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Tag Archives: Douglas Sirk

Shockproof (Jan. 25, 1949)

Shockproof
Shockproof (1949)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Columbia Pictures

This review originally appeared earlier this year at Film Noir of the Week.

Real-life married couples can have strange chemistry when they appear together in a film. For every Bogie and Bacall there’s also a Cruise and Kidman. Just because two actors want to tie the knot and spend the rest of their lives together (or in most cases, several years of their lives together before separating), it doesn’t mean their real-life chemistry will translate to the big screen.

When Patricia Knight and Cornel Wilde starred together in Shockproof, they had been married 11 years. It was the only film they made together.

In Shockproof, Knight plays a woman named Jenny Marsh who has been paroled after a five-year stint in prison for murder. She committed the murder to protect her lover, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey). Jenny grew up in poverty, neglected by her parents, and the smooth-talking, wealthy Wesson swept her off her feet. The problem is, he’s a criminal through and through.

Jenny’s parole officer, Griff Marat (Wilde), believes that all she needs is to spend time with normal, decent people, and she’ll straighten out her life. Griff is a “hands-on” parole officer, and he nominates himself (along with his mother and adorable kid brother) as the most suitable decent people for Jenny to spend time with, and his romantic notions carry the force of the law.

As an actor, Wilde’s line delivery was never as impressive as his physique, but in his scenes with Knight he still comes off as the more seasoned thespian. Knight’s face is lovely in an angular sort of way, but her performance is the stuff of high camp. Whatever sparks existed in their real-life relationship, they’re hard to see in Shockproof.

Knight and Wilde

Shockproof was also an intersection for two men whose best work lay ahead of them: Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk.

Sirk, the director of Shockproof, was born in Europe and made several films there before immigrating to the U.S. in 1941. He would go on to direct some of the most acclaimed American films of all time — the lush Technicolor melodramas Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959) (which, to be technically nitpicky, was filmed in Eastmancolor, not Technicolor).

At the time he made Shockproof, however, his Hollywood filmography amounted to a number of well-made potboilers that had a gloss of European sophistication; Hitler’s Madman (1943), Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal in Paris (1946), The Strange Woman (1946) (The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, but Sirk also did some uncredited directorial work on the film), Lured (1947), and Sleep, My Love (1948).

Samuel Fuller, the screenwriter of Shockproof, was a newspaperman (he got his start as a copy boy at the age of 12), a pulp novelist, a screenwriter, a ghostwriter, and a veteran of World War II who had served with the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. Fuller would go on to become an acclaimed screenwriter and director of cult films like Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964).

Shockproof is the only collaboration between Sirk and Fuller. Fuller’s screenplay was originally called The Lovers, and it told the story of a man and woman doomed by their love for each other.

Knight and Wilde

Fuller’s screenplay for The Lovers was the film Sirk signed on to make, but it wasn’t the film that ended up being released into theaters. Co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote the script and tacked on a ridiculous happy ending. (If you’re a connoisseur of trashy cinema, Deutsch’s best work also lay ahead of her, since her last film credit was the screenplay for Valley of the Dolls, which she co-wrote with Dorothy Kingsley.)

Deutsch’s rewrite makes the entire film feel pointless, since it undercuts all of the ethical lines that Griff crosses because of his love for Jenny. It also neuters any sense of doom or tragedy that was present in Fuller’s original script. Even the change of title from The Lovers to Shockproof feels wrong. The term “The Lovers” recurs throughout the film, and it’s what Griff and Jenny are dubbed by the tabloid press. What does “Shockproof” even mean in the context of this film?

Even though Sirk and Fuller never met, Shockproof has Fuller’s fingerprints all over it. It’s a choppy, uneven film, but like everything that Fuller wrote, there’s a nasty passion always bubbling beneath the surface. It doesn’t matter so much why people are doing things, just that they’re doing them and going for broke, pedal to the metal, damned and proud, racing toward oblivion.

Of course, to pull this off successfully a film needs to have actors who are utterly convincing no matter how contrived their actions are, as well as a script that has the courage of its convictions. Unfortunately, Shockproof has neither of these things, and while there is much that’s good about it, ultimately it’s an interesting failure.

Sleep, My Love (Feb. 18, 1948)

Sleep, My Love is a slick, classy thriller from the slickest, classiest director of all time, Douglas Sirk.

Granted, his greatest work was a few years ahead of him, but even when he was making run-of-the-mill potboilers like Sleep, My Love and Lured (1947), Sirk applied not only his considerable skill as a filmmaker to the material, but also his fetishistic attention to details, and his love of the sumptuous and the glamorous.

The film starts with a bang. Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up from a nightmare on a train, screaming. She doesn’t have any memory of how she got there. The last thing she remembers is going to sleep next to her husband in their palatial home on Sutton Place and East 57th Street.

Oh, and there’s a small pistol in her bag that she doesn’t remember having, either.

Sirk introduces all the players in his mystery early in the film — Alison’s husband, Richard Courtland (Don Ameche), her friend Barby (Rita Johnson), Barby’s brother Bruce (Robert Cummings), Detective Sgt. Strake (Raymond Burr), a mysterious man with horn-rimmed glasses named Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), and the leggy, beautiful Daphne (Hazel Brooks) — but it’s not immediately clear how they all relate to one another.

Much of the pleasure in watching Sleep, My Love comes from seeing how Sirk moves all of his chess pieces around the board. It’s clear from the outset that someone is gaslighting Alison, but who is doing it? And why are they doing it?

This isn’t the kind of mystery in which the solution comes as a complete surprise and is explained by a brilliant detective who gathers all the suspects together in a drawing room; rather, it evolves and reveals itself naturally over the course of the film. It won’t take an astute viewer long to figure out what’s going on, but Sirk isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He’s simply making a thrilling film that’s beautiful to look at, and succeeding with aplomb.

Lured (Aug. 28, 1947)

If you go solely by the current DVD cover art for Douglas Sirk’s Lured, you’ll come away thinking it’s a thriller starring Boris Karloff and Lucille Ball; possibly a Gothic melodrama in which her character marries his character and is then terrorized by him in a creepy old mansion.

Or you might not.

But in any case, that’s what I thought, so I was surprised when it turned out that Karloff’s character in Lured is essentially a throwaway, and all of his scenes could be excised from the film without affecting the plot.

Of course, excising Karloff from the film would excise much of the ghoulish fun, since the sequence in which he plays a thoroughly mad former fashion designer who forces Ball to model his “latest creations” is one of the best bits in the picture, but it ultimately has very little to do with the central mystery about a poetry-obsessed killer who places ads in the personal columns.

In Lured, Lucille Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, an American dancer and actress who came to London from New York with a show. It folded after four nights and she was broke. So now she works in a dance hall called the Broadway Palladium where “50 beautiful ravishing glamorous hostesses” dance with men off the street for six pence a twirl.

It’s no picnic. After one of Sandra’s co-workers mentions that there’s just two hours left to go in their shift, Sandra responds, “Two hours in this cement mixer’s longer than a six-day bike race.” (Incidentally, Ball played a similarly occupied character on the CBS radio show Suspense in the January 13, 1944, broadcast, “A Dime a Dance.”)

When Sandra is offered a tryout for a part in the new Fleming & Wilde show, she jumps at the chance, not so affectionately referring to her current place of employment as a “slaughterhouse.”

But just as she arranges a private audition with Mr. Fleming over the phone, she sees the headline of the London Courier. Her friend and fellow taxi dancer Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) has just become the eighth victim of the “Poet Killer”!

So two very different men enter Sandra’s life, and things will never be the same for her.

One is the charming and insouciant Robert Fleming (played by the the charming and insouciant George Sanders), who initially wants to cast Sandra in his show, but soon wants her to play the leading lady in his own life, till death do them part.

The other is Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who tests Sandra’s powers of observation and then enlists her in Scotland Yard after she passes with flying colors.

Their policewomen are very clever, he says, but the killer only places ads for young, beautiful women. (Sorry, ladies of Scotland Yard. No offense intended, I’m sure.)

Sandra then has to respond to every personal ad for young, unattached women. The police will write the responses, but Sandra will have to keep the appointments. A humorous montage follows, natch.

Lured is a mixed bag. Douglas Sirk is a great director, but Lured isn’t one of the films he’s remembered for. It’s well-done, and Sirk’s fascination with surface opulence masking (or possibly masking) darker forces is in full effect. The plot, however, twists and turns through so many contrivances that it’s hard to keep track of everything, let alone take any of it seriously.

It’s worth seeing, however, by anyone who’s a Sirk completist, or anyone who wants to see Lucille Ball in a glamorous leading role in a beautifully art-directed film. She didn’t have too many of those, you know, after I Love Lucy.

The Strange Woman (Oct. 25, 1946)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, directed with uncredited assistance from Douglas Sirk, is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams.

Born in 1889, Williams was a prolific novelist who is probably best known today for the same reason he was famous in 1946; he wrote the novel Leave Her to Heaven in 1944, which was made into a hit film in 1945 starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a calculating sociopath with twisted ideas about love.

The Strange Woman was a natural choice to be made into a film following the success of Leave Her to Heaven. Both stories are psychosexual portraits of women with Electra complexes who use their allure to ensnare men and who don’t allow conventional morality to keep them from their goals; even taboos like murder mean nothing to them.

Unlike Leave Her to Heaven, The Strange Woman is a period piece. The film begins in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. Young Jenny Hager (Jo Ann Marlowe) is being raised by a single father (Dennis Hoey) whose only love in life seems to be drink. After Mr. Hager receives stern words from prosperous shop keeper and importer Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart) when he once again begs a jug of liquor off of him, the scene switches to a river bank, where young Jenny is tormenting Mr. Poster’s son Ephraim (Christopher Severn), a sickly boy who can’t swim. She pushes him into the river and holds his head under with her bare foot, but when Judge Henry Saladine (Alan Napier) arrives in a carriage, she says, “Poor, poor Ephraim,” and jumps in. She drags him to shore and blames his predicament on the boys she was with.

The judge is disgusted with Mr. Hager for stumbling through life drunk and failing to care for his daughter, but once Jenny and her father are alone, it’s clear that she loves him unconditionally. “Before long we’ll have everything,” she says. “Just as soon as I grow up we’ll have everything we want, because I’m going to be beautiful.” Mr. Hager tosses his empty jug into the river, and when the ripples clear, child actress Marlowe’s reflection has become that of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr.

Jenny may be all grown up, but clearly only a few years have passed. All the adults are played by the same actors, and things are much the same in Bangor. Her father is still a hopeless drunk and Mr. Poster is still the wealthiest, most powerful man in town. Bangor appears to be a little rowdier, however, with more commerce coming through the docks, and more drunken sailors stumbling around. Jenny and her friend Lena (June Storey) hang around the waterfront, attracting the attention of sailors. Lena tells Jenny that, with her looks, she could get the youngest and best-looking men around, but Jenny replies that she’s only interested in snagging the richest.

When her father confronts her, she flaunts her sexuality, bragging that she can make any man want her, and he beats her viciously. The whipping he gives her, while they stand face to face, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little sexual.

She runs away to Mr. Poster’s house, and shows him the stripes on her back, throwing her hair forward and dropping the back of her dress, as if she’s posing for a racy portrait, and his face registers both shock and lust.

It’s not long before Jenny marries Mr. Poster. It’s clear that he is a replacement for her father. Her physical longing, at least for the moment, is focused on her old friend — and new son-in-law — Ephraim, who has been sent away to school. She writes Ephraim a letter telling him how lucky he is to have a “nice young mother” and that she will “demand obedience and love.” She writes that if he refuses her, “I will punish you by not kissing you good night” and ends her letter with the line “…come home and see what a fine parent I can be. I do think families should be close, don’t you? Your loving mother, Jenny.”

Ephraim (now played by Louis Hayward) returns home, and he and Jenny slowly but surely fall for each other.

As the film poster above rather obviously shows, Jenny has two faces. For instance, when she and Ephraim sit on the banks of the river together, her recollection of pushing him into the river when he was a boy is flawed. She tells him that those rotten boys did it to him, and she tried to save him. Is she lying? Does she know she is lying? Does he know? Does he go along with it because he loves her, or does he truly believe her?

Jenny’s dual nature mirrors the nature of Bangor itself. On the one hand it is a prosperous New England town with an active churchgoing population of well-to-do people (like Mr. Poster and his young wife), but on the other hand it is a seedy little port city full of drunken sailors and “grog shops and low houses” (a.k.a. pubs and brothels). Jenny uses her husband’s money from his shipping and lumber businesses to improve the town, shaming him publicly into contributing large sums to the church. In private, however, she is carrying on with Ephraim, and even encourages him to arrange an “accident” for his father so they can be married.

Ephraim won’t be the last man in Jenny’s trail of conquest, either. As soon as she lays her eyes on John Evered (George Sanders), the tall, strapping foreman of Mr. Poster’s lumber business, it’s clear that the weak-willed Ephraim doesn’t stand a chance.

The Strange Woman is a well-made film with fine performances all around (with perhaps the exception of Gene Lockhart, who as Mr. Poster exhibits some of the most over-the-top reaction shots I’ve seen since watching Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows). Its narrative is sprawling, and clearly adapted from a novel, but the filmmakers keep everything moving along nicely.

Director Ulmer was a talented craftsman who toiled away in Poverty Row for most of his career, producing a few masterpieces, a few awful pictures, and plenty of films in between. The Strange Woman represents the rare film on his résumé with a decent budget and a reasonable shooting schedule. He was lent out by P.R.C. (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) at Lamarr’s insistence (apparently they were friends back in their native Austria-Hungary). He was paid $250 a week for the job. P.R.C. studio boss Leon Fromkess, on the other hand, received roughly $2,500 from United Artists. While he may have gotten the short end of the stick financially, the deal gave Ulmer a chance to work with a professional cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), a major star or two, a well-written script based on a hot property, and major studio distribution.

A Scandal in Paris (July 19, 1946)

This early film by renowned director Douglas Sirk is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, who was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale police force, and is generally regarded as the world’s first private detective. What makes Vidocq fascinating is that he became a crime-fighter only after a fairly lengthy career as a criminal.

Sirk’s film is only very loosely based on Vidocq’s ghost-written memoirs. Vidocq was the father of modern criminology. He is credited with the introduction of modern police methodology and record-keeping, as well as things we now take for granted, such as undercover work, ballistics, and plaster casts of footprints, but you won’t see much of this in A Scandal in Paris (which was also released under the title Thieves’ Holiday). It’s a lighthearted and romantic picaresque adventure in which the focus is firmly on Vidocq’s career as a rake and a rapscallion. The closest he comes to doing any actual police work is when he goes to elaborate and clever lengths to pin his crimes on a romantic rival.

In the world of the film, Vidocq was born in 1775, and came from a poor, honest family, “a little poorer than honest,” he says in voiceover. His mother stole a loaf of bread every time she went into labor in order to give birth in the only shelter available to her — prison. Vidocq claims his mother stole 11 loaves of bread and gave birth to 11 children. He spent the first 30 years of his life engaged in all matter of villainy, and used many surnames, since his father’s name was unknown.

Except for the year of his birth, none of the specifics match the official record, but George Sanders, who plays Vidocq, is such a smooth and engaging performer that I didn’t really care. When he breaks out of prison on his birthday with a file baked into a cake brought to him by the jailer’s daughter, he does so in the best tradition of cinematic Lotharios who can’t utter a true statement to save their lives, but whom you just can’t help but like.

Douglas Sirk was born “Hans Detlef Sierck” in Germany to Danish parents. He grew up in Denmark, but moved to Germany as a teenager. By 1942, he had emigrated to the United States, and was directing the stridently anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943), which was made for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but was bought and distributed by the prestigious M-G-M. He directed nearly 50 films in Danish, German, and English, but today his reputation rests mainly on the lush melodramas he made in the ’50s, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).

A Scandal in Paris hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good film; light and fluffy, but always visually arresting and with plenty of sly humor. For instance, when we’re told two years have passed while he served in the army, Sanders as Vidocq says that this period of his life was omitted “Out of concern for ‘censorship (military).’”

There are a number of interesting motifs running through the film, too. One of these is the English myth of St. George and the dragon. After Vidocq and his cellmate Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escape from prison, they pose for a painting as St. George and the dragon, respectively, before escaping on horseback, still in costume. The painting of them will later show up on a wall of the estate owned by Marquise de Pierremont (Alma Kruger) and Houdon de Pierremont (Alan Napier), the minister of police. Their daughter, Therese de Pierremont (Signe Hasso) falls in love with Vidocq’s image. When she meets him in the flesh, he rides to the rescue of a bunch of bathing beauties (see the poster above) who are terrified by a snake slithering along the banks of a river. Vidocq rides by, and like St. George, kills the serpent. He does so with a nonchalant lash of his riding quirt, not a lance, but the effect is the same. Therese swoons.

The scene is played lightly, as is everything else in the picture. Throughout, Sirk seems to be mocking traditional notions of heroism. Sanders is the perfect actor for the role. He never winks at the camera, but there always seems to be a joke that only he is in on. Lines like, “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do, and those who don’t dare,” could have been awfully clunky coming out of another actor’s mouth, but Sanders’s delivery is perfect.

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