a cigarette. For Leo the dirty freezing cave is a warmer place than his marriage ever was, though mercifully he never has to find that out. It’s quite ironic that the only time Minosa is of any use to Lorraine is when he’s dying. Then he brings in the dough.

Minosa isn’t the only one who’s buried alive. Wilder comes precariously close to belaboring the theme of entrapment and suffocation. Leo wants out of the hole, Tatum wants out of the boonies, Lorraine wants out of her marriage and Escudero. Back to the big city, to glamour, to freedom. When she hears about her husband’s accident, her first reaction is to clean out the last measly $11 bucks from the cash register, hop on a Greyhound and make a run for it. Tatum can’t let her leave, he needs Lorraine for the grief-stricken and devoted wife act. The more tearful the better. 

The high cost of dying
“Get this, there’s three of us buried here, Leo, me and you. We all want to get out and we’re going to… You saw those people, a couple of squares, but to me they’re Mr. and Mrs. America…they’ll eat it up, the story and the hamburgers…there’s gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight.” 
That is what Lorraine likes to hear. She gets the hang of the game pretty quickly. The charges for a photo at the carnival/accident sight go up from nothing to a dollar pretty quickly. Anything for a buck. Tatum and Lorraine are two kindred spirits who’ve found each other.

Lorraine isn’t fooled though: “Much you care about Leo. I’m on to you. You’re working for a newspaper; all you want is something you can print.” She calls Tatum a twenty minute hard-boiled egg but only lags a couple of minutes behind herself. She is his female mirror image that sometimes even disgusts Tatum who sees too much of himself in her.
Tatum wants her to go to mass and pray for her husband’s rescue. That’s a big joke to her. Her refusal supplies her with one of the movie’s best lines: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

I always considered Sterling an underrated actress. One of the 50s quintessential B girls, she delivers a gutsy portrayal. Sneering, tawdry and coarse, she’s the ultimate what’s-in-it-for-me? type of dame. A floozy to give all floozies a bad name. 
Sterling plays her role with relish, absolutely unapologetic and callous to the bitter end. When the crowds disperse after Minosa’s death she’s only interested in trying to hitch a ride of out Escudero.

There’s nobody to root for in this movie. Wilder doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Minosa’s parents are nice people but they’re also completely ineffectual, doing nothing but praying and wringing hands. Minosa himself is a poor gullible schlub and simpleton besotted with a cheap tramp who never amounted to anything and who robs graves for a living. Wilder doesn’t treat him with too much sympathy. He never evokes more than condescending pity. 
The Bulletin’s editor Boot is the antithesis to Tatum, an idealistic, honest and kind man but he’s no match for Tatum’s force of character.
Frankly, no-one comes out of this movie looking good. Not even Herbie. He picked the wrong role model and let the promise of glory corrupt him. He loses his innate goodness and innocence.
At best people are thoughtless and inefficient, at worst downright nasty.

With his high-handedness Tatum eventually digs his own grave. When he tries to choke Lorraine with a cheap fur scarf Leo bought for her she stabs him with scissors. He’s a dead man walking now. 
The great thing about Ace is that the ending is so ambiguous. Viewers seem to be divided in their opinion if Tatum repents in the end and sees the error of his ways, or not. I’m in the second camp. This would reek of convention the movie thus far completely avoided. 

When it becomes apparent that Minosa will not survive the rescue operation, Tatum is in a jam. After all, as he said, when you sell people a human interest story you must sell them the happy ending too. There is utter self-disgust, guilt and shame in Tatum’s face when he tells the crowd about Leo’s death. That is completely believable. It would be hard to believe he wouldn’t feel anything after Leo’s death. I can’t see the leopard change his spots though. Back in his room Tatum calls his boss in NY. Maybe for the first time ever he wants to tell the truth. That he and Sheriff Kretzer “murdered” Leo with their callousness. This is the last, the only story he has left. He must tell it. It would be a Tatum exclusive. But nobody wants to hear the truth!

Tatum ends up back in the offices of the Sun Bulletin right where he started. He collapses dead to the floor, in one of the best movie death scenes I have ever seen. His grand schemes failed, he isn’t even worth $50 anymore. We can have him for nothing now because that’s all he has left.

It’s interesting to note that neither Lorraine nor Sheriff Kretzner pay for their sins. They just go their way and are likely better off than they were before.

Leo’s death is already yesterday’s news. Without fanfare the county fair is over and the crowds go home. Only garbage remains behind. (Symbolism alert again!)

Wilder’s cynical vision and message survive unsoftened even if Tatum felt some kind of remorse before he died. Wilder simply did what the little embroidered homily said: he told the truth, the way he saw it. And the truth is at least 50 shades of black.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Nora Prentiss (1947)

Doctor Talbot was a respected member of the community
He lived in the same house on the same street
Year after year
Every one admired him, looked up to him
But then something happened, he did something
Directed by Vincent Sherman for Warner Bros., Nora Prentiss gets slapped with the dreaded woman’s picture label on a regular basis. As Sherman proved with other movies such as The Damned Don’t Cry and Old Acquaintance, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Nora Prentiss is a hybrid movie with two distinctly different parts. In the first half it’s a love story/melodrama with soap so sudsy we may be afraid to drown in the bathtub. Had it stayed this path, the entire movie could easily have turned into a weepie deluxe but thankfully it is spared this fate in the second half. After the one hour mark the movie finally takes a nosedive into Noir territory.

The best thing about Nora Prentiss is undoubtedly Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl. It was a moniker she reportedly despised but I don’t see the reason for this. Nothing wrong with a bit of oomph - or lots of it - especially when Sheridan could back it up with some acting skills on top of that.

The tale of a doctor whose obsession with a nightclub singer destroys his life plays out via flashback. The film opens with a criminal in jail waiting for trial. We don't see his face and he refuses to answer questions, but we hear him thinking about the charges as he recounts his story. 
Plot absurdities abound, the film is riddled with chunks of implausibilities the size of a meteor. That in itself doesn’t bother me at all. I have selective vision that can easily ignore these bumps in the road. The fundamental problem is that the picture is hampered by a 111 minute run time. The pace lags like a clueless party guest who has overstayed his welcome. The elements for a crackerjack Noir are all there, they’re just buried in a script that needed tightening up badly. 90 minutes would have been sufficient. This criticism aside the film has a lot to recommend it though it is never as engaging as it could be.

Oomph
Dangerous liaisons have a tendency to go bad occasionally but it would be hard to top this utter disaster. 
Stuffy and uptight San Francisco Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) is a man who seems to have it all. A good job, the perfect picket fence house, the perfect wife and two perfect kids. About his wife there is an air of mildewy respectability and perpetual reproach. She insists on a firmly regimented home life and Talbot is supposed to conduct himself properly, always. He is painfully precise in everything he does. He has a pencil-thin mustache and even that is painfully precise. 

He meets beautiful nightclub singer Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) one evening when she is slightly hurt in a car accident outside his office. He treats her in his practice - after hours. From that moment on his life will never be the same. “After hours” becomes a habit. She does something to him and his stale life. Soon his infatuation with Nora turns to full-blown obsession. Talbot intends to ask his wife for a divorce but Fate steps in. A patient dies of a heart attack in his office. Talbot sees his chance to start a new life. He fakes his own death by putting the corpse in his car, setting it on fire and driving it over a cliff. Being officially dead now Talbot can start a new life under a new name. All is fair in love and Noir. Talbot hightails it to New York with Nora telling her nothing except that he’s waiting for his divorce to go through. Talbot should have watched more Noirs. Then he may have been aware of the fact that life has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans…

Nora Prentiss is an atypical Noir because Nora isn't your typical femme fatale. She is without a doubt introduced as such in the doctor’s office. Nora isn’t hurt too badly, she’s fine and starts to flirt provocatively with the good doctor the second she enters his office, lighting a cigarette, rolling down her stockings, showing off her legs and giving him come-hither looks. Her bare legs unnerve him greatly which amuses her to no end. One thing is certain, Nora is an alien life form Talbot has never encountered before. 

If this were a typical Noir we’d know exactly how this setup would play out. Nora would be a voracious man-eater who’d plot the downfall of the poor sap. But this movie doesn’t play by the book. Our assumptions about Nora’s character are completely off. It soon becomes clear that Nora is not a lethal lovely. A nightclub singer - what else? - she’s been kicked around her entire life and has had enough of it. She’s a sassy and wise-cracking dame whose knowledge of the world has come at a high price. She may be a dame with a slightly dubious past but as she states with righteous indignation: “I may not have been handled with care, but I’m not shopworn.” We believe her. This is not a girl who’s been diligently working her way to the top one sugar daddy at a time.

Only in Noir
Nora’s character is refreshingly different and surprises the viewer. Her tough dame attitude doesn't give any clue that she really has a heart of gold. There’s more to her than wisecracks. She’s actually kind and not interested in wrecking a man’s life. She’s looking for a ring on the finger. Talbot is different from all the other guys she meets - he’s shy for once and treats her nicely - and she truly falls in love with him. She has principles too. When Talbot doesn’t want to divorce his wife, she’s willing to break the affair off and leave town for a new start.
She knows how affairs usually play out. Being the other woman is always a raw deal that comes to nothing in the end, at least for the other woman.

What she unfortunately doesn’t see is that there is already a nice guy waiting in the wings for her, her boss and Talbot's romantic rival Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda). He’s another character who has more depth to him than originally indicated. He’s not Noir’s typical shifty nightclub owner with likely Mob connections, he’s sincere in his love for Nora and turns out a steadfast and loyal friend to her.

Nora is a lonely woman whose rosy dreams of stardom in the big city didn’t pan out. Now she’s stuck in a concrete jungle that is indifferent to the plight of its inhabitants. The line ”It's a big city and there's nobody to know whether you're alive or dead, and very few people who care" is spoken by doomed heart patient Bailey. It’ll prove true for him and everybody else. Faceless anonymity and hostile isolation characterize the urban jungle. Crowds of people can barely hide the loneliness of the city dwellers. The jungle simply swallows them all up.

Though the movie is called Nora Prentiss, it is actually Dr. Talbot who is the main protagonist. This is his story. If Nora rejects the femme fatale label, Talbot behaves absolutely true to type. If ever a sucker went down Loser’s Lane, it’s Talbot. Nora’s flirting should have been Talbot’s cue to get her out of his practice. But in Noir warning signs go unheeded, red flags are there to be ignored. When trouble comes knocking at the door, the Noir hero embraces it whole-heartedly.
Talbot is a sap who loses everything over an obsession with a woman. He’s a man with a debilitating midlife crisis from which there is no way out. He wants to give up everything to be with Nora and not surprisingly, giving up everything leaves him with nothing in the end. 

There’s just one problem. The movie suffers from a dire lack of a strong lead. Dull-as-dishwater Kent Smith is just as damnably dull as his name implies. He is by no means a bad or incompetent actor - in fact he’s anything but -  he simply lacks screen presence and charisma which makes the heated romance between him and Nora feel more like a lukewarm glass of milk before bedtime.
A different actor could have elevated this role to something more. Smith can’t make the movie his own. As a romantic hero he doesn’t cut it. It’s very hard to see what a girl like Nora would see in this guy. Yes, opposites attract but that’s a lot of opposite here.

Nora Prentiss shows us the dangers of routine. Talbot leads a mind-numbingly boring and monotonous existence. His daily schedule never varies. Nora says she sets her clock by his comings and goings. For about 16 years he’s shown up for work at his doctor’s office at 9 am in the morning, treats his patients and then heads home at six o'clock to a suburban dream, or nightmare. In the bit of free time he has, he visits the same friends and has to listen to his killjoy of a wife Lucy berating him for being five minutes late for breakfast. Lucy is the type of wife that’s simply itching to be cheated on. Only once do we see a different woman beneath the facade. Lucy covers up for Richard who completely forgot his daughter’s 16th birthday because he was out carousing with Nora. There must have been a time when Lucy was not the regimental drill sergeant. Unfortunately that time is long gone.

A theme we find in many Noirs is that domesticity leads to restlessness and dissatisfaction. The amour fou is set in direct contrast to the domestic life, aka marriage, which is portrayed as so stultifying and repressive that even crime looks attractive to those trapped in it. The state of marriage in Noir often seems absolutely horrific; at best a kind of stupefied boredom, at worst a seething, barely controlled mutual loathing.

Until Fate steps in. It’s a moment that occurs in Noir with startling regularity. A guy meets an attractive woman by chance or fate and his life goes down the drain. The second Nora steps into his office, Talbot’s fate is practically sealed. A mild-mannered uptight guy like him is really no match for a tough dame. He would be easy pickings for any femme fatale.

It must be stressed however that his downfall comes not from her wiles but from Talbot's own bad decisions. Nora doesn’t need to wreck his home, he does that all by himself. He’s in self-destruct mode and it’s been a long time coming. The magnitude of his stupidity seems to know no bounds. 

Once in NY with Nora, Talbot’s behavior gets ever more erratic. He barely wants to venture out of his hotel room. He can’t run the risk of being recognized by former acquaintances. He becomes a paranoid recluse. He acts exactly like what he has become: a fugitive from justice. On top of that, he’s increasingly jealous and unjustly suspects Nora of cheating on him with Phil Dinardo. Soaking himself in booze, unshaven and unkempt he looks like a wild man. He’s on the road to nowhere, he just hasn’t taken it in yet.
The hotel room scenes have an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Talbot is literally and figuratively closed in. He’s entrapped by his crime, his lies and his suspicions. A prisoner of his own bad choices. At this time it’s very hard to feel any kind of sympathy with Talbot. He gets himself into the muck deeper and deeper for purely selfish reasons.

There’s an interesting doppelgänger motive going on. The first time at Nora’s nightclub Talbot doesn’t use his real name but goes by the alias of "Robert Thompson” instead. Talbot can make himself believe that it’s not the good doctor who’s going off the straight and narrow but a different man - an alter ego - who has nothing to do with Talbot. Later the death of his patient provides him with a completely new alternate identity. He literally buries the past to rise like Phoenix from the Ashes as a new man.
A double - a dark alter ego - lurks just beneath the surface of the most ordinary individuals. Righteous and stable paragons of duty and responsibility are seamlessly but believably transformed into completely different people, all suggesting that anyone, in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything (Pushover, Decoy, Pitfall). In Noir having an upright character just means that the protagonist has never encountered temptation, the temptation that would reveal how unreliable his noble principles were all along.

It’s interesting to note that Nora knows nothing of how far Talbot was willing to go to keep her. Nora finally makes him tell her why he acts so furtively. When he does she decides to stay with him anyway. This is no love and run. She really cares for him, for whatever reason.

Towards the end we have the twist that lands the picture firmly in Twilight Zone territory. On the run from the cops, Talbot crashes his car, it bursts into flames and he gets plastic surgery that makes him unrecognizable. Finally he thinks he can lead a normal life. But there’s no escape from doom.
His fingerprints are found on the can of gasoline which he used to set his car on fire. And those prints now belong to “Robert Thompson”, his alter ego, who has been arrested in NY for attacking Dinardo. Talbot is arrested and tried for his own murder! Talk about Poetic Injustice.

The ending is what makes this film worthwhile to me even if it is bizarre and farfetched. Talbot stoically goes to trial and is sentenced to death never uttering a word in his defense. When Nora wants to speak up he insists that she keep quiet about his real identity. The last meeting between Nora and Talbot is a whopper. It is here that Smith really shines. Talbot tells Nora in prison: 
”I’m no good to possibly anybody…I could never prove my innocence. They would never believe me…Besides, I am guilty of killing a man. I killed Richard Talbot. ”
We finally do feel sympathy with him. He knows he can't run away from himself. The past will always haunt him. There simply couldn’t be a life for him after the trial even if he was acquitted. 

At last he thinks of his family again. He wants to spare them the disgrace of his crimes and let them - and the public - keep him in mind the way they knew him, as a kind and decent man. If he came back from the dead he would only ruin his family’s lives.

I am not sure if the ending was Code-imposed but it is harsh even by Noir standards. Dying in the electric chair is Talbot’s punishment for his transgressions. Living with what has happened to her lover and not being able to speak up is Nora’s. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. It is as Noir as it gets, bleak and devastating.
Nora: “You can’t ask me to go on living remembering I could have saved you and I didn’t."
Talbot: “If I could die remembering that, you can live remembering it.”
Nora Prentiss is a diamond in the rough that could have been a real gem, had the producers cut about 20 minutes out of it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Notorious (1946)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon on July 6 and 7, 2018. Here's my entry.
"Mother . . . I am married to an American agent”
It’s very hard to choose a favorite Hitchcock film - too many to choose from - but Notorious is certainly in my top 5. Hitchcock loved spy yarns and this one is filled with undercover spies, evil Nazis and a nuclear threat.

As in so many of his films Hitchcock used a MacGuffin to drive the plot along. MacGuffin was Hitchcock’s name for the story element that both the protagonists and the audience are concerned about though the nature of the item is incidental and of no direct plot relevance. It is a fabricated cause but nonetheless the reason everything happens. It could be a roll of microfilm, stolen documents, Hitler’s embalmed corpse…Here it turns out to be uranium and it’s at least somewhat of importance. Notorious was released within months of the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan. 

Ultimately the MacGuffin though is nothing but a contrivance that allows a much more important story to play out. The espionage activities are a pretext for a twisted love story. Suspense and adventure merely provide the narrative backdrop for the question: Is love possible?

The jury is still debating whether Notorious is Noir or not. To me it is more a romantic spy intrigue with a little helping of Noir on the side. The film has some Noir elements, but the parts don't add up to full-fledged Noir. It has a femme fatale but one who accepts her assignment rather unwillingly. It has a sense of entrapment and alienation and the occasional Noir visual, but also a happy ending. Hitchcock made at least three movies that could be called straightforward Noir before he literally washed classic Noir down the drain with Psycho. Why care about semantics when Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s most elegant, polished and sophisticated films, full of emotional and moral complexity. Hitchcock - the ultimate auteur - is simply his own genre.

Notorious is that rare animal, the perfect film where you wouldn’t want to change a thing. This film has so many layers. It works perfectly on the surface as a suspenseful thriller, but pick up some stones and dig a little deeper and all kinds of kinky overtones, undertones and everything-in-between-tones may come out. The notorious Mr. Hitchcock threw a wicked little arsenal of deliciously twisted issues at the audience, to this day with ardent fervor psycho-analyzed to death by those who seem to be in need of a good shrink themselves. 

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) - daughter of a convicted Nazi collaborator - is recruited by American agent Devlin (Cary Grant) and his boss Prescott (Louis Calhern) to infiltrate a circle of her father’s Nazi friends now living in South America. The spy ring is led by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) who once loved Alicia and is still carrying a torch for her. Alicia’s well-known and notorious reputation for drinking, partying and apparent promiscuity would seem to make her the perfect pawn for this Mata Hari assignment. Alicia, though in love with Devlin, accepts and succeeds admiringly. She soon becomes Mrs. Sebastian. Her new husband however finds her out and his coldly calculating mother suggests poisoning Alicia slowly. She knows that it is of the utmost importance that Alicia’s death appear natural so as not to attract the attention of their Nazi cronies who’d be simply overjoyed to find out that one of their own slipped up and married an American spy. It wouldn’t bode well for their long-term health. The Boys from Brazil don’t mess around with people who fall off the wagon as one of their own, poor Emil Hupka, had to find out to his detriment when he couldn’t keep the vintages of some wine labels straight.

Notorious is the anatomy of a love affair. Sexy, cynical and smoldering with a frank eroticism that burns up the screen, the affair is painstakingly dissected by the director for the audience’s pleasure.
Who says Hitch couldn’t do romance? Sure, the romance has a faintly perverse tinge to it but then it’s Hitchcock. The story doesn’t whitewash the darker aspects of love. No doubt there is something distinctly sado-masochistic about it. Only two people who love each other so madly could hurt each other so deeply. The French title of the film is Les enchaînés (The Chained Ones) which hits the nail on the head.

This is an adult romance. Grant is a rather dark and cold romantic hero and Bergman a neurotic boozy playgirl. The bastard and the whore. The joys of young love…ain’t they grand?

Notorious is crammed with risqué sexual innuendo aplenty, of course handled with sly subtlety to get around the pesky Production Code. There is nothing coy or bashful in Hitchcock’s dealings with sex. It’s at the same time hidden and blatantly out in the open. 
There’s enough sizzling chemistry between the two leads to blow up a small country. The relationship between Alicia and Devlin carries an enormous erotic charge from the outset. 

The film boasts one of the most famous and longest kissing scenes in movie history that must have got the PCA all lathered up. It made a mockery of the Production Code which forbade a kiss lasting longer than three seconds. So Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant alternate kissing with dialogue while never leaving one another's arms. Kiss for two seconds, break, talk, nibble and start again, until Hitchcock had his three minutes of extensive and steamy smooching. Joe Breen must have been laid up with a head cold the day this movie passed the board of censors.

Some viewers bemoaned the fact that Alicia and Devlin fall in love out of the blue. That’s not true at all if we just pay attention. From the outset the movie is peppered with more or less subtle hints about their attraction. The look Devlin gives Alicia as she leans across him in the plane descending into Rio is hard to ignore.

Hitchcock’s ideal woman had a hidden, not an in-your-face, sexuality. What intrigued Hitchcock was the hint of unbridled passion behind the cool facade, a pristine exterior that would mask startling depths of passion. In his own words he preferred “the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom”. 
"Suspense is like a woman…The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement. The conventional big-bosomed blonde is not mysterious…The perfect ‘woman of mystery’ is one who is blonde, subtle and Nordic.”
There it hits him right between the eyes
The choice of Ingrid Bergman for the role was inspired. Obviously, In contrast to his later heroines, Bergman is not a cool blond but a warm brunette. It is of no importance. What is crucial is that she fits the type perfectly. She’s at the same time sensuous, provocative, demure, fragile, vulnerable and oddly innocent. 

There was always something angelic about Bergman, no matter if she was playing saints or sinners, virgins or whores. She does a good job of arousing the noble and the carnal at the same time. We simply know Alicia is a good person and sincere in her love for Devlin, not because she is Alicia Huberman but because she’s Ingrid, the Divine. Bergman’s aura is the reason why the setup works. Even if Alicia is as pure as the driven, one feels oddly crude calling her a dame. Hitchcock came up with a great variation on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold theme.

Whatever we want to call Alicia - perpetually sloshed good-time girl, lady of easy virtue and ill repute, tramp - it’s perfectly clear to herself that she lost that “heart full of daisies and buttercups” a long time ago.
As the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy she’s wrecked with guilt and she punishes herself for her father’s transgressions. “When I found out about him, I just went to pot. I didn’t care what happened to me.” She is full of self-loathing and so in a self-destructive move she tries to drown her sorrows in a haze of booze and bitterness. Everything looks better through the bottom of a whisky glass. On top of that she chooses her bed mates indiscriminately and is looking for kicks in all the wrong places.

Her tainted moral reputation has her looked upon with distaste and distrust by her spy masters but nevertheless makes her an incredibly useful tool for them. A woman like her wouldn’t mind being the honeytrap for a Nazi. Men fall in love with her left and right, the list of her conquests is long so why not one more? The Intelligence Agency who wants to recruit her (unnamed but presumably the OSS) comes off as callously opportunistic. They may be on the sight of right, but their morality is elastic and they have no scruples sending an untrained civilian into the line of fire. They look down on Alicia’s promiscuity while exploiting it at the same time. She’s the very definition of collateral damage. If she lives or dies is none of their concern.

Hitchcock giving us all the angles
Alicia plays along though she is a very reluctant femme fatale. She doesn’t relish her assignment but is willing to go above and beyond the call of duty and sleep with a Nazi to purge the guilt she feels on behalf of her Nazi father. Her desire to clear her name and her reputation is great. Prostituting herself is her chance at redemption.
Alicia is simply deeply lonely and insecure. And - most importantly - she’s fallen in love with Devlin. 

Cary Grant’s introduction is wonderfully staged. He’s a gate-crasher at one of Alicia’s wild parties and at first we don’t see his face, we only see the back of his head while he sits in his chair, stoically watching. He’s a man in the shadows. T.R. Devlin, international man of mystery. His intentions and motivations are yet in the dark.

In a stroke of brilliance, Hitchcock subverted Grant’s romantic nice-guy on-screen persona - as he had done before in Suspicion. He saw a darkness beneath the handsome facade. Even the name, Devlin, suggests devil. Devlin mixes a big dose of cold ruthlessness with an even bigger dose of lethal charm and sex appeal.
Devlin has fallen for Alicia too but doesn’t quite trust her because of her notorious reputation. He’s willing to give it a try though when his superiors drop the bomb. Alicia is to seduce Sebastian. Devlin’s boss Prescott kept the true nature of Alicia’s assignment from Devlin who’s shocked. So is Alicia when she receives the news of her proposed mission: “Do you want me to take the job?” she asks anxiously. For Devlin it’s a love test. He refuses to respond frankly. Devlin wants Alicia to say no to the job because it would mean she loves him though at the same time she’d pass up the chance to right a wrong. If she says yes to the mission, she’s a patriot but she’d still be the old Alicia who’ll never change her ways. “Once a tramp, always a tramp”. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Alicia wants Devlin to forbid her to even think about prostituting herself, explicitly telling his superiors so. Something grand along the lines of: 
“How dare you gentlemen suggest that Alicia Huberman, the new Miss Huberman, be submitted to so ugly a fate”.
Alicia considers herself reborn through love - not without some irony.
When Devlin doesn’t speak up he pushes her into sleeping with the enemy. He derides her for her loose morals though he basically threw her to the wolfs. He hates himself for loving a promiscuous lush as Alicia clearly sees: 
“You're sore because you've fallen for a little drunk you tamed in Miami and you don't like it…in love with someone who isn't worth even wasting the words on."
One is reminded of Groucho Marx who refused to join a club that would have him as a member. Devlin simply cannot allow himself to show his vulnerably - not altogether unjustifiably.

To get back at him Alicia throws her love affair with Sebastian in his face. “You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”. In times of crisis she does what she always does, hit the bottle. Their relationship crashes and burns, at least for a while.

The audience is never in doubt that both are sincere in their feelings, but this is Hitch showing the bomb on the bus without letting any of the passengers know about it. The couple’s love story would fall now under the heading of “it’s complicated”. They have more issues than a newsstand. A good smack on the head would do both of them a world of good. Maybe somebody should have paged Dr. Constance Petersen to stage an intervention.

Hitchcock almost hits us over the head with the main theme of this movie, distrust and betrayal. Devlin feels betrayed by Alicia. Alicia feels betrayed by Devlin and by her father. Sebastian is betrayed by Alicia, Sebastian’s mother believes that Alicia has betrayed her Nazi father by refusing to testify on his behalf and she feels betrayed by her son's marriage to Alicia.

Spelled out like this it all sounds like a silly over-baked Victorian melodrama with ludicrous plot contrivances. Thankfully the picture elegantly transcends those pitfalls and that has to do with a first class cast who play with great subtlety and understatement. Alicia Huberman is one of Bergman’s best and most sensual roles and she runs with it. She is believably trampy, loving, patriotic, frightened and grows throughout the movie.

Hitchcock saw female vulnerability as a powerful dramatic device and liked to place his heroines into situations of great danger. He’s right, it works like magic every time. Notorious is The Perils of Alicia.  Hitchcock is so often glibly called “mysogenistic”, a criticism I find as stale as ten day old bread. It is simply a dogmatic knee-jerk reaction of people who see everything through the lens of their own ideological framework and are incapable of digging a little deeper because that would require some independent thought. Hitchcock was much more nuanced and broad-minded than this.

Notorious - and thus Hitchcock - take a remarkably compassionate and nonjudgmental view of Alicia’s predicament. The Lady may be a tramp but she also risks her life for her country as Devlin points out and a checkered past doesn’t change that. Not once does the audience feel compelled to condemn her for what she has to do. The depiction of her suffering is entirely devoid of disrespect. Instead it generates sympathy.
Hitchcock gives us a heroine who blatantly sleeps with a man she despises in order to win the love of another man. And for Hitchcock it’s alright.
As John Fawell in his essay Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock's Rear Window writes, there is a "tendency in Hitchcock's films to be deeply empathic to women and often hostile to the men and critical of their treatment of women”. We’d simply like to give Devlin a kick for being such an oaf.
When Devlin’s superiors call Alicia’s character into question Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question theirs: 
“Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.”
In the end, Alicia does not have to pay for her “sins” because Hitchcock doesn’t need his heroine to be chaste, virginal and respectable. He can simply acknowledge her courage.

The third wheel on the wagon of this love triangle is Claude Rains who oozed charm and savoir fair no matter what he was playing. He always added that undefinable touch of class to any movie he was in.
It’s interesting that Hitchcock - one year after the War - portrays the Nazi as gallant, kind and in love - at least in the beginning - and Devlin almost as the villain, cold and dismissive. 

The audience feels sympathy with the devil because Rains gives his character a deep humanity. Sebastian is a condemned man because of his love for Alicia. Out of self-preservation he has to kill what he loves the most but then her betrayal cut him to the quick.
Unfortunately he is also dominated by his mother. It cannot be ignored that Sebastian, when things don't work out, seeks counsel in his mother’s bedroom.

A special mention has to go to Madame Konstantin for her brilliant portrayal as Sebastian’s mother. She’s the Wicked Witch of the West, the Mother from Hell. It is a twisted unhealthy quasi-incestuous bond that binds them.
The mother-dominated son was one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes and seems to have been drawn from his own life as Hitchcock had ambivalent feelings about his own mother. 

Behind the scenes Madame Sebastian pulls the strings in the house. It is interesting to note that it is her who holds the keys to every room in the house. Unobtrusively, she always sits by, completely undisturbed by any feelings, forever doing needlepoint. Like a spider in her web, weaving a web of lies and deceit.

She is a vulture, a monster who eats her young, if only figuratively. She hates Alicia from the first. “You’ve always been jealous of any woman I’ve shown any interest in” says her son who’s still tied to her apron strings. Norman Bates could have told her that a son is a poor substitute for a lover. With the demure hairstyle of a milkmaid, the look and demeanor of an Iron Maiden and a decidedly clammy charm she is in a league of her own when it comes to creepy. She is a portrait of selfless devotion…etched in acid. When she say encouragingly to her son: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a time” it gives the audience a warm and fuzzy feeling. With a mother like her Sebastian doesn’t need enemies.

Presumably only once her son rebelled against her dominance by marrying Alicia. Mama isn’t happy. She suspects Alicia of infidelity though not of spying. But Sebastian comes running right back to Mama when things go south. In robe and slippers he goes to his mother’s bedroom to confess with utter dejection: “I need your help”. His entire crushing defeat is in that one line. Mother triumphs again. She was right about Alicia. Absolutely imperturbable she reaches for her cigarette case, takes one out and lets it dangle loosely between her lips. It is a moment of utter crassness and vulgarity, in stark contrast to the airs she gives herself when around people. It sums up her character with just one stroke. With chilling ruthlessness she decrees that Alicia must die, slowly by poison. Sebastian agrees. Her son has come to his senses and transferred his devotion back to Mother. He has finally come back to her, back to where he belongs…under her thumb.

Literally in the last second Devlin comes to the rescue of his damsel. He sees that Alicia was sick, not drunk and makes his way to her room where he finds her drugged and almost unconscious in her bed. Slowly descending the grand staircase toward freedom, Sebastian and his mother are powerless to stop them. They cannot give themselves away. Devlin gets Alicia out of the house into the car while Sebastian desperately tries to appease his conspirators. He then begs Devlin take him with them. But Devlin has locked the car door. Interestingly enough, Sebastian is perfectly happy in that moment to throw his Mother under the bus by leaving her behind with his partners. Sebastian’s crony Eric, finding holes in Sebastian’s explanation that Alicia is off to the hospital, knows that something is wrong. Sternly he calls him back: “Alex, will you come in, please? I wish to talk to you.” Such an innocent sentence imbued with such chilling menace. Sebastian has no other choice than to go back in, knowing full well he will never come out alive. He has nowhere to go and, with a terrible finality, closes the door behind himself.

Love can be a poison - for Sebastian it means doom - or the antidote. Devlin saying “I love you” to Alicia gives her the strength in the end to get out of the mansion.

For Devlin and Alicia redemption is possible. For Hitchcock - always the romantic - love does conquer all.