Archive for category 1950s
Yesterday was Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday. To celebrate, I submit this post to the blogosphere.
A couple of fellows meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each of them has somebody he’d like to get rid of, but he can’t murder the person he wants to get rid of. He’ll get caught. So they swap murders. – Bruno Antony
I chose Strangers on a Train because I think it could use a little more attention. It was well-received when it was released and it’s certainly not unheard of but it doesn’t get as much attention as some of Hitchcock’s other films. To be fair, there’s reasons why some of his other films get more attention but this one should get its share of the spotlight too…
As the title suggests, two strangers meet on a train by cooincidence. However, one is a madman…so, you know this is going somewhere delightfully devious.
Guy…yes, his name really is Guy and it fits him. He’s good looking and knows prominent people but he’s a fairly average guy. He’s a semi-famous tennis player who has ambitions to get into politics, is seeing a senators daughter but…he also happens to be married to a two-timing woman who doesn’t love him and is pregnant with another man’s baby. Still with me? Ok…the bottom line is – he doesn’t like his wife but he’s a decent guy. As Guy takes his seat on the train, his foot accidentally grazes Bruno Antony’s…
Bruno…he’s the mad man. It’s pretty clear from the start that this guy is a little weird. He strikes up a conversation with Guy and seems to know everything about him from newspaper articles. He knows who he is, that he’s dating a senator’s daughter and that he has an estranged wife. It’s creepy right off the bat. Bruno comes from money and hates his father because his father wants him to get a job…Bruno would rather just live off his dad’s money. We learn he has been kicked out of several colleges and that he basically does nothing but come up with wild theories about life and here’s the kicker – he’s planned how two people could get away with murder.
Guy listens politely and some people interpret his side of things a little differently but I think he doesn’t really take Bruno’s insane rantings too seriously. Bruno proposes a hypothetical plan that he and Guy should swap murders – so no motive could be tied to the killings. Since they’re complete strangers, they wouldn’t be connected. Bruno says he could kill Guy’s wife and Guy could kill his father while they each have alibies. They pull into another station and Guy needs to switch trains. As he leaves Bruno asks if Guy likes his idea. Guy says, “sure Bruno” but he says it as if he’s just patronizing Bruno and finds him harmless. But as we can guess…Bruno’s not harmless. He’s a total whack-job….but he’s also a charasmatic and charming whack-job so he’s enjoyable to watch.
As you’ve probably guessed, Bruno keeps his end of the bargain and kills Guy’s wife and shows up at Guy’s house like a cat trying to show off that he killed a mouse…He’s proud of himself and wants Guy to be proud of him too. I should probably mention now that Bruno is likely gay – he’s trying to please Guy so Guy will like him. Guy is surprised but doesn’t exactly seem to care that his wife is dead. As they’re standing across the street from Guy’s house, a police car arrives to deliver the news to Guy. Now this is where Guy becomes an idiot. Rather than telling the police that Bruno killed his wife, he hides in a shadow until the police leave. The rest of the film is kind of like a game of cat and mouse. Guy just wants everything to blow over and for Bruno to go away.
That’s just not going to happen though…
The police suspect Guy because his aliby is shakey and Bruno becomes more and more insistant that Guy keep up his end of the bargain…all the while the police have round the clock surveillance on Guy. As usual, I won’t give away what Guy does or what happens in the end — you’ll have to see it! :)
The major motif of the film is pairs or dopplegangers. Just about everything in this film has a pair or an opposite to go with it. The most obvious pair is Guy and Bruno. While Guy is not totally innocent – Bruno can be considered to be his dark side that acts out what Guy only thinks about.
Next is the pairing of Guy’s wife, Miriam and Barbara – the senator’s younger daughter. They look alike and when Bruno meets Barbara, he goes into a kind of trance, remembering his killing of Miriam.
And all throughout the film you’ll see or hear other smaller examples of doubles. For example, when Bruno and Guy first meet, Bruno orders two ‘double’ drinks. Also, Guy’s lighter has two tennis rackets crossing each other.
As with any Hitchcock film, there several very artistic shots. When Guy murders Miriam is the most famous: we see the murder in the reflection of her glasses that have fallen off. Also it’s a Hitchcock touch to show us that evil can happen anywhere – since Miriam’s murder takes place at a small town’s carnival. At the carnival, Bruno stalks Miriam like a cat, never taking his eyes off of her. She even notices that he’s watching her but it seems her vanity makes her assume that he finds her attractive. Miriam and her friends take a boat ride through the “Tunnel of Love” – and Bruno’s in the boat right behind them. Look closely at his boat – it’s called Pluto. In Roman mythology, Pluto is the god of the underworld.
This movie is not only entertaining – it is rich in artistry and symbolism. It’s the kind of movie that you can see a few times and notice something new each time. Bruno in particular is a great character – he’s a bad guy but you’ll get the impression that he doesn’t realize he’s bad. This is not my absolute favorite Hitchcock movie but it’s in my top 10 and definitely worth checking out if you like his films.
I usually write about a single movie and actually, that’s what I started with but I kept rambling on about Film Noir so I decided to dedicate the post to it entirely. Warning: This post just kept getting longer and longer.
If you’re not quite sure what film noir is or means, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Even the experts can’t seem to agree on it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? Is it a movement or a period? There are some fascinating and convincing arguments for all of the above. It’s one of my favorite film topics because no one can agree – it sparks some good articles, essays and books because naturally, everyone thinks they’re right. I’m no different…so, here’s my two cents…
First, to define exactly what a genre is. Here’s a definition straight from Dictionary.com:
Genre: a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.
Naturally, after I looked that up I was curious to see their definition of Film Noir:
Film Noir: a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.
(This illustrates my earlier point completely – they’re technically calling a film noir “a motion picture” – they avoided the debate by not saying “a style” or “a genre” or “a movement”…cracks me up)
Anyways, I agree with their genre definition. With that said, I personally believe that Film Noir is a sub-genre. It’s not an out and out genre all by itself – like Drama, Comedy, Musical, Western, Romance, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, etc.
Instead, a Film Noir is like an off-shoot of the big genres. Using the genre definition above – a film noir does have a particular form, content and technique so it does meet the definition BUT – no one set out to make film noirs in the 40s and 50s. They were making mysteries and thrillers and detective films and dramas…no one making these films set out to make “a film noir.” That term wasn’t coined until AFTER many of the movies we call Film Noirs were produced.
So, in other words, Film Noirs can be classified as a genre because they all share specific characteristics but they were originally classified in other genres – and still hold to those other genre’s definitions. Thus, I call them a sub-genre.
Now, if you don’t know, you’re probably wondering where the term came from and why it was after many of the movies were made. This historical aspect is a big part of why I love them so much. They were an unintentional byproduct of the time and along with Westerns, are the only other uniquely American genre.
During WWII, American films were banned in Nazi-occupied France. Once the war ended, the French and the very influential French film critics got to see the whole backlog of American movies they missed during the war. Rather than seeing the movies spread out over several months and years the way American audiences did, the French saw them in rapid succession. Because of this, they picked up on something that no one in America did. During the War, many of our films became dark – and they became dark in all senses of that word. The French critics began referring to these films as “noir” which is the French word for black.
So how were these films “noir”?
These are general explanations. Obviously each film is unique and follows these “rules” a little differently or follows some and not others but, in general, this is how it is:
If you’re like your films with a happy ending, Film Noirs are not where you’ll find them. The stories always have a criminal element. Murder and blackmail are the most common plot devices. The characters are often just one step ahead of the law – trying to frame each other or come up with an acceptable ‘fall guy.’ Often, the plot in these stories can be very convoluted – the plot doesn’t always matter. In a detective story for example, traditionally the story is all about how it happened and the plot is very important. But in a detective film that’s also a noir, the story is more about why. Noirs tend to be very interested in psychology or human behavior.
The settings are almost always urban – the cities are concrete jungles: cold, callous and unforgiving. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the most common. Most scenes take place at night, in the dark because that’s when the characters of Noir come out. Their business is always transacted at night. During the day, they’re inside. The only sunlight to be seen comes in through the blinds, casting prison-like bar shadows over everyone. This leads to the next noir characteristic….entrapment.
Noir characters are often trapped somehow. Sometimes they’re forced to do the things they do or feel they have no choice. Usually, they accept their fate – often they know or at least sense that they’re doomed.
Another popular theme is greed. People do bad things for money. These films like to show that.
Noirs have an extremely distinct style. Most of them are in black and white which adds to their sinister look and feel. The lighting is done in a way to create many shadows. Noirs are heavy on symbolism. One character might always be in the light, another might always be in a shadow. I mentioned blinds casting prison bar shadows earlier. Also, wrought-iron fences or gates cast bars over the characters – we’re constantly bombarded with imagery that tells us, they’re trapped or there’s no way out. The characters have distinct styles too. The men always smoke and usually drink heavily. The smoke adds to the visual style – clouding out whatever speck of light makes its way into a scene. The men usually wear suits, often pinstriped. When they go out, they wear a trench coat and a fedora. The women dress elegantly – gowns, gloves, jewels, impeccable hair and make-up. The script is full of razor-sharp wit, dripping with cynicism.
Common Noir Characters:
Femme Fatale: Definitely the most famous character type. So famous, the French coined a term for her too: “The Fatal Woman.” She’s beautiful, mysterious and can make normally level-headed men, fall for her instantly. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants and men are there to do her bidding. She’s cold and calculating. Every move she makes is for herself. The men who fall for her, figure it out way too late. They’re bad people but feminist film theorists make some good points that the Femme Fatales were some of the first strong women on the silver screen. When all the men were overseas, the women went out, got jobs and kept things running. They became stronger members of society than they ever were before. The Femme Fatales aren’t good but they are independent women. Some theorize, these strong women helped make these movies even more unsettling to the men in the audiences. These women were out in the world with the men – they weren’t home baking, cleaning or raising children.Duped Man: This is one of the guys that falls for the Femme Fatale. He’s a regular guy who crosses paths with a gorgeous woman. She gets him to do something for her and soon, he’s in too deep to ever get out. At first, he loves her – soon, he knows he’s been ‘a sap.’
Tough Guy: This is the other guy that falls for the Femme Fatale but unlike the duped man, this guy – often a detective, is a little too smart to fall all the way. He’s very smart. It’s clear he’s had a hard life where he needed to be smarter and tougher than the other guy. His past is always mysterious and usually implied to be questionable. He doesn’t trust anyone completely and is often a man of few words. When he does speak, it’s clear he’s not to be messed with. Deep down, he might be a good guy but something or someone has led him astray. Now he’s just trying to survive. He hopes to get out but doesn’t put much stock in hope.
Rich Sophisticated Bad Guy: The ‘boss’ of the henchmen is quite often a rich and sophisticated man. Like the femme fatale uses her sexuality, the rich guy uses his money to get others to do his bidding. He’s charming and charismatic – but definitely evil or at least no good.
Nice Girl: She’s usually the girlfriend of either the tough guy or duped man. She often represents an unattainable peaceful life. These guys love her but feel bad for dragging her into their mess of a life. Then the Femme Fatale comes along and she gets brushed aside. Ever faithful, she waits for her guy to see the light but often is left behind. She’s too good for them and they know it.
Hired Gun: Usually a very young guy – inexperienced but quick to put a bullet in someone to prove he’s tough. The real ‘tough guys’ have fun pushing this kid around. But, this kid is usually psychopathic. He isn’t really tough or smart – he just wants people to think he is and tries way too hard. He’s only dangerous because he’s trying to prove himself. If he’s not a young guy, he’s still not really any good. He’s like a big dumb henchman and often gets killed off or made to play the fall guy.
As I mentioned, Noir scripts are full of razor-sharp lines. Here are a few of my favorites:
Out of the Past (1947)
Kathie Moffat: I don’t want to die.
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, Baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.
Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.
Kathie Moffat: I’m sorry he didn’t die.
Jeff Bailey: Give him time.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Sam Spade: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.
Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation…
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?
Waldo Lydecker: I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.
Waldo Lydecker: In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.
Waldo Lydecker: My dear, either you were born on a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?
Walter Neff: I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.
Johnny Farrell: Pardon me, but your husband is showing.
“That’ll be the day…” – Ethan Edwards
If you’ve never seen a John Wayne movie, you should. If his movies just aren’t your thing, do it just for the experience of seeing him – he’s like no other. I think he’s a great, often underrated, actor….but it’s his screen presence that is truly remarkable. He didn’t just dominate the screen because he was such a big guy. And he was a big guy. He was 6’4…and not a scrawny 6’4. But that’s really not the only thing – he had a way of delivering his lines, taking pauses in strange places…sort of drawing out every fiber of every word that makes you believe him. No matter who he shared the screen with, you couldn’t help but notice him.
He’s often associated with American patriotism, and whether you agree with his personal politics or not, he was a patriot on and off the screen. So many times, in so many movies – he stood for justice or just doing the right thing no matter what. But he had his own code and he was one of the rare few that could seem to stick to it. I’m going on and on because I think he deserves more praise as an actor than he gets. Yes, he did play similar roles – but they’re not all the same. More importantly – I can’t imagine anyone else in them. There is no other John Wayne. If you’re among the ones that doubt his acting talents, you must not have ever seen The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – or for a different kind of John Wayne: The Quiet Man. I recommend all three….well, and a whole bunch of others.
Anyways, onto The Searchers…
I used to watch John Wayne movies growing up, with my dad – I liked them but I didn’t appreciate them until later and that’s exactly how my love of The Searchers grew. I saw it, I liked it – I didn’t understand it was a masterpiece until later. I think it might be one of those films that the more you see it, the more it grows on you and the more you love it.
The Searchers begins with Ethan Edwards appearing as a speck on the horizon – coming in to his brother’s ranch. He’s riding alone, covered in the desert dust, and we learn a little bit about him through the family conversation. He fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy but he’s showing up three years after the war ended and he’s got a lot of gold pieces. Where has he been? What has he been doing? His past is a mystery but it’s implied that he’s done some questionable things. We learn from Clayton, a Texas Ranger, that he “fits a lot of descriptions.” We also see an unspoken but obvious love between Ethan and his brother’s wife, Martha. They share a few tender moments – nothing scandalous by any means. It’s sweet in a sad way. He kisses her forehead at one point, she clearly cherishes the moment. It’s likely they never had an affair of any kind – they’re both honorable. I think they fell in love long ago but because of Ethan’s loner ways and perhaps his tendency to be an outsider, they never married and she married his brother instead.
Shortly after Ethan arrives, a neighbor’s cattle herd is run off by some Comanches and the men decide to ride off and get the cattle back…Ethan tells his brother Aaron to stay close to the ranch. He suspected the Comanches could be luring the men away. Tragically, he was right. Like my usual posts, I’m going to give away as little as possible. I don’t want to spoil it. But the men figure out too late and by the time they get back – the ranch where Ethan’s brother, his beloved Martha and their three children live is burning to the ground. Ethan calls frantically for his family – especially Martha….and then he finds her dress. He stumbles forward into the burning house and comes back out with a look of terror and rage on his face. He obviously saw the aftermath of what that empty dress just told us. But Lucy and Debbie aren’t there – his nieces were kidnapped. Hopefully, they’re still alive. Now for the search….
“Put an Amen to it! There’s no more time for praying.”
That’s what Ethan says to the preacher (also the Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton) as he and the local ranchers are singing at the group funeral for Aaron, Martha and their son Ben. Time to find those girls and get them away from the indians before they’re “of an age” to… In 1956, they couldn’t come right out and say it but that’s the idea – he needs to find his nieces before they’re forced to “marry” their Comanche captors – that’s the nice way of putting it. There’s no sugar-coating it. He hates the Comanches and constantly picks on Martin (who is an eighth Cherokee). He was like an adopted son to Martha and Aaron. Martin, vows to find Lucy and Debbie too. He considers them his sisters. Ethan never fails to miss an opportunity to point out that Martin’s not really family. Also along for the Search is Brad – who is Lucy’s boyfriend. He’s incredibly fragile – has to be calmed down several times. Understandably so – the girl he loves was kidnapped by men who raped and killed her mother. He has a hard time but he needs to be a part of the search.
The search takes many different twists and turns – they follow any lead they get but the Comanches are a wandering tribe and they know they’re being followed. Now, this is where I need to stop sharing details or I’ll ruin it. What you can know now is, the search lasts years. Ethan will not give up. As he says at one point…
“Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter who’ll just keep comin’ on.”
While watching The Searchers, Ethan can be hard to like but it’s almost impossible not to respect him. I think that’s to John Wayne’s credit in particular. Ethan says and does some nasty things but he still manages to be the hero. Martin, who searchers with Ethan, is the voice of moral reason. He’s like the conscience we’re not sure Ethan has. Again, Ethan’s not all bad – it’s just he doesn’t quite think the same way an insider in society would think.
Other than the actual story – this film is beautiful. Orson Welles once compared John Ford’s directing to poetry and it’s easy to understand when you see this film. Much of it is shot in Monument Valley – the sky couldn’t be more blue and the monuments (rock formations) almost glow orange in the sunlight. It’s gorgeous and it really makes me want to go visit someday. And then there’s the music. I’m having trouble describing it actually without simply saying, it’s perfect. The score searches on along with Ethan – follows him through all the setbacks. And then there are a few songs that are sung. I’ve learned to pay attention to the lyrics. They’re so fitting. Especially the song played during the credits – it’s about Ethan.
I know I’ve been vague at times and that I’ve rambled on for quite a bit now. But, my reasons are this – for me, this is one of the best films ever made. On one hand, I’d like to discuss every bit of it but on the other, it’s a great movie to figure out on your own. There’s a lot to it and, for me, I think it gets better and better each time I see it. I always notice more and I think everyone should see it, at least once.
There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it. – Sefton
In the spirit of Memorial Day weekend, I thought it fitting to write about a war movie.
I’ll try not to make this post too quote-heavy but the opening narration explains the setting of this film best…
“I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures…all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never w-was a movie about POWs – about prisoners of war. Now my name is Clarence Harvey Cook: They call me Cookie. I was shot down over Magdeborg, Germany back in ’43; that’s why I stammer a little once in a while. ‘Specially when I get excited. I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17. “Stalag” is the German word for prison camp and number 17 was somewhere on the Danube. There were about 40,000 POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, and the Poles, and the Czechs. In our compound there were about 630 of us, all American airmen, radio opreators, gunners and engineers. All sergeants. Now you put 630 sergeants together and, oh mother, you’ve got yourself a situation. There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint…take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks…”
At the opening of Stalag 17, two actions set the motion for the entire film. First, we witness an escape attempt by two of the men from barracks number four. Second, we meet Sefton who starts taking bets (paid for with cigarettes – the camp’s currency) whether or not the two men will even make it out of the forest…and he gives the odds to them not making it. The rest of the men don’t want to bet against their friends and they each pony up their smokes to bet that they will make it. No sooner do their cigarettes leave their pockets do they hear gunshots outside.
These events start the pattern of almost all of the events to come…Sefton has good luck while bad things keep happening to everyone else. As an audience, it’s even hard to know whether we should like Sefton or not. Clearly, he’s the star. We can tell because he gets so much attention (plus he’s played by William Holden) so we know he’s the one we’re following…but no one seems to like him very much. I’m all for rooting for the underdog – but Sefton’s not an underdog. He’s a prisoner just like all the other guys but he has a bar of soap to wash with, his clothes aren’t torn or dirty, he has a locker full of cartons of cigarettes which he only uses as money since he only smokes cigars. He even has a fresh egg for breakfast…the other’s just look on hungrily.
The narrator, Sefton’s most loyal friend, explains to us that Sefton’s just smart. He is always finding one way or another to get the others to trade him their prized cigarettes and other possessions. He runs a racetrack on Saturdays and Sundays using mice with numbers tied to their tails. He created a distillery using potato peels and charges the men per shot of the liquor…that’s only guaranteed not to make them go blind. I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the idea by now. Sefton has things the others don’t – and he doesn’t share.
The other guys don’t like Sefton but they tolerate him and accept his trades and bets…until they start associating his good fortune with their barrack’s misfortune. Little by little, they start suspecting that Sefton is trading their secrets for his comforts….like just how did he know that the escape attempt would fail so quickly or how did the guards find out about their hidden radio? It starts to seem like every time they have a secret – the guards learn about it and Sefton winds up with some new privilege.
At first, Sefton shrugs it off and chalks it up to their envy. But then their accusations get stronger and he starts defending himself. He tells them, “You put two and two together and it comes out four – only it ain’t four.” Next, they beat him and shun him – he’s alone and we still don’t know if he’s the spy or not. At first, we can’t even be sure if there is a spy – the evidence isn’t clear-cut.
But little by little, we’re let in on the secrets. I won’t ruin it for you if you’ve never seen it but even once we know what’s going on – the film continues to be very suspenseful. It’s still a story of “us” verses “them” during a war. Since the Americans are already in a prison camp, the odds are against them and survival is most definitely on the line.
This is a tense film but it has it’s moments of comedy. The men are bored and they find ways to have fun when they can. Sometimes, a few of the comedic scenes can seem a bit over the top in their silliness but I forgive that because I think the film would be too tense without them. Through all of this – whether Sefton’s the spy or not – they’re prisoners of war and we feel sympathy for all of them. Clearly, they’re cold, dirty, and poorly fed. The German camp commander is necessarily evil as one would expect.
There are many little side stories in this film. The one that gets me each time I see it is when one of the men reads a letter from his wife. She keeps repeating in the note, “you won’t believe it, but”…and we find out that someone just happened to leave a baby on her front porch, it looks remarkably like her, and she’s decided to keep it to raise as their own. The poor man for the rest of the film just keeps repeating…”I believe it.” He looks so sad – just imagine being a prisoner of war and finding out that not only did your wife have an affair but she’s had another man’s baby. He has to tell himself that her story is true or he’ll lose his mind completely.
These little side stories make the film richer. So many of the scenes take place inside the barracks – it’s cramped and it’s shot to make us feel like we’re crammed in there with them, getting to know all of the characters and their stories. When the men suspect Sefton, we feel it too. When he’s beaten – we’re conflicted….who’s side are we on?
There are many great war movies out there. I think this one is unique for its setting. Most war movies seem to be about great battles and heroic leaders and are full of shooting and bombs and action. In Stalag 17, the Americans might be in prison but they certainly didn’t give up and show themselves to be extremely resourceful. Their actions against the enemy are on a different scale but they’re still heroic.