Just Imagine (1930): Past Forward

justimagineposterCome for the Jetsonian Deco interiors. Stay for the jazzy songs. Leave when El Brendel opens his mouth and spouts some faux-Swedish malapropisms.

Oh, wait, that’s only 15 minutes into the movie. So, steel yourself against creaky ethnic humor and buckle up for liturgical dance orgies on Mars.

A bizarre pre-Code genre hybrid of sci-fi and musical comedy, David Butler’s Just Imagine presents a vision of the future that’s both optimistic and pessimistic—and neither fully utopian nor dystopian.

This disjointed curio is no masterpiece, to put it mildly, but you need to see it at least once in your life, if only to convince yourself that it exists.

Unlike earlier talkie sci-fi extravaganza High Treason (1929), Just Imagine spares us a sanctimonious message. This movie knows it’s ridiculous, but I wonder if it knows how ridiculous. Warning: your camp-o-meter might break.

City on the Edge of (Yesterday’s) Tomorrow

The film opens with a comical comparison between a sleepy New York street scene in 1880, where “you can even hear the rustle of a bustle,” and the claxon-screeching, hectic city in 1930.

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From there, we jump ahead another 50 years—to 1980. (Somehow the writers failed to foresee the big hair, shoulder pads, and synth music. Like I said, it’s not a dystopian future. Although U2 does get a mention at the end. That’s pretty prophetic.)

As a narrator informs us, now “everyone has a number instead of a name and the Government tells you whom you should marry.”

The screen abruptly cuts from a title card to a Metropolis-esque New York of the future, towering with sleek, glistening skyscrapers and teeming with chrome-plated planes
purposefully buzzing along. Minutely detailed and elegant in its uber-urbanity, the skyline of the city no doubt elicited gasps from audiences in 1930. The models and justimagine_skyscraperssets, designed by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, remain stunning accomplishments even today.

Out of the air traffic, two angular planes come to our attention. As they move towards each other, high-angle shots let us see other aircraft crisscrossing below and cars edging along bridges further below still, adding breathtaking verisimilitude to the dreamlike city. The pair of planes meet and hover mid-air.

These dizzying heights serve as a trysting place for the conflicted couple—literally and figuratively up in the air—who will dominate our story. As the boy and girl discuss their problems, planes continue to dart in and out of the frame around them.

At its best, Just Imagine engages the viewer on two levels: the technical marvels make us wonder how special effects wizards achieved the illusion while the winning personalities of the leads encourage us to identify with them. Although largely expositional, the opening scene deftly demonstrates this balance, cleverly juxtaposing a striking modern backdrop with the age-old theme of thwarted love. If only the rest of the movie lived up to that promise.

Our Plot Such as It Is

LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and dashing airman J-21 (golden-voiced tenor John Garrick) want to get married. Unfortunately, the government marriage tribunal has ruled in favor of LN’s other suitor, MT-3, a haughty, vaguely sinister newspaper editor, granting him preference because of his elevated professional position. Unless J can raise his status enough to outrank his rival within 4 months, in time for a tribunal appeal, he’ll lose the girl of his dreams.

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Meanwhile, famous inventor Z-4 is planning to launch the first rocket to Mars and gives J the chance to become the new Lindberg by piloting the spaceship. Our intrepid protagonist accepts the mission… and the risk that he may never return from the daring expedition.

J blasts off with his best friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and their bumbling sidekick Single-O (El Brendel). Together, the trio encounters friendly martians—and their evil twins—and swings home just in time to reverse the tribunal’s decision.

Not-So-Brave New World

In the universe of Just Imagine, nobody seems particularly concerned with fomenting revolution or changing the system. Instead, the characters fight for their own personal happiness within the system and largely play by that system’s rules. The message here isn’t so much “Down with Big Brother!” as “Big Brother, pretty please let me marry who I want?”

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The focus on individual outcomes as opposed to social change betrays the movie as a traditional romantic comedy with sci-fi trimmings. The movie’s lack of interest in revolution also reflects the fearful hesitancy of an America still reeling from the stock market crash. As a result, Just Imagine is too much of a light-hearted romp to deliver the cataclysmic, let’s-burn-this-************-down finale that I crave from retro sci-fi. If nothing goes up in flames—or the reaper doesn’t show up—I’m disappointed.

Spectators in 1930 were disappointed, too. Despite earning positive reviews, this sci-fi flick, which cost over a million dollars to produce, flopped at the box office. Ironically, by playing it safe, Just Imagine may have lost out on an audience ready for a more radical future.

Lack of conspicuous upheaval notwithstanding, the script throws in a few sly jabs that seize on fictional, futuristic premises to criticize the realities of Depression-era life. For instance, a grotesque, matronly census-taker compares the oppressive marriage law to the law that enforced Prohibition (predicted to still be in place in 1980!): “Don’t criticize this Marriage Act,” the crone insists. “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!”

Only meddling, sexually-frustrated bureaucrats try to regulate love and booze, Just Imagine implies.

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Perhaps the most startling and forward-thinking line of commentary-laced humor targets the rampant anti-semitism of the 1920s and 1930s. As Single-O looks up in the sky, J-21 and RT-42 explain that everyone flies Rosenblatt and Goldfarb planes; hardly anybody drives a car. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford,” Single-O laughs, alluding to the inventor’s well-publicized and vicious hatred of Jews.

The future doesn’t belong to Ford and his kind, the film suggests, but to the very people he wanted to persecute. Pondering a movie where the world of tomorrow feels uncomfortably conservative, I can’t help but appreciate that, in this case, the joke “punches up,” taking on ugly prejudices. Now that’s what I call progress.

Nostalgia for Now

On the whole, Just Imagine envisions a future that’s suspiciously nostalgic for the past, specifically for the halcyon days of 1930. Why, the movie even embeds a denizen of yesteryear into the plot as a surrogate for the contemporary audience.

Doctors miraculously revive Ole Petersen, later rechristened Single-O, who was struck by lightning 50 years before and preserved in a state of suspended animation. (The real miracle, however, is that the doctors don’t put him out of his misery the moment he starts talking.) Through his quirky, exaggerated reactions, Single-O, a time traveler in spite of himself, provides cues telling the viewer how he ought to feel about all that future shock.

For instance, when Single-O learns that food and alcohol come in pill form, eliminating the sensual enjoyment of eating and drinking, he waxes poetical about the pleasures of roast beef and beer. Technology has even taken the fun out of making babies, now neatly dispensed by vending machines. “Give me the good ol’ days!” Single-O wistfully repeats again and again.

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The fact that Single-O winds up as the film’s hero, carrying his companions back to the spaceship on Mars and taking a husky martian captive, affirms Just Imagine’s true purpose: bolstering the egos of 1930s audiences. “See?” You can practically hear the fedora-wearing fellows of 1930 muttering to themselves, “We may not have video telephones or rockets or personal planes, but, dammit, we’ve got gumption.”

In its clumsy way, Just Imagine synthesizes a strain of sci-fi designed primarily to edify the era in which the film was made. Most of the great sci-fi movies criticize (allegorically or directly) the direction of modern civilization. By contrast, Just Imagine launches a fantastic thrill ride to Mars in order to assuage the anxieties of an America troubled by the prospect of no frontier left to conquer—even while it hints that the modest joys of 1930 trump the wonders of 1980. This nifty but silly Fox musical sought to feed the confidence of its original audience. These are the good old days, it insists.

Come to think of it, one could argue that the basic concept of a humorous, feel-good sci-fi flick established by Just Imagine, once liberated from its overwhelming nostalgia, finally found success almost 50 years later… in Star Wars.

Old-Fashioned Girls

J-21 longs for a simpler time and an uncomplicated romance. As he confides to his wingman RT-42, “I like a girl like my grandmother used to be. That’s why I like LN. She’s an old-fashioned girl. I should have lived back in 1930.”

From there, J picks up a sort of ultra-modern lute and begins to croon “Give Me an Old-Fashioned Girl.” Meanwhile RT-42 fantasizes about those hot tomatoes of times gone by in a series of humorous vignettes. A dame in a slinky evening gown ecstatically mixes a cocktail shaker in her kitchen. A peroxide blonde succumbs to a forceful kiss from her beau, first beating on his back then slowly giving in. A young mother rocks the cradle with her foot while puffing on a cigarette and reading a risqué novel.

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Each wordless flashback emphasizes a combination of pliancy and naughtiness as the essence of femininity. The message: past, present, and future, women should serve and do so perkily at that. Apparently the caveman mentality wasn’t expected to die out in the space age (and, alas, it hasn’t yet in 2015).

The alarming future foreseen by Just Imagine grants women even less agency than they had in 1930. The government decides their mates for them based on their suitors’ statuses. And, (un)funnily enough, even though the characters complain about the mannish “modern woman,” this vision of tomorrow didn’t open up many new careers for women. For example, RT-42’s girlfriend D-6 (Marjorie White) works as a nurse, flitting around in a costume that I think you can buy at fetish shops nowadays (not that I’d know, of course), for a crew of entirely male doctors.

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Only the odious female census-taker, who looks like a bluestocking caricature from 1912, complains about gender injustice in the year 1980—and, in so doing, turns into a punchline. “Why, you men have all the best of it. For instance, you can file an application to marry me which I can accept or reject, but I can’t put in an application to marry you,” she explains to RT-42.

His reply: “Not such a bad law at that!”

Wait, Did you hear that? Oh, it was the audible thud from that joke. Ugh.

Though woefully underused, the major female characters of Just Imagine, LN and especially D-6, endow the film with its rare glimmers of pathos and rebellion.

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For example, in one memorable shot, echoing the work of sci-fi pioneers like Méliès and Zecca, Maureen O’Sullivan’s face appears superimposed over planet earth. Abstracted into a symbol for suffering sweethearts everywhere, she forlornly recites the lyrics of the song “You Are the Melody,” beseeching her lover to return home. Despite the goofy sentimentality of having to speak the words to a song monologue-style, O’Sullivan conveys a world of melancholy (pun intended) and her tender rendition lifts the banal speech to the level of genuine poignancy.

marjorie_white_justimagineOld-fashioned or not, D-6, played by the effervescent and tragically short-lived scene-stealer Marjorie White, refuses to stand idly by while a cruel system marries her best friend off to some entitled jerk. If I enjoyed Just Imagine, and I’d say I did, White deserves much of the credit. She walks away with the picture. For a sample of her peppy charms, check out the best musical number in the film: White’s duet with Frank Albertson, “Never Swat a Fly.”

The bounciest, cutest little minx ever to challenge the patriarchy, D-6 ultimately saves the day by holding up the court proceeding until J-21 can return victorious from Mars.

Rushing to the front of the courtroom, she flips into full-on melodrama mode and accuses MT-3 of being the father of her (nonexistent) children! Were I ever in a jam, I’d want this futuristic flapper feminist on my side.

Life on Mars

Some of the advances Just Imagine predicted have only come true (or at least become widespread) since 1980, like video calling and electric hand dryers, a.k.a. the scourge of the new millennium. We’ve yet to land on Mars, of course, but that’s okay. The red planet would probably be a huge let-down after this movie.

I’d be positively remiss if I ended this post without briefly touching on the gratuitous pre-Code mayhem that is the Mars segment of this film. Apparently, martian civilization consists of leatherboys and dominatrixes in silver-foil headdresses. This peaceful race of people greets visitors by forcing them out of their clothes and into a walk-in bath.

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The beefy martian warrior king, tricked out in a loincloth and studded leather shoulder armor, even puts the moves on Single-O—in the presence of the Queen, no less. The sidekick giggles, “She’s not the queen of Mars. He is!”

And that’s just the good martians. Their evil twins spend their free time in frenzied trance dances around a giant idol, climbing all over its arms and writhing against it in skimpy proto-punk get-ups. Well, what do you know. I guess they did get something right about 1980, after all…

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This post is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. Please consider donating towards the restoration of a one-reel silent comedy, Cupid in Quarantine (1918). If you love old movies, support them. Click the image below to make your contribution to the National Film Preservation Foundation now!

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Doctor X (1932): The Triumph of the Weird

posterA cannibal serial killer prowls the city streets on full-moon nights. Mad doctors perform sick biological experiments in secret labs. And Fay Wray shrieks in a silky, sheer negligée.

Doctor X really wants to push your buttons… whatever buttons you’ve got.

As the film’s Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (famous for his English-language malapropisms) declared, “It’ll make your blood curl!”

After the double box office smash of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Warner Brothers decided to outdo Universal—which started the horror trend—in terms of shock value. Jumping on the craze for scary movies, Warner shrewdly turned out a gruesome chiller all its own. Even in the context of no-holds-barred pre-Code Hollywood, the word bizarre doesn’t begin to cover Doctor X.

Unsurprisingly, the hardboiled studio of gangster dramas and newspaper comedies brought a radically different, absurd sensibility to the horror genre. Opting against a supernatural thriller or a Gothic adaptation, producers bought a spooky stage play and built an ultra-modern sci-fi whodunit on that framework. Rather than trying to evoke the tenebrous black-and-white poetry of Universal’s chillers, Doctor X attracted viewers in droves with the novelty of bloodcurdling deeds captured in color.

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Yes, that’s right: we’re talking about a feature film from 1932 shot in color. But a very special kind of color.

What we all recognize as glorious Technicolor—exemplified by films like Gone with the Wind and The Red Shoes—is a three-strip process, which combines blue, green, and red to reproduce a complete and vivid range of tones. However, Doctor X is one of comparatively few full-length movies filmed entirely in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process. Expensive and inconvenient, requiring sweltering hot lights, color tests, and special technicians and advisors, two-strip Technicolor still registered colors only as shades or derivatives of red and green.

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 I say, darling, you’re looking rather pink today…

Although two-strip Technicolor couldn’t reproduce the full spectrum of reality, this disadvantage suited the oddball plot of Doctor X perfectly. In the words of an original ad, Doctor X looks “so different it might have been filmed in another world.” Since a major plot point involves (slight spoiler alert!) synthetic flesh, the fact that about half of the colors show up in flesh tones—or else a sickly green—amps up the creep-out factor. When the villain finally does reveal himself, the sequence makes us wonder if we’re hallucinating. Electrodes buzz and blink as the man-made monster smears his face with molten flesh putty, all the more revolting in shades of leprous pink-orange set off by ominous green shadows.

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Curtiz looks on as Wray gets a lipstick touch-up on the set

Director Michael Curtiz (who’d go on to helm The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) wasn’t anybody’s dream boss, marching around the set begrudging the cast their lunch breaks. As Fay Wray recalled, “It was like he was part of the camera. He was steel.” Nevertheless, his expressionistic flair incorporated the two-strip Technicolor palette to masterful effect. Instead of trying to minimize the strangeness of the color process, Curtiz indulged his preference for silhouettes, showy compositions, and jarring angles. All of these elements, in conjunction with the unnatural hues, contribute to the audience’s sense of nightmarish disorientation.

Years before Douglas Sirk styled his celebrated Technicolor delirium, Curtiz harnessed psychedelic hues of rose and emerald to put the viewer into a kind of trance, mentally preparing us to swallow an implausible storyline.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h12m29s71And what a loony storyline it is… When the police suspect that someone from a prestigious research institute has committed a string of heinous cannibalistic sex crimes and mutilations, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) makes a deal. If the cops keep the matter quiet for 48 hours, he’ll use cutting-edge technology to find the guilty man among his staff and save his institute’s reputation. It’s ethical to do that, right? Meanwhile, wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) crashes Xavier’s remote lair to get the scoop. In the process, he’ll shake skeletons in the closet (literally!), go head-to-head with the terrifying killer, and romance Xavier’s feisty daughter.

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With its satirical, sinister portrayal of medical researchers, Doctor X betrays an abject disillusionment with—and mistrust of—scientific progress in general and scientists in particular. Only a year before, Colin Clive had portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as a dashing misunderstood genius, a romantic matinee idol Prometheus. By contrast, Dr. Xavier and his colleagues come across as, at best, eccentrics and, at worst, dirty old men who channel repressed sexual impulses into kinky experiments and flashy lab gizmos.

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Curtiz frames the film’s most striking shots with some chemical or electrical apparatus interposing between the viewer and the characters. The bubbling flasks or sparkling electrodes in the foreground loom large and dwarf the scientists, making them seem vaguely ridiculous. Even when the laboratory paraphernalia doesn’t dominate the screen space, it draws the eye, distracting from the scientists themselves. They are not masters of their chosen field, we understand, but slaves to it, consumed by their fetishized equipment and their dangerous projects.

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In its grotesquely comic way, the film suggests that all of Xavier’s colleagues, and even the doctor himself, are likely candidates for serial killers. Frankly, the shock isn’t that one of them is a murderer. It’s that only one of them is a murderer! Consider this exchange between two of the doctors, right as they’re about to submit to Xavier’s physiological examination:

—Were the murdered women… attacked?

—Does your mind never flow into any other channel?

—What do you mean by that?

—I mean that one day your sadistic tendencies may carry you too far, Dr. Haines!

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In case you missed it, “attacked” serves as a not-so-subtle euphemism for “sexually assaulted.” Can I get a great big yuck for that dark little peek into the minds of guys claiming to be mankind’s benefactors?

Without doubt, Doctor X hints that perversity instead of goodwill drives scientists to immerse their lives in study and research. Even Dr. Xavier has to rationalize his comrades’ creepy behavior to the cops by explaining, “Sometimes, in the overdevelopment of one part of the brain, another part is weakened.”

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But even if that’s true, does the doctors’ collective brainpower justify their volatility? Um, no. At least, that’s what the movie seems to conclude.

Ultimately, Xavier’s elaborate experiment—designed to unmask the killer by monitoring fluctuations in his heartbeat as he watches a reenactment of his crime—fails spectacularly. Twice. Xavier’s theories practically have their own body count!

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Whenever I watch Doctor X, the movie’s dim outlook on the scientific perspective reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a fascinating treatise on the power of rare events. As Taleb explains, “Before Western thinking drowned in its ‘scientific’ mentality, what is arrogantly called the Enlightenment, people prompted their brain to think—not compute.”

Sound familiar? Xavier unquestioningly relies on ice-cold logic. And logic lets him down. Big time. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that what seems like a perfectly reasonable inference almost proves the death of his nearest and dearest… The unforeseen twist or “black swan” that Dr. X implicitly eliminates from his pool of possibilities returns to haunt him with all-too-real consequences.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h11m03s232According to Taleb, academically bright individuals like Xavier and his lab-coat-wearing compadres often succumb to the “ludic fallacy.” That is, they tend to think (erroneously) that we can model life’s uncertainties with straightforward calculations and probabilities. In so doing, however, such traditional thinkers ignore the larger, fuzzy probabilities or “unknown unknowns” that enter into any given situation. Meanwhile, the real risks of life are bizarre and off-model. Freak occurrences shape the course of human history much more than we’d like to believe.

To vastly oversimplify Taleb’s point, we live in a weird world. So, having a weird mind, one prone to farfetched theories instead of rationality, might be a strong edge for survival. And only by scrutinizing weirdness can we ever begin to understand, well, anything at all.

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Which brings us back to Doctor X and its real protagonist. The movie might bear Xavier’s name, but it truly belongs to Lee Tracy as Taylor, the brash, fast-talking newspaperman.

Taylor’s gift for sensational journalism spurs him to speculate wildly and focus on outlier events like the so-called “moon killings.” Taylor doesn’t command society’s respect like Xavier does. However, he saves the day—while all the doctors sit incapacitated by their logic, literally handcuffed by the rules of their experiment.

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When I first watched Doctor X, I felt that Taylor, with his morbid quips and upbeat demeanor, belonged to another movie. Then I realized that he actually reflects the movie’s oddness even better than the nutty doctors.

Despite their own deviant weirdness, the scientists don’t allow for the true enormity of the world’s weirdness in their calculations. Despite Taylor’s outward normalcy, he does. He rolls with the weird and actively seeks it out. His zigzag brain hasn’t closed itself off to black swans and freak occurrences.

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Thanks to Taylor, I have a new theory about life: you need to live it as though you’re in a 1930s horror movie.

No, I’m not suggesting you roam around misty moors at midnight in a lacy nightgown. What I actually mean is, don’t act like most characters in 1930s horror movies—who have no inkling they’re in 1930s horror movies and tend to baulk at the idea of monsters and psycho-killers.

In life as in film, it pays to contemplate the improbable, to steep yourself in it, rather than scoffing at it. And perhaps no movie defines “improbable” for me better than Doctor X.

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Funnily enough, every time I tweet this film with the #TCMParty someone complains, “Ugh. I hate colorized movies,” because he or she has automatically rejected the possibility of a color feature from the early 1930s.

Regardless of whether we think it should or shouldn’t exist, though, it does.

So, in its own way, Doctor X—the first horror film shot entirely in color—is something of a cinematic black swan… a triumph of weirdness.

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As of this writing, you can stream Doctor X on Warner Archive Instant (which I totally recommend signing up for). So check it out for Halloween!

 

Don’t Kill a Dead Man: Decoy (1946)

DecoyDecoy is a movie of the dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Decoy

Decoy

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

Decoy Decoy

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

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

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

Decoy

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

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

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

Decoy

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

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

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

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

Decoy

Decoy

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

Decoy

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

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

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

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

Decoy

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

So dig it up. I dare you.

Decoy

Time on Her Side: She (1935)

“How do you think I rule these people? Not by force, but by terror. My empire is of the imagination.”

—Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep or She (Helen Gahagan)

In her own way, She Who Must Be Obeyed, ageless goddess of the forgotten realm of Kor, Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep offers the perfect counterpoint to King Kong.

Both King Kong and She were produced by Merian C. Cooper and the films distinctly echo each other, although I would argue that Irving Pichel’s directorial contributions to She makes it the subtler and more complex of the two. Both movies involve intrepid protagonists’ epic journeys into dangerous, exotic locations, reluctantly accompanied by female love-interests, to search for an elusive vestige of another time (Kong or, in She, the Eternal Flame of youth) which they hope to bring back to civilization. The somewhat expedient, bare plots of both films are constructed around the prospect of extreme spectacles.

Most importantly, both films center on magnetic archetypes: a giant, ferocious ape, the ultimate incarnation of primitive maleness, or an ethereal, willful witch/goddess/queen, the quintessence of daunting femininity. Both “monsters” show up at almost the midpoint of the movies after long, drawn-out ceremonial door-openings.

Let’s face it, we don’t care half as much about the dashing protagonists or their shrieking girls as we do about Kong and She. So, of course, these forces of nature have to succumb to the nice, mediocre couple in the end, but I love that Kong and She both allow us as audience members to unleash our inner demons for about an hour-and-a-half.  And, despite whatever anyone wants to say about this film’s flaws (and there are plenty), that’s enough to make me like it.

Dressed to Kill

No discussion of this film would be complete without mentioning the art direction by Van Nest Polglase (who also did the iconic art direction for Citizen Kane) which I can only describe as bitchin’. Huge deco statues of man-beasts? Yup.

Honeycomb walls? Uh-huh.

Silver branches, ring-shaped gongs, cliffside arbors? Oh, yes!

The slick, exaggerated old-new mash-up of She’s palace endows this film with both a genius camp silliness and a mythic power. Just as She is both a modern woman and some kind of medieval dream witch (very Parsifal), the set looks both backwards and forwards in the chronology of design. It’s like Lang’s Metropolis and Karnak had a baby. Or like a production of The Ten Commandments on LSD.

She Who Must Be Obeyed’s costumes also reflect this past-future duality. Her archaic tunics and medieval-ish crowns marry with a Flash Gordon sensibility that makes her wardrobe difficult to place in a distinct era. She is unbound by the time we know. Her path and her world is a tangent, blazing away from the accepted arc of history.

Timeless

Just the other day, I was joking with my wonderful father that women are the keepers of remembrance. You will never trump our memory. We are the ones who recall every detail. Do not refer to yesterday without consulting us. It may be history that men traditionally chronicle—a triumphal linear narrative—but women own the subjective past, the uncanny and un-pin-down-able flow of time and experience. Time is our province. Trespass on it, and you will regret it. (Accept it: you DID NOT take the trash out yesterday.)

Again, I was jesting, but, like all glittering generalities, this one encloses a glimmer of truth.

Which is why She is such an interesting character. She brings a whole new hallucinatory awareness of time and space to the film, which had previously consisted of rather conventional adventure epic sequences. For instance, the first time we see her as a physical form, not just a smoke shadow, an ecstatic crane shot rises to meet her, surging up a set of stairs. A piercing, operatic scream (Helen Gahagan was an accomplished opera singer) punctuates the moment with a flat, vibrato-less “white voice” that deserves comparison with Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein swan hiss.

The next shot, this time focusing on the object of her affections, the unconscious Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott), swoops right into him from above.

Upwards, then downwards, these tricky camera movements serve up far more visual exhilaration than all the tiresome avalanches and Arctic matte shots in the film.

Anyway, in case you haven’t seen the film, She believes that Vincey is the reincarnation of his doppelganger ancestor, whom she loved and killed in a fit of jealousy… and whose corpse she keeps around, for God knows what purpose. So, she decides that this time she’ll get it right by keeping the boy toy in her enchanted kingdom and giving him eternal life. She makes a vision of this doomed romance appear in her gazing pool.

This flashback in the water closely mirrors the scene in The Mummy when Imhotep reveals the past to Helen. In that case, though, the past returns as a narrative, a film within a film, in the style of the silent cinema. For She, the past is a superimposed recollection—a moment in time that she calls forth.

As She strokes the water to dismiss the mirage, there’s a personal quality, and intimacy to the eternalized kiss that makes it less creepy than Imhotep’s replay of the past. Imhotep is a conjurer, a magician. She is the mistress of time, comfortable with its ins and outs. She can swim in time’s waters without rupturing the narrative like Imhotep.

I also find it amusing that we’re supposed to consider She Who Must Be Obeyed cruel and inhuman. Umm… her desire for vengeance and for eternal love are very human indeed. What else brings us to the movie theater if not our own impossible fantasies? Is it so wrong that this woman gets to live them out for us?

It’s not just the average person’s fantasy she’s living out. She has also attained the dream of generations of scientists and rational men. After all, the film opens with a shot of a ticking pendulum clock and the last wishes of a dying scientist, Dr. John Vincey—dying of radium poisoning which he ironically suffered as a result of his efforts to find a chemical source of immortality.

Pointing to the solemn pendulum clock, the invalid explains that he longs to conquer time and hopes that his long-lost relative, Leo, will carry on the quest for eternal youth by searching for it in northern Russia. So, basically, this wise, paternal figure is just a less successful version of She, longing for the eternal youth she attained?

For me, the most insightful shot of the movie (and Lansing Holden and Irving Pichel’s direction provides many such moments) comes when John Vincey dies in at the end of a grandiloquent monologue about vanquishing death. He collapses in his chair and the camera moves in to single out a gold figurine of She on his desk.

This shot links the two together and hints that, however uncanny and foreign She might be, She really represents something fundamental in mankind—the hope of living forever.

Of course, because it’s 1935 Hollywood, no badass queen gets to live forever. She dies pathetically, withering in the very flame that gave her 500 years of youth.

The only eternal flame is the one that lives in every home’s heart and hearth, we’re told at the end. The mighty mountaintop blaze even dissolves into the cozy little flames in the fireplace grate. Hurrah for domesticity!

But I find it hard to believe that, settling in his armchair in England, Leo, who threw over a She for a mortal, won’t be thinking of that dangerous goddess as his joints grow weak and his eyes grow dim. The genius of this movie is that, despite the hokey ending, we all share a glint of She’s wisdom. We see through the cute bunk and, seduced by the deco trappings and the maddened, fiery glow of Helen Gahagan’s eyes, we dream of ageless paradise.

Even the rather conservative Photoplay magazine gushed about the film, “Here is a spectacle of magnificent proportions with the decadent effluvium of the tomb period.” Alas, in 1935, this rare orchid of a film nevertheless flopped—I would argue, primarily because of its incomplete escapism, marred by an unconvincing and somewhat bland ending. We almost lost this treasure to the ravages of time and neglect.

However, fortunately She’s lost dominion has been recovered today… thanks to Buster Keaton no less, who kept a print of the film in his house!

Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep’s empire is “of the imagination.” And there, curiosity and longing will always triumph over quotidian things.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

My reflections on this film were very much stimulated by watching it as a tweet-along with the #driveinmob crew. I particularly appreciated the sharp observations of @CulturalGutter and @Drive-In-Mob. I can’t recommend this weekly movie-event enough. Check out Drive-In-Mob and join us!

The high quality images featured in this article also come from Dr. Macro. I intend no commercial gain from use of these files and ask that you please not use them for commercial ends, either. Thank you.