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Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Murderers Are Among Us (Oct. 15, 1946)

Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) premiered on October 15, 1946, in the Soviet sector of Berlin (later to be known as East Berlin). It’s an important film, and not just because it was the first film released in Germany after World War II.

It was the first attempt by German filmmakers to come to terms with the enormity of the war crimes committed during the Third Reich. It’s occasionally heavy-handed, and it doesn’t really address the specifics of who died in the Holocaust or why, but these things can be forgiven. It’s a powerful, well-made film with uniformly fine performances from its lead actors.

Die Mörder sind unter uns was the first “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), which were films that used war-ravaged Berlin as a setting. Other Trümmerfilme that followed include Gerhard Lamprecht’s Irgendwo in Berlin (Somewhere in Berlin) (1946), Helmut Käutner’s In jenen Tagen (In Those Days) (1947), Josef von Báky’s … und über uns der Himmel (…And the Sky Above Us) (1947), and Harald Braun’s Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow) (1947).

Die Mörder sind unter uns begins with a montage of miserable-looking people slowly making their way through the rubble by train and on foot. Among them is Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), who has just been released from a concentration camp and is going back to the apartment she left in Berlin.

A poster featuring a picturesque castle that says “Das schöne Deutschland” (“beautiful Germany”) hangs askew in a bombed-out train station filled with shabby and emaciated people, including one man, hobbling on crutches, with “PW” stenciled in white on the back of his threadbare topcoat.

Knef is fresh-faced and beautiful, and an unlikely looking camp survivor. (Looks can be deceiving. In reality, the actress fled Berlin toward the end of the war dressed as a boy to avoid being raped by Soviet soldiers. Her ruse worked, and she was sent to a camp for prisoners of war. Eventually, however, her fellow prisoners helped her escape.) Before the end of the war, Knef had acted in a few minor roles in Nazi productions — most of which were released after the war — but as an actress in the post-war years, Knef didn’t try to hide her past. In fact, the crew of Die Mörder sind unter uns was dominated by veterans of the Nazi film industry. The director, Staudte, was involved with making the infamous antisemitic Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß (1940). To make this film, Staudte worked under the auspices of Deutsche Film (DEFA), which was the only production company licensed to operate in the Soviet Zone, and was formed from the ruins of Universum Film AG (Ufa), which was a powerhouse studio in Germany from the silent era through the downfall of the Third Reich.

Early in the film, a kindly old glasses maker named Mondschein (Robert Forsch) tells Susanne, “No, it is easy to forget what happened.” He tells her that she merely needs a goal, and to work.

On the one hand, it’s an ironic statement, since the whole movie is about coming to terms with the past, but it’s a statement that holds true for at least one of the main characters, Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), a factory owner who recalls “golden days in gray uniforms,” but who now looks to the future. He wants to rebuild his industry and make a lot of money doing it.

In one memorable scene, Brückner sits at his breakfast table with a newspaper in front of him with a headline that screams, “2 Millionen Menschen vergast!” (“Two million people gassed”), in reference to Auschwitz. The camera tilts up to Brückner taking a sip of coffee or tea, then putting a piece of toast in his mouth and chewing it like a ruminating cow, his face placid and unconcerned.

On the other side of the coin is Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), a man so haunted by the war that he seeks refuge in the bottle but still can’t escape the horrors he carries with him.

Susanne meets the doctor when she comes home to her old apartment, and finds him living in it. She takes pity on him, and allows him to stay until he can find a new situation. Initially it seems that Dr. Mertens must be guilty of greater wartime crimes than anyone else in the film, if his palpable guilt is anything to go by. In a drunken stupor, lolling around backstage with a bunch of showgirls, he blows smoke over a chessboard. “Doesn’t it look like a battlefield?” he says. He smashes the board, and one of the girls says, “It’s just a harmless game of chess.”

Dr. Mertens responds, “A harmless game with tin soldiers leads down a short, perilous track to the harmless air rifle, to the harmless rifle range, and then to a mass grave.”

The film isn’t just about politics. A romance slowly grows between Susanne and Dr. Mertens, budding as he comes to terms with the things he witnessed during the war, culminating in a powerful finale that takes place on Christmas Eve, 1945. He stands outside of the skeletal remains of a cathedral, listening to the congregation singing “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) as snow flurries whirl around him. He has a pistol in his pocket, and is determined to make his old captain pay for what he did during the war.

Dr. Mertens recalls Christmas Eve, 1942, in Poland, when he watched as 36 men, 54 women, and 31 children were gunned down as a reprisal for a single shot fired at the German soldiers by partisans. It isn’t the enormity of this crime that makes the biggest impact on the viewer, it’s the banality of the order given by the captain, and his total disregard for human life as he stands inside, untroubled by the mass execution that is occurring outside as he leads his officers in a Christmas carol.

The film was originally to be called Der Mann den ich töten werde (The Man I Will Kill), and to end with Dr. Mertens exacting justice, but instead the ending was softened, and Susanne convinces him to let the courts dispense justice. Apparently the Soviet authorities who granted the film license were worried that Germans would take the original title and ending as a call for vigilante justice and hunt down the former Nazi war criminals who lived in their midst.

The Jolson Story (Oct. 10, 1946)

The Jolson Story
The Jolson Story (1946)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Columbia Pictures

Alfred E. Green’s Technicolor extravaganza The Jolson Story purports to tell the story of Al Jolson, one of the most popular singers in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s.

What it actually does is take the bare bones of Jolson’s life story and tell a mostly fictionalized show-biz story of a man’s unalloyed love of music and his tireless quest to touch the hearts of every man, woman, and child in America. That he often touches their hearts while wearing blackface makes The Jolson Story a tricky movie to watch and review in the 21st century.

Apologists for Jolson’s use of blackface usually point to two things; one, Jolson was Jewish, a minority group that itself suffered a great deal of discrimination in the U.S., especially before World War II; two, he genuinely loved the black musical forms that he appropriated. (There are also claims that he fought against segregation on Broadway, but I was unable to find any hard evidence of what he did or when he did it. If anyone has more information, please let me know.)

Unlike the white actors in blackface in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), who blacked up to portray their characters as brutes, villains, and rapists, or the minstrel-show comedians who used burnt cork on their faces to portray “those funny little darkies” as shiftless and uneducated objects of ridicule, Jolson used blackface strictly in the context of musical performance, and there was never anything deliberately mean-spirited about it.

But no matter what the context, it’s hard today to look at a white person with black makeup covering every part of their face except a wide area around the mouth meant to convey the impression of big fat lips and not cringe.

Born Asa Yoelson in 1886, Jolson emigrated from his native Lithuania with his mother and his siblings in 1894. They joined Jolson’s father, Moses Yoelson, who had been rabbi and cantor at the Talmud Torah Synagogue in Washington, D.C., since 1891. Late in 1894, Jolson’s mother died, which had a profound effect on him, and he reportedly became completely withdrawn for seven months. In 1895, however, he was introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves, and by 1897, he and his brother Hirsch (whose stage name was “Harry”) were singing on street corners. The brothers continued in show business for several years, but eventually “Al” and “Harry” had a falling out.

Jolson first appeared in blackface in 1904 in a show at Keeney’s Theatre in Brooklyn. According to John Kenrick, blacking up created in Jolson “a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known before.” His blackface performances, and his black character, “Gus,” became wildly popular. Jolson probably wasn’t the first American popular musician who ironically experienced feelings of “freedom” by appropriating the appearance and attitude of a black man, but he was the first and perhaps most significant of the century that also gave us Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, and Justin Timberlake.

Jolson’s popularity grew and grew in the ‘teens and ’20s, culminating in his appearance in the film The Jazz Singer (1927), which was the first “talkie,” or film with a synchronized soundtrack. There wasn’t much dialogue in The Jazz Singer, and most of the sound came from Jolson’s songs, but when he said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” (a phrase he had already made famous in his stage performances), Jolson carved his place into history.

The Jazz Singer tells a fictionalized version of Jolson’s own life. Jolson’s character, Jake Rabinowitz, sings jazz music as “Jack Robin,” and even debuts on Broadway, but he is forever in conflict with his deeply traditional father, who wants Jake to be the sixth generation of Rabinowitz men to sing as cantors in the synagogue. The dramatic conflict is eventually resolved when he nearly misses his Broadway debut to sing the Kol Nidre in the synagogue, allowing his father to die a happy man, and then follows it up with his appearance on the stage, in blackface, in which he goes down on one knee to sing “My Mammy” to his mother, who is sitting in the front row.

In his book Black Like You, John Strausbaugh writes of this scene that, “there’s barely a hint of the racist mockery that’s supposed to be the corrupt heart of blackface entertainment. It’s much more like watching Mick Jagger or Eminem — not mockery, but the sincere mimicry of a non-Black artist who loves Black culture (or what he thinks is Black culture) so dearly he can’t resist imitating it, even to the ridiculous point of blacking up.”

As I said earlier, The Jolson Story takes a lot of liberties with the facts. It begins in Washington, D.C., at the turn of the century. Little Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett) is the only boy in the audience at a burlesque theater who sings along with the vaudevillian Steve Martin (William Demarest) when he asks the audience to sing along with him as he performs “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Martin cries, “Give that boy a spotlight!”

Of course, Asa’s Old World parents don’t approve of his love of popular song, especially his father, the cantor (Ludwig Donath). His mother (Tamara Shayne) is a little more understanding.

Little Asa hops a train to Baltimore to follow Martin, who wanted to make him a part of his act, but he gets picked up by a copper and taken to St. Mary’s Home for Boys. His parents come up to collect him, but when they hear him singing “Ave Maria” in the boy’s choir at the orphanage, their hearts soften.

“Singing without his cap on,” Cantor Yoelson tsks-tsks. “It’s not so much what’s on the head, as what’s in the heart,” says Father McGee (Ernest Cossart).

With his parents’ support, Asa goes on the road with Steve Martin. “Give that boy a spotlight” becomes the whole act, with Asa as Martin’s ringer in the audience. When his voice breaks during a performance, Jolson turns it into a whistling performance. He’s a consummate performer, and the show must go on.

The transition from childhood to adulthood in The Jolson Story is nicely done. Scotty Beckett and Larry Parks (who plays Jolson as an adult) look eerily alike, which helps. There’s a montage of Jolson’s performances across the nation represented as postcards sent home to his parents. He performs in all the big cities, as well as smaller towns, like Walla Walla, Washington, “the town so nice they named it twice.” Less than a half hour has gone by, and already his parents (both of whom remain living for the entire picture) are completely supportive of his musical career. The Jolson Story is pretty short on dramatic conflict.

At the half hour mark, we finally see Parks as Jolson black up when he substitutes for a performer named Tom Baron (Bill Goodwin) in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, after Tom wins a “snootful” at the tracks and gets good and drunk. This is Jolson’s breakout moment, and it’s worth noting that the blackface and nappy wig make him anonymous, and indistinguishable from a completely different-looking white performer once he corks up.

Only one person, Lew Dockstader (John Alexander) realizes the deception, and offers him a place in Dockstader’s Minstrels. (A real performing group that Jolson worked with early in his career.)

It’s not long before Jolson bristles against the mawkish and old-fashioned music he performs for Dockstader as part of the chorus. When the group performs in New Orleans, Jolson wanders off into the black part of town. This sequence features the only real black people you’ll see in The Jolson Story, although none of them have speaking parts. Jolson hears genuine ragtime music as he sits in with a band (sans blackface, of course) loving what he is hearing. He goes back to Dockstader and says, “I heard some music tonight called ‘jazz.'” But Dockstader is happy with the show the way it is. “Son, minstrels have been doing fine for fifty years, and we take pride in doing it the way it’s always been done,” Dockstader tells him.

Jolson goes off on his own, and enters a period of creative exploration. He calls the music he’s been listening to and working on, “Music nobody ever heard of before, but the only kind I want to sing.”

By “nobody,” he means, of course, no white people, since the (presumably black) composers and musicians he refers to are never shown. It could have been interesting to see Jolson work with and collaborate with black artists, but after that brief scene in New Orleans, we never see another black person.

Larry Parks

Jolson gets a call from good old Tom Baron, and Jolson tells him he has all kinds of music that just needs to be “polished up” a little (no pun intended) and makes his debut on Broadway, singing “Mammy,” in blackface, down on one knee. Interestingly, he does so without a nappy wig — just his dark hair slicked back — and he sounds “blacker” than he ever did before.

Jolson is depicted as a man who is always desperate to make a connection with his audience. During his show “Honeymoon Express,” he even has the house lights turned up, so he can see everyone in the audience. This was also the scene in which I felt that his blackface looked the most insane. There’s a superimposition of his face singing over a left-to-right pan of the crowd, and the closeup shows just how crazy his blackface looks, with a wide area around his lips un-made up, showing the white skin around his mouth, his pink lips, and his small yellow teeth. His eyes are nearly maniacal, he’s clearly sweating under his makeup, and he’s superimposed over a crowd of laughing, happy white people. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

When it comes to Jolson’s personal life, this picture makes Jolson seem like a singing monk, when in reality he was an inveterate womanizer. In The Jolson Story, he has no relationships with women except for his lifelong chaste romance with childhood friend Ann (Jo-Carroll Dennison).

As soon as she marries another man, however, he meets his future wife, producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s newest female sensation, Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes). He spots her in the audience at one of his shows, and asks her to request a song. After she says, “April Showers,” he practically lies down on the stage in front of her and sings his heart out. Interestingly, this is the first time in the picture he sings a really heartfelt number without blackface on. Maybe it would have been too strange for audiences of the time to see him romance a white woman while blacked up.

After the show, he finds her mimicking his performance of “California, Here I Come,” perfectly copying his resonant voice and wild arm and leg gesticulations, and he falls, hook, line, and sinker.

Even though “Julie Benson” is a complete fabrication, I would have liked to have seen even more of her. Keyes only gets one proper musical number, showing her in action as part of the Ziegfeld Follies, but her dancing and singing were impressive, not to mention the fact that she has one of the best pair of gams I’ve ever seen.

As I said, there’s not much dramatic tension in this picture. Marrying a shiksa doesn’t raise an eyebrow on either one of his parents’ faces, and the only real conflict comes later in the film, as Julie encourages Jolson to quit show business so they can have a quiet life together, but he clearly misses the limelight, even though he claims he is happy.

Jolson was something of a has-been in 1946, and he was no longer one of the most popular singers in America, but this film was a huge hit, and revitalized interest in his music. It even spawned a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). Larry Parks was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but didn’t win. Parks was a relatively unknown B-movie actor before he was cast in this role, which launched him into stardom. Not too many years later, however, his career would be destroyed by the House Un-American Affairs Committee, when he admitted under pressure that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. He testified against his will in 1951, and was never officially blacklisted, but his career hit the skids.

His performance in The Jolson Story really is excellent. He lip-synched all of the songs to recordings of Jolson’s voice, and the effect is seamless. He plays Jolson as a man who is pathologically addicted to stardom, but never makes him seem maniacal or inhuman.

The Jolson Story took home two Oscars in 1947. Morris Stoloff won one for best musical score, and the film also won an Oscar for best sound recording. William Demarest for nominated for best supporting actor, and Joseph Walker was nominated for best color cinematography (the only other nominee in this category, The Yearling, ended up winning).

The Brute Man (Oct. 1, 1946)

Actor Rondo Hatton, whose face was so unique that it has been immortalized in bust form as a series of horror awards, was reportedly voted the best-looking boy in his class at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Florida.

Whether or not this story is apocryphal, we do know that Hatton didn’t always look the way he did when he starred as the hideous “Creeper” in a series of low-budget horror films in the 1940s.

Born on April 22, 1894, Hatton worked as a sportswriter and served in World War I, after which acromegaly began to change his facial features. Acromegaly is a syndrome often associated with gigantism. It usually manifests in adulthood or middle age, and its progression is slow. It involves swelling of the soft tissues — particularly the hands, feet, nose, lips, and ears — general thickening of the skin, the swelling of internal organs, and the pronounced protrusion of the brow and lower jaw.

While working as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, he was spotted by director Henry King, who was in Florida to make Hell Harbor (1930). King hired Hatton for a bit part, and Hatton eventually moved to Hollywood, where he appeared in a series of small roles, most notably as a contestant in an “ugly man competition” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and as a member of the lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). He first appeared as a character called “The Creeper” in the Sherlock Holmes thriller The Pearl of Death (1944), and then twice more in two horror films that were unrelated to the Sherlock Holmes series, House of Horrors and The Brute Man, both of which were directed by Jean Yarbrough.

In House of Horrors, which was released on March 29, 1946, an unsuccessful sculptor saves the Creeper from drowning, and gets him to murder all the critics who have written unfavorably about his cubist “tripe.”

In The Brute Man, a once-handsome B.M.O.C. (big man on campus) who was disfigured in a lab accident prowls the city, killing for revenge. Spinning newspapers with headlines like “Back Breaker Claims Second Victim” fill in the missing details, as the viewer wonders why police can’t find the most unique and strange-looking person in the city, who is spotted in public plenty of times.

After one of his murders, the Creeper takes refuge in the home of a blind piano teacher named Helen Paige (Jane Adams, who unfortunately never appears in that pink satin and white ermine number we see her wearing on the lobby card above). For no reason I could discern, she lies to the police about someone being in her apartment, and the Creeper climbs out her window and makes his escape.

We eventually learn that the Creeper used to be a boy named Hal Moffet, a football star at Hampton University, who was popular and handsome, although his temper made him some enemies. He and his friend Clifford Scott (Tom Neal) were in love with the same girl, Virginia (Jan Wiley). The night before an oral exam in chemistry, Cliff fed the academically impatient Hal the wrong answers so he’d be kept after class and not be able to score with Virginia. Naturally, the professor did what any professor would do with a student who bungled a quiz; he kept him after class working on a complicated and dangerous experiment. After seeing Cliff and Virginia through the window, Hal realized he’d been deliberately crossed up, and smashed a flask of chemicals on the floor. Unfortunately, the cloud of caustic smoke damaged his face, and he’s now hell-bent on getting revenge on everyone he thinks wronged him. Last on his list are Cliff and Virginia, who are now married.

This story is, of course, a burlesque version of reality. Acromegaly, not a lab accident, was responsible for Hatton’s appearance, but he was a football player and handsome young man whose appearance gradually became monstrous. (The publicity department of Universal Studios actually claimed that Hatton’s facial deformities were the result of a mustard gas attack in World War I.)

Hatton died on February 1, 1946, before either House of Horrors or The Brute Man were released. He was 51 years old, and his death was caused by a heart attack that was directly related to his disorder. He wasn’t much of an actor, but his appearance alone telegraphed pathos, and the renewed interest in Universal’s horror films in the ’60s and ’70s eventually turned him into a horror icon.

Cloak and Dagger (Sept. 28, 1946)

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger is the best espionage thriller I’ve seen since Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Like that film, it doesn’t have the over-the-top stunts or pyrotechnics of a modern action movie, but its pacing, plot, and music create a spectacle that is every bit as suspenseful and exciting.

Gary Cooper, who is best known for playing stoic men of action, gives a credible performance as bookish physicist Alvah Jesper, a man who finds himself in over his head, but is smart enough and tough enough to find a way out of one tight situation after another.

Professor Jesper is recruited by the O.S.S. (the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II that would eventually become the C.I.A.) and sent to Switzerland to bring his former colleague Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) back to the United States. Dr. Lodor, an elderly woman, escaped through the Alps from Germany, where she was being forced to work on an atomic bomb project for the Nazis. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it’s lousy with agents of the Gestapo, and Dr. Lodor’s life is in peril.

Immediately, there are two implausible aspects of the plot that you have to get over to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the picture. One is that the O.S.S. would recruit a college professor with no experience in the intelligence field to act as an undercover agent merely because he has a personal connection to their target and speaks conversational German. The other is that, by this point in 1946, it was common knowledge that any nuclear research being conducted by the Nazis was mostly smoke and mirrors, and the Third Reich was never close to developing an atomic bomb.

Neither of these issues proved a stumbling block for me. Every spy thriller needs a plot hook, and plenty of these hooks prove either factually inaccurate or completely ridiculous after five or ten years have passed. Also, the O.S.S. was a young organization, and they did some pretty wild stuff during the war. Recruiting a college professor in his mid-40s for dangerous undercover work doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. (Cooper’s role is loosely inspired by the exploits of Michael Burke, president of the N.Y. Yankees from 1966 to 1973, who briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 before leaving to serve with the O.S.S., where he worked behind the lines in Italy and later in France, where he helped the Resistance prepare for D-Day.)

There are some great touches, too. When Jesper disembarks in Switzerland, he thinks he’s being smart by casually covering his face with his hand when he walks by a photographer, but it is precisely this action that alerts the Gestapo to the fact that he might be a man worth watching.

After Jesper makes contact with Dr. Lodor, she leads him to Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another physicist who is being forced by the Nazis to work on their atomic bomb program. Jesper travels to Italy, where he is aided by Italian partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer).

Luckily, Jesper is able to pose as a German doctor because the Italian fascist thugs keeping Dr. Polda prisoner in a beautiful villa clearly don’t recognize American-accented German when they hear it. Viewers with an ear for languages probably will.

The Italian baddies are led by a man named Luigi, who is played by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career playing gangsters in Hollywood. His first film role was an uncredited part as a henchman in If I Had a Million (1932), and one of his last was playing Carlo Gambino in the 1996 TV movie Gotti.

Toward the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence square off in the most brutal and realistic fight I’ve seen in a movie from the 1940s. The James Cagney thriller Blood on the Sun (1945) features a great judo fight that was way ahead of its time, but the combat between Jesper and Luigi is a desperate fight to the death, pure and simple. There’s nothing flashy about it, and it’s not overly choreographed. The two men hold each other close, clawing at each other’s faces, choking each other, kicking at weak points, and twisting back fingers and arms. It’s over in less than 90 seconds, but its impact lasts for the rest of the movie.

The screenplay for Cloak and Dagger was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., based on a story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and “suggested” by the 1946 nonfiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S., by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Director Lang is best known for the films he made when he still lived in Germany, such as the silent science fiction opus Metropolis (1927), the chilling portrait of a child killer M (1931), and the crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but Lang was a master craftsman at every stage of his career, even when doing for-hire work like this.

Decoy (Sept. 14, 1946)

Jack Bernhard’s Decoy has built up quite a reputation in recent years. Considered a “lost” film for decades, it was written about in several books about film noir, and its perversity and violence were marveled over, as well as the coldness of its femme fatale.

When a print of the film was unearthed and shown as part of the Second Annual Festival of Film Noir in March 2000 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, the audience reportedly went wild.

Film critic Glenn Erickson (who also does a commentary track on the DVD) wrote that “as far as violence goes, Decoy was to 1946 what Pulp Fiction is to 1994.” I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly in terms of cultural impact, Quentin Tarantino’s films made a much larger splash in the ’90s than this picture did at the time of its release. And it’s hard to compare Tarantino’s films — which are incredibly self-aware, and which owe so much to every decade of film history that preceded them — to this unselfconscious programmer.

Decoy is based on a story by Stanley Rubin, who wrote it after he got out of the Air Corps in an attempt to make some money. He first sold it to radio, and then, with a few changes, to director Bernhard at Monogram Pictures. The screenplay is by Nedrick Young. It stars British actress Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby, surely one of the most heartless femme fatales in the history of noir. (Gillie was married to the director. They met in England, and they divorced shortly after the film was finished, and she only starred in one other film before she died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 33.)

When the film begins, we see Dr. L.L. “Lloyd” Craig (Herbert Rudley) staggering out of a gas station washroom in the early dawn hours. He hitches a ride into town, and heads for a particular room in a hotel. Once he’s inside, we hear shots. Police sergeant Joe “Jo Jo” Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) rushes down the corridor. The doctor is dead, there’s a wooden box with the lock shot off (MacGuffin alert!), and Margot is lying on the couch, wounded. When Jo Jo hands her the box, she laughs and weeps, and generally acts like a petulant child.

In classic noir fashion, she narrates her own story as she lies dying. Her boyfriend, gangster Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) was set to die in the gas chamber, which didn’t make Margot happy. Not because she was going to miss him after he was dead, but because only he knew where the $400,000 take from a robbery was hidden.

In a convoluted scheme, Margot seduces gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), who has already sunk $45,000 into an appeal for Olins that failed, and gets him to engineer the removal of Frankie’s body from the prison immediately after he dies in the gas chamber. She also seduces Dr. Craig, cajoling him away from his free clinic and his nurse (and possibly girlfriend), who is played by Marjorie Woodworth, whose acting is delightfully terrible.

Dr. Craig is also in charge of autopsies at the prison, so Margot has cooked up a plan in which Dr. Craig will administer methylene blue to Frankie to counteract the hydrocyanic acid he’ll receive in the gas chamber. (Large doses of methylene blue were actually used as an antidote to potassium cyanide poisoning as early as 1933, so kudos to Rubin for making his pseudoscience at least semi-believable.)

After he’s brought back to life, Frankie staggers around like Frankenstein’s monster, even lighting a match at one point and staring at it as though he’s never seen fire before. By the time he breaks down and says, “I’m alive,” it feels as if an hour has gone by.

While Margot not only seduces but murders nearly every man who crosses her path, I didn’t find any of it that shocking, mostly because the tone of the picture is so campy, and Gillie isn’t really a very good actress. The murder that gets talked about the most is the one she commits by running a man over with her car, but the effect of the scene may be softened in the DVD. In Arthur Lyons’s book Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, he writes that “she runs him over repeatedly,” but in the DVD version she only runs him over once. She puts the selector in drive, steps on the gas, guns the accelerator, and that’s it. Apparently there are two different cuts of Decoy, and people who saw the print at the Egyptian Theatre in 2000 got to see the more brutal version of this murder, but most at-home viewers are going to feel that it’s rather ho-hum, as far as brutal murder scenes go.*

Movies like this all get lumped into a big pile now labeled “film noir,” which is a good designation, and one that’s stood the test of time. It was first used by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, but was completely unknown in Hollywood when “film noirs” were actually being made. Movies like Decoy were called “melodramas” (or sometimes “thrillers” or “suspense” movies) and melodrama is actually a better term to describe this movie than noir, which implies a grander style than Decoy exhibits. The sets are bare bones, the plot is ridiculous, and the acting is campy. There are plenty of night scenes and a few shadows lurking around corners, but in general, the lighting is more utilitarian than chiaroscuro.

This is not to say that Decoy isn’t a lot of fun. It is. And the plotting is clever, especially the “gotcha” ending. But it’s far from a masterpiece, and it’s too silly to be taken very seriously.

*Although both Erickson and Lyons make the claim that Margot runs her victim over with her car “repeatedly,” I’m not 100% convinced that there are two different prints of this film in circulation. The power of suggestion in horrific or violent scenes is a powerful thing, and it can trick the audience, especially after a single viewing of a film. There are critics who swore up and down that they saw the knife slashing Janet Leigh’s skin in Psycho (1960), even though it never actually does, and several critics have memories of seeing a horrific demon baby at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), even though the baby is never shown.

Notorious (Sept. 6, 1946)

Notorious
Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
RKO Radio Pictures

Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.

In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.

Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.

Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.

While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.

Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.

Ingrid Bergman

Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.

As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.

Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.

The Big Sleep (Aug. 31, 1946)

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery and noir genres. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is one of cinema’s most memorable shamuses (a term which everyone in this movie pronounces “shah-mus,” not “shay-mus”). It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time. When asked how he likes his brandy, Marlowe says, “In a glass.” After an encounter with a young coquette, Marlowe says, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

And it’s not just Marlowe who gets all the good lines. Nearly every character in the movie makes an impression, even the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. Aging cowboy actor Bob Steele, whom I’ve recently seen in several forgettable B westerns, plays steely-eyed killer Lash Canino with icy resolve, and delivers lines like, “What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?” in a way that makes you believe him.

It’s also a great showcase for Lauren Bacall and her chemistry with Bogart. She was still finding her way as an actress, but as Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, the older daughter of Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), her star quality is undeniable. Beautiful and statuesque, with a deep, sexy voice, she doesn’t “perform” as much as she merely exists. After appearing together in To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall and Bogart famously fell in love, got married, and — despite their nearly 25-year age difference and his three previous marriages that all ended in divorce — remained married to each other until Bogart’s death early in 1957. Of course, in 1945 no one knew whether their marriage would stand the test of time, but that didn’t stop America and the rest of the movie-going world from falling head over heels in love with “Bogie and Bacall.”

Just 20 years old when she made this film, and reportedly still extremely nervous in front of the camera, her performance was disparaged by many critics, most notoriously by infamous NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his August 24, 1946, review (published a day after the film’s premiere), “Miss Bacall is a dangerous looking female, but she still hasn’t learned to act.”

Time has proven this criticism unfair, and to be honest, Bogart wasn’t the greatest actor to appear onscreen either. But he was — and is — one of the biggest movie stars of all time. It doesn’t matter that his portrayal of Marlowe isn’t significantly different from his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s very different P.I., Sam Spade, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), because he is believable as both. In each of these iconic performances, he serves as the anchor for all of the seamy characters and twisting plot elements swirling around him.

The plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously byzantine. In his review of the film, Crowther wrote, “This is a frequent failing in films made from Raymond Chandler’s books … if you haven’t read the original, as we haven’t, you are stuck.” It’s possible that Crowther never read any of Chandler’s mysteries that were published before this film was released; The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). If he had, he might have known that the plots of all of the Philip Marlowe mysteries were incredibly confusing, and that having read one of Chandler’s books was no guarantee that you would understand a film adaptation of it any better than the illiterate person in the seat next to you.

I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and frequently get details of the two novels confused with each other. This would be a criticism if the point of Chandler’s novels were “whodunnit,” but it never was. Plot was secondary to the writing itself, and to the colorful characters who Marlowe met in the course of his investigations. After reading Farewell, My Lovely, you may forget who did what to whom, but you’re much less likely to forget the first appearance of the hulking Moose Malloy, “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck … arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.”

The dark underbelly of Los Angeles was another thing that Chandler evoked brilliantly, and his convoluted plots helped create a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even his superlative hero could never fully unravel.

Even Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, was confused by the novel he was adapting. When he wired Chandler to ask who had killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur, whose corpse is found floating in his sunken car, Chandler replied, “No idea.”

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material, although a few significant elements of the novel (e.g., homosexuality, pornography) were perforce glossed over. But there is one significant moment in which Marlowe sits down in the office of the D.A. and the viewer is led to expect that a recitation of the facts of the case is about to occur. Instead, the screen fades to black, and we rejoin our hero after any explanation has come and gone.

I believe that this scene remained intact in the film’s original version. The Big Sleep was originally shot during World War II, but with the end of the war approaching and a backlog of war films in the can, Warner Bros. released one war picture after another before the public’s appetite for them could diminish too much. A mystery picture like this one, on the other hand, was relatively timeless. (Astute viewers, however, will notice a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging in a bookstore, a reference to “red points,” and the presence of a female cab driver.) Starting in January 1946, many key scenes were reshot to focus more on Bogart and Bacall, and make their romance one of the focal points of the film.

Consequently, several scenes involving the coquette I mentioned in the first paragraph, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), were left on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Not only is she beautiful, she’s an interesting and flawed tragic character. Also, the plot was probably made even more confusing. But whether it makes for a less satisfying overall film is debatable. As with Chandler’s novels, the plot is not really that important.

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