Sherlock Holmes (1916): Romance of the Impossible

William Gillette Sherlock Holmes“MARRY HIM OR MURDER HIM OR DO WHAT YOU LIKE WITH HIM.” With this 1897 cable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle placed his most famous creation in the hands of another. It was a shrug for the ages, a non-decision that would forever shape the public’s perception of Sherlock Holmes.

The telegraph’s recipient, American actor and playwright William Gillette, took Doyle at his word and recast the immortal detective as such stuff that matinee idols are made of. He turned Holmes, an object of curiosity and awe, into an explicit, if unlikely, object of desire.

Gillette opened up the Holmes character for generations of actors to come by giving him flexibility and humanity. He proved that the sleuth was not only fascinating on the page, but also bankable on the stage—and screen.

The Reappearance of the Reels

In 1916, with over a thousand performances of his theatrical hit Sherlock Holmes behind him, 63-year-old Gillette traveled to Essanay Studios in Chicago to shoot a movie adaptation. It would be his first and last performance in a feature film.

And, for almost a century, Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes went unseen. Until last year, when a nitrate print of the film—long presumed lost—turned up in the Cinémathèque Française’s collections.

Last month at New York’s Film Forum, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Sherlock Holmes, lovingly restored by Flicker Alley and tinted according to handwritten notes on the original negative, with live accompaniment.

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Now, when a film reappears after so long a hunt, the initial jubilation yields to creeping anxiety. The question begs to be asked: “But is it any good?” The possibility of disappointment runs high. Of course, all movies have value as documents of their time, but entertainment value? Not necessarily.

So, let me say this at the outset (well, sort of). I had high expectations for Sherlock Holmes. And I loved it.

Directed by Arthur Berthelet, Sherlock Holmes packs enough action, intrigue, and humor to show even skeptical modern viewers how delightful an early feature film can be. Kidnappings, tense confrontations, sinister lairs, nasty henchmen, cunning disguises—you can expect all the ingredients of an exciting thriller.

From the “lowest and vilest alleys in London” to the “lonely houses” of the countryside, Berthelet conjures up a bygone world both warmly nostalgic and fraught with peril. Characters rove the smoky, burnished universe of Doyle’s canon, instantly familiar to a century’s worth of readers.

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The cast’s wildly uneven approaches to movie acting add some unintentional amusement to the film, but don’t generally detract from the story. The extremes on the melodrama-to-naturalism spectrum balanced each other out neatly, pitting caricatured miscreants against more subtle good guys.

Taken as a whole, Sherlock Holmes is a treat. But the film is ultimately a fine gold setting for the star sapphire that is Gillette’s performance.

A Study in Sherlock

It seems nothing short of miraculous that a man who’d never before acted for the camera could deliver such a compelling screen debut. However, throughout his stage career Gillette won a reputation for subtlety, and his celebrated style of underacting transitioned seamlessly to cinema.

He inhabits the role of Holmes, body and soul. Doyle wrote about eyes that “fairly glittered” and a body that can spring “like a tiger” and let readers’ imaginations do the work, but Gillette made Holmes real in a way that satisfied legions of fans. As Orson Welles remarked in 1938, “It is too little to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”

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Indeed, Gillette not only lent his aquiline profile to the character, but also contributed to the public image of Holmes by adding the drop-stem pipe and the lavish dressing gown. He also adopted the iconic deerstalker and ulster jacket and made them Holmes’s uniform for outdoor scenes.

Although this costuming decision would’ve been a faux-pas in Victorian England—Country attire in the city? Quelle horreur!—it reflects the character’s worldview perfectly. The city is the detective’s hunting ground. He stalks his prey through the mean streets of London just as a country squire would track a fox in the forest.

More important, Gillette (even in his sixties) translated Holmes’s languid yet powerful physicality into flesh. His Sherlock can believably stride unarmed into a criminal’s headquarters and, with one intimidating step forward, slap a gun out his foe’s hand, making the bad guy draw back in fear.

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In writing and acting Holmes, Gillette also distilled and elegantly evoked the personality traits that have defined every major interpretation of Sherlock Holmes since: incandescent arrogance, brooding melancholy, inventive eccentricity, rigorous focus, and, of course, massive intellectual acuity.

When the spectator first sees him in the film, Holmes is wearing a white lab smock, pouring chemicals from one flask to another. Flames leap rhythmically upwards with each careful drop he adds. Such is the precision of Gillette’s timing that this display of chemistry elicited chuckles from the Film Forum audience. This introduction also echoes the first time Watson lays eyes on Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, heating test tubes over Bunsen burners and exultantly crying, “I’ve found it!” From the beginning, Gillette grounds Holmes the modern myth, Holmes the Victorian superhero, with a sense of wit and whimsy.

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Throughout the movie, Gillette infuses humor into the story through Holmes’s sardonic conceit, his slight swagger, the glimmering pride that endears him to the audience.

Surrounded by thugs, Holmes practically yawns in boredom, “All of these maneuvers have been entirely commonplace. Can’t professor Moriarty show me anything new?” Then the lights go out and, in the blackness the point of light at the tip of his cigar traces zigzags around the screen, a ruse to distract the baddies while he escapes. This puckish cinematic touch conveys the quirky brilliance of Holmes’s mind.

In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, Holmes cheerfully defies Moriarty when the menacing nemesis barges into his flat. Ernest Maupain’s fuming, grimacing, scenery-chewing turn as the Professor fares surprisingly well, since his over-the-top malice contrasts with Gillette’s underplayed strength. When Moriarty leaves in exasperation, Holmes kicks one leg up on his ottoman in a stance of sublime nonchalance and triumphantly puffs smoke from his pipe. It’s the gestural equivalent of a “sick burn.”

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Gillette engages the new medium with virtuosic intimacy. This is a man who transforms the act of taking off gloves into a cinematic event.

The challenge of playing Holmes lies in visually communicating his formidable logic and intellect. Any adaptation runs the risk of getting bogged down in talky deductions or of excluding the viewer from the processes of the detective’s mind. The 1916 Sherlock Holmes avoids both pitfalls, since the lightning-fast current of the great detective’s thoughts expresses itself through Gillette’s elastic face and posture—sometimes changing at breathless speeds, sometimes freezing into a tightly-coiled enigma.

Most daring of all, Gillette took Holmes the “automaton” and gave him a heart.

The Case of the Lovelorn Detective

You can think of the movie’s plot as Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Hits. It cobbles together elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Copper Beeches,” “The Final Solution,” and other Doyle stories along with some of the old standbys of stage melodrama. (The surviving version of Sherlock Holmes also displays the influence of the policier serial, since French distributors chopped the narrative feature into multiple parts.)

Spirited Alice Faulkner inherits a packet of incriminating letters from her sister, who’d been seduced and discarded by a European prince. Mr. and Mrs. Larrabee, leaders of a notorious band of criminals, overhear Alice refusing to sell the letters to the aforementioned caddish potentate. The dastardly duo befriends poor Alice then whisks her off to a secluded estate. Though a virtual prisoner, the clever girl hides the letters before her captors can get at them.

Hired to retrieve the letters, Sherlock Holmes storms the villains’ stronghold and discovers the documents. Yet, confronted by Alice’s fierce loyalty to her sister, Holmes falters. He cannot bring himself to take the letters by force.

Wait, what? The man who “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer”?

Indeed. There are two things going on here, both of which I approve. First, Holmes respects a woman as—get this—a human being with rights and opinions of her own. Second, that respect blossoms into love.

Some might argue that any emotional involvement is a bad move for a Sherlock adaptation. This line of reasoning suggests that Holmes is inherently rational and thus cannot be romantic without betraying his primary attribute. I disagree.

Gillette Sherlock Shooting UpAbove all, Holmes thirsts for complexity. He yearns for new sensations, stimulations, diversions, preoccupations, “all that is outside the conventions and humdrum routines of daily life.” This is a man so addicted to excitement that he’ll pick up a grisly 1890s hypodermic and jab it into his vein to deliver a rush of artificial elation—three times a day, mind—rather than risk boredom.

The great detective regularly shoots up, yet recoils from emotion, lest it interfere with the delicate apparatus of his mind?

Please. Love can’t mess you up any worse than cocaine, Sherlock. (Probably.)

By forcing the great detective to wrestle with his emotions, Gillette used Holmes to explore the dilemma of the quintessential modern individual: he’s hyper-aware of life all around him, yet emotionally disconnected. Gathering data to grasp the big picture, the sleuth shuns the messy mysteries of human experience.

Perhaps Holmes and cinema were meant for each other: the man who’s uncannily like a machine and the machine that produces uncannily lifelike illusions. But if art can come from a contraption, then love can certainly come from “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” as Watson describes Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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The romance unfolds organically within the plot. It builds up not to a love scene but to a third-act confession that brings together Holmes’s two most significant relationships: his growing bond with Alice and his longterm friendship with Watson.

Holmes explains how he’ll let Alice decide the fate of the letters. “Holmes, my good man, you’re in love!” Watson chuckles. The sleuth starts to protest. Instead, he glances down. Bashfully, he puts a hand on his friend’s jacket pocket, close to the heart. Then he looks Watson in the eye and nods, as if to say, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

This small gesture produced gales of rapturous, approving laughter from the audience I watched with. Gillette paces the reaction beautifully, tenderly. By recognizing his feelings for Alice, Holmes doesn’t distance himself from his comrade. Instead, he shares a hitherto-unsuspected piece of his humanity with the good doctor and deepens their confidence.

One understands that Holmes has found the excitement, the tingle, the sense of stimulation he’d been seeking for so long in a romance of the impossible.

His Zen-like detachment yields to his “love of all that is bizarre.” And what could be more bizarre than Sherlock in love? That is the paradox, but, let’s face it, Sherlock has never been one to shy away from paradoxes.

Just as the immortal sleuth returned from his presumed watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls to continue his adventures, the 1916 Sherlock Holmes came back to us from the land of the lost to enchant a new generation. The game’s afoot again for Gillette’s detective, and it’s an adventure to remember.

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Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

posterNowadays, playing a psychopathic murderer is practically a rite of passage for movie stars eager to show off their versatility. But, in the 1930s, Robert Montgomery had to campaign for the privilege.

As Photoplay magazine reported, “He pestered M-G-M officials until they gave in” and agreed to adapt Emlyn Williams’s suspenseful play for the screen. Determined to take on the lethally charming lead role, the actor even agreed to pay for a part of the production.

Montgomery (and the studio) took a big risk with his star image as a coy sophisticate. To put this into perspective, only 10 years before Night Must Fall hit theaters, the ending of another famous thriller, The Lodger, had to be radically altered so that Britain’s favorite matinee idol, Ivor Novello, wouldn’t turn out to be a serial killer.

A decade later, audiences were apparently desensitized enough that the gamble paid off. Montgomery even reported a net increase in fan mail after revealing his dark side.

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Still, the actor certainly alienated a segment of his admirers, one of whom carped, “At a period in the world’s history when horror of one sort or another is our daily dish, it seemed unnecessary for Mr. Montgomery to inflict this spine-chilling opus upon his public.”

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Montgomery was determined to prove a villain. And we should all be grateful that he was, because he gave us one of the most frightening murderers ever to menace the silver screen—possibly the scariest before Psycho—a devilish blend of charisma and repulsiveness.

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Night Must Fall is a delicate exercise in encroaching dread—and one largely controlled by Montgomery, who supposedly took the reigns from uninspired director Richard Thorpe. As the case of a missing woman disturbs the peace of a little English village, beguiling servant boy Danny ingratiates his way into the home of hypochondriac Mrs. Bramson. This crotchety, verbally abusive dowager, played to whinnying perfection by Dame May Whitty, is a just the sort of lady who’d tempt even the most morally-upstanding individuals among us to sweeten her tea with cyanide. She’s well known in the area for her bad temper and supposed cache of hidden money.

Starved for excitement and adventure, Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia, little more than a servant herself, sets out to expose Danny’s true nature at the risk of losing her heart and her life.

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At almost two hours long, the film slowly builds in fear and suspense, eschewing major plot developments in favor of layered characterizations. At the end of most scenes, you’d be hard-pressed to say what’s shifted in the characters’ dynamics, but you sense a looming shock for all those touched by Danny’s deceit.

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With brooding shadows from cinematographer Ray June and, most likely, directorial influence from Montgomery, Night Must Fall paints an idyllic Hollywood version of England, albeit one perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness (as the title suggests).

Unlike the play, which opens with a judge intoning a sentence at a trial, the adaptation begins outside, in the shadows, as a man shown in silhouette whistles to himself while burying something at the base of a tree. The fact that he’s doing so by the light of the moon—and quickly hides when he hears human noise—tells us that he’s not planting daisies.

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The audience thus enters the film’s setting of tea cozies and servants’ quarters already disillusioned, already conditioned to pierce through the veneer of comfort and civilized behavior… already aware of what’s rotting in the garden.

In other words, we see the world a little more like Danny the sociopath does: stripped of warmth, compromised by secrets. A ruthless zero-sum game ironically embellished by roses and doilies. The late-afternoon sunlight and quaint tweedy textures mock the viewer with their insincerity.

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From this tenebrous set-up, the movie as a whole hinges on Montgomery’s performance. He doesn’t disappoint. From the moment his Danny swaggers into Mrs. Bramson’s house—about to be called on the carpet for impregnating a maid—the audience recognizes his uncanny ease and casualness. Nobody’s ever that calm. Unless he hasn’t got a conscience.

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Now, I have no intention of trying to diagnose a fictional character, but I do admire how Montgomery’s acting anticipated clinical descriptions of the psychopath: not so much a full person, but a performance constantly being staged for the benefit of others and even for himself.

In 1941, Dr. Hervey Cleckley published a landmark study of psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity, explaining their fundamental emptiness: “We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly… So perfect is this reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him can point out in scientific or objective terms why he is not real.”

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Indeed, Danny does demonstrate such “machine”-like behavior, as though he’d been studying the way normal people behave, memorizing their habits rote, then playing them back.

Smiles don’t crinkle his eyes enough. His sleepy-eyed reserve erupts too easily into manic merriment. His gleeful recitation of nursery rhymes, his cigarette, forever perched at the same obtuse angle on his lip, that tune he whistles as a default noise—all these idiosyncrasies endow him with a rakishly automatic quality.

Montgomery’s roguish Irish accent, though quite convincing, also contributes to the mechanicalness of the character: too smooth, too mannered upon closer observation.

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Throughout the film, Montgomery often makes his usually animated face go unnervingly blank or impassive, especially when Danny doesn’t think anyone’s watching. At his comic best, the actor could screw up that beautiful mug of his into any number of funny grimaces or provoke laughter with a twitch of his eyebrow.

By contrast, in many medium close-ups from Night Must Fall, his cigarette practically betrays more emotion than he does. Devious melodrama villains snicker and rub their hands whenever they think they’re unobserved; this is at least recognizably human.

Danny apparently possesses the ability to flip his emotions on and off like an electric current—which suggests that he never really felt those emotions anyway.

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The camera heightens the uncanniness of Montgomery’s performance by presenting Danny as a cipher. For instance, as the killer delivers a protracted, morbid speech, imagining the congregation in the local church shuddering while night closes in, the audience sees only the back of Danny’s head. Of course, throughout the entire film, we might as well have been looking at the back of his head the entire time, for how well he conceals his identity.

The menacing, hypnotic stream of words that pours forth from Danny, in contrast to the unreadable back of his head and shoulders, creates an eerie counterpoint that couldn’t have existed on a stage in quite the same way. Danny’s terrifying inscrutability washes over the spectators, jolting us into the realization that even the most outwardly affable individual could harbor a horrible, unknowable hole in place of a personality.

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Nevertheless, the film offers the viewer one unadulterated peek into Danny’s head, one glimpse of the blinding, childish panic that may represent his only genuine feeling. On the night the body in the garden is discovered, Danny peers out through the lace curtains of his window.

We see him from the outside, the glass pane a sliver of light in the midst of darkness, reminding us of the metaphorical barriers the murderer uses to protect himself. Yet, that illuminated square also seemingly holds Danny a prisoner, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as his sins threaten to find him out.

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Suddenly, as he reaches to draw down the curtains, a match-on-action transports us inside his small room. In his pajamas, he appears more vulnerable than usual and almost collapses into a chair. The camera tracks in close, until we’re practically on top of his head, looking over his shoulder, aligned with his mind.

Then the focus racks to give us a sharp line of vision to the hatbox under his bed. The box which, the viewer knows by now, probably contains the head of his victim.

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We get a cut to a close-up of Danny, his shadow an abstract blur on the wall, as he covers his face with his hands.

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This brief, surreal scene, with its especially fancy racked-focus long take, provides the viewer with a benchmark of realness in a film full of dissimulation. (I’d also note that the subjective, psychological camerawork foreshadows the first-person point-of-view in Lady in the Lake, indicating that Montgomery had a hand in directing this scene.)

Danny’s apprehension, his disgust at the object he’s brought into his own living space, and even a hint of necrophilia—I mean, why steal the head?—all bring the nightmare realm of his mind into relief. For the most part, as Cleckley would say, Danny “is not real.”

But for about 30 seconds here, to resort to clinical terminology, shit gets real. Very real.

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While fully embracing the ugliness of his character, Montgomery also harnessed his star image to amplify Danny’s power as a fantasy vehicle. Awful though his deeds are, still more awful is his ability to leverage his evil as a kind of aphrodisiac. As the Scotland Yard inspector jokes about the unknown murderer, he’s a “regular film star” who revels in the publicity and the aura of romanticism that his crimes generate.

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The stakes of Night Must Fall don’t depend on whether Danny is caught or not, but on whether he succeeds in seducing Olivia and, to a certain extent, the audience. His capacity to horrify relates directly to how much we, like Olivia, are excited by his ruthlessness. Danny draws us into pity with stories of his wretched childhood, elicits awe with the virtuosity of his lies, and even gets us rooting for him by targeting the nasty old bag Mrs. Bransom.

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Only at its conclusion does the film allow spectators to perceive Danny in his truest form: a predator who thrives on control and domination. In Williams’s play, Danny, manacled and about to be hauled off to the police station, grabs Olivia and kisses her “violently on the mouth.” Since the movie adaptation of Night Must Fall was released after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, nothing doing there.

However, just you try not to infer a sort of sexual gratification in his wordless triumph as Olivia skulks back to the house to join him, even though she suspects that he’s killed her aunt. Montgomery, a master of irresistible smugness under any circumstances, conveys Danny’s triumphant arrogance, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction and biting his thumb suggestively.

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All in all, Montgomery’s Danny alludes to a hidden temptation, affably fooling most characters, but coaxing the film’s viewers and Olivia irresistibly with the promise of a glimpse of what’s behind his mask. The fact that we do want to see—and that we do watch the howling animal he becomes—chastens us, but leaves us wiser. Well, at least, I hope so.

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In 1937, Photoplay magazine concluded its review of Night Must Fall by warning, “This will have you looking under your beds at night.” Worse, it’ll erode your trust and force you to question what’s real. It’ll make you think twice about the next person who compliments you, who makes you feel special, who makes you feel alive.

And it might even encourage you to look under that person’s bed—for a hatbox…

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This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Shadows and SatinSilver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the other wonderful posts!

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The ABCs of The Thin Man (1934)

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Bad movies tell you outright what they’re about. Great movies keep you guessing long after the last reel. And this, in my opinion, is why The Thin Man is a great movie, as well as one of the most beloved of all time. I usually tune in for Nick and Nora’s repartee, but every time I do I find myself bowled over by the abundance of signifiers, some important, some peripheral, that fill the movie with endless interest and meaning.

So rather than try to make some screwy attempt at a coherent argument (as usual), I thought I’d borrow a playful method from the film scholar Robert B. Ray, author of The ABCs of Classic Hollywood. Here’s my ABC of The Thin Man, probing just 26 facets, factoids, and anecdotes, some expounded at length, some barely scratched, pertaining to this continual treasure of a blockbuster.

Now, this is a really long post and I don’t expect anyone to read the whole thing. Think of it as more of a “choose your own adventure” proposition. Pick a letter and investigate!

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A is for Asta

The most anthropomorphic dog in live action since Rin-Tin-Tin, Asta acts as a kind of parallel audience. He reacts to the action in ways that are funny because they mirror the viewer’s anticipated reactions: cringing at the drunk sing-a-long, discreetly turning away from Nick and Nora’s lovin’, et caetera. However, that is only one of Asta’s functions within the story. He sniffs out a major plot point (Wynant’s body) and reveals important information about the protagonists (slightly frivolous but loving couple with no children—just the dog).

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The shifted gender of Asta from female in the book to male in the movie also invites a comparison between the dog and Nick Charles. After all, doesn’t Nora have both of them somewhat on a leash? I always remember her complacently admonishing expression as Nick shoots balloons off the Christmas tree, the same look one might flash a wayward pet. Reading about the temperament of the wire fox terrier (Asta’s breed), I came across this description, “This is a relatively dominant, very high-energy dog that can become stressed and frustrated without the proper type and amount of exercise, both mental and physical.” As for Nora’s insistence that Nick tackle the case, perhaps she came to the same conclusion about him.

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B is for Box Office

Ah, the holy and inscrutable power of that industry shrine, the box office, which can transform a B movie into a surprise Best Picture Nominee. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that the astronomical success of such an appealing future franchise would come as a shock. But it certainly did. Given a budget of only $231,000—not much at the lavish top-of-the-heap studio M-G-M—the film returned the investment by more than 600%, raking in over a million dollars. An ad in Variety tempted theater owners hit by the Depression with instant success, “Is your cash register on a diet? Get ready for FAT box office for Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man.”

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The bottom line was so amazing that The Thin Man, along with two of M-G-M’s more prestigious projects (Viva Villa! and The Barretts of Wimpole Street), got the nod for Best Picture in 1934. Although it didn’t win, another surprise hit, It Happened One Night, took the gold. 1934 was a good year for dark horses and underdogs.

C is for Christmas

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Hammett’s original novel was set during the holiday season, but if the studio didn’t like this, didn’t discern value in it, believe me, it would’ve been altered. The Thin Man was released in late spring, so it wasn’t intended as a Christmas film. Well, I would argue that the association between Christmas and comfort is so strong that the studio hoped such an ambiance would lure audiences back to the theater multiple times. Christmas = good feelings = better box office returns.

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And yet, am I the only one who finds The Thin Man’s holiday décor a trifle unsettling, especially the slickly minimalist and slightly impersonal seasonal trappings in Nick and Nora’s hotel room? The meaning of Christmas, like that of all family-oriented holidays, forks into two directions: the ideal of togetherness and joy and the potential reality of discord and dysfunction. Within a film that deals extensively with family problems (see also F), the Yuletide backdrop takes on a darkly ironic tone, not entirely unlike the counterpoint of Christmas cheer and despair in It’s a Wonderful Life. For instance, I sense something aggressive in Nick’s little game of shooting up the Christmas tree, effectively taking out his frustrations and excess energy on a quasi-religious symbol of well-being and eternal life.

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Now, I relish his impish target practice as much as the next person, but, like much of what makes us laugh, this routine also hints at something more disturbing, at a regressive urge to destroy things that still beats in the heart of this most civilized and charming of men.  In The Thin Man’s world, merriment and murder coexist even during the hap-happiest season of all.

D is for Darkness

Film noir would officially arrive in Hollywood five years after The Thin Man with The Man on the Third Floor, but W.S. Van Dyke’s movie foreshadowed much of the genre’s style—literally! The first post-credits shot of the movie reveals Wynant’s noir-ish shadow, holding a mechanical apparatus but looking in silhouette like some man-machine hybrid. Low-key lighting prevails through the film’s more suspenseful scenes, contrasting with the high-key sheen we tend to associate with M-G-M movies. In fact, during the scene where Nick discovers Wynant’s body, the screen is entirely dark for a few frames, and this total blackness must’ve proved quite disconcerting for moviegoers.

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Director of photography James Wong Howe, perhaps remembering Joseph von Sternberg’s edict, “The sun casts only one shadow,” objected to W.S. Van Dyke’s and Cedric Gibbons’s request for a movie overcome by shadows. And he was right to do so; if every scene in the film were as tenebrous as the spookier ones, the impact of those scenes would be greatly reduced. Wong Howe keeps those shadows on the fringes of The Thin Man’s world, as though they’re threatening to creep forward and take over the lives of the characters. In film noir, those shades have taken over. But in a comedy-thriller, such darkness would dampen the comedy and take the snap out of the thrills. Thankfully Wong Howe recognized this and, being a master of his profession, he choreographed a delicate dance between darkness and light.

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E is for Eponymous

The eponymous “Thin Man” is not William Powell, of course, (despite his oft-quoted confession that his fitness derived from worrying his pounds away). It’s Wynant, the lanky inventor. Although this fact has elicited its share of chuckles from classic film fans over the years and is fairly well-known as far as movie trivia goes, I mention it more as a testament to  the astonishing power of titles to implant themselves in audience members’ heads. Although images may be universally understood, text asserts a kind of priority over our minds. I find it immensely interesting that viewers’ brains took the straight line of deduction, marrying that title to the lead character’s identity.

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F is for Family

Whether it meant to or not, The Thin Man betrays considerable anxiety about the fragility of family. From the bit-part drunk at Nick and Nora’s party, wailing “Ma!” long distance into the telephone, to the more central questions of the plot, less-than-ideal relationships prove to be the norm, rather than the exception. The Wynant clan, fractured by a messy divorce and an uncomfortable remarriage, makes the Munsters look like the Cleavers. Dorothy’s speech about giving birth to a bunch of little murderers who will hopefully “kill each other and keep it in the family” may be the most genuinely creepy line of dialogue ever spoken at M-G-M. We witness Nunheim’s ugly domestic quarrel and ultimately find out that Jorgeson is a bigamist.

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In fact, the movie borders on commedia dell’arte, with one couple in love at stake, being tried and challenged by lots of unhappy or whacky people in dysfunctional relationships. Pairs of grotesques (Julia Wolf and Morelli, Mr. and the ex-Mrs. Wynant, Mr. and Mrs. Jorgeson, and Nunheim and his moll) threaten the future of the lovers, Dorothy and Tommy. Within this mess, Nick and Nora stand out as the Harlequin and Columbine whose magical union somehow holds the key to our continued hope for love.

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G is for Cedric Gibbons

Although credited as art director on hundreds of movies, Gibbons really served as a supervisor for most of them. Nevertheless, his chic, modern trappings deserve the credit for etching the M-G-M look—elegant, striking, and rarely ornate—upon the public consciousness. Unlike another brilliant celebrity art director, William Cameron Menzies, who tended to give characters large, visually fascinating arenas to play within, Gibbons had a knack for creating glamorized, stylized spaces that still feel surprisingly real. Yeah, okay, that’s a glittering generality, but one that harbors a kernel of truth, I think. Would Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight be as poignant if the décor didn’t seem somehow personal and revealing, full of spaces that happen to be just the right size to express the emotions of the characters—in spite of the cool M-G-M look telling us we’re watching a movie?

vlcsnap-2014-03-02-14h31m05s185Similarly, the layout of Nick and Nora’s hotel room, with its kitchen/cocktail mixing room, sitting room, and bedroom adjoining a large central room, contributes significantly to our understanding of them. Those slightly more intimate spaces give Nick and Nora “wings” in comparison to the “center stage” of that main party room. Not only do the off-shoot spaces facilitate plot development (Dorothy couldn’t talk to Nick privately in the middle of a party!), but they also give us a spectrum of Nick and Nora’s personalities. If the couple were always “on” all the time, we’d soon grow tired of their parlor tricks. They’re still witty with each other, but the back-and-forth exchanges acquire an intimacy in those peripheral spaces that provides the key to the audience’s bond with them.

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H is for Hays Code

As I’ve discussed before, 1934 was a key transitional year in Hollywood history, as the industry fell in line with a set of staunch moral standards known as the Production Code, or sometimes the Hays Code, that had existed, largely unheeded, for years. The retooling of the motion picture industry into something much more normative and family-friendly motivated clever screenwriters, directors, and actors to find increasingly subtle ways to smuggle sex and moral transgression past the censors.

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And The Thin Man is a prime example. The fact that Nick and Nora are married lets them get away with all manner of naughtiness. Who can complain about him sitting on her lap or their constant flirting or Nora’s endless parade of voluptuous loungewear designs? Who would want to? Even censorial honcho Joseph Breen himself wouldn’t dare impugn the sanctity of Nick and Nora’s right to be attracted to each other—and to present a positive onscreen version of marriage.

Within that union, however, a subversive equality kept the spirit of the pre-Code era alive. Nora’s money put Nick in the clear position of a kept man, and one with enough brains to know it.

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I is for Indigestion

During the climactic dinner party scene, the guests are eating oysters. Those oysters were real. Unfortunately. As Myrna Loy recalled, “They wouldn’t bring fresh ones, and under the lights, as shooting wore on, they began to putrefy. By the time we finished that scene, nobody ever wanted to see another oyster.”

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J is for Book Jacket

M-G-M clearly valued the movie’s source material enough to make Hammett’s picture, on a book jacket, the first image of the film, during the credits sequence. This was by no means an uncommon practice for literary adaptations throughout the 1930s and 1940s (and indeed beyond), partially as a means of building up the prestige of the film industry by leaning on the novel. In this case, banking on a celebrity author also raises expectations and sends the audience a signal about how to react: “Dashiell Hammett wrote this. You will be excited and entertained.”

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K is for Robert Kern

As far as I’m concerned, film editors cannot be given too much respect. Robert Kern, who cut The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, and The Shadow of the Thin Man, isn’t very well known as far as Golden Age editors go. However, he did work on some distinguished films, including Anna Karenina and The Women, and quite a few big-name prestige movies at M-G-M where he was under contract. The editing in The Thin Man does occasionally call attention to itself, especially during smash cut transitions between scenes that keep the viewer alert, more so than the average 1930s film, I’d say. But Kern’s expert timing proves most valuable during the famous dinner party scene, which lasts over ten minutes, thus posing a considerable threat to the film’s brisk pace up to that point. Now, I realize that Woody Van Dyke did a lot of the editing in the camera; that is, he was a big exponent of only shooting what would end up in the film.

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Nevertheless, even if Van Dyke had a clear idea of the order of shots, a few frames of dead air and the scene would sag. Cut too soon, though, and you alienate an audience already overloaded with information. So, I applaud Kern’s accelerating editing, starting with shots that last a little longer than they needed to (you almost expect someone to yell CUT! at some point) and proceeding to snappily suspicious exchanged glances. It’s a masterpiece of pacing, of knowing the value of each and every foot of film.

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I’d also note that Kern had recently edited two of Myrna Loy’s biggest pictures before The Thin Man: Penthouse and The Prizefighter and the Lady. Just from making GIFs, I know that if you spend enough time working with footage of one person, you become intimately, almost unconsciously aware of how they move, what their mannerisms are, when they’re going to blink. So, although I would never dispute Loy’s natural gifts, I’d also credit Kerns with enhancing her punch as comedienne. Her close-ups, especially, never feel contemplative or drawn-out, but rather hit you with their straightforward vivacity.

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So, let’s all take a moment of silence for a silent partner in the dream team that was the Thin Man franchise.

L is for Liquor

What’s with all the drinking? Modern viewers might find themselves slightly shocked by the sheer alcohol consumption in The Thin Man—bordering on caricature. Now, I recognize that widespread heavy drinking was a much more hardwired cultural practice in the early to mid-20th century, but still. Heck, a few Thin Man movies later and by the 1940s, writers realized it was time for Nick Charles to curb his intake and get on the wagon, albeit briefly. Drinking is a major source of conversation and one of Nick’s defining characteristics. Notice that Nora’s drinking is more casual, less pervasive than her glass-draining hubby.

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Last time I watched the movie, I was struck by the fact that Nick, making the rounds of his Christmas party with a tray of cocktails, calls out, “Ammunition!” At the risk of inferring too much (always), I find this rallying cry more than a little revealing. Nick’s about the right age to have served in WWI, worked in law enforcement like many veterans, and wears a trench coat. Maybe drinking is his ammunition, against some of the things he’d like to forget.

M is for Montage Sequences

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I love 1930s headline montage sequences, but they sometimes make me glaze over. I mean, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, right? Not necessarily. The Thin Man offers some beautiful examples of how to keep your audience awake during these plot shorthand passages of rapid editing and stock footage. The sinister, elongated silhouette of Wynant that appears over the headlines proclaiming his guilt. Extreme close-ups of a policeman add a little expressionistic disorientation for a change. In one visually stunning touch, a net, representing the network of police looking for Wynant, sprouts from New York City to cover the whole USA. A film is only as good as its most boring scene, and even the headline montages in The Thin Man display a dynamic flair characteristic of the movie as a whole.

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N is for Nora

Nora is a name that I happen to know a bit about, because it’s also my own. (Yes, really.) Originally a diminutive of Honora or Eleanora, Nora may, for all we know, not be her full name. Both she and Nick have short, catchy names; the punchy, slightly teasing alliteration (as in na-na-na-na-NA-NA!) of the N’s tells us that it’s true love. They’re made for each other. However, her name is two syllables and is thus more musical and complex—and more balanced, given the even combinations of consonants and vowels. Indeed, Nora represents the less volatile of the pair; Nick moves in fits and starts whereas Nora, her energetic entrance notwithstanding, generally maintains a state of languid readiness throughout the film.

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Nora means ‘honor,’ and thus proves the perfect moniker for straight-shooting, self-possessed Mrs. Charles. Though considered a sophisticated name nowadays, it’s actually one that would’ve held more working class connotations in the 1930s, I suspect. It’s also a somewhat ethnically coded name—“Nora” is Hollywood’s go-to name for Irish maids. Indeed, my touchy Irish grandmother, born in the early 1920s, objected to my parents naming me Nora because she claimed it was a “maid’s name.” Would that mean that Nora is nouveau riche? It seems more likely that the daughter of a parvenu family, rather than an old money house, would be allowed to marry whomever she chose, even a “Greek louse,” as she describes Nick in Hammett’s novel.

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O is for Oedipus complex

Gilbertt Wynant, the bespectacled, Freud-thumping, pseudo-intellectual, accuses his sister of suffering from an Oedipus complex. The young pedant is mistaken, of course. He means Electra complex, a woman’s excessive psychosexual fixation on her father. I’m not sure whether the screenwriters made this error intentionally, but it would make sense—an Oedipus complex would’ve been more readily recognized by audiences as part of Freudian jargon.

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Plus, this mistake suggests young Wynant’s dilettantism; he applies psychoanalytic terminology without grasping even the fundamentals. More than pure comic relief, young Gilbertt presents a humorous parody of detectives who rely on psychologizing to catch crooks, as he insists that the murderer might be a psychopath or a sadist, and ignores the more important motives all around. Staring intently at anyone who comes within range, thethinmanlargeGilbertt is just another cue for audiences to read The Thin Man not only as a murder mystery, but also as a deconstruction of murder mystery tropes, already clichés back in 1934.

P is for Poster

The posters that originally promoted The Thin Man betray some of the studio’s initial ambivalence towards the project, especially towards Myrna Loy as its star. One version of the poster art features Nick Charles and Dorothy Wynant locked in an intimate toast while Nora Charles, a disembodied head, floats in a lower corner, looking rather grumpy. I don’t blame her.

semicercleA more well-known poster (the cover of the DVD I own) shows Nick and Nora trying to lift a panic-stricken Dorothy from the ground, her shapely legs fetchingly exposed. Apart from the graphically interesting curve formed by the font, the most interesting thing about this poster design resides in its sensationalism. Dorothy is made to look like the victim of a violent attack—or perhaps the instigator of one, judging from the gun she clutches—whereas Nick and Nora appear to be restraining/helping her. The ambiguous, looming postures of Nick and Nora—Are they detectives? Samaritans? Kidnappers?—plays into a marketing concept for the film as a pulpy crime story. In other words, The Thin Man is presented less as a blithe comedy-thriller than as a hardboiled Hammett yarn, like something you might read in Black Mask.

yellowOn probably the most accurate poster for the domestic market, Nick and Nora dominate, locked in an embrace at the bottom edge of the yellow sheet. The fact that their shoulders fill the full width of the frame gives them a larger-than-life aura. The artist must’ve seen the film, or at least stills from it, because the embrace closely resembles the pair’s kiss as Nora coos, “I love you because you know such lovely people.” The artist even caught the little pout of sarcasm around Loy’s mouth. Now, this is the couple we know and love.

Q is for Quotation

At the very end of the film, as Nick Charles leaves Dorothy and her husband on their wedding night, he calls out, ironically, “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Nick Charles quoting Hamlet firstly provides another illustration of his topsy-turvy wit. After all, he’s blessing a classic comedy denouement—two celebrating couples—with the ending of a tragedy. However, the allusion also suggests his underlying cultural refinement. This sassy gumshoe was a gentleman long before he married Nora and became a man of leisure.

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R is for Rhythm

For a rather uncommon word, “rhythm” makes two interesting appearances in The Thin Man: the first when Nick Charles lectures on cocktail-shaking tempi, the second when a musical director urges lines of chorus girls “Rhythm! Rhythm!” Perhaps the preoccupation with rhythm was just in the air during the shooting of a movie that depends so much on pacing and split-second timing to set it apart from similar formulaic mysteries. Indeed, attempting to explain his chemistry with Myrna Loy, William Powell recalled that, from their first scene together in Manhattan Melodrama, “a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in the other.”

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S is for Smash Cut

The Thin Man Drinking Game:

Rule 1: Take a shot every time there’s a smash cut (that is, an abrupt cut from one scene to another, intentional discontinuity).

Rule 2: Try not to get plastered.

Rule 3: Keep an icebag on hand for tomorrow.

T is for Trailer

The trailer for The Thin Man is an exceedingly unusual one. Most 1930s trailers weren’t so different from the ones you see in theatres today, albeit with less dramatic music. Sure, 1930s trailers made greater use of title cards and onscreen text, but they usually offered a few sample scenes that spoke for the film. I’ve seen a few trailers from the 1930s in which a character, or the actor who portrays him, addresses the spectator and urges him to see the film. But the trailer for The Thin Man is singularly creative in its odd introduction of the film’s plot and its mash-ups of fictional characters and reality.

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At the beginning of the trailer, a split screen enables a doubled William Powell to talk to himself—or rather to let Philo Vance, whom Powell had previously played at Warner Brothers, to hold a conversation with Nick Charles, on a book jacket for The Thin Man. At one point, Powell-as-Nick even steps out of the book jacket to converse more easily with his detective doppelganger. After a few scenes from the movie, the trailer returns to Philo and Nick, whereupon Nick climbs back into the book, claiming that the answer to the mystery is there.

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Like the film’s credits sequence (see also J), the trailer appropriates the book jacket as an emblem of artistic worth and legitimacy. This trailer not only serves to remind the viewer of Powell’s past successes in detective roles, but also carves out a modified, sexier persona for him. Whereas Philo Vance seems straightforward and dapper, Nick Charles immediately impresses us as sarcastic and engaging. He even tickles the audience with some meta-jokes, like allusions to Clark Gable, with whom Powell had made Manhattan Melodrama, and to M-G-M. More interesting, the trailer equates the “book,” represented by the man-sized book jacket, with the film, the moving likeness of William Powell. But clearly, no book could hold a life-sized detective! In a way, this piece of promotion seems to pay tribute to the novel, while it subtly asserts film as the superior medium.

U is for Urban

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The Thin Man offers a masterful example of M-G-M’s ability to create a streamlined version of almost any location on its backlot. Though a soundstage is no substitute for New York, the sparse, but redolent street scenes, the swanky interiors, and the glittering city lights seen through windows demonstrate how good the studios had gotten at evoking the ambiance of the city. For people all across America, in a time before easy transit, this was their mental image of NYC, of the world’s most celebrated urban environment.

V is for Villain

In retrospect, MacCauley stands out as a rather obvious villain. Why? Because he’s pretty much the only character with no obvious motive and such an omission, in the mystery cosmos, practically screams, “J’accuse!” And the fact that plump-faced Porter Hall, one of the most enduringly unlikeable character actors onscreen, though a sweetheart in real life, plays MacCauley should be a dead giveaway.  The squabbling Wynant family thus sends up a great big smoke screen, obscuring MacCauley’s motives.

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The film also employs some adroit visual misdirection to deter the audience from giving the lawyer any thought at all. For instance, as Wynant explains his departure plans to MacCauley, the inventor rises into the shadows on an elevator and the movement encourages us to look at the inventor as he slowly disappears—not at the lowly lawyer asking him for information about his plans. We peer at the moving object, Wynant, and fail to observe the suspicious manner of the lawyer. Later, while MacCauley makes a phone call at the Charles’s, we’re so taken in by Nick and Nora poking each other that we barely get a word of what MacCauley says.

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MacCauley also offers a kind of escape valve for the plot. If any of the Wynant family really were guilty, it would mean curtains for Dorothy and Tommy’s hopes of a contented life. MacCauley, a professional man gone wrong, represents an acceptable sacrifice, one that goes unmourned by the other characters.  Nevertheless, not unlike many film noir protagonists to come, MacCauley remains a somewhat disturbing choice of villain because, amongst the whole pack of crooks and loonies, he appears the most outwardly mundane.

W is for Woodbridge Strong ‘Woody’ Van Dyke

Without W.S. Van Dyke, popularly known as One-Take Woody, this movie would not exist. Today, I admire its artistry and deft construction, but I can practically hear master craftsman Woody heckling me from the other side. After all, this was a man who unequivocally refused the title of artist: “I resent simpering idiots who babble about the Artistic Urge in a director’s job.” For him, the highest praise came in commercial profitability.

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Yet, Van Dyke betrayed uncommon sensitivity to performers’ strengths and weaknesses. Noticing Myrna Loy and William Powell’s breezy banter on the set of Manhattan Melodrama, he perceived what no one else at M-G-M seemed to recognize: the makings of a peerless comedy team.

Pitching the Thin Man project to a skeptical Louis B. Mayer, Van Dyke ultimately convinced the formidable executive. How? Well, I suspect that it had a lot to do with the director’s track record of no-fuss shooting and reliable production. The reserves of respect that Van Dyke built up in Mayer’s fiefdom earned posterity the treat we still have. When a terminally ill Van Dyke committed suicide a few years later, Mayer was devastated.

X is for X-Ray

A literal X-ray provides one of the most vital clues in the whodunit—revealing the telltale bit of shrapnel that Nick recognizes as an old war wound of Wynant’s—but it’s not the only instance of X-ray vision in the film. As Morelli loiters in Julia Wolf’s apartment, he holds a special “art study” to the light and reveals the risqué lingerie worn by the models. Other than exposing Morelli’s sleazy nature, this detail holds no narrative significance.

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Yet it foreshadows that later, much more important X-ray, balancing it out, turning what could’ve been a one-off into a proper motif. In a film full of confusion and misdirection, X-ray vision is what everyone wants and nobody—not even Nick Charles—possesses. These parallel X-rays, one racy, one morbid, hint at the underlying realities all around us to which we remain blind, realities often linked to sexuality, like the lingerie beneath the clothes, and death, like the bones under all of our skins.

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Y is for Year of Birth

Joking around the night before the climactic dinner party scene, Nick asks Nora, “What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” She looks away—positioned above Nick in a tight, intimate framing, cutting off part of Nick’s head—and coos, “I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” There’s a reverse shot to Nick who does a double take, suddenly brought back to the awareness of how much younger his wife is than him.

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Indeed, Loy was born in 1905. William Powell was born more than ten years earlier, in 1892. Given that Hollywood continues to peddle relationships between older men and much younger women without batting a false eyelash, I appreciate the candor inherent in this moment of age comparison shock.

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Z is for Zingers

Oh, it’s all right, Joe. It’s all right. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.

Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

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Like this exchange, most of the zingers that we remember from The Thin Man don’t come from Dashiell Hammett, who penned the original novel that, as you might expect, is noticeably more cynical than its bubbly screen adaptation. While Nick and Nora’s baiting relationship in the book, famously based on Hammett’s turbulent affair with writer Lillian Hellman, provides a blueprint for the onscreen couple, something is definitely missing.  The film froths with a joie-de-vivre that doesn’t derive from the novel, in my opinion. So where did it come from?

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Well, a good place to start looking is the screenplay, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the supremely witty team who also collaborated on two more Thin Man movies, plus It’s a Wonderful Life, and Father of the Bride, among many others.

And—here’s the kicker—Goodrich and Hackett were man and wife when they wrote it. In fact, they were married from 1931 to 1984, a whopping, golden 53 years. I always suspected that zingers are the key to a long and successful marriage. This real-life Nick and Nora prove it.

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Final note: this is a slightly tardy entry to the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Out of Tune: Murder at the Vanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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King Leer gets a backstage pass…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just you wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all look remarkably similar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress. However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, she takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate had transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she practically is supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we still have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

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Seeing in the Dark: Eyes in the Night (1942)

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The small, rotund man cannot see, although the light is on. He stands in a basement and in a few moments, his enemies will descend to kill him. But he’s not concerned. He taps his cane around the ceiling, listening to the sound it makes on the pipes, until he finds the suspended single-bulb lamp. And with a wry smile and a swing of his cane, he bashes it and plunges the room into total blackness.

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“You haven’t got a chance, blind man.” Two shots peal into the darkness: tiny, instantaneous streaks of light. A metallic noise jangles from one part of the room. Another futile shot. Another clanging feint. Another shot.

“Where are ya?” The adversary’s voice calls, suddenly frightened.

“In the dark… in the dark. In my kingdom.”

As this tense confrontation plays out in Eyes in the Night, the screen remains almost totally black, punctuated only by a few sparks of gunfire. This film about Duncan Maclain, a detective with a visual impairment, reaches its climax by forcing the viewer to live his condition for a few nail-biting minutes. By doing so, this MGM thriller establishes a striking bond of sympathy between the audience and its protagonist and shocks us by denying viewers the visual clarity and self-effacing continuity that we expect from a classical Hollywood film.

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Usually, we movie spectators feel by seeing. We let our eyes supply the necessary information to our sensory memory to understand what the characters are experiencing and our vicarious impression of action, whether it’s a slug to the jaw or a smooch. Our blind protagonist reverses this sensorial metonymy: he sees by feeling. Whether using an awl and a braille template to take notes or stroking the floor of a crime scene to determine which way a corpse was dragged, his fingers guide our eyes in haptic contemplation and force us to recognize the strange link between eyes and touch, a relationship inverted between the seeing audience and Maclain.

When Eyes in the Night aired on Turner Classic Movies this past autumn, I tuned in, anticipating a run-of-the-mill potboiler. I was quite surprised how much this yarn has stayed with me since then. During a dark evening spent at a tense house where Nazis lurk behind every balustrade, Maclain’s sightless eyes paradoxically “see” more than anyone else can. He navigates the blackness with ease and skill; his enhanced senses cloak him with an almost uncanny power.

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The plot offers up one of those odd mashups of domestic drama and international intrigue, in varying degrees, that you get in the 1940s (think The Stranger, Ministry of Fear, Secret Command, or even Mrs. Miniver). In this case, Duncan Maclain, a detective who retired after losing his sight, is asked by a friend to put an end to her stepdaughter’s unhealthy relationship with an older man—and inevitably ends up uncovering an Axis plot during WWII. Did I mention that the bratty stepdaughter’s father is a preeminent scientist, working on research vital to the war effort? Do I need to? Or could you have surmised that already?

The film made it to TCM primetime not because of its nutty plot contrivances, but as a selection from guest-programmer Lawrence Carter-Long, Executive Director of the New York City Disabilities Network, who organized a series around the theme of disability. I’m very grateful that this novel B-movie came to my attention and today I’d like to share it with all of you.

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In addition to its sensitive portrayal of blindness, Eyes in the Night deserves to be watched for its place in Fred Zinneman’s authorial canon as one of his first features, along with Kid Glove Killer which he also shot in 1942. According to the informative TCM article about this movie, Zinneman, who would go on to give us From Here to Eternity and High Noon didn’t give this film a lot of respect when he reflected on his career. Nevertheless, I would categorize it as a promising debut with a strong noirish flair and one brilliantly ahead-of-its-time stylistic set piece, the fight in the dark. The performances instill what might’ve been a colorless entry in the spy thriller genre with a deliciously melodramatic ambiance.

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Ann Harding, returning to the screen after her nervous breakdown, makes the most of a thankless stepmom role as an actress now happily married to the aforementioned Dr. MacGuffin—er, Dr. Lawry. You can read genuine concern over her wayward stepdaughter in her sincere eyes and graceful gestures. Faced with an ex-lover who’s now romancing her husband’s daughter, she goes to meet him in a theater and listens to this aging Don Juan’s florid protestations:

“I love Barbara, utterly and devotedly. If she’ll have me, I’ll marry her. All my life I’ve waited for someone like her—beautiful and talented. Alive as a breath of spring. Now that I’ve found her I’ll never let her go.”

Never missing a beat, she starts clapping, adding a sarcastic, “Bravo…You ham!” What do you know? Mom’s got some backbone! And a whole lot of fortitude.

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Of course, anyone who could spend five minutes in the presence of that stepdaughter without slapping her silly must’ve had more patience than Stanley Kubrick’s clapper loader. Annoying to the point of sociopathic bitchiness, Donna Reed milks her honey-voiced tramp part for all it’s worth. I must confess, I never would have imagined the soon-to-be Mrs. George Bailey capable of hissing nasty, sexually precocious insinuations at her saintly stepmom, like the following:

“It seems to me your duty is perfectly clear, then. You should go to my father and tell him that I’m going out with a bad man. And when he asks you how you know he’s a bad man, tell him. Tell him you know from personal experience.” [Wink, wink!]

The cast also features Friday, a mischievous, scene-stealing canine of the heroic Rin-Tin-Tin ilk, as Maclain’s loyal seeing-eye dog.

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This film was released right in the middle of World War II, so its Nazis-turned-amateur-theatrical-players might strike the modern viewer as quaintly amusing, but would have probably seemed much more menacing to 1940s audiences. Lest we forget, the Nazi ideology advocated eugenics, specifically the extermination of those with disabilities, considered unfit to procreate.

As a person with a visual impairment, Duncan Maclain completely rips apart that monstrous prejudice with his courage, competence, and intelligence. In an era when President Roosevelt still had to carefully conceal his polio-weakened legs for fear that they would damage his reputation, Arnold’s character projects a loud-and-proud acceptance of his disability that I find truly inspiring. Not only does Maclain refuse to let his blindness hinder or depress him, but he also uses it to his advantage. His attitude stands out as probably the most modern aspect of Eyes in the Night.

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Arnold’s passionate investment in his role most likely stemmed from early life experience; his father had contracted a tropical fever while serving in the Navy, which ultimately incapacitated him and rendered him unable to support his family. His vision also deteriorated, eventually leaving him blind. In Arnold’s autobiography, Lorenzo Goes to Hollywood, the actor wistfully remembered his father, “Someone had to be with him constantly, and his only pleasure was to sit in his wheel chair on sunny days in the park.” Arnold would sometimes describe what he saw to his father, serving as his eyes.

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At the risk of inferring too much, I feel that Arnold imbued his character with some of this poetic sadness that he witnessed firsthand. Although he plays Maclain without an ounce of self-pity, the sense of regret that he conveys as he gingerly touches Mrs. Lawry’s face adds to the complexity of his character. He tells her, “You’re just as beautiful as ever. The only time I mind not having eyes is when you’re around.” That instant of melancholy, early in the film, makes Arnold’s portrayal complete. He emerges not as a gimmicky blind detective or as some poster child for not letting a major disability get you down, but as an interesting, quick-witted ex-cop who happens to be blind.

I also enjoyed how Maclain adroitly manipulates and mocks his fascist foes by pretending to be a grotesque stereotype of an infirm, middle-aged man. He insinuates himself into the Lawry house as Mrs. Lawry’s uncle and proceeds to publicly stumble around and even fake a convincing drunk—all in the service of flushing out the baddies. So give this strange MGM B-movie a watch—it’s free, what have you got to lose?—and leave me a comment to let me know what you think!

Click here to watch this film on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.

N.B. This movie does contain some unfortunate casual racism in the form of Mantan Moreland as a comical, wide-eyed, offensive African American butler. It’s a shame that this movie, which looks forward in many ways, chose to revert to entrenched tropes for this portrayal.

The Adventuress (1946): Irish I Were a Spy

posterI think being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the same.

—Iris Murdoch  

Today, I’d like to share one the most pleasurable movies I’ve ever encountered.

There’s honestly not a day in my life when I couldn’t watch The Adventuress (alternate title: I See a Dark Stranger), a masterfully scripted concoction of comedy, suspense, and romance, all permeated with the whimsy and mulishness of the Irish spirit.

The movie was a hit in its day—both in the UK and in the US—and it’s still a hit with me.

As small-town lass Bridie Quilty, Deborah Kerr barrels through this delightful spy thriller in a flurry of high-tempered outbursts, unleashing a torrent of illogical pronouncements. Growing up listening to her father’s theatrical tales of the quelled 1916 Irish Rebellion, Bridie only wants one thing in life: to get revenge on the British by joining the IRA.

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Bridie Quilty: portrait of a would-be revolutionary

She confesses her grand nationalistic ambition to a disillusioned IRA rebel-turned-gallery curator in a scene that never fails to make me chuckle at its understated humor. Looking like a schoolgirl who wandered away from her museum tour, she demurely announces, “I’d like to join the IRA. Please.” You can tell it’s something she’s fantasized about so frequently that all the risks and ramifications of the wild decision have melted away until it’s as commonplace a remark as, “Please pass the milk.”

Bridie’s single-mindedness reflects an inculcated hatred so intense it could be mistaken for a kind of mechanical vacantness—if it weren’t for the warmth glowing through her wide, offended eyes.

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If this sounds like the condescending stereotype of an Irish woman you’d expect from 1940s British film, it’s certainly not. I’ll address that in a bit.

In the meantime, since I’m doing my best to pick away at some queasy points of nationalism and centuries of troubles, perhaps this is a good juncture to issue a disclaimer. Here goes, my loves, my doves, my darlings!

Believe me, whatever I write in this blog post is imbued with fondness and admiration for the Irish, for the sacred soil of Eire, for the fierce blood of my Gaelic chieftain ancestors, and for John Ford’s sainted eye-patch.

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I’m half Irish. But that’s a kind of a problem for me. Because, ever since I, at 6 years old, first started mimicking a generic BBC accent, I’ve always identified most with—gasp—the British! That may sound inconsequential, but my late grandfather ran guns to the IRA in the heady days of Bobby Sands. My mother occasionally gets misty about the trees that she claims were stolen from the Irish by their beastly (apparently furniture-loving) oppressors. My family is (supposedly) remotely descended from the first king of Ireland.

Nobody in my clan has EVER worn Reebok sneakers—because of the British flag emblazoned on them.

So, as a Kipling-quoting, Royal-watching, keeping-calm-and-carrying-on British sympathizer, I’m a real black sheep in the family. I guess I just like to be on the winning side and, as Iris Murdoch observed in the quote above, being Irish often translates into a life of lamentation and underlying resentment of “tak[ing] second place all the same.”

I’m very culturally conflicted—cue the violins, please… I mean, the harp. See? Conflicted!

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Which brings me back to The Adventuress and why I love it so much. This movie works a small miracle: it’s both veddy English and sublimely Irish.

That famous British cynicism echoes through every line of dialogue spoken by those laconic limeys in the cast. For instance:

Miller (dying): There’s a bullet inside me.

Bridie: How d’you know?

Miller: Because it didn’t come out.

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Or…

Bridie (denouncing Oliver Cromwell, scourge of Ireland): My grandfather’s great-great-grandfather knew him well!

Major David Bain: That’s getting a bit remote, isn’t?

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Long before Monty Python lampooned Britishness, the crack screenwriting team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder lovingly parodied their own culture with wacky comedies and mordant, taut thrillers. You might recognize their askew humor from The Lady Vanishes and The Night Train to Munich.

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The pair formed a production company and collaborated on the writing and directing of over 40 films; Launder directed this one. In The Adventuress, as in many other Gilliat and Launder films, the quirkiness of ordinary English life—manifested by quaint train cars, dusty book shops, little old ladies, pettifogging military types, bland gentlemen in sedate suits—takes on a topsy-turvy danger.

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As for the Irish elements of the script, well, Bridie Quilty is the main attraction. Her misplaced determination, her incisive way with words, and her quicksilver changes in judgment all typify traits that I recognize as key characteristics of Irishness.

In terms of representation, her Irishness is compounded with her femininity to produce an obstinate creature all the more funny because she takes herself deadly serious. At once mercurial and immovable, she is always right. Always. Even when she’s wrong. As she insists, “It’s no use telling me. I’ve made up me mind and all the powers on earth won’t change it.”

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And that obstinacy is amusing, for sure, but Kerr also hints at the ironic sadness of it. Something about having to accept the reality of “second place,” as Iris Murdoch put it, triggers the unshakeable belief that you must indeed be the cheated winner.

Although it might be tempting to condemn Bridie as a caricature, Gilliat and Launder endow her with a depth of personality that makes her much more than a stereotype. The audience comes to care about her—not in spite of her headstrong quest for vengeance and her irrationality, but because of those attributes. Her Irishness comes across as both beguiling and threatening.

We see often see the world as Bridie sees it. He subconscious even materializes for the audience during a creepy, expressionistic dream sequence. After dumping the dead body of one of her spy confederates, she spends the rainy night listening to the creaking sign of the inn where she’s staying—a sound that turns into the merciless rhythm of a metronome as she’s forced to play scales at a piano… and dump the body again and again in her mind.

The viewer shares Bridie’s anxiety and sympathizes with this nice girl who’s gotten in way over her head. Attracted by freedom and adventure, she chose to become a spy—only to find herself weighed down by a corpse and at the mercy of mysterious orders.

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We also gain privileged access to Bridie’s thoughts through lots of intimate voice-overs. Consider, for instance, this long passage of narration wherein she forms her opinion of the man seated in the same train compartment with her:

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“His hair is going grey, but it looks very nice the way he has it brushed. He’s a faraway look in his eyes… a poet maybe. No, he’s much too clean. And he puts his trousers under the mattress like Terence Delaney. Hasn’t he lovely nails? He’s a gentleman, I think. I don’t like being alone with a strange man at this time of night. He doesn’t look that sort of man, of course, but how can you tell? Mr. McGee didn’t look that sort of man, and Mr. Clogherty… was a terrible shock to me. Hmm, he’s a traveller from abroad. Miller, Miller, that can’t be an Irish name… he’s English! Of all of the compartments of this train, I have to get into one with an Englishman. Why, I might have known it! Will you look at him, will you look at the cruel set of his jaw! You could mistake him for Cromwell!”

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Accompanied by the many shadings of facial expressions that Deborah Kerr lends to the part, this internal monologue charms us into loving Bridie. That affection for the protagonist may not come as a surprise now that Ireland and England are  on the best terms they’ve ever been, but in 1946, she would’ve been much more alarming to British audiences.

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“He’s English!”

Throughout the first half of the film, we recognize the realness and dangerousness of Bridie’s anger. She hates England to the point of becoming a spy for Germany during World War II. As an avenging angel for Eire, she sets the stakes of her fury quite high.

Yet Gilliat and Launder allude to some damn good reasons why Bridie might want to become the avenger of her culture. Visiting Ireland’s National Gallery, she exchanges glances with a portrait of Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman knighted by the British for his fight against brutal Belgian imperialism in the Congo (think Heart of Darkness)… then executed by the British because he supported the 1916 Irish uprising.

Bridie’s righteous, understated rage fills the air as she stands before the painting, her shadow connecting her to Casement, as the score strikes a mournful note. The moment seems like as a subtle mea culpa for British Imperialism—in a British film by British screenwriters.

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Despite the introspective tone of the scene, however, it doesn’t reduce the perils of Bridie’s vengeful anger—it intensifies them by strengthening her convictions. A few strains of the Irish folk song “Kelly the Boy from Killane” break into the musical score, as though jolting Bridie out of a reverie and reminding her of her dark purpose. She wants to take down the British Empire if she can, for her father, for Casement, for her whole persecuted race. This is no hyperbole. It’s Bride’s reality.

That’s a pretty terrifying thought—or would’ve been to British viewers, I’ll wager. Technically, Bridie is a traitor to the realm. Think about it: a beautiful Irish agent working for the Axis could easily make for a memorable femme fatale villain, not a heroine.

After all, Bridie teams up with Mr. Miller who (despite his resemblance to Cromwell) handles surveillance and sabotage missions for Nazi Germany on British soil. Once Miller gets shot during a risky job, he sends Bridie to retrieve a black book containing vital information about the D-Day landing so she can hand it over to the Axis.

Along her journey, she’s trailed by a dogged, cocky British major (a young, swoon-worthy Trevor Howard) who’s fallen for Bridie and wants to help her out.

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By making Bridie a romantic partner and an ultimately ineffectual spy, Gilliat and Launder defuse her rage with adorableness. I don’t use that word idly; there’s something slightly diminishing in all cuteness.

One who notices cuteness tends to be looking down from above. Cuteness is a “second place” prize, to take up Iris Murdoch’s insight once again. We often call things cute to approve of them condescendingly.

I’d argue that we project cuteness onto things to make them less scary. Certain personalities brand themselves as cute to attract a wider audience that might otherwise be intimidated by their talents, abilities, and passions. Bridie’s Irishness appeals to us because we learn that, in spite of her professed desire to destroy England, underneath it all, her gestures of rebellion are cute and symbolic.

The movie starts with just such a symbolic gesture. In a dinky Irish pub, Bridie’s father musters up battalions of alliterations and metaphors to tell a persuasive yarn about fighting off thousands of Englishmen sent to quell the 1916 rebellion. As Danny Quilty holds his audience rapt, the camera slides in through a window and peers around the room like an uninvited observer (an eavesdropping English spectator, perhaps?).

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Meanwhile, Bridie sits aside, a young girl absorbing what she hears like a sponge, although she knows the words of her father’s speech so well that she mouths them along with him.

One cannot deny the power of this scene, of Danny Quilty’s words as a collective memory that binds together a whole band of men, of the communal singing of “Kelly the Boy from Killane.” This group therapy session channels the Irish passion for their land and their mourning for their lack of control over their own turf. And we watch this surge of manly grief being passed on to a young girl.

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Only afterwards do we, the viewers, realize that most of these fine sons of Eire have never spilt a drop of blood for their motherland. They come to the pub to listen to Danny as a way of vicariously experiencing the doomed struggle for Home Rule—and even Danny probably never participated in the revolt.

His cleverly conjured memories consist mostly of blarney. He set out on his bike for Dublin to join the fight, but, as one doubtful old woman remarks, “there are a lot of pubs between here and Dublin.”

We Irish possess an almost hypnotic eloquence (“we” in general, not me so much) sustained by a gift for harmless hyperbole. Our bark is worse that our bite, you might say.

In much the same way, Bridie gets herself embroiled in international espionage, but baulks at any misdeed greater than vandalism. I mean, sure, she’ll throw paint on a village statue of Cromwell, but, when push comes to shove, she’s not all that into self-sacrifice, and she nearly has a conniption when Mr. Miller tells her to pull a Mata Hari and seduce someone.

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Another mythical facet of the Irishness has set its mark on Bridie: she’s a chosen daughter of fate. This assertion sounds strange, I know, but fate smiles on the Irish in strange ways: denied autonomy in their own land, the Irish turn into adventurers, sages, seers, the darlings of fickle fortune, for a moment at least. Swift, Yeats, Wilde, Joyce!

Bridie might not be on a par with those star-chosen sons of Eire, but through a series of crazy adventures, she ends up with the key to the whole world’s crazy adventure—the black book of information that could sink the Allied attack at Normandy.

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Through her bumbling she obtains it, through her courage she destroys it, and through her sheer stubbornness she faces down the consequences. She’s no longer taking “second place.”

In the end, her destiny deviates from what she wanted—but it still means that Bridie the Adorable, Bridie the Comical Irish Slip of a Thing, holds thousands of lives and the power to make history, in her hands for a short while.

And she hates it.

Perhaps second place isn’t so bad after all, we understand.

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Bridie’s eyes widen as the consequences of her actions dawn on her. “What desperate thing are you about, girl?” She asks herself in voice-over. “You’re holdin’ the Book of Fate in yer hands!”

The Adventuress concludes its whirling dance between condescension, sympathy, and, yes, admiration with regards to Bridie by marrying England and Ireland, two polarized cultures. Because—no surprises here—the fetching lass of the Emerald Isles gets hitched to the brave English officer.

And not just any English officer: Trevor Bloody Howard, a man as white as the Cliffs of Dover with a jaw like the Stone of Scone.

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This marriage of opposites transforms a battle between fierce political foes into a screwball courtship. Thus, The Adventuress turns a very serious matter into a rom-com, which takes some serious guts and storytelling sleight of hand.

Perhaps that boldness explains why I adore this film. It lets me embrace both my genuine Irishness and my wannabe Englishness while rejoicing in the nuptials of Bridie and the most British man on the planet. The message of reconciliation strikes us as silly, wistful, improbable, and irresistible—in other words, so very Irish.

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Anyway, whether you’re Irish or not, please dig up The Adventuress. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. You’ll enjoy Deborah Kerr matter-of-factly telling Howard, “I’m a retired spy.” You’ll enjoy a knockabout brawl in a bathtub. You’ll enjoy the shadowy lighting, the trench coats, the sinister agents and the winking send-up of spy thrillers.

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And if you don’t, may the only weepers at your funeral be the onion-pullers—an old Irish curse.