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. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

“Always remember: Don't be a sucker.” Rocky Sullivan
I thought I’d take a time out from gloomy and depressing Noirs where everybody dies in the end to write about something more upbeat and uplifting. Why not a gangster movie? ... Oh wait. Seems I just can’t stay away from gloomy and depressing.

Directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Bros., Angels with Dirty Faces is tough gangster film that doesn’t neglect social issues of the day. In typical Warner Bros. fashion the picture wasn’t just entertainment, it tried to convey a message as well.
As every filmmaker knew it wasn’t easy to put social commentary into films while Joe Breen was looking over your shoulder. Yet, whilst trying to appease the PCA director Michael Curtiz managed to get his message across. And though the Production Code required a moral ending for once it was not a handicap that drove the movie off the cliff in the last act.

Angels benefits from layers and ambiguity as any good movie does. Characters, motivations and issues are not at all clear-cut and many scenes in the movie are up to interpretation.

The 1930s was a time of great change for American society. In 1929, the bottom fell out of the global economy and the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression. It bankrupted thousands of people, prompting mass unemployment and years of hardship. Formerly prosperous citizens were plunged into lives of poverty and despair. People began to realize that the ideal of The American Dream was perhaps not as realistic as they had once been led to believe. 
On top of that the 18th Amendment kicked off one of the most harebrained moral crusades in human history, Prohibition (1920-1933). It was supposed to eliminate drunkenness, crime and other social evils but not surprisingly it backfired spectacularly. The very law whose aim was to enforce morality upon society would in essence to do the very opposite. It turned ordinary people into law-breakers and encouraged more people to drink than ever. 
But more than anything people became cynical not only of an inept Government that did nothing to alleviate people’s hardship but of any kind of authority. 

Desperate times called for desperate measures. A new type of hero was emerging. Gangsters became the ultimate rebels who refused to accept Depression-imposed deprivations. Obstacles placed in their way they just blasted to bits with rapid machine gun fire. They elbowed their way to the top using the allied rackets of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. Gangsters were the ultimate self-made men and admiration for the self-made man is something embedded in the American psyche. Gangsters lived the American Dream. So what if their Dream was skewed because it was as pure as the driven, that was better than living in some dreary tenement with peeling plaster on $30 a week. Virtue - that was becoming increasingly clear - was not its own reward. Virtue’s reward was a miserable life in the slums.

It is often taken for granted that Depression era audiences went to the movies to see escapist fare to distract them from their own hard existence. This is not entirely true. Despite MGM’s and Paramount’s best efforts to the contrary, a new mood of gritty realism surfaced in Hollywood that matched the grimness of the times. Most Depression films were grounded in the social realities of the day. It was important for the common people to see that there were others out there struggling just as hard as they were. Audiences loved seeing the gangster stick it to the Man.
Gangsters blazed their way into the cities and the movie theaters. Of course they found themselves in hot water with the censors practically from the start. By necessity the studios had to sell their product to the public as a morality tale to keep Joe Breen happy. But the allure and glamour of crime and lawlessness were barely hidden under a thin veneer of put-upon moral outrage in the shape of prefaces and disclaimers that didn’t sound too convincing. 

Despite the purported moral message, the gangster’s life was shown in all its glory… as long as he dutifully breathed his last in a dirty gutter when the credits rolled. Maybe crime didn’t pay in the end, but until then the gangster had a damn good time.
When the PCA finally started to crack down and strictly enforce the stipulations of the Production Code in June 1934, the gangster movie lost its bite and went into a sharp decline. It was hard for a self-respecting gangster out there if he had to fight the Production Code as well as other gangsters.

Like The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces is really a nostalgia piece. Released at the dawn of a new decade, this Post-Code movie came decidedly late to the party. Times were changing and the days of the gangster were numbered. Prohibition had long been repealed, the Depression was almost over and another war was looming on the horizon. 

Angels with Dirty Faces is Warner returning to its roots while at the same time doing penance for past transgressions. The “crime does not pay” homily in the beginning can be dispensed with, the movie drives that point home with a vengeance in the last scene.

As a true Warner movie, Angels doesn’t shy away from grittiness. The studio had always had a working-class aesthetic. The cramped and dirty reality of New York City’s slums comes to life vividly. Overcrowded tenements, laundry hanging out in the streets, people who obviously haven’t had a bath in weeks … this is what reality looked like even if artifice had to stand in for it. The movie is studio filmmaking at its best.

The story begins in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with two boyhood chums - angels with dirty faces - Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) trying to break into a freight railroad car to steal some fountain pens. This prologue section not only establishes the bond between the two boys, but also the differences between them. Rocky is a born trouble maker. He’s the instigator of the robbery, he’s the one who already takes things that do not belong to him.
The robbery goes wrong, Rocky is caught while Jerry escapes. Insisting on taking the rap, Rocky is sent to reformatory school and his life spirals out of control. He sinks deeper and deeper into a life of crime. For the next fifteen years he’s constantly in and out of the clink, making a name for himself as gangster. He then returns to his old neighborhood where he meets Jerry again who’s become a priest. 

Rocky also still has a score to settle with former friend and crooked lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) who owes him 100G because once again Rocky took one for the team. Frazier tries to double-cross him, he even sends the hit squad after Rocky, but Rocky is too smart. He muscles his way into Frazier’s organization.

To no-one’s surprise Cagney is phenomenal in his role. It earned him an Oscar nomination. Rocky is at the same time cocky, brash, menacing, violent, funny and full of confidence and swagger. There was always an incredible intensity and vitality about Cagney and though he was a little guy, he seemed larger-than-life. Rocky loves the money, power and glamour the gangster lifestyle affords him. 

A gang of local kids - the Dead End Kids - adopt Rocky as their mentor. They’re gangster wannabes with a bad case of hero-worship. The Dead End Kids were fairly big stars at the time but they are the only jarring note in an otherwise perfect film. Their antics are often too intrusive. 

Cagney charms the audience effortlessly. You simply can’t resist him. The guy is like a blunt force trauma to the head.
As opposed to Cagney’s other gangster portrayals, there is a core of humanity in Rocky Sullivan. He has redeemable qualities. We know this guy means business when we see him ruthlessly dealing with fellow gangsters but there’s another side to him. Rocky clearly has one weak spot - his care for others. He’s unwaveringly loyal to his childhood friend Jerry. He also shows tenderness in the brief romantic interludes with Ann Sheridan.

When Rocky comes back to his old neighborhood after 15 years, it is as if the exiled has returned home. He’s looking for sanctuary and a place to belong, something he never had. It’s just that Rocky wants it both ways. He doesn’t want to leave his old life behind. Rocky wants to compartmentalize his life — on the one hand he wants to be friends with Father Jerry and support his ministry while on the other hand he’s loath to turn over a new leaf and give up the perks of his gangster life.

The movie makes no bones about stating that once you’re in the mills of the judicial system, you won’t be able to catch a break ever again. Reform school didn’t reform Rocky, it just put him through the ringer and should have instead been called Prep School for Crimes and Other Misdemeanors. Once he’s out, Rocky embarks on a life of crime and graduates from petty larceny to manslaughter and racketeering pretty quickly.
This is Warner putting in their two cents in the nature vs. nurture debate, laying the blame for Rocky’s descent (or ascent) into crime squarely on poverty, social dysfunction and an ineffectual judicial system. "Society is to blame” is a very Depression-era view. We find it too in The Public Enemy and Dead End (again with the Dead End Kids) which clearly espoused none too subtly the thesis that the environment shapes a person’s character and is to be held responsible for any kind of antisocial behavior. 

If this is 100% true is debatable. Rocky goes back to crime over and over again every time he gets released and it’s clearly not because of desperation. Between stints in prison he lives the high life because he loves it. We don’t see a man who desperately wants to go straight and is thwarted. Rocky is simply a career criminal who’s not cut out for civilian life.

For Curtiz though there’s another crucial factor in a person’s life. Pure dumb luck. Or, from Father Jerry’s standpoint, there but for the Grace of God go I. Rocky and Jerry share a history and societal DNA, so how can they turn out so differently? Life dealt them both an equally lousy hand. In the film’s final line Father Jerry addresses exactly this point. 
“All right, fellas… let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
It all boils down to one fact. By getting away Jerry was given the opportunity to right his wrongs while Rocky couldn’t run fast enough on the day it counted most and was put through the system which set him off on his course. The line between saint and sinner is a fine, and undoubtably, arbitrary one.
What would have happened had their roles been reversed? 

Pat O’Brien has the rather thankless task of making moral uprightness at least marginally bearable. Shining paragons of virtue can be hard to take but he acquits himself quite well. Of course he’s lacking the excitement of Rocky, but then again that is the point. The voice of righteousness is by necessity boring. His speechifying is occasionally heavy-handed though he keeps it just this side of too patronizing.

Jerry still has enormous affection for his old friend, but he also has no illusions about him.
Jerry knows he’s nowhere near as compelling to the kids as Rocky. “Whatever I teach them, you show me up. You show them the easiest way is with a racket or a gun.” He warns Rocky that he won’t let these angels with dirty faces get corrupted by crime. So far their dirtiness is only on the surface, the grime still can be washed away. An all-out media crusade to stop Rocky and other assorted riffraff is Jerry’s idea of fighting back but when has preaching ever helped?

Ann Sheridan plays Cagney’s love interest but her character is underdeveloped as her role was supposed to be much bigger initially. It is interesting to note though that before Rocky comes back Laury was married to a crook who met his end in a shoot-out with the cops. For a smart and nice girl, she sure knows how to pick ‘em.

The remarkably staged shootout near the end packs a punch, even today. It is fantastically filmed. Outnumbered and outgunned, Rocky makes his last stand against the entire police department in an old factory, bombarded by tear gas and machine gun fire. For the viewer it is very important to keep in mind that Rocky here is shown as a man who doesn’t know fear. He defiantly laughs in the face of danger. In most gangster movies this scene would have been the climax, and a good one it would have been too, with Rocky going out in a blaze of glory. Not so here. The movie bothers to go a little further.

Nobody who’s ever seen the ending will ever forget it. It is one of the best ever to come out of Hollywood and unparalleled in any gangster movie. Rocky is eventually captured, can’t beat the murder charges and is sentenced to the chair. Father Jerry goes to see him in prison and makes a desperate plea: Rocky has to pretend to “turn yellow” on the long march to the electric chair. He’s supposed to plead for mercy while he's dragged to the electric chair. If the kids know that Rocky died a coward, they will be disillusioned and may stop hero-worshipping him. Cagney incredulously refuses and wonders how his best friend can ask him to pretend to go out like a coward and throw away his reputation, his pride and his courage which is all that he has left. But Jerry wants Rocky to do the right thing for once in his life and show a different sort of courage. “The kind that only you and I and God know about. I want you to let them down. They’ve got to despise your memory.” Jerry knows he cannot save Rocky, but he may be able to save the angels with dirty faces. 

Rocky starts off on his “last mile”, still unbowed and defiant to the last, even punching a guard. Then when he enters the chamber, Rocky breaks down. His blood-curdling, gut-wrenching screams when he’s dragged to the electric chair - supposedly refusing to die like a man - are truly horrifying.

The question if Rocky actually turns coward in his last minutes has been much discussed. It's pointless though as film historian Dana Polan points out in his DVD commentary. Just before Rocky enters the chamber we see a close-up of his face and there is nothing but grim and steely determination on it. That look signifies that the courage is still there at the end. After everything we’ve learned about Rocky, right up to the final moments before he enters the chamber, the logical conclusion can only be that he pleads for mercy only in response to Jerry’s request. Looking at his face, this is not a man who’s about to fall apart, this is a man who's finally doing the right thing. Rocky trades his reputation as a gangster for salvation - his own and the kids’. Talk about a sucker.

Cagney famously said he played the scene ambiguously so the viewer could decide for himself. But that doesn’t wash.

For the film to work Rocky cannot turn coward in the end. Rocky needs to be redeemed and the only way this is possible is by giving Jerry his headline: "Rocky Dies Yellow.” Having him truly be a coward would invalidate everything Rocky stood for.

This is one of the few times where the Production Code worked in the movie’s favor. It is incredibly subversive. Curtiz abided by the Code that evil must be punished, but Rocky was grand and heroic even in death. He kept his self-respect - even if only he and Jerry know it - AND he did the right thing. Curtiz had it both ways. The audience never feels that Rocky deserves his fate though the Code wants to make us believe it. We still love the guy.

Curtiz also undercuts the principles of the Code when he lets Jerry take a path that should go against his clerical ethics. Jerry lies to the kids. For a priest this is still considered a sin, even if he did it for a good cause. But his reasons are still self-serving.

Even in death Rocky was larger than life and we all know guys like him don’t die, they just go home.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Made for humble Eagle Lion by the fairly obscure Bernard Vorhaus, The Amazing Mr. X is also known under the more apt but rather generic title The Spiritualist. The original title is schlocky, the cover art even more so. But don’t let that fool you. Despite these shortcomings the movie is a tad more sophisticated than we may expect. The Amazing Mr. X is a unique and slightly loony hybrid of genres. Though it starts like a horror movie, the picture’s dynamic changes pretty quickly. It is in fact part Gothic, part horror, part Noir, part fantastic thriller and part cynical reflection on the gullibility of desperate people. The movie can’t be pigeonholed but these mismatched elements come together amazingly well. 

For the longest time only available as a mediocre quasi-bootleg copy, the film has finally been rescued from public domain hell by Columbia and given the full restoration treatment.

Whatever we choose to call it, I found the film utterly haunting. Some reviewers called it a turkey but I don’t see the reason for it. It all comes together beautifully. No doubt it’s occasionally over-baked and feverish, and there’s a few implausible chunks of plot for the viewer to either swallow or choke on. But those are features not flaws. There is something beautifully sorrowful and melancholy about it, in no small measure helped by Alexander Laszlo’s lush score, with support by two of Chopin’s soulful Nocturnes.

What puts this movie heads and shoulders above other B movies of its kind (e.g. The Inner Sanctum Series) is the moody atmosphere created by cinematographer John Alton who was hired to add a touch of class and magic to the proceedings. Alton was the master of shadows, darkness and gloomy nights where the headlights could hardly reach beyond the end of a cigarette butt. He imbues the film with a misty and unearthly glow, making the most of the seaside setting. The wild water of the ocean, the relentless crashing waves, windswept beaches and the hazy moonlight steep the movie in a dreamy aura filled with haunting images and a phantasmal mood that mirror the torrent of emotions experienced by those who can’t let go of the past because the dead still have a claim upon them.

The movie has some lovely little unexpected touches here and there. A tip of the hat has to go to private eye Hoffman (Harry B. Mendoza) who's not your run-of-the-mill PI. The actor who played Hoffman was actually a real magician and he makes good use of his sleight of hand abilities in the film. He knows the tricks of the trade and has made it his mission in life to expose phony psychics. Hoffman is always looking for someone’s card up the sleeve. When he begins to produce an endless stream of cigars while keeping up an effortless conversation, it’s a little gem. Hoffman is just a bit part, but it adds so much to the film.

We also get a little nod to Edgar Allan Poe in the shape of a cool little black Raven (who may be a crow) who is very attached to his master Alexis.

Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a young widow, lost her husband Paul two years ago in a car accident. She lives in a seaside cliff-top mansion and one night starts to hear voices in the dark. It is as if the sea outside her window is calling her name. Christine believes her husband is attempting to communicate with her from beyond the grave. She is rattled and goes for a stroll on the beach where she runs into a dark, suave and debonair stranger, self-professed medium Alexis (Turhan Bey). He convinces her that he can communicate with Paul’s spirit though her new finance Martin (Richard Carlson) is more than skeptical. Soon Christine’s much younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) falls under Alexis’ spell and all of a sudden, Paul comes back from the dead. That’s something Alexis hasn’t counted on. It seems he has raised more spirits than he can command. 

Turhan Bey - an actor previously unknown to me - is perfect as Alexis. He’s a sham spiritualist who targets desperate grief-stricken people - well-heeled of course - haunted by their memories of loved ones lost. He has the phony spook racket down to a science. At his residence, he has created a spellbinding setup of ghostly shenanigans. It resembles a carnival fun house with secret passageways, two-way mirrors, crystal balls, trap-door cabinets, strange projections, automatic doors and marvelous set decorations including a large image of a "third eye”. During his dramatic séances disembodied heads and hands fly around magically. Playing up the theatrical angle, Alexis seems to live in the metaphysical realm of shadows and spirits, far removed from earthly wants and desires.

Alexis’ clairvoyance stuns his clients. Somehow, mysteriously he knows about their background and is able to read and pinpoint their innermost thoughts, fears and dreams.
To Christine’s surprise and shock, he knows things a stranger could not possibly know, details about Paul’s death in a burning car and her new fiancé’s little idiosyncrasies.

Alexis’ success is easy to explain. He’s a charming and charismatic charlatan with the carefully cultivated image of a mystic.
He understands psychology 101 and knows how to push the right buttons. His strongest ally is his victims’ desperation and romanticism. He has a penetrating insight into the human psyche and and tells his clients exactly what they want to hear. A skilled magician can easily fool those who want to be fooled. Gullibility is a weakness easily preyed upon. 
He doesn’t neglect the practical side though. He plants his accomplice Emily into his targets’ houses as a maid so she can feed him all the information he needs.

There’s something of the Svengali about Alexis. He quite smartly wets people’s appetites and then leaves them dangling wanting to know more. "I cannot tell you how I know these things...but it hardly matters, does it? Since we're not going to meet again…”, he says to Christine. And she’s hooked.

It is to Bey’s credit that his Alexis doesn’t end up as a one-note caricature. He’s a well-rounded character with more depth in him than even he thought possible.

Two years after Paul’s death, Christine is still shuttered in her grief and can’t let go of his memory. 
Some reviewers have called her character a bit dim for falling so easily for a fraud, but for me she’s simply emotionally unbalanced and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s easily duped by Alexis’ apparent clairvoyance simply because she so desperately wants to believe that Paul is alive. Lynn Bari, so often the evil temptress, turns in a likable and sensitive performance as a woman who doesn’t know if she’s going crazy or being haunted by a ghost. 
It is an exploration of the classic Noir theme of a person’s desperate desire to recover a lost past. The presence is too bleak a place for Christine. The past is where happiness lies, or so she thinks. It will turn out to be an impossible dream with bitter consequences.

Nowhere is the past’s controlling influence more evident than in Paul’s towering portrait that looms large in the living room. Life-sized portraits play a big role in many (Noir) films (most notably Laura, Scarlet Street, The Lodger, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) and there’s always something unsettling about them, especially when the subject in the picture is dead. These portraits are like ghosts from another time. They're a way for the dead to keep an eternal watch, and - more importantly - a hold over the living from the beyond. Their eyes follow us around, sometimes questioning, sometimes reproachful, sometimes daring but never ignored. 

Paul’s portrait dominates the room, yet Christine’s immortal beloved is not a soothing but a menacing presence. Paul’s gaze is fierce and gripping. When Christine accepts Martin’s engagement ring, Paul is literally there between them starring at them disapprovingly. Christine can’t let go of the past, and the portrait won’t let go of Christine.

Christine sister, Janet, is at first only too keen on exposing Alexis as a fraud and rescuing her sister from his clutches. But it’s not long until she falls under the smooth operator’s spell. He’s not above laying the smarmy charm on really thick. Her common sense goes right out of the window.

There is a case of serious sibling rivalry on display. Christine, the elder, basically brought her young sister up. There don’t seem to be any parents in the picture. Janet confesses when she was younger she was jealous of her older sister because every man was only paying attention to her. The short but very telling opening scene can easily be missed. The shadow of Janet advances on Christine's turned back, and in her hand is something that could be mistaken for a gun. It turns out to be a hairbrush, but it gives us a clue about their future relationship.
Alexis holds both both women in a thrall though in different ways, and their rivalry comes to a head when Janet falls for Alexis.

All seems to be going swimmingly for Alexis, nonetheless there’s one thing that didn’t figure in his plans. Paul didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil years ago. At a séance at Alexis’ house he materializes out of nothing and no-one is more surprised than Alexis.
Alexis’ deception turns out to be far from the cruelest, he has nothing on Paul’s devilish machinations. Paul’s plan is to bring his wife to commit suicide by literally driving her crazy with drugs and then luring her to the cliffs expecting her to fall or jump to a watery grave. That would free the way for Alexis to marry Janet and all three of them could live happily ever after off Christine’s considerable fortune. If Alexis doesn’t want to go along with his machinations, well, there’s always a cell waiting for him at the state pen. The police would be immensely interested in his dubious séances. The dead who don’t stay dead make a beastly nuisance of themselves.

But Alexis doesn’t play. He may be a fraud who tries to squeeze as much money out of gullible suckers as possible, but there’s a line he doesn’t cross and that’s murder.
It’s interesting that the guy we think in the first half is the bad guy is replaced by one who is much more sinister and truly despicable. It changes the horror movie dynamics of the plot into something decidedly mundane. Murder for cold hard cash. 

Christine has to wake up to a harsh truth. Her past was a lie. Paul was never the wonderful husband she took him to be, but a gold-digging Bluebeard with a habit of bumping off wives for their inheritance. When the dead return, they not only defile their own image and memorial, they are a source of utter terror.

In the end Alexis is not beyond redemption and not quite the scoundrel he - and others - thought him to be. He saves Christine when she tumbles down the cliffs and ultimately takes a bullet for Janet when Paul wants to shoot her.

Of course the ending is Code-imposed, both Alexis and Paul must die, though it also becomes clear that before life can go on ghosts and illusions - both imagined and real - must be laid to rest. Christine can only be free if her fool's paradise is destroyed. Her whole past was a construct of wishes and rose-colored memories. 

Before he dies Alexis admits to Janet who he's come to love: 
"Don't cling to the past. I lived by feeding people's desire to escape the present, but you can't escape for long.”
Life is in the present. Alexis doesn't want Janet to make the same mistake as her sister. The dead must lie in their graves, easy or not.

The Amazing Mr. X is an incredibly watchable movie despite its occasional shortcomings and certain indisputably campy interludes.