Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Telefono Nero: Story of a Love Affair (1950)

123Call me a philistine, but I often prefer a director’s debut picture over their more mature work. I find something supremely beautiful in the faltering first enunciation of a vision, unwieldy in its boundless ambitions, that you can only detect in early efforts of great artists.

So, it should surprise no one that, when pressed to name my favorite among Michelango Antonioni’s cinematic children, I will completely bypass L’Avventura, his color-saturated 1960s canon, and even The Passenger in favor of his first feature film: Cronaca di un amore (English title: Story of a Love Affair). This narratively conventional, yet formally flamboyant thriller bears all of the hallmarks of an Antonioni film. Long takes, surreally out-of-context shots, and absorbing camera movements contribute to a grisly analysis of dying relationships and upper-class—oh, well, I might as well say it, everyone else has—ennui.

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I had the honor to take a seminar class on Antonioni, so I’ve seen almost all of his films on a big screen. I consider him one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. And even I have to admit that his masterpieces can wear thin on you.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “beginner’s mind,” that magical state of creative openness that one inhabits when starting to wade into a new field of knowledge. This concept, as coined by the Zen master Suzuki, can be summarized by his adage: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Still couched in beginner’s mind, Antonioni unfolded a whole world of dark passions in a breathtakingly dark and distinct film.

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The alienation, the numbness of pleasure, the ugliness of wealth, the general squirmy discontent of post-war Italy writhe in each frame of Cronaca with a freshness that Antonioni never again achieved. By anchoring his penetrating gaze with the framework of a much-loved genre, film noir, the budding auteur delivers a movie that feels less forced and ponderous than his later art house classics. Antonioni delivers the pleasures of genre viewing while gleefully subverting them.

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Philip Marlowe? Sam Spade? No—it’s Signore Carloni, the detective!

The plot initially slaps you across the face with its echoes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—which Visconti had already adapted/ripped off for Ossessione. A bored wife and her lover conspire to murder her wealthy, boorish husband. It’s the same old story… or is it?

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Cronaca begins with photographs, still images of an exquisite woman, being piled up on a desk as a private investigator comments on them (a movie opening that Chinatown would echo years later). A suspicious rich man has hired this private eye to look into the mysterious past of his wife, Paola. The detective does exactly that—and in so doing, he actually brings about what the rich husband had initially feared! Probing around, asking questions, the private eye unleashes a series of events that reunite Paola with her ex-lover Guido.

This bitter irony—the fact that the husband’s paranoia provokes the very situation that he wished to avoid—adds a touch of classical tragedy to the film. More importantly, the eerie self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of the tale motivates the abundance of inexorable camera movements that guide and control many a scene like the hand of fate and inscribes the motif of surveillance and guilt on the screen.

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The camera claustrophobically monitors Paola and Guido, these two lost souls, with a fixity that marries Neorealism to noirish romantic subjectivity. The ever-cagey Antonioni even confirmed that he was aiming for a deeply introspective gaze, a kind of interiorization of Neorealism:

“I chose to examine the inner side of my characters instead of their life in society, the effects inside them of what was happening outside. Consequently, while filming, I would follow them as much as I could, without ever letting the camera leave them. This is how the long takes… came about. At the time, everyone criticized me for avoiding social themes… But I was just acting as a mediator between these social themes and the screen.” (Quoted in The Architecture of Vision)

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In the film’s most famous long take, Paola and Guido meet up on a steel bridge and discuss their plans to engineer the death of Paola’s husband. The shot opens with the camera following a car down a road… before it suddenly pans to reveal Paola’s face, looking down at the vehicle from the bridge. The sudden shift from a long shot to a medium close-up without a cut is a little startling. The boundaries between exterior and interior life blur.

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In the ensuing masterstroke of simmering tension, the camera never leaves Paola and Guido alone as they swap recriminations for a death they caused years ago.  You see, Paola was in love with Guido, but he was engaged to another; they both chose to look the other way when she was about to back into an empty elevator shaft.

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The camera explores their ambiguous responsibility for her death. In one segment of the long take, Paola walks backwards towards the railing of the bridge and the camera tracks to follow her, in a movement reminiscent of the murder-by-silence that killed Guido’s fiancée. Even as she accuses her lover, “You killed her! You killed her!” and rejects her own guilt, Paola becomes a kind of stand-in for the murdered woman and reveals the extent to which she has internalized that guilt.

There’s no escape from the camera’s prying eye, just as one can find no escape from one’s own accusing conscience.

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Antonioni puts his own spin on the long take as a cinematic tool. Unlike Orson Welles’s deep focus coups de théâtre or Renoir’s emotionally-fraught, story-driven camera movements, the long takes in Cronaca di un amore, although not devoid of passion or drama, seem almost scientific, abstracted, psychological. Exactly what one would expect from a chronicle of a love affair. Not a love story, really, at least not in the traditional sense, but an interrogation of a relationship.

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In many of Antonioni’s films, the important moments seem cut out, missing, as though the key to the whole central love plotline had been omitted from the film. And so it is with Cronaca. The first time we see Guido and Paola together after years of separation, they drive to a set of stairs by the sea, sit, and haltingly talk. We, the viewers, are made to sense the awkwardness of their reunion through our own uncertainty of how to put together the pieces. Do they love each other? Do they desire each other? Why? What kept them apart? Who left whom?

In the black-and-white cinematography, the sea shimmers white, like a great absence, and the past and future lovers appear on the cusp of falling into it.

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Cronaca bristles with a sinister allure, a putrescent beauty barely contained by the impassiveness of the camera’s intent. This tug-of-war between an internal Neorealism and noirish perversity makes Cronaca one Maltov cocktail of a movie.

When making Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said that he wanted every shot to look like there was a corpse hidden somewhere. Well, every shot of Cronaca looks like a murder has just been committed—or is about to be committed. Not because of violence or grittiness, but because of the cockeyed angles, always a little too high or too low, every shot a little too close for comfort or too long to feel inviting. Characters face opposite directions or turn away from the camera as if ashamed.

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Cronaca also overflows with brilliant, self-assured stylistic touches—especially those that peel away at the surface of the oft-touted coolness of Italy and the glamour of its bourgeoisie.

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Two bottles fill the frame… and it takes a car whizzing by them to make us realize that we’re looking at a landscape and two giant advertisements, not a dinner table.

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The mirrors of a fashion salon turn a chic setting into an inferno of class warfare, jealousy, and self-loathing as Paola comes eye to eye with a woman she suspects of stealing Guido.

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A perfumed, glossy bedroom—which wouldn’t be out of place in one of Italy’s vapid, faux-Hollywood farces, or telefoni bianchi (“white telephone”) films—transforms into a place of discomfort. This idealized boudoir serves as the marketplace where Paola trades sex for her grotesque husband’s ongoing acquiescence in her flagrant, empty spending.

(If you’re in any way hesitating about watching this film, you ought to dig it up for the black pearl splendor of Lucia Bosé, a former Miss Italy and Antonioni’s lover at the time, whose muffled femme fatale sexuality as Paola steals the movie. She unceasingly mesmerizes.)

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Speaking of white telephones, I suspect that Antonioni intended to give his audiences a little sick joke by making sure that every telephone in the film is not white, in the manner of the telefoni bianchi, but a black one! The sheen of the “white telephone” film, the Neorealist lens, and the dark glitter of film noir all merge in Cronaca di un amore. It’s to die for.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

posterThe Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. 

Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.

Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.

Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.

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Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.

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Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.

However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.

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Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.

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Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.

But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:

Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.

Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.

In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.

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Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.

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As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.

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His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.

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Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?

I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.

Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks!  Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.

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“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”

His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:

“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”

It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.

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Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.

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If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.

But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.

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He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.

Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.

Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?

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And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.

As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.

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Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.

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The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.

Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?

Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?

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Do Not Pass Go: Each Dawn I Die (1939)

poster“When I first came here, I believed in justice. I believed that someday I’d be released! Then I began to figure on weeks and months and now I hate the whole world and everyone in it for letting me in for this. Buried in a black filthy hole because I was a good citizen. Because I worked my head off to expose crime—and now I’m a convict. I act like a convict, smell like a convict. I think and hate like a convict!”

—Frank Ross (James Cagney)

If you’re looking for a feel-good flick, I wouldn’t recommend William Keighley’s Each Dawn I Die—as the title might suggest. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking one of James Cagney’s most poignant, edgy performances, you came to the right movie. 

In this indelibly brutal look at America’s prison system, Cagney plays neither a fearsome gangster nor even a petty hustler, but rather a good guy locked up due to a miscarriage of justice. Crack reporter Frank Ross got a little too close to the corruption he was trying to expose—so the crooked politicians he threatened decided to keep him quiet with a nasty frame-up. Sent to Rocky Point with a twenty-year sentence, Ross forges an unlikely friendship with big shot racketeer Stacey (a sly, swaggering George Raft) who offers to help Ross dig up evidence of his innocence… if Ross helps him escape.

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Now, whenever two stars at the top of their game appear in the same movie—receiving equal billing—it’s mighty tempting to see them as competition in a zero-sum contest of “who came off better?” In this case, I applaud how well Each Dawn I Die both stretches and showcases Cagney’s and Raft’s respective talents. Right off the bat, I’ll confess my bias: to my mind Cagney possessed the far greater range as an actor—and I think even George Raft would agree with me.

However, Cagney’s earnestness, his relentless intensity, and his ability to structure his performances, usually building up to a climactic freak-out—all these qualities are nicely balanced out by Raft’s laconic, under-emotive coolness. Frank Ross’ sensitivity to the world and his awareness of the moral stakes of any given situation provide the catalyst for glib tough-guy Stacey to grow as a person. Ross’s energy and his righteous indignation force Stacey to actually weigh the ethical consequences of his actions for once. In this way, Cagney’s and Raft’s acting styles (and abilities) translate beautifully into their onscreen characters.

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If Raft plays a more automatically charismatic character—a slang-slinging outlaw—Cagney certainly rips into the more difficult of the two lead roles. We understand his Frank Ross as a wronged man; yet, Cagney brings a strength and complexity to this risky victim role, a part that could have easily seemed like a wimp or a weakling in the hands of a less capable performer.

Frank Ross initially recalls Paul Muni’s similar role as a man incarcerated through a quirk of fate in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. However, Cagney’s Ross ironically “earned” his punishment, by fighting long and hard against unscrupulous politicians who unjustly imprison him. Indeed, in the opening scenes of Each Dawn I Die, Cagney channels all of the virile aggression he displayed in his gangster roles, only turned to serve a social purpose.

20Stalking through the rain in a trench coat, scaling walls into a fortress of profiteers, and smiling to himself as he watches the bad guys incriminate themselves, Cagney exudes a malevolence twisted for good, an anger born of hard-knocks and displaced onto corruption. His risk-taking star reporter doesn’t just want a story—he genuinely despises the grifters and crooked politicians he strives to unmask.

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He wants to bring them down—and he pursues their downfall with the same sort of single-minded ferocity that we tend to associate with Cagney’s less benevolent characters, like Tom Powers and Cody Jarrett. Cagney’s variation on the muckraking reporter adds a deep subtext to that stock character of the 1930s. He doesn’t just breeze through the world of racketeers looking for newspaper fodder, like many a wisecracking movie journalist. Frank Ross, who, as we later find out, rose from the slums to make something out of himself, hates criminals and exploiters of the public confidence. He hates them deeply. Personally. Intensely. Implacably.

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About to spill his big scoop on the district attorney and the governor, Ross leaves his office one night, only to be seized by two ugly henchmen who hustle him into his car. Even in a moment of danger, Ross exhibits the typical Cagney moxie—he bares his teeth like a frustrated shark. We can practically hear his thoughts, saying, “Why, I oughta…!”

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Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t have a chance to fight back. The baddies knock him out, force him into the driver’s seat of the car, smash a bottle of liquor, and send him out into the city traffic—to make the killing look like a drunk driving accident. Even more unfortunately, Ross wakes to discover that, although he survived the collision, three people in the other car were killed on impact. Pleading innocence, Ross nevertheless receives a harsh sentence from a judge most likely in league with the hypocritical politicos that engineered the frame-up.

GO TO JAIL. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

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When Ross first meets ‘Hood’ Stacey, on the way to Rocky point, he’s chained to him. Unsurprisingly, given his disdain for all manner of crooks, Ross hates the kingpin on sight. Their immediate baiting dialogue offers one of the rare moments of levity in this grim movie.

Stacey: Write a piece about me when you get out, will ya? The name’s Stacey. Life sentence. I like to read my name in the papers.

Ross: If you don’t shut up, you may find it in the obituary column.

Stacey (sarcastically): Oh my goodness! Hey, deputy, willya change my seat? I don’t like to play so rough. He run over a coupla guys so he thinks he’s tough. You know how it is with the first coupla guys.

29Cagney doesn’t take that talk from anybody, so, with one well-placed swing, these very different men enter into their first brawl—and win a modicum of respect for each other.

Although the unusual bromance between Raft and Cagney sustains the film, the emotional core of the movie witnesses Ross slowly transforming into a hardened, bitter man. He quickly learns to curry favor with big gangsters like Stacey. On his first day, he saves Stacey’s life by tripping a man who was about to stab him with a shiv. Soon, Ross has made the choice to look the other way when Stacey decides to murder a fellow inmate, a dirty rat called Limpy Julian.

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The scene where Ross catches Stacey practicing his knife technique—but agrees to remain silent—stands out as a key moral reversal for our protagonist. “I don’t see any shiv,” He tells Stacey, with a grin, pretending not to see what’s right in front of his face. Denying physical reality, even in a metaphorical way, Ross signifies that he’s splitting from the ethics that he cherished “on the outside.”

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I don’t see nothing… Cagney, Raft, and shiv.

Ross’s behavior shifts to reflect a logic more germane to outlaws and gangsters, because those social menaces at least embrace their own code of honor. We perceive less justice operating in society at large than in the tightly knit circle of cons and shysters who follow their own unwritten laws of loyalty.

Ross’s eventual descent into madness proves that prisons don’t turn bad men into good ones—on the contrary, they beat an exemplary citizen into a feverish con. Seeing his basically decent comrades being abused by guards, Ross learns that Rocky Point, like the outside world, is a playground for underhanded tyrants.

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In one particularly chilling scene, Pete Kassock, the sadistic head guard, accuses Ross of helping Stacey escape and proceeds to slap and punch our hero around a cell. As the camera follows Ross, being propelled around the room by the force of Pete’s blows, we the viewers can hardly believe that we’re watching Cagney passively taking this. But, then again, any protest would only equate out to more beatings.

Finally, Pete gives the nod to his men to take over the interrogation and the camera turns away, although we can still hear the dull thuds of hard punches. Whenever off-screen violence occurs in a Cagney movie, it’s usually Jimmy dishing out the beating! In this case, we the viewers feel totally helpless and shocked by the brutalizing of our protagonist, so awful that we’re not even allowed to see it. When the camera turns back, Cagney hangs limply, a broken man.

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During his days in solitary confinement, in a cell quaintly nicknamed “The Hole,” the fighting spirit returns to Ross. He yells at his guards and alternately begs to be released and threatens to be worst con any of them have ever seen. Unjust punishment has turned the crime-fighter into a criminal. When Ross’ girlfriend intercedes on his behalf and the kindly warden arranges a brief respite from The Hole, we can hardly recognize the man that the guards drag into the warden’s office.

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Ross sports a ratty beard and speaks with an almost mechanical rhythm, as if he’s spewing invective that he rehearsed many, many times in his head while chained in his cell. An exemplary citizen has devolved into an animal. It’s a horrific spectacle. The burden of this film’s social critique lies squarely on Cagney’s shoulders. And, boy, does he make it work.

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Cagney’s performance astounded me not only with the facet of rage that he brought roaring out of the character, but also with the moments of vulnerability and tenderness. When his mother comes for a visit, bringing a basket of sweets and goodies, the ashen-faced prisoner can barely manage to eat a bite. You can tell by his halting delivery and the little catch in his throat that he’s choking back tears at every moment. When his mother eventually breaks into sobs, his whole face crumples. Those luminous eyes fold under their lids. With a nod, he lets the guard know that he can’t take his mother’s pain any more and she’s escorted away.

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As Cagney walks back to the workroom, the camera tracks back in front of him and we watch him cope with his own anguish during the rare few seconds when he’s not surrounded by guards and prisoners. He wipes two tears away and steels himself back into his impassive tough-guy act.

Similarly, when Frank Ross comes up for parole only to discover that the man who’s going to make the final decision actually participated in the frame-up. Overcome with injustice and disgusted by the “sanctimonious” speeches of the parole board, Ross yells at the whole pack of them. He leaps from his seat and we’re not quite sure what he’s going to do. He shouts and screams… and then realizes that he’s killed what little chance he had of winning parole. Back-pedaling, he begins to weep, to implore the stony men before him for a second chance, for something he knows he’s not ever going to get from them.

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Just as Cagney’s strength and cockiness taught America how to be strong and cocky, his grief and despair taught America how to grieve without self-pity: “You ain’t so tough,” as he sneers to himself in The Public Enemy.

In Each Dawn I Die, his wild cries of defeat howl from the heart of America’s dark side. He gives us the shadow of the American Dream: the man who rightfully clawed up from the gutter, and got wrongfully kicked back to oblivion. His passionate dismay holds all the power of a wake—a one-man wake for the freedom that was supposed to be his, but never really was.

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Cagney can wring the spectator’s hearts because, through the emotional arcs he creates in his performances, his characters earn their breakdowns. His characters weep only when the situation becomes truly, utterly hopeless. Long before today’s “sensitive manhood” and overactive male tear ducts (I mean, James Bond cries these days; God help us all!), Cagney merged toughness with the occasional glimpse of raw emotional wounds and boyish tenderness.

I especially love the way he puts one caring hand to protect George Raft’s head as guns shatter a glass window above him. Orson Welles once praised Cagney for the way he could take the truth of his roles, then expand the scope of the performance to be larger than life, but no larger than truth. Never more so than in Each Dawn I Die.

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Because this film was made after Joseph Breen and his reinforced Production Code, Cagney is denied the opportunity to give his performance the haunting ambiguity that we get from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, for instance. The movie insists that innocence and virtue will eventually be rewarded. Each Dawn I Die lacks the hard-hitting conclusion that could have made it a masterpiece.

If you’re a “square guy,” eventually the system will come through for you. That seems to be the affirmative message of Each Dawn I Die. But I don’t buy that redemptive claptrap, the stuff that the screenwriters clearly slapped onto the end to show us that the world is just. The ending of this movie should comfort us. It doesn’t. The echoes of the beatings and the miscarriages of justice and the dirty political deals still chill us to the bone.

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In the world of Each Dawn I Die, a man is guilty because the right people say he is. A shiv dematerializes because one man decides to be loyal to another. Rage against criminals galvanizes into an uncontrollable criminal rage. Reality warps under the dehumanizing rhythms of days, weeks, months in jail.

And, through the magic of Cagney’s searing interpretation of Frank Ross, a happy ending doesn’t seem so happy anymore.

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I didn’t end this post on such a happy note, so here’s a fun fact. According to Cagney’s autobiography, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he tried to rid Hollywood of mob influences. So the mafia decided to put a hit out on him. However, lucky for Cagney, a friend of his had some pull with the gangster crowd and decided to convince his buddies to spare ol’ Jimmy. That friend was George Raft. Life imitates art, doesn’t it? 

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This blog post is part of the Cagney Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector. Cagney was a fascinating and versatile guy, so be sure to check out the other entries and learn as much as you can about this screen legend.

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The Gang’s All Here: Five Reasons to Love The Racket (1928)

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Chicago—night, circa 1925. A high window opens and a head bobs up in front of the dim, disquieting jumble of the city. From shadowy perches in brick buildings, a few ugly mugs peer out into the street. One gives the nod. We know by their eye-line matches that they’re looking at the indistinct, moving blotch that must be a lonesome man walking down the rainy, deserted street—with a gun trained on him from above.

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What a curtain-raiser! And all without a word, without a noise. This tense little opener suggests the compact sophistication of storytelling that films had achieved on the brink of sound—and how much of the gangster picture was already there, already loaded, before audiences could hear the Tommy gun, that great star of the talkies, add his voice to the melee.

The RacketDirected by Lewis Milestone and nominated for Best Picture, The Racket snappily adapted a smash stage play by Bartlett Cormack. The plot follows a stubborn cop, Captain McQuigg, in his attempts to take down Nick Scarsi, a notorious bootlegger—a thinly veiled stand-in for Al Capone.

Unfortunately for McQuigg, Scarsi wields power over certain important political wards that could slide an upcoming election. The gangster calls on his friends in high places to get McQuigg exiled to a precinct far from the action.

But fate intervenes, sending Scarsi’s beloved baby brother—and his platinum blonde fiancée—to jail for a hit-and-run in McQuigg’s precinct! The stage is set for a  major showdown between the fiercely determined, besieged lawman and the dangerously amoral outlaw.

If that doesn’t get you interested, here are five reasons why this movie is more than worth any trouble you might go through to see it.

5. Because it was long considered to be lost!

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Howard Hughes, who went on to produce Scarface, perhaps the greatest of the 1930s gangster films, also produced The Racket. For years, the film was out of circulation and historians figured that it had been destroyed, given the widespread callous neglect of silent films, thought to be obsolete and non-bankable as soon as sound came in. Well, Hughes might have been a real nutcase, but fortunately he knew well enough to stash away a print of this terrific gangster flick, which was discovered in his home after his death and restored. So tune in to it if you can—you almost didn’t have the chance!

 4. Crackling dialogue—and more time to enjoy it.

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I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch a Ben Hecht newspaper comedy without getting the Benz, in a delicious way, of course, but it takes effort to process that much cleverness so quickly. The nice thing about snappy silent “dialogue” is that you get to read it and actually savor a moment to chuckle over some of the puns and double-entendres that might get overlooked in the rolling tide of talkie wisecracks or patter.

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A few samples of The Racket’s funny or clever lines:

Scarsi (getting into his luxurious car, as poor police officer McQuigg stands in the rain): “Take a tip Mac—change your racket.”

McQuigg (holding a gin bottle just thrown through a window by a drunk reporter): “This is a fine thing to come sailing out of a police station in this God-forsaken Zone of Quiet.”

Scarsi (commenting on rowdy on-lookers at the funeral of a man he killed): “They ought to have some respect for the dead.”

Helen (to a hilariously naïve reporter): “I wonder what’ll happen if you ever have a baby, and no one’s tipped you off about storks.”

3. Because you can spend quality time with some wonderful, all-but-forgotten silent stars.

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Thomas Meighan. Marie Prevost. Louis Wolheim. Do these names mean anything to you? If you’d lived in 1928, these three would have been considered, respectively, what Ryan Gosling, Mila Kunis, and Christoph Waltz are today—fan favorites in the all-round hot guy, cute hot girl, and charismatic character actor categories.

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Smiley, cheekbone-blessed Thomas Meighan parlayed his good looks into romantic leads in Cecil B. DeMille’s refined sex comedies and shared billing with La Swanson. Unfortunately, the new influx of talkie stars and the effects of the transition to sound torpedoed Meighan’s career, even though his voice apparently wasn’t a barrier. Any chance of a comeback was destroyed a few years later when he succumbed to cancer.

It’s very sad since, in The Racket, Meighan’s black Irish sparkle and pearly, mocking grin make his tireless Captain McQuigg a delight to watch. He manages to project as much cockiness and swagger as the gangsters he’s fighting and thus avoids falling into dull good-boy hero territory. My favorite moment? When he tears up a writ of Habeas Corpus and snarls, “I’m sick of the law.” Maverick cops: making us identify with the Fuzz since way before Lethal Weapon.

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Curvaceous, flirty Marie Prevost sure knew how to light up a silent screen with her naughty, fun-loving, yet cynical demeanor. As the golddigging speakeasy singer Helen, she strikes the perfect balance between sultry, sentimental, and vulgar. And smart, too—she’s the one who manages to wrench a confession from tough guy Scarsi in the end! This is one sharp tomato. Watch and learn, ladies, watch and learn.

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And Louis Wolheim gives us one of the most arrogant, puffed-up gangsters of all time—a theatrical, yet efficient SOB who grins and chuckles one instant and shoots a guy in the back the next. Wolheim’s nose, so broken and battered that it’s practically a historical landmark, deserves its own Supporting Actor Oscar, if they’d had them in 1928. He’s so irrepressibly, sneeringly good that you can hardly believe he’s a multilingual Cornell grad and ex-math teacher and not a bona fide former racketeer. Although, boy, I bet every kid in his class knew his multiplication tables by heart!

As a bonus, you can also savor seedy, runty five-foot-three character actor George E. Stone—who would continue to play gangsters and snivelling sidekicks in the sound era, most notably in Little Caesar and in the Boston Blackie series—who turns in a delightfully caddish performance Scarsi’s slimeball little brother. This spoiled dirtbag even goes so far as to pull the “my car ran out of gas routine” on the luscious Prevost hoping for a little roadside petting. Sorry, but no dice, little man. Maybe it’s the ‘stache.

2. Because The Racket‘s attitude toward corruption is really ahead of its time.

37“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That utterance makes it onto every list of the best movie lines of all time because it epitomizes the unresolved cynicism, the disillusionment, the paralyzed force of the New Hollywood’s noirish dark side. How newfangled, how courageous, how ambiguously—oh, wait. The Racket did something totally similar in 1928. Sorry, Bob Towne.

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As much as Captain McQuigg has struggled to bring down Scarsi—and ultimately gets him out of the way—he watches a new crime lord, a new shady political honcho immediately step in to win public favor. Exhausted and defeated, the exiled policeman hunches over his desk as the already jaded Helen comes over to inform him that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. He was wrong to expect positive results from his heroism.

McQuigg’s deputy suggests that the worn out policeman get some sleep but he shrugs it off, explaining that there’s a lot of clean-up questioning and statement-giving to do. By the time the production’s over, morning will have dawned and “it’ll be time for Mass,” he sighs.

38Whoa! No triumphalism, no note of self-congratulation. Just grim soldiering on in the face of insurmountable vice. Way to portray an unrelenting cycle of violence and the Sisyphus-like labors of a decent man in a bad world! The Racket refuses us the comfort of a happy, neat ending and thus delivers a stronger message about crime, corruption, and society than many movies that have come after it.

1. Because it showcases the force of the cinematic medium.

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In some ways, The Racket proves how a silent crime picture could actually use cinematic language better than its soon-to-follow talkie descendants. The need for sound synchronization snuffed out some really witty material, as this movie shows us. For instance, in one farcical scene, Scarsi pays his phony respects to a bootlegger rival (whom he himself filled full of slugs!) at a big production gangland funeral. Why, no self-respecting punk would miss the event! As the seasoned racketeer Scarsi surveys at a row of trimly dressed mourners, the camera lingers to examine the black bowler hats on their knees… and then a dissolve provides this laugh-inducing shot of what they’re hiding!

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Scarsi chuckles at these deceiving appearances—since his trained mobster X-ray vision can see through them. These kinds of purely visual, abstracted touches don’t show up as often in sound gangster films. Don’t get me wrong: talkie crime films possess moments of apt creativity, like the off-screen killings in The Public Enemy, but I love The Racket for its whimsical, abstracted moments.

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For me, this film also deserves major props for proving that the movies can improve on stage play source material—not just reproduce its success. For instance, that opening sequence in which all the eyeline matches, as the hired killer trains his gun on McQuigg, harness the power of editing to keep us on the edge of our seats—that rhythmic use of shot length couldn’t exist in theater. That manner of orchestrating and taming space is unique to the Seventh Art.

Again, when Scarsi shoots his rival in a speakeasy, we see him pull the trigger from under the table. Of all those present, only we the viewers are in on his secret, though we experience the killing from the vantage point not of Scarsi, but of the gun itself. This movie’s sly, fast-paced visual storytelling, carefully trimmed down to slick efficiency, should hardly come as a surprise, since it was shot by Tony Gaudio (who also did the cinematography for talkie gangster classics like Little Caesar and High Sierra.

So check out this silent gem. And if you think silent films are composed of all swooning maidens and melodramatic plot twists, you better watch The Racket and reevaluate your prejudice. ’Cause the boys are all here—and it’s gonna be one wild, hard-hitting ride.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

I’m doubling my fun here, since this is also part of the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! Check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

She Calls the Shots: Blondie Johnson (1933)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough—and I’m gonna get it, see?”

—Blondie Johnson

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Dames hardly ever call the shots in gangster films. Sure, they wield sexual power over their mobster boyfriends or husbands and occasionally get to plug some poor dumb sap, but they’re rarely in charge as the legitimate boss of a racket. And, unfortunately, when they are giving orders, the situation usually gets played for kink or camp. Noir offered plenty of domineering roles for nasty women running the show, although usually from behind the scenes, but classical gangster pictures, especially the first talkie cycle of the 1930s, remain mostly an old boys’ club.

Blondie Johnson, however, is a whole different animal. In this 1933 crime film (impossible to find until Warner Archive released it), a woman does take the reigns of an operation. She does so not because she’s hot to trot—she keeps men at an arm’s length—but because she’s got brains, guts, and commands loyalty from men and women alike. If this flawed film fails to live up to what I want it to be, it still makes for an intriguing 67 minutes of viewing if, like me, you love gangster films or pre-Codies.

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We all know and love Joan Blondell as Miss pre-Code Cheekiness, a sassy, curvaceous babe out to get what she can and have a little fun in the bargain. So, in a way, Blondie Johnson, a small-time chiseler turned racketeer queen, might not seem to tug too hard at the underpinnings of her star image. She really just takes her tough, but voluptuous chick routine and teases it out to an extreme. This female kingpin (queenpin?) comes across not as a campy bitch goddess, but rather as the logical extension of every pre-Code working girl. She rolls with the big boys, gets them out of jams, and, before you know it, she makes a few decisive moves and ends up on top of the world.

The movie opens in a very un-gangster-like manner with Blondie waiting for unemployment aid. Glamorous, twinkly eyed Blondell hardly looks like herself, as though a pall had been cast over her usually winsome face.

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Her mother is sick, dying, and she needs the money desperately. We all feel like we’ve been punched in the stomach when she gets turned down since she quit her previous job as a laundress—because the boss couldn’t keep his hands off her.

Well, if that’s not a bad enough day, Blondie comes home to find the doctor waiting with bad news. Her mother’s dead. She howls in desolation and crumples by the body.

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In the next scene, a priest and a city magistrate are essentially trying to explain to her why she should accept the hard knocks that life deals her—including getting evicted, losing her mom, and dealing with predatory employers. There are two ways to make money, the priest tells her. “Yeah, I know.” She sneers, rejecting his irrelevant invocation of right and wrong. “The hard way and the easy way.” We understand that the opening trauma steeled this average girl into something determined and dangerous. Just as Baby Face quotes Nietszche,  ol’ Friedrich’s “will to power” carries on in Blondie, too. We discern it in the feverish glow in her eyes.

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Interestingly, whereas movies like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface never set out to explain why their protagonists become gangsters, apart from the obvious greed and ambition, Blondie Johnson introduces its heroine as a wronged woman. Director Ray Enright and writer Earl Balwin take pains to establish Blondie as a poor girl who really did try to live honestly in a society that makes a dignified existence impossible for down-on-their-luck women, especially.

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“Well, the social services network let me down. I think I’ll turn to a life of crime.”

When a woman turns to crime, the producers no doubt assumed, we need to give her a reason, otherwise she’s a gutter snipe. Society does owe Blondie. She didn’t set out on the path to crime because of a desire for swag or authority: she did it because the sheer indifference of the world taught her that, if nobody will take care of you, you have to take care of yourself. I find that rationale a little sexist—a woman might aspire to be a Napoleon of crime for reasons other than economic necessity. But, hey, if it’s what they needed back in 1933 to get Joan Blondell to play a peroxide gangster, so be it.

Cut to Blondie shortly after her ordeal. She’s a totally different woman.

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Tricked out in a stylish velvet dress and a sporty cap, she obviously chiseled some money out of someone… although it’s left to our imagination just how she did. In 1933, Photoplay magazine even went so far as to run promotions for Blondie Johnson based on the fashionable outfits worn by its eponymous girl gangster.

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But the clothes don’t make the gal—the attitude does. From the slinky, yet proud posture of this dame as she calls for a cab with a come hither nod, we recognize how the abandonment of a little thing called morals has liberated her.

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Enlisting the help of a dorky, squeaky-voiced cab driver (Sterling Holloway, who else?), Blondie pulls a small-time sympathy swindle. Waiting outside speakeasies, she cries and pretends to be a little lady deserted by her boyfriend because she wouldn’t sleep with him, now stranded and in need of taxi fare to get back to her job before she gets fired. Ironically, the woman who was wronged in real life ends up making money off of suckers by playing the victim, by staging and feigning a woman’s plight.

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“Oh, sob, sob! I seem to find myself in distress!”

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“I hate to see a dame in distress. Especially with pins like those.”

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Problem is, the first mug she fools happens to be notorious gangster Danny Jones, played by an affably smug Chester Morris and his knife-blade profile.

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Danny bumps into her later that night at a posh hotel where she’s dining on the money she collected from a gallery of suckers and, realizing he’s been taken in, he steps on her foot and prepares to repossess her winnings.

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Using her quick wit and a few well-placed self-defense moves, Blondie manages to defuse his temper and convince him that she’s a “smart dame” who could prove a valuable asset.

So, he takes her to a hotel room for a drink. And here’s where the movie gets really interesting—we all prepare for the old pre-Code fade-out as Danny and Blondie become lovers. But no!

Blondie holds true to the code of the Corleone family: “It’s not personal. It’s business.” She carefully excludes the possibility of any fringe benefits to her and Danny’s mutual interests. Chester Morris and Blondell have a great chemistry together in this scene of back-and-forth attempts to soften the other up: she wants work in his syndicate and he wants, well, what men usually want in a hotel room after a couple of drinks.

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Their snappy negotiations present a sort of gangster version of the famous pickpocketing scene between Marshall and Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise. He pays her for a job—corrupting a jury to swing a member of the gang out of prison—but asks for some sugar in return. She throws the money in his face and storms out.

He calls her back and she tells the story of her life, including the doleful tale of a sister who died from an illicit abortion. Always the optimist, Blondie ends her speech with a vow to get even with life: “This city’s gonna pay me a living!”

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Just when we think things are getting grim, Danny agrees to let Blondie have a proper chance on equal terms, but then counts his money. Even in her fit of high temper, Blondie pocketed some of the money she seemed to refuse. Stunned by her brazenness and slight of hand, Danny stares, as Blondie coyly raises a glass to their platonic partnership.

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As usual, there’s some division in the gang. Danny wants to bail his friend Louis out of jail while the big boss isn’t keen on the idea, since he doesn’t want Danny (really a lieutenant gangster) to make a play for power. That’s where Blondie comes in as a peroxide Lady Macbeth, lending Danny some of her own brass cajones to move ahead with a cunning courtroom drama.

In perhaps the best scene in the film, Blondie saves this big-time gangster Louis from a sure conviction by pretending to be his demure, pregnant fiancée—leaping up from the defendant bench to embrace him!

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She wins sympathy by delivering a bravura performance, smacking of screwball comedy as much as gangster humor. Collapsing in Louis’ lap and heaving sobs of crocodile tears, she looks up at him surreptitiously and grunts, “Kiss me, you mug!” He does. And wins an acquittal.

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After that, Blondie has won a place as part of the gang—but an uncomfortable one. She defies categorization. She’s not a moll, since she didn’t sleep with anyone to get there, nor can she ever fully be one of the boys.

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In fact, no sooner does she attend the inevitable gangland banquet to celebrate Louis’ release (and lets Danny take all the credit) than the big boss gives the word that he doesn’t want Blondie around. Blondie doesn’t take to that news too well.

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She pushes Danny to take over the operation. He almost gets killed for trying, but a few of his men, under Blondie’s direction, get rid of the big boss. And Danny’s suddenly in charge. He has a swanky deco office, a chorus girl as his playmate, and is getting fitted for new suits in the office. (Apparently having two egregious “nance” tailors fuss over you, the same ones from The Public Enemy, was the quintessential sign that you had arrived in the 1930s.)

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But this is just the beginning of Blondie’s problems. You see, as much as Blondie likes and even comes to love Danny and abets his rise to power, Danny doesn’t appreciate the fact the he owes it all to a woman who really does all the driving.  So he decides to ship her off to another racket. Now, the script doesn’t delve into what his plan actually was, but I think we’re to infer that he either tried to have her killed or at the very least sold to another racket, perhaps as a prostitute. Blondie pushed him away a little too much, so he double-crossed her.

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Don’t ever mix business and horizontal kissing.

Still the wronged woman, in spite of all her leadership, Blondie doesn’t like that. Nor does the crack team of molls and mugs. They  recognize that it’s her brains and nerve that made their insurance racket what it is. For instance, in one particularly amusing interlude, Blondie works with two other molls to impersonate a rich heiress and intimidate a bunch of cash out of a bogus personal injury case.

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So, instead of cutting Blondie out, the gang backs her up and give Danny—who’s worn them out with his poor judgement, extravagance, and arrogance—the kiss-off. Now, Blondie’s at the top. Perched amidst modernistic, urban finery, she orchestrates her shady protection/insurance mob with competence and aplomb, appearing more as a sophisticated businesswoman than a scion of gangland.

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But Danny still rankles like a thorn in her side. He knows too much and could sink the whole organization. When one of Blondie’s confederates reports that a disgruntled Danny is going to spill all to the cops, she reluctantly orders his execution and two henchmen go off to dispatch the death sentence.

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Brrring! Brrring! Phone call for Blondie Johnson! It turns out Danny didn’t divulge any information to the police. Remorse sets in. Holding a picture of Danny (yeah, I tend to keep around large, framed portraits of guys who screwed me over, too), Blondie decides that she can’t just kill him off like that.

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At the last moment, she caves in to her humanity and goes rushing to save the man she loves.

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She arrives too late. Bang. Bang. We hear the off-screen shots and think the deed’s been done.

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Danny’s on the floor, still alive, but full of her henchman’s lead. Sirens sound.  Blondie could get away, and Danny urges her to save herself, but she stays, cradling the man who did her wrong. They confess their love as the police draw near.

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Defeated by love and nabbed by the cops, Blondie stands trial and gets six years hard labor. (Yes, it’s lame. I didn’t write it. If I had, Blondie would’ve joined forces with Stanwyck and Teresa Harris from Baby Face and—what the Hell—King Kong. Together they would’ve ruled the world. Anyone wanna greenlight that?)

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As Blondie gets hauled out of court, she passes Danny, also about to be tried and taken to jail, meets her and they share a tender moment, promising to wait for each other.

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The final shot of Blondie Johnson, this uncertain, wistful medium close-up reminds me of a lot of unresolved, ambiguous final shots like this from 1930s movies (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang comes to mind) that hint at the unresolved fates of people we’ve come to care about deeply.

’Twas beauty killed the beast, but in this case,’twas a beast (Chester Morris) that brought Blondie down. As much as that bothers me, the true emotional sacrifices of running a racket that we witness in Blondie Johnson definitely foreshadow the many heart-wrenching betrayals of The Godfather: Part II. Ruthlessness exacts a price on the one who’s ruthless, too.

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In his brief analysis of this film, Thomas Doherty claims that, because she’s a woman, Blondie gets a chance at rehabilitation and a little bit of hope, whereas a male gangster would’ve been shot down and finished with. I concede the point, but disagree with the interpretation. I think that the punishment dished out to Blondie is a lot worse. Better to go down in a machine-gun burst of brilliance than have to live through a long prison sentence which, frankly, might kill her anyway. There’s no romance to this conclusion. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a tear in Blondell’s big pop eyes.

Blondie is a fascinating film for its attempt to reformat the template of the gangster picture with the added sexual stakes of a woman trying to climb the gang ladder.

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The occupational hazards of working in a male-dominated industry.

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The film starts to hints at the female hierarchy behind the mob though the political dynamics between the gun molls that we see: Claire Dodd as Gladys, the priority blonde mistress, passed from one gang head to another, Mae Butsch as Mae, the matronly has-been moll who acts as a front from time to time, and Japanese-American Toshia Mori as Lulu, another beautiful lady coasting through the racket, mostly in a servile role, perhaps due to her ethnicity.

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It’s subtle but the women get more of a voice under Blondie and her supporters go with her to the top—as suggested by this skyscraper low angle. Molls of the world, unite!

The film criminally underuses these women, but they do come across as more real than the silken ladies of many a 1930s gangster flick in that they’re not in the racket for thrills or luxury, but for survival. It’s a kind of job in a time when jobs weren’t forthcoming. It’s also interesting to watch Lulu and Mae grow into slightly more important, commanding babes in Blondie’s company, as though her strength set an example for them.

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I wonder if real ’30s working girls felt the same about this unconventional female role model. Even if she ends up in the hoosegow, I hope that Blondell’s effulgent badassery inspired more than a few chicks to go a little Blondie on an unfair world.

Nevertheless, I wish that Blondie Johnson had ascended to a higher plane of cinema instead of remaining a somewhat formulaic jumble of missed opportunities. It’s a film that generates a lot of regret for me. I wish it had been less of a plodding women’s picture and more of gangster flick—or even an revolutionary women’s picture. Like Baby Face with guns. I wish that it had a more lucid script, a few more gunshots, and someone like William Wellman or Howard Hawks at the helm. With its good cast and such an innovative concept, in better hands, it could have smashed into our consciousness as a founding gangster film, like Little Caesar or Scarface. And set a precedent for gangster movies that let a dame run the show.

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She’s the show. He just watches and learns.

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As is, Blondie Johnson is well worth watching just to savor how Blondell, a wisecracking sidekick no more, rises from nothing to hold supreme control over the situation. In 1933, Motion Picture magazine was prompted to ask if Blondell was being groomed as a kind of female Cagney. She exudes a warmer version of his alpha male magnetism and moxie. Alas, she doesn’t call the shots for long, but it’s damn fun while it lasts.

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This post is part of the #scenesofthecrime blogathon. Check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

Stop the Clocks: The Stranger (1946)

It really ticks me off when people (including Orson Welles himself) dismiss his thriller The Stranger as, to use one of the dirtiest slurs in film criticism, his “most conventional film,” as a stylish but formulaic product of a genius on a short studio leash.

That’s a bit like saying, “Well, it’s one of Shakespeare’s less good plays.” Because, in both cases, we’re talking about something that’s a hell of a lot more insightful, complex, and entertaining than most of what else is out there.

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Welles takes a taut noir-suspense plotline and packs it with a larger sense of significance and trauma, as though time itself had blistered and burst under the withering, unfathomable atrocities of World War II.

Seriously—how many thrillers can you think of from the 1940s (and beyond!) that had the guts to use genuine newsreel footage of the horrors of the Holocaust as the crux of their moral and ethical stakes? That’s exactly what Welles did. Explain to me how that’s conventional.

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In case you haven’t seen this deceptively ingenious gem, the story concerns a Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler (a high level architect of the Holocaust and dead-ringer for Friedrich Nietzsche). This evil mastermind carefully preserved his anonymity—down to burning every known photograph of himself—and fled to America after World War II.

Under the name of Rankin, Kindler has blended into life in the idyllic town of Harper, Connecticut and even married Mary (a luminous Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court judge.

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Yes, in the days before Google, who knows what kind of guy you might’ve married?

However, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Rankin’s being relentlessly pursued by an agent of the Allied War Crimes Bureau, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The determined Nazi-hunter tracks Rankin/Kindler down by letting another war criminal out of prison in the hopes that the freed man will lead him to the big fish.

Kindler kills this hapless ex-comrade, the “little man,” so that he can’t betray Kindler’s identity. The problem is, Mary knows that the “little man” was looking for him. So Kindler has to try to kill her too.

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I admit: it does sound pretty conventional on the surface. But a plot synopsis fails to translate the excellence of this film.

First off, The Stranger looks great and is crammed full of stunning shots. We get a tense long, long take during which Rankin slowly turns back into Kindler as he kills his former friend—and while praying no less!

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Typical Wellesian angles crop up and enliven even the most rudimentary of scenes with a cockeyed creepiness. Through shadows so looming and poetic that they sometimes distract you from the plot, Welles paints a world subtly tattered and worn-down. Not even Harper, the hallowed bastion of New England purity, escapes the impact of a global trauma.

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After the war, we understand, things are different. And they won’t ever be the way they were. A piece of the world’s innocence has died. It’s broken. Gone forever. The Capra-esque, quaint little town of Harper has changed irreversibly.

I even wonder to what extent Mary’s discovery of her husband’s awful true self is actually a reflection of American veterans coming home from World War II as strangers to their wives. Perhaps the evil Nazi is just a stand-in for damaged American manhood, for the prison of post-war domestic life. Even commercial ads from the 1940s betrayed a noirish quality, like this one for Listerine!

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Look familiar? The following shot is from The Stranger, as Rankin looms over Mary in bed.

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In the wake of a global conflict, Welles depicts a troubling, warped pretense of normalcy. A creeping penumbra and crazy angles turn ordinary places like high school gymnasiums and events like faculty tea parties into cauldrons of fear and roiling secrets.

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I particularly appreciate how Welles uses clocks and mechanical devices, usually so reliable and quotidien, to create disorientation and explore the breakdown of perception.

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You see, the evil Franz Kindler, when not planning mass murder, has a passion for clocks and watches, which seems very apt indeed, considering the ruthless “clockwork” execution of the Final Solution. There are lots of allusions to clocks and clockworks.

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Mr. Wilson first gets his wind up that Harper is the place to find Kindler when he sees the hands to the clock on the Harper church tower spin around wildly while being fixed. After the “little man” manages to whack Mr. Wilson over the head with a piece of swinging gymnastic equipment in the Harper Academy gym, the rope swings back and forth in front of him, like a pendulum.

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When Kindler sets out to kill his wife, he writes up a little itinerary with specific time coordinates.

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Throughout the film, Kindler, a control freak if ever there was one, keeps returning to an old grandfather clock and winding it up, trying to make the old thing keep time.

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At the risk of getting too analytical, time is really one of the two media that make up the essence of cinema—the other is space, of course. So, how can we read or interpret Kindler’s repeated gesture, portrayed with some of the film’s most ominous and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting?

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We can perceive a slight metafilmic joke in Orson Welles as Kindler winding up the clock. (Incidentally, when Hitchcock made his cameo in Rear Window, he too is winding up a clock in the composer’s apartment.) Are we seeing the director as the artistic tyrant, the keeper of time dissolve into the sociopolitical tyrant, trying to make the world keep time with his unthinkable schemes?

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I might be overstating my case, but I think that we can infer a connection between the two most powerful mechanical devices in The Stranger: the clock and the film projector that reveals to Mary the extremes of what her husband (and mankind in general) is capable of.

At almost the center point of the film, Kindler/Rankin has confessed to Mary that he killed the man who came looking for him, but he claims that the “little man” was a blackmailer who would have threatened their happiness. Willing to conceal this justified murder and lie to protect her husband, Mary is called to visit her father and talk to Mr. Wilson.

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When she gets there and opens the door, the room is dark and flickering with projected footage. The lights come on and Mr. Wilson softens Mary up with a few questions—a body was uncovered in town, did you know him, ect.—before asking her to watch a film. The lights go out again and before we even see what Wilson’s projecting, the look of appalled stupefaction on Mary’s face makes us wonder what she’s seeing. Then we see. It’s a screen full of dead bodies.

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A moment ago, Mary thought she was involved in a murder mystery. That’s still true, but now the mystery isn’t whodunit—it’s howcouldsomeonepossiblyhavedunit? In place of one dead body, we get too many to count, too many to mentally process, strewn across the ground without emotion or order as the camera impassively pans across them.

Clearly shocked, Mary protests that she’s “never ever seen a Nazi.” But, and this is key, Wilson explains that they can look like normal people and act like normal people if it benefits them. I find it hard to believe that this statement is only supposed to apply to Franz Kindler in this context. After WWII, a lot of people nursed the belief that the people who committed atrocities were somehow different from the rest of us. It turns out, as Milgram’s obedience studies from 1960s have shown, a disquietingly large percentage of the population will kill if told that an authority figure takes full responsibility.

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But back to the scene, which suddenly turns documentary, as Wilson explains some of the more awful points of the concentration camps, like the gas chambers and the lime pits—and you see them. As does Mary.

Of course, using newsreel footage in fictional movies wasn’t so unusual—Casablanca, for example, is punctuated and grounded in reality by choice morsels of grainy footage: advancing Nazis, downtrodden refugees, mortars discharging their fire over Paris. Nevertheless, war on an open field had been filmed in WWI and audiences were used to seeing it. Even today, if you want to watch those Holocaust newsreels on websites, you get a warning that it’s disturbing, mature content.

And it’s one thing to see it in context as a newsreel, which occupies a fixed place in one’s schema of documentary media. You expect to see awful, real things in the news. You’re at least braced for it. In a movie? Not so much.

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A Nazi gas chamber projected in a Judge’s house in Connecticut.

To show footage from the concentration camps in a general admission fictional film is pretty damn radical, not to mention risky from a moral standpoint. (One thinks of the actual shots of Bruce Lee’s funeral used to mercenary and meretricious effect in Game of Death.) However, there’s nothing cheap and exploitative about how Welles inserts Holocaust images into The Stranger.

Including those indelible images in a made-up story, Welles blurs the line between the dream world of the movies and the real world, and, by mixing these up, he gives us a reality check that documentary footage alone cannot provide. Just as Mary wakes up to the evil that Rankin/Kindler harbors within him, we the viewers are jolted out of the diegesis of a pleasant little thriller to understand that this happened and will forever mark our memories.

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Woman in the dark: Mary watches the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Reflecting on the Hiroshima tragedy, Marguerite Duras pointed out that we can’t even talk about it—we can only talk about the impossibility of truly talking about it. Welles finds a way around this dilemma of portraying the Holocaust by just borrowing newsreel footage. But he doesn’t do so in a “BAM! Truth at 24 frames per second!” manner. He takes care to suggest that this is not the whole picture. He carefully makes us see that we’re not seeing the atrocities—we’re seeing a film of the atrocities projected onto a screen… and filmed by another camera.

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We’re looking at a film of a film of the Holocaust.

The degree of separation, however, rather than hinting that we just can’t comprehend what happened, brings up the idea of individual cultural trauma. I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw that footage on YouTube (I had to lie and say I was over 18 and willing to watch disturbing footage in the name of historical interest).

That footage of the camps and the wide-eyed Allied liberators has become more than a document or an artifact. It represents a rite of passage, a kind of frozen moment in time that we all have to encounter at some point, a point that will then crystallize in our lives and haunt us. Can we wrap our minds around the sheer mechanical abomination of that footage? No. But it stays with us. The experience of watching that grainy phantasmagoria of suffering becomes an enclosed moment, a rupture in time.

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To get back to the scene, I find it significant that the images are not just projected onto a screen, but, at times, onto Mr. Wilson’s face. He is part of the screen, and he casts his shadow onto the image. Now, I don’t want to tread on what Welles himself called “the jagged edge of symbolism,” because the materiality of the characters, the room, and the image itself save the scene from trite symbolism. And yet, watching Edward G. Robinson interact with those images that seem to fuse with him conveys so much about the strange way in which cultural traumas both escape us and live in us.

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Here’s where the strength of the movies comes in: I can’t express this in words half as well as Welles can with images. I don’t want to explain all that. I want you to watch the movie and tell me if you see it—or more importantly, if you feel it.

And then there’s the motion of the film reels, turning at a regular pace and rhythm, ’round and ’round like the gears of a clock. Even once the film strip has run out, the reel continues to spin, the tail end of the celluloid slapping against the table and giving us another little wake-up call. The shots of the gears of the projector foreshadow images of the gears of Harper’s clock spinning out of control at the grand finale of the film.

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The out-of-control film projector…

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…and the out-of-control clock tower gears.

In a way, the clock is inextricably linked with the movie projector as both introduce a looming sense of dread that intensifies in the final third of the film.

Immediately after this scene, Franz Kindler/Rankin fixes the Harper clock and it chimes out—waking up the entire town as Kindler looks down at them from the top of the tower, godlike.

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The villagers come running to investigate the newly working clock.

Having disturbed the peace of the town, the clock continues to strike at important moments for the rest of the film. For example, as Kindler saws away at the ladder to the top of the church tower, planning Mary’s “accidental” death, the clock strikes—meanwhile, Wilson looks at the tower from his hotel room and, at the Rankin house, the sound keeps Mary from sleeping.  We see her tossing and turning as it tolls in the night. In a series of three shots, the sound connects the central characters.

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The devil rising: a mechanical demon moves in front of the face of the clock as Kindler engineers his wife’s death and the chimes sound out.

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The sound of the chiming links together all of these shots and stresses the relationship between the incarnations of good and evil, Kindler and Wilson—both could actually be “the stranger” referred to by film’s the title—and the ordinary woman trying to negotiate the right path between them after making a very big mistake.

The clock’s tolling also coincides with and sort of exteriorizes the knowledge of those horrors that Mary witnessed. The sound design of the clock’s booming chimes makes the “home stretch” of the film more taut, implacable, and tense.

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But it’s really at the end of the movie where the clock-cinema connection clicks, as Kindler holes up in the clock tower, where Mary comes to kill him with Mr. Wilson in pursuit.

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Mary takes a wild shot at Kindler and misses, but hits the clock mechanisms and sends them spinning out of control.

Her shot prompts a gorgeous set piece of accelerated montage as the wounded Kindler tries to escape—whirring gears, shots, jerky movements, a fall onto the face of the clock. Just as the gears of the clock have accelerated beyond reason, so the well-paced, patient suspense of the film gives way to a frenzy of quick cuts. The clock and the cinema freak out in tandem.

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Is the scene a little allegorical? With Mary as an avenging angel… and the actual angel statue on the clock stabbing the demonic Kindler and sending him to his death? Probably, but there’s something even more cathartic going on.

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32The scene ends with a shot of the face of the clock, the hands revolving madly, mimicking the fruitless spinning of the film projector when it ran out of newsreel footage. Some trauma lies beyond time, beyond what can be shown, but that incessant, unreasoning, out-of-control cycling hits a very emotional chord.

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Some collective memories or experiences are so vast and awful that they make our heads spin. We can’t ever understand those pivotal moments in history, just like we can’t ever take the derivative of a single point in mathematics. The weight of these remembrances make our usual linear conceptions of time and memory judder, overheat, and careen off of any framework of calculation. They mark the asymptotes of our cultural perception and recollection. And The Stranger helps us to understand this. Time itself seems to go haywire at the end of the film, as if the magnitude of the horrors of WWII had created a cultural momentum that derails all sense of narrative or fiction.

The Stranger manages to stare down the barrel of some of the most hideous things that humans have ever perpetrated against each other and pack that kind of ugliness into a genre picture! In my mind, it’s the direct ancestor of a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour that manages to be both a love story in a silent era way and an avant-garde Mobius ring of loss and desire on macro and micro scales. The only difference is, The Stranger works on your mind subtly, without you totally realizing it. I’ve always really liked, respected, and enjoyed this film—even before I knew a jump cut from a jump rope. There’s something healing about it in the end, even if you’re not watching it for a dose of Wellesian genius.

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If you want a suspenseful, entertaining B movie, you’ll get it. But if you want an exorcism of a collective trauma and a darkly beautiful tale of deception, undeserved love, and a thinking conflict between good versus evil, you’ll find that too—even in as, ahem, conventional a film as this one.

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The Stranger is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it for free right now! Download it at the Internet Archive.