Monday, October 7, 2019

Rear Window (1954)

Sorry for having been AWOL for so long. I have officially dusted off my little battered Remington and am reporting back for duty.
Virginie over at The Wonderful World of Cinema and Samantha at Musings of a Classic Film Addict are hosting the 5th Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon on November 10-12, 2019. This is my entry.

Hitchcock’s gleeful dive into the fine art of snooping or
Spies Like Us
"We've become a race of Peeping Toms." Stella
Hitchcock and phobias, books have been written about this subject. Authority figures, priests, domineering mothers, teachers, policemen, eggs (!)…in short the man was a bundle of nerves and neuroses. He once stated: “I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.”
A very interesting take on “How to Make a Thriller 101”, but his success obviously proved him right. He reveled in his fears and used them like other people use their special gifts. They gave him a profound understanding of the human psyche.

Michiko Kakutani wrote in her NYTimes review of Peter Ackroyd’s book Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life:
The world of menace [Hitchcock] conjured embodies our deepest, most existential fears. Fears …that the universe is irrational, that evil lives around the corner, that ordinary life can be ripped apart at any moment by some random unforeseen event.”
Murderous birds, crop dusters, mother-fixated weirdos with knives who don’t let you shower in peace… For Hitchcock the veneer of civilization was just a thin layer beneath which darkness and terror lay. In Noir danger and evil frequently pervert ordinary settings, and so they do in Hitchcock movies. 

Is Rear Window Noir? (I must ask this question, after all this is a Noir blog). As opposed to Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt and The Wrong Man, Rear Window’s Noir credential are tepid, though Hitchcock was always someone who let darkness infuse his films, even his lightest ones. He was never labeled a Noir director, yet Hitchcock and Noir shared certain sensibilities even if Hitch never really made his home in Dark City. He didn't let himself be confined by cinematic boundaries. At best we could say that Hitchcock used Noir themes as psychological and aesthetic framework. For him, fear, guilt, paranoia, obsession, moral corruption and desperation lurked everywhere. Hitchcock made these themes his own, and ultimately he is one of the very few directors who can lay claim to being their own genre. 

Most of his films work perfectly on the surface. Rear Window can be enjoyed as a simple thriller. Ostensibly the movie is one of his most accessible - like that glass of effervescent champagne called To Catch a Thief - but the audience could always rely on a maelstrom of unexpected intrusions to wash away any illusions of safety and normalcy. 

Hitchcock was immensely interested in everything subversive and made no bones about it. With Rear Window Hitchcock made a movie about your friendly Neighborhood Watch busybody as hero. What? Spying on people while they go about their private business is bad, bad, bad, right? If Hitchcock had been a tiresome moralist, the film would make it blatantly clear that Jeff is a creep who - with his unproven snooping - ruined the life of a good man. Thankfully Hitch spares us this pap. Hitchcock was a connoisseur of all things marvelously pervy. You name it, he envisioned it. He not only validates Jeff’s paranoia, Jeff is the wheelchaired crusader for justice. The ethics of snooping turned upside down. Kinky. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, Hitchcock could.

Good old Bosley called the movie “not significant” in his NYTimes review. Ooooh, that’s a low blow. How that guy managed to keep his job for 20 plus years is anybody’s guess. A success so richly undeserved.  

Naturally Joe Breen got his knickers in a twist about the smuttiness of it all and had his cleaning crew put in overtime. He pontificated that the entire picture had “the flavor of a peep show” (Memo – as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa). Perceptive lad! How did he figure that out? Somebody should have told him that the audience was perfectly capable of taking the 100 proof stuff and not choke on it, even if he couldn’t. But I digress.

Laid up with a broken leg in a hip cast in his small Greenwich Village apartment, professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffreys (James Stewart) is incapacitated and wheelchair-bound for the next seven weeks. Jeff’s introduction is wonderfully done. While he's asleep in his wheelchair, with one panning shot the camera tells us the story of Jeff’s life. His walls are hung with pictures of his adventurous exploits that take him all over the globe to war zones, disaster areas, exiting sporting events, forrest fires, explosions… Without a word being spoken the audience understands that here is a man who likes to live dangerously, a man who doesn't like to be tied down to an office job.
While photographing a race car crash he almost became roadkill himself and now he’s a prisoner in his own apartment. All by his lonesome, he’s frankly bored to tears and so gets his kicks looking out his rear window into the courtyard observing the neighbors. One night he sees his neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) acting extremely suspicious, you know like cleaning huge knives and saws, rubbing down the bathtub walls, going out in the middle of the night in the pouring rain each time carrying a heavy suitcase. His nagging invalid wife seems to be ominously absent from then on. Jeff starts to suspect nefarious goings-ons. He believes the salesman has bumped off his wife. Armed only with binoculars and a telephoto lens, Jeff sets to work. His evidence for murder is shaky at best, but Jeff - like Juror No.8 - is soon able to convince his visiting nurse/self-appointed amateur shrink Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his beautiful fiancée Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly).

Certain themes crop up again and again in Hitchcock's movies. The innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, domineering mothers, chase scenes, the MacGuffin. None of them we get here. We do however get a few others. Ordinary people placed in the line of danger, the most beautiful of all Hitchcock blondes and the very conspicuous elephant in the room, voyeurism, something Hitchcock was more than just a little preoccupied with. Rear Window is the first entry in Hitch's voyeurism trilogy.

Roger Ebert stated in his Rear Window review: 
“The hero … is trapped in a wheelchair, and we're trapped, too--trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options.” 
Voyeurism is the act of living your life vicariously…through others, without sharing their problems or pain. Distance and the avoidance of involvement and intimacy characterize the voyeur. 
Jeff’s addiction to peeping is born out of boredom. Don't forget kids, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Spying on his neighbors quickly turns into an obsession that takes up his every waking minute. Stella warns Jeff: 
“In NY State the sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse. They got no windows in the work house. You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you're always watching worth a red-hot poker?"
In Rear Window Hitchcock keeps the touch light throughout. Next time Hitchcock turned Stewart into a voyeur, his addiction would become a crippling neurosis.

Jeff studies his neighbors like insects under a magnifying glass. We see fleeting snippets of their lives while they go about their mundane activities. Everybody goes by aliases. In Woolrich’s (much-altered) source story It Had to Be Murder the protagonist says about his neighbors: “I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices.” Hitchcock kept this premise. "The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema”, the director maintained. Here he goes back to his roots. Visuals count, not a word is being spoken.

Every window tells a story and Jeff is channel-surfing. There is close to expiry date spinster Miss Lonelyhearts who throws dinner parties for imaginary gentleman callers; she likes a bit of booze with her misery and so has been self-medicating with copious amounts of cheap hooch on a regular basis. There is a female sculptor who’s working on a piece called “Hunger” (attention shrinks, here's your chance to shine). There is Miss Torso (Hitch always had a twisted sense of humor) who frolics around in various stages of undress with her considerable assets ever-present and whose apartment resembles a bee-hive where she throws cocktail parties for susceptible suitors (if Jeff is a voyeur she’s his flip side, an exhibitionist). There’s a composer who fears his career is going nowhere and a couple of amorous newlyweds whose honeymoon is over before it has really begun. As always Hitch is quite honest about sex. Without showing us any more than a pulled-down blind, we know the newlyweds are constantly at it and Mrs. Newlywed is quite insatiable.

And of course there is Lars Thorwald with his invalid wife. She makes his life a living hell and would be much better off dead, at least in his estimation.

That Jeff does not lose our sympathy is entirely down to Stewart, that icon of American likability and integrity. His image was his get-out-of-jail-free card. It let him spy on sexy Miss Torso and not come off as a creep. Not that one can blame him. 

Stewart was a bit of stunt-casting. Before he left Hollywood for active service in 1941, his persona was sincere, boyish, trustworthy. Like a comfortable Saint Bernard. When he came back in 1946, the world had changed, he had changed. Jimmy had toughened up. It started with It’s a Wonderful Life and would be further explored in Anthony Mann’s Westerns. 
Hitchcock was good at exposing character traits in his actors that neither they nor the audience knew they had. Like he had done twice before with Cary Grant, Hitchcock chipped away at Jimmy's nice side. Hitch cast Stewart four times (Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Rear Window) and each time he laid bare nuances that turned his image on his ears.
Jeff isn’t mild-mannered and gentle, he is morally compromised, moody, bad-tempered and occasionally downright insulting and we can literally feel his seething frustration of being cooped up.

The perspective of the voyeur is by nature a restricted one, for the perpetrator as well as for the audience. We see the world from Jeff's vantage point. We see what he sees, what conclusions he draws we draw. This is so obvious it risks accusations of banality but it bears repeating nevertheless because by now Rear Window has become the textbook example for subjective POV filming. 
Jeff spies and so do we and as such we become accessories to his voyeurism. We share his obsession and even identify with it. We know it’s immoral but spying is like the proverbial train wreck. You can’t look away. 

The film could be retitled Murder, He Hoped. So obsessed is Jeff that he doesn’t even want to hear of the possibility that Thorwald is innocent when his friend Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) tells him that Mrs.T. is alive. Doyle committed the cardinal sin. He took away Jeff’s toy and stomped on it. Jeff can no longer indulge in his fantasy.

There is the underlying theme of “Love Thy Neighbor” running through the film. The phrase is uttered twice, once by Lisa and once by a woman after her little dog has been killed. She screams:
“You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! But none of you do!”
Urbanization has led to a fragmentation of society. People may live in close proximity now but they seem to be more lonely than ever. No man is an island, John Donne said, but the urban jungle seems to belie this assumption.
Hitchcock created the entire apartment building true to scale on the Paramount backlot. This is studio-filming at its best. On-location filming may lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings, but artifice can conjure up the perfect background for stories of entrapment, loneliness and isolation. Rear Window is set in a city that shows nothing of the real city and yet it captures the anonymity that characterizes the urban jungle.

The sad thing is that Jeff catches most of his neighbors on the raw, never at their best but often in their moments of failure. Ugly arguments, dirty linen washed in public, sadness, desperation, disappointed expectations… It’s not a pretty picture Hitchcock paints of humanity. The contemporary Time Out review maintained: “Hitchcock has nowhere else come so close to pure misanthropy…” I can't quite follow this reasoning.
Despite exposing their failings, Hitchcock manages to treat the neighbors with compassion and respect, there’s no doubt he’s sympathetic towards the lonely and damaged. He may show their flaws but he does not condemn and ridicule.

Life in Rear Window is condensed to the backyard and the apartment building. Confined spaces in films always create a microcosmos, containing actions and emotions to a single stage and a restricted environment, while at the same time emphasizing the claustrophobia of a the closed-in space which offers no escape from danger. 
Life outside this apartment complex doesn't seem to exist. We only catch the tiniest glimpse of city life through a narrow sliver of alleyway where we see the outside world go by. When characters exit the apartment building, they essentially exit the cinematic stage. Yet this insular microcosmos shows us a cross-section of society that is connected to its wider fabric.

I finally get to Grace Kelly, the one and only, the epitome of Hitch’s cool elegant blonde beauty with her dangerously combustible mix of elegance and sex. Hitchcock’s female ideal was ladylike, sophisticated and untouchable, yet at the same time sensuous and provocative. A snow-covered volcano with a hint of unbridled passion behind the cool facade. So impossibly beautiful is she that she seems unattainable in her desirability.
That Lisa is saved from being “a cold and lonely, lovely work of art” has to do with her humor, loyalty, adventurousness and the amazingly candid desire she reveals for Jeff. She doesn’t waste any time with coyness. She pursues him and proves herself to be one determined girl (I can’t bring myself to call Grace a dame). Lisa is no sleeping beauty who has to be kissed to be awakened. Her passions aren't waiting to be unleashed, they already are. This goddess is quite down to earth.

Her genuine love for Jeff makes her vulnerable. Several times we can feel her very real frustration and pain when Jeff yet again maintains that they are not compatible though she steadfastly - with something akin to masochistic desperation - tries to prove her love for him. She's been auditioning for months for the role of Jeff’s wife, she just goes about it the wrong way, with catered dinners and “previews of coming attractions”. He’s holding one of the most desirable women in the world, who is literally throwing herself at him, at arm’s length! It raises some serious question about his sanity. I’m sure Siggie Freud would have a thing or two to say about it. If Grace Kelly decided to slip into something more comfortable, I doubt any guy would care anymore if some other dude across the yard was cutting up his wife.

She’s "too perfect, too talented, too beautiful and too sophisticated", Jeff laments. Oh dear, the poor man has quite a bear to cross. She wouldn’t survive a day in the jungle. His rugged and nomadic lifestyle could never mesh with her wealthy Park Avenue princess life. He hammers the point home. And hammers, and hammers and hammers.
40s Hollywood could never resist the lure of dime-store Freudianism, and neither apparently can many critics and reviewers. I won’t bore your with the telephoto lens as phallic imagery and the plaster cast as indication of impotence (obviously only temporary). And don’t even get me started on the champagne cork. You can fill in those blanks yourself, kids. Siggie has a lot to answer for. Subtlety? We don’t need no stinkin’ subtlety. We head straight for ham-fisted symbolism. But I’m not playing.
Jeff’s desperately trying to make excuses not to marry Lisa because marriage would mean domestication, aka permanent cripplement. Maybe Jeff has the fate of George Bailey in mind, a man who was never able to realize his dreams. 

Hitch could never resist a little stab at marriage and here he’s almost hacking the institution to pieces. John Fawell writes in his book Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film: 
“Hitchcock’s films tend to be simultaneously warmly encouraging of traditional values and mischievously anarchistic about these values.”
He was someone who very much believed in traditional values but at the same time didn’t have too much faith in them. Jeff and his editor are meditating philosophically on the subject of wives.
Editor: “Jeff, wives don’t nag anymore, they discuss.”
Jeff: “Maybe in a higher rent district they discuss, in my neighborhood they still nag.”
The Epiphany
From the sad exploits of Miss Lonelyhearts to the more merry ones of Miss Torso, from non-compatible newlyweds to the worst case scenario, a murderous husband, this is really a story about male-female relationships in the package of a thriller.
Each neighbor is not just a supporting character, but a representation of a possible future for Jeff. No wonder he's commitment-shy. He recognizes patterns when he sees them and doesn’t want to follow the same well-worn paths to doom. 

So, what’s a girl to do? Take part in Jeff’s fantasy. The turning point comes when Lisa starts to believe. She enters Thorwald’s apartment to find evidence of murder and in the process almost ends up in the clammy clutches of Thorwald herself. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Jeff finds that incredibly thrilling. Throughout the movie he has felt closer to the people he spies on than to his flesh and blood friends/lover. He finally has Lisa in front of his lens, he sees her in his private home movie! If I were psychoanalytically inclined… no, I’ll be damned if I go there. But having the shrink of his trust on speed dial might be just as well.
My favorite scene in the movie must be Grace going up the ladder to Thorwald’s apartment in evening dress and high heels, with nary a hair out of place. Getting her white pristine gloves even a little bit dirty is not an option! That’s my girl.

She’s a risk-taker, proactive and resourceful. She has been confronted with the worst-case scenario and comes through with flying colors. All of a sudden he sees a whole new woman. The look on his face when the new reality sinks in is priceless. Marrying Lisa doesn’t have to mean settling down to an office job photographing society mavens. He can still go to out-of-the-way places and have adventures, with her in tow. 

We have to talk about Mr. Slice ’n Dice and his little shop of horrors. This was Raymond Burr still in his villain phase, and a great villain he made in the 40s and 50s before he became Perry Mason and kept his nose clean.

Hitchcock understood that the unsaid and unseen can be more potent than shocking violence. In not showing the murder Hitchcock is uncharacteristically restrained. In contrast to the in-your-face killings in Psycho where Hitchcock, ever the purveyor of good taste, washed any inhibitions down the drain, this murder happens out of sight, behind lowered blinds. Everything is left to the viewer’s imagination. It has to be to keep the viewer guessing. After all it might all be a figment of Jeff’s imagination.

Thorwald remains an enigma throughout. We never find out much about him. He seems to be just a sad little man trapped in an intolerable marriage and is simply puzzled that anyone would care about him and what he has done. “What do you want from me?” he asks Jeff once he confronts him. As he’s looking straight into the camera he’s posing the same question to the audience. He doesn’t get an answer.

Another standout is Thelma Ritter. Stella doles out homespun bromides along with Jeff’s daily medicine that might sound trite at first - “When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they oughta come together, wham, like a couple of taxis on Broadway” - but hit the mark every time. Ritter almost steals the show if it weren’t for Grace Kelly. It’s not possible to steal the spotlight away from Grace.

The ending is maybe a tad soapy. The composer finished his song and it is that same song that stops Miss Lonelyhearts from suicide. Miss Torso welcomes her tubby little soldier boyfriend home. However, on downbeat note the sex-happy honeymooners are starting the whole cycle again, the wife having turned into a nag.

In the end we’re back at square one, with a twist. After being pushed out of his window, Jeff ends up like in the beginning, in a wheelchair, now with two legs in a cast. We hope this is not a déjà vu all over again. At least this time his chair is facing inwards.

Lisa, dressed in rugged outdoor clothes - as interpreted by Harper’s Bazaar’s fashion department -  and looking like the cat that ate the canary, is reclining on the sofa, reading rugged outdoor literature. When she sees that Jeff is sleeping she reaches for her holy book, Harper’s. Many reviewers have suggested that this means their battle is not resolved and will continue. I’ll put a much more positive spin on it. She’s capable of juggling both worlds. Jeff just has to ditch the window-shopping.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Act of Violence (1949)

Tribute to a Bad Man
"What did he tell you? Did he tell you that I'm crippled because of him? Did he tell you about the men that are dead because of him? Did he tell you what happened to them before they died?" Joe Parkson
This is as much a movie review as a tribute to Robert Ryan. Directed by Fred Zinnemann for MGM’s B unit, Act of Violence is one of those must-see jewels of postwar Noir that nobody wanted to see on its original release. It just patiently waited to be to be rediscovered. Maybe the audience wasn’t quite ready for a story about veterans that is like a wet blanket of despair and anxiety. 

On the surface a straightforward suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller, there’s a lot going on under the surface. The picture digs deep into dicey moral issues. It takes a harsh and honest look at the effects of postwar trauma in veterans who fought and then were left to their own devices. It manages to confront such themes as betrayal, guilt, courage, cowardice and the situational ethics of men required to survive in wartime. Act of Violence is the anti-companion piece to The Best Years of Their Lives whose drift was much more optimistic as to reintegration of veterans into society.
Classic Noir wouldn't be the same without Robert Ryan’s unforgettable contribution though he rarely ever played a conventional hero. (The same can be said about his Westerns). Appearing in at least ten films that can be called true Noir, Ryan’s towering presence is one of the cornerstones that built the city known as Noirville. Even if not all his films were first rate, his performances always were. There was a darkness in his portrayals that seemed to spring from his inner core and many of his characters gave the impression they lived in perpetual Hell. As an actor he understood the sickness that could live in men’s hearts. I always got the feeling that his characters would like to believe in the goodness of people but only have evidence to the contrary.
Ryan played gangsters, racketeers, psychos, mob bosses, corrupt businessmen and similarly prepossessing characters. His protagonists had a hellish temper and a short fuse. If he was miserable he made damn sure everybody else was too. A good beating could convince anybody to see things his way, the hell with the Geneva convention. 

He was a hateful killer in Crossfire, a psychotic gangster in The Racket, an ugly racist in Odds Against Tomorrow, an unhinged control freak in Caught, a sadistic cop out of control but redeemed by love in On Dangerous Ground, an unbalanced mob boss in House of Bamboo, a charming bastard in The Naked Spur. Ryan occasionally showed that he could be different. In The Secret Fury he’s an all around nice guy and in The Set-up he’s the underdog scrapping for a shred of dignity. I have a particular fondness for boxing movies and I blame Ryan for this obsession entirely. But whatever he played one wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he ate nails for breakfast.

He didn’t shy away from uncomfortable characters. They were seething with suppressed rage - not to say unfathomable wrath - pain, loneliness and a deep self-loathing that seemed almost existential. Ryan fully embraced their tormented and troubled souls and revealed the inner workings of these alienated man who often had unexpectedly hidden depths and complexity. His cynical, misanthropic and bitter men always emotionally engaged the audience and somehow he managed to elicit some sympathy even for his worst characters because they were so absurdly charismatic.
With his steely gaze, contemptuous sneer and menacing stance he could make your blood run cold or give you those goosy-pimply goosebumps. There was a brooding intensity and ferocity about his performances that drew in the audience and occasionally we got a hint of charm and a killer grin which completely drive this girl wild. It is no surprise that women were attracted to him. He possessed a pretty lethal mixture of danger, violence and surprising tenderness. When Ryan goes bad, I go right after him.

During his lifetime he unfortunately never achieved the same (star) status and recognition as his contemporary tough guys Cagney, Bogart or Mitchum.
In reality he was the polar opposite of the characters he played so often. A committed family man, he supported many liberal causes and shunned the Hollywood spotlight. He was at best a reluctant movie star who didn’t play the Hollywood game and this is probably the reason why he never achieved real stardom.

Act of Violence’s opening scene packs a punch. We see a mysterious man, Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), limping down a deserted rain-slicked New York street at midnight, shrouded in deep dark shadows, hobbling up the steps to his dumpy digs, opening a drawer and taking out a loaded gun before boarding a Greyhound bus to LA. His room is bare. No belongings, no personal touches, no interests… except for his mission. On the journey out West he doesn’t close an eye. We know this guy means business. 
The bus leaves the dark rainy city and heads to the sunny suburbs of SoCal. There the viewer meets the man Parkson is hunting: Frank Enley (Van Heflin), prosperous building contractor, all around nice guy, devoted family man with a beautiful wife Edith (Janet Leigh), a little boy and a nice house in the suburbs. The unimpeachable pillar of the community. Soon we learn why the guy with the limp is on Enley’s trail. Enley was Parkson’s commanding officer in the army, until they and several others ended up in a Nazi prison camp. There Enley cracked under the pressure. His men wanted to escape but he sold them out to the prison guards for food, a betrayal that cost most of them their lives.

Act of Violence is one of the many 40s and 50s Noirs that probed the wartime traumas of returning servicemen. Literally as soon as the war was over and the heroes were home, Noir started producing anti-heroes. The damaged war veteran with a psychological trauma became a staple in crime films of the period. To name just a few: The Blue Dahlia, The Clay Pigeon, High Wall, The Breaking Point, Cornered, Dead Reckoning, Ride the Pink Horse, Nobody Lives Forever, 99 River Street, The Chase, Martha Ivers, Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way.

When the war ended a generation of former soldiers found themselves adrift, surrounded by a public who had no idea what they endured and couldn’t share their experiences. They had faced violence and death, seen their buddies maimed and killed and had acquired a capacity for violence that couldn’t simply be switched of. In essence the returning vet was a displaced person who came home to unemployment, troubled marriages, broken dreams and a country that had taken a turn for the noir and changed into alien territory. They had left pieces of themselves behind in places they never wanted to visit in the first place. After being primed to take no prisoners in the violent theaters of war, many found it hard to settle back into peaceful civilian life.

Too often people didn’t want to know what soldiers had been through. In a way understandable as postwar society was focused on reconstruction and moving forward. So some of them turned into walking time bombs. The best years of their lives had been spent in hellholes and they weren't about to wait for the Good Life on the installment plan.
Broken in body and mind, servicemen came home desperately trying to forget what couldn't be forgotten. “He’s sick with it”, says Edith to Parkson’s girlfriend Ann about her husband. “They’re both sick with it”, replies Ann.

War doesn’t end when the peace agreement is signed and besides their physical wounds, many returnees carried heavy psychological baggage. The wounds had only healed superficially, but pick off the scab and it would start bleeding again.

It doesn’t take Robert Ryan more than a few minutes to establish a mood of menace and impending violence. Back from the dead and making a beastly nuisance of himself, he’s a man with a gun and a score to settle. He may be on home soil, but this vet is still operating behind enemy lines. He’s out for blood. His hate is the gasoline in his veins, the thought of revenge is the only thing that keeps him alive. We can see it in his eyes. There’s nothing but the single-minded resolution to kill in them. 
Parkson’s limp is a visual symbol for the psychic scars he drags around with him (Eddie Muller, Noir Alley intro), it’s a reminder of Enley’s betrayal. In the beginning Parkson is clearly painted as the villain, an obsessed mental case straight from the psych ward and we’re frightened for the guy he’s hunting. But in Noir nothing is as it seems. We slowly learn that Parkson’s moral outrage and vigilante tactics are justified.

When Johnny came limping home, he couldn’t let go of the past. His life stopped on the day his buddies died. Vince Keenan calls Parkson very aptly “yesterday’s man” in his Noir City Magazine article Ryan’s Vengeful Vet. A man with a past but no future. Noir’s classic alienated loner.
Noir has always been the genre of the disenchanted and no more so than here. One of the best scenes of the movie is Parkson not even sparing one glance for the parade of veterans on Memorial Day. It tells us all we need to know about his war. Here’s a guy with nothing to celebrate. Rosy reminiscences of wartime heroics are not for him.

Years of war hadn’t been kind to many soldiers and not every man came back a hero. Enley’s supposedly spotless war record is hiding dark secrets.
His introduction is completely different. No rain, no darkness, no shadows, no dirty city. When we first meet him it’s a beautiful sunny day in small town Santa Lisa where Enley - revered war hero - is honored by his community for finishing a housing project.

Small town America is always a crucial symbol of healthy life in many Hollywood movies, standing for innocence, simplicity and decency. Not only is Enley the embodiment of the American Dream, he’s also the embodiment of progress, reconstruction and postwar prosperity. He and his construction company are the hope for a new and better tomorrow. Enley himself though stands on extremely weak foundations. 
It doesn’t take long for his life to unravel once Parkson appears to undercut the apple-pie wholesomeness. Noir is a genre where danger (or evil) frequently pervert the ordinariness of familiar locations and here they turn a comfortable home into a jail cell. 

Coming home early in a panic from a fishing trip after he’s spotted Parkson, Enley closes all the doors in his house, pulls down the blinds, turns off the lights and refuses to answer questions to the confusion of his wife. He’s standing in the dark looking terrified, listening to Parkson sneaking around the house dragging his leg. The sound of limping takes on a second meaning. For Enley it is a rebuke, the sound of his guilt. Parkson is the film’s conscience that won’t stay buried.
Slowly but surely Enley is falling apart and later we see him running through a dark tunnel in the Bunker Hill neighborhood, having flashbacks about his screaming men being slaughtered by the prison guards. It’s interesting to note that the violence in the film is mostly psychological. Parkson and Enley don’t actually meet until the end of the movie and then Parkson doesn’t get a chance to lay a hand on Enley.

Duality is a key feature in this movie. Past vs future, city vs small town, light vs darkness. 
The happy daytime scenes in Santa Lisa are sunny but once Enley’s sins catch up with him and he leaves his pastoral sanctuary and tries to flee his consequences - in the middle of the night leaving his wife behind - all his scenes take place during shadowy nighttime, within a dark seedy urban netherworld full of whores and thugs that almost swallow him up. But then darkness had been his inevitable destination from the beginning.

Enley has managed to bury his guilt deeply in his subconsciousness. When he finally confesses his guilt to Edith, initially he’s trying to justify his actions by saying he betrayed his men to save them, but if that story were any lamer it would walk on crutches.
“Do I have to spell it out to you? Do I have to draw you a picture? I was an informer! It doesn’t make any difference why I did it; I betrayed my men! They were dead! The Nazis even paid me a price: they gave me food, and I ate it… I ate it! I hadn’t done it just to save lives…They were dead and I was eating and maybe that’s all I did it for - to save one man. Me. There were six widows. There were ten men dead, and I couldn’t even stop eating. ”
Survivor’s guilt can be a terrible thing. There is a level of self-disgust so deep in these words that we know then that there is only one way out for him in the end.

Here’s another recurring Noir theme. The claims of the past are relentless. "The past is never dead. It isn't even past”, wrote William Faulkner. The past is a debt collector, silently waiting to demand its pound of flesh.
It was a courageous role for an actor to take. Playing a coward and squirming worm isn’t necessarily good for the image.

Zinnemann takes his time to let the viewer know what’s going on. Ambiguity is something no good Noir can do without, and here it is taken to the extreme. The release of information is slow. Motivations and intentions are kept in the dark as long as possible. Sympathies shift and fluctuate constantly. For the first half of the film we just don't know who the hero and who the bad guy is. Is there even a good guy and a bad guy? 
Who do we root for? The obsessed guy bent on revenge or the guy who took the easy way and is still running? As always it is not that simple. There is no black and white, no clear cut lines. 
“The moral landscape of this film is complex and difficult terrain; and Zinnemann never allowing …us to categorize or pigeonhole his protagonists.” Mark Freeman, Act of Violence, Senses of Cinema
To Zinnemann’s credit he doesn’t give us pat answers. He offers each man a measure of compassion.

If we feel sympathy with Enley at all it is because of his wife and her attempts to understand his crimes. If she loves him there must be some good in him. 
Edith symbolizes prewar normalcy. Young, innocent and untouched by the ugliness of war, she is a light in the darkness, assuring her husband of her love even after she knows the whole truth. 
“Ever since I first knew you, Frank, and up until yesterday, I thought you were the finest, most wonderful man in the world. Now I know that you’re like everybody else. You have faults and weaknesses… that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, or that I don’t want to be your wife—because I do.”
Special mention has to go to Mary Astor - looking like someone put her through the wringer - playing over-the-hill street-wise hooker Pat who gives Enley shelter one night after he decides to get plastered and go on the run. She’s hit rock bottom and broke but she gets her kicks, you know. Her desire to make a quick buck mixes nicely with her very real concern for Enley. She’s another one of those wised-up and disillusioned characters that populated Noir. There is an underlying sadness about her because her life has been one big failure. “So you’re unhappy. Relax. No law says you gotta be happy.”
For Pat there’s only two kinds of trouble in the world, love trouble or money trouble. In most Noirs that would be spot on. But Enley’s particular predicament lies outside even her quite considerable experience. 

For a while Pat and Enley are fellow travelers in the shadowy underworld of Noir. He anaesthetizes his guilty conscience with booze, she introduces him to contract killers. In a drunken stupor Enley promises hitman Johnny - played wonderfully with chilling ice-cold amorality by Barry Kroeger - several thousands to get rid of Parkson. This blurs the line between good guy and bad guy even more. Mr. Nice Guy is willing to stoop so low and hire a hitman to kill his enemy. 

If there is an out and out villain in this piece it’s neither Enley nor Parkson but the hired killer. Johnny - who sat out the war in a cushy office - is the one who has no qualms whatsoever about his profession; he sees killing not as a moral issue, but as a business. Killing is a job, and a job is a job is a job.
When he emerges from his 80 proof haze and can think straight again, Enley tries to stop Johnny. Which brings us to the showdown at a train station, a finale that plays like a final standoff in a Western.

Some viewers found the ending a bit too pat. It is without a doubt a screen writer’s ending, not a real world one. But I am a sucker for the redemption angle and I don’t subscribe to the notion that every Noir must end in abject misery.

Johnny has come to kill Parkson and Enley finally does the right thing. He takes the bullet which was meant for Parkson. Both Enley and Johnny die in the ensuing car crash. Parkson goes to tell Enley’s widow. 

Enley finally finds redemption, if only in death. For Parkson Enley's sacrifice is a spiritual renewal. Like Tosca he can forgive now that his enemy is dead. He can hopefully let go of his hate and regain some of the humanity he had lost. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Ok, guys and dolls, I'm back. Sorry for maintaining radio silence so long, it got busy. With apologies to Erica from Poppity Talks Classic Film and Gabriela from Pale Writer this is my very belated entry into Joan Crawford: Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon from May 10 - 12, 2019.

“It’s a great tragedy that when people hear the name Joan Crawford, first thing they think of is ‘no more wire hangers’. But there is another Joan Crawford people should remember…She really was the ultimate movie star.” Joan Craw­ford: The Ultimate Movie Star Documentary 2002
Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Joan Crawford was not only the ultimate movie star but a consummate actress and a genuine artist as well.
The cult of her personality has so often overshadowed her work and her talent. Somewhere along the line Crawford ceased to be an actress and not only became a Star but an Institution. Then in the end - with her star status faded - a sad caricature. 

Crawford playing a self-sacrificing mother in Mildred Pierce is an irony not lost on contemporary audiences and a big chunk of the blame for that can be laid at Christina's infamous book and the subsequent film in which Faye Dunaway played Crawford as camp all down the line, interpreting her as a crazed drag queen and an undiluted mental case. It was in essence character assassination. Neither book nor film did anybody any favors. Whatever the truth may be, Mommie Dearest tainted Joan’s legacy forever and reduced a career that had spanned almost five decades to one dire little unfortunate line. 

Crawford’s larger-than-life persona can cloud our judgment of her films because The Crawford Factor often had the tendency to eclipse everything else. How do we define The Crawford Factor? With the elephant test. It’s hard to describe but we know it when we see it. The FABulousness, the gloss, the glamour, the Joan. She may not have been generous to her children, but she was to her audience. A Crawford picture was first and foremost aware of itself as a Crawford picture. 

Joan possessed that elusive but essential quality called star power, in spades. Crawford constantly reinvented herself during her long career. The radiant flapper of the 1920s gave way to the determined shop girl on the make of the 30s. By the mid-40s the shop girls were all grow up with children of their own and Crawford morphed into the woman from the wrong side of the tracks who makes good against all odds. After Mildred Pierce she continued to play a variation of that character, a self-sufficient and hard-working woman who neither accepted deprivations nor limitations. Mildred Pierce is the essence of all (later) Crawford roles. If she’s never quite convincing as a down-trodden ordinary housewife, a “common frump”, that’s because she was never completely able to shed that veneer of glamour that she seemed to have been borne with (but wasn’t). But by sheer force of will she could pull it off.

Crawford’s life was the classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Born into poverty and relatively uneducated, she knew from an early age that she wanted to BE someone. Her sole desire was to be a Star. She had limitless drive and ambition and tirelessly worked to better herself, until she had eradicated every trace of that unsophisticated poor girl Lucille LeSueur she had once been. Lucille was reborn as Joan, rising like Phoenix from the ashes. Joan created herself, or better the image and persona she presented to the public, carefully cultivated and guarded throughout her entire life. “If you're going to be a star you have to look like a star. I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star.” This was not a woman who was casual about her stardom. The public never got to see anything other than an exquisitely manufactured product. 

If this sounds all suspiciously like a plot of one of her movies, that’s because it is. Her films fit her like a glove because they used elements of its star’s life story, blending together her personal and her screen persona. Joan was so good at playing these gritty characters because they came close to who she really was. Crawford took a character and molded it around her own personality.

Apart from success there was one more thing Joan craved. Approval. She wanted not only Hollywood but the public to love her. This overpowering need for validation we meet again in the movie. Mildred craves nothing more than the love of her daughter, desperately so.

There’s no denying that late in her career Joan’s movies steadfastly veered into the campy. By the time Queen Bee rolled around, Crawford was less and less able to reign in her tendency towards ham. She became the Joan so many people now remember her as, the bad punchline on the edge of hysteria with a face like a grotesque kabuki mask, an image that has sadly persisted in the cultural memory. By the 60s she was long past her expiry date but still valiantly plugged away. But now there was a touch of Norma Desmond about her. She couldn’t let go of her glory days. Our girl Joanie put up a good fight to the end but never realized that there comes a time when you have to pack it in.

With Mildred Pierce Crawford struck gold. Her career had been in freefall after a string of flops in the early 40s and many had written her off as a has-been. She asked MGM to be released from her contract and to her dismay they took her up on the offer and kicked her to the curb in 1943. But Jack Warner saw that there was still life in the old girl. Warner Bros. rescued her and Pierce was Crawford’s celebrated comeback role. It was a resounding box office success and Joan won an Oscar for it. What had promised to be a low point in her career turned out to be a career highlight and prolonged her shelf life by another 15-20 years. 
From then on she stayed in the shadowy back alleys of (quasi)Noir. She followed this success up with Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Flamingo Road (1949), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) and Sudden Fear (1952).

Directed by the great and extremely versatile Michael Curtiz for Warner, Mildred Pierce is based on James M. Cain’s eponymous novel which was deemed unfilmable for a long time. Cain had that in common with other pulp writers. Cain’s novels were the kind of stuff that made the PCA and studio executives equally nervous. They were mean and downright dirty. So Joe Breen and his cronies wouldn’t get a conniption, as a concession to the Production Code the novel was overhauled, cleaned up and a murder was added. Though the screenplay took great liberties with the plot, straying from the source material was actually a smart move. The Code doesn’t really work against the movie, and the murder trajects the film straight into Noir territory. Cain’s novel is driven by sexual desire, the film focuses on insatiable ambition due to (non-sexual) obsession. 

In a strangely deserted police station housewife and restaurant entrepreneur Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is questioned about the shooting of her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Several flashbacks tell us Mildred’s life story. After divorcing her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) Mildred is in money trouble. To give her snotty daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) all that her heart desires Mildred finds work as a waitress and soon becomes a dizzying business success with the help of good friend Ida Corwin (Eve Arden) and business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson). To have access to a high society lifestyle Mildred marries Monte…with tragic consequences.

Mildred Pierce has so often been slapped with that dreaded woman’s picture label. There’s no doubt that the movie is occasionally feverish, but then these kind of melodramas always are. Absurdities must not only be accepted but embraced, especially when we have top-notch actors who can easily make the story work and smooth over any contrivance on the filmmaker’s part. Mildred Pierce is simply a great piece of cinema. 
Incidentally the most emotionally draining scenes of the movie are not played for loud effect. Younger daughter Kay dying of pneumonia is a scene beautifully restrained and Crawford leaves the scenery unscathed. In Mildred’s and Veda’s fights we can see the fur fly but it’s kept just this side of histrionic.

Clearly Mildred Pierce occupies a cinematic grey space. Noir takes on the woman’s picture, or vice versa. A flashback structure casts a pallor of doom over the picture. The beach house is a modernist dream of split levels, spiral stairs and looming shadows on the wall. The opening sequence is a knockout. The credits - written in the sand - are washed away by the incoming tide to Max Steiner’s fantastic score. Then we hear shots being fired, a man is pumped full of lead, keeling over and gasping with his last breath “Mildred”. 

The stylistic means of Noir are used to great atmospheric effect here but we have to look into the soul of the film to see if the psychological underpinnings hold up to genre expectations. And indeed they do.
Not only do we find the Noir themes of ruthlessness, selfishness, moral ambiguity, greed, lust, jealousy and dissatisfaction. We also have the most obvious, the elephant in the room: Obsession.
“The trappings of motherhood and pie baking may not seem like the stuff of film noir, but Mildred’s obsession with her older daughter is as perverse and destructive as any man’s enslavement to a femme fatale.” Imogen Sara Smith, Criterion Collection article Mildred Pierce: A Woman’s Work
Spot on. Obsession does not necessarily have to be sexual to be an unstoppable driving force. Incidentally in the novel the mother-daughter relationship takes on slightly incestuous shadings, something that is definitively not found in the movie though Mildred’s obsession with her daughter is decidedly pathological verging on the sadomasochistic.

The driving force of Noir stories is often the urge to escape. From the ordinary, from poverty, from bad relationships, from oneself. In Mildred’s case her aspirations are not for herself but for her daughter. Veda’s greed is Mildred’s motivation and she subordinates all her own wants and needs to Veda’s wishes. 
Mildred puts her children above everything, including her marriage. She is one of those women whose nurturing love for her brood drowns out any other feeling. She explains to her husband that the children “come first in this house, before either one of us. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but that’s the way it is.” Bert no doubt is something of a dud and a defeatist, he’s lacking Mildred’s drive and will to succeed but to me it’s no wonder he left. He doesn’t seem to exist for Mildred. He's the one though who is clear-sighted enough to see what Mildred clearly can’t and won’t. That she’s spoiling Veda rotten and thus ruining her character.

Mildred is a protagonist straight from a Greek tragedy. She has a tragic flaw, the character trait that invariably leads to the protagonist’s downfall. Complete blindness to her daughter’s character.

Mildred is the quintessential 40s working girl. She epitomizes the American Dream. A self-made woman who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, she rises above near poverty to great success by sheer indomitable spirit, hard work and determination without resorting to unethical business practices or compromising herself. She’s the gritty stuff America was built on and is rightly proud of.
Even when she was married to Bert she was always busy, selling cakes and pies to her neighbors out of her kitchen to pay for her daughters’ piano and ballet lessons. 

Contrary to popular belief, it must be stressed that Hollywood in general portrayed working women in quite a positive light. Taking a closer look at many 40s movies it’s time to overhaul the preconceived notion that working women played havoc with the ideal of American womanhood.
"It is often said that men’s discomfort with women’s entry into the workforce during World War II conjured the figure of the femme fatale, which demonized strong, ambitious women. This theory makes no sense, since the femme fatale is never a woman who works or is independent; she is always a woman who uses men to get what she wants, relying on the most traditional feminine wiles. Women who do work, like Mildred and Ida (or like the secretaries played by Ella Raines in Phantom Lady and Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, or the nightclub performers portrayed by Ida Lupino in The Man I Love and Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss) are invariably good eggs, while femmes fatales are like Veda, avaricious gals who would rather cheat and exploit their desirability than work for what they want.” (Smith, ibid.)
I can add a few more movies that subvert the accepted wisdom. Joan Leslie in Born to be Bad, Roz Russel in His Girl Friday, Jane Randolph in Cat People, Ella again in The Web and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and Anne Crawford in Bedelia.

I’ve seen so many reviews stating Mildred is punished for being an independent working woman at the end of the movie. Horsefeathers. This is not a movie about the evils of women in the workplace. Mildred works because she has to, not because she wants to. This is a movie about social ambition and misplaced (mother) love. Her downfall comes about NOT through the disapproval of society but through her own character, her fatal flaw. She, and only she, set herself up for her own failure.

Looking like a luminously beautiful porcelain doll, Veda has the face of an angel and the soul of a cash register. If you look up the word entitlement princess in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of her. Ann Blyth was only 16 verging on 17 when she made the movie and for someone that young she turns in a fantastic and chilling performance. Hell, she turns in a fantastic performance no matter the age. 

She must be the youngest femme fatale in film ever, “a femme fatale in bobby socks” (Smith, ibid.). Outwardly so sweet you can literally feel the cavities eating into your teeth, she is really a spider woman whose gossamer light web is woven so delicately that by the time you notice you’re in it it is already too late.
Veda perfectly understands the finer points of psychological warfare. She uses her mother’s love for her against her. Veda’s cruelty is always deliberate, each and every one of her poisonous darts is designed to cause the most pain. A contemptuous user for whom any gift is too shabby, Veda is a bottomless pit of greed and is always working one angle or another because happiness can’t buy her money. 
Veda has complete control over her emotions…that’s because she hasn’t any. She can switch on a particular human emotion at will - or at least a good imitation of it. When she notices that a tantrum won’t do the trick, she changes her tactics to declarations of love and tears. “I’ll change, Mother, I promise. I’ll never say mean things to you again.” Would she like a little bit of cheese with her whine?

Considering the fact she’s still a teenager, that little dame is frighteningly knowledgable, about everything. Aided and abetted by her mother’s business partner Wally, Veda marries rich kid Ted Forrester just to take him to the cleaners. Having the marriage annulled shortly after, she extorts a $10,000 check from his mother claiming a fake pregnancy. This isn't cheating, mind you, it’s just skewing the results in her favor. Mildred might smell of grease but Veda knows a thing or two about high-class prostitution. She then proceeds to seduce her mother’s second husband. “There’s something to be said for alligators eating their young.”

Class and social status play a big role in the movie and it is Veda who is obsessed with it. She acts like a spoiled heiress despite being an heiress to nothing. Veda is ashamed of her mother’s working class background, her shabby home and her - gasp!- work as a waitress. So bourgeois. Mildred and family may have crossed the railroad tracks, but Veda can still hear the train roar. 

The scene where Veda accuses Mildred of “degrading” the family by waitressing is painful to watch for its sheer maliciousness. Veda detests the “smell of grease” on the money from her mother’s restaurants though that doesn’t prevent her from taking the developmental aid anyway while holding the source in contempt.
“You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t, because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you.”
She spits out those lines like they’re poison. If Veda is not the most venomous femme fatale in Noir history, she’s definitively a contender.
Veda openly aspires to an aristocratic life in which she lives on wealth she never earned and looks down upon those who do as akin to something the cat dragged in. Oddly enough singing at a grubby waterfront dive for hooting sailors doesn’t seem to bother her. Full speed ahead, Fleet Week. We always knew those singing lessons she took were good for something. 
Unfortunately we never get to know the root of Veda’s social ambitions. There is nothing in the film to explain the origins of her attitude. Maybe it was Curtiz’s little stab at California’s post-War burgeoning consumer culture.

In the end Veda blames her mother for all her crimes. “It’s your fault I am the way I am”. In a way she’s right, there’s no doubt Mildred is enabling a sociopath. After all, Gods and Goddesses don’t exist until someone builds a temple to them. 
If ever a dame was itching for a good walloping it’s Veda but I don’t believe Mildred created Frankenstein’s monster. It’s another nature vs nurture debate. I don’t think anything that Mildred could have done would have changed Veda. Neither love, nor understanding, nor setting boundaries, nor discipline would have made any kind of impact on Veda. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, Veda was born that way. There’s a bad seed in her, her venality is all her own. 
In the book we can assume that Veda may have started out human - maybe - but was warped by Mildred's adulation and attentions. As incarnated in the movie she was simply born without a moral compass.

This is one of the few movies where the audience has pity with Crawford, usually not an actress to evoke this emotion. Both trailer and promotional material are misleading to the highest degree and expressively designed to make as little sense as possible. The audience is made to believe Mildred wrecks every life she touches. 
“The kind of woman most men want... but shouldn't have!”
“Loving her was like shaking hands with the devil.”
“She wasn’t too particular how she got what she wanted.
What? Turns out Saint Mildred is not the perpetrator but the victim forever tilting at the windmills of hopeless causes. 

Zachary Scott was always best when playing slimy heels and human specimens that are practically slithering, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The moment we see him we know he’s Snidely Whiplash. That’s because he has a pencil-thin mustache. The flat broke offshoot of a once-wealthy Pasadena family, Monte Beragon is a leech, a lounge lizard and a self-confessed sponger with a perpetual cash flow problem. What does he actually do for a living? “I loaf, in a decorative and highly charming manner.” Work, the bane of the freeloading class. He sure sounds like a winner.
The family’s fortunes may be gone but he hasn't lost his sense of entitlement and class conceit. He continues to live in that never never land of ritzy manor houses, polo fields and posh country clubs. The only thing he has left is his spurious charm. And precious little of that. 

In the beginning Monte lets us think that he may be really in love with Mildred. It’s no wonder she falls for him, he makes her feel desirable again. Soon however Mildred is bankrolling Monte’s high-flying life style. Mildred finally catches on to what he is but marries him anyway, not because she’s still in love with him but because through him she has access to the aristocratic lifestyle Veda craves. 
Scott breathes life into a portrayal that could easily have come off as one-dimensional, because Monte is a type who embodies a single defining trait: greed. It is to Scott’s credit that he’s walking the tightrope between that combustible mix of charm and contemptible cad so perfectly.

Wally Fay, Mildred’s business partner and frenemy, looks like a well-fed chipper cherub but it would be unwise to underestimate him. He has a knack for one thing: making money. He’s always on the lookout for a quick buck…or a hundred. He’s the one who cooked up the plan to swindle Ted out of $10,000 because he gets a cut of the proceeds. It’s not that Wally is a bad guy, it’s just that he never occupied any moral high ground. On the credit side, he shows genuine concern for Mildred’s well-being - he warns her against Monte - but he’s also a wolf on the prowl and makes at least two passes a week at Mildred which she easily pitches back. He’ll just bide his time with another martini. 
In fact he’s a guy who’d naturally sniff around any halfway attractive woman who crosses his path. It’s an automatic reflex with him. He draws the line at damaged goods though. He never falls for Veda. Smart man. He knows a rotten thing when he sees it. 
Wally lays on that sleazy charm a bit thick but in a likable sort of way. He’s never shy of a wisecrack and never met a bad joke he didn’t like.

After misappropriating funds to support his lifestyle Monte ruins Mildred's business and Wally is caught with his hand in the cookie jar too, leaving Mildred high and dry. Wally does feel bad about it though. Really. 
“I didn’t mean to cut up your business the way I did. Just got started and couldn’t stop. I see an angle, right away I start cutting myself a piece of throat. It’s an instinct. With me being smart is a disease.”
No hard feelings then. 

After Monte’s murder Mildred tries to make Wally the fall guy but somehow I get the feeling he wouldn't hold it against her, what with not being hampered by an over-abundance of conscience himself and all. Wally understands why Mildred had to do it.
This must be one of Carson’s best roles and he runs with it. Somehow he makes this guy absolutely likable. Sure, Wally’s a crook and a louse who’d sell his own granny for a quick buck but that’s no reason to hate him. I like him against my better judgment. What better judgement?

The ending is an interesting mix of the sadness, anguish and hope. Veda is charged with murder and Mildred - now financially broke - finally has all her illusions about her daughter shattered. 
But both Mildred and Bert are cleared of the murder. Outside the sun begins to rise, peeking though the clouds and maybe - just maybe - there is a better future ahead.

The reason why Mildred gets sort of a happy ending and does not have to pay for her “sins” as per Joe Breen’s dictates is because her maternal love, though misguided, was untainted by sin. Mildred’s sacrifices are never portrayed as anything but noble and selfless. The worst the movie - rightfully - can accuse her off is blindness, but it is made very clear that there is no evil in Mildred’s ambition to better herself. 

So if your mental image of Crawford conjures up visions of a campy old broad with a bias against wire hangers I say get over it. For all her artificiality Crawford had the capacity to show her audience the damaged soul beneath the mannered surface. And she could bulldoze over any script absurdity like nobody's business.