Plot Twist: Ruta Lee Remembers Making Witness for the Prosecution

Imagine this: You’re 22. You’ve just been signed to act alongside heavyweight stars Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. Your character barely speaks a word until a surprise final scene, and the entire film hinges on that twist. You have to be joyful, alluring, vicious, then hysterical, all in an unfamiliar accent. And all in the space of 2 minutes.

Tough gig, huh?

That was the challenge facing Ruta Lee in 1957 as she grappled with a pivotal role in Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. Breezy and glittering on the stage of the Egyptian Theater at TCMFF, Lee shared memories of making the classic twisty thriller, an experience that sounds almost as tense as the film itself.

The story of Lee’s involvement with Witness for the Prosecution has a fairy tale quality. Destiny conspired to put our heroine in the right place at the right time. During the mid-1950s, Frank Sinatra vowed to help out the owners of the Mocambo, a once-swinging nightclub threatened by the gravitational pull of evening television. Invited by her gracious host in Hollywood, Ruta Lee was there on Sinatra’s opening night at the Mocambo.

As Lee recalls, “I was privileged to sit right under where Frank Sinatra was singing. The entire stage was filled with orchestra and Frank was working on a tiny little dais in front of it. People were sitting around behind him on both sides. I was right there in front looking up at this glorious man, and nobody else in this world is or will be as mesmerizing as Frank Sinatra. So I sat there with my mouth hanging open. At the end of the show a note came to our host and said, ‘Would you mind bringing Miss Lee to my table? I’d like to meet her.’

“So my host took me back around behind where Frank Sinatra was singing, and the man said, ‘Hello, my name is Arthur Hornblow, Jr. I’m a producing a film called Witness for the Prosecution. And I have just given you the most unique screen test. I have watched you watch Frank Sinatra, because I couldn’t see Frank Sinatra, and I think you would make a very good love interest for Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution. Would you come in and meet Billy Wilder.’”

Lee’s voice drops an octave or two at the mention of Billy Wilder, conjuring the butterflies-in-your-stomach excitement that this offer must’ve brought to any young actress.

She pounced on the opportunity. “I said, ‘Is tomorrow too soon?’”

Lee went in for her screen test, but ran into an unexpected obstacle: “Marlene Dietrich took one look at those shots and said, ‘Nicht. Nein. Forget it. She’s a blonde.’ I immediately became a brunette. And that’s how I got Witness for the Prosecution.”

Since Lee’s character doesn’t appear until halfway into the film, she arrived on set later than the principal stars. “I came into the picture about 4 weeks after it had started shooting.” The young newcomer had to hold her own among an intimidating line-up of actors: “I was dealing with theatrical and motion picture royalty, any way you look at this.”

To make matters worse, Lee’s colleagues in the makeup department warned her that Charles Laughton was a “nasty” man who loathed young girls. “You just do what you have to do and everything will be fine,” they assured her.

All these pressures culminated in a nerve-wracking and unexpectedly uproarious first day on the set: “So I walk onto the stage in my darling little tight dress and high heels and a perky hat that Grady Hunt had designed for me. And nobody says, ‘hello,’ ‘get lost,’ ‘who are you?’ I’m sort of thinking for the first time in my life that I wish the floor would open up and swallow me. They’re sitting around over there, Marlene and Charles and everybody in a little tea circle,” Lee says.

“And I frankly didn’t know what to do, so I was looking around, and suddenly someone walked up behind me, smacked me on the rear end, I went flying across the stage, I looked back… and it’s Charles Laughton! And he says, ‘That’s the best damned ass I’ve seen in a long time.’ That’s how he became one of my dear friends.”

After that unconventional introduction, the star settled into a less mischievous mode. “He taught me to play Perquackey and all sorts of wonderful games. He literally would pout if I didn’t come in first to him on the set and say hello,” Lee remembers. “Isn’t that sweet?”

Laughton and Elsa Lanchester both went out of their way to make Lee feel at home: “They used to invite me to lunch, which they cooked in their apartment on the set.”

More importantly, the famous husband-wife team coached Lee on a key part of her performance. “They helped me with that middle British accent. You can do a Limey easily or very, very grand,”—and here Lee gave us some fine snippets of Cockney and Public School accents—“but that middle English is something else. And they both helped me with that.”

By contrast, Dietrich never warmed up to Lee, blonde or brunette.

Asked about the rumors that Dietrich carried a torch for Tyrone Power, Lee replied, “She may have had a crush on Tyrone. She sure didn’t have a crush on me! I mean, I don’t blame her, you know. She just really had nothing to do with me. She was very cool, very distant.”

Despite Dietrich’s icy reserve, Lee valued the chance to watch the legendary screen goddess at work. “I really respected her knowledge of how she would appear on the screen. She was the kind of lady that would say to the cinematographer, ‘I vould like a little tiny gobo* here and maybe vun there to catch the light here and the light here.’ And he would say, ‘Gosh, Marlene, we don’t have those.’ And she said, ‘Don’t vorry, dahling. I do.’ She literally carried a trunk with all the foam lining, with all kinds of lighting instruments. Now that’s knowing your craft.” The Egyptian Theater audience agreed with a thunderous round of applause to celebrate Dietrich the cinematography expert.

Lee remembers shooting Witness for the Prosecution on a colossal set almost as impressive as the cast. “The set of Old Bailey was built exactly to three-quarter scale of the real Old Bailey in London. So that’s amazing. They had to tear apart a wall and build on 2 soundstages.”

Though her role was a small one, Witness for the Prosecution gave Lee one of her most memorable turns on film. “And it’s due to Frank Sinatra, right?”

Before too long, Ol’ Blue Eyes would again intervene to shape Lee’s destiny. “Fade out, fade in, it’s like a year or two later. We all know that Frank Sinatra likes nothing better than to have people up to the house, a big Italian dinner, and watch a new movie. What’s the movie they’re screening that night? Witness for the Prosecution.

“And he says to Howard Koch, for whom I worked many times at Warner Brothers and he was a partner of Frank’s, ‘How about we put this Ruta Lee chick—I’ve been watching her on television—into one of our movies?’ That’s how I became the leading lady to Frank Sinatra in Sergeants 3. He never knew that he was responsible for both jobs!”

*According to We Make the Movies (1937), a gobo is a “black adjustable screen used to keep the rays of light from the camera.”

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At 100, Marsha Hunt Still Has Plenty of Surprises Up Her Impeccably Stylish Sleeve

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, actress and activist Marsha Hunt gave us the scoop of the century, a secret that’s waited since 1944 to come to light.

Nowadays we’re inundated with breaking news, exhausted by ubiquitous celebrities, and desensitized by the barrage of alerts that light up our phones.

But how about romantic Hollywood gossip that surfaces after more than 70 years?

There’s something almost enchanted about a revelation like that, paradoxically old and new, something that gains power through years of secrecy. Particularly when the news comes straight from the person who lived it.

In conversation with the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, Hunt recalled the making of None Shall Escape, an ambitious B film that anticipated the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals. Towards the end of the interview, Muller asked about the film’s colorful, underrated director André de Toth. And, boy, did he get more than he bargained for.

“Bundy—as we called him, that was the nickname he chose—Bundy De Toth was irresistible… I tried and I couldn’t.” She finished the thought with a smile verging on naughtiness.

The crowd, as they say, went wild. You could feel it crackle through the air, that buzz of hundreds of people thinking, “Did she just say what I think she said?”

Even Eddie Muller, who has stared down the barrel of Ann Savage’s gun and dodged a punch or two from Lawrence Tierney, was left temporarily speechless. 100 years on planet earth have only intensified Hunt’s flair for a well-timed coup-de-théâtre.

Praising De Toth as “a damn good director,” she elaborated on his charms: “He was also more personable, more entrancing, more irresistible than almost anybody I had met up to that point.”

With the audience in the palm of her hand, Hunt wryly left the rest to our imaginations, “You take it from there…” Make no mistake: this wasn’t a slip of the tongue or an unguarded moment. Hunt clearly enjoyed tantalizing her adoring crowd with this deliberate news drop.

Indeed, Hunt is exquisitely in control, shining with the poise and wisdom she’s earned over the course of a long, well-spent life. She tends to speak about the past carefully, deliberately, as though weighing each reminiscence against an iron-clad personal standard of truth.

For example, Muller asked about Columbia’s notoriously vulgar mogul Harry Cohn, who greenlit None Shall Escape. Rather than yield to hearsay, Hunt gave a clear-eyed appraisal of the studio head’s vision: “I never met him. So far as I know, he was gentleness itself. Because I never saw him or heard to the contrary. Harry Cohn, whatever his social manners might have been, knew good films and he had a lot of courage, I think, about the films he chose to make, for which he deserves great credit. A Harry Cohn film, very often as not, stood for something, and not just a film. So here’s to Harry Cohn.”

Hunt is proud of her involvement in such a prophetic and historically significant film as None Shall Escape. “It was a great privilege that I felt so lucky to be given,” she says.

She remembers the surreal experience of making a movie about wartorn Poland… on studio sets out in Burbank: “It was on the way to the airport, and the cars whizzed by. And we were creating another day, another atmosphere, another continent, another everything. It was fascinating be in such a contrast all at once.”

Hunt spoke fondly of co-star Alexander Knox, who garnered an Oscar nomination for Wilson the same year he chillingly portrayed a Nazi officer in None Shall Escape. ”How’s that for broad talent? He was a lovely man. We became lifetime friends. When my husband and I went to England they took beautiful care of us, and we had a lovely reunion over there.”

After its world premiere restoration at TCMFF, hopefully None Shall Escape will find a larger audience. Its astute psychological inquiry into the origins of evil remains frighteningly, enduringly relevant. As Muller pointed out, “It was very common for American movies during the war to make jingoistic propaganda pictures to boost our morale and convince us we were going to win. This movie does something very different. It looks at this from the enemy’s side and it talks about… how you make a fascist. Here’s how you create a Nazi.” Hunt added, “Think how important those formulae are. How to make a villain… We need to pay very great attention to those how-tos.”

Hunt’s first-hand experience opposing fascism—the home-grown, all-American kind—got her blacklisted during the McCarthyite frenzy. As HUAC threatened Hollywood in 1947, Hunt and a group of other prominent industry figures, the Committee for the First Amendment, traveled to Washington D.C. to protest. Unfortunately, their brave efforts failed to stop the momentum of rabid red-baiters in Congress.

The Committee for the First Amendment in Washington. Marsha Hunt is on the left edge of the frame wearing that super-cool double-breasted ensemble.

In a longer conversation at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop during the TCMFF weekend, Hunt candidly spoke about the Red Scare in Hollywood. “It was a very ugly, ugly time,” she said, shaking her head at the damage done to so many lives, including her close friend Adrian Scott.

“I didn’t know or understand communism or care anything about it, except that I gathered that a lot of people who had joined that party were idealists, and that couldn’t be so bad,” Hunt explained. “So I didn’t make any so-called communists my enemies. And that probably won me some enemies.”

Marsha doing her part for WWII morale, just a few years before she’d be blacklisted for leftist connections.

During the 1940s, Hunt’s home was a gathering place for the likes of Leonard Bernstein and other renowned artists of the day. Even in that haven of creatives, political tensions bubbled up to the surface. Hunt recalled how some guests would storm out of the house rather than share the room with somebody on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

This behavior puzzles Hunt, who believes in frank exchanges of ideas. “I think it’s rather lovely for people who disagree to have some chats and conversations,” she says. “Once we’ve taken our own side and are pretty sure of it, then go with it and enjoy the journey.”

An independent thinker, Hunt fiercely objected to the idea that someone could be persecuted on the basis of their politics. “I was lumped with the far left because I spoke freely about whatever I cared about. And those were dangerous days.”

Refusing to name names or disavow her beliefs, Hunt was blacklisted at the peak of her career. The integrity that made her a target then makes her a hero today.

In style as well as politics, Hunt has a boldly independent streak. According to Eddie Muller, right before their TCMFF interview, “The make-up woman went to do her lipstick, and Marsha just took it from her and did it herself.”

As Hunt casually explains, “I haven’t been made up within memory. I’ve always done my own make-up.”

Hunt earned her expertise in cosmetics during the rigorous apprenticeship that she set out for herself in hopes of a film career. When Hunt was growing up in the 1920s and early 1930s, “There was no training for movies. You learned how to make movies then by making movies, but you could train for the theaters.”

“I always, my whole life, meant to be an actress. Oddly enough I was never stagestruck. It had to be movies. And I knew that was going to take some managing. But, in the meantime, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do to help prepare for that? Let’s see… I ought to learn to dress, and make up, and be groomed.’ All of the visuals.”

After graduating high school, Hunt attended dramatic school and found work with the elite Powers Modeling Agency. “I’m long waisted, and it’s a small waist, and I guess that qualifies me as a model.”

That preparation enabled Hunt to take an active role in shaping what she wore on and off the screen. “I loved to design,” she told us. When asked to talk about style, however, Hunt peered into the audience of TCMFF-ers, many decked to the nines in vintage glad rags, and modestly exclaimed, “They can tell me!”

Though schooled in glamour, Hunt knew that she craved something more from film acting. She sought out challenging character parts and often played women considerably older than she was, as in None Shall Escape.

“I wanted to be a different kind of actress,” Hunt recalls. “I wanted to play people who had nothing to do me, with my look, with my age—particularly age—or type, or any of that. I wanted a total disguise in every role. There are actresses and actors who love to play themselves. Well, God bless them! I thought it was fun to pretend. So that’s what I went after.”

Unbroken by one of the darkest chapters in 20th century American history, Hunt is a courageous and compassionate survivor.

Despite the stolen years of the blacklist, her body of work on film is a gallery of diverse, memorable, utterly credible characterizations. She has created an equally impressive legacy of humanitarianism, using her fame, financial resources, and industry connections to advocate for refugees, establish homeless shelters, and fight world hunger.

So… what is her secret? How did she forge such a meaningful century from adversity?

Hunt mainly credits her parents and upbringing. She believes that her sunny outlook also has something to do with it: “I’m a born optimist. I guess the bright side always appealed to me to look at rather than the dark. I’ve been blessed. I never figured out why. But I sure have and I want the fates to know, I’m grateful!”

You can see that “bright side” in her impish sense of humor. As Eddie Muller and Alan Rode passed a microphone back and forth, she quipped, “Who’s on first?” And, when Muller proudly mentioned that he directed Hunt’s last film, The Grand Inquisitor (2008), she joked, “And she never worked again!” After the crew at Larry Edmunds sang “Happy Birthday” (an honorary birthday, since every day over 100 deserves celebration), she cooed, “I could marry all of you!”

I had the honor of briefly meeting Marsha, and it will rank among the great thrills of my life. You feel infinitely humbled to be in the presence of someone who has done so much good for so long. As I stammeringly told her that I admired her performances in 2 movies I love, Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal, she smiled and thanked me.

I also asked her about one of my favorite behind-the-scenes photos. Was she really a knitter? Or was it staged? (Look, it might seem like a silly question, but you have to admit it was original.)

Hunt looked at the picture and, with that sharp, deliberate memory of hers, she confirmed that she was indeed an on-the-set knitter. “It helped me keep busy during the long camera set-ups.” And, what’s more, she remembers that she knit argyle socks! Imagine keeping track of those patterns amidst all the distractions of a movie set.

As a knitter myself, I choose to believe that needlework is the secret ingredient to Marsha’s longevity. Because it’s far easier to practice than optimism (though she has inspired me to work harder at that).

Eddie Muller describes Hunt as “the most exemplary human being I have ever met in my life.” After spending just a short amount of time basking in her radiant cheer and kindness, I’m inclined to agree. Long may she grace this world with her presence.

Twisted Hopes and Crooked Dreams: A Weekend at the Kit Noir Festival

Even people who couldn’t pick Barbara Stanwyck out of a police lineup might know noir when they see it.

Slanting shadows of Venetian blinds. Men in trench coats prowling rain-slicked streets after dark. Scheming dames with guns in their purses and murder on their minds.

Noir is surely the crossover superstar of the cinephile lexicon, with tropes and a visual style instantly recognizable in television, video games, and graphic novels, as well as films.

However, the actors, directors, and cinematographers who forged that style in the early 1940s didn’t call it film noir. Why? Because the term didn’t exist.

At Columbia University the inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival (or Kit Noir for short) investigated the genesis of noir as a critical concept. The festival screened 8 films in total, 7 of them on 35mm. Whenever possible, the festival showed original trailers for the next film in the series, providing insight into how Hollywood sold the not-yet-labeled film noir to the public.

Noir enthusiast Gordon Kit established and funded this exploration of a “uniquely American genre” in honor of his parents. He hopes to differentiate the recurring event from other noir- or classic film-oriented festivals by focusing on critical noir studies. “I am fascinated by the historical and cultural context of films—what was happening in the world when the films were made, where did the inspiration for the films come from, and how the films reflected or impacted the culture of the times in which they were made,” Kit explains.

Within the scope of noir studies, the festival organizers decided to begin at the beginning. As MFA Film Program Administrator Soheil Rezayazdi told me, “our programmer Rob King wanted to start with the origins of the phrase itself. What were the films that inspired French critics in the mid-’40s to coin the label ‘film noir’? We settled on eight films to transport festival attendees back to that formative moment in film history, before these films of moral depravity, low-key lighting, and abject gloom had a name.”

King researched the American movies that screened in 1946 Paris, once the liberation opened the floodgates for films previously blocked by Vichy’s embargo. Enthralled by the moody, ambiguous crime dramas, French critics recognized the stirrings of something new in American cinema.

As Borde and Chaumeton wrote in their landmark study Panorama du film noir américain, “In the course of a few weeks, from mid-July to the end of August, five films followed one another on the cinema screens of Paris, films which had an unusual and cruel atmosphere in common, one tinted by a very particular eroticism.” Kit Noir screened 4 of those 5 films: The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, Laura, and Double Indemnity.

Attending Kit Noir recreated that experience of dark discovery, the sense of an intricate web being woven before your eyes. Unlike the mid-century French critics, I’d already seen all but one of the films on the program. But, when you watch so many formative noirs in a compressed period, the connections simply refuse (like Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet) to be ignored. The patterns—thematic, tonal, and visual—practically leap off the screen and offer you a drink.

Taken individually, they’re impressive movies. Altogether, they’re a cosmic tipping point, the event horizon of a black hole. Or maybe more like the all-consuming black pool that swallows up Philip Marlowe, so cleverly featured in the Kit Noir trailer below.


While the festival theme skewed the program towards noir’s greatest hits, some lesser-known gems crept into the mix. I was especially glad to see 2 period noirs, set amidst the artificial fog of backlot London. Although I’d heard raves about The Suspect for years, I’d never seen it until Kit Noir, since it’s difficult to get a hold of. And it was a perverse treat to bask in the extreme dread that John Brahm’s rarely shown thriller The Lodger can conjure up on a big screen.

Gordon Kit hopes that future festivals will delve more into the deep cuts of film noir. “We will undoubtedly show B films in subsequent years, but were limited to A films this year, as it was only A films that made it to Paris in 1946. As you know, some of the best noir films are B films!”

For next year’s festival theme, Kit Noir will explore Cornell Woolrich adaptations. (Although it’s early days for the schedule, I’m crossing my fingers that Deadline at Dawn, The Chase, and The Leopard Man will figure on the program.) Themes under consideration for future festivals include noir’s greatest femmes fatales, international noir (British or French), and films based on the work of Dorothy B. Hughes.

The festival has plenty of time to explore film noir’s dark corners. “The Kit Noir Festival is funded for a decade, so you can expect we’ll be back with a new slate of 35mm prints next year,” Rezayazdi says. Kit is even more optimistic: “We have a rough list of about 20 possible themes—including focusing on a noir cinematographer. Thus, we could easily run a festival beyond 10 years!”

Now that’s a trolley ride that this noir geek would like to take, straight down the line.

Some Ridiculously Long Meditations on the Films and the Program

A film noir marathon is like an exfoliant for the soul. You emerge slightly shaken, sensitive to light, and determined to stay on the straight-and-narrow, to morally detox. Maybe that’s why I rarely watch films noirs back to back!

Unfortunately, weather kept me from seeing the first Kit Noir screening (The Maltese Falcon) and travel prevented me from seeing the last (Scarlet Street). But I did attend 6 screenings out of 8 and sit in for the Q&A with Paul Schrader. I filled a whole notebook with scribbles during the screenings, so this is actually a condensed version…

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944): “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

I’d seen Wilder’s noir classic many times. (I’ve even GIF-ed Raymond Chandler’s cameo.) But I was unprepared for the impact of Barbara Stanwyck’s eyes on the big screen, glittering with greed, malice, and sadness. Her technique and John F. Seitz’s cinematography manage to cultivate sympathy for Phyllis largely through catch light. We never get Phyllis’s side of the story; we see her only as Walter sees her, first as a dangerous object of desire and increasingly as a nagging threat. Which is why those eyes are so important. The way they sparkle in the darkness of Walter’s kitchen tells us more about her bottled-up desperation, the bruised longing for independence that drives her to commit evil deeds, than words ever could.

On the big screen, Double Indemnity immerses you in the stark, impersonal reality of everyday life in a 1940s urban environment. Their trysts in a grocery store remind us that Walter and Phyllis’s world offers them all the romance of a bowl of cornflakes. The promise of money, with a little illicit passion on the side, must’ve seemed like paradise in that inferno of cardboard sameness. The exhilaration of Walter and Phyllis’s risky courtship throbs forth from one of the film’s most self-consciously beautiful shots—the trapezoid of light encasing Phyllis as she enters Walter’s apartment for the first time. Though she holds the promise of romance for lonely, average Walter, there’s nothing romantic about Phyllis. She’s comically pragmatic. What woman doesn’t know the name of her own perfume? What woman can’t identify the seductive pop tune she’s playing from the radio? A woman you can’t trust, that’s who.

Gallows humor is as much a part of noir as lipstick and gunsmoke. Seeing Double Indemnity with an audience made me realize just how funny it is, especially towards the beginning. Wilder charms you into thinking that everything might turn out okay, despite the inevitability of doom set up by the frame story. We’re lulled into Walter’s upbeat salesman mindset: jokey, overconfident, and unable to fathom what he’s walking into, until it’s too late.

The flashbacks gradually progress into darkness, from the filtered afternoon sunlight of Walter’s first visit to the consuming shadows of his final confrontation with Phyllis. If you compare the beginning to the end, the contrast is shocking. Thus Double Indemnity hints at the ease with which anybody can be drawn into an irreversible cycle of guilt. I knew that before, but the crushing heaviness of the final darkness spooked me in a way it never could on my television screen. That black night of regret seems to enfold you, the viewer, in Walter’s sins and warn you against any false step.

The implicit social criticism of Double Indemnity also hit home more powerfully on this viewing. In the first minutes of the film, the elderly elevator “boy” tells Walter about his inability to get insurance because of a bad heart. That’s not idle chatter. Similarly, we’re never rooting for Phyllis so hard as when she’s bawling out the Pacific All-Risk executive who’s trying to intimidate her out of her inheritance. Walter and Phyllis kill a man for his money. Yet, ironically, even they have more of a conscience than the ruthless system that they try to cheat.

The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944): “You wouldn’t think that anyone could hate a thing and love it too.”

With all due respect to Hitchcock, I find this adaptation of The Lodger infinitely scarier. In particular, the murder of Annie—as she shakes and gasps in panic, backing away from an unseen assailant represented by the juddering camera—feels 10 or 20 years ahead of its time. In a weekend full of dark movies, there was no grittier or more disturbing scene than this pitiful woman, who lives on scraps and rags, thrashing with terror in her last moments of life.

On a lighter note, character actress Sara Allgood impressed me with how much of the film she carries on her shoulders. Her conflicting motivations, intelligence, and courage drive the film forward. Given the preponderance of wicked matriarchs in noir,Allgood’s kindly, nuanced character brings a note of realism to the proceedings (after all, not everybody is evil). Her grounded, no-nonsense goodness counterbalances the violent, unhinged zealotry of the Bible-thumping killer, Slade.

Illuminated by gas lamps, fires, and candlelight, John Brahm’s bleak, expressionistic vision of Victorian London externalizes the morose, brooding mind of the eponymous character. For instance, in one suspenseful moment, flames from a stove flicker up surrounding Kitty Langley, foreshadowing the danger to her life and casting her as a burning sinner in Slade’s eyes. Brahm’s camera sometimes roves the winding cobblestone streets in eerie long takes. And sometimes it frames characters so tightly that they’re packed in like sardines. Overall, he paints a murky, confining environment where cozy parlors and fetid back alleys alike are pregnant with the possibility of unspeakable deeds.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the queerness of the Jack the Ripper figure. His rapturous description of his his dead, ruined brother’s beauty, and the feverish quality in the way Cregar speaks it, suggest repressed desire. Slade kills women, we understand, not only because they elicit his desire, but also because he seeks to punish the women like the one who destroyed the object of his first and deepest affection.

The contrast between Kitty’s two cheeky musical numbers exposes a certain fanatical and conflicted strain in the male gaze. As a music hall performer, Kitty displays herself for the pleasure of her audience, enjoys doing so, and profits by it. In this sense, she welcomes and owns the gaze and the desire of her male audience, rather than allowing it to own her. During the first dance sequence, a winking close up of Oberon over a parasol transmits her wry joy in her profession.

The second sequence takes on a much darker vibe, as Brahm cuts between Kitty’s routine and increasingly tight shots of Slade in the audience. As he sweats and watches agape, we can see horror and arousal in his face. His anger is not with her beauty, but with her mastery of the situation, the power she derives from performing and displaying her beauty. He hates her because other men desire her and apparently because he himself desires her.

Brahm thus probes the nature of the ripper’s violence as an attempt to destroy the power that women attain through open sexuality. At the risk of stretching this analysis too far, the flirty dance sequence, made sinister by a single spectator, links censorship to sick minds and violent perversions of desire. Brahm and just about every other director had to deal with the Production Code boys in some capacity. By wanting to eradicate a source of temptation, Brahm suggests, you reveal your own hypocrisy and frailty. Repression and fanaticism don’t lead to saintliness but to the direst cruelty.

Finally, I have to call attention to this shot from the closing chase sequence, as Slade scurries over a theater catwalk. Light shining through the slats transforms Laird Cregar’s face into an ever-changing grotesque, as though he’s morphing through a hundred different slavering manifestations of human barbarism.

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): “Forget the whole thing like a bad dream.”

Following on the heels of The Lodger’s Jack the Ripper, Lydecker’s not-so-repressed attraction to Macpherson and Shelby and his jealousy for Laura were all the more striking. In both films, the villains’ performances leave the viewer in doubt as to their motivations. Do they want to destroy Kitty and Laura because they desire those women… or because they desire the men that those women attract? Or perhaps both? Lydecker and Slade are tragic characters. I find it impossible to dislike them, despite the havoc they wreak on the lives of others. Lydecker wins us over with his wit and tightly-coiled, cobra-ready-to-strike energy. Slade’s aching, if off-putting, vulnerability make us feel sorry for him.

They’re also linked by similar horror movie-worthy reemergences at the ends of their respective films. Lydecker creeps like the bogeyman into Laura’s apartment from the side entrance. Slade’s arm reaches out from behind a screen to lock the door and trap Kitty unawares in her dressing room. In terms of tone, content, and even the speed of their ominous movements, these scenes seem to rhyme.

Most obviously, Lydecker’s and Slade’s painful, dramatic deaths puncture the imminent happy endings of the films’ heterosexual couples. Through heavy shadows and subtext, noir reminds us of those for whom there could be no openly happy ending back in 1944.

Laura is a movie about possessions, literal and metaphorical. “Laura loved all her things,” Ann Treadwell says wistfully in a rare non-catty moment. I’ve seen it 3 times on the big screen (once on nitrate!), and each time I pick up new details about the meticulously decorated apartments that the characters inhabit. This time I zeroed in on the homey floral pattern of the window seat cushions in Laura’s apartment, the spring-like framed flower arrangement over her mantle, and the desk chair with an elegant lyre-shaped back. We can see how dwelling in her space gives Macpherson insight into the person she is, her gentle yet refined tastes and intellect. Preminger crafts such believable rooms that we can almost smell the perfume of the “late” Laura Hunt.

I can’t believe I never noticed this before, but there’s an astonishing moment when Macpherson gratuitously opens Laura’s closet to look at her dresses, then shoves the door shut. He glares at his reflection in the closet mirror, disgusted with himself for seeking such embarrassing intimacy with a dead woman. It’s a wordless, uncomfortable moment, a few seconds that capture the tug-of-war between sensitivity and macho pride that Dana Andrews acts out so exquisitely.

As always, I appreciate how Laura’s return from the grave is pointedly un-dreamlike. The camera refuses to participate in Macpherson’s fantasy in the moment when he comes face to face with her. The scene is not a haunting resurrection. It’s not a bewitching phantom rising from the grave. It’s a worn-out woman coming home late at night in a rather unflattering rain hat and slicker… to find a strange man asleep in her living room. The film builds up Laura’s ethereal image, then introduces the more interesting real woman. This approach makes us realize how Lydecker tries to push his own narrative around her identity, reshaping her and altering her in a way she never wanted or encouraged.

In noir, the lighting design isn’t merely showing off. Light often serves a plot purpose, revealing or concealing. And Laura offers one of the best examples. The white-hot beam of the interrogation lamp washes out Gene Tierney’s delicate features and deepens Laura’s feeling of being exposed by Macpherson. That blazingly harsh light also parallels the unpleasant wake-up calls of her personal life. To move forward on her emotional journey, she has to face the ways men have disappointed her—men she loved and believed in—and shed some of her idealism. When Macpherson turns off the light, he reluctantly reveals his tenderness, dropping the awkward tough guy act. In the cool relief of that darkness, and you can really feel it in a theater, Laura and Macpherson drop their pretenses and move towards a foundation of trust. Sometimes the darkness reveals more than light ever could.

Conversation Between Paul Schrader and Columbia Professor Annette Insdorf

In 1972, future screenwriter and director Paul Schrader wrote “Notes on Film Noir,” one of the first and most influential studies of film noir in English. At the time, he emphasized style over theme and content in defining noir, partially, he says, because of a church background that privileged words over aesthetics. “I was just at that point when I was starting to realize that images could be ideas.” Now he recognizes more of a balance. “If you made a film noir in style without film noir content, I don’t think it would be recognized as film noir,” he notes.

However, don’t start throwing around the word noir around Paul Schrader, unless you’re ready to defend your terms. “I have a very rigid definition of film noir. It is a period of film history,” he said. “I believe that critical language should be precise as possible. Otherwise it has no meaning.”

Schrader and Insdorf dissected the many factors—from the influx of Jewish émigrés to American women’s forced return to domestic life after WWII—that combined to make noir a unique cultural moment. Even something as specific as the widespread use of psychoanalytic therapy in Hollywood’s wealthy and progressive community played a key role in shaping the noir canon. Schrader also pointed out the importance of technological advances: “The history of film is not the history of personalities or social movements. It’s the history of technology. As the technology evolves, the art evolves.” He highlighted the lightweight, portable cameras, used by the Five Came Back directors to film World War II, that enabled a new level of in-the-streets realism. “They were freed from the huge contraption of cinema in the studios.”

Nowadays you can be influenced by noir, but your film is not noir, as far as Schrader’s concerned. “Saying film noir in color for me is like saying an animated film with [live] actors.” (As a believer in the paradox of “film noir in color” myself, I’d love to hear him debate this with Martin Scorsese.)

And what of the apparent links between Schrader’s own work, particularly Taxi Driver, and noir? “I don’t think Taxi Driver is film noir,” he insisted, before recalling the inspiration for the famous script, as well as other key works in his career:

Taxi Driver comes from Pickpocket. I was a critic. I was living in a house with UCLA film students who were all making a film for Roger Corman. I just couldn’t get interested in what they they were doing. I thought it was such a trivial thing. Whereas I was part of the revolution. And then I went to see this film which was released in Los Angeles about 10 years after it was released in France. And I was just mad about it. I walked out and I said, ‘I could make a film like that. That’s just a guy who sits in his room and he writes, then he goes out and he does some stuff, then he comes back in his room and writes some more. Then he runs into to someone and he comes back in his room. I could do that film.’ And a year later I wrote Taxi Driver. And that has now morphed into 5 films about a man in his room, from Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper to The Walker and now to First Reformed.”

As for modern noir homages, Schrader also gave us an amusing bit of a scoop: he’s trying to remake Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. “I wanted to make it with Justin Timberlake, but I lost him,” he lamented.

Asked to comment on the current state of filmmaking, Schrader confessed, “I have no idea what to call this period that we’re in.” He not only cited the lightning-fast technological evolutions—so that a film is out of date by the time it hits theaters—but also major shifts in how we conceive of style and continuity:

“One of the things that has changed, I think, is that directors no longer feel the need to have a consistent style. That’s a choice. So many things that we used to think of as rules we now think of as choices. Everything’s fungible. So, in the past if a character wore a red jacket and walked from the exterior into a room and you cut inside the room and he comes in wearing a green jacket, that used to be called a mistake. Now it’s called a creative choice. And audiences understand the creative choice.”

Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944): “A dirty, stupid little man in a dirty, stupid world. One spot of brightness on you, and you’d still be that.”

I tend to be a bit too hard on this film. Something about it doesn’t quite add up for me, between Marlowe’s drugged-up nightmare fantasia, the cutsey romance, and some talky scenes that try to iron out a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. And yet, it was the screening I enjoyed the most, due to its reassuring screwball ending, absence of ruminative guilt, and off-kilter visuals. While Murder, My Sweet usually looks like noir, it doesn’t always feel like noir.

One notable exception is the foggy rendezvous where Marriott is killed. Lit from below with a face like a waxwork dummy, Marlowe drives through the rainy night. His voice-over reinforces a mood of eerie suspense: “I felt it in my stomach. I was a toad on a wet rock. A snake was looking at the back of my neck.”

Echoing Marlowe’s metaphor, the textures of what we’re seeing take on a slick, ghoulish, reptilian look. The humidity in the image is so strong, I was worried it was going to frizz out my hair. Moonbeams shoot through the rising mists. Marlowe, hapless toad he is, looks around bug-eyed into the dark. The unease condenses like moisture in the air. Again, this is a film I’ve seen many times. But believe me when I say I jumped out of my chair at the vicious snap of the blackjack against Marlowe’s skull.

Murder, My Sweet wants to bamboozle you. Like Marlowe, the audience is constantly confronted with multiple flashy distractions that pull us away from the big picture. Remember that blinking reflection of Mike Marzurki’s gloriously ugly mug in Marlowe’s window? We can also see Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, and the street signs outside. Or let’s recall Helen Grayle’s entrance in Marlowe’s apartment. Again, we get Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, but this time it’s Helen’s tiny, glittery figure shimmering in the mirror.

In Murder, My Sweet, the image is a puzzle. All the elements are there, but scrambled differently from the spatial relations or dramatic staging we’d expect. In my day job, we talk about “cognitive load,” the amount of information you have to digest, as something you want to minimize for a positive customer experience. Hollywood’s continuity system served a similar purpose as modern UX, that is, getting the audience from point A to point B as clearly and elegantly as possible. But film noir in general, and Murder, My Sweet in particular, wants to maximize the cognitive load and throw you off balance.

Claire Trevor’s larger-than-life acting style elicited some unwelcome chuckles from the Kit Noir audience, but I’d argue that she nails the part. Femmes fatales are theatrical. They’ve got places to go, and naturalism isn’t going to get them there. Like Brigid O’Shaunessy, Helen Grayle is most dangerous when she’s apparently dropping her act. Because that act has no beginning and no end; deception is sewn into the fabric of who she is, who she’s had to be to survive and thrive.

In one of my favorite shots from the film, we see only the back of Helen’s head, an elaborate 1940s updo, and her hand resting on Marlowe’s shoulder as the detective looks down at the ground. A wisp of smoke rises from her impeccably poised cigarette. By hiding Helen’s face here, Dmytryk deepens the enigma of the femme fatale. Do we trust the honeyed voice? Or the cold precision of her grip on that cigarette?

Feigned emotions and sincerity bleed into each other—a side effect of living in a world where the path of honesty is too often a one-way trip to the gutter. You can hear the scraping exhaustion in Helen’s voice as she drapes herself on Marlowe and cries, “I’m so close to peace.” Is she playing him? Is she telling the truth? Is she leveraging her emotional truth in order to play him? Who knows? That’s why she’s so tantalizing.

Bonus film geekery: Don’t you love it when studios recycle props?

The multi-armed statue from RKO’s Murder, My Sweet (top screenshot) made an appearance many years earlier with Myrna Loy in Thirteen Women (1932).

The Suspect (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “Shall we pool our loneliness?”

I used to think that Chris Cross in Scarlet Street was film noir’s most sympathetic killer. Now I’d pass the crown (of thorns?) to Charles Laughton as the lonely, lovelorn, henpecked wife-murderer in The Suspect, a martyr to his own decency. Robert Siodmak was on fire in the 1940s, producing a streak of noir classics that few directors could match, and he considered this slow-burning masterpiece of suspense to be his best film. It certainly left me shaken.

Philip Marshall (Laughton) has spent his whole life as a trusted employee by day and a dedicated husband to a complete harridan by night. After falling in love with Mary Gray, a beautiful chance acquaintance, Marshall kills his wife when she threatens to ruin Mary. And so begins Philip’s greatest bliss and his deepest sorrow, as he strives to build a life with Mary despite the intent pryings of Scotland Yard.

As in so many noirs, the police represent a hostile force, a threat to the anti-hero’s relatable, if crooked, dreams.The sneaky, smiling Inspector Huxley seems to be a borderline inhuman extension of Fate’s implacably churning mechanisms. Upon his first visit to Philip’s home, Huxley narrates the “hypothetical” murder scenario with what we assume is alarming accuracy. The camera creeps up the staircase, reenacting the murderer’s ascent, and the set darkens. It’s as though we’re watching the crime take place again, but performed by an unseen ghostly cast. All the trappings of this ordinary Edwardian home—the bannister, the old dresser, the torn rug—seem to exude the domestic misery they’ve absorbed over many years. It’s one of those uncanny noir scenes that slip into an uncanny space between internal and external reality.

Some of noir’s best nail-biting moments are startling in their simplicity. In Double Indemnity, a hallway, a door, and 3 people—one of whom shouldn’t be there—is enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. In The Suspect, it’s a divan, a body, and fluffy white kitten playing with the dead man’s watch fob. Underneath the mild smile on Laughton’s doughy, lovable face, a pretense worn for unexpected guests, we can perceive the sheer panic of a good man utterly out of his depth, the most reluctant of criminals. (I was keeping an eye out for this sequence after reading Self-Styled Siren’s great piece on Laughton years ago.)

It’s tough to hold a candle to Charles Laughton at his best, but Henry Daniell delivers what might be the culmination of a career spent playing loathsome men of all stripes and hues. As the drunken wife-beating n’er-do-well next door, Daniell perfectly captures the louche, self-pitying arrogance of a well-bred bully. “You see, your lot were created to make life easier for my sort. The meek shall inherit the earth… we inherit the meek,” he drawls to himself, smugly pursing his lips (or lack thereof) and quaffing what will prove to be his final whisky.

Without giving too much more away, I’ll say that The Suspect concludes with one of noir’s most sublime closing shots: Charles Laughton walking across cobblestones, his cane swinging with the precise rhythm of a metronome. We see him from high above, as though we the spectators were a choir of weeping angels, simultaneously mourning his fall and bitterly celebrating his redemption. Decency is the defining trait of Philip Marshall, and it’s that decency that dooms him in the end. The fact that a man merely walking down a street can break your heart and wring your emotions so effectively is a testament to Siodmak’s and Laughton’s artistry.

Bonus film geekery, part 2: At Universal, a good prop is worth repeating.

The skull abacus briefly seen in the tea house with Laughton and Raines has a considerably larger role in Wives Under Suspicion (1938).

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “What a place. I can feel the rats in the wall.”

When we talk about noir archetypes, it’s easy to latch onto the femme fatale, but the films at Kit Noir indicate that good girls play just as important a role in the canon. In Phantom Lady, intrepid secretary Carol Richman prowls the night, but never belongs to it. Even isolated at the counter of a little dive bar, she glows with purpose, beatified by Elwood Bredell’s cinematography. He gilds every stray hair on her head with light. By the sheer force of her willpower, Carol writes a happy ending for herself out of the inky blackness all around her. Bred in the midwest, baptized by the New York’s dirty rain, and shaped by pioneering producer Joan Harrison, Carol Richman may be film noir’s ultimate good girl. But she’s far from the only one.

The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all validate the experience of nice career girls who are stalked, manipulated, and almost destroyed by obsessive and possessive men. Kitty, Laura, and Carol (a.k.a. Kansas) are intelligent, competent, and kind; we’re never made to feel that they brought their misfortunes on themselves. On the contrary, their goodness and politeness, misinterpreted by warped minds, make them prime targets. Think of Kitty gently humoring Slade’s unwelcome sermons, Laura trying to repay her perceived debt of gratitude to Lydecker, or detail-oriented Carol overlooking Marlow’s bouts of neurotic weirdness. (Um, red flag much, Carol?)

Noir amplifies and distorts the dangers faced by these working women into epic perils and challenges worthy of fairy tales. Yet, I recognize the same basic threats that make so many women, myself included, walk home with keys clenched between their knuckles. Being a woman in the noirverse means charming all manner of beasts while keeping your eye on the escape route. The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all culminate with practically the same scene: the heroine, trapped by a man who wants to murder her, using her wits and persuasive skills to buy time. Brahm’s variation is the tensest, but Siodmak’s is the creepiest.

The ominous quiet of the scene, a stillness on the edge of hysteria, verges on the paralysis of nightmares. It’s an intensely female cadence of fear, a slow awakening followed by the instinct to remain calm and avoid triggering a violent reaction from the man she fears. Carol doesn’t resist when Marlow slips her hand over his fevered brow. As Marlow reclines on the chaise longue, looking like Count Dracula about to rise for his nightly meal, Siodmak privileges Carol’s emotions. We get close-ups of her stifled panic and disbelief as she looks for a way out. Although we’ve known about Marlow for a while, Raines makes us share Carol’s sense of stupefying betrayal, as she processes the fact that someone she knows and trusts is planning to kill her.

Someday I’ll write an essay about the similarities between Phantom Lady and Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. In both films, the protagonists assume elaborate disguises that force them to face the might-have-beens of their own lives. They must risk everything—their identities as well as their personal safety—to restore the moral balance. In order to save her man, Carol must confront multiple phantoms of what she could become: the victim of a senseless accident, the tacky, gum-chewing thrill-seeker, the bone-tired shop drudge, and finally the bereft madwoman. Who is the titular phantom lady, really? The woman who disappeared… or shape-shifting, elusive Carol who roves Siodmak’s dark funhouse city as both predator and prey?

And it’s no accident that Carol physically resembles the woman she’s tracking, the mysterious dark-haired witness in a funny hat who vanished without a trace. If Carol meets defeat in her desperate race against time, she might devolve into another lost soul, clinging to mementos of her lost love. In 1944, Fay Helm’s grieving shut-in must’ve reminded audiences of the many inconsolable women widowed by World War II. As such, she’s the flip side of spunky, can-do Carol, an apt personification of America’s doggedly cheerful spirit during the war effort. Carol’s mission sobers but doesn’t destroy her. Knowing what she knows about despair and wickedness, her goodness and hope shine even brighter.

In case you couldn’t tell, I had a blast at Kit Noir. I hope I’ll be there next year. And maybe I’ll see you there too?

Best of FilmStruck, Volume 1: 11 of My Favorite Old Hollywood Movies to Stream Right Now

So many movies to recommend, so little time! FilmStruck—the arthouse streaming platform brought to you by TCM and the Criterion Collection—recently added a whole bunch of old Hollywood movies.

Subscribers can now satisfy the urge to watch Casablanca (or The Thin Man) virtually any time, anywhere. But you can do more than just round up the usual suspects. As the exclusive streaming home of Warner Brothers’ classic library, FilmStruck offers a tantalizing and eclectic variety of studio-era movies beyond that hit parade.

However, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, FilmStruck might leave you feeling a little film… stuck (sorry not sorry). Especially since not all of the classic Hollywood movies in the FilmStuck streaming library show up under the Classic Hollywood category.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to create a series of guides or primers to the movies I love within FilmStruck’s ever-growing catalog. I’m starting with classic Hollywood, but I see a list about classic British movies on FilmStruck in my future…

For today, I’ve tried to skew this list of recommendations towards weird, lesser-known, and/or not-on-DVD classics. And, remember, you can watch them right now.

Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

What’s it about? An insufferable hypochondriac millionaire and his lovelorn nurse travel to a banana republic where they get mixed up in a coup d’état.

Why should you watch it? Harold Lloyd was hilarious and versatile. His spectacles stayed the same, but his character changed. He could be a bashful country boy, a campus dork, or an urban go-getter. But I’d say he’s at his funniest and most interesting playing a cocky spoiled brat who wins us over with his staggering moxie, like he does in Why Worry? Over the course of this rip-roaring comedy, the poor little rich boy sheds his selfishness, and that character arc lends emotional weight to an expertly paced succession of gags.

Frequent Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston gets to do even more than usual. You’ll chuckle at her running around in tight pants and a sombrero, then root for her as she unleashes the fiery rebuke that prompts our hero’s transformation. The exotic location, loathsome villain, and unique comedy sequences (Pulling a tooth from a giant! Fighting off an army with smoke and mirrors!) combine to produce one of Lloyd’s very best.

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, 1932)

What’s it about? Shipwreck survivors wash up on a secluded tropical island where the wicked General Zaroff hunts humans.

Why should you watch it? Shot simultaneously with King Kong on the same RKO jungle sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a scarier, leaner horror-adventure hybrid. Director Irving Pichel manages to revel in the pulpy, morbid side of the material and keep the plot zooming forward with the velocity and inevitability of a bullet from General Zaroff’s rifle.

Leslie Banks rips into his bad guy role with diabolical relish. His over-the-top Grand Guignol performance, slavering with thirst for blood and Fay Wray, sets a standard for every comic book villain to come.

(Fun fact: The pack of Great Danes you see in The Most Dangerous Game were owned by Why Worry? star Harold Lloyd!)

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

What’s it about? The tempestuous lives of three schoolmates intertwine during the Great Depression. Restless Vivian marries well but plunges into poverty and addiction. Fun-loving, warm-hearted Mary rebuilds her life after prison. Studious Ruth tries to help and support them both.

Why should you watch it? If you want to know what “pre-Code” means, this is a good movie to explain it. The plot revolves around sex, drugs, gangsters (including a young Bogie!), gambling, prison, child neglect, and suicide. Three on a Match wades unflinchingly into content that would’ve been excised just a few years later. Ann Dvorak’s gutsy descent from bored socialite into grimy, coke-addled mob captive is the stuff of legend, a show-stopping, career-defining performance. Her shriek of abject terror in the lipstick scene will ring in your ears long after the movie ends.

On top of the fast and furious personal melodrama, Three on a Match chronicles the whole Prohibition era with newsreel-like interludes of headlines, hit tunes, and stock footage. As we watch Vivian, Mary, and Ruth choose their paths in life, we watch the 20th century come of age and wise up along with them. And all that happens in just over an hour of runtime! They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

What’s it about? Bill and Trina, two people living meal to meal on the margins of society, build a life together in a shantytown hovel. When Trina gets pregnant, Bill considers turning to crime so that he can provide for their child.

Why should you watch it? Trust me when I say that this pre-Code romance is uplifting, even magical, despite the grim plot synopsis. Before the advent of FilmStruck, I had’t seen Man’s Castle in a long time (because it’s not on DVD), but certain images and sequences stayed with me for years. The opening scene in which a starving Loretta Young weeps as Spencer Tracy feeds popcorn to pigeons. The lovers skinny dipping in the moonlight. Glittering music hall queen Glenda Farrell having an unspoken conversation with Tracy in the audience. Tracy innocently fidgeting with a little wind-up toy as his accomplice breaks a safe.

Frank Borzage, cinema’s lyric poet of the love that blossoms from adversity, turns the mean city into an intimate dreamlike landscape against which our couple finds strength in their shared vulnerability.

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

What’s it about? An egotistical Broadway impresario turns a lingerie model into a star actress, but she grows tired of his possessive ways. Can he win her back in time to save himself from ruin?

Why should you watch it? There’s something especially hilarious about movies that call for actors to play actors, giving the stars permission to chew the scenery and work themselves up into high dudgeon. Carole Lombard and John Barrymore both deliver go-big-or-go-home comic performances, while hinting at the scared real people holding the strings of those big bombastic balloons.

Starting with the rehearsal from hell and building to a madcap climax aboard a train, the ever-brilliant Howard Hawks whips up enough frenzied energy to fuel a major railroad. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script marries droll, flowery dialogue with kicking-and-screaming physical comedy. I’ve watched Twentieth Century several dozen times in my life, and it never fails to crack me up.

History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)

What’s it about? A suave maître d’ intervenes to protect the wife of an abusive shipping magnate and falls in love with the damsel in distress.

Why should you watch it? This heady cocktail of genres has something to please everyone. Whether you like disaster movies, screwball comedies, feel-good romances, weepy melodramas, or psychological thrillers, you’ll get your money’s worth out of History Is Made at Night. What’s most staggering to me is how well all of the different tones balance each other out without diluting the power of any mood or element.

Patron saint of celluloid star-crossed lovers Frank Borzage is at it again, making us swoon at the intoxicating power of romance. Watch this as a double feature with Man’s Castle if you need to restore your faith in humanity. Jean Arthur dancing a late-night tango (barefoot, no less!) with Charles Boyer ranks among the most charming getting-to-know-you scenes produced by classic Hollywood. “I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life,” Arthur says as dawn breaks. “Because I’ve never been happy before.”

Finally, I have to put in a word for my man Colin Clive, who died of tuberculosis shortly after making History Is Made at Night. The movie pivots on his elegantly febrile turn as an evil husband willing to kill thousands of people merely to slake his quest for personal revenge.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937)

What’s it about? Celebrated amateur sleuth Captain Drummond sets out to free an heiress from the gloomy manor where crooks have her imprisoned.

Why should you watch it? Sometimes you need great art that moves you to tears. Sometimes you need a fun, atmospheric little mystery to amuse you on a dark and stormy night. Bulldog Drummond Escapes does the latter admirably. Ray Milland in a trench coat traipsing through fog is a gift to us all. His beguiling goofy-yet-dashing vibe as Drummond makes me deeply sad that he only essayed the role once.

Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941)

What’s it about? In her twilight years, Lydia, a great beauty who never married, reminisces with the men who loved and lost her long ago. But memories can be deceptive. Do any of Lydia’s suitors know who she really is?

Why should you watch it? Because it’s a sweeping, sympathetic, tender waltz through the saddest chambers of the human heart. Lydia gives her love to a scoundrel, suffers, and throws away any chance at happiness with another man. And yet Duvivier helps us embrace all that loss and regret and see its bittersweet beauty. No love is given in vain, since, as Lydia muses, “The past always improves. It’s about the only thing that does.”

Merle Oberon pours her heart into all of Lydia’s emotions and irreconcilable contradictions. So much of what makes this movie great is her face, whether coyly peeking up from under a lacy hat, beaming with joy as an Atlantic wind whips her hair, or frozen with humiliation as her eyes reflect a flickering fire.

Released weeks after Citizen Kane, Lydia explores similar themes—the perspective of old age, the complex truth of memory, the fragmentation of identity—through a similar flashback structure. But the final piece of Lydia’s puzzle is no sentimental rosebud. It’s a quietly staggering blow, a silken gut punch that will haunt me for quite some time.

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

What’s it about? In occupied Poland, a theater troupe must pull off a daring, elaborate charade in order to neutralize a high-ranking Nazi spy.

Why should you watch it? Ernst Lubitsch works a miracle of high-stakes comedy, proving that sometimes the most potent way to respond to evil is to laugh and laugh hard. The Nazis ravaging Lubitsch’s native Poland in To Be or Not to Be are both scary and ridiculous. The director denies his enemies the stoic, steely dignity that Hollywood too often accorded them and instead takes aim at the Nazis’ pomposity, venality, and humorless vision of a homogenous world.

On the side of the good guys, To Be or Not to Be suggests that you can always count on arty weirdos to strike a blow for freedom and democracy. (Indeed, many heroes of the real-life resistance in Europe were poets, musicians, or creatives of some kind.) Jack Benny delivers his best film performance and arguably the greatest double-take in cinema. Given surprisingly little comedy business in her final film role, Carole Lombard holds the film together with her cunning, determination, and moral judgement.

I don’t want to give too much away, but anyone who likes movies deserves to see this virtuoso high-wire act that breathtakingly melds art and life, drama and reality.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

What’s it about? An insecure spinster escapes the clutches of her tyrannical mother, reinvents herself with guidance from a kind psychiatrist, and falls in love with a married man.

Why should you watch it? Now, Voyager is a soothing and nourishing movie. I’m so grateful it exists.

Without sensationalism or condescension, director Irving Rapper illuminates one woman’s inner life. There’s no need to create unnecessary drama, no tendency to move on from Charlotte’s struggles to the real plot. She is the plot. Now, Voyager treats a woman’s psychological journey with the same respect and attention that cinema usually reserves for grievous sins, battles, and murders.

In one of her finest, most restrained performances, Bette Davis invites us to share Charlotte’s emotional ups and downs and rewards the viewer with a transcendent feeling of catharsis. And although she dials down the diva factor, I feel reborn when Bette Davis makes a magnificent entrance in that little black dress.

Perhaps the most well-known film in this post, Now, Voyager nevertheless seems like a movie that can easily sit on your “to watch” list for years. It’s a difficult movie for me to “sell” because there aren’t many movies like it. Poignant but not overwrought. Romantic but not defined by romantic tribulations. Psychological but not gimmicky. I procrastinated watching it for a long time, because the plot synopsis sounded sappy and depressing. Now it’s one of my favorite films.

I could kick myself for waiting so long to discover it. Don’t make the same mistake I did! (And once you do, be sure to read Angelica Jade Bastién’s essay on hope, mental illness, and Now, Voyager.)

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, 1944)

What’s it about? A melancholy little girl conjures an imaginary friend—or is it the ghost of her father’s first wife?—and struggles to mediate between her daydreams and the dangers of the real world.

Why should you watch it? Few movies have captured the intensity of childhood as sublimely as The Curse of the Cat People. Master noir and horror cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a spell over us, so we can revisit the heightened experience of youth. Ice sparkles lovingly. Snow falls with malice. Shadows carry the sadness of broken hearts and lost souls. Inscribed in every frame is the wonder, the fear, the despair, and the sense of inhabiting a hidden universe that grown-ups don’t understand.

The Curse of the Cat People is the perfect autumn-to-winter movie. As the seasons slip by, the changing landscape makes the viewer ache with nostalgia. The meandering, almost anecdotal narrative gives Ann Carter a chance to shine with one of cinema’s greatest child performances.

Whereas many coming of age tales conclude with a child pulling away from their dreams. this movie validates the child’s fantasy world. As The Curse of the Cat People implies, the only way to heal our wounds is to return to that pure seeing, that acceptance of the marvelous among us, which the film recreates.

If you do watch any of these selections on FilmStruck, let me know what you think! And feel free to suggest themes for future lists and guides!

Pillow Talk (1959): Color Schemes

After a cheeky title sequence of satin cushion tossing, Pillow Talk gives us an opening shot worthy of a pre-Code movie: nimble hands smoothing a stocking along a shapely leg that ends in a sparkly blue kitten-heel mule.

But the camera doesn’t linger to turn this gam into an abstracted pin-up image. It tracks back to reveal the toned and self-assured entirety of Jan Morrow in a blue silk slip as she prepares for a day’s work.

We’ll soon learn that Jan is an interior designer, a talented and sought-after career girl. For now, the way she moves tells us that this is a woman who’s comfortable in her skin. Jan rises from the bed with a playful swing of her hips, then strides across the bedroom, her arms suspended with the buoyancy of a dancer making an entrance.

She pulls a robe from her closet. A lacy blue robe. The same shade of blue as the sparkly mule and the silky slip. Note: This is a woman who coordinates. Jan pauses to primp her hair in front of the mirror, then checks her watch. Doris Day could convey extreme insecurity when she wanted to. Here she does the exact opposite. In a few seconds of this briskly sensuous routine, Day communicates that Jan Morrow is a woman who knows she’s desirable and has desires of her own. The audience needs to embrace Jan as a living, breathing woman making difficult choices—not a cardboard cutout of menaced virtue—in order for this movie to succeed. And succeed it does.


A longtime favorite of mine, Pillow Talk serves up enough witty dialogue and hilarious hijinks to fill 2 or 3 above-average comedies. It’s the kind of movie you find yourself quoting (“pot-bellied stove on a frosty morning” is often bandied about by my family) and spontaneously remembering with a chuckle (Rock Hudson trying to squeeze into a tiny car = comedy GOLD). You know a movie is funny as hell when Thelma Ritter, playing a boozy cleaning lady, seems like a bonus. Without exaggeration, I’d call it one of the best rom-coms ever made.

The first film pairing of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk is sort of a naughtier mid-century modern cousin to The Shop Around the Corner. Womanizing composer Brad Allen just won’t stop hogging the phone line he shares with Jan Morrow, a single gal who’s saving herself for Mr. Right. Jan and Brad have never met in person, but they bristle at the mention of each other. However, once Brad’s friend Jonathan Forbes, a millionaire in love with Jan, extols her beauty, Brad resolves to add Jan to his list of conquests. When a chance encounter brings Jan and Brad together, he recognizes her and tries to trick her into bed by assuming an elaborate false identity: little ol’ folksy Rex Stetson from Texas, ma’am. Will his seduction succeed? Or will Jan turn the tables on him?

The more I watch Pillow Talk, the more I’m struck by its balance of candy-colored escapism and humor drawn from dark, hard truths. Consider this moment of light-hearted banter, which nails a certain toxic attitude of monied self-pity and entitlement that’s still very much in circulation.

Above all, I appreciate Pillow Talk as a movie that empathizes with the problems of working women and takes their concerns seriously. As director Michael Gordon noted, “No matter how absurd the situations may appear to the viewer, to the people involved, it’s a matter of life and death. Comedy is no laughing matter.”

Paradoxically, the film’s joyful, zany aesthetic supports its sensitive depiction of a woman’s trials and tribulations, rather than mocking or undermining her experience. It’s as if the movie were saying to its female audience, “You deserve a movie that understands what you’re dealing with and offers you beautiful things to touch with your eyes. You shouldn’t have to choose between representation and pleasure, between the relatable and the aspirational.”

Indeed, Pillow Talk tickles us with a color palette of bright, saturated blues, bold reds, pastel pinks, and buttery, sophisticated neutrals. Jan’s profession as an interior decorator affords plenty of opportunities to delight us with odd bibelots and living spaces in a range of different styles. Even the split screen sequences provide a visual charge through the pointed contrast between Brad’s and Jan’s decorating. Speaking for myself, empathy feels more comforting when it comes clothed in fuzzy, covetable hats and Jean Louis gowns than in grimy naturalist rags.

In this sense, this 1959 comedy reminds me of the pre-Codes I love, like Our Blushing Brides and Gold-Diggers of 1933. All three of these films explore the daily struggles of women through dazzling, but by no means frivolous, spectacle. By immersing us in the worlds of fashion modeling, theater, and interior decorating, these movies help us identify with the heroines and respect the challenges of their work.

Modern audiences approaching Pillow Talk may want to snicker over Jan’s dogged resistance to premarital sex. Why, just the other day I read an article in a respected publication that dismissed the “prudery” of 1950s Americans films as a whole. Oscar Levant’s famous quip—“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”—evokes laughter in the key of hurr-hurr-hurr because it skewers Hollywood’s sanitization of onscreen relationships as well as star images.

But that bon mot and the diagnosis of prudery don’t quite tally with the character Doris Day creates in Pillow Talk. Jan Morrow isn’t naïve, immune to charm, or even repressed. Pillow Talk repeatedly highlights Jan’s healthy attraction to Brad-as-Rex.

The film’s most memorable shot—the dual bathroom split screen—establishes Jan and Brad as equals in desire through a symmetrical composition. Their feet “touch” and they both seem to feel the impossible point of contact in a moment of comical awkwardness, as though their steamy chemistry transcends the bonds of time and space!

Doris Day’s big song “Possess Me” gives voice to Jan’s lusty excitement as “Rex” drives her to the cozy country house where they intend to consummate their relationship—without the benefit of matrimony. Soft, bluish moonlight caresses the contours of our leads’ faces. Night breezes tousle their freakishly luxuriant hair and the fur collar of Day’s coat. The movie celebrates Jan’s passion rather than judging it.

Her inner monologue bursts into an unabashedly sensual hymn of anticipation and desire for a man she’s grown to like, trust, and love: “Hold me tight and kiss me right. I’m yours tonight. Possess me…. Tenderly and breathlessly make love to me, my darling. Possess me.” Yet, the dramatic irony of situation permeates this dreamy pre-glow with melancholy and suspense. We the viewers know that Brad has tricked Jan into feeling this way and apparently doesn’t give a damn what happens to her afterwards.

At the moment of Jan’s greatest shock and humiliation, we watch the realization dawn in her eyes only. Sheet music blocks the rest of her face, so we have to lock eyes with her and dwell with her feelings of surprise, betrayal, and even a bit of fear. In those wide cornflower-blue eyes, we read what she was accused of all along: frustrated desire. But not frustrated by her own “bedroom problems,” but by the callousness of the very same man who accused her of having them. We laugh at her epiphany, sure, but it’s a laughter tinged with relief and sadness.

Jan’s emotional tug-of-war, between her desire for Brad-as-Rex and her well-founded worries of what might happen if she sleeps with him, anchors this airy rom-com in sharp reality. While the conceit of waiting for marriage (or the reasonable expectation of one) may seem unrealistic even for the late 1950s, classic movies like Pillow Talk knew what was up. The men and women who voted on the Best Original Screenplay of 1959—and chose Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin’s script for Pillow Talk—weren’t a naïve bunch. In Pillow Talk, sex is merely the chessboard on which the tense stakes of gender inequality play out. It’s not merely about pleasure when that pleasure comes with far higher risks and responsibilities for one party than the other.

For Brad, the decision to sleep with a willing woman depends on whether he feels like it. For Jan Morrow, the decision to sleep with a willing man is not only a question of personal desire, but also an occasion for socioeconomic cost-benefit analysis and deep soul searching. How sex-positive can a woman realistically be in a society that punishes her for having sex outside of marriage?

Jan has to manage her passions carefully or face all the consequences that 1959 could throw at a fallen woman—unplanned pregnancies, dangerous abortions, unemployment, eviction, and general ostracism from society. A total loss of respect and independence, basically.

Pillow Talk alludes to pregnancy 8 minutes in. That’s no accident. The phone company executive explains to Jan that she might qualify for her own phone line, “If some emergency arose. If you were to become pregnant for example!” The clueless eagerness of this suggestion is downright comical. He’s so detached from the basic realities of Jan’s life that he recommends the occurrence most likely to ruin her.

All the key male characters in Pillow Talk share a blithe indifference to what women are actually feeling. Jonathan wages a campaign to wear down Jan’s resistance and convince her to marry him. Heck, he tries to give her a sports car outside her workplace as a way of pressuring her into a relationship. She wisely refuses, sensing an implied quid-pro-quo. Most significant, he kisses her without warning in his office. Jan responds tactfully, but the look on her face betrays more than the barest trace of annoyance.

Jan is almost always wrestling with men, literally and metaphorically, who try to usurp her time, her ability to do her job, and her agency. The most egregious of these men is Tony Walters, the son of Jan’s wealthy Scarsdale matron client. This cocky Harvard student, charged with driving Jan home, pulls over and tries to rape her. Here, Pillow Talk viscerally encourages us to identify with Jan by depicting the violation of her personal space. We see Jan crammed into the side of the widescreen frame, already made more claustrophobic by windshields and car windows.

Jan acts like she can and will beat the living bejeezus out of her twerpish attacker. Her nervous, half-yelled wisecracks—“I never met a young man with so many arms before!”—might elicit nervous chuckles, but it’s a tense scene, one that makes us angry and uncomfortable on Jan’s behalf. Although Tony has little significance to the plot, his presence in the film suggests the everydayness of violent harassment and assault.

What about Brad? Rock Hudson doesn’t shy away from the songwriter’s smug selfishness while compensating with an insouciant, molten charm. It’s tempting to interpret Brad Allen as precursor of the Swinging Sixties and free love. However, his blatant dishonesty and disrespect for women unmask him as a grade A slab of standard mid-century misogyny. He speaks the fashionable lingo of repression and liberation only to weaponize that jargon against Jan’s obstinate free will. He doesn’t pause to consider his own pathology until Jan calls him out for it.

Brad’s assortment of lost puppy expressions don’t soften the meanness of his lies and the trail of broken hearts he’s doubtless left in his wake. Alas, he has the kind of face you want to make excuses for. On some level, we’re all Perry Blackwell, the nightclub singer, who knows what Brad’s up to but, even as she sings, “You lied, you dog, and you’ll be sorry…” she can’t resist a smile in response to his wink.

I’m impressed by what Hudson does with his voice as Brad. Compare the honeyed tones Brad deploys on his bevy of dates with the harsh, dictatorial edge in his voice when he mansplains Jan’s life to her. That contrast tells you that Brad sees women as only as conquests or discards.

And yet, Brad is the most sympathetic male character in the movie—not only because he does improve over the course of the film, but also because he eloquently suggests that the 1950s social order hurts men too. Just as premarital sex comes with a high price for women, marriage comes with a high price for men. The script of Pillow Talk gives Brad a poetic, Muir-ish speech about rugged pines converted into shellacked furniture… and self-reliant men milled into dull husbands, shackled by responsibility. He’s not wrong. I can’t think of another actor who could imbue the speech with the same wistful, stirring quality, hinting at the fear of being trapped that drives Brad’s womanizing.

Rock Hudson has less depth to work with in Brad than Day does with Jan. Still, he sculpts a surprisingly lovable and exasperating character out of sheet music, a skinny tie, and a selection of well-appointed bachelor pad switches (lights off! lock on! bed unfurled! record turning!). In the hands of a lesser actor, Brad’s sudden change of heart could give an audience whiplash. He pivots from “I’m going to lie to this woman until she sleeps with me” to “I will renounce my wicked ways and devote myself to earning Jan’s forgiveness” in about a day! As director Anna Biller notes, “Many of the classic movies were about socializing men…. If a man saw that a sexualized woman was also a human being… he would treat women he was attracted to with more respect.” Hudson conveys this subtext beautifully, despite a lack of development in the script.

In carrying out and maintaining the elaborate pretext of Rex Stetson, Brad feigns gentleness, patience, and consideration to the point where he’s training himself in the positive features he never cared to cultivate. In some ways a send-up of the hunky, wounded arborist he played in All That Heaven Allows, Rex reveals that Brad knows what women want to an uncanny degree. To his dismay, Rex Stetson, the unreal man, a concession to a woman’s fantasies, bleeds back into Brad Allen, forever altering the composition of his identity. He stretches himself to feel empathy for Jan and cannot un-stretch. A fake courtship is still a courtship. Having experienced companionship and the slow, warm process of getting to know someone, can he really go back?

Fittingly, the woman who tames Brad Allen—without turning him into suburban furniture as he feared—is a woman who transforms environments and reinvents spaces for a living. Her creative talents as an interior designer acquire almost magical dimensions in the wild, jarring revenge apartment that she prepares in response to Brad’s contrite request. While the blood-red drapes, pink piano, moose head, tassels, pointy chair, kitschy bric-a-brac, and, yes, pot-bellied stove all horrify Brad and Jonathan, the redecorated apartment throbs with an aggressive, triumphant energy. The harmonious eye candy of Pillow Talk crescendos into a startlingly original installation of female rage and libido.

In that Freudian fruit salad of signifiers, perhaps Jan has sanctified a space outside the jurisdiction of social norms, a pocket of relief from the zero sum sex games of the outside world. She’s built a den for that rarest of unicorns, that most alien of phenomena, a relationship based not on illusion, but trust.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and FreckledOnce Upon a Screen, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to check out the other entries!

The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel

The films that I’m always in the mood to watch typically aren’t great films or even the films I’d choose for my desert island list.

Like delicate bone china, masterpieces and passionate faves deserve special occasions. The films that I catch myself watching and rewatching remind me of the chipped and cherished Furnivals Quail set that holds my daily cuppa: well-made and pleasant to look at, without demanding too much attention or care on my part.

The best of Universal’s modern Sherlock Holmes movies, The Scarlet Claw has a place of honor in my collection of comfy go-to flicks. As a whole, Hollywood’s programmer mystery series achieved a mellow watchability that foreshadows television’s most enduring police procedurals. The studios excelled at rotating plot formulas, character actors, and settings among series installments, balancing sameness with piquant jolts of novelty.

It’s not hard to see why so many of these B detective movies exist (and have made it to home video). They’re concise, pacy, and twisty enough to sustain your interest, yet not emotionally taxing. You’ve got to brace yourself for the teary catharsis of a women’s picture, the bitter tragedy of a bona fide noir, and even for the whiplash wit and reversals of a screwball comedy. But, since the serial sleuth often stands apart from the drama, analyzing the situation without personal involvement, the audience doesn’t risk serious heartache by identifying with the hero. And it would be difficult to find a more aloof hero than Sherlock Holmes.

Neither as pulpy as Fox’s Charlie Chan run nor as sassy as RKO’s Falcon semi-noirs, Universal’s Sherlock films exuded quality largely due to their combination of star and director. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes manages to project unflappable dignity whether he’s sporting a curiously florid hairdo and hunting Nazis or thwarting insurance fraud in the Scottish Highlands.

Rathbone had a gift for making Holmes seem like less of a jerk than the scripts sometime painted him to be. In The Scarlet Claw, he barges his way into the murder victim’s home, examines her body even after her grieving widower tries to deny him access, then breaks in again to unlock the dead woman’s safebox and steal a clue. Nowadays an actor would be tempted to emphasize the detective’s brilliant-but-exasperating tactlessness. (Interesting, isn’t it, how the cultural cachet of knowing assholery has risen?) Instead, Rathbone’s stoic determination conveys that Holmes is simply doing his duty to truth and justice.

If Rathbone’s staid portrayal is less volatile and eccentric than the modern viewer tends to prefer in a Sherlock, the direction strikes a more familiar tone of brooding liveliness and Holmesian flamboyance. Towards the end of a career that stretched back into the 1910s, Roy William Neill helmed 11 installments of the Rathbone-as-Holmes series. The more I watch them, the more I appreciate Neill’s dynamic flair for creating atmosphere and a sense of action, even when not much was happening.

As The Black Room and The Ninth Guest show, Neill was a master of stoking slow-burning Gothic tension in period settings as well as modern. As early as 1934, Neill earned a reputation as a “dolly hound,” according to International Photographer. He was a director who knew how to keep your eyes busy with chiaroscuro lighting, artful compositions of bodies, and a nimbly moving camera.

The Scarlet Claw stands out among the Sherlocks because Universal plays to its strengths as a studio: fog, terrified villagers, and things that go bump in the night.

In a small Canadian town called La Morte Rouge (imagine the tourist brochures!), the locals whisper about a glowing monster that mutilates animals. Then the wife of an aristocratic occult specialist is found gruesomely murdered. Visiting Québec to argue with a conference of spiritualists, Holmes discovers that the victim sent him a plea for help shortly before her death. “Consider, Watson, the irony, the tragic irony,” Holmes ponders. “We’ve accepted a commission from the victim to find her murderer. For the first time, we’ve been retained by a corpse.”

After roaming the moors and encountering the luminescent spectre, Holmes deducts that the killer is no supernatural force, but a vengeful madman planning to strike again soon. Can our hero stop him before it’s too late? The answer may surprise you.

Universal had a knack for squeezing every drop of value out of its European village sets. Add lederhosen and snow, and you’ve got the alps. Add Claude Rains and ivy, and you’ve got jolly old England. In the case of The Scarlet Claw, add lots of flannel and you’ve got a Québéçois village. Think of it as the Universal horror aesthetic with gravy and cheese curds sprinkled on top.

For local color, the hatchet-faced residents of La Morte Rouge sit around the tavern, listen to “Alouette” on accordion, and wear flannel. Because what else do you do on a Friday night in a haunted Canadian town, eh? If you love flannel, this movie will not disappoint you. There are flannel shirts and blankets and shawls and scarves to indicate the cuddly Canadian-ness of the proceedings. Flannel is even integral to the plot. A hand-me-down flannel shirt—treated with phosphorescent paint, of course—provides a key clue to our intrepid detective.

However, lest you form a negative impression of Canada as some den of flannel-clad iniquity, The Scarlet Claw closes with Holmes reciting an inspirational Churchill quote about “the linchpin of the English-speaking world.” (Bien que l’on parle français au Québec.)

Despite the maple-flavored silliness, The Scarlet Claw does conjure an ambiance of foreboding and evil. With virtually no daytime scenes, the movie seems to take place in a land that sunlight dares not penetrate, in some twilight limbo or unholy kingdom of night. I live close to the great northern expanse of Québec, and I recognize the oppressive, soul-chilling darkness that descends upon this part of the world in the autumn.

The Scarlet Claw sets a deliciously spooky atmosphere from the opening scene. A bell tolls over shots of misty moors. It tolls over a matte painting of a sleepy hamlet. It tolls over deserted streets and tense townspeople, holed up in the country inn. But why does it toll? It’s no call to prayer, and the fraught silence of the villagers indicates that something is very wrong. Neill’s camera sizes up the townspeople. A long take scans over the tavern, slips startlingly from a long shot into a close-up of the the innkeeper’s face, then back to the door as the postman enters, and finally over the cast of characters again. “Who could be ringing the church bell at this time?” The postman quiveringly asks the parish priest. “Maybe it ain’t a who, father. Maybe it’s an… it.”

The reluctant postman and the stouthearted priest decide to investigate. There, on the floor of the church, lies the body of a woman, still clutching the bell rope that she desperately pulled for help.

Those first 5 minutes of The Scarlet Claw summon the magical anticipation that we feel at the beginning of a great campfire ghost story served with s’mores on a brisk, starry night.

In my more philosophical moments, I wonder what is it about grim stuff like this that I find so soothing. Well, Freud did say that the uncanny emerges from the familiar and the homey. It seems that the eerie and the unsettling can boomerang back to their origins among cozy and comfortable things. The counterintuitive warm and fuzzy feelings delivered by murder yarns may be difficult to untangle or explain, but it’s a phenomenon strong enough to support a whole industry of mystery consumption. Dorothy L. Sayers captured the close relationship between sinister and cozy in my favorite bit of her novel Strong Poison:

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavor seems to be.”

The details are indeed ghastly in The Scarlet Claw. The phrase “with their throats torn out” repeated over and over in the dialogue luridly highlights the bloodiness of the murders and animal mutilations. In discreet 1940s style, the camera never shows us any gore, but often lingers on the murder weapon—a gruesome 5-pronged garden weeder. Your imagination can do the rest. You might catch yourself fiddling with your collar or rubbing your neck protectively during the many close shots of that hostile implement.

Though firmly footed in the rational, good-versus-evil moral universe of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Claw manages to deliver a few shocks. (Spoiler alert!) Firstly, our genius hero fails to prevent not one, but two heinous murders.

Despite Holmes’s precautions, the paranoid Judge Brisson succumbs to the death he’d guarded against for so long. To make matters worse, the murderer strikes as Holmes waits helplessly outside. As the camera creeps around the isolated house (Neill, you dolly hound, you!), the dark silhouette of a woman, presumably Brisson’s housekeeper, closes the shutters. The tiny figure of the judge sits huddled in the background.

Holmes knocks at the door. The Judge calls to his housekeeper, deep in the recesses of the room’s shadows, to let him in. But she doesn’t. Instead she drifts forward, stiffly and strangely, a mass of darkness adorned by a white bow. As she approaches the judge, the dim lamplight reveals her old-fashioned clothes and gives us an indistinct glimpse of a gaunt face with deep sockets. A face that shouldn’t be there. Not the housekeeper’s face at all.

She—he?—reaches into a pocket. And then we see it, the vicious weapon raised high in the air, angled as if to strike the viewer, abstracted and awful in the blackness. The killer in disguise brings the sharp claw down on the judge.

Startled by the judge’s desperate groans, Holmes shouts and pounds vainly against the door. Inside the house, the outline of a matronly hairstyle—brushed tightly back against the head with a bun at the nape of the neck—slowly turns, as the killer concludes his bloody work.

Hm. A cross-dressing killer in an old dark house viciously plunging a sharp implement into a vulnerable victim. Sounds a bit like Psycho, a movie that Universal would release over a decade later, doesn’t it?

Hitchcock made a point of monitoring the thriller market. I wonder if The Scarlet Claw stayed with him like it’s stayed with me over the years.

Even more disturbing than the judge’s death is the slaying of Marie Journet, murdered because she refuses to betray her father. This pretty, kicked-around girl does nothing wrong according to the code of classic movies, yet she dies. As the men in Journet’s tavern sing a merry song, Holmes goes looking for the innkeeper’s daughter. He opens a door to the office and hesitates for a beat. A caged canary twitters pathetically. Watson cluelessly bellows, “MARIE!” But we know that she can’t answer.

It’s a testament to the Rathbone-Neill partnership that a man standing in a door can fill me with such a sinking feeling, no matter how many times I’ve seen this shot.

A moment later, as Watson bends to examine the body, Holmes make a slight movement forward that unfurls his silhouette in the lamplight, like the materialization of his regrets. “Poor innocent little child,” he laments. “I should’ve prevented this.” Thus The Scarlet Claw stretches the unspoken we-won’t-provoke-intense-emotions promise of the programmer mystery, and that’s partially why it’s so good. Holmes had better pull out all the stops and deliver a spectacular last-minute “gotcha” to redeem himself. And, fortunately, he does.

The Scarlet Claw is less a cozy whodunit than a cozy slasher movie. Its shape-shifting killer, nightmarish gloom, unexpectedly fallible Sherlock, and abundance of flannel somehow succeed in warming and chilling my heart at the same time. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times in my life and enjoyed it every one of those times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make some tea and watch it again.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to check out the other entries!

Murder in the Private Car (1934) and One Frightened Night (1935): A Double Feature for Mary Carlisle

“I’m still here!” That was the cheerful reminder in the card I received from Mary Carlisle last Christmas. Since Carlisle turns an astounding 104 today, I thought I’d share the message and recommend 2 of my favorites from her filmography.

If you love classic movies, you’ve certainly seen Carlisle, whether floating through the lobby of Grand Hotel in a chic aviator costume, dancing with Bing Crosby in a madcap Paramount musical, or mediating between Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance.

After paying her dues as an “extra girl” at MGM, Carlisle rose to supporting roles in movies starring the likes of Lionel Barrymore, May Robson, Will Rogers, and Walter Huston. She continued as a featured player and sometime leading lady until she retired in 1943.

Over 85 years after her first credited part, Carlisle is last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, one of very few folks who can remember Hollywood’s pre-Code days firsthand, and (to my knowledge) the only living person who was photographed in two-color Technicolor.

Handed many generic ingenue roles, Carlisle infused them with a verve and sparkle that was uniquely hers—the same luminous joie-de-vivre that has sustained her for over a century. Screenland described her as “our personal pick for sure-fire pep in any screen scene.” And in 1934, Picture Play magazine sounded downright surprised at the dedication and charisma that went with her sweet appearance: “Mary Carlisle might easily be just another blonde cutie and be content with that but it happens the girl can act! Steadily improving in each part she plays, never neglecting her sense of humor, she’s one of the really talented newcomers.”

Our talented newcomer did her share of demurely gazing into a screen-beloved’s eyes, but the Mary Carlisle moments I cherish most are those that show her feistiness. After all, you didn’t make a place for yourself in 1930s Hollywood without possessing some serious moxie. Watch Carlisle give crotchety old millionaire Charley Grapewin a real tongue-lashing in One Frightened Night when he accuses her of being a fortune-hunting impostor.


In this delightful whodunit, Carlisle is the second girl claiming to be the long-lost heiress to a vast fortune. Despite a fantastic cast, the movie drags ever so slightly until Carlisle arrives at the 20-minute mark and buoys it up with with that “sure-fire pep” of hers.

Carlisle makes a dramatic entrance, seen from the outside of the gloomy manor, running out of the howling rain (on the prerequisite Dark and Stormy Night). She opens the door, shouts a cautious “HELLO!” into an unresponsive house, settles in front of the nearest fire, and engages in some mocking patter with Regis Toomey, the first person she encounters.

She swiftly impresses the audience as the opposite of inert, simpering granddaughter claimant #1, Evelyn Knapp. There’s something enchantingly Mae West-ish about the way 21-year-old Carlisle then proceeds to assert herself with the family lawyer. A haughty chin tilt and defiant tone cuts her challengers down to size. This is the kind of gal who really does value her dignity above 5 million dollars. Though she be but little, she is fierce!

Playing a sassy vaudevillian, Carlisle gives us an old dark house heroine who’s more than usually capable of taking care of herself. When ne’er-do-well Regis Toomey tries to put the moves on her, she likes him, but she’s not ready to trust him. She rolls her eyes and expertly brushes his hand right off her shoulder.

Toomey goes to leave her in a creepy-as-hell room filled with mummy cases, shrunken heads, and skulls. “You’re not afraid, are you?” He asks. Though quaking with fear, she steels herself and replies, “Well, I guess I’ve played tougher houses than this.” Unlike many a damsel, she reflexively grabs a weapon when she’s alarmed. She may be spooked, but she continues to intrepidly explore the lugubrious family manse.

An independent production, One Frightened Night is cozy good fun, an underrated gem among old dark house movies. Even the opening—in which the camera tracks towards rain-spattered windows as the blinds are pulled down to reveal credits—displays exceptional panache, despite the shoestring-budget.

This flick delivers everything we expect. Secret passages! Exotic murder weapon! A gallery of eccentric suspects! Goofy comic relief! Most importantly, the cast clearly is having a ball. It’s like the audience has been invited to the swellest murder mystery dinner party ever. Because it’s in the public domain, you can watch One Frightened Night right now.

If One Frightened Night is cinematic comfort food, Murder in the Private Car is like a chocolate-covered hot pepper.

Essentially an old dark house movie on wheels—and steroids—this action-packed oddball thriller also casts Carlisle as an imperiled lady set to inherit a fortune. Murder was her penultimate pre-Code and one of 9 movies that she made in 1934. Although Charlie Ruggles and Una Merkel run amok, Carlisle serves as the linchpin of the plot. I can’t think of many 1930s ingenues who could hold this vortex of zaniness together and make us care about her character as much as Carlisle does.

There’s a special place in my heart for zippy B-movies that commit to their wackiness. You know, the sort of earnestly outlandish programmers and cult films that play their material—wild contrivances, plot holes, and all—utterly straight. You’ve gotta admire the sheer accelerating weirdness of a 63-minute barn-burner like Murder in the Private Car. The thick layer of MGM gloss and glamour is icing on this time bomb cake.

If the phrases “kidnapped heiress,” “killer gorilla on the loose,” and “runaway train loaded with explosives” tickle your fancy, then you are in for treat with this one, my friends.

The bond between Carlisle’s and Merkel’s characters imbues this film with a sense of sisterhood and solidarity. As harried telephone operators, they work side-by-side in teasing harmony. When Carlisle discovers that she’s the long-lost daughter of a rich man, even such a dizzying class change doesn’t break their friendship. Merkel is genuinely happy for her friend. She smiles sadly, not because she’s jealous or resentful; she expects that she’ll have to say goodbye forever. But Carlisle isn’t going to abandon her. She gleefully yanks out the telephone lines and pulls Merkel out of the office, towards a better life for both of them.

And it’s a good thing she does drag her friend along with her. I mean, when you’re in your lingerie and you need to fend off an escaped gorilla trying to rampage into your train compartment, you need a gal pal, am I right? Battling a man in a bad monkey suit, Carlisle and Merkel define professionalism.

They really do look terrified, bless their hearts. This dynamic duo valiantly sells that scene in all its glorious, colossal silliness. Because they take it deadly serious. Oh, did I mention that the gorilla has nothing to do with the main murder mayhem plot? Really, this movie is nuts.

Una Merkel garners the lion’s share of funny lines—and who could deliver them better? Commenting on Carlisle’s hunky bodyguard, Merkel can’t help but drool, “I wish there were a man like that guarding my body.” Carlisle get some snappy dialogue too. At the conclusion of a nonsensical speech, Charlie Ruggles asks, “Simple?” Carlisle disapprovingly quips, “You certainly are.”

Murder in the Private Car culminates in a slam-bang set piece that makes you feel like you’re riding a roller-coaster with the characters. The combination of skillful rear projection and shenanigans with real trains demonstrates that MGM didn’t do things by halves. Given how exciting the finale is on my laptop screen, I suspect that moviegoers left the theaters feeling very satiated with thrills.

Fair warning: Not everybody enjoys this film as much as I do. (My pal Danny of Pre-Code.com gave it a rare “dislike”!) Apart from a few cringe-inducing gags, Murder in the Private Car strikes me as uproariously entertaining, but then again I happen to think that wildly implausible plots are endearing.

Many of Mary Carlisle’s films are difficult to find, but this duo of comedy-chillers is within easy reach. I hope you’ll seek them out—although, in all of their strangeness and wonder, they’re certainly not as amazing as Carlisle’s own life.

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