Out of Tune: Murder at the Vanities

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“The last thing she said over the phone was, ‘You were going to take me to the opening of the Vanities. Now you want to shove me off on a cheap picture show. Nuts!’ ”

—Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen), Murder at the Vanities

What happens when you put Agatha Christie in a blender with the Ziegfield Follies and some kind of powerful hallucinogen? 

You’d probably get Murder at the Vanities, a film that offers more proof, if needed, that Paramount was the most head-scratchingly, jaw-droppingly, self-destructively, censor-defyingly cuckoo bananas studio of the pre-Code era.

In fact, if this movie has one virtue, it’s the ability to offer up every major motif of the unbridled early 1930s in one big, flamboyant sampler. It might accurately be retitled Pre-Code-O-Rama or the Hays Capades.

A terrific reminder that egregious mash-ups didn’t originate in the 2000s, Murder at the Vanities combines two popular genres of the 1930s: the backstage musical and the complex murder mystery. “What an intriguing premise!” I hear you thinking. No dice. Unfortunately, nearly all of the characters can only be described as shrill and unlikable. (I strongly suspect that a previous incarnation of Seth MacFarlane had a hand in this movie.) Yep, that’s right, folks. I subject myself to some bad movies, too—and all for you!

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Interestingly, this film was directed by the much-maligned Mitchell Leisen who’s behind at least two films that I love (Death Takes a Holiday and Midnight), but whose real talents may have resided in his gifts as a production designer. Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder thought so too, although not quite that kindly. Both of those talented gentlemen decided to direct their own films because they so despised what Leisen did with their writing. As Wilder vituperated, “All he did was he f**ked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you.” Ouch!

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(Because I try to be a gallant soul, I do encourage you to read Mark Rappaport’s attempt to resurrect Leisen’s reputation. Just don’t tell Wilder or Sturges I told you.)

Well, in this case, Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities lacked even the backbone of a coherent screenplay, much less a script by luminaries like Wilder or Sturges. However, the movie didn’t have to be such a hot mess. A similar musical-murder genre mashup of the 1930s, Charlie Chan at the Opera managed to be much more tautly paced, interestingly shot, and emotionally involving than Vanities.

Trust me, though, if you can stomach some nastiness, racism, sexism, and general vulgarity, the kitsch value and sheer weirdness of Murder at the Vanities makes it worth watching.

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On to the plot—which I found as skimpy as the costumes. The usually huggable Victor MacLaglen plays dim-witted policeman Bill Murdock who decides to investigate some backstage hoopla, such as falling stage lights and potentially lethal bitchiness, at the musical extravaganza Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

The Vanities, as an attraction, aren’t fictional, by the way. They were a real musical review which rivaled the Ziegfield Follies for popularity on the early 20th century variety/exploitation scene. Many of the dancers, billed as “the Most Beautiful Girls in the World,” were brought over to Hollywood especially for this film. Poor dears.

Anyway, since Detective Murdock couldn’t get tickets to the show for his date, he agrees to do some ineffectual sleuthing on the other side of the curtain in order to leer incessantly at a parade of nubile, virtually naked chorines. He bares his teeth like a gorilla during mating season and exhibits even less grace and charm as he stumbles through the backstage mayhem.

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King Leer gets a backstage pass…

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You see, a catty blues belter named Rita Ross (perennial pre-Code mean girl Gertrude Michaels) had a thing going with leading man Eric Lander (Carl Brisson). Ross flies into a jealous rage when she finds out that he’s going to marry operatic brunette Ann Ware (played by the golden-voiced Kitty Carlisle who’s wasted in an irksome nicey-nice role).

Why two women are going head-to-head over Lander is anyone’s guess, since smiley, stocky, heavily-accented Carl Brisson doesn’t exactly light up the screen, despite a fine crooner voice. Seriously—where’s Maurice Chevalier when you need him? I think even a Great Dane could’ve filled out Brisson’s role better.

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Eric Lander tries to talk reason to Rita Ross—who fully deserves the epithet of “Vanity.”

Anyway, mayhem and murder ensue. Who were the writers kidding with the plot? The insane Murder at the Vanities exists for two reasons—and they may be summarized as follows: T and A. The nutty musical shamelessly flaunts the assets of its girls, girls, girls who wear even less than we’re used to for pre-Code dancers. Unfortunately, these dames aren’t anywhere near as rhythmically gifted as their Warner Brothers counterparts. I mean, a lot of the time they’re just standing there like a magazine centerfold! Paramount tried to cover up the dancers’ lack of coordination (well, not cover up… distract) with the most insubstantial outfits short of birthday suits. We’re talking fronds and fig leaves.

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Now, I don’t necessarily object to objectification. For instance, while Busby Berkeley objectified the female body, that genius also abstracted it to the point of sublime unreality and harmony to stimulate a kind of audiovisual ecstasy. Berkeley created the closest thing to avant-garde cinema that Hollywood ever produced. By contrast, Murder at the Vanities is basically a peep show with a few dead bodies.

Art never gets off the runway in its static, unimaginative panoplies of flesh, arranged by Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz. And Prinz—who later worked on Yankee Doodle Dandy and South Pacific—should’ve known better! We watch a bunch of dangerously odd musical numbers transpire on a revolving stage—there’s none of the inventive, dynamic, extradiegetic spaces of Berkeley musicals which tend to flood into sets that couldn’t possibly exist on a single stage.

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The musical variety show within the movie opens with a tone-deaf, hammering musical number about the women who perform in these shows. “Where do they come from and where do they go?” Mary Carlisle asks, as a series of poses give us a few ideas. The half-naked girls pose on cigarette boxes, work in artists’ studios, or pop out from perfume containers.

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Women bought and sold, women as commodities. Women on display for easy purchase and consumption. Hmm. Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, every other pre-Code movie.

Then, for no good reason, a bunch of cowboys show up and there’s a mini-orgy of lassos. So, are you freaked out yet?

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The next number takes place on a desert island, swaying to the languorous strains of “Live and Love Tonight.” Whatever my feelings about the movie, I personally adore this wistful tune of the “sweet music” genre. The staging adds to the lulling, dreamy quality of the song. This time, we watch a stage full of recumbent ladies waving feather fans to make the whole floor ripple and undulate.

Meanwhile, Lander, wearing a ripped romper, sings the dreamy song and practically lies on top of his duet partner. That’s right about where I wanted to go all Oedipus on my eyes.

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Don’t you DARE splay any more or I WILL turn off my TV set…

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Just when the viewer is starting to wonder what the Paramount executives were smoking, we get the answer with the musical number—and, no, I am not making this up—“Sweet Marijuana.”

In this novelty rumba tune, Gertrude Michaels pines away for the wacky weed, actually singing to it, as though it were a person: “You alone can bring my lover back to me, though I know it’s only just a fantasy.” (Kitty Carlisle later claimed that she had no idea what Michaels was singing about. I bet she didn’t inhale, either.)

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We also savor shots of a bunch of stationary chorus girls dressed as cactus blooms—naked from the waist-up. And if that weren’t the kicker, one of them suddenly notices something dripping on her shoulder from the catwalk. Blood. She screams just as the number is closing and the cops discover the first body.

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The next musical number, “The Rape of Rhapsody,” lives up to the inflammatory suggestiveness of that name, though not as you might think. In the first part of the number, “The Rhapsody,” Lander, in unfortunate Beethoven breeches, plays a classical ripoff melody at a piano as superimposed dancers swirl around him. Okay, that’s standard fare. Nothing too weird there.

Just you wait.

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Part two takes place in some vaguely Napoleonic salon, where a classical orchestra is presenting the rhapsody as a dull, plodding march. Suddenly, a bunch of black jazz musicians show up in the orchestra, peacefully hijack the tune, and swing it like mad.

And, out of nowhere, Duke Ellington—yes, really him—pops up, filling the screen with his exuberance and refinement as he jams away, giving us an intimate mini concert. We get to look over his shoulder and watch him tickle those ivories. His genuine performance is, without doubt, the best part of the movie. Duke’s glowing celebrity persona and incendiary talent gives us a moment of respite from the trite flatness and flashiness of the film. It seems that he’s the one living thing in it.

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Meanwhile, a bunch of maids of color jump up and start dancing. Gertrude Michaels, in a matching maid outfit, leads the gang and sings the “Ebony Rhapsody,” despite being about as ebony as Snow White. They tap around and everybody has a good time to the new swingin’ tune led by Duke and his ensemble. This might be an uprising, but it’s a fun, friendly one. Jazz babies of the world—unite!

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Until the disgruntled white conductor comes in with a prop machine gun and “shoots” them all for taking over his rhapsody.

Um… are we supposed to find that funny? The gleeful laughs of the audience within the movie suggest that we are—but in what way? Funny as in “Oh, it’s funny to watch black musicians get killed for distorting white music”? Or funny as in, “How exaggerated and ridiculous that was! We all love black jazz as well as white music”? And the whole idea of black musicians, moreover respectable, widely acclaimed black musicians, “raping” white classical music throws us right back to Birth of a Nation territory—albeit in a symbolic, quasi-humorous fashion.

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So, again, the question presents itself: if this is humorous, at whose expense? Is “The Rape of Rhapsody” a musical spoof of the black-versus-white tensions that movies melodramatically portray or is it feeding real aggression?

I suppose that it’s aiming for an innocuous parody, since, after all, the excellent African American jazz musicians do elevate posterthe artistry of the scene—anyone can see and feel that.

They’re part of the attraction and Ellington received prominent billing on the poster, even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes! Nevertheless, the unexpected violence of “The Revenge” leaves a bad taste in our mouths

How did they pitch this bit to Duke Ellington? What did that genius think of all this absurdity and his complicity in it? I have no idea. And the film doesn’t seem to want to answer me. Which is pretty damn disturbing.

But, then again, Vanities is a disturbing film. When we finally discover who the murderer is (SPOILER!), if you didn’t guess in the first reel, like I did, she’s not a self-interested monster, but a victim lashing out against her tormentor. Perhaps the most sympathetic member of the cast, Norma, the maid who scurries around backstage, taking abuse from leading ladies, finally flipped out and killed the tyrant queen of her world.

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This demented, simple-minded killer launches into a long speech about how she was glad she killed the wicked Rita (who actually bumped off the first victim—don’t ask). As Norma whips herself into a frenzy with her confession, she looks right into the camera, breaking the escapist confines of the film.

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Her gaze creeped me out, I must say, almost as though she were accusing me and the audience of being complicit in her abuse, as if by watching the show, we were ignoring some other big problem.

We feel deeply sorry for plain, put-upon Norma—she only killed a really terrible person who beat her and wanted to destroy everyone else’s happiness. This kind of sympathy for a murderer as a victim, of course, was a total no-no as soon as the Production Code came into full potency. But here, as the police lead Norma away, the lead characters promise to help her with her legal defense and actually call out, “God bless you!” Don’t expect to see THAT after 1934!

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Nevertheless, in a way, the excesses of Murder at the Vanities make me (almost) feel as though the end of the pre-Code era may have been due. For every Temple Drake, Scarface, or Black Cat, for every blasphemously brilliant pre-1934 film, there were probably a lot more movies like Vanities: largely mindless, insulting, lecherous spectacles. Ultimately, I would still argue that the impact of the great pre-Code movies outweigh the gratuities of the rest, but Vanities is hard to swallow.

And yet—always I hesitate to condemn a film—because in spite of the painful musical numbers and creaky plot, this movie, perhaps unintentionally, tells us something about the time and the issues churning under the surface of even blind entertainments.

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“Cocktails for Two”: the least bizarre musical number in Murder at the Vanities

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This crazy musical also gave us an enduringly popular hit, “Cocktails for Two,” and includes (briefly, though) the unusual plot element of a female private eye! Although it fails to develop any kind of engaging conflict, it does scratch at the surface of a lot of economic, sexual, racial, and legal tensions in society.

Like the chorines in Murder at the Vanities, the truth may not be naked, but enough certainly peeps through.

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Don’t Kill a Dead Man: Decoy (1946)

DecoyDecoy is a movie of the dead.

Honestly, the more I think about it, this movie is a Jacobean revenge tragedy wearing a fedora. It’s Lady Macbeth in a mud-spattered trench coat.

Over the course of this film’s action-packed 76-minute runtime, no less than two men essentially walk out of their graves to get what they want. The whole story is framed by a voice-over slipping into the beyond, but not spoken by a deadman like Joe Gillis, but by an evil woman whose life force is rapidly ebbing away.

That’s right—the femme fatale is… our protagonist.

In this movie, life is cheap and death is nasty, painful, and pointless. Crazy, farfetched conceits—like chemical resurrection and a map to a buried treasure—furrow the unreal story world of Decoy. It’s one bad trip.

Produced for a song at Monogram and directed by the obscure Jack Bernhard, Decoy takes the bizarro, jigsaw plot style of the Poverty Row studio’s often incoherent oeuvre and spins it into something truly extraordinary.

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At once linear and all over the place, at once inevitable and luridly surprising, this film galvanizes everything warped and gorgeous about horror, sci-fi, trashy crime literature, and the legit noir canon into a dark, relentlessly suspenseful parable.

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With a faint pulse of fatalism where a healthy moral might’ve been, this beautiful freak, we recognize, is a kind of pulp fable, a skid-row myth that resonates far beyond the confines of its characters and plot. It makes me think of the Greek word phobos, which refers not so much to ordinary fear (as in phobia) as to a more cosmic species of dread, associated with bloody, harrowing tragedy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I mentioned, the wacko story is told in flashback by Margot Shelby, girlfriend of vicious mobster Frankie Olins who robbed an armored car, killed the driver, and made off with $400,000—only to get nabbed by the cops. Before getting caught, however, he managed to stash the loot in a location known only to him.

Sent down the fast track to the gas chamber, Frankie refuses to tell where to find the money as long as he’s going to die. Well, being the resourceful dame she is, Margot happens to know of a chemical, called Methylene Blue, that can revive an executed man. Personally, I’m surprised that the smell of her perfume alone couldn’t do it.

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With the help of her main squeeze, Vincent, another racketeer, Margot seduces a naïve prison physician, Dr. Craig. They hijack the body and bring Frankie back from the edge of that Unknown Country, just long enough to draw out a map to where the loot is buried.

All along the way, a basically decent tough-guy cop, Sergeant Joe “Jojo” Portugal lingers around Margot, drawn in by a mixture of disgust and attraction, and attempts to unravel her scheme.

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How do I begin to count up the ways I love this movie? I won’t try, but for starters, the camerawork impressed me by aligning the spectator with the point-of-view of the dead and dying. The first post-credits shot of the movie has the hemorrhaging, gut-shot Dr. Craig washing his shaking, bloody hands in a gas station sink and looking in a mirror. From the camera’s perspective, we’re looking in the mirror, seeing him as ourselves.

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Likewise, when Frankie Olins succumbs to the cyanide gas in the State of California’s death house, we “die” in his place. We look through the glass at the stony gallery of spectators who’ve come to attend his execution—also a kind of parallel movie theater audience, drawn in by death as a spectacle.

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As tendrils of grey vapor swirl in front of our (and Frankie’s) eyes, the angle of the shot torques and falls into black. When Frankie comes back from the dead, we assume his perspective once again as his blurred vision slowly focuses on Dr. Craig.

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Thanks to these creepy subjective touches, Decoy stands out as a rare film noir that never loses track of the real-life stakes of its plot (the girl, the gun, the money) while taking a dip into the swampy pool of metaphysics. It is both gritty and surreal, corporeal and ethereal.

The dialogue, in particular, suggests this strange tug-of-war between the earthly and the unearthly. When noir has a sense of humor, it’s usually the trench humor of Hamlet’s gravediggers. Decoy doesn’t disappoint with its two bickering prison morgue attendants, situated in a long line of morbidly funny, quirky tertiary noir characters.

Immediately after Frankie Olins departs this life in the gas chambers, a shot tilts down from a clock to reveal one of the attendants cracking himself up by reading the dictionary. He happens to be spelling out (as in, “D-I—‘die’…”) and reading the word “dichotomy.”

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Although he mispronounces this piece of semantic pretension, the fellow still exclaims, “What a beautiful word!” The beauty of a signifier without a signified, of a string of symbols without meaning, is something I can definitely relate to. Perhaps something is always most lovely to us when we don’t understand it. But that’s also when that alluring something is at its most dangerous—hence the lethal charms of the inscrutable femme fatale.

Dichotomies breed contention, division, conflict—I mean, it’s not a particularly positive word. Certain schools of thought strive to eliminate all notions of duality as harbingers of discontent. Yet, this silly morgue attendant considers the word beautiful (and it is indeed) because of its surface qualities only.

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Noir, to a certain extent, revolves around this fatal error. Characters make the assumption that what something looks like, it must be in reality. They jump to the conclusion that a hidden thing, “the great whatsit,” or the chest of money in Decoy, is to be desired and not avoided like a toxic temptation. Interestingly enough, dichotomy can technically refer to that stage in a planet or celestial orb’s waxing or waning when it is half illuminated, half in darkness, half seen, half concealed.

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What is film noir, if not a genre that stretches many dichotomies to their furthest extent while placing them side by side? Darkness and light, death and life, innocence and guilt, good and evil, love and hate, rich and poor—these poles, these binaries structure the genre and remain locked in a tense embrace. A dichotomy (or any duality) brings pain, but, the morgue attendant is right without knowing it. Dichotomy is beautiful. Like our very unconventional protagonist, Margot.

She’s also our narrator—and you know a noir’s bound to be full of doom when the femme fatale is telling the story, for crying out loud! And telling it from her deathbed. In the first five minutes of the movie, she gets shot by a man’s she left for dead. When Sergeant Jojo arrives on the scene and carries her to a nearby sofa, she utters a line of sheer tragic lyricism: “Everything’s mixed up. What mixes things up, Joe?”

Like the flatfoot he is, refusing to grasp the larger implications of her question, Jojo replies, “Simple arithmetic,” echoing something she said to him earlier in the film. From there, she launches into her story—which Jojo mostly knows already. In this case, the act of telling serves as a catharsis, an unburdening between her and Jojo.

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However—and this is key—Margot doesn’t betray a modicum of remorse or apology. The awkward angle above, her point-blank stare, and the feverish beads of sweat on her brow inform us that Margot isn’t ’fessing up. If anything, she’s bragging. “I wanted money. And Frankie Olins had it,” she explains.

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This might be a good place to mention that noir dialogue takes on a whole new life in Margot’s mouth because of actress Jean Gillie’s British accent. She gives every word of hardboiled, slang-rhythmed speech an immediate otherness, a quality that makes the audience more aware of the genre’s off-kilter poetry. Just the way she pronounces “Methylene Blue” makes it sound like a Tennyson heroine rather than an exotic chemical. Although her voice-over dissipates as the story unfolds, her personality prevails. Make no mistake—it’s her story.

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Like many a femme fatale, she comes from grungy poverty, an English mill town where she learned to play for keeps. When the doctor she’s seducing suggests that they call off the plan and live simply and honestly off of his charitable medical practice in the slums, she gives him a reality check:

“Reality? What do you know about reality? You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality.”

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Ouch! In one little rant, she demystifies her dewy glamour and yet becomes even more powerful through a crystallized fragment of logic. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a woman with expensive tastes, but I can’t fight back a tremendous feeling of edification when she rips into his moral high ground like that.

We see that only one thing scares Margot and that’s poverty, especially in an interesting scene during which she walks through a shabby part of town to visit Dr. Craig’s office.  In a long take, she walks past a cheap set, a street of restaurants, laundries, sordid little buildings (that I’ve seen in probably half of the Monogram flicks I’ve ever watched).

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Children are playing in the street—but whereas children usually signify hope or innocence in films, these little tykes only get in Margot’s way, throwing their stickball in front of her and rushing around in front of the camera. She doesn’t even turn her head to look at the kids, just stops a moment when a little boy rushes in front of her, then coldly goes on her way, wrapped in mink in the midst of bare subsistence. We understand only later that her desire to avoid the children stems from the fact that they remind her of her own childhood. As she blurts out to Craig,

“If I had never seen it, I still could have described it because that street runs all over the world. I know because that’s the street I came from: 6000 miles from here in a little English mill town. But it’s the same rotten street, the same factories, the same people, and the same little gray-faced children!”

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That’s just one brilliant, thematically rich scene in this noir gem. There are too many more to describe, which is probably why this blog post is epically long. Seriously, if you read it all, you should get a drink on the house. You’ll probably need one.

Oh, and please note, beyond this point, major spoilers lurk. Beware. 

I also have to applaud the tension of the reanimation scene that strongly recalls Frankenstein’s “IT’S ALIVE!!!” coup de théâtre. A lot of build-up… dials, respirators, heart monitors and suddenly a cyanide-gassed murderer sees, moves, and walks again, his muscles slack and wobbly as a newborn’s.

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His eyes bulging and unfocused, the dead man opens the blinds, looks out at the nocturnal city, lights a match, stares in horror at the lick of flame on the match, and grunts, “I’m… alive,” before collapsing into tears.

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Watching this big, prune-faced tough guy being medically reborn sends shivers up my spine, especially since no one cares about heinous killer Frankie Olins. All they want is to know where he hid the dough.

The scene isn’t a resurrection; it’s an interrogation. Life and death bend to the service of mercenary pursuits.

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No sooner does Frankie reluctantly draw out a map to the treasure, then he decides he wants some back-from-the-dead sugar from the lovely Margot. Horrified, she backs away from her reanimated squeeze. I can only describe this scene as ultra-noir. It’s so morbid and creepy and wonderful and twisted. With one well-placed shot from Vincent, Frankie dies for the second time in under an hour.

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If I have any advice to you all, it’s this: Don’t kill a dead man. It’s plain bad luck.

A moment later, Jojo shows up at the Doc’s office and Decoy takes the famous hallway scene from Double Indemnity and blows it up to a logical extreme. While Dr. Craig improvises some excuses about Olins’ missing body for Jojo’s benefit, Margot, her lover, AND the dead body cram into a tiny medical supply closet… while Vincent points the gun at Jojo, ready for action. It’s a master class in pulp suspense with the promise of violence hanging thick in the air, like the smell of antiseptic in a doctor’s office.

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Most of the second half of the film takes place in a car, as Vincent, Margot, and Dr. Craig hit the road to find the loot. And, lest I forget, this film contains one scene that, I swear, I have no idea how they got it past the censors. It’s that unrepentantly brutal.

Because Margot runs over Vincent. She asks him to fix a tire. He does so. Just as he’s finishing, we see him stand up. We see Margot’s face glow with diabolic resolve. Then—WHAMMO! A blur and a shriek and he’s dead.

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Okay, so here’s where most films noirs might dissolve to the following scene, the continued search for the treasure. Nope! Instead, we get damn long takes of Margot skipping back and forth between the car in real time, as she puts the tire-jack back in the trunk. The camera pans back and forth to follow her movements while her coat billows around her in the night breeze.

The lack of ellipses and the insistence on showing the logistical aftermath of Margot’s crime with detached observation makes the brutal, sudden murder seem all that more real and shocking. It’s not a just cinematic event, it’s something that happened, and has to be cleaned up afterwards.

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The long takes ensure that we’re sewed up in the moment, we’re there with her, as time elapses in a continuous space. There are a few match-on-action cuts, when she pulls the treasure map out of Vincent’s coat pocket, but even then, the strange high angle and the way Margot’s head bobs in and out of the frame suggest both the sordidness and the matter-of-fact necessity of what she’s doing. And then they’re back on the road, hunting down the treasure.

Just when you thought the movie couldn’t get more nightmarish, it does. When Margot finds the treasure spot, she sinks to the ground and starts clawing, as the camera tilts up to a drunk and delirious Dr. Craig holding a sort of sickle-machete over his head.

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He brings the weapon down—initially we think he’s going to brain Margot!—and proceeds to hack away at the earth where the treasure’s supposed to be. Meanwhile, Margot keeps on cackling, whipping herself up into a frenzy over how many people they killed for the treasure. And then she shoots Craig, grabs the casket, and runs giddily back to the car like a little girl coming home from a candy shop.

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Now for the big spoiler. After Dr. Craig finds his way back into town, shoots Margot, and dies, Jojo opens the treasure chest over Margot’s dead body. There’s one dollar in it and a letter from Frankie Olins bragging that he leaves his loot “to the worms.”

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So, the “decoy” referred to by the movie’s title is the phony treasure, planted by Frankie Olins to keep anyone but him from benefitting from his ill-gotten gains. I must confess, when I first picked up Decoy, my assumption was that it was going to be about an undercover agent or a police sting. In fact, the title was announcing a twist ending all along, right under my nose!

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Usually the first part of a movie we come into contact with is a title, and they’re often not very revealing. Well, this one blows the movie’s whole secret. How’s that for a clever meta-filmic joke, a joke you only get after the whole gruesome spectacle has splattered across the screen? I suspect that you don’t realize what your own life is about until it’s over—if then—and Decoy follows this bitingly ironic path.

I should note, though, if this movie has a weakness, it’s some of the acting. We get convincing performances from old character actor stalwarts Sheldon Leonard (the bartender Nick in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Jojo and Robert Armstrong (who played the Merian C. Cooper surrogate role in King Kong) as Frankie Olins. However, Dr. Craig and Vincent come across awkward and wooden at times.

But, to make up for that, Jean Gillie, who only made a few movies and died at the absurdly young age of 33, inhabits the role of a ruthless gangland mistress so totally that you can practically feel the touch of her powdered, perfumed, silken skin—as she chokes the life out of you. And underneath all that tough, glossy exterior lies… a great big void where her heart should be. She litters her path with broken dreams and gunshot wounds. I’d also point out that she was married to Decoy’s director, John Bernhard, but they were divorced shortly after—rather like a Poverty Row version of those femme fatale-director pairings, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and Nick Ray and Gloria Grahame. In all three cases, the unhappy unions produced wildly beautiful films noirs.

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I can’t stress this enough about Gillie’s Margot Shelby: this is one hard dame filling those bejeweled espadrilles, so hard that she doesn’t plan on any man exiting her life intact. I nominate her for the title of Film Noir’s Baddest Chick and we all know that’s real bad. She could make Phyllis Dietrichson look like a Sunday school teacher. At least Phyllis goes soft at the end, which is more than you can say for Gillie’s wholly rotten femme fatale.

In probably my favorite moment in a movie full of great moments, Margot, about to breathe her last, surrounded by policemen, sweetly coos to Jojo, asking him for a dying kiss. Clearly attracted to her since the get-go, Jojo cranes in. You can see his thought process, “Well, she’s dying, huh? It’d be wrong NOT to get some borderline necrophiliac lovin’…” whereupon Margot cackles in his face!

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Right there, in her genuine enjoyment of Jojo’s humiliation, we see the essence of the femme fatale whose ultimate goal in life is to consume and destroy as many others as possible before she herself combusts. In a world where life is unpleasant and imminent death hangs over everyone like a pall, Margot’s drive to dominate makes us admire and respect her, because of the unadulterated wickedness and willpower of her nature. Then she dies. I love film noir, but I must confess that many an example of the genre dissolves into sentimentality at the last minute, so I found such an unflaggingly harsh death scene refreshing.

A film like Decoy means so many things. For one, it’s a testament to what can be done with very little, an inspiration to low-budget filmmakers. It also tells us why Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram—because cheap, raw, yet luminescent films noirs like Decoy shaped the vision of the next generation of directors much more than the ruffled, pretentious fare that big Hollywood studios were releasing as prestige problem pictures. However, regardless of its impact, Decoy deserves to be remembered in and of itself as a taut story that entertains, even as it unravels a trail of grim developments that make us squirm in our seats at the prospect of our own mortality.

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Every now and then, I get to the point where I (rather arrogantly) think I’ve seen every movie worth seeing that exists within the confines of my interests. And I despair. And then I find a movie that hits me like a tender blackjack to the base of the skull and forces me to realize all over again what it means to watch a movie and be shocked and stunned by its audacity. Decoy is one of those movies for me. I think it might be for you too.

So dig it up. I dare you.

Decoy

Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.

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Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.

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Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.

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And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.

Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.

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The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.

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Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.

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In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.

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Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.

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In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.

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There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.

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Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.

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Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.

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She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”

She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.

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Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”

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For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.

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In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.

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Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.

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Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.

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Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.

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In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”

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Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.

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With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926): Problem Child

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“Lulu always wants to do what the folks don’t want her to.
When she struts her stuff around, London Bridge is falling down!
She’s the kind of smarty who breaks up every party,
Hullabalooloo, don’t bring Lulu, I’ll bring her myself!”

These lyrics from a popular 1925 Ray Henderson tune could’ve been written about Louise Brooks, the most incandescently fatal woman ever to Charleston her way through film history. Once Brooksie swung into party mode, you might expect the whole world to evaporate under the scorching heat of her peculiar alchemy of hedonism and innocence. Her borderline-apocalyptic beauty could not breathe in any other medium but cinema.

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I suspect Brooks would bristle at the fact that her black helmet hairdo and “decadent… Aubrey Beardsley makeup” have been seared as a static afterimage on our collective cultural retina, as a stripped-down icon of flapperdom.

Brooks as a floating face with pearls. Brooks staring down the camera in a gallery of scornful publicity portraits. Brooks striking an oblique Follies pose.

These photographs resonate even in their stillness. Thousands of people who have never seen Brooks’s films—and aren’t likely to—could doodle the minimalist curves of her exotic glamour as an archetype of the Roaring Twenties. And that’s both a glory and a pity.

Brooks’s sorcery captivates an audience by the way her spirit billows forth unreservedly from her movement, as if the camera had “caught her by surprise,” in the words of Henri Langlois. Recognizing Louise Brooks without watching her dance through the most mundane of tasks, gestures, or scenes is like recognizing a bird without ever having seen one fly.

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I wanted to write about Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926), a skillfully executed but pretty standard dramedy, because even in her role as an aspiring vamp, Brooks displays the dazzling naturalness that would shine so brightly in her later celebrated performances for Pabst. The film also seems to have been one of her more felicitous Hollywood experiences. I can’t find a negative word out of her about the production—a rarity, for sure, since she had to put up with everything from surly co-stars to predatory producers to overprotective directors and wrote about it in exacting detail afterwards.

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Brooks praised her director, Frank Tuttle, as “a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood. An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of authors—great actors and non-actors.” Indeed, Tuttle had a knack for giving unknown or up-and-coming talents the space they needed to deliver breakout performances, as he would demonstrate two decades later with Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. The director deployed “non-actor” Brooks’s dangerous appeal to great effect.

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In Love ’Em and Leave ’Em, Brooks essays an early variation of the role that would define her on and offscreen: the eternal problem child, too clever, too beautiful, and too reckless for her own (or anyone else’s) good. She is the chief plot obstacle in both storylines—stealing her sister’s beau and nearly getting her sister jailed for money she stole. And yet the audience cannot bring itself to condemn this pouty, precocious con artist. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong, so, consequently, it’s hard to blame her.

From the outset, Brooks serves as the terrific pay-off to a carefully drawn-out introduction. Our story begins in a cramped boarding house, where dutiful Mame (Evelyn Brent) wearily arises for a day of work, after waiting up in vain for her wildcat sister. The intertitles inform us that Mame’s mother made her promise to watch over Janie. As the put-upon goody-two-shoes lurches over to the window, she notices the Jazz Age still life of kicked-off pumps, lingerie, and a wisp of a dress strewn on the floor. Then Mame opens the window to let in dawn’s tender rays that fall on her girlish, still dozing sister, looking as innocuous as a china doll. Really? This is the wicked babe we just heard about?

Big sister pauses to pick up a doll from the floor and examines its conspicuous tag: “Ladies 1st Prize, Charleston Contest.” As a playful sibling reproach, Mame puts the doll’s motorized dancing feet against Janie’s. And then and only then do we watch sleeping beauty turn into a lippy hell-raiser as she swings up from her pillow and starts bossing her guardian around, telling Mame to go wake up her boyfriend down the hall.

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She goes to meet this total dud, Bill (Lawrence Gray), whom even the intertitles mock as “a ninety million to one shot for President of the United States.” While the drippy pair are arguing about who gets to use the communal water supply first, Janie flounces unceremoniously in front of the camera into the bathroom. So long hot water, hello snow showers.

storeMame and Jane work at one of those ubiquitous silent movie departments stores, populated by the usual assortment of pretty young ground troops and officious managers who boss the harried workers around. (I kept hoping Harold Lloyd would show up and woo Janie with his devamping routine out of Girl Shy, but, alas, to no avail.)

Mame trudges along, giving all the credit for her artistic window dressing to Bill. Meanwhile pert, popular Janie has honed her Pollyanna charade so well that she’s been appointed treasurer for the Employee Welfare League, charged with collecting money for the annual costume dance.

Now, this is one of those movies where the characters act like they’ve never seen a movie, which is odd, because we even see characters go out to the cinema for a date. Janie, you see, has a penchant for betting whatever cash comes into her lily-like hands on horses—with Lem (Osgood Perkins), the oily n’er-do-well who lives in the boarding house, acting as her bookie. Seriously, Janie? You’re going to leave the Welfare Dance money with Lem? Have you not seen The Cheat? Fortunately, the actors are so delightfully shady that these sorts of concerns barely trouble us.

16In fact, Brooks, who shared screen time with quite a few fine actors, named Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony) as the best she ever worked with.

Years later, in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, Brooks praised Perkins and explained how he bolstered her performance: “You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don’t have to feel anything. It’s like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly.”

Brooks and Perkins do an elegantly choreographed comic two-step in their routines together, all tease and greed on her part, all lust and greed on his. Once, while Jane turns around to count her money, Lem surreptitiously inches closer to her, though leaving a safe margin of I’m-not-touching-you hover space. Janie, without so much as a backwards glance, instinctively elbows him away with a coy little stab. She is apparently well-versed in the ways of oily creepers.

20But back to Plotline A: Mame decides that she wants a vacation to think over Bill’s marriage proposal and asks Janie to help him out with his window dressing work while she’s away. Good thinking, Mame. Leave your jelly-spine boyfriend and your conniving nymphet of a sister to arrange a luxurious boudoir window display. Faster than you can say “Hotsy-Totsy,” Janie is practically wearing Bill as her anklet.

And this is where Brooksie gets her big scene.

Night. The department store. Whereas Mame would be actively sharing her best ideas with Bill, Janie arranges two creepy Harlequin dolls to look like they’re kissing. When Bill objects, she sulks and admires herself by the beauty display, sampling the pricey products. Her hands put on a little ballet for us, dabbing on powder with a huge, cottony puff and dotting scent on her lips.

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Having sufficiently beautified herself, Janie slinks over to a divan and flashes her come-hither stare at Bill. He tries to pull her off the sofa, but she gives him a coy smile and shakes her head no. Since Bill, despite his faults, does possess a Y chromosome, he succumbs and flops on top of Janie who lies there immobile, her hand resting on his back like a talon. As Bill plants his clumsy kisses on Janie’s disdainful face, Tuttle inserts a wry shot of the Harlequin dolls falling onto each other.

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Seized by the sudden realization that this is wrong, Bill bolts to a safer corner of the room. Janie, angered and vexed by this reaction, sits up and hatches a cunning improvisation. She dips her hands into a nearby fishbowl, wets her cheeks with artificial tears, and proceeds to cry her crocodile tears. “You hurt me,” simper the intertitles. And the battle is lost for William the Conquered.

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It’s hard to imagine what Janie sees in Bill, who has all the personality and verve of a packing crate. I can only deduce that she’s practicing, to keep her skills sharp.

Throughout her career, Brooks was pursued by the accusation that she simply didn’t act, and that she didn’t try. In my opinion, that’s a compliment to the purity of her performances. For instance, in the scene above, the only conscious theatrics she projects come when she starts acting within the scene, acting her faux devastation for Bill’s benefit. The anti-theatricality of this seduction scene adds to its hilarity. The true vamp has to practically do the Dance of the Seven Veils before devouring her prey, but not Janie. I tend to think of parody as exaggerated, but this parody makes the viewer chuckle at the inevitability of Janie’s ruse—a complex ruse that goes as follows:

1. Sit there and look sexy.

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Yep, that’s about it. Sprinkle a few fake tears here and there and you’ve got comedy gold. As Brooks remembered, Tuttle discouraged her from giving an overblown bogus performance by deliberately concealing the tone of the scene from her. “I didn’t even know I was playing comedy until I saw that picture with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that’s the way he wanted it.”

Whether prancing out to the ball after wrecking her sister’s life or dancing like a fiend in the middle of a crowd of tame store employees, Brooks’s Janie is too self-centered to consider that she might be funny. You have to play it straight to be this crooked.

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Though lacking the electric charisma of her co-star, Evelyn Brent manages to engage our sympathy with a thoroughly likable comic performance. When Bill tells her she smells “like a rose,” she responds with charmingly paced pause of dry incredulity at this poetic outburst before finally replying, “Marmalade!”

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She also pulls off some awfully funny knockabout comedy at the end. In a droll reversal of the typical dramatic crosscut conclusion, which often sees the fragile heroine being attacked by a slime-ball, it’s the tough, athletic Brent who ends up tackling seedy Osgood Perkins, wrestling him for his wallet. Instead of the cavalry arriving to save her virtue, it’s just useless Bill who finds her in control of situation. She tells him…

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While sister Mame is grappling for the cash with Lem, Janie is shocking the community with her frantic dance moves in a room of tame, older employees. Tuttle indulges us with a slow tilt up from her melodic legs to her waving arms. She does this erotic shimmy to enthrall Mr. Schwartz, the window manager, appropriately dressed as Mephistopheles. Her gobsmackingly obvious bid for his, ahem, favor succeeds. Actually, it succeeds more than even Janie intended. The last we hear of Janie, she’s upgraded her window manager date to a better conquest, the store manager! An intertitle announces that she’s gone off in his Rolls Royce.

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Dancing with the devil has its rewards in the rather cynical universe of Love ’Em and Leave ’Em. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this film so thoroughly. That girl’s gonna be okay, we think, smiling at Vice Triumphant. Call me a philistine, but I relish a movie that ends with a badly behaved rebel making her getaway and laughing at us all. It’s certainly more enjoyable than a film in which she winds up passionately stabbed in a squalid garret. There’s something to be said for wish fulfillment. Louise Brooks certainly had a taste for it; her own favorite films were An American in Paris, Pygmalion, and The Wizard of Oz.

They say that tragedy becomes comedy in time, so maybe comedy is just tragedy paused before the real denoument. Janie’s Rolls Royce gets off at the comedy stop. Brooks’s story didn’t. But I’m not sure she would’ve wanted it any other way.

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Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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The Chase (1946): The Zigzag Path of Fear

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“There doesn’t seem to be any beginning. All I can remember is the end of it…”

—Chuck Scott

Mr. Johnson’s plump fingers wiggle around the bottle. “Napoleon brandy! 1815!” He beams with joy. Until he realizes that he’s all alone in the wine cellar.

Calling out to his absent companion, he totters along wooden racks of dusty bottles. After pausing in one aisle of the cavernous room, Mr. Johnson turns around, then hears a low, deep growl, and spins around again, to face us. His gaze is fixed on something just below where the camera would be. Something horrible and hungry. Clutching his precious find, the pudgy man backs away to a brick wall. His panic rises and the bottle slips from his hand.

Cut to the shattered glass on the ground. Rivulets of brandy run along the floor, as the sound of wild screams and the snarls of a vicious dog continue to assault our ears.

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This stomach-churning ellipsis should give you a taste of what The Chase, at its best, is capable of. Don’t say I didn’t warn you: this sick, dizzying film noir might be a few cigarettes short of a pack. Still, if The Chase doesn’t ascend to the trippy epiphanies or concise bitterness of truly great noirs, you’ll have a hard time forgetting the idiosyncratic classic.

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The plot meanders weirdly, falling into a subjective nightmare and never quite coming out of that nosedive. Rather than seeming engaging and twisty, like The Big Sleep, for example, The Chase floats along for a while, accelerates to a prestissimo, then drifts to its denouement. Events pile on top of one another, seemingly without any larger design, and wobble to and fro. This unstable plot structure is both a strength and a weakness. You may feel cheated by the way it deceives you, but you also share the trancelike disorientation of the main character.

vlcsnap-2013-09-01-01h11m08s62Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, the movie features a protagonist typical of the author’s work: an innocent schmoe who gets mixed up in crime. Robert Cummings is the schmoe du jour, Chuck Scott, a down-and-out veteran. When Scott finds a wallet stuffed with money on the street in Miami, he goes to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, that owner happens to be vicious gangster Eddie Roman, who, impressed by Scott’s honesty, hires him as a chauffeur. The gig’s not bad—except that Roman has his car rigged up to be driven from the back seat, as well. (Don’t ask.) Scott also gets to drive Roman’s wife, Lorna, to the beach for her nightly poetic sobbing.

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Motivated by that 1940s male urge to play the knight in shining armor, Scott agrees to help Lorna flee her sadistic husband and to book passage on a ship for Havana. However, faster than you can say “happily ever after,” Roman’s confederates have traced the couple and conspire to cut off all escape.

vlcsnap-2013-09-02-01h14m51s244Upon reflection, I’m inclined to give Cornell Woolrich the most credit of any crime writer for his contributions to the film noir canon. Often published under the pseudonym William Irish, his fiction distilled an impressive range of the genre’s tropes: the amnesiac investigating his own past (“The Black Curtain”), the dream crime that turns into reality (“Nightmare”), the elusive MacGuffin and the avenging angel (“Phantom Lady”), the voyeur who sees too much (“Rear Window”), the serial killer exploiting a mass panic (“Black Alibi”), and the conniving femme fatale who destroys others and ultimately herself (“Angel Face”). His works are like a treasury of film noir plots, a sampler copied and embellished by a lot of gripping movies.

In The Dark Side of the Screen, a book that I unreservedly recommend, Foster Hirsch notes that the words, “ ‘Black,’ ‘night,’ and ‘death’ appear with obsessive recurrence in Woolrich’s titles.” Indeed, The Chase is based on a novel originally titled, The Black Path of Fear.

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Alas, from what I understand about the source material, gifted screenwriter Philip Yordan would’ve done well to stick closer to the book, which sounds tighter and more coherent than the film. Instead of Woolrich’s well-constructed thriller, Yordan and undistinguished director Arthur Ripley put out a rambling fugue of pursuit and anxiety. Thankfully, the excellent supporting cast and the cinematography pull it together. Well, almost.

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Whenever the script allows, director of photography Franz Planer blows up the low-key lit esthetics of noir to dissonant extremes. Eddie Roman’s huge mausoleum of a mansion, all in white, resembles a funhouse with the multiple shadow textures Planer casts over it. The scenes in Havana, particularly the nightclub sequence, exhale a hot, evil wind. Tight, intimate close-ups of Scott and Lorna ooze despair and desperation, as though dawn will never come. The slowly tracking camera and the consuming darkness suggest a tropical night so tenebrous and mysterious that it borders on abstraction. It’s not merely night; it’s Night, the boundless Night that Woolrich evoked in his titles.

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The visuals remain startling and beautiful even in the DVD print I have, which looks like the negative was marinated in coffee for a decade or so.

As for the acting, Peter Lorre steals his share of scenes and gets most of the best dialogue as Gino, Roman’s skulking, perpetually annoyed toady. When Scott brings back the lost wallet, Gino sneers, “Silly, law-abiding jerk.” His laconic, eye-rolling reactions to Scott’s bewildered goodness walk the fine line between funny and menacing. In my favorite snappy exchange, Scotty protests to one of Roman’s quirks,“I don’t get it.” The ever-blasé Gino retorts, “Who does?”

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Michele Morgan, with her lush, orchidaceous face, glides through the film like a lost soul, a diaphanous dream woman not long for this world. The white horror flaring up in her wide eyes speaks to us of all the abuse that the Production Code couldn’t show. Within the confines of a rather decorative role, Morgan creates an achingly gentle woman who would trigger anybody’s protective instincts.

vlcsnap-2013-09-02-00h06m07s221 Of course, the movie really belongs to oily hunk Steve Cochran in his deadly prime. I sometimes have a hard time finding classic movie gangsters scary; more often, they’re impudent and amusing. Eddie Roman, as Cochran plays him, gives me the willies. From the manicurist who does his nails—and gets slapped if she nicks his nail bed—to his most formidable business rivals, no one is safe from Roman’s penchant for violence, both physical and psychological.

Even the simplest of lines spoken by Cochran slither into our ears like whispered obscenities. This man doesn’t just enjoy watching other people suffer; he lives for it. It was only Cochran’s sixth film, but he’d perfected the silent menace routine. Even disregarding everything else this film has going for it, you’d be well advised to check it out for Cochran alone.

vlcsnap-2013-08-31-00h18m35s6So, tune in to The Chase for a zigzagging ride that will leave you reeling and—if you’re anything like me—exhilarated. 

You can watch The Chase for free right now on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.