Favorite Film Discoveries of 2019: Adventures with Angels, Dates with Devils

The Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. A poison which may also be a cure. A cure which may also be a poison. Plato associated the term with writing, and Derrida concluded, by extension, that “the god of writing must also be the god of death.” Most writers I know would agree. At least some of the time.

Film, another medium of substitution, deception, and instability, is a pharmakon in my life too. It shatters me, piques me, messes with me, hypnotizes me, pulls me outside of myself, distracts me from my day job, and generally gives me reasons to keep on living.

My yearly roundup of favorite new-to-me films often betrays some loose theme or pattern. The 2019 harvest yielded a high proportion of poisoned apples: movies reveling in temptation or moral extremes. Wickedness took many forms, from voluptuous demoness Elena Sangro to hedonistic lord of the manor David Farrar to noir’s ne plus ultra bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Fortunately such unlikely angels as Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea, and Ann Sheridan were on hand to balance the cosmic scales. So here’s to the things that poison us and the things that keep us alive. May they forever intertwine in cinema.

1. Maciste all’inferno (Guido Brignone, 1926)

What’s it about?

Powerful demons mingle with mortals to ensnare souls. When big hunky superhero blacksmith Maciste intervenes to save his cousin from dishonor, the baddies transport him down to Hell. But those devils get more than they bargained for.

Why do I love it?

If some maniac decided to adapt Dante’s Inferno as part of the Marvel Extended Universe, the result still couldn’t touch this wild adventure from the silent Maciste series. Once we get to Hell, the sheer surreal saturnalia on display stands as a testament to just how trippy silent popular cinema could be—and frequently was. A hellish vamp’s kiss transforms Maciste into a demon with shaggy legs and horns. Bevies of brimstone beauties vie for his attention. Our musclebound hero leads a demon army to victory in an intra-Inferno civil war. A demon’s face, punched concave by Maciste, rebuilds itself in a spellbinding close-up.

At the beginning of the year I watched a whole bunch of silent movies about Hell to research a piece for SF Silent Film Festival. As you might expect, that involved many hours of wallowing in guilt and despair. Rather refreshingly—even blasphemously—Maciste all’inferno was the most fun I had in Hell all year. It shows sympathy for the damned, yet treats Hell like some weird adult theme park designed by Doré for demons. Given the playfulness and overt sensuality of its spectacle and inventive special effects, the film’s creators were clearly more interested in delivering pleasure than preachments.

Federico Fellini mentioned Maciste all’inferno as his earliest film memory and a lifelong influence on his work. That explains a lot. The silent film’s panoply of grotesque eroticism and nimble leaps between fantasy and reality—or merely different registers of reality?—feel distinctly Fellini-esque.

Where can you see it?

It’s on YouTube.

2. Midnight Mystery (George B. Seitz, 1930)

What’s it about?

Pulp novelist Sally Wayne and her gaggle of murder-obsessed friends are enjoying a quiet weekend in a creepy island castle. Sally’s rich stick-in-the-mud fiancé decides to stage a phony murder to teach Sally a lesson, but when a real body turns up, he’s the prime suspect.

Why do I love it?

The Gothic elegance of this early talkie, with its cavernous Max Rée art direction and creeping camera movements, nourishes me as pure cinematic comfort food. There are silhouettes and self-playing pianos and clanging buoys and opulent candelabras and howling winds and a villain eavesdropping from an overstuffed armchair. But plenty of movies have “atmosphere in chunks,” to borrow a phrase from the script. This old dark house movie earned a place in my heart because its girl sleuth heroine enjoys an unusually triumphant fadeout. When we celebrate the maturity of pre-Code films, we’re often talking about sex, drugs, and hard-hitting social commentary. But this modest comedy thriller arrives at something quietly progressive even for its anything-goes era: a worldly woman who single-handedly cracks the case and makes her man eat his words.

To love studio-era cinema, you have to inoculate yourself against groan-worthy, tacked-on endings in which sharp dames renounce their identities and accept their role as some schmoe’s passive helpmate. Midnight Mystery, however, concludes with a different balance of power. Sally’s morbid, melodramatic mind enables her to unravel the mystery and catch the killer. In a sly turn of psychological Judo, Sally leverages the villain’s lustfulness and exhibitionism against him and extracts a public confession. “I learned the trick writing thrillers, dime novels, trash,” she explains. This is where we expect her to add, “And no more! I’ve had enough of murder” etc. etc. But, lo and behold, her fiancé capitulates instead: “I give in. I don’t deserve you in a thousand years…. Detect all you want. And I hope all our ten children are detectives.” Corny? Sure. But his humble embrace of Sally’s trashy passion—he wanted her to bust up her typewriter a few reels ago—goes against the grain of so many glib Hollywood endings.

Betty Compson digs into the screwball feistiness of her character with gusto. Though her cutesy voice can grate on one’s nerves, her expertly staged histrionics at the end more than compensate. As the suave murderer, Lowell Sherman infuses his part with devious glee—campy enough to be humorous but lecherous enough to be a threat. At one point he picks up a silk stocking of Sally’s from the back of a chair and rubs it appreciatively between his fingertips. Why, he even glances towards the camera, as though he’d like to be considered for inclusion in your Best of Pre-Code sizzle reel.

Where can you see it?

It’s on ok.ru. Since it’s an RKO Radio film, I have no idea why it’s not on Warner Archive DVD. Maybe some rights issue? In any case, I’d buy it.

3. Men in Her Life (William Beaudine, 1931)

What’s it about?

Betrayed by a gold-digging lothario and stranded in the French countryside, broke socialite Julia Cavanaugh befriends Flash, a vacationing bootlegger with social aspirations. Julia jumps at the chance to earn money working as a one-woman finishing school for the clearly smitten Flash. Though they fall for each other, class differences and Julia’s past indiscretions threaten their happiness.

Why do I love it?

In essence, it’s “My Fair Gangster”—an irreverent, gender-flipped riff on the Pygmalion formula. But instead of watching an overbearing professor sculpt a spirited guttersnipe into a lady, we savor the gentle chemistry as a ruined debutante gives her big lug client a crash course in etiquette. By helping Flash navigate the glitterati in Paris, Julia builds a sense of self-efficacy and gains perspective on the superficial life she used to know.

Who would’ve suspected that Charles Bickford could carry a rom-com as a leading man? Not me, surely. Yet his guileless toughness and aw-shucks delivery made this obscure Columbia film a major highlight at the most recent Capitolfest. As his lady love, the luminous Lois Moran conveys her character’s inherent grace and bruised uncertainty.

With its sharp dialogue and wacky situations, this breezy send-up of class relations, scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, deserves a mention in the history of screwball comedy. Although it veers into drama towards the middle and courtroom drama at the end, the humor of Flash and Julia’s courtship and their adventures among the vapid socialites in Paris remain the most rewarding and memorable aspects of the film. The fact that a coarse crook turns out to be the truest gentleman of all strikes me as quite a Riskin-esque reversal of conventions. When Julia finally proposes to Flash with the same routine he had practiced on her earlier in the film, you could feel the audience at Capitolfest sigh out a collective “Awwww” before such cuteness.

Speaking of overturned conventions, the film doesn’t hide that Julia spent the night with a faux-noble seducer. The whole plot hinges on it. But that doesn’t matter to Flash. The fallen woman nabs a rich, lovable man who worships her and would literally kill for her. And they live happily ever after. Now that’s pre-Code.

Where can you see it?

Maybe at some rare film festival or archive screening. I would love to see this get a DVD or Blu release.

4. Union Depot (Alfred E. Greene, 1932)

What’s it about?

Rakish vagrant Chick comes into possession of some stolen money and decides to spend the night with Ruth Collins, an out-of-work chorine. Once they’ve gotten over the misunderstanding that she’s a sex worker, Chick resolves to set things right for Ruth and get her on the train to Salt Lake City for a job. But the cops, crooks, and Ruth’s stalker have other plans.

Why do I love it?

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. orders “a flock of hot biscuits” from a train station lunch counter. That’s all I need in a movie.

Seriously, though, if you could harness the charm that Dougie Jr. and Joan Blondell exude and somehow convert that into fuel, we’d never have an energy crisis again. These are two world champions of sparkling for the camera. It’s awfully sweet to watch them sparkling at each other. And I’m simply mad about train stations, even recreated on sound stages. This film evokes the romance of the criss-crossing destinies they contain. I’d need to watch the film again to get the whole story straight. It’s a speedy tangle of assumed identities, stolen goods, bums, hookers, investigators, and a pervert in dark glasses, all handled with the pacy vigor we crave from a pre-Code Warner Brothers film. Despite the morass of plot, the emotional through-line—Fairbanks behaving like a cad then spending the rest of the movie trying to prove his nobility to Blondell—stays strong and poignant. You catch yourself rooting hard for these two crazy kids. Which makes the ending quite a blow.

Pre-Code movies did so much of what New Hollywood movies get credit for inventing. And they often did it in half the runtime. Union Depot leaves viewers with the jarring sense of “wait, that can’t be the end” as the credits flash up. Its wrenching, unsentimental conclusion reminded me of those oft-cited gut-punch denouements from films of the 60s and 70s. Admittedly, there’s far less cynicism here, since Fairbanks Jr. does enjoy his shining moment as Blondell’s champion. But as Ruth speeds away towards a precarious future on that midnight train to Salt Lake, Chick ends up right where he started, maybe worse off. He’s a vagrant with zero prospects. His dream girl left, never to see him again. Being a hero might feel swell for a second, but in practical terms? It doesn’t mean a thing. So he flips up his collar, shrugs off despair, and walks into the night with nobody but fellow bum Guy Kibbee to split a cigarette with. Forget her, Chick. It’s Union Depot.

Where can you see it?

It’s available from Warner Archive.

5. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

What’s it about?

Jewish lawyer George Simon rose from humble origins to become one of New York’s most sought-after attorneys. Now that he’s on top, however, his professional rivals are out to get him with a vengeance. He’s got a Society Register wife who doesn’t much like him. And a good deed he committed in days gone by—fraud to save a weak man in a jam—is coming back to haunt him…

Why do I love it?

Because it kept me on the edge of my seat and held my emotions hostage until the very last moment. Though categorized as a drama, its level of tension and relentless drive seem more in tune with what we’d call a legal thriller today. I went in expecting something preachy and/or badly stereotyped, but the joke’s on me, and I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. William Wyler was a great director. We all know that. But only lately I’ve realized how early he was a great director. When I saw The Storm in 2018 at Capitolfest, the film suggested that his talent for shaping cinematic space and building suspense through subtly shifting relationships was already crystallizing in 1930. Well, Counsellor at Law is a leap ahead of The Storm. A work of staggering assurance and efficiency, this film would be the crowning achievement of many directors’ careers. Wyler, as we know, was warming up.

Barrymore, an actor whom I love but do not usually associate with restraint, rose to the occasion in portraying George Simon. He’s exasperating and irresistible, hilarious and tragic, icy and passionate, naïve and cynical. A seductive monument of contradictions. But never a caricature. The images of the film that I remember most are a swooping crane shot towards Barrymore, then a close-up of his eyes shining like star sapphires (on nitrate), as the idea of suicide comes to him. Barrymore may have never been better, or realer, onscreen than at the moment when, manning the switchboard in his empty office, Simon gets a call that devastates him. And he finds that, in the eyes of the frivolous woman he married, he’s no more worthy than the little boy who got his start manning that switchboard decades ago. Everybody, from chirpy office lady Isabel Jewell to blasé wastrel Melvyn Douglas, is on point in Counsellor at Law. They’re like gears in some giant, rhythmic, artful machine. But Bebe Daniels, playing Simon’s sharp but soulful secretary, nearly steals the show as the heart of the film. We cannot help but love Simon because she loves him, and we can tell that so fine a person as her could only love someone whom she truly respected.

The script by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own stage play, is a race car engine that Wyler drives with aplomb. Without leaving a posh Manhattan office, gleaming in its sleek Deco majesty, the screenwriter and the director create a fluid, exciting space where worlds collide. In George Simon’s waiting room, a communist agitator clenches his fists at the the bourgeois prattle of Simon’s two revoltingly pampered step-children. Indeed, Counsellor at Law boldly interrogates some big social and ethical issues. What is success, really, in a society where success often means disowning parts of your identity? Should you die fighting an oppressive system tooth and nail, or can you do good by working within that system? Is it worth it? But the film lets those questions hang in the air, raising them but refusing to settle them. Thank heavens. Answers are usually far less interesting than questions anyway.

Because it dares to stand on the window ledge of despair, preparing to splatter our hero all over the pavement, this movie truly earns it last-minute His Girl Friday-esque ending. The flawed, tormented lawyer finds his match in the vivacious, brainy beauty who was 10 feet away the whole time. The joyful rush of that long-overdue recognition sends you back into reality still keeping time to the beat of this exquisitely rhythmic minor masterpiece.

Shoutout to my Nitrate Picture Show pals Emily West, Harry Eskin, and Jay Patrick who loved this as much as I did!

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD from the Universal Vault Collection.

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

6. Mary Burns, Fugitive (William K. Howard, 1935)

What’s it about?

Mary runs a coffee joint in the country while romancing out-of-town mystery man Babe Wilson. After a shootout at Mary’s shop, her gangster boyfriend leaves her to take the heat. Branded a “gun moll” and sent up to the big house, Mary escapes… by the grace of the cops who hope she’ll lead them to Wilson. Mary never wants to see him again—but he’s not through with her by a long shot. As the poor gal’s cellmate summarizes, “Aw, Mary. Men’ve been kickin’ dames around since the days of Eve.”

Why do I love it?

William K. Howard, whom James Wong Howe called the best director he ever worked with, was a poet of celluloid celerity. What I’ve seen of his early 1930s output practically lunges at you with its synergy of camera movements, brisk cutting, and tensely stylized compositions. All of those elements—along with a top-notch performance from Sylvia Sidney and a roller-coaster plot—make Mary Burns, Fugitive a gripping programmer both in style and substance.

From the bucolic opening scenes, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography imparts a sense of vague ethereality to what might’ve been a purely gritty yarn of crime and suffering. Sometimes that dreamlike, spiritual quality gives Mary’s torments a halo of martyrdom, but sometimes it’s just intoxicating to the eye. Particularly during the expressionistic prison break scene. Mary and her roommate sneak through corridors of stark shadows, dart through fog occasionally pierced by searchlights, then dive into the water and swim through shimmering waves towards their rendezvous. It’s like a crime melodrama evanescing into a dream.

Sylvia Sidney may have given more great performances in now-obscure 1930s movies than some bigger stars (and more acclaimed actors) gave in their whole careers. Her fey, childlike face and air of gentle sincerity made her a natural to play decent dames who fall, and fall hard, for rotten men. She hits her courtroom breakdown just right with ripped-from-the-headlines naturalism. Her voice rises to a pitchy wail and her face contorts into an unglamorous sob of confusion and shame. But Sidney usually communicates Mary’s sorrow quietly, with hushed agony. As life kicks her around, her suffering turns inward. But you can hear the stifled tears choking her. You can feel the jagged shards of broken dreams cutting ever deeper into her soul.

Alan Baxter, aided and abetted by clever lighting, strikes an appropriately loathsome note as Wilson. He doesn’t come off as particularly tough or charismatic, especially not next to hardboiled henchman Brian Donlevy, but he sure is mean. He resembles more of a snarky, entitled college kid than what I’d expect a bank robber to be like. As a casting and performance choice, it’s actually kind of brilliant, even if I don’t 100% buy it. Portrait of the gangster as a spoiled brat. (See? I don’t always root for the bad guys.) The moment when Mary realizes what Wilson is—punctuated by a noirish close-up of his suddenly defiant pretty-boy killer face—is chilling, because he does look like a different person than the carefree lover he was 5 minutes ago.

Mary’s final face-off with her bad-to-the-bone ex brings the film to a satisfying, Temple Drake-ish close. Wilson forces Mary to humiliate herself by fawning on him in front of her new love, but the gangster’s sadism proves his undoing. After shrinking from confrontation for so long, Mary seizes the moment and becomes the agent of her own justice, retribution, and freedom.

And I can’t finish this capsule without a nod to Melvyn Douglas’s Adirondack-style mountain lodge, which is truly the stuff of fantasies.

Where can you see it?

I caught it on TCM last summer. Maybe it’ll air again. It’s also floating around the internet…

7. Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937)

What’s it about?

In his first film appearance, Dr. Kildare helps a paroled mother find her missing daughter and escape the clutches of a lecherous racketeer. Does the doctor dare to call in his own underworld connections and save the day?

Why do I love it?

Perhaps the biggest hit of this year’s Capitolfest, Internes is exactly the kind of movie I’m thinking about when I lament “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.” That is, a gratifying 80-minute crime melodrama with hardly a dull moment. From its opening credits, overlaid on shots through the windshield of an ambulance speeding through city streets, this movie hooks you. And through a magical marriage of great acting and superior filmmaking craft, it never lets you go until the end credits roll. Clearly I need to dip more into the oeuvre of director Alfred Santell. He invests this bizarre tale of barroom surgery, sexual blackmail, grateful gangsters, and a missing daughter with muscular B-movie momentum while giving the tear-jerker scenes room to breathe.

I will never look at kitchen utensils the same way again after watching Joel McCrea improvise an operating room in a bar. “Get me a lime squeezer!” barks Dr. Kildare, preparing to save a hemorrhaging mobster with a MacGyver-esque assortment of found objects. One wonders, did the young doctor spend all his precious drinking time pondering, “How could I use that for surgery… you know, if it should ever come up?” Some contrivances are so much fun that you welcome them with open arms as contrivances. This is one of them.

McCrea in Boy Scout mode can wear thin on me, but his chemistry with Stanwyck lights up the screen. For instance, the physical contact of dressing an infected wound on her wrist becomes an unlikely but undeniably smoldering conduit of sexual tension. It’s also a wry inversion of that old ministering angel trope. How many times have we seen a battered tough guy melt as some radiant young beauty tends his wounds? But here it’s fresh-faced doctor McCrea tenderly succoring the downtrodden but unbroken Stanwyck.

Even with Kildare riding through the film like a knight errant in scrubs, Internes delves into dark territory. Degradation looms over Stanwyck as she deliberates whether to sell herself to a slimy, popcorn-munching racketeer in order to see her daughter again. German-born cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who’d shoot Among the Living and The Glass Key a few years later, cloaks the desperate ex-con mother in an aura of noirish desperation. Curtains of rain stream down the windows and cast shadowy waterfalls around Stanwyck as she pleads with the villain. No dice. He wants his payment in dollars or flesh. “You’d like to kill me, wouldn’t ya?” he gloats. “You’re a mind-reader,” she snaps back. As she contemplates her meager options, she watches the lights of a roaring elevated train go by outside the window of her dim, cramped apartment. The shot I recall most vividly from the film is a bleak slice of urban alienation. We see an abstracted misty street at night with glowing lamps and storefronts. A snack vendor, in silhouette, cooks popcorn over a whistling open flame. Stanwyck, in a shiny black raincoat, walks slowly past, then doubles back, and buys a bag of popcorn—the racketeer’s favorite—in a gesture of symbolic defeat. What an oddly wonderful movie.

Where can you see it?

I’m pleased to report that it’s available from the Universal Vault Series. Physical media for the win!

8. Quiet, Please: Murder (John Francis Larkin, 1942)

What’s it about?

Forger, thief, and murderer Fleg steals a rare Shakespeare folio and proceeds to sell several fake copies to collectors. Then Fleg’s lover and partner in crime, crooked manuscripts expert Myra, sells one of the phonies to a Nazi collaborator—who wants a payback in blood. Myra, a shady investigator, and Nazi henchmen all converge in the Los Angeles Public Library. Fleg impersonates a detective and holds everyone under blackout conditions while looting rare manuscripts and making mischief.

Why do I love it?

Slinky, sardonic criminals Gail Patrick and George Sanders come across as a pulpy, psychopathic variation on Nick and Nora Charles. (Or Joel and Garda Sloane, given their focus on manuscripts. But who the hell knows them?) Fleg and Myra swap urbane threats instead of cute quips and get their kicks from committing crimes instead of solving them. Double-crosses are perhaps the sincerest form of foreplay in their amoral universe. The more grandiloquent of the pair, Sanders purrs out some of the kinkiest dialogue this side of the Production Code: “You’re dangerous to my interests. And it excites me to play with my own life. The way we live is a constant threat to our security. But we love it—giving and taking pain.”

There’s a special place in my heart for movies with book-related skullduggery, and Sanders and Patrick’s sinister standoffs in the Public Library will delight anybody with a similar book fetish. The film doesn’t totally jell or live up to its potential, but I cannot hold trivial concerns like those against a movie that manages to mix such an exotic cocktail of bookish and lurid. Or one that leans so enthusiastically into nastiness. Even our nominal “hero,” a smarmy, unlikable investigator, delivers Myra to her death in a ruthless move that leaves us with nothing to cling to at the end but the Dewey Decimal System.

Director Larkin and DoP Joseph MacDonald endow this oddball B thriller, largely set in a fixed location, with plenty of angular shadows and darkly dramatic early noir atmosphere. Gail Patrick, resplendent in a sparkly tiara and evening gown, stalks among the stacks and lurks behind bookshelves. Lit from below by candlelight, a ghoulish George Sanders holds court by menacing his lover and two inconvenient witnesses with torture by harp string. The urban walk-of-doom ending even anticipates The Seventh Victim. Gail Patrick leaves the library and strides down eerily empty streets while trailed by a Nazi assassin. Spoiler: he gets her. Which is a shame really, because Myra and Fleg deserved another 2 or 3 movies in which to fleece rich book collectors, betray each other, and rack up their body count as a form of couples therapy.

Where can you see it?

It’s-nay on-ay Outube-yay. (At least as of this writing.)

9. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

What’s it about?

After some light robbery and murder, Steve Morgan gets a ride from a tipsy traveling salesman and invites two hitchhiking dames they meet along the way. As the cops close in, the killer pressures his unwitting companions to take shelter at an isolated beach house. Sure, this is going to end well…

Why do I love it?

Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to that scary bastard Lawrence Tierney. After I watched this sick little movie, he invaded my nightmares and jolted me out of a wretched 8-month run of writer’s block. Call it an exorcism: I wrote almost 4,000 words about this Devil and haven’t stopped writing—mostly about noir—ever since.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride provides the key link in Tierney’s transition from old-school gangster in Dillinger to noir’s most depraved fantasy figure in Born to Kill. As it happens, Devil is so harrowingly good that it prompted me to revisit Born, which had failed to impress me around a decade ago. Turns out I adore it now. Few couples in noirdom can compete with Trevor and Tierney thirstily baiting and berating each other between illicit lip-locks. But if Robert Wise’s class-conscious A noir complicates Tierney as a kind of beast in captivity, Feist’s gleefully trashy 62-minute B noir unleashes him in a more natural habitat.

He gets to hit-and-run his way through a seedy, unhinged playground/obstacle course in a vehicle that seems bespoke to his ferocious dirtbag appeal. The confined spaces accentuate his hulking presence. There’s a tough dame to admire him—as one bullshit artist to another—and a starry-eyed nice girl for him to charm, then pulverize. The masculine cast of domesticated dorks, card-playing cops, trigger-happy patrolmen, and cartoonish yokels all serve to emphasize his steely, entertaining badness. In the midst of this chaos and opportunity, he’s more relaxed, funnier, and thus scarier when he goes in for the kiss or the kill. Which are similarly brutal in this movie.

Where can you see it?

An old TCM print is floating around ok.ru. Or you can get a Region 2 DVD. The Film Noir Foundation has restored it, but to see that version (I haven’t, alas) you’ll need to attend to a non-U.S. screening.

10. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

What’s it about?

Eleanor Johnson’s husband witnesses a murder and hides out somewhere in San Francisco. The police want to bring him in, make him testify, and put his neck on the line. And gangsters want to kill him. Eleanor isn’t exactly crazy about the guy herself, but the more she learns about the tight spot her husband’s in, the more she wants to save him. A wisecracking reporter offers to help Eleanor find her hubby and stay ahead of the cops, but can she trust him?

Why do I love it?

Norman Foster evidently learned a thing or two from collaborating with Orson Welles, because this is a damn near perfect thriller. Think of it as a women’s drama reborn as a chase film in the key of Welles minor. Complete with canted angles, a darkly carnivalesque set piece, and oodles of slow-burning suspense.

My favorite subtype of noir centers on stand-up gals who pursue intensely personal investigations—quests, really—through dark labyrinths of danger and deceit. Or, to generalize, girl sleuth movies. Woman on the Run presents us with a most unusual “girl sleuth” variant, in that there is nothing girlish about her at all. On the contrary, she’s a prickly, childless wife in a burnt-out marriage. Shorn of her bombshell locks and sporting an unsexy assortment of bulky coats and dresses, Ann Sheridan nails the bone-tired air of a woman who’s had the romance worn right out of her.

Compared to girl sleuths like winsome secretary Ella Raines, earthy nighthawk Susan Hayward, and streetwise knockout Lucille Ball, Sheridan cuts a dramatically less hopeful and glamorous figure. Even June Vincent in Black Angel passionately throws herself into the glitzy nightclub demimonde to save her husband’s neck; her determination and energy are unwavering. By contrast, Sheridan is sick to death of almost everybody except her dog. The story works because you sort of believe that she might give up on her husband. You know, if she got too tired or ran out of cigarettes.

I like to think of noir’s girl sleuth movies as twisted fairy tales that confront the heroines with riddles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Woman on the Run, we even get a devastatingly charming wolf in disguise and a life-giving potion: the ampoules of heart medicine that Eleanor needs to smuggle to her husband. Eleanor’s quest takes the form of a life-or-death scavenger hunt bound up with the enigma of her bitter, failing marriage. That unrealistic conceit results in one of the more nuanced and narratively creative depictions of a troubled marriage in film noir.

Instead of watching a marriage fall apart from beginning to end or through flashbacks, we acquire more haunting insight into Eleanor’s troubled relationship with her husband through his absence. We never see the couple interact in person until the very end. Instead, their story comes to us through fragmented clues. A cryptic letter. A dirty apartment with a cramped kitchen and cupboards full of nothing but dog food. The scornful head of a mannequin. Paintings and sketches that chart the trajectory of a promising but unfocused career circling the drain. The short story-like anecdotes that Eleanor recounts and tries to decode in an attempt to figure out where her husband first “lost” her. This is couples therapy as a puzzle box, an apt fusion of noir’s penchant for jigsaw narratives and the snarled messes of resentment that long-term relationships can become.

A movie about second chances on the edge of an abyss, Woman on the Run stands as a reminder that toughness and tenderness often intertwine in noir. David Bordwell recently pointed a finger at the “cult of noir” for making us underrate gentler genres—especially cozy family sagas—in favor of forceful, action-oriented movies. (Touché, I guess? Look at this list…) Now, I’m not going to make the case that film noir is actually warm and fuzzy. God forbid. But what of the world-weary, wised-up, bittersweet brand of tenderness that belongs to noir? Out of the Past leaves us on a note of melancholy affection beyond the grave. Shadow of a Doubt is the dark double of Meet Me in St. Louis. Inscrutable and laconic though they often were, Lake and Ladd clicked as a screen couple largely because of their moments of surprising tenderness and vulnerability.

Like Raymond Chandler wrote, in a letter reflecting on his wife’s death, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Some tough dames are too. And so it is with Woman on the Run. As this rueful wife scours the city of San Francisco, she summons up her memories of marriage and discovers, almost too late, how much tenderness she still harbors for her imperiled dreamer of a husband.

Where can you see it?

The FNF/UCLA restoration is available on DVD/Blu from Flicker Alley. It also shows up on TCM occasionally; it was my favorite Noir Alley discovery of last year. For the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT watch one of the murky prints circulating on YouTube, etc. I tried to watch it that way years ago and couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes in.

11. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)

What’s it about?

A witchy fox-loving peasant girl in turn-of-the-century Shopshire vacillates between repulsion and attraction to the fox-hunting local squire. Which complicates things after she weds the chaste new vicar. Sure, it sounds banal, but it is really a poem woven around the titillating tropes of a tawdry romance novel.

Why do I love it?

Because it may be Technicolor’s finest hour. I had procrastinated seeing this one for a while, and that paid off because I had the privilege of seeing it at the Nitrate Picture Show. There were colors I have never seen before. Colors stolen from some fairy realm or—same difference—from the mind of the film’s whimsical heroine, a woman clearly tuned to a higher frequency. The limpid blues, torrid yellows, and rosy but forbidding pinks of Shropshire skies. The dusky cobalt of Jennifer Jones’s skirt as she casts a midnight spell. The amber glow of a sunset on fox fur. The look of white lace in the bare afternoon sunlight.

And is there any cinematic image of lost innocence more heartbreaking yet erotic than Jones standing tiptoe on grass, only to be scooped up by squire Farrar—who crushes her dropped bouquet of scarlet flowers with his shiny brown boots?

Where can you see it?

It’s on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

12. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)

What’s it about?

A bounty hunter reluctantly joins forces with a prospector and a caddish cavalry officer to bring a killer and his girl accomplice back to civilization. But can the captors hold it together as the desperado attempts to divide and conquer?

Why do I love it?

Bumpy road trips with charismatic killers make for great cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Here it’s wily outlaw Robert Ryan toying with the nerves, egos, and lives of his traveling companions. Not unlike Tierney in Devil, Ryan infuses this bad hombre with such virile, animalistic arrogance that it’s almost impossible to look at anything else when he’s onscreen. But Ryan’s Ben Vandergroat is a more complex beast, with an emotional range from cringing self-pity to lustful jubilation; even three tough men on high alert can’t keep this scruffy, protean trickster down for long.

I’m fascinated by intimidating performances that involve some kind of physical limitation, like noir’s wounded gangsters who can conjure even more menace when hiding out or hospitalized. Similarly, Ryan projects such power and mastery over the situation even when tied up and thrown around like a sack of potatoes that you know you’re in the presence of one dangerous dude. Dig the way that, never so smarmy but in defeat, he pulls his own wanted poster out of his pocket with his teeth, then grins with the knowledge that he has shot his pursuer’s plans to hell. Or the cocky glances he flashes towards his fellow travelers as Janet Leigh gives him a shave or a back rub, as if to say “Don’t you wish you were in my filthy hide right now?” Or how he smirkingly tells his rambling hard-knocks life story while feverish Jimmy Stewart slips further, further, further on his sabotaged saddle and topples off his horse.

Leathery, damaged, and volatile, the Jimmy Stewart of Anthony Mann’s gritty Westerns has become my favorite Jimmy Stewart. And yet, listen to the yearning tenderness in his voice when he talks to Janet Leigh about nursing cattle through the winter. More than any man who ever graced the screen, Stewart made the prospect of settling down seem like another warm, romantic adventure rather than an end to it. (Me, I probably rather go ride-or-die with Ryan, but I can appreciate a good pitch when I hear one.) I have to hand it to Janet Leigh too. She could very easily have been merely another item thrown on the scale of the film’s high stakes: death, money, and the woman. With her delicate features accentuated by cropped hair and men’s clothes, she’s a wildcat-fierce slip of a thing who can hold her own against Stewart and his posse. And yet she captures that lost-girl devotion to father figure Ryan, devotion so intense that she refuses to see how he sees her.

Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor envelops almost every shot in breathtaking Technicolor vistas of rugged natural splendor. This pure, epic scenery provides an ironic backdrop for Ryan’s machinations. We get the mythic West of storybook illustrations wrapped around Mann’s sordid West of cheap life and dirty death.

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD and available to purchase on YouTube.

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.”

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!

Fear You Can Hear, Volume II: 31 More Scary Old-Time Radio Episodes for Halloween

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

It’s that time of the year again. A season for cozy sweaters, hot cocoa, flame-colored leaves, and—my favorite part—ghost stories.

Last year, I put together a list of 31 scary radio episodes. I’m grateful to those of you who enthusiastically shared it!

So, this October I’ve sifted through audio archives again and put together a totally new list: 31 more spooky radio episodes for you to enjoy.

In our seen-it-all era, it’s inspiring for me to discover that so many other people gravitate towards radio’s subtle storytelling.

Macabre masterworks of cinema often harness the power of the unseen. As Fritz Lang described the offscreen child murder in M (1931), “The violence is in your imagination… by not showing it, I force you as spectators to think about the most frightening thoughts you can imagine.”

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Radio horror, by the very nature of the medium, possesses this alarming power to hijack your mind’s eye, to tap into your worst fears. It preys upon your imagination, holding your senses hostage. I love it.

Old-time radio addicts will notice that many top chillers, like “The Thing on the Fourble Board” and “The House in Cypress Canyon,” are conspicuously absent from this list. That’s because I included them in last year’s “Fear You Can Hear” post.

This year I got to dig deeper and share some episodes that I consider underrated, along with a few beloved creepers. These are in rough chronological order by the date of the oldest episode I selected from a given series.

Since this is a film blog, all of the images I’ve included here for ambiance are stills or screenshots from classic movies. Can you identify them all?

Cuddle up under a blanket and prepare for shudders!

Update (10/4/16): I was made aware of a 2 episodes that weren’t playing. This was due to special characters in the URLs that were creating problems. I’ve found alternate URLs and they’re working now. Thanks for your patience!

haxan

1. “The Hairy Thing” – The Witch’s Tale – Aired on September 26, 1932
We can all thank The Witch’s Tale and its creator Alonzo Deen Cole for ushering in the grand tradition of radio horror. Only a small percentage of its original episodes survive; some seem creaky today, but a few retain their original spark of spookiness.

In this standout early episode, a plucky nurse inherits an old house—on the condition that she sleep there every night for a year. Alone. In a certain room. Okay, you’ve totally heard that premise before, but the unusual supernatural entity that creeps by night in this tale might still send chills up your spine.

2. “The Gypsy’s Hand” – The Witch’s Tale – April 5, 1934
A doctor amputates the infected hand of a world-famous pianist who promptly dies of sorrow—and seeks revenge beyond the grave. A variation of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” this story begins with a stomach-churning operating scene, then works its way up to a crescendo of blood-curdling screams.

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3. “Knock at the Door” – Lights Out! – December 15, 1942
Our narrator, a hardboiled dame if ever there was one, wanted the easy life. She had a plan. Marry a chump. Kill his mother. Enjoy her money. But our heroine didn’t bargain for momma’s willpower—so strong that she’d even crawl out of her watery grave to protect her not-so-bright baby boy.

4. “The Meteor Man” – Lights Out! – December 22, 1942
A professor brings a meteorite into his home to examine it. Little does he know that the rock from outer space carried a passenger to earth—and a hostile one at that. (The lead actors’ accents come and go, but if you can get past that, this episode contains some first-rate material from Arch Oboler.)

5. “Death Robbery” – Lights Out! – July 16, 1947
When will fictional scientists learn that reanimating corpses is not a great idea? When it stops being entertaining, I suppose. And this episode certainly is entertaining. Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist who seeks to vanquish death. When tragedy strikes, he uses a loved one as his human guinea pig with calamitous consequences.

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6. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” – Suspense – April 27, 1943
Agnes Moorehead could make the phone book sound menacing. When Suspense matched Moorehead with macabre scripts by radio writer Lucille Fletcher, the resultant shows are white-knuckle affairs. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” is an ambiguous addition to the “women in peril” sub-genre of film and radio from the 1940s. Is it a ghost story? A psychological thriller? A hallucination? Listen and decide for yourself.

7. “Narrative About Clarence” – Suspense – March 16, 1944
Laird Cregar stars as a vengeful mesmerist. Need I say more? This episode tends to get overlooked among Suspense’s flashier chillers. Yet, its unremitting sense of dread and gut-punch ending make it one of the most haunting examples of radio horror I know.

8. “Fugue in C-Minor” – Suspense – June 1, 1944
Oh, Vincent Price. He always seems like a perfect husband. Until you look in his basement. Ida Lupino plays the damsel in distress who falls for his lethal charms in this grisly Gothic tale.

9. “Zero Hour” – Suspense – April 3, 1955
“Mommy… Daddy… Peek-a-boo!” Never have those words sounded more terrifying than in Ray Bradbury’s rich slice of Cold War-era paranoia. Children all over the nation are engrossed in a new game: “Invasion.” It’s sort of like “Simon Says,” only you take detailed orders from a Martian called Drill. One mother begins to wonder if it’s more than just make-believe.

undead_knife

10. “The Warning” – The Weird Circle – 1944
I confess: most episodes of The Weird Circle fail to thrill me. The series specialized in adaptations of classic literature with a spooky bent. Yet, it rarely summoned the moody atmosphere without which radio horror falls flat.

“The Warning,” however, is a hidden gem. Aristocratic Hester has visions of her missing brother… that lead her and her husband into a trap set by a wicked spurned suitor. This yarn offers just about everything you could wish for in a Gothic tale: premonitions of doom, walking cadavers, a magic ring, a twisted romantic obsession, a mist-shrouded castle, and a resourceful heroine… I find the possessive villain especially unsettling. Imagine having a stalker with an army of enslaved corpses at his disposal!

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11. “The Beckoning Fair One” – Molle Mystery Theater – June 5, 1945
A writer rents a suite of rooms in an old house. His friend warns him of a malicious presence, but the author can’t resist the alluring influence of an elusive female spectre. What unspeakable things will her hypnotic spell drive our hero to do?

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12. “The Creeping Wall” – Inner Sanctum – January 8, 1946
Best remembered for the groan-inducing puns of its ghoulish host Raymond, Inner Sanctum served up pulpy crime stories with high body counts. The series flirted with the supernatural, but episodes usually went out with a whimper, not a bang. Expect a lot of Scooby Doo-ish cop-outs if you ever go on an Inner Sanctum binge. “The Creeping Wall” is a favorite of mine because the real and the unreal blend to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s disturbing no matter how you read it.

To escape her stifling claustrophobia, a pathologically vain woman moves into a big old mansion with her devoted husband. Soon she feels the walls closing in on her. And the mysterious portrait of a beautiful dead woman seems to mock her. Don’t ask too many questions, dear listener. Just savor the gory, lurid, melodramatic fun.

Bonus episode! For a well-done example of the dark crime fiction that Inner Sanctum specialized in, I’d recommend “The Scream” (1950), which also has strong horror overtones.

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13. “The Kabbala” – Murder at Midnight – December 30, 1946
Murder at Midnight is a fairly new discovery for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the darkness of its supernatural plots. A professor researching the occult obtains an oracle that can answer all his questions. But at what cost? A pall of doom hangs over this episode. It channels the same kind of black magic spell as M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

14. “Death’s Worshipper” – Murder at Midnight – October 20, 1947
“It’s as though I were trapped in a spider’s web, waiting helplessly as the spider comes closer,” says Kate, our heroine, at the beginning of this episode. A creepy guy named Quentin insists he loves Kate, but she doesn’t love him. In fact, she fears him, his boasts of occult knowledge, and the threats he makes about destroying all those who stand in his way. Then people start turning up dead and horribly mutilated.

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15. “Taboo” – Escape – December 3, 1947
Two friends traveling through Hungary go on the hunt for the beast that’s been killing the locals. Can there be any truth to the legend of the werewolf?

16. “Ancient Sorceries” – Escape – February 21, 1947
Algernon Blackwood is one of my favorite writers of weird fiction. His stories might deal with the dead’s grotesque intrusions into material things (as in “The Kit Bag” or “The Listener”) or with atavistic forces bubbling back up into the lives of modern individuals (as in “The Willows”). Surprisingly few American radio shows have adapted his work, but “Ancient Sorceries” does a swell job. In this eldritch tale, a traveler stumbles upon a strange Welsh village where remnants of the old pagan ways threaten to keep him from leaving.

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17. “My Son, John” – Quiet, Please – November 28, 1948
After his only son, John, is reported a war casualty, a grieving father calls him back from the dead. I don’t want to spoil Wyllis Cooper’s twisty tale, a unique fusion of sadness and terror. Allow me to drop a hint: “My Son, John” takes a well-known horror movie monster and makes it scary and tragic on an intimate scale.

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18. “The Lodger” – Mystery in the Air – August 14, 1948
There are few radio experiences quite so exhilarating as Peter Lorre going berserk for your listening pleasure. Lorre mustered up some world-class hysterics for his radio series Mystery in the Air, particularly for this adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s chiller. As a serial killer stalks the streets of London, a landlady suspects that her new tenant is the culprit. And he has his eye on her daughter.

19. “Mars Is Heaven” – Dimension X – July 7, 1950
Who doesn’t dream of being reunited with their dead loved ones? When astronauts land on Mars, that dream is realized. They embrace their long-lost family members and bask in nostalgic joy. What’s wrong with that? Well, just listen.

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20. “The Hangman’s Rope” – Hall of Fantasy – January 5, 1952
The Hall of Fantasy impresses me with its utter disregard for the moral “rules” of classic horror. Usually good people survive and bad people die, right? Well, series creator Richard Thorne loved to kill off absolutely blameless individuals, reminding us that real evil respects no boundaries. In this episode, the ghost of a vicious executioner threatens two brothers who have the misfortune of crossing his path.

21. “The Dance of the Devil Dolls” – Hall of Fantasy – February 9, 1953
One night, two friends go out for a walk and run into a man frantically searching for a doll that looks like him and babbling about a dangerous old woman. The chance encounter plunges them into a living nightmare of witchy menace.

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22. “Stranger in the House” – The Mysterious Traveler – January 29, 1952
A happily married couple move into a country house. Well, since I’ve got this episode on a horror list, you’ve probably guessed that there’s something evil lurking in that quaint little domicile. This story, though formulaic, wins points for its grim ending.

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23. “The Screaming Skull” – Theater 10:30 – c. 1960s
A retired sailor tells the story of how he inadvertently caused a woman’s death. It wasn’t his fault, you see, but her spirit won’t forgive him. Or, more precisely, her skull won’t. The shrieks in this show are like nothing else I’ve heard in radio: ear-splitting howls of agony and rage. I also appreciate the pacing of this episode; it progresses from a cozy chat to a fever pitch of hopeless panic.

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24. “The Squaw” – The Black Mass – August 8, 1966
An obnoxious American tourist at a historic European castle crushes a kitten to death in front of its mother. He should’ve known better than to visit the torture chamber while tracked by the fierce black momma cat. “Imagine a man who’s fought Apaches and grizzly bears bein’ afraid of a mad cat,” the culprit chuckles. Oh, do be afraid, puny human. Be very afraid.

Fair warning: If you love cats as I do, this will disturb the hell out of you. I think I can guess who you’ll be rooting for.

25. “Marble Knights” – Beyond Midnight – November 1, 1968
If you’ve never read E. Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble,” I envy you, because it lands one of the most devastating endings in all of horror fiction. This adaptation from the South African program Beyond Midnight gets the meandering tempo—and the sense of impending tragedy—just right. A loving couple move into a little cottage. She writes. He paints. But the local legends start to weigh heavily on the young wife’s mind. If only her husband would listen…

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26. “The Intermediary” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – April 14, 1975
I have a weak spot for stories about houses that aren’t just haunted, but possessive. This is a splendid example, with a side of festering family dysfunction. A man inherits his childhood home, but his wicked stepmother’s will stipulates that he should actually live there. After he moves in with his wife, she starts behaving strangely and bad memories rise to the present.

27. “Sagamore Cottage” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – December 31, 1975
Yes, it’s another case of “unsuspecting couple moves into a quaint little place and discovers that an implacable evil wants to drain them of their life force.” Instead of giving any more details away, I’ll let you simmer in the suspense. The payoff is well worth it.

28. “You’re Going to Like Rodney” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 10, 1980
Poor Rodney is an orphan, shuffled from home to home. Strangely enough, whoever takes care of him seems to meet with a violent and untimely demise. This brilliant episode showcases radio’s unsurpassed ability to enlist your mind as an accomplice. Rodney never speaks, so it’s up to the listener to fill in the gaping black hole of his uncanny presence.

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29. “Ringing the Changes” – Nightfall – October 31, 1980
Nightfall might be Canada’s best-kept secret. No series—none—was ever scarier. The level of auditory gore in an episode like “The Repossession” will blow your mind. Personally, I like my horror with a touch of the traditional, so the episodes I’ve chosen are more spine-tingling than gross. Don’t worry, though. There’s plenty to shudder over.

In “Ringing the Changes,” an older man and his young, beautiful wife take a trip to a countryside hamlet. They chose the wrong day of the year to make their visit. Can they escape before they’re forced to partake in the village’s hideous annual ceremony?

30. “Baby Doll” – Nightfall – December 18, 1981
If you’re as freaked out by dolls as I am, I’d advise you not to listen to this one alone. A husband brings his wife an antique doll as an anniversary present. To his dismay, the toy consumes their lives, as his wife dotes on it like a real child. An investigation into the doll’s history reveals dark forces at work.

31. “After Sunset” – Nightfall – April 29, 1983
A series of heinous murders in a small town signals the re-emergence of a demonic spirit. The elders recognize it. They fought it before, 50 years ago. Now they band together again to destroy it once and for all. The trouble is, the evil thing can possess the body of someone they know and trust.

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Final bonus episode! “Donovan’s Brain” – Suspense – May 18 and 25, 1944

I couldn’t exclude Orson Welles from this list. (He might haunt me in protest.) I admit, I don’t find the film adaptation of Donovan’s Brain all that scary. But the radio adaptation is another story!

In this 2-part episode of Suspense, the brain of a ruthless tycoon dominates an obsessed scientist. The background sounds, suggesting the whirring, beeping, bubbling equipment of a laboratory, create a pitch-perfect sci-fi ambiance. And Welles’s two contrasting character voices—the doctor’s reedy, analytical narration and Donovan’s gruff, commanding murmurs—really deliver on the heebie-jeebies.


As our friend Raymond from Inner Sanctum would say, “Pleasant dreams, hmmmmmm…?”

100 Reasons to Love Olivia de Havilland (Part I)

olivia_candidThis is the age of Olivia de Havilland. We’re just lucky to be living in it. Today, on July 1, 2016, she turns 100. To celebrate her talent, her courage, and her breathtakingly diverse legacy of screen performances, I embarked on an “Oliviathon” and vowed to watch or rewatch all of her films by the end of this month.

To mark her centennial, I’ve decided to list 100 reasons why I admire, worship, and adore her—starting with with 50 today.

What about the other 50? Just wait until I’ve watched my way through her filmography! Some of my reasons are frivolous, some have altered cinema history. I offer them here in no particular order. So please join me in giving thanks for a great actress and an inspiring woman.

1. She took on the studio system—and won her fellow actors greater rights and freedoms. Golden Age Hollywood wasn’t so golden for actors under contract to studios. If they chose not to do assigned roles, they could be put on suspension… and the term of that suspension would be added onto their existing contracts. Olivia de Havilland put her career on the line to fight her battle against studios that treated their artists like property.

verydoneAfter completing a disappointing melodrama called Devotion, Olivia thought she was finished with her constraining Warner Brothers contract. Jack Warner, however, insisted that the time she’d spent on suspension still counted against her. With lawyer Martin Gang, Olivia decided to take Warner Brothers to court for a practice that she considered unlawful. If she lost, she’d never work in Hollywood again.

The battle was a long an arduous one, as expertly described by the Self-Styled Siren. But Olivia’s gamble paid off. She emerged victorious—to seek out the complex roles she’s yearned for. Her colleagues could also revel in their new-found freedom. As Olivia recalls, “No one thought I would win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding.”

You know how stars today can choose their roles carefully and shape their careers? Well, that’s what de Havilland’s guts and brains earned for them back in the 1940s. As Bette Davis said, “Every actor in the business owes a debt of gratitude to Olivia de Havilland for taking us out of bondage.”

2. She can swear like a trucker if the occasion calls for it, as her bloopers indicate. Each year Warner Brothers created a humorous reel of “breakdowns” or “blow-ups” featuring snippets of stars flubbing their lines or on-set mishaps. There aren’t many clips of Olivia in these reels (I’m guessing because she knew her lines word-perfect most of the time). But there are a few choice moments, like this outtake from In This Our Life.

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She seemed to have more blow-ups than usual in 1946—no doubt because she loathed Devotion, the silly, colorless costume melodrama that Warner assigned her. See if you can detect the note of hostility in her bloopers. This is unvarnished footage of a woman about to rebel, a lady feeling the weight of the last straw before she decided to sue her employers.

3. She spent much of WWII visiting military hospitals, including psychiatric wards. A Major Richardson asked her to talk to his patients, feeling that her sensitivity and kindness could “do some good” for men under severe pressure and shock from army conditions.

I’ll let her tell it in her own words…

Olivia toured hospitals from Alaska to Fiji on such a demanding schedule that she contracted pneumonia and almost died. So, the next time you watch one of her films and she’s risking her life to stay true to her values or struggling to hold her life together as the world falls apart around her, remember: her life was no less impressive, no less courageous.

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Olivia with Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur J. Dodd at the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska, 1944.

4. Her wry winking motif in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). Whenever she winks, it fills me with such glee and hope for humanity that I want to hug the nearest object.

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5. She has a splendid sense of humor—especially about herself. Her witty memoir Every Frenchman Has One is as jam-packed with bon mots as the Étoile is jam-packed with lunatic drivers. Or, in her words…

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She begins the book by assuring the reader that she is not dead (“I’m not at all sure that you know that I’m alive…”). She moves on to cheerfully recount her often-mortifying adventures with the French language and culture, like that time she announced that French sailors are expensive (matelot, which means sailor, and matelas, which means mattress, sound awfully alike). Or the memory of being told that her accent was “légèrement Yugoslav.” Negotiating the minefield of niceties that is a French dinner party, she “really did want to die” after a series of faux pas involving a countess and an enormous brandy snifter.

My favorite anecdote involves her taking her young son to a French-dubbed screening of Robin Hood on the Champs Elysées. Afterwards, little Benjamin exclaimed, “Mamma, you spoke better French then than you do now!”

6. She gave us the best-ever onscreen depiction of a rabid fangirl in It’s Love I’m After (1937), a.k.a. the best screwball comedy you may have never heard of. Amusingly enough, Leslie Howard plays the matinee idol that Olivia’s character is stuck on, which gives this movie a delightful air of retrospective irony. In any case, it’s startlingly funny to watch future-Melanie tackle future-Ashley like this.

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7. Her Withering Glare of Righteous Judgement from In This Our Life (1942). I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass just looking at these screencaps. Phew.

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8. She was utterly unfazed by Hollywood’s bevy of man candy, at least according to this 1937 anecdote from Movie Classic magazine about Olivia and Robert Taylor after a radio performance. (Look, I know that fan mag articles should be taken with a grain of salt, but I do believe this one. And I sure want to believe it.)

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9. Her epic chowing-down-on-a-chicken-wing scene in Robin Hood (1938).
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10. Her astonishing range, from the fluffiest comedies to the grittiest dramas, from contemporary problem pictures to high adventures in faraway lands. I’d argue that her gifts as a comedienne are especially underrated. Had she not been one of the greatest dramatic actresses of her time, I have no doubt that she could’ve been a screwball comedy queen. Even when Olivia hated a role, she made something of it, stretching herself, learning, growing.

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11. Her laugh. A strange, coy, undeniably merry laugh. The kind of exquisite laugh that makes you finally understand what poets are talking about when they throw around words like “silvery” and “sonorous” to describe the voices they adore. Some laughter brays, some laughter snarls, some chortles, some twitters. Olivia’s laughter sings and sparkles and tickles the ear. No wonder she’s gravitated towards the French language. Her ringing laughter sounds like pure joie de vivre.

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12. She can fling a Shakespearean insult with verve and panache. As attested by this monument to feminine fury in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the first film Olivia ever made (though not the first released)!

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13. She was no mere damsel in distress. Lest we forget, Arabella Bishop, her character in Captain Blood, repeatedly flouts convention to save Peter Blood from torture and death. In Robin Hood, Lady Marian risks her life to help Robin escape hanging and then to spy on wicked King John and his allies. While de Havilland didn’t write the scripts, she invested these characters (and her many 1930s and 1940s costume heroines) with an air of competence, intelligence, and courage and made their heroism utterly believable. She played her love interest roles not as shrieking innocents, but as brave, spirited women—worthy equals of the heroes who wooed them. I can’t say how much that meant to me as a little girl when I discovered her films.

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14. She once spent her spare time calculating a formula for converting Centigrade into Fahrenheit. As she explains in her memoir, Every Frenchmen Has One, de Havilland was flummoxed by French thermometers, which only added to the anxiety of nursing her son through a fever in a foreign land. Determined to help other mothers in the same situation, “I stayed in bed in my room for twenty-four hours straight with a clutch of pencils and a quire of paper…. And finally, triumphantly, I found a formula which would translate Centigrade into Fahrenheit.” Remember, now, this happened in the days before all human knowledge was accessible through smartphones. De Havilland’s formula was published in a letter to the NY Herald Tribune. While a few mansplainers reared their heads in response, she’s proud of her formula. As she should be.

15. Her chilling double performance as good and evil twins Ruth and Terry in The Dark Mirror (1946). This psychoanalytic noir gave Olivia the chance to play against type as a jealous, charismatic murderess who nearly succeeds in gaslighting her gentle, suggestible sister.

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What’s so uncanny about this Freudian thriller is that Olivia embodies two distinct characters with an identical appearance. We get to witness how different a friendly face can look when a malevolent personality lurks behind it. Ruth and Terry have recognizably different postures, voices, and mannerisms. Abetted by skillful camera trickery, The Dark Mirror opens the audience’s eyes to the subtle sorcery of Olivia’s craft, since we can see two of her creations share the frame.

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16. The adorable dance that her daffy heiress character is doing here in Four’s a Crowd (1938) to provide a screwball comedy distraction.

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17. Her raw, shattering, fearless, compassionate performance in The Snake Pit (1948).

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18. She means what she says. When de Havilland started making films, she asked James Cagney for advice on screen acting. His advice: Always mean what you say. You can hear that she took those words to heart. She is so grounded in her text. She says things with startling sincerity—startling because sincerity is not common.

19. Her magnificent I-came-to-slay face and pose in this 1930s publicity portrait. That’s almost too much fierce for a single image to contain.

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20. And lo! Olivia’s I-came-to-slay face is still with us today. Because she’s still slaying. In vintage Dior. (Photo by Brian Adams for The Evening Standard.)

21. She was lobbying for strong female protagonists decades before it was cool to do so. While she made the most of her “love interest” roles, she didn’t want to keep on playing guests in other people’s stories (cough, cough, men’s stories, cough, cough) for the rest of her life. As she told the Academy of Achievement, “The life of the love interest is really pretty boring…. I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things.”

22. That scene between Melanie and Belle Watling in the carriage in Gone with the Wind (1939). De Havilland’s whole performance is flawless, filling the movie with an almost otherworldly grace. But, if I had to choose only one scene to show her artistry, this quiet scene in a film of bombast astonishes me much more than the burning of Atlanta. Her Melanie is one of those rare people with the intelligence and humility to understand that the smartest thing we human beings can do is to be kind to each other. Melanie knows that survival depends not only on Scarlett values—like ambition and chutzpa—but also on love and caring. Scarlett values can keep you from dying when your world’s gone to hell, but Melanie values will keep you truly alive.

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23. The Heiress: it was her idea to make the story into a film, she selected the director, and she delivered a virtuoso dramatic performance that runs the gamut from devastated vulnerability to commanding authority, a performance that shows what she was fighting for all those long years. The freedom to make great art and to realize a vision of her own.

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24. This clip of her dishing on her silent crush on Errol Flynn. (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build a time machine so I can slap Errol upside his head. “Dude, a snake? Seriously? Seek help!”)

25. The fact that she didn’t let Errol Flynn (and his ridiculously gorgeous face) derail her life plans. Respect. That must’ve taken superhuman discipline.

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A pretty accurate depiction of Errol and Olivia’s relationship.

26. Her jaw-droppingly determined and terrifying build-up and climactic flip-out in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Few people have out-Bette-Davised Bette Davis in a Bette Davis movie, but I think Olivia has in this instance.

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27. The vivid expressions that she lavished even on a silly spread in a 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. She’s supposed to be writing “a letter to her beau,” the sort of things that fan mags of the 1930s routinely cooked up. But, damn, look at these faces. Olivia never does things by halves. You’d think she was auditioning for Juliet. Or Lady MacBeth. Or Ophelia. Or all three at once.

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28. Her wrenching, poignant, and utterly convincing Oscar-winning transformation—in mind, body, and spirit—from dreamy young woman to embittered matron in To Each His Own (1946).

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29.  Her gift for conjuring the essence of a character through her voice alone—an ability which served her well on the radio. Listen to the brittle, nervous tones she brings to this 1944 Lux Radio Theater version of Suspicion.

(I wonder what sister Joan would have thought. And that’s is the only oblique reference I will be making to the de Havilland-Fontaine feud in this piece, thankyouverymuch.) For more excellent de Havilland radio performances, I refer you to this wonderful post on Once Upon a Screen.

30. This triumphant portrait, which seems to say, “Yes, I’ve got two Oscars, I’ve outlived all the haters, and I look fabulous.” (Photo by Philippe Biancotto for Madame Figaro.)

31. Her exquisitely vulnerable performance in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which needs a DVD release as soon as possible. As the naïve American who marries a European gigolo in Mexico—unaware that he’s just looking to cross the border—de Havilland exudes wonder, tenderness, and innocent sensuality. The story’s redemptive arc works because you believe that something about this shy little schoolteacher can free a world-class operator (Charles Boyer, never better) from his hardened cynicism. She embodies the best of small-town America, in all its starry-eyed kindness and cluelessness. Really, see this movie if you get the chance.

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32. This pout from Call It a Day (1935).

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33. Just look at her cuddling with these cats.

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And, hey, I’m all for equal-opportunity snuggling. Here’s Olivia with a puppy on the set of Hold Back the Dawn.

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34. Based on these publicity stills for Captain Blood, she totally should’ve had her own swashbuckler movie where she wore boots and a cutlass and took down the patriarchy. (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

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35. She illuminates even the clunkiest, dullest films with passion and pathos. Take Anthony Adverse (1936). Now, I love Fredric March, but he looks bored to his knee breeches and buckle shoes by this unwieldy literary adaptation. Claude Rains does his best wicked Claude Rains, and Gale Sondergaard does her best wicked Gale Sondergaard. It’s Olivia who delivers the film’s most memorable tearjerking moment (in my opinion) with her devastating, “Goodbye, Anthony…” whispered from the stage of a Paris opera house.

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36. This early 1940s home movie footage of her acting goofy in a pool with John Huston. Wow.

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37. She can rock a corset and an eyepatch simultaneously, as this still from That Lady (1955) shows.

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38. She makes good girls so interesting. In many of Olivia’s best movies, she’s “stuck” with the part that would make many actresses cringe: the nice sister, the quiet daughter, the dutiful friend. And she tackled those parts while going up against stars playing flashier (ostensibly meatier) roles—nymphomaniacs, shysters, shut-ins, sociopathic Southern belles. Many actors would be grateful merely to register as a blip on the screen against such a gallery of eccentrics.

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Olivia, however, never took good girls for granted. She underpinned their goodness with a rich psychological tapestry, woven in a unique pattern for each one. Roy in In This Our Life is a very different woman from Melanie in Gone with the Wind and from Emmy in Hold Back the Dawn—though they share many qualities and face similar situations.

Goodness never equates to dullness for Olivia, as for many other actresses. We often assume that a girl is good because she lacks imagination, because it never occurred to her to be bad. She brought a sense of interiority, of free will to her good-girl parts. They choose their course in life—for reasons specific to their characters—often more consciously and clear-sightedly than their sinful sisters/friends/rivals/relatives. And that’s why de Havilland’s good girls remain fascinating and complex—and tend to eclipse the flashier characters around them.

39. The seductive, enigmatic allure she channels in My Cousin Rachel (1952).

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40. She won over Bette Davis as a friend. And that was not an easy thing to do. As de Havilland says, “The first time I saw Bette Davis she scared the daylights out of me.” I’ll let these two legendary pals tell the story for themselves…

41. Her luminous beauty in Technicolor. Yes, that sounds shallow, but it takes a hell of a lot of poise and grit to seem serene and glamorous under blindingly bright and swelteringly hot lights!

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42. Her intrepid strength in the little-known made-for-TV movie The Screaming Woman (1972). I watched this on YouTube while going on a 1970s thriller binge (as one does) and hardly strayed from the edge of my seat until the denouement. Olivia’s portrayal of an older woman who solves a grisly mystery while questioning her own sanity not only provides gripping entertainment, but also sends a poignant message about society’s treatment of its elders.

43. She immersed herself in a foreign culture—and advises her fellow Americans to do likewise. 

44. Her searing take on Lady in a Cage (1962): “a depiction of the aimless violence of our era.”

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45. How absolutely believable Olivia makes it that Melanie got up from her sickbed, grabbed a saber, and toddled out, ready to hack a would-be-thief-and-rapist Union deserter to pieces. Look at the stone-cold conviction on her face. Sure, she’s sweet and gentle—BUT DO NOT MESS AROUND WITH HER FAMILY OR FRIENDS. Even Scarlett’s all, “Wow, I majorly underestimated how badly Melanie could mess somebody up.”

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46. She injects boundless enthusiasm into Alibi Ike (1935), her first released film. I can’t think of many kind things to say about Alibi Ike as a whole, except that it’s mercifully short. Olivia, by her own admission, “detested” making it. But you’d never know that from the sweet, spunky dream girl she incarnates on the screen. She almost makes this uneven baseball romp bearable. Almost.

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47. She used her art and talent in the service of a good cause, hoping that The Snake Pit would help to lessen the stigma of mental illness. As she told Time magazine, “We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been the hardest pressed.”

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48. This enchanting moment from Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), her first movie in Technicolor.

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49. Her ferocious intensity in a screen test for Max Reinhardt’s unproduced film project, Danton. She was just 19, but the maturity and conviction of her acting blows me away. Warner Brothers had a powerhouse dramatic actress on their hands. They didn’t know it. Thankfully, Olivia did.

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(You can watch this stunning clip as a supplement on the DVD release of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

50. Having achieved her centennial, de Havilland is still looking forward. In the most recent issue of TCM’s Now Playing guide, Robert Osborn reveals that Livvie announced, “I’ve changed my goal. I’ve decided I want to live to at least 110.

Long may you reign, Queen. Long may you reign.

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Criterion Dreaming: 5 Movies That Made Me a Cinephile

51y6xRUTHbLLife grants us a limited number of “mothership” moments: raptures of sudden belonging, occasions when our weirdness transforms into an asset, when something beloved and elusive enfolds us.

The Criterion Collection has played a more-than-supporting role in quite a few mothership moments that I’ve had over the course of 25 years.

You might say that Criterion has been the Ward Bond in my love affair with cinema. Or maybe the Edward Everett Horton. Not the object of my affection, but an oft-present catalyst, a cherished pal, a wry observer, an intermediary, a bringer of joy and plot developments.

I see a clear trajectory in my attachment to Criterion films. Through 5 DVD experiences, I evolved from that odd teenage girl who liked to watch old Hollywood movies into a far-gone cinephile—somebody who devours information about film and always hungers for more.

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Even when I set aside personal favorites and epiphanies, Criterion served as my introduction to almost every essential art film that I’ve seen—though I have plenty of shameful blind spots—whether through a DVD I owned, a library loan, a title I streamed, or a college screening I attended. When I go over the highlights of that list, it sounds like an art-house litany: M, La règle du jeu, The Seventh Seal, L’Avventura, Hiroshima mon amour, À bout de souffle… and so on.

I can only write about and understand film by looking through the lens of who I am, but the movies I watched during my formative years as a cinephile refined and focused that lens. And many, nay, most of the movies that taught me how to look at movies came with Criterion spine numbers.

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As a millennial, I belong to arguably the first generation that discovered film through home video and video on demand, not through television like my parents did. I was spared the effort of scouring the most recent issue of the TV Guide and staying awake until 2:00 a.m. to catch that Bela Lugosi movie. I just added it to the Amazon cart, and, mother permitting, in approximately 2 weeks (Remember the sorrows of a pre-Prime world?) the DVD was mine forever, mine to watch on my own terms.

My digital-bred cinephile memories center on curation and control rather than scheduling and scarcity. I chose and acquired movies to suit my tastes (and later to fill out my education), based on a matrix of factors, including my interests, budget constraints, and availability.

As a result, my relationship with film is wedded to brands. I can vividly picture the portrait-style box art of my Universal Monsters VHS cassettes. I recall running my finger along the spines of the DVD stacks in my college library, plucking out the Warner Archive blues.

(If that seems like an excessively commercial relationship with an art form, let’s remember that classic movie audiences would’ve known a given film’s studio but probably not its director. And what are most film texts if not products designed to deliver a certain effect?)

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Explicitly defining itself as a collection, Criterion embraced the sensibility of home video as curation. With their sophisticated flair, sleek logo, and eye-catching art, Criterion boxes and discs weren’t mere carriers of digital transfers but objects of aesthetic contemplation.

In the early days of my DVD collection, Criterions were coveted, luxurious, ceremonial possessions. Many offered hours of additional entertainment through essay booklets, commentary tracks, interviews, and documentaries new and old. And their price enhanced their allure. I could’ve bought 2 or 3 less lofty DVDs for the price of a single Criterion release, so I owned a treasured few.

Let me tell you about how it started.

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July 2004: There Were Warning Signs

If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Amazon.com. Filter back to, say, 5 years ago, and the most cursory glance over your purchase history (oh, it’s still there) yields a personal narrative recorded through consumption, an auto-anthropology of needs and desires.

When I rewind to 2004 in “Your Orders” (well, my mother’s), I can confirm that my first Criterion Collection DVD was a 2-disc set of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955). The act of verification was strangely touching but unnecessary. I remember my infatuation with the item.

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The gold cover design featured a haughty man in black armor on horseback—a spiky, warlike image that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a heavy metal album. With its separate disc of supplements, this DVD set differed from any I’d previously encountered.

I took the set, a talisman of my major-league crush on Sir Larry, wherever I went. My mother still shakes her head over how I opted to stay in our hotel room during a family vacation and rewatch Richard III with commentary instead of sunbathing on the rooftop deck. (In my defense, I totally rock the consumptive pallor look.)

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A 13-year-old girl who repeatedly watches a 158-minute Shakespeare movie from the 1950s is unusual enough. But one who repeatedly listens to the commentary track? It’s a wonder my parents didn’t send me to a counselor.

What bound me to Criterion #215? My rising fascination with Shakespeare prompted the purchase, since Richard III was the first Bard play I’d read on my own time, not for school, but that can’t fully explain the fixation. No, the “high-definition transfer… with restored image and sound” captured my imagination.

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The pristine image quality let Olivier’s characterization charm me through the screen, as he’d intended: “Richard would be flirting with the camera—sometimes only inches from his eyes—and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could.” The wicked, fourth-wall-breaking intimacy of his performance indeed felt like a courtship, entangling me into complicity with the antihero’s crimes.

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The film’s fairytale palette, with its saturated heraldic primary blues, golds, and reds, its pastel walls and Medieval gowns, its nightmarish cobalt and violet shadows, also initiated me to the extravagant glories of Technicolor. Much of of Richard III resembles a live-action Disney fantasy somehow hijacked by a beguiling, misshapen psychopath.

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Then there was the commentary track by Russell Lees and John Wilders. With their close analysis of acting styles, cinematography, set design, and more, they gave me a guided tour of the film and taught me how to read the screen. Behind the pleasures of plot and character, the pleasures of dismantling and interpreting movies beckoned to me with boundless possibilities.

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It was during this phase of my budding obsession that, on a stroll down our country road, my mother and I had a discussion about my future, a conversation that strikes me as particularly ironic in retrospect. (For some context, I was one of those straight-A, type-A kids preoccupied by the complex calculus of prestigious college acceptances from a tender age. Parental pressure didn’t exist in my home, so I have to take responsibility as a self-created monster.)

“You spend so much time watching movies and reading books about movies. Maybe you should study film,” My mom suggested.

I was scandalized. “Are you crazy? I would never do that. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to make movies. I want to be a professor or something. And what’s the point of studying movies? I just like to watch them, okay?”

“Okay.” She shrugged.

We kept marching down the dirt road. I proceeded to talk her ear off about the obscure British movie from 1946 that I’d just watched in 12 installments of 5 minutes on her work computer.

(Damn those parsimonious YouTube length constraints of the early aughts. And damn mothers. They’re always right.)

August 2007: Tears for a Villain

I get nervous when stringing together words about Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). I’m not worthy. Someday when I’m a better writer, I’ll have the courage and skill to praise it adequately. For now I’ll content myself with saying it’s the first truly great movie that made me weep.

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Charles Foster Kane doesn’t make me misty, but Harry Lime gets to me. That I should shed tears for an exquisite scoundrel alarms me. Do I cry because I admire his will to survive and thrive? Because his cavalier defense of amorality sets him apart from the petty, rationalizing evils that appear to us in cloaks of humility and piety? Because in the dank Vienna sewers he displays the remnants of his decency with a weary nod, giving his best friend permission to execute him?

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All of the above, I suspect. Plus the glittering, slick streets that wink at you throughout the film. And the piquant zither score that mocks a shattered world.

My out-of-print Criterion set bears obvious marks of affection: white flecks of wear around the box edges and light scratches on the discs. I acquired it during a summer-long Orson Welles binge, around the time when my love of movies hit critical mass. Today, this shot of Harry in the sewers, featured on the Criterion disc fold, remains my desktop wallpaper, the center of my digital existence.

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February 2009: At the Gate

The start of my second semester of college was the nadir of my life so far. A health crisis had caged our family in a gray-walled hospital for a week. My mother was ill and emaciated from something that nobody can cure, and I hated the universe. Dorm life had driven me almost to the point of a clinical breakdown. No rest. No one to confide in. Nothing but work on a diet of anxiety and bagged black tea and cafeteria pizza.

That was the semester when I took my first film class: Japanese Film, to satisfy a requirement. My life turned around from there. Never underestimate the power of Akira Kurosawa.

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I arrived at the first course screening about 15 minutes early on a blustery Vermont night. The professor, a lady of seraphic calm and erudition, was setting up. On the screen, over the flickery image of a crumbling Asian temple or gate, I saw the familiar Criterion logo and menu. A good omen.

“Oh, I love the Criterion Collection,” I gushed, unaware that the series had a loyal following.

“Yes, don’t you just want to collect them all?” My new teacher kindly replied.

The lights dimmed, and Rashomon hit me with the same force that it must’ve unleashed on unsuspecting Western audiences in 1950. I had no background in Japanese cinema, no expectations. I didn’t need any. I could’ve watched it without subtitles and it still would’ve floored me. Kurosawa’s dark, sensual, epistemological dance of sun and shadow took my mind in so many directions that I could hardly think straight when it was over.

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Staggering out of the screening, I called my mom (you’ll notice a motif here) to talk through all the emotions. “Ohmygod, I just saw the most amazing movie. It was about, well, this rape. But not really. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like, but it was so beautiful. I mean, it has to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen…”

That night I discovered what I’d been missing by concentrating on movies from my own culture. Thank you, Kurosawa, for slashing through my ignorance with your katana-sharp vision.

April 2010: Getting Out of the Boat

Black Narcissus? I blush to admit I had never heard of it when I saw the DVD in a jumbled pile at a church rummage sale. But it was a Criterion DVD, and I knew it was well worth the $2.00 asking price.

I sometimes muse about the person who gave this sublime film up. Could they have been blind to its lurid Jack Cardiff hues? Was it a stray possession left at a significant other’s house after a breakup? Did the owner die and donate all earthly goods and chattels to the church? I grasp for a plausible explanation.

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Now, I could go on about how Black Narcissus messed with my head, but I already did so a few years ago on this blog:

“I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating…. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

“The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. ‘Holy ****!’ I exclaimed to myself. ‘Sister Ruth got out the boat!’”

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December 2011: I Shouldn’t Have Come

My screenwriting professor stood a lanky 6’3”, fluently dropped F-bombs in front of students, and ate the occasional Charleston Chew for breakfast in class. I called him “dude.” He called me “dude.” I wonder if he realized that he was the closest thing I had to a friend at college.

My film professors were the coolest gang of people I’d ever met: an imposing white-haired authority on Antonioni, a transmedia expert who wore hand-knit Etsy shawls and taught me how to tweet, a former ballet dancer who sparked my fascination with the Production Code, my miraculously level-headed and brilliant thesis advisor, and my badass screenwriting teacher.

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I haunted their office hours for no other reason than to pick their brains about my favorite films and theirs. When I got the chance to do some light filing and video editing for the department as a campus job, I got to hang around even more. I think they were all amused, but a respectful kind of amused. They too were cinephiles, after all.

One day I was going about my usual stapling of documents and updating of spreadsheets, when the dude slouched in to make some copies. We got chatting (I forget about what), and he was about to leave when he issued an invitation.

“Hey, I’m showing a movie tonight for the Screenwriting 1 class that you might like, Trouble in Paradise…”

That I might like? “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”

He smiled. “It’s screening in Twilight at 8:30 if you want to come.”

Oh, I wanted to, alright. But a nasty, heavily-weighted assignment, due the following morning, on Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris reared its ugly head.

“Aw, man. I can’t make that. French paper.”

“That’s cool. If you change your mind we’ll be in Twilight auditorium.”

I returned to my spreadsheet, cursing my smug 18th century lit professor, Mercier, and the whole damn French Revolution.

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Around 8:20, my brain cooking over the syntactical implications of Mercier’s prose, I grabbed my coat and split from the whole f’ing program. Destination: Paris, Paramount.

As I dashed to the screening, airy flakes of snow fluttered down, heavenly in the beams of the streetlights. I tilted my face upward, stunned by the ethereal scene—and a big, wet wad of snow hit me in the eye. So much for ethereal. Shivering, I rushed into the screening hall with a false shiner of dissolving mascara and ice water.

Ernst Lubitsch once said, “At least twice a day the most dignified human being is ridiculous.” You know, I think he had a point.

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Apart from my appropriately droll eye makeup mishap, Trouble in Paradise (in its dreamy Criterion transfer) reminded me that life is worth living. The unironic laughter of students my age restored my faith in timeless wit—and even boosted my faith in my generation.

Early in the film Miriam Hopkins frets, “I shouldn’t have come!” when she shows up at Gaston’s room. But Destiny already set out the champagne for her. She knows full well that she wanted to come desperately, that nothing could keep her away. I could relate.

When I ditched my paper for about 2 hours, I shed the qualities that I mistook for my identity: borderline-masochistic discipline, dependability, competitiveness. In fact, what drew me to Lubitsch—joie de vivre, the love of beauty, and the gift of finding humor in one’s own absurdity—revealed much more about who I was.

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Friends, I make no claims on wisdom, but I will advise this: pay attention to the things you do “out of character,” for they will tell you the truth about your nature. Patterns sustain themselves. Anomalies happen for a reason.

After graduation I’d abandon my type-A, straight-A compulsions. I’d turn my back on the rush of academic pressure and achievement. I’d find a job that gave me freedom and paid my bills. I’d devote all of my remaining time to a vocation that didn’t pay me a thing but made me happy. Cinema gave me the strength to reinvent myself. That’s where the story ends for now.

A Conclusion in the Best Exculpatory Tradition

I feel that I should deliver a warning to the young and impressionable. Never trust cinema. Don’t look directly at the frame when confronted with a masterpiece. Abhor the company of auteurs and their works. You will ruin yourself for all other passions. You might throw away some respectable hobby—or, heaven forfend, some respectable career—for a deviant pursuit, a pernicious philia.

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Cinema is the slyest of gentleman thieves. Just as Gaston Monescu would snatch the garters off your thighs, cinema will steal the heart out of your chest. It will make blocks of 70, 90, 158 minutes disappear. It will evaporate the comforting boundaries of your world. It will empty your bank account whilst cluttering your shelves.

That’s what cinema did to me. And you know something? I don’t regret it. Not one spine number, not one cent, not one second spent dreaming my Criterion dreams.

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This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to read all the delightful entries!

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On the Edge of the Volcano: Isabella Rossellini on Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Stromboli (1950)

stromboli_posterIt all started with a letter. In 1948, Ingrid Bergman (at the height of her Hollywood career) wrote to Roberto Rossellini (triumphant director of Rome, Open City and Paisà) to express her admiration for his films. She hoped to act for him in the future.

Her letter not only set into motion one of the most notorious celebrity scandals of the 20th century, but also sparked one of the most fruitful director-muse collaborations in cinema history.

At the Cinémathèque Française this summer, Isabella Rossellini, one of Bergman and Rossellini’s three children, shared memories of her parents and reflected on their legacy. Her interview in French* with Serge Toubiana, following a screening of Stromboli, was the highlight of the Cinémathèque’s retrospective to celebrate the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth.

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Isabella Rossellini in conversation with Serge Toubiana on the stage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Salle Henri Langlois (my photo).

Rossellini explained that her mother’s letter was by no means an unusual gesture for her. “Mama wrote many letters to directors whose films she liked. Sometimes she’d say, ‘If you have a character that you think would be right for me, I’d really like to work with you.’”

Unwilling to let studios dictate role after role for her, Bergman actively sought out cinema’s innovators. In her daughter’s words, “She wasn’t vain at all, not the way people think beautiful actors are. She was a great actress and a great artist who had an enormous curiosity about working with many directors with different styles.”

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In this case, however, the proposed partnership seemed an unlikely one. What could a neorealist director, who favored working with non-actors, do with a talented top movie star who, by her own confession, could say only “ti amo” in Italian?

Rossellini found his inspiration one day while driving past a refugee camp, where women from northern European countries lined up along a barbed wire fence. The director stopped to observe and the guard motioned him away—but not before a Latvian woman, with a look of “mute intense despair” seized his arm. When Rossellini returned to the camp with a pass, he discovered that the mysterious woman had married a soldier and left to live in the Lipari islands.

As he replied in a letter to Bergman, “I tried to imagine the life of the Latvian girl, so tall, so fair, in this island of fire and ashes, amidst the fishermen, small and swarthy, amongst the women with the glowing eyes.” His vision for Stromboli, the first of 5 films he’d make with Bergman, was born out of this chance encounter.

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Shortly after Bergman travelled to Italy, Rossellini and his then-married star became lovers. Bergman’s resulting divorce from Petter Lindström and her pregnancy outside of marriage ignited gossip columns and outraged the American public.

The affair destroyed Bergman’s image of ethereal, on-a-pedestal purity and stirred up prejudices still rankling from WWII. As Isabella Rossellini noted, “The idea that she fell in love with an Italian, from a country that 5 years before had been America’s enemy, that shocked people.”

Bergman’s Swedish nationality made her an easy target, according to her daughter: “She was already a foreigner and Americans tend to distrust foreigners…. The Senate took a position against my mother, saying that foreigners who came to live and work in America, since Hollywood could have such a phenomenal effect on someone’s success, needed to be under moral control.”

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While the American press gloated over the fall of an angelic icon, Bergman had more pressing challenges. Like the character she plays in Stromboli—Karen, an urbane Lithuanian bound to a primitive culture by a marriage of desperation—Bergman was ill-prepared for tribulations of life on a rugged Mediterranean island.

Bergman “was used to sets with very specialized crews, hundreds of people, but they made Stromboli with about 15 people who all carried the equipment,” Rossellini says.

Fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the arduous production exists, thanks to one of Bergman’s hobbies: “She made little home movies for herself, and we see that everyone carried these heavy burdens, for example, to the top of the volcano.” (You can watch snippets shot by Bergman’s camera on YouTube courtesy of the Criterion Collection.)

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The actress also had to adapt her technique to a cinematic style—and cast—very different to what she was accustomed to. As her daughter said, “Mama found herself without Cary Grant, without Spencer Tracy, with a fisherman that Papa picked!”

“If Papa needed a fisherman, he got a fisherman,” Rossellini explained. “A real fisherman will have the gestures, the sunburned face, the authenticity you’d never get with an actor.”

In the starkly sensual Stromboli, Bergman’s conflicted, expertly communicated emotions set her apart from the borderline awkward naturalism of the other cast members. This contrast, far from a drawback, contributes beautifully to the film, since Karen rebels against, and is largely rejected by, the island’s benighted world.

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To achieve the improvisational feel he sought, Rossellini had to work around his non-actors’ unease. As his daughter told her audience at the Cinémathèque, “Italian films are often dubbed, so you don’t have to know your lines. My father would direct by saying, ‘There’s a scene where you come in for lunch and people are sitting down, so act like you would in real life. Say “Hello, goodbye, how are you, and so on.”’

“That was difficult for an actor [Bergman] who was used to learning a text, to having everything written beforehand…. A bigger challenge was that the non-actors were extremely intimidated by the camera and wouldn’t speak. Instead of saying, ‘Hello. How are you? Have a seat,” they’d stand there frozen with terror.

“So, Papa would say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter what you say, because I’m going to dub it afterwards.’ So, Mama would come in and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and the non-actor would go ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’”

Describing such odd “dialogue,” Isabella Rossellini laughed, “Rossellini’s realism was just on the screen, because if you visited the set, it was surrealism!” (To be fair, though, I think most of us would freeze up in the radiant presence of Ingrid Bergman.)

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Though lauded as a epiphanic neorealist masterwork today, Stromboli flopped at the box office in 1950—despite all of the inflammatory free publicity. However, “the French recognized that a film that didn’t work at the box office, that didn’t sell a lot of tickets, could be an important film.”

Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois in particular saw the genius in Rossellini’s work and was a good friend of the director’s family. Isabella shared an amusing personal reminiscence of Henri Langlois and his wife as somewhat, ahem, fragrant and unwashed bohemians: “My mother and father would say, ‘Isabella, you mustn’t say that they smell bad. Shush!’”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cinephiles bred by the Cinémathèque would latch onto Stromboli and the other Bergman-Rossellini collaborations as examples of the kind of personal, documentary-style cinema they respected. “My father was more of a director who’d influenced other directors than a box office success,” Rossellini recalled. “It was Cahiers du Cinéma that rediscovered my parents’ movies.”

Roberto Rossellini returned the favor by becoming a mentor to the future Nouvelle Vague directors: “When I saw Godard three or four years ago, he told me, ‘Your father was kind of a like an uncle to me. He said, “Why be a critic? Why not make your own movies?”’ So my father also encouraged Truffaut and Godard—when they were movie critics—to make films.”

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When her father passed away in 1977, Rossellini’s family received a touching tribute from Godard: “the most moving telegram I’ve ever gotten. He wrote, ‘We are alone in the woods.’ Because my father was such a patriarch. He was my dad, but he was also the Taviani brothers’ and Godard’s father in a way.”

The Taviani brothers paid tribute to Roberto Rossellini somewhat differently: by offering Isabella her first significant film role, in Il Prato (1979). Remembering Rossellini’s objections to movie careers for his children, “I thought, ‘Dad’s going to turn over in his grave. He would be furious. He gave the Tavianis a prize and now they want me to act for them.’”

But Ingrid Bergman urged her daughter to accept the offer. “My mom came in and said, ‘No, you have to take advantage of this. It’s an adventure. You can’t turn up this chance to try to be an actress. And, in any case, they work in your father’s style, with non-actors, so you’re not going to be an actress…. You’ll have an experience with great artists.’”

The diverging opinions on Isabella’s acting career were typical of Bergman and Rossellini, a striking case of “opposites attract.” She was introverted and methodical. He was outgoing and unpredictable.

“My father was infinitely disorganized,” Rossellini said. “He was Italian, so we don’t have very many of his things left. My mother was Swedish—and infinitely organized. She saved every letter, every photo, every film poster.”

At one of the most poignant moments of her interview, Isabella Rossellini revealed the insight that motivated her mother’s methodical collecting. “I remember when my mother was sick, she had cancer, there was a big room where she was storing all these things. Mama was very humble, very simple, and extremely shy. I said, ‘Why did you keep all this? You were born in Sweden, you went to America, then you went to Italy, then you went to live in France… why did you drag all of these photos, all of these letters, all of these newspaper clippings with you?’

“She gave me a response that totally shocked me. She said, ‘Because I’ve always known that my life as an artist was very important.’

“I was scandalized by this pretension! But she said, “You know, I think that we’re part of the most influential art of the last century. When we were young, we all watched movies as much as we read the great classics. We read the classics in school because we have to, we go to museums from time to time, but everyone goes to the movies and loves the cinema.’”

It’s reassuring to know that Ingrid Bergman recognized her place and significance in cinema history—from Intermezzo to Autumn Sonata, from Casablanca to Stromboli, from Gaslight to Elena and Her Men.

100 years after her birth, Bergman’s versatility, her spontaneity, and her fearless defiance of convention remain as modern as ever. Will we ever quite catch up to this goddess of incandescent contradictions? I doubt it.

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*Please note that all quotations of Isabella Rossellini in this article are my translations.

Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 20

I like to think of The Night of the Hunter as what would have happened if D.W. Griffith’s soul had been called back across the Stygian waters of the underworld to direct a film noir. It’s that unreal, that beautiful.

If you’ve seen it, I hope you love it as much as I do. And if you haven’t seen it, what the hell are you doing reading this? Go watch the movie already.

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Here’s what François Truffaut had to say about the film in 1956 (three years before he made his own very different masterpiece about a kid on the run):

“Such a screenplay is not of the sort that launches the career of a Hollywood director, and it’s a safe bet that this film, which scorns the most basic commercial norms, will be Charles Laughton’s only experiment as a director, which is a shame. A shame, yes, because in spite of its conflicts of style, The Night of the Hunter is a film of rich inventiveness that seems like a lurid news story as told by children…. Charles Laughton doesn’t hesitate to run some red lights and knock over a few policemen in this unique film that makes us love experimental cinema when it experiments and cinema of discovery when it discovers.”

(Quote from Les Films de ma vie.)

Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 17

In 1961, Fritz Lang told an interviewer, “Through the detective film, I was looking for a form of social criticism.” Indeed, though less of a who-dun-it than a did-she-do-it, The Blue Gardenia rankles with injustice. Its commentary on Mad Men-era victim-blaming remains startlingly relevant today. (Seriously, consider how many people in positions of power right now equate drunkenness with consent or relativize a woman’s right to control her body. Then try to sleep at night.)

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When Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), still reeling from a devastating long-distance breakup, goes on a date with predatory Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), she ends up passed out on his sofa… exactly as Harry had intended. The brute tries to force himself on her, but, fortunately, Norah recovers herself enough to grab a poker from his fireplace and give him a well-deserved whack on the head.

Lang filmed this sequence in the best tradition of noir (and expressionist) subjectivity. The mirror Norah breaks with the swing of her arm seems to stand in for her fragmented memory, giving the key plot point all the jagged, rapid-fire ambiguity of a real-life crisis. As she collapses, a superimposed whirlpool appears to pull her into its depths.

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After she wakes up and flees the scene of the crime, however, Norah becomes the object of a merciless (wo)manhunt, led by a reckless journalist as much as by the cops.

But did Norah actually kill Harry? Because The Blue Gardenia was made under the reign of the Production Code, you can probably guess that our smoky-voiced, platinum-haired heroine did not in fact commit the crime. As it turns out, another of Harry’s discarded victims—whose eyes well up with the same glittering sadness as Baxter’s—cracked him over the head because he refused to take responsibility for the child she’s carrying.

Classic Hollywood won’t let anything this bad happen to our protagonist; yet, it’s not difficult to recognize the maddened, sympathetic murderess as a holograph of what might have happened to her—basically an alternate-universe Norah. Just as Norah splits herself into two to evade detection (claiming her friend is “The Blue Gardenia”), the story subdivides her yet again, delivering a happy ending while refusing to absolve society of its wretched misogyny. To my mind, it’s an absolution that has yet to come (or be earned).

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The 15 Greatest Roles Cary Grant Never Played (But Could Have)

cary_and_cigaretteIt’s easy to forget how many great films owe their greatness in large part to Cary Grant.

Today, however, I thought I’d ponder some of the movies that Grant didn’t make for various reasons at various stages in his development as an actor.

He would have made a delightful choice for some of these roles—and a disastrous one for others. But (almost) all of them are might-have-beens that I enjoy contemplating.

Gaston Monescu in Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Ernst Lubitsch considered Grant, then a recent arrival at Paramount, for the lead role in this cheeky comic masterpiece. Herbert Marshall (with whom Grant co-starred in Blonde Venus) ultimately won the role of suave swindler and jewel thief Gaston Monescu, so smooth he can steal Miriam Hopkins’s garters without her noticing.

I think that late 1930s Cary Grant would’ve carried off the role admirably. At age 28, though, he couldn’t have captured the note of worldliness—and world-weariness—that Marshall brought to the character.

Interestingly enough, Hitchcock admitted that To Catch a Thief borrowed heavily from Lubitsch’s comedy. In a way, Grant’s turn as retired master criminal John Robie gave him the chance to make up for arguably the best role he lost out on during his early career.

cary_grant_colorPhilip Marlowe

Bogie forever defined the onscreen image of everyone’s favorite wisecracking Los Angeles private eye with his performance in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.

Nevertheless, Raymond Chandler himself mentioned Cary Grant as his ideal Marlowe in a detailed character description he wrote to a fan in 1951:

“He is slightly over six feet tall and weighs about thirteen stone eight. He has dark brown hair, brown eyes, and the expression ‘passably good looks’ would not satisfy him in the least. I don’t think he looks tough. He can be tough. If I ever had an opportunity of selecting the movie actor who could best represent him to my mind, I think it would have been Cary Grant.” (The Raymond Chandler Papers, 157)

George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s almost impossible for me to picture any actor other than Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, that humbly miraculous beacon of all that’s best in America. Indeed, the script that Capra supervised, pieced together by husband-and-wife team Goodrich and Hackett, fleshes out a character practically tailor-made for Stewart.

If you read “The Greatest Gift,” the basis for It’s a Wonderful Life, you’ll realize how much of George Bailey emerged during the screenwriting process.

Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the simple, moving tale of George Pratt (not Bailey), deterred from suicide by a vision of life without him. When the author mailed the story out to friends with his Christmas cards, his agent recognized its value and decided to pitch it to the studios.

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“Alright, Jimmy. If you want the part that badly, you can play George…”

Grant urged RKO to purchase the rights to the story with the intention of starring in a film version. Fortunately the project didn’t progress and Grant ended up playing a beloved holiday role more suited to his star image: Dudley the angel in The Bishop’s Wife.

Gulliver in a live-action Gulliver’s Travels

I personally have a hard time visualizing Grant being attacked by Lilliputians, but the actor loved Jonathan Swift’s satirical fantasy so much that he lobbied to star in an adaptation. In 1949, Grant asked Thornton Wilder to pen a screenplay for a film version to be helmed by Howard Hawks. According to Evenings with Cary Grant, Wilder brainstormed the concept before opting against it: “If I ever work on a movie again, it will be an ‘original.’”

Presumably the fact that the project never came to fruition disappointed Grant, who said in the 1950s, “Don’t laugh. I’d give a tasteful performance as Gulliver.”

Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949)

David O. Selznick suggested Grant for the part of Holly Martins, but, according to the BFI, “the financial terms he [Grant] was looking for were prohibitive.”

cary_noirLovable schmo Martins, as Joseph Cotten brilliantly played him, makes the audience feel sorry for him. How could this wannabe-Zane Gray buffoon keep up with sly lawman Calloway—much less remorseless outlaw Lime? As Calloway bluntly tells him, “You were born to be murdered.”

Cary Grant had a more versatile range than he’s generally given credit for, but onscreen he was nobody’s schmoe.

Orson Welles once described himself as a “king actor,” limited to imposing, authoritative figures, but Grant was, as Pauline Kael called him, the man from dream city. When Grant’s around, and I say this as a Welles fangirl, who’d believe a female character would look at anyone else?

The power dynamics between Holly and Harry, I suspect, would have shifted if Grant had joined the cast: the two ex-friends would have squared off on more equal terms. Alas, we are left to imagine what a Welles vs. Grant awesome contest would’ve been like.

Shooting for I Was a Male War Bride and the soundstage portions of The Third Man converged at Shepperton Studios, resulting in the picture of Grant, Cotten, Welles, and Ann Sheridan (taken at the studio restaurant) that you see below.

the_third_man_cary_grant“Say, we shouldn’t all stand here together for too long. The world might implode from the collective awesomeness.”

Hamlet in a modern-dress film adaptation

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to direct his version of Shakespeare’s revenge melodrama starring Cary Grant. Unfortunately, it was not to be (bad pun very much intended).

The project didn’t develop, but it remains a tantalizing thought experiment. How would the melancholy Dane’s soliloquies have sounded in Grant’s Midatlantic accent? Would audiences have accepted the screwball icon as the self-doubting, mortality-obsessed prince? Just imagine: the greatest ever screen actor (according to both David Thompson and myself) paired with the greatest role in the English language.

Cary Grant, 1958Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday (1953)

Yes, Grant was considered, but let us not dwell long on this possibility. Gregory Peck was perfection. That is all.

Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1954)

Had Cary Grant accepted the dark, demanding part of alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine, he might’ve taken home the competitive Oscar that eluded him throughout his career. (And don’t get me started on that!)

On Turner Classic Movies, which featured Grant as its December 2014 Star of the Month, Robert Osborne shared George Cukor’s account of why Grant declined such a top-notch role.

When the actor read the script for A Star is Born at Cukor’s house, the director recalled, “Cary was absolutely magnificent, dramatic and vulnerable beyond anything I’d ever seen him do. I was astonished at the depth and range he was showing. But when we finished I was filled with great sadness because I knew Cary would never agree to play the role on film. He would never expose himself like that in public.”

As a viewer who likes laughing more than weeping, I respect Grant’s decision. I suppose he assumed a certain responsibility to maintain his dreamy image and bring joy, not sadness, to his fans. An Oscar might glitter, but Cary Grant is golden.

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“I can’t believe I had to wait until 1963 to touch Cary’s dimple. Seriously, why didn’t we work together in the 1950s?”

Frank Flannigan Love in the Afternoon (1957)

I mourn regularly for the lack of a collaboration between Billy Wilder and Cary Grant. Between Wilder’s sparkling dialogue and Grant’s sparkling delivery, the combination would have been nothing less than dazzling.

What makes this might-have-been teaming especially painful is that it nearly happened more than once. Wilder wrote the Linus Larrabee role in Sabrina (1954) with Grant in mind (although Bogie proved a more apt choice). In the case of Love in the Afternoon, Wilder tried to convince Grant to play Flannigan until 3 days before shooting when the star definitively bailed out. Gary Cooper replaced him.

Weathered Cooper infused Frank Flannigan with a welcome dose of vulnerability. Still, critics argued that he had no business playing a romantic figure opposite Audrey Hepburn in her 20s. Somehow I doubt that Grant would have raised any such objections. As Wilder pointed out, “He did not age one bit. His hair got gray. That’s it.”

Shears in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Grant starred in several war films over the course of his career—from the early 1930s aviation drama The Eagle and the Hawk to the military comedy Operation Petticoat—and nearly added David Lean’s taut WWII action drama to his resume.

He started preparing for the role of Shears and regretted that the opportunity slipped away: “I had to back out of The Bridge on the River Kwai because of another commitment. I slimmed down a lot to do the part, but you know you can’t do them all. I was sorry to have missed it… but Bill Holden was very happy. He got that one—and 10 percent of the gross.”

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James Bond in Dr. No (1962)

Probably the most famous role that Grant turned down, Bond was conceived with the actor in mind. His hardboiled yet debonair performance as secret agent Alex Devlin in Notorious inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond. It was only natural, then, that Grant came up as strong choice to play 007 in Dr. No.

As Bond producer Cubby Broccoli wrote in his memoir When the Snow Melts, “I talked to Cary Grant who liked the project. He had the style, the sophistication and, in fact, had been born in Britain. He also happened to be a Bond aficionado. But he said no. As a very important actor and a world-class star, he didn’t feel he could lock himself into the Bond character.”

cary_cubby_wedding

Broccoli was relieved by Grant’s refusal, since he preferred the idea of selecting a less well-known actor, rather than a star with an established image, to inhabit the role. The closest Grant came to playing a part in the Bond franchise was serving as best man at Broccoli’s wedding (and, boy, do you have to be secure in your relationship before you invite Cary Grant to be your best man).

The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

It must be true! I heard it in a Universal horror featurette. Grant expressed a desire to star in the Hammer adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s chiller, but his agent advised against it, which is a shame.

Hidden behind a mask or grotesque makeup, the heartthrob could’ve efficiently proved to critics that his acting didn’t depend on his looks—an accusation that plagued him all too often. Perhaps that’s why he sought out the part in the first place?

Given his acrobatic physicality and hypnotic voice, he could have offered a fascinating update on Chaney’s definitive silent performance. Alas, Grant never appeared in a straight horror film.

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Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964)

While vanity might have tempted other actors to accept such a plum part, Grant knew that the curmudgeonly professor belonged to someone else: Rex Harrison, who’d scored a hit in the stage musical. As Grant told producers, “Not only won’t I play Henry Higgins, but if Rex doesn’t I won’t even see it!”

Grant also questioned his right to give Miss Dolittle any elocution lessons: “You don’t understand. My accent is cockney! I sound the way ’Liza does at the beginning of the film.”

Andrew Wyke in Sleuth (1972)

Grant refused the part of a mystery novelist bent on exacting retribution on his wife’s lover, the role played by Laurence Olivier in Joseph Mankiewicz’s thriller. I don’t care much for this twisty mano a mano drama, but I would have liked to see Grant share the screen with his friend Michael Caine.

Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (1972)

cary_grant_bobby_soxerThe first time audiences saw Cary Grant in a feature film, This Is the Night (1932), he was singing a recitative and carrying a javelin.

One can only imagine that such an experience, coupled with the trauma of appearing in Night and Day (1946), understandably soured Grant slightly on musicals.

When Warner Brothers reportedly offered him a million dollars to star in Man of La Mancha, Grant refused.

Then again, he’d already gotten to strut around in a suit of armor in 1947 for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

Which of these roles would you most have liked to see Grant play?