The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Bad Trip

The killer admires himself in the gas station mirror. He straightens his tie and eyes his reflection with a flicker of pride, as though working out which angle would look best on his Most Wanted poster.

While bad hombre Steve Morgan adjusts his fedora and exhales billows of smoke, the camera invites us—or perhaps dares us?—to drink him in. Think of it as the tough guy equivalent of a femme fatale applying her lipstick or running a brush through her luscious locks.

Meanwhile, James ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, the tipsy sap who ill-advisedly gave Steve a lift, coos to his wife on the phone, despite the intrusions of a nagging mother-in-law. Steve shoots a sly glance towards the camera with the hint of a mocking smile. What a swell sucker he picked.

Just 5 minutes into the movie, we’ve got the low-down on Steve Morgan. Heck, in the first 20 seconds after the credits, we hear Steve’s snarling voice pulling a stickup, right before he shoots the manager and leaves him to die.

But these lovingly captured moments of before-the-mirror posturing and carnivorous glee tell us a whole lot more about Steve as the film’s perverse main attraction. Brought to life by the dangerous Lawrence Tierney, he’s the pin-up boy from hell. He’s a barrel of laughs and razor blades. He’s a hunky psychopathic tomcat. And the world is full of mice.

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an icky little movie, a heady cocktail of chuckles and dread. Through some unholy miracle, writer-director Feist managed to pack two car chases, a dragnet manhunt, a stomach-churning woman-in-jeopardy sequence, and maybe the worst house party ever into a lean, mean 62-minute runtime.

This pulpy, high-octane B noir from RKO flirts so outrageously with comedy that you may not see its nastiest blows coming. Deranged tonal shifts and a farfetched plot make The Devil Thumbs a Ride more disturbing than many comparatively somber and cohesive entries in the noir canon. Murder, sadism, depravity, greed, and betrayal: that’s business as usual. But peppered with wacky sitcom-style hijinks? Now that’s twisted.

This is a movie where the bad guy casually runs over a cop and convinces his three passengers to roll with that. Where the psycho-killer has to take a break from assaulting someone to scrub a liquor stain off the rug while pouting like a scolded little boy. Where a life-or-death warning is scribbled on a piece of paper torn from a hideously racist novelty notepad in a sleazy beach house. Where the good-time gal briefly checks out from the movie to read Balzac (tee-hee!) in her pajamas then exclaims, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” upon learning that someone has been brutally slain. Like I said: icky.

More than mere cheap thrills, all the inappropriate comedy softens the viewer up for a shock with few equals in studio-era cinema.

Here’s the setup: traveling salesman James Ferguson (Ted North) is driving home to the ever-loving arms of his wife when he kindly picks up Steve, a hitchhiking robber on the lam. (Good call, Fergie. He has an honest face.) When the men stop for gas, two stranded dames, hardboiled blonde Agnes (Betty Lawford) and soft-spoken brunette Carol (Nan Leslie), ask for a ride. Sizing up Carol, Steve ushers the pair into the car, and Fergie, being an easygoing schmoe, doesn’t object.

Meanwhile the gas station attendant recognizes Steve from a radio bulletin and joins forces with the cops to hunt the criminal down. With the dragnet tightening, Steve persuades the crew to hide out in the unoccupied beach house bachelor pad owned by Fergie’s colleague. What could possibly go wrong?

If that plot sounds unbelievable, I urge you to park your skepticism at the credits. And remember: while normal people act pretty stupid in this movie, normal people act pretty stupid in real life too. The traits that Steve exploits—from mistrust of authority to thundering denial in the face of unpleasant facts—are present, more or less, in all of us.

The architecture of the film’s suspense turns the viewer into Steve’s accomplice; we know what he knows and what his companions apparently don’t. Willingly or not, we’re hep to his jive.

When the heat is on for Steve, the audience starts sweating. When he smirks, we’re in on the joke. We see Steve breaking bottles on the tires of Fergie’s car to prevent any members of his party from making a sudden exit. So, a few minutes later, when Fergie finds out about the flats, Steve’s wry, wolfish gaze over the poor sap’s shoulder is a private punchline for those of us keeping score at home.

Whether he’s spinning a sob story about reform school or swiping Fergie’s identity right in front of him, Tierney’s Steve lies with such fluency that I, like Sam Spade wondering at Miss Wonderly, can’t resist chuckling, “You’re good. You’re very good.”

Indeed, Devil toys with the viewer’s tendency to identify with—or at least enjoy the antics of—a charming psychopath, that evergreen pop culture favorite. At the risk of overanalyzing a B noir, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion towards Steve operates as a meta commentary on cinema’s addiction to violent men. This Devil reels us in with the promise of a good time, only to leave us grossed out by how far we’ve gone with a killer.

Most subversive of all, Devil reminds us that reality doesn’t respect the Production Code. And clutching the guardrails of conventional moral wisdom might lead you right off a cliff. Almost like a matched-pair experiment, the two women along for the ride take contrasting approaches to being cooped up with a killer, and let’s just say it turns out far better for one of them. Virtue might be its own reward, but sometimes it’s incompatible with survival.

Worth the price of admission then as well as now is Lawrence Tierney. One contemporary trade journal reviewer advised, “Plug Tierney as the screen’s new ‘tough guy.’” Interestingly, Tierney doesn’t engage in much tough guy business. He doesn’t throw a punch or fire more than a shot until the very end. Yet he radiates the promise of toughness, a laid-back assumption of dominance and ownership over everyone and everything around him.

Consider the speech Steve lavishes on Carol, minutes after they’ve met. Taking up more than his share of the back seat, he praises her hair, her teeth, her skin, and “them rare, hard-to-find Technicolor eyes.” An actor bent on winning our sympathy, or simply building up his appeal to the female public, might be tempted to wring this spiel and its glib cosmetic-commercial poetry for a little romantic kick.

Feist and Tierney, however, understood that this is not so much a string of compliments, or even a proposition, as a threat. He delivers the lines with a combination of oleaginous sensuality and deadpan calculation that would be humorous if it weren’t so creepy. The shadow of his fedora and head behind him crowds the tight frame further, as though his dark intentions had materialized into a silhouette. Make no mistake: Steve is itemizing her attractions like he’d make a mental note of jewels in the window of a store he’s planning to rob.

As an antisocial nightmare hitchhiker, Steve is a male counterpart to the volcanic Vera from Detour. Both of them hijack their weak-willed drivers, wheedle their captive audiences off the road, and trap them in claustrophobic private hells of booze and bad vibes. Both fuel their respective films with exhilaratingly unwholesome rock-and-roll energy. And both incarnate the underbelly of post-WWII America, but from different gender perspectives.

Just as Ann Savage’s Vera seemed to erupt with the long-silenced fury of a million women harassed, abused, and exploited, Tierney’s Steve incarnates the mid-century straight male id, the essence of toxic masculinity in a sharp suit and fedora. Rather than mere parallels, a cause-and-effect relationship connects these two landmark psychos of the noirverse. Men like Steve are the reason why Vera is, well… Vera.

Steve stands in stark contrast to the two cloyingly domestic men who round out the main cast: Fergie, a devoted married man, and Jack, the boyish gas station attendant who proudly displays a picture of his little daughter. Bookended by these happy hubbies, our resident psychopath comes across as the return of a collectively repressed killer instinct. After all, when you ship out thousands and thousands of men to shoot people in a strange land for a few years, not all of them can come home and settle down to become a Fergie or a Jack. There are bound to be complications.

In 1946, according to the Motion Picture Herald, the Office of War Information communicated with Hollywood because “Washington felt it would be a good idea for the screen to prepare the population for the arrival home of a large category of veterans in the psycho-neurotic category.” A dirtbag like Steve probably wasn’t what the OWI had in mind, but “having started delving into the realm of abnormal psychology, Hollywood’s considerable colony of writers kept right on delving,” the Herald dryly noted.

Savage’s Vera and Tierney’s Steve Morgan operate outside the margins of polite society; yet both hitchhikers paradoxically serve as bleak, noirish parodies of awful spouses. One can imagine a henpecked husband in 1945 recognizing his own ball-and-chain in shrewish Vera, as she nags Roberts to the breaking point with her get-rich-quick schemes. Steve’s habit of ordering women around—and slapping them when they don’t comply—casts him as an abusive husband figure.

No sooner does Steve reach the beach house than he starts barking orders at Carol like a domineering hubby fresh from a long day at the office. “Look, baby, you heard me: bring over that bottle and two glasses,” he snaps. A few scenes later it’s Agnes’s turn to play wifey. He literally tells her to get in the kitchen and make him a sandwich: “Hey, Aggie, if you’re cleanin’ out the icebox, how about whippin’ me up a cheese on rye?” (Because murder apparently works up an appetite? Look, I warned you this movie was icky.)

Regardless of what Steve might represent, Feist makes the most of Tierney’s intimidating physical presence and his unusual face, which could morph from stone-cold handsome in one shot to downright gruesome in the next. Or within the same shot, for that matter. When he first makes a move on Carol at the beach house—only to be interrupted by the doorbell—he’s all matinee idol in profile, then all craggy villain from the front.

Cameraman J. Roy Hunt’s lighting takes the title literally, amplifying the diabolical impact of Tierney’s mug. During tense moments, Hunt shines vampirish beams around the criminal’s eyes or makes him glow and leer like a possessed waxwork figure.

Lately I’ve been noticing how much more men’s hair seems to move in film noir compared to other classic films, but Steve’s hair in The Devil Thumbs a Ride might set the record for most activity. A big mass of wavy dark hair often escapes its Brylcreem bonds to hang rakishly across his forehead. That says something about him: even this man’s hair is out of line. It’s 1947; hair isn’t supposed to work like that. If a man’s hair moves this much in a studio film, he’s Trouble with a capital T. Not that we need confirmation.

For a lot of this movie, Steve has command of our eyeballs. A professor of mine once pointed out how much of The Big Sleep consists of Bogie walking across rooms, because Hawks knew Bogie looked good doing it. Feist capitalized similarly on Tierney here. Even when the movie parks itself in an isolated location, Steve’s self-assured gestures and perambulations maintain a sense of entertaining movement, whether he’s lighting cigarettes, surreptitiously locking doors, disabling phones and getaway vehicles, or rifling people’s pockets.

Some actors can play scary. Some actors are scary. Tierney belongs to the latter category. Nowadays it’s a meme to joke about wanting celebrities to murder you; Tierney’s star image got there about 70 years ahead of the curve. Ironically, the run of destructive behavior and arrests that derailed Tierney’s career also boosted his mystique and secured his place in noir history. Part of the morbid thrill of watching Tierney lies in wondering exactly where the actor ends and the performance begins.

He’s more or less the whole show in The Devil Thumbs a Ride and arguably better here than in the lurid Born to Kill, his big A-picture showcase from the same year. In the role of social-climbing, murder-happy Sam Wilde, he got to rack up a higher body count, indulge in more onscreen violence, and lounge on beds while smoldering with forbidden proto-punk allure. But Sam’s muddied motivations and sheer recklessness don’t do the actor any favors. Though Tierney makes an electrifying homme fatal, Sam is way out of his depth and not blessed in the brains department. Luckily, his other assets convince couger-ish divorcee Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) to cover for him, even as she reminds him, between kisses, of what an awful bungler he is.

Tierney seemed more at ease and frightening playing sharp, vicious bastard Steve Morgan, unhampered by long-range social aspirations. His occasional awkwardness, a liability in Born to Kill, only added to his unvarnished scariness and verisimilitude as Steve. At times you feel as though you’re watching an escaped psycho-killer who just wandered onto the set and started doing his thing.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride gave Tierney the chance to hone the lethal, uncomplicated charisma that catapulted him to fame in surprise box office hit Dillinger (1945). Though supported by such old pros as Edmund Lowe, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Eduardo Ciannelli, Tierney carries the film on the strength of his desperado swagger. Photoplay reviewer Sara Hamilton wasn’t too impressed by the film, but rather taken with the star: “The lad looks good in both the longshots and close-ups.” Sure, he guns down a bunch of people and chops up his moll’s boytoy with an axe, but it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him in the end, holed up in a garret then led to his ignominious death, like a bull to a slaughterhouse.

The success of Dillinger—along with Tierney’s reputation for brawling and boozing—contributed to his typecasting as criminals and tough mugs. “For some reason they always cast me as the mean asshole,” a still-pugnacious Tierney lamented to Eddie Muller in 1999. Well, not always. He did play a few heroic guys in his prime and imbued them with more endearing flair than I would’ve expected. Yet an air of menace and haywire virility clung to Tierney, onscreen and off.

In Bodyguard (1948), he’s a 1940s Dirty Harry who gets kicked off the force after belting his superior in the jaw—which makes him suitable for framing when the boss turns up dead. In Step by Step (1946), he’s a damsel-saving, Nazi-punching ex-Marine who travels with an adorable dog. And even so, you can’t quite blame the aforementioned damsel (Anne Jeffreys) for locking her door and pushing a chest of drawers in front of it before she can sleep easily in the same hotel suite with Tierney.

After watching The Devil Thumbs a Ride, you definitely won’t blame her. Because (spoiler alert) all the film’s queasy comedy temporarily comes to a screeching halt when Steve, having eliminated all apparent obstacles, decides to force himself on Carol. Once Agnes shuts her door on them, the situation escalates rapidly, as brassy swing music—Steve’s choice to set the mood—blares shrilly from the radio.

Realistically blocked with struggles shown mostly from an unromanticized distance, this attempted rape scene hits hard even today. “Don’t make me chase ya, baby. It’s not gonna help,” Steve sneers, pushing Carol towards a divan and wrestling her arms down.

Just as he gets Carol in a headlock, the music breaks for a news bulletin. Steve lets go and Carol darts away to hear a warning about a guy called Steve Morgan who killed a theater manager and won’t hesitate to kill again. The camera tracks into a stunned close-up of Carol. A scenario that seemingly couldn’t get any worse somehow did. She’s trapped with a potential rapist. In a locked room. In the middle of nowhere. And it turns out he’s a murderer too.

Suddenly the film’s whole structure of identification shifts. The audience is no longer Steve’s knowing accomplice, but Carol’s paralyzed ally. We’re in the moment with her and this monster, and it’s scary as hell. Mercifully, Fergie returns, but not before Steve clips Carol on the jaw—loudly enough to make the viewer flinch—and warns her to “keep that little trap of yours clamped up tight.” Unaware of what he’s interrupting, Fergie proceeds to bawl Steve out for being an untidy guest.

Now ensues a white-knuckle scene of Hitchcockian normalcy-gone-wrong as Carol tries to signal to Fergie how much of a jam they’re in—without alerting Steve—while they clean up the beach house. She scribbles a note to warn Fergie, crumples it up, and passes it to him, along with the vacuum cleaner. But the note tumbles to the floor.

Clueless Fergie runs the vacuum and nudges the balled-up note closer… closer… closer to Steve as Carol watches in horror. Again, swing music from the radio frets on the viewer’s nerves, its cheeriness mocking the direness of what we’re seeing.

Steve picks up the piece of paper. And promptly tosses it in the fire. Phew.

Relieved but desperate and disgusted, Carol snatches a makeshift map and dashes out of the house. Steve, squatting on the floor, relaunches his aggressive pitch, now in the form of lewd life coaching: “You wanna be an actress, ya gotta live. What’d’ya think makes those love scenes in pictures look so real? Experience! Nothing but!” Turning his head and realizing that Carol’s about to escape his clutches and probably contact the cops, he runs after her, much to Fergie’s puzzlement and dismay.

Since the film has pivoted to Carol’s perspective, nothing bad will happen to her, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

After a scene at police headquarters, we’re back to the beach house. Steve returns. Alone. Sullen. Casually dabbing blood from the scratches on his face. The canary is missing, and he’s got yellow feathers sticking out of his mouth. It’s both a punchline and a punch in the gut.

Obvious though the implication is, I confess that my brain refused to add it up for a few minutes. I thought, “Oh, good, she fought him off.” Because that’s how these movies have trained my brain to work. In an ordinary old Hollywood film, we’d find out that Steve only beat Carol up and locked her in the trunk of the car or something. While such a contrivance would stretch our disbelief (think Mrs. Vargas in Touch of Evil), we’d be grateful enough to accept it.

But no.

When Fergie goes out to look for Carol, we find out that this is no ordinary old Hollywood movie. That grating, upbeat swing music drifts eerily from the house. And then Fergie sees something off-screen; the camera tracks into a shocked close-up as dramatic music drowns out the radio. It’s bad. Really bad.

Carol is dead. Floating face-down in the lagoon with bruises on her jaw and God only knows where else. A sweet little gal who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and put up a fight. According to the strict moral laws of the day, she committed no major transgression. The film doesn’t try to victim-blame her, which is significant, given that classic Hollywood films often threaten sexual violence, but rarely inflict it on characters we care about. (The bogus implication, in most cases, is that being good is enough to save you.) Weird and wild though it seems, Feist’s no-holds-barred noir is not inconsistent with the world we inhabit; sometimes bad things happen to good people, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

At this point, there’s only one lady hitchhiker standing, so let’s spare a moment for Agnes, the film’s second most chilling character. Despite her bargain-basement Blondell mannerisms, this is no chorus girl with a heart of gold. She’s a peroxide Judas Iscariot, ready to sell you out for a pair of stockings. When Steve is assaulting Carol, Agnes peers out from her cozy pajama party of one in a side bedroom. Does she say, “Quick, Carol, hide in here” or “Hey, give it a rest, Steve. The kid said she’s tired”? Nope. She says, “Ain’t a lady entitled to some privacy? Close that door.” So much for solidarity, sister.

After emerging from her beauty rest, Agnes teasingly addresses Steve as “Romeo” before he lights her cigarette in a shot of sinister communion, strangely dark and classically noirish for the well-lit beach house, that cinches their bond of shared rottenness.

Unlike Steve, Agnes appears to have a working set of moral gears; she just doesn’t bother to wind them up too often. I detect a hint of reproach in her voice as she asks, “Why’d you have to give it to the kid?” after Fergie discovers the body. Agnes listens to Steve’s too-convenient explanation and decides not to probe further, lest she end up floating in the lagoon herself.

From the way she purses her lips, we know that she knows there was a lot more to Carol’s death than a misplaced punch on the jaw, but she aligns herself with Steve nevertheless. And takes his blood money. And tackles the role of Mrs. James Ferguson with riotous gusto, simpering over Carol’s fate while accusing the real Fergie of Steve’s crimes. Agnes, for goodness sake, Carol’s cold, wet corpse is lying on the sofa. Being a cynical survivalist is one thing, but you don’t have to be so damned enthusiastic about it.

While the film’s too-neat wrap-up informs us via newspaper that Agnes is facing jail time for her misdeeds, that fate strikes this viewer as a weak comeuppance. I’d still rather be in Agnes’s shoes than Carol’s. Better a perfidious floozy behind bars than an angelic waif 6 feet under. By denying the audience the fair outcomes it expects from Breen-sanctioned Hollywood movies, The Devil Thumbs a Ride thumbs its nose at the idea of a just universe with a cohesive moral logic. Sometimes the only one with his eye on the sparrow is the predator preparing to devour it. God is nowhere to be found in this film, but the devil? He gets around. And that, friends, is the true meaning of noir.

Perfect movies have their place, but sometimes a flawed, outlandish, off-kilter one haunts you more. Just how much of an impression did this nasty B noir make on me? Well, a few nights after I first saw it, I had a bad dream that late-1940s Lawrence Tierney was threatening me. I woke up right then, which is fortunate. Based on this movie, I wouldn’t give myself great odds.

Where can you see it? The Devil Thumbs a Ride is not currently available on a legit Region 1 DVD. I shelled out for the Region 2 Spanish DVD. It’s crisper and much easier on the eyes than some of the pixelated DVR-ed prints around the internet. The screenshots in this post show what that DVD looks like (though I color-corrected the bluish tint).

Update from Eddie Muller on Twitter: “This was just restored through a partnership of the Library of Congress and Film Noir Foundation. Only problem is that rights issues prevent us from screening the film in North America.”

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2018

I have a hard time letting go of things. (Said the girl who mostly watches movies made decades before she was born.)  It usually takes me a full month of the new year before I start using the right date. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to publish this list.

Before I definitively say goodbye to 2018, I wanted to write a little—or a lot, as the case may be—about my favorite discoveries from this past year. After immersing myself in old movies for most of my life, I’m delighted by the fact that classic cinema still has plenty of surprises in store for me, whether rare movies hibernating in vaults or well-known flicks that I simply needed to sit down and watch.

1. Lilac Time (George Fitzmaurice, 1928)

What’s it about? In the last days of WWI, spunky French farm girl Jeannine (Colleen Moore) boosts morale among a squadron of British flyers and comforts them when tragedy strikes. After new pilot Phillip Blyth (Gary Cooper) arrives, his teasing rivalry with Jeannine blossoms into love… right before the big attack from which no man is expected to return.

Why do I love it? The Big Parade it ain’t, but this romantic drama sure knows how to wring a tear or twenty from my eyes. In its own intimate yet vast way, Lilac Time captures the terrible wrench of the Great War. The sequence that will haunt me most is each pilot sitting in his “crate” and taking a few moments to say goodbye to life. One man jauntily ties a silk stocking around his neck in remembrance of a Paris good-time girl. One pins a photo of his fiancée to the cockpit. One closes his eyes tight and prays, “Deliver us from evil, Amen!” And Phillip embraces Jeannine in tight, rapturous two shots filled with yearning and peak movie star wattage, evoking all the shining youth and potential chewed up by the senseless conflict.

I adore classic movies that conspire to trigger olfactory memories. Smell-o-vision of the mind, you might say. Watching Gary Cooper and Colleen Moore confess their love among clusters of lilacs conjures the flowers’ sweet, creamy aroma, borne on a spring breeze. That scent, transmitted to the viewer’s nose by a redolent image, plays a poignant role in the last act as well. The imaginary fragrance showcases the intense, almost supernatural ability of silent cinema to envelop you and appeal to your senses through a visual medium alone. Of course, my feelings for this film may also be rose-tinted—or lilac-scented, as it were—by the fact that I saw it at the Rome Capitol movie palace… 90 years to the day from when it opened the theater in 1928.

Where can you see it? It’s not currently available on a legit DVD, but there’s a fuzzy print on ok.ru.

2. The Rescue (Herbert Brenon, 1929)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, honorable expat ship captain Lingard (Ronald Colman) has pledged to help local chief Hassim reclaim his throne. When a slinky European temptress (Lili Damita) begs Lingard to save her bungling, arrogant husband from a hostile tribe, the conflict between loyalty and lust threatens to destroy the captain’s moral universe.

Why do I love it? The Rescue was the final screening of this year’s Capitolfest, and that was a good call because few films could follow this late-silent masterpiece and register at all. The sobering conclusion wrecked me like a load of TNT, while the quality of the film left me high on the knowledge that such buried treasure still exists. The essence of Conrad’s world is all there, exotic and brutal and unflinching in its depiction of ugly messes made by Europeans playing games with other peoples’ lands and cultures.

The complex plot of subtly shifting allegiances has largely melted away from my memory, yet certain shots and moods have seared themselves in my consciousness… Hassim’s sister, Immada,  prophesying disaster with indignant puffs of breath rippling the surface of her gold-trimmed veil. Secretive shipboard conversations with life-or-death stakes, framed by lamplit mosquito netting. The femme fatale in a shimmering dress and sheer shawl wandering the deep tropical darkness, a torch in her hand.

And, most devastating of all, a man on a beach watching a ship being blown sky-high—and all his promises with it. An unforgettable shot, followed by an equally unforgettable close-up of Ronald Colman. Among explosions, shimmering seas, and Damita’s famous legs, Colman’s wounded face, creased by despair, is the most moving spectacle of all. Instead of tacking on a Hollywood ending, The Rescue ends faithfully to Conrad, without a shred of triumph. It’s one hell of a film.

Where can you see it? Maybe another rare film festival, but nowhere else at present.

3. Seven Keys to Baldpate (Reginald Barker, 1929)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Earl Derr Biggers’s novel, a writer of potboilers (Richard Dix) accepts a wager from his friend that he can churn out a novel in 24 hours. Holed up in a gloomy, snowbound hotel, he encounters nothing but distractions in the forms of cutthroats, nosey innkeepers, crooked politicians, dangerous dames, and the girl of his dreams.

Why do I love it? Sometimes you enjoy a movie just as much as you think you will. This was one of those movies for me. It’s the perfect film to watch on a frosty night while curled up with a cup of cocoa, which is exactly what I did. I love old dark house movies in general, but this one has a certain weight and style that sets it apart. There’s something about the transitional feel of many 1929 talkies, with their dense, ornate visual textures and slightly awkward, roomy staging, that I find enchanting. You’re peering through a gap in film history into some strange alternate universe.

The oh-so-meta twist (and the twist on the twist) of Seven Keys to Baldpate feels surprisingly fun, if slightly lame to a modern viewer. Self-awareness can be a frightful bore when it’s secretly self-congratulatory; it’s easier to roll your eyes at tropes than to play them straight and get the desired effect. But the meta bits in Seven Keys to Baldpate round out this love poem to the tangled pleasures of the old dark house movie in all its formulaic, unreal glory.

Where can you see it? It’s available in a Warner Archive DVD set along with 2 other adaptations of the play.

4. The Storm (William Wyler, 1930)

What’s it about? A blizzard traps two WWI vet buddies, an aristocratic British playboy (Paul Cavanagh) and a simple, sincere Canadian (William ‘Stage’ Boyd), in a cabin with a fugitive’s beautiful daughter (Lupe Velez). As provisions run out and both men make a play for Manette, will their friendship survive? Will they?

Why do I love it? My dude William Wyler out here using cinematic space like a boss!!! Seriously, though, the myth persists that early talkies were uniformly static and theater-like, and Wyler shatters that in the first 15 minutes of The Storm. To give just 2 notable examples, we get a humorous crane shot, as our hero drags a nasty swindler to the top of a building to show him that the sun has not yet set (so the baddie can’t foreclose). Shortly later we’re treated to a riveting chase scene by land and canoe, as resourceful Manette springs her smuggler daddy free from the grip of the law. Then we spend the rest of the movie in a snowy, claustrophobic cabin that becomes a dynamic battleground for romantic rivalry, a confined space shot with extraordinary assurance and variety.

Watching this movie, it occurred to me that Wyler was to emotion what Hitchcock was to violence (not that you won’t find plenty of violence in Wyler’s oeuvre too). Both were top-notch masters of suspense, but while Hitchcock was often building up to murder or a death-defying escape as the climax, Wyler was building up to heartbreak, to some relationship reversal or revelation that would change lives forever.

When I saw this ultra-rare film at Capitolfest, few of my pals rated it as highly as I did. But I still find myself thinking about it months later. Mostly thinking that I’d give an awful lot to see it again.

Where can you see it? Probably nowhere outside of a film festival. And it’s a Universal film, so it will probably remain in not-on-DVD limbo for eternity. Sigh. Maybe we could lobby TCMFF to show it?

5. La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)

What’s it about? In the wake of a big robbery and a murder, Inspector Maigret (Pierre Renoir) investigates among a cast of eccentrics at a garage in the country. And… well, I have no clue beyond that. There are double crosses and assumed identities and discarded husbands, but really the plot is clear as Nutella.

Why do I love it? Because it’s a shadow-cloaked, fog-shrouded film noir that somehow time-travelled to the 1930s. A film noir with the sleek lines of everyday deco and the hissing eeriness of early sound movies. Sounds like the dull thump of a car door take on an alien tonality, and voices seem less modulated for microphones. That’s not to say that La Nuit du Carrefour is primitive. Au contraire. From the opening credits, as a melancholy Italian song is punctuated by audiovisual snippets of a heist—a blowtorch opening a safe, the screech of a getaway car—you know you should brace yourself for brilliance.

Some blame La Nuit du Carrefour‘s unintelligible plot on a mythical missing reel, but I don’t quite buy that. The film would lose much of its enigmatic, trance-inducing luster if it were comprehensible. In any case, there’s a very special place in my heart for crime thrillers that make absolutely no sense and don’t give a damn about it. (Lady from Shanghai and The Big Sleep, I’m looking at you.) If you get the ambiance right—and La Nuit du Carrefour surely does—narrative logic is for suckers.

Still, the main reason why I put La Nuit du Carrefour on this list is the obscure Danish-born actress Winna Winifried who continues to stalk my imagination, smirking coyly behind a cigarette. Her performance is such an off-putting cocktail of gamine charm and decadence that you’re never quite sure if she’s a little girl playing at being a femme fatale or a femme fatale playing at being a little girl. Her presence amps up the film’s surrealness. Certain shots of her lounging on a bed while caressing her pet tortoise, smoking, and gazing at herself in a silver hand mirror wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film of the era. There’s something fetchingly macabre about her; if you found out in the third act that she was Dracula’s daughter, you wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And IMDb lists no death date for her, so perhaps she really is.

Where can you see it? It’s not on a U.S. DVD that I know of (Yoohoo, Criterion! It’s Renoir! This one has your name on it…), but you can currently watch it on rarefilmm.com.

6. The Emperor’s Candlesticks (George Fitzmaurice, 1937)

What’s it about? Rival spies, a Polish baron (William Powell) and a Russian countess (Luise Rainer), hide a secret letter in a pair of matching candlesticks unbeknownst to each other. When the candlesticks are stolen en route, the duo must race against time to retrieve their communiqués. But as they fall in love, they have to face the reality that success for one’s mission will mean death for the other.

Why do I love it? Because it’s a meringue-topped slice of glorious, glamorous escapist intrigue. It’s an act of devotion to fur and whimsy and the pleasures of studio-era filmmaking. I caught up with The Emperor’s Candlesticks on WatchTCM because I had nothing better to do and was mildly shocked that nobody had recommended it to me before.

Director George Fitzmaurice excelled at spinning lush, spicy tales of times gone by and lands far away. He was wise enough to let the The Emperor’s Candlesticks be the soufflé it wants to be. The frisson of danger fuels this romp, but its best bits border on screwball comedy. Powell is his usual swoon-worthy bon vivant self and Rainer, fresh from her back-to-back Oscar wins for dramatic roles, appears to be having oodles of fun.

With the MGM dream team in full force (Decor by Gibbons! Gowns by Adrian!), one standout is Franz Waxman’s sprightly yet sweeping score with its variations on Vasiliev’s “Two Guitars.” Watching fur-caped Luise Rainer flit along a corridor to the sound of a mischievously twanging guitar is the kind of opulent treat that reminds me why MGM—usually not my favorite studio by a long shot—was such a powerhouse of popularity.

Where can you see it? It was available as part of a Luise Rainer DVD set from Warner Archive, but that’s apparently out of print (though used ones are selling on Amazon). It occasionally turns up on TCM.

7. The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Maugham’s novel, WWI vet Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) breaks with the shallow world of his fiancée, Isabel (Gene Tierney), to go on a journey of spiritual discovery. After finding enlightenment in the Himalayas, he knows he must return to the people he left behind and help them as best he can.

Why do I love it? Because it’s an epiphany on celluloid, that’s why. A sprawling epic of awakening and suffering that rejects easy answers in favor of a noble dedication to seeking meaning and embracing compassion. Look, I shouldn’t have procrastinated this movie for years. (I’ve owned the DVD since, like, 2010. I heard Robert Osborne list it as one of his favorites in 2013. What the actual f*** is wrong with me?) But maybe the universe wanted me to procrastinate, because I got to watch this movie for the first time at the Nitrate Picture Show where it reduced me to a puddle of ecstatic tears.

Coping with his own wartime trauma, Tyrone Power imbues Larry with warmth, gentleness, and exquisite uncertainty. Frankly, the role of Dude Who Abandons Everybody to Go Find Himself Then Comes Home with Transcendent Wisdom is tricky to play without seeming whiny or holier-than-thou. What Power does so well is to convey that Larry is always questioning himself without judging others. He radiates empathy.

The performances are uniformly splendid. Best remembered for Grand Hotel, director Edmund Goulding evidently had a gift for harmonizing these kinds of ensembles. Gene Tierney morphs from a conflicted debutant into the epitome of envenomed sweetness, gleefully wrecking another woman’s life merely to satisfy her vanity. As fellow nitrate aficionado Emily West said to me after the screening, “She’s scarier than she was in Leave Her to Heaven!” I couldn’t agree more. Then there’s Anne Baxter who rips your heart out through your chest at least twice during this movie. And Clifton Webb who, despite the odds, makes you love his cranky, ghoulishly superficial socialite, living a life so empty that the meaning of his existence hinges on an invitation to a ritzy party delivered on his deathbed.

Goulding’s eye finds beauty of many kinds to adorn this wandering tale. The sea shimmering behind Isabel and Larry as he confesses his disillusionment to her. A man’s tiny figure perched among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Rain mingling with smoke in the window of a dive bar for coal miners. Tyrone Power’s face overlaid by shadows of trembling palm fronds as he processes tragedy by reciting Keats. Icy, doll-like Gene Tierney sipping temptation from a crystal aperitif glass. Ultimately the most beautiful sight of the film is its closing shot, as rough seas heave and Larry loads onto a seamer for parts unknown, still seeking the meaning of life, knowing that the meaning of life is seeking.

Where can you see it? You can stream it on Amazon, YouTube, and elsewhere.

8. Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948)

What’s it about? A pampered socialite gets involved with a controlling aesthete who insists she’s the reincarnation of a long-dead woman whose portrait he owns… a woman who destroyed the man who worshipped her. Will history repeat itself?

Why do I love it? I thought this movie was trying to kill me with a surfeit of dark Gothic glamour and opulence, so intoxicating was the spell of its baroque art direction and cinematography. Brocade gowns and glittering necklaces and diadems and rows of reflections and deep, echoing hallways and a lavish Renaissance-themed party sequence… this movie is a seduction for the eyes. It immerses you in delirious sensuality laced with perversity. If Charles Baudelaire had directed a film noir, it would’ve looked like Corridor of Mirrors.

Sure, the ending is a cop-out, but a last-minute attempt to restore the status quo cannot erase the stoic grandeur of Eric Portman laying down his life rather than live in the shadow of unrequited love. Nor can it deny the darkness lurking in our heroine’s soul, witnessed by the sadistic, contorting laughter that possesses her and provokes the film’s spiral into tragedy. From its hypnotic opening voice-over, Corridor of Mirrors is the story of a woman with festering passions and secret regrets. No amount of tidy explanations can exorcise the bejeweled demons that haunt this bizarre romance.

Where can you see it? Filmstruck. Oh, dammit, Filmstruck is gone. Did I mention that I am still not over that? Welp, there’s a subtitled version of it in a dark corner of ok.ru. Maybe it will show up on the Criterion Channel.

9. Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949)

What’s it about? When independent black man Lucas Beauchamp is accused of murder, white teen Chick Mallison races against the clock to prevent a lynching and find the real killer.

Why do I love it? I first saw this Faulkner adaptation in full at TCMFF, introduced by historian Donald Bogle and former child actor Claude Jarman, Jr. According to Bogle, 1949 was a breakthrough year for black representation in classic Hollywood films. The fact that Intruder in the Dust emerged from MGM is something of a marvel. According to Jarman, studio boss Louis B. Mayer objected to the subject matter: “He was still in Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Intruder in the Dust is a memorable example of a message picture wrapped in a genre film. It’s both an engaging mystery and a harrowing depiction of racism in the Jim Crow South—racism that runs the gamut from frothing-at-the-mouth bigotry to genteel apathy.

One could label Intruder in the Dust another white savior story. Still, it doesn’t let white audiences off the hook. On the one hand, classical cinema offers few images of allyship more inspiring than fragile spinster Miss Habersham blocking an angry mob as the ringleader menacingly sloshes gasoline at her feet. But, on the other hand, lest the white audience get too complacent and self-congratulatory, Clarence Brown doesn’t shy away from the discomfort of showing a lynch mob filling the streets of a small town with frightening casualness, as if waiting for a 4th of July parade. A little girl licking an ice cream has never been so horrifying.

The film doesn’t idealize its white teenage protagonist, who initially quakes with rage at the idea that he could be beholden to a black man. What begins as Chick’s self-serving quest to pay his debt turns into a confrontation with the worst parts of his community and himself. Arguably an Intruder in the Dust copycat, To Kill a Mockingbird shows the perfect family that is of course perfectly opposed to racism; the conflict is entirely external. By contrast, Intruder in the Dust forces its white viewers to confront the reality that even the those who see themselves as good white people, like Chick’s uncle, need to honestly examine their beliefs and prejudices in order to take the right kind of action.

On paper, it’s a film centered on Chick. But Juano Hernandez as Lucas Beauchamp dominates this film. A cutting glance from him is an indictment so powerful that I can’t believe it made it to screens in 1949.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive.

10. Mystery Street (John Sturges, 1950)

What’s it about? When a woman’s skeletal remains wash up on a Massachusetts beach, a Portuguese-American detective and a Harvard Medical School professor work together to solve her murder.

Why do I love it? Don’t be fooled by the proto-CSI premise. John Alton’s cinematography illuminates a metaphysical morality play within this clever police procedural. Beatifically handsome Ricardo Montalban roves the noirverse like an avenging angel, destined to triumph over the slimy bigot killer who snuffed out glowing, foolish blonde Jan Sterling. Alton shows us a sordid, soiled world with flashes of grace. A knocked-up bargirl calling her sugar daddy while a scheming landlady eavesdrops from the staircase becomes a tableau worthy of Rembrandt. A cop holding up a lightbulb to examine a ruined car acquires all the drama and surprise of a Gerard van Honthorst painting. Where others might see only the mundane and the gritty, Alton seemed to see a spiritual tug-of-war worthy of the old masters.

Like the thousand and one forensics shows it paved the way for, Mystery Street is compulsively watchable. Every time it’s on TCM I make an excuse to see it. It’s that good.

Where can you see it? It’s available on DVD.

11. Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1952)

What’s it about? A successful but emotionally closed-off ballerina returns to the island where she first fell in love. There she remembers her happiest days, cut short by a tragic accident. Can she heal from the wounds of the past and salvage her future?

Why do I love it? Because it gave me a newfound appreciation of Ingmar Bergman. Stephany Kim, an L. Jeffrey Selznick School graduate and Nitrate Show friend of mine, and I had a good chat about this; we found that we connected with Bergman’s early melodrama more than with the auteur’s greatest hits. Sometimes a unconventional artist can speak to you best through the pleasures of a conventional form. With its quicksilver shifts between vitality and doom, between fresh-faced, windblown hope and barren despair, this un-revolutionary tale of love and loss acted like a magnifying glass for a perspective that’s uniquely Bergman.

I have to mention one particular shot, a revelatory extreme close-up of Maj-Britt Nilsson in stage makeup, her every pore visible. The framing, the mood, the loving yet painfully intimate focus on a woman’s face all belong to Bergman. This image as a key turning point in our heroine’s psychological journey offers an unmistakeable point of fusion between the story and the auteur’s signature.

At the first Nitrate Picture Show, Kevin Brownlow joked about how his wife refers to an agonizingly gorgeous day as “nitrate weather.” The silvery sparkle of Summer Interlude on nitrate managed to channel the wistful beauty of a summer remembered, a summer that seemed like it would never end but inevitably did.

Where can you see it? It’s in the Criterion Collection.

12. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

What’s it about? A Paris hotel concierge is hired to investigate the whereabouts of a vanished lord. Soon she discovers that her own brother is mixed up in a fantastic rivalry between demigods hellbent on possessing a mystical diamond that will allow them to remain on earth.

Why do I love it? Let’s start with the clothes. No, really, there is not a single style in this film that you could not steal and totally rock today. The slick 1930s-and-40s-reborn-as-1970s looks—especially the dapper satiny tailored looks—heighten the atmosphere with a enticing, magical aura of glamour unstuck in time.

Rivette’s films are weirdly difficult to find, but several I’ve succeeded in seeing abound with wonderful roles for women. Not a token Strong Role or two for women, but almost all-women ensembles, each player with a rich, theatrical part. Watching scene after scene of great actresses interacting with other great actresses makes you realize what you were missing.

Duelle harkens back to those eccentric supernatural/occult noir crossovers of the 1940s, following in the footsteps of The Seventh Victim and Alias Nick Beal. However, in place of the rain-slicked, abstracted streets and dry-ice fogs of studio Hollywood, Rivette harnesses the spooky enchantments of Paris. How naturally that sparkling yet grungy city lends herself to the fantastic! When the light goes out in hip dance clubs, deadly goddesses reveal their true aspects and vow destruction. Parks and aquariums serve as rendezvous points for cryptic exchanges. Metro tunnels and platforms transform into terrifying traps for the man who dared meddle in celestial affairs.

Where can you see it? It’s streaming on Amazon! Shoutout to Miriam Bale for pointing this out and recommending the film on Twitter.

13. Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)

What’s it about? H.G. Wells dreams of escaping to a more enlightened era, so he’s building a time machine in Victorian London. Unfortunately for Wells, one of his dearest friends turns out to be Jack the Ripper (don’t you hate it when that happens?) and hijacks the time machine to escape the law. Determined to bring his former pal to justice, Wells follows Jack into the bewildering world of 1970s San Francisco.

Why do I love it? That overused label “one of a kind” really does apply to this time-travel mashup that’s part thriller, part sci-fi, part rom-com with a dose of historical fanfic. Time After Time juggles many genres and tones and manages to do them all well. It’s the romantic element, though, that makes the film tick. The winning chemistry between courtly, freethinking Wells and his flirty, independent 20th century beloved beams with sincerity and tenderness worthy of your favorite old Hollywood romantic team.

The “time traveler wondering at today’s ordinary gadgets” schtick can get old fast, but Malcolm McDowell’s befuddled curiosity floats the film beautifully. More important, any sense of “wow!” is tempered by Wells’s bitter disappointment in a future scarred by and obsessed with violence, a world that hasn’t yet caught up with his lofty ideals. By contrast, Jack the Ripper fits right in, gleefully savoring horrors on the TV news and enthusing about the lack of gun control in this brave new world. Time After Time’s sober lens on the then-modern world remains chillingly apropos.

Where can you see it? You can buy it to stream on Amazon, YouTube, and a number of other places.

Twisted Hopes and Crooked Dreams: A Weekend at the Kit Noir Festival

Even people who couldn’t pick Barbara Stanwyck out of a police lineup might know noir when they see it.

Slanting shadows of Venetian blinds. Men in trench coats prowling rain-slicked streets after dark. Scheming dames with guns in their purses and murder on their minds.

Noir is surely the crossover superstar of the cinephile lexicon, with tropes and a visual style instantly recognizable in television, video games, and graphic novels, as well as films.

However, the actors, directors, and cinematographers who forged that style in the early 1940s didn’t call it film noir. Why? Because the term didn’t exist.

At Columbia University the inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival (or Kit Noir for short) investigated the genesis of noir as a critical concept. The festival screened 8 films in total, 7 of them on 35mm. Whenever possible, the festival showed original trailers for the next film in the series, providing insight into how Hollywood sold the not-yet-labeled film noir to the public.

Noir enthusiast Gordon Kit established and funded this exploration of a “uniquely American genre” in honor of his parents. He hopes to differentiate the recurring event from other noir- or classic film-oriented festivals by focusing on critical noir studies. “I am fascinated by the historical and cultural context of films—what was happening in the world when the films were made, where did the inspiration for the films come from, and how the films reflected or impacted the culture of the times in which they were made,” Kit explains.

Within the scope of noir studies, the festival organizers decided to begin at the beginning. As MFA Film Program Administrator Soheil Rezayazdi told me, “our programmer Rob King wanted to start with the origins of the phrase itself. What were the films that inspired French critics in the mid-’40s to coin the label ‘film noir’? We settled on eight films to transport festival attendees back to that formative moment in film history, before these films of moral depravity, low-key lighting, and abject gloom had a name.”

King researched the American movies that screened in 1946 Paris, once the liberation opened the floodgates for films previously blocked by Vichy’s embargo. Enthralled by the moody, ambiguous crime dramas, French critics recognized the stirrings of something new in American cinema.

As Borde and Chaumeton wrote in their landmark study Panorama du film noir américain, “In the course of a few weeks, from mid-July to the end of August, five films followed one another on the cinema screens of Paris, films which had an unusual and cruel atmosphere in common, one tinted by a very particular eroticism.” Kit Noir screened 4 of those 5 films: The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, Laura, and Double Indemnity.

Attending Kit Noir recreated that experience of dark discovery, the sense of an intricate web being woven before your eyes. Unlike the mid-century French critics, I’d already seen all but one of the films on the program. But, when you watch so many formative noirs in a compressed period, the connections simply refuse (like Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet) to be ignored. The patterns—thematic, tonal, and visual—practically leap off the screen and offer you a drink.

Taken individually, they’re impressive movies. Altogether, they’re a cosmic tipping point, the event horizon of a black hole. Or maybe more like the all-consuming black pool that swallows up Philip Marlowe, so cleverly featured in the Kit Noir trailer below.


While the festival theme skewed the program towards noir’s greatest hits, some lesser-known gems crept into the mix. I was especially glad to see 2 period noirs, set amidst the artificial fog of backlot London. Although I’d heard raves about The Suspect for years, I’d never seen it until Kit Noir, since it’s difficult to get a hold of. And it was a perverse treat to bask in the extreme dread that John Brahm’s rarely shown thriller The Lodger can conjure up on a big screen.

Gordon Kit hopes that future festivals will delve more into the deep cuts of film noir. “We will undoubtedly show B films in subsequent years, but were limited to A films this year, as it was only A films that made it to Paris in 1946. As you know, some of the best noir films are B films!”

For next year’s festival theme, Kit Noir will explore Cornell Woolrich adaptations. (Although it’s early days for the schedule, I’m crossing my fingers that Deadline at Dawn, The Chase, and The Leopard Man will figure on the program.) Themes under consideration for future festivals include noir’s greatest femmes fatales, international noir (British or French), and films based on the work of Dorothy B. Hughes.

The festival has plenty of time to explore film noir’s dark corners. “The Kit Noir Festival is funded for a decade, so you can expect we’ll be back with a new slate of 35mm prints next year,” Rezayazdi says. Kit is even more optimistic: “We have a rough list of about 20 possible themes—including focusing on a noir cinematographer. Thus, we could easily run a festival beyond 10 years!”

Now that’s a trolley ride that this noir geek would like to take, straight down the line.

Some Ridiculously Long Meditations on the Films and the Program

A film noir marathon is like an exfoliant for the soul. You emerge slightly shaken, sensitive to light, and determined to stay on the straight-and-narrow, to morally detox. Maybe that’s why I rarely watch films noirs back to back!

Unfortunately, weather kept me from seeing the first Kit Noir screening (The Maltese Falcon) and travel prevented me from seeing the last (Scarlet Street). But I did attend 6 screenings out of 8 and sit in for the Q&A with Paul Schrader. I filled a whole notebook with scribbles during the screenings, so this is actually a condensed version…

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944): “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

I’d seen Wilder’s noir classic many times. (I’ve even GIF-ed Raymond Chandler’s cameo.) But I was unprepared for the impact of Barbara Stanwyck’s eyes on the big screen, glittering with greed, malice, and sadness. Her technique and John F. Seitz’s cinematography manage to cultivate sympathy for Phyllis largely through catch light. We never get Phyllis’s side of the story; we see her only as Walter sees her, first as a dangerous object of desire and increasingly as a nagging threat. Which is why those eyes are so important. The way they sparkle in the darkness of Walter’s kitchen tells us more about her bottled-up desperation, the bruised longing for independence that drives her to commit evil deeds, than words ever could.

On the big screen, Double Indemnity immerses you in the stark, impersonal reality of everyday life in a 1940s urban environment. Their trysts in a grocery store remind us that Walter and Phyllis’s world offers them all the romance of a bowl of cornflakes. The promise of money, with a little illicit passion on the side, must’ve seemed like paradise in that inferno of cardboard sameness. The exhilaration of Walter and Phyllis’s risky courtship throbs forth from one of the film’s most self-consciously beautiful shots—the trapezoid of light encasing Phyllis as she enters Walter’s apartment for the first time. Though she holds the promise of romance for lonely, average Walter, there’s nothing romantic about Phyllis. She’s comically pragmatic. What woman doesn’t know the name of her own perfume? What woman can’t identify the seductive pop tune she’s playing from the radio? A woman you can’t trust, that’s who.

Gallows humor is as much a part of noir as lipstick and gunsmoke. Seeing Double Indemnity with an audience made me realize just how funny it is, especially towards the beginning. Wilder charms you into thinking that everything might turn out okay, despite the inevitability of doom set up by the frame story. We’re lulled into Walter’s upbeat salesman mindset: jokey, overconfident, and unable to fathom what he’s walking into, until it’s too late.

The flashbacks gradually progress into darkness, from the filtered afternoon sunlight of Walter’s first visit to the consuming shadows of his final confrontation with Phyllis. If you compare the beginning to the end, the contrast is shocking. Thus Double Indemnity hints at the ease with which anybody can be drawn into an irreversible cycle of guilt. I knew that before, but the crushing heaviness of the final darkness spooked me in a way it never could on my television screen. That black night of regret seems to enfold you, the viewer, in Walter’s sins and warn you against any false step.

The implicit social criticism of Double Indemnity also hit home more powerfully on this viewing. In the first minutes of the film, the elderly elevator “boy” tells Walter about his inability to get insurance because of a bad heart. That’s not idle chatter. Similarly, we’re never rooting for Phyllis so hard as when she’s bawling out the Pacific All-Risk executive who’s trying to intimidate her out of her inheritance. Walter and Phyllis kill a man for his money. Yet, ironically, even they have more of a conscience than the ruthless system that they try to cheat.

The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944): “You wouldn’t think that anyone could hate a thing and love it too.”

With all due respect to Hitchcock, I find this adaptation of The Lodger infinitely scarier. In particular, the murder of Annie—as she shakes and gasps in panic, backing away from an unseen assailant represented by the juddering camera—feels 10 or 20 years ahead of its time. In a weekend full of dark movies, there was no grittier or more disturbing scene than this pitiful woman, who lives on scraps and rags, thrashing with terror in her last moments of life.

On a lighter note, character actress Sara Allgood impressed me with how much of the film she carries on her shoulders. Her conflicting motivations, intelligence, and courage drive the film forward. Given the preponderance of wicked matriarchs in noir,Allgood’s kindly, nuanced character brings a note of realism to the proceedings (after all, not everybody is evil). Her grounded, no-nonsense goodness counterbalances the violent, unhinged zealotry of the Bible-thumping killer, Slade.

Illuminated by gas lamps, fires, and candlelight, John Brahm’s bleak, expressionistic vision of Victorian London externalizes the morose, brooding mind of the eponymous character. For instance, in one suspenseful moment, flames from a stove flicker up surrounding Kitty Langley, foreshadowing the danger to her life and casting her as a burning sinner in Slade’s eyes. Brahm’s camera sometimes roves the winding cobblestone streets in eerie long takes. And sometimes it frames characters so tightly that they’re packed in like sardines. Overall, he paints a murky, confining environment where cozy parlors and fetid back alleys alike are pregnant with the possibility of unspeakable deeds.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the queerness of the Jack the Ripper figure. His rapturous description of his his dead, ruined brother’s beauty, and the feverish quality in the way Cregar speaks it, suggest repressed desire. Slade kills women, we understand, not only because they elicit his desire, but also because he seeks to punish the women like the one who destroyed the object of his first and deepest affection.

The contrast between Kitty’s two cheeky musical numbers exposes a certain fanatical and conflicted strain in the male gaze. As a music hall performer, Kitty displays herself for the pleasure of her audience, enjoys doing so, and profits by it. In this sense, she welcomes and owns the gaze and the desire of her male audience, rather than allowing it to own her. During the first dance sequence, a winking close up of Oberon over a parasol transmits her wry joy in her profession.

The second sequence takes on a much darker vibe, as Brahm cuts between Kitty’s routine and increasingly tight shots of Slade in the audience. As he sweats and watches agape, we can see horror and arousal in his face. His anger is not with her beauty, but with her mastery of the situation, the power she derives from performing and displaying her beauty. He hates her because other men desire her and apparently because he himself desires her.

Brahm thus probes the nature of the ripper’s violence as an attempt to destroy the power that women attain through open sexuality. At the risk of stretching this analysis too far, the flirty dance sequence, made sinister by a single spectator, links censorship to sick minds and violent perversions of desire. Brahm and just about every other director had to deal with the Production Code boys in some capacity. By wanting to eradicate a source of temptation, Brahm suggests, you reveal your own hypocrisy and frailty. Repression and fanaticism don’t lead to saintliness but to the direst cruelty.

Finally, I have to call attention to this shot from the closing chase sequence, as Slade scurries over a theater catwalk. Light shining through the slats transforms Laird Cregar’s face into an ever-changing grotesque, as though he’s morphing through a hundred different slavering manifestations of human barbarism.

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): “Forget the whole thing like a bad dream.”

Following on the heels of The Lodger’s Jack the Ripper, Lydecker’s not-so-repressed attraction to Macpherson and Shelby and his jealousy for Laura were all the more striking. In both films, the villains’ performances leave the viewer in doubt as to their motivations. Do they want to destroy Kitty and Laura because they desire those women… or because they desire the men that those women attract? Or perhaps both? Lydecker and Slade are tragic characters. I find it impossible to dislike them, despite the havoc they wreak on the lives of others. Lydecker wins us over with his wit and tightly-coiled, cobra-ready-to-strike energy. Slade’s aching, if off-putting, vulnerability make us feel sorry for him.

They’re also linked by similar horror movie-worthy reemergences at the ends of their respective films. Lydecker creeps like the bogeyman into Laura’s apartment from the side entrance. Slade’s arm reaches out from behind a screen to lock the door and trap Kitty unawares in her dressing room. In terms of tone, content, and even the speed of their ominous movements, these scenes seem to rhyme.

Most obviously, Lydecker’s and Slade’s painful, dramatic deaths puncture the imminent happy endings of the films’ heterosexual couples. Through heavy shadows and subtext, noir reminds us of those for whom there could be no openly happy ending back in 1944.

Laura is a movie about possessions, literal and metaphorical. “Laura loved all her things,” Ann Treadwell says wistfully in a rare non-catty moment. I’ve seen it 3 times on the big screen (once on nitrate!), and each time I pick up new details about the meticulously decorated apartments that the characters inhabit. This time I zeroed in on the homey floral pattern of the window seat cushions in Laura’s apartment, the spring-like framed flower arrangement over her mantle, and the desk chair with an elegant lyre-shaped back. We can see how dwelling in her space gives Macpherson insight into the person she is, her gentle yet refined tastes and intellect. Preminger crafts such believable rooms that we can almost smell the perfume of the “late” Laura Hunt.

I can’t believe I never noticed this before, but there’s an astonishing moment when Macpherson gratuitously opens Laura’s closet to look at her dresses, then shoves the door shut. He glares at his reflection in the closet mirror, disgusted with himself for seeking such embarrassing intimacy with a dead woman. It’s a wordless, uncomfortable moment, a few seconds that capture the tug-of-war between sensitivity and macho pride that Dana Andrews acts out so exquisitely.

As always, I appreciate how Laura’s return from the grave is pointedly un-dreamlike. The camera refuses to participate in Macpherson’s fantasy in the moment when he comes face to face with her. The scene is not a haunting resurrection. It’s not a bewitching phantom rising from the grave. It’s a worn-out woman coming home late at night in a rather unflattering rain hat and slicker… to find a strange man asleep in her living room. The film builds up Laura’s ethereal image, then introduces the more interesting real woman. This approach makes us realize how Lydecker tries to push his own narrative around her identity, reshaping her and altering her in a way she never wanted or encouraged.

In noir, the lighting design isn’t merely showing off. Light often serves a plot purpose, revealing or concealing. And Laura offers one of the best examples. The white-hot beam of the interrogation lamp washes out Gene Tierney’s delicate features and deepens Laura’s feeling of being exposed by Macpherson. That blazingly harsh light also parallels the unpleasant wake-up calls of her personal life. To move forward on her emotional journey, she has to face the ways men have disappointed her—men she loved and believed in—and shed some of her idealism. When Macpherson turns off the light, he reluctantly reveals his tenderness, dropping the awkward tough guy act. In the cool relief of that darkness, and you can really feel it in a theater, Laura and Macpherson drop their pretenses and move towards a foundation of trust. Sometimes the darkness reveals more than light ever could.

Conversation Between Paul Schrader and Columbia Professor Annette Insdorf

In 1972, future screenwriter and director Paul Schrader wrote “Notes on Film Noir,” one of the first and most influential studies of film noir in English. At the time, he emphasized style over theme and content in defining noir, partially, he says, because of a church background that privileged words over aesthetics. “I was just at that point when I was starting to realize that images could be ideas.” Now he recognizes more of a balance. “If you made a film noir in style without film noir content, I don’t think it would be recognized as film noir,” he notes.

However, don’t start throwing around the word noir around Paul Schrader, unless you’re ready to defend your terms. “I have a very rigid definition of film noir. It is a period of film history,” he said. “I believe that critical language should be precise as possible. Otherwise it has no meaning.”

Schrader and Insdorf dissected the many factors—from the influx of Jewish émigrés to American women’s forced return to domestic life after WWII—that combined to make noir a unique cultural moment. Even something as specific as the widespread use of psychoanalytic therapy in Hollywood’s wealthy and progressive community played a key role in shaping the noir canon. Schrader also pointed out the importance of technological advances: “The history of film is not the history of personalities or social movements. It’s the history of technology. As the technology evolves, the art evolves.” He highlighted the lightweight, portable cameras, used by the Five Came Back directors to film World War II, that enabled a new level of in-the-streets realism. “They were freed from the huge contraption of cinema in the studios.”

Nowadays you can be influenced by noir, but your film is not noir, as far as Schrader’s concerned. “Saying film noir in color for me is like saying an animated film with [live] actors.” (As a believer in the paradox of “film noir in color” myself, I’d love to hear him debate this with Martin Scorsese.)

And what of the apparent links between Schrader’s own work, particularly Taxi Driver, and noir? “I don’t think Taxi Driver is film noir,” he insisted, before recalling the inspiration for the famous script, as well as other key works in his career:

Taxi Driver comes from Pickpocket. I was a critic. I was living in a house with UCLA film students who were all making a film for Roger Corman. I just couldn’t get interested in what they they were doing. I thought it was such a trivial thing. Whereas I was part of the revolution. And then I went to see this film which was released in Los Angeles about 10 years after it was released in France. And I was just mad about it. I walked out and I said, ‘I could make a film like that. That’s just a guy who sits in his room and he writes, then he goes out and he does some stuff, then he comes back in his room and writes some more. Then he runs into to someone and he comes back in his room. I could do that film.’ And a year later I wrote Taxi Driver. And that has now morphed into 5 films about a man in his room, from Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper to The Walker and now to First Reformed.”

As for modern noir homages, Schrader also gave us an amusing bit of a scoop: he’s trying to remake Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. “I wanted to make it with Justin Timberlake, but I lost him,” he lamented.

Asked to comment on the current state of filmmaking, Schrader confessed, “I have no idea what to call this period that we’re in.” He not only cited the lightning-fast technological evolutions—so that a film is out of date by the time it hits theaters—but also major shifts in how we conceive of style and continuity:

“One of the things that has changed, I think, is that directors no longer feel the need to have a consistent style. That’s a choice. So many things that we used to think of as rules we now think of as choices. Everything’s fungible. So, in the past if a character wore a red jacket and walked from the exterior into a room and you cut inside the room and he comes in wearing a green jacket, that used to be called a mistake. Now it’s called a creative choice. And audiences understand the creative choice.”

Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944): “A dirty, stupid little man in a dirty, stupid world. One spot of brightness on you, and you’d still be that.”

I tend to be a bit too hard on this film. Something about it doesn’t quite add up for me, between Marlowe’s drugged-up nightmare fantasia, the cutsey romance, and some talky scenes that try to iron out a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. And yet, it was the screening I enjoyed the most, due to its reassuring screwball ending, absence of ruminative guilt, and off-kilter visuals. While Murder, My Sweet usually looks like noir, it doesn’t always feel like noir.

One notable exception is the foggy rendezvous where Marriott is killed. Lit from below with a face like a waxwork dummy, Marlowe drives through the rainy night. His voice-over reinforces a mood of eerie suspense: “I felt it in my stomach. I was a toad on a wet rock. A snake was looking at the back of my neck.”

Echoing Marlowe’s metaphor, the textures of what we’re seeing take on a slick, ghoulish, reptilian look. The humidity in the image is so strong, I was worried it was going to frizz out my hair. Moonbeams shoot through the rising mists. Marlowe, hapless toad he is, looks around bug-eyed into the dark. The unease condenses like moisture in the air. Again, this is a film I’ve seen many times. But believe me when I say I jumped out of my chair at the vicious snap of the blackjack against Marlowe’s skull.

Murder, My Sweet wants to bamboozle you. Like Marlowe, the audience is constantly confronted with multiple flashy distractions that pull us away from the big picture. Remember that blinking reflection of Mike Marzurki’s gloriously ugly mug in Marlowe’s window? We can also see Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, and the street signs outside. Or let’s recall Helen Grayle’s entrance in Marlowe’s apartment. Again, we get Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, but this time it’s Helen’s tiny, glittery figure shimmering in the mirror.

In Murder, My Sweet, the image is a puzzle. All the elements are there, but scrambled differently from the spatial relations or dramatic staging we’d expect. In my day job, we talk about “cognitive load,” the amount of information you have to digest, as something you want to minimize for a positive customer experience. Hollywood’s continuity system served a similar purpose as modern UX, that is, getting the audience from point A to point B as clearly and elegantly as possible. But film noir in general, and Murder, My Sweet in particular, wants to maximize the cognitive load and throw you off balance.

Claire Trevor’s larger-than-life acting style elicited some unwelcome chuckles from the Kit Noir audience, but I’d argue that she nails the part. Femmes fatales are theatrical. They’ve got places to go, and naturalism isn’t going to get them there. Like Brigid O’Shaunessy, Helen Grayle is most dangerous when she’s apparently dropping her act. Because that act has no beginning and no end; deception is sewn into the fabric of who she is, who she’s had to be to survive and thrive.

In one of my favorite shots from the film, we see only the back of Helen’s head, an elaborate 1940s updo, and her hand resting on Marlowe’s shoulder as the detective looks down at the ground. A wisp of smoke rises from her impeccably poised cigarette. By hiding Helen’s face here, Dmytryk deepens the enigma of the femme fatale. Do we trust the honeyed voice? Or the cold precision of her grip on that cigarette?

Feigned emotions and sincerity bleed into each other—a side effect of living in a world where the path of honesty is too often a one-way trip to the gutter. You can hear the scraping exhaustion in Helen’s voice as she drapes herself on Marlowe and cries, “I’m so close to peace.” Is she playing him? Is she telling the truth? Is she leveraging her emotional truth in order to play him? Who knows? That’s why she’s so tantalizing.

Bonus film geekery: Don’t you love it when studios recycle props?

The multi-armed statue from RKO’s Murder, My Sweet (top screenshot) made an appearance many years earlier with Myrna Loy in Thirteen Women (1932).

The Suspect (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “Shall we pool our loneliness?”

I used to think that Chris Cross in Scarlet Street was film noir’s most sympathetic killer. Now I’d pass the crown (of thorns?) to Charles Laughton as the lonely, lovelorn, henpecked wife-murderer in The Suspect, a martyr to his own decency. Robert Siodmak was on fire in the 1940s, producing a streak of noir classics that few directors could match, and he considered this slow-burning masterpiece of suspense to be his best film. It certainly left me shaken.

Philip Marshall (Laughton) has spent his whole life as a trusted employee by day and a dedicated husband to a complete harridan by night. After falling in love with Mary Gray, a beautiful chance acquaintance, Marshall kills his wife when she threatens to ruin Mary. And so begins Philip’s greatest bliss and his deepest sorrow, as he strives to build a life with Mary despite the intent pryings of Scotland Yard.

As in so many noirs, the police represent a hostile force, a threat to the anti-hero’s relatable, if crooked, dreams.The sneaky, smiling Inspector Huxley seems to be a borderline inhuman extension of Fate’s implacably churning mechanisms. Upon his first visit to Philip’s home, Huxley narrates the “hypothetical” murder scenario with what we assume is alarming accuracy. The camera creeps up the staircase, reenacting the murderer’s ascent, and the set darkens. It’s as though we’re watching the crime take place again, but performed by an unseen ghostly cast. All the trappings of this ordinary Edwardian home—the bannister, the old dresser, the torn rug—seem to exude the domestic misery they’ve absorbed over many years. It’s one of those uncanny noir scenes that slip into an uncanny space between internal and external reality.

Some of noir’s best nail-biting moments are startling in their simplicity. In Double Indemnity, a hallway, a door, and 3 people—one of whom shouldn’t be there—is enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. In The Suspect, it’s a divan, a body, and fluffy white kitten playing with the dead man’s watch fob. Underneath the mild smile on Laughton’s doughy, lovable face, a pretense worn for unexpected guests, we can perceive the sheer panic of a good man utterly out of his depth, the most reluctant of criminals. (I was keeping an eye out for this sequence after reading Self-Styled Siren’s great piece on Laughton years ago.)

It’s tough to hold a candle to Charles Laughton at his best, but Henry Daniell delivers what might be the culmination of a career spent playing loathsome men of all stripes and hues. As the drunken wife-beating n’er-do-well next door, Daniell perfectly captures the louche, self-pitying arrogance of a well-bred bully. “You see, your lot were created to make life easier for my sort. The meek shall inherit the earth… we inherit the meek,” he drawls to himself, smugly pursing his lips (or lack thereof) and quaffing what will prove to be his final whisky.

Without giving too much more away, I’ll say that The Suspect concludes with one of noir’s most sublime closing shots: Charles Laughton walking across cobblestones, his cane swinging with the precise rhythm of a metronome. We see him from high above, as though we the spectators were a choir of weeping angels, simultaneously mourning his fall and bitterly celebrating his redemption. Decency is the defining trait of Philip Marshall, and it’s that decency that dooms him in the end. The fact that a man merely walking down a street can break your heart and wring your emotions so effectively is a testament to Siodmak’s and Laughton’s artistry.

Bonus film geekery, part 2: At Universal, a good prop is worth repeating.

The skull abacus briefly seen in the tea house with Laughton and Raines has a considerably larger role in Wives Under Suspicion (1938).

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “What a place. I can feel the rats in the wall.”

When we talk about noir archetypes, it’s easy to latch onto the femme fatale, but the films at Kit Noir indicate that good girls play just as important a role in the canon. In Phantom Lady, intrepid secretary Carol Richman prowls the night, but never belongs to it. Even isolated at the counter of a little dive bar, she glows with purpose, beatified by Elwood Bredell’s cinematography. He gilds every stray hair on her head with light. By the sheer force of her willpower, Carol writes a happy ending for herself out of the inky blackness all around her. Bred in the midwest, baptized by the New York’s dirty rain, and shaped by pioneering producer Joan Harrison, Carol Richman may be film noir’s ultimate good girl. But she’s far from the only one.

The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all validate the experience of nice career girls who are stalked, manipulated, and almost destroyed by obsessive and possessive men. Kitty, Laura, and Carol (a.k.a. Kansas) are intelligent, competent, and kind; we’re never made to feel that they brought their misfortunes on themselves. On the contrary, their goodness and politeness, misinterpreted by warped minds, make them prime targets. Think of Kitty gently humoring Slade’s unwelcome sermons, Laura trying to repay her perceived debt of gratitude to Lydecker, or detail-oriented Carol overlooking Marlow’s bouts of neurotic weirdness. (Um, red flag much, Carol?)

Noir amplifies and distorts the dangers faced by these working women into epic perils and challenges worthy of fairy tales. Yet, I recognize the same basic threats that make so many women, myself included, walk home with keys clenched between their knuckles. Being a woman in the noirverse means charming all manner of beasts while keeping your eye on the escape route. The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all culminate with practically the same scene: the heroine, trapped by a man who wants to murder her, using her wits and persuasive skills to buy time. Brahm’s variation is the tensest, but Siodmak’s is the creepiest.

The ominous quiet of the scene, a stillness on the edge of hysteria, verges on the paralysis of nightmares. It’s an intensely female cadence of fear, a slow awakening followed by the instinct to remain calm and avoid triggering a violent reaction from the man she fears. Carol doesn’t resist when Marlow slips her hand over his fevered brow. As Marlow reclines on the chaise longue, looking like Count Dracula about to rise for his nightly meal, Siodmak privileges Carol’s emotions. We get close-ups of her stifled panic and disbelief as she looks for a way out. Although we’ve known about Marlow for a while, Raines makes us share Carol’s sense of stupefying betrayal, as she processes the fact that someone she knows and trusts is planning to kill her.

Someday I’ll write an essay about the similarities between Phantom Lady and Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. In both films, the protagonists assume elaborate disguises that force them to face the might-have-beens of their own lives. They must risk everything—their identities as well as their personal safety—to restore the moral balance. In order to save her man, Carol must confront multiple phantoms of what she could become: the victim of a senseless accident, the tacky, gum-chewing thrill-seeker, the bone-tired shop drudge, and finally the bereft madwoman. Who is the titular phantom lady, really? The woman who disappeared… or shape-shifting, elusive Carol who roves Siodmak’s dark funhouse city as both predator and prey?

And it’s no accident that Carol physically resembles the woman she’s tracking, the mysterious dark-haired witness in a funny hat who vanished without a trace. If Carol meets defeat in her desperate race against time, she might devolve into another lost soul, clinging to mementos of her lost love. In 1944, Fay Helm’s grieving shut-in must’ve reminded audiences of the many inconsolable women widowed by World War II. As such, she’s the flip side of spunky, can-do Carol, an apt personification of America’s doggedly cheerful spirit during the war effort. Carol’s mission sobers but doesn’t destroy her. Knowing what she knows about despair and wickedness, her goodness and hope shine even brighter.

In case you couldn’t tell, I had a blast at Kit Noir. I hope I’ll be there next year. And maybe I’ll see you there too?

Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

followthru

Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

secondfloormystery

Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Dead Perfection

leavehertoheavenposterIt seems fitting that Gene Tierney should share a “birthday” with Technicolor.

Engineer Herbert Kalmus incorporated the company that would become synonymous with lush cinematic entertainment on November 19, 1915, exactly 5 years before little Gene Eliza made her entrance into the world.

Technicolor loved Gene Tierney, showcasing not only her enchanted, flowerlike beauty but also the currents of thought and passion pulsing behind that exquisite mask.

Vincent Price called Tierney “our most underrated actress,” and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven abundantly supports the claim.

Playing a psychopathically possessive wife, Tierney delivered her greatest performance (if I’m arguing) in this Technicolor outlier—a modern psychological thriller made in an era when the costly color process was typically reserved for musicals and historical epics. This paradoxical Technicolor noir gives us the chance to see the 1940s in a color palette of taupes, eggshell blues, and amber-browns instead of the remote elegance of grayscale.

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I can hardly think of a more underplayed, chilling portrayal of evil on film than Tierney’s Ellen Berent. She wells up with crystal tears of self-pity at the slightest perceived encroachment on her territory. Yet, in the face of other people’s pain, she exhibits the hard composure of a porcelain doll.

She wields that soft, unnaturally smoke-lowered voice of hers to do as much damage as possible. Notice how it catches slightly at the ends of sentences, making an inconsequential remark sound like both a proposition and a threat.

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And those eyes. Eyes the color of water. Fickle eyes. Eyes that send one thumbing through a dictionary for underused words like verdigris and eau-de-nil.

Eyes that sparkle like empty fishbowls when she gapes in incomprehension at the meanness rising from within her, at the difference that cuts her off from normal human feelings. Icy eyes that balance her fiery red lips. Eyes that tell the truth when those lips lie.

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Evil Under the Sun

Tierney’s incarnation of wickedness forms the centerpiece of Leave Her to Heaven’s cruel, vaguely surreal beauty. The film’s toxic glow, its peculiar brand of unreality, contrasts with the studio-set whimsy and pageantry of color musicals or period dramas. Sequences shot on location in Leave Her to Heaven present us with a world that bears no marks of expressionist gloom yet fills us with foreboding. The film’s universe, like its protagonist, basks in sunny indifference to human suffering.

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Commenting on the oppressive ambiance of Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said he wanted to give his film the menacing aspect that a commonplace room would suddenly assume if you knew there was a corpse behind the closet door.

Leon Shamroy’s pellucid Technicolor cinematography for Leave Her to Heaven accomplishes something similar. Its uncanny perfection signals to the audience that something is very awry. No corpse behind the door, though. Just a succubus at the breakfast table, wearing blood-red lipstick applied so crisply that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s tattooed on.

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The movie’s interiors suffocate you with their chic, premeditated quaintness—down to seafoam sofa cushions and potted cacti and bibelots you only notice on repeat viewings—as though the characters had invaded a decorating magazine layout.

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Outside, vines cling caressingly to trellises and columns. Flowers grow in harmonious bunches clearly arranged by God’s florist. Cerulean skies, complete with Magritte-wallpaper clouds, choke the frame, overshadowing the characters with backdrops of blue ether and picture-postcard mountains. Wide spaces become perversely claustrophobic.

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It’s how I imagine the world would look if you knew you were going to die soon: agonizingly alive, sadistically radiant, a world laughing at you because you have to leave it. A world that has you right where it wants you. The air shimmers with irony.

Blue Gazes

Ellen’s nature emerges through 3 key scenes, connected by the dominance of teal blue and the act of looking or exchanging glances.

From the first, Leave Her to Heaven defines Ellen by her aggressive gaze. When Richard spots Ellen reading his novel on the train, he looks her over and likes what he sees. When she drops her book, he picks it up, hands it to her—and attracts her even more fixed attention. As Richard lights a cigarette, Ellen stares at him.

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In the film, Ellen’s gaze makes Richard curious and mildly uncomfortable. In Ben Ames Williams’s source material, however, Richard grows downright angry, initiating and losing a staring contest with her. Although that reaction isn’t present in the film, it reveals the extent to which Ellen’s scrutiny threatens her future husband by reversing the traditional one-way structure of the male gaze.

He looks at her as an embodiment of his fantasy—a moment later, he’ll recite grandiloquent prose from his own novel to describe her—yet he quails when she returns his look and sees in him (we come to find out) an updated version of her fantasy object: her father.

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The cinematography and editing emphasize the unsettling persistence of Ellen’s stare. We get 4, yes, 4 shots of her—oddly immobile against the dancing, arid landscape seen through the train car windows—just looking at Richard. Deliberately awkward and protracted, this series of shots forces the audience into Richard’s position, making up excuses for this odd, gorgeous girl, desperately trying to rehabilitate the “meet cute” from its creepiness.

The train car’s color scheme accentuates these jeux de regards. The teal walls and deep blue-green curtains match the color of Tierney’s eyes. This is no coincidence. The entire decor amplifies the power of Ellen’s gaze, as though the setting were an extension of her, almost a huge eyeball, an apparatus for looking.

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To quote Nietzsche’s gift to psychological thrillers, when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back. In Leave Her to Heaven, when you gaze at the female fantasy object, she gazes back—and you become her fantasy object.

True, the close-ups of Tierney serve the actress up for the movie spectator’s gaze. Well, I’ve seen this with an audience, and, believe me, the focus on gazing and looking jolts the viewers, chastens them, and makes them wary, tainting the vision and reducing our pleasure to nervous titters in the dark.

Still Waters

The film’s most famous sequence, the drowning of Danny, derives its horrific impact from its refusal to look horrific or include the signifiers of doom that films have trained us to expect.

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The soaring Alfred Newman score makes no comment on the heinous crime. The quality of light doesn’t change to telegraph a major shift in Ellen’s trajectory—from thought to act, from jealous wife to murderess. Tierney doesn’t jubilate in her triumph. She sits emanating darkness, her pale eyes piercing through her tinted shades.

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As in the train car, blue-greens overwhelm the color palette: the bright grayish-blue sky, the deep green pine forests in background, and the glimmering, saturated navy-teal waters. When she whirls off her terrycloth robe to jump in and “save” Danny, Ellen reveals an aquamarine bathing suit. These colors tend to calm and soothe; they suggest refreshing coolness and peace. The shock of Ellen’s sin alarms us all the more amidst this consonance of teal shades.

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Again, eyes and the act of looking take on central importance. We can identify the precise moment when Ellen decides to eliminate Danny through the way her eyes narrow in a medium close-up. The pristine mountains and sky shine behind her, as though tacitly condoning what she’s about to do.

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As Danny struggles, burbles, and cries out for help, the act of gazing holds power over life and death. By casting herself as a spectator in the drowning that she’s effectively staged, Ellen tries to dissociate from her guilt. She puts on sunglasses, perhaps as a shield against the ugliness of her actions, but we can still see her light eyes peering out in anticipation (especially spooky on the big screen).

We watch her watch Danny die. And through the act of watching and consuming the beauty of images we symbolically share in her wickedness. Our bond with Ellen (a most unlikely heroine) rests on a surfeit of visual splendor. Feast your eyes, the film seems to tempt us, and be seduced.

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Dressed to Kill

Ellen escalates to the next level of violence by throwing herself down a flight of stairs, inflicting injury to her own body in order to kill her unborn child.

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In the previous scene, Ellen bemoans how pregnancy has changed her appearance, looking at herself in a bedroom mirror. We can see Ellen. We can see the glass of the mirror. But we cannot see her reflection, as though she, like a vampire, doesn’t have one.

Shortly thereafter, she seizes on the idea to stage her fall. Rushing to her closet, she carefully selects her costume for this performance, an alluring blue lace peignoir.

vlcsnap-2015-11-19-16h43m25s233 After a dissolve, Ellen is looking in the same bedroom mirror as before—but this time all we see is the reflection, not Ellen. She glides towards the mirror like a phantom and the camera glides in step with her. She dabs perfume on the curve of her neck and retouches her lipstick.

Although this shot doesn’t completely synch with Ellen’s POV (it stays in place as she moves away), it aligns the viewer with her perspective. It appears as though the spectator were standing in front of the mirror; she is our reflection.

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Tierney floats down the hallway in the icy blue nightdress, just a few shades lighter than the cornflower blue wallpaper all around her. These restful shades of blue, the swirling, gently suspenseful music, and Tierney’s slow progress to the edge of the stairs imbue the scene with an inappropriately dreamy, romantic vibe.

Just as the drowning took place against a background of idyllic sparkling waters and the wholesome outdoors, this crime toys with our emotions by contextualizing an act of brutality within a gauzy, delicate domestic setting.

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When Ellen steps to the top of the stairs, the camera moves from her to the staircase and the long drop, as though guided by her thoughts. Ellen pauses, digging one silk shoe under the ragged carpet to lend realism to her plunge.

She looks up; for me, this close-up represents the zenith of her beauty in the film, all eyelashes and cheekbones and lipstick. Since we haven’t seen this angle of her before, the shot strikes us as the face of a stranger, almost diabolical in its intensity.

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We get a POV shot of the bottom of the stairs, again strengthening our association with Ellen’s perspective, then another close-up of Ellen. As her nerve and excitement mounts, her eyes widen until a tiny spark of malice gleams there.

The foot steps into nowhere, and we hear a scream. Ellen lies at the foot of the stairs, her unconscious figure fragile and sad, like a lily snapped off its stalk. The images won’t relinquish their willful loveliness. The yawning disconnect between hideous deeds and onscreen perfection stays strong.

The viewer has witnessed all the scheming behind this tragedy concocted by Ellen, yet we can’t escape the aesthetic victory she’s masterminded—carefully costuming and choreographing her murderous leap.

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Leave Her to Heaven was a smash hit for 20th Century Fox in 1945, and it resonates with an encouragingly large audience today. When I post a picture, a GIF, or an observation related to the film, it often goes haywire. Why? Because we love pretty surfaces? Because we’re attracted to the dysfunction underneath them? Or because the film itself asks those questions, confronting us with our allegiance to aesthetics over morality?

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I would argue that the enduring popularity of Leave Her to Heaven comes from its challenges to viewers and their gazes. This Technicolor noir interrogates the sinister beauty that reels us in, noting how we make excuses for beauty and for our own appetites for beauty. The film suggests that even the act of being caught looking at things you ought not to want to see contains a frisson of forbidden delight.

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Most of all, Leave Her to Heaven eschews easy answers and reassurance. It offers no pop Freudian jargon to assuage our fears over Ellen’s crimes and neatly pinpoint the etiology of her jealousy. It shows how people ignore blatant danger signs because of love and fear and loyalty. It illuminates a world of blinding beauty where evil can break loose at any moment. A world very much like our own, in fact.

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This post is part of the Gene Tierney Blogathon hosted by The Ellie Badge! Click the banner below to check out all of the other entries!

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Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23

Phantom Lady is the story of a good girl who pretends to be a femme fatale. She does it all for a noble cause, to save the life of an innocent man, but she scares herself by just how well she pretends.

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The underrated Ella Raines stars as Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman, a dogged secretary who launches her own criminal investigation when the boss she secretly loves is convicted of murder. Although the film’s title, Phantom Lady, ostensibly refers to the condemned man’s elusive alibi—a strange, sad woman who vanished without a trace—it could equally apply to Kansas, a lucid and luminous avenging angel.

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Cameraman Elwood Bredell (of The Killers and The Unsuspected) frequently bathes Kanas in an eerie, ethereal glow, a beam that seems to have chosen her and left those around her in darkness. For instance, as Kansas waits for hours at the end of a bar (in order to scare a lying witness into telling the truth), we see her as a tiny Edward Hopper-esque figure wrapped in an aura that separates her from the somber interior. She is the ghost at the banquet.

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However, not to be locked into a single mode, Bredell’s lighting explores and caresses the curves of Raines’s face and neck the way a philosopher lovingly appreciates a moral dilemma from all sides.

During the film’s visual climax, a delirious, disorienting sequence in a seedy jazz club, Bredell dazzles us with a fever pitch of chiaroscuro, sometimes blackening Kansas into a silhouette, sometimes illuminating only part of her, sometimes turning her face into a grinning grotesque. As Kansas goes undercover, her fragmented identity shows in the arresting quicksilver shifts of lighting that play over her face.

Consider this exquisite shot, in which the stark top-lighting transforms Kansas’s appearance in a matter of seconds, as she comes out of the “eclipse” created by the brim of her hat, then partially back into it. She acquires the tantalizing mutability of the moon, waxing and waning.

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In this underworld setting, the shadows add to Kansas’s camouflage, sculpting her into a different person: the daring ‘hep kitten’ who hangs out in a hole-in-the-wall club to seduce a manic drummer. As Kansas looks at herself in a mirror, overlaid by a lattice of shadings from her veil, you get the feeling that, for a moment, she forgot who she was. She thought she was looking at somebody else—only that somebody else was her.

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Siodmak’s dreamlike thriller suggest that the good girl and the bad girl, those cherished noir tropes, are not binaries, but parallel universes. Hellbent on saving her man, Kansas causes at least two men’s deaths, narrowly escapes death under the wheels of an elevated train, almost spends the night with a scuzzy drummer, and grows rather fond of a charming killer.

Perhaps Phantom Lady‘s focus on the fluidity of a woman’s identity—and on the difficult choices she has to make while pursuing her goal with fierce determination—was intensified by the film’s producer: Joan Harrison, a lady who navigated the danger-fraught boy’s club of Hollywood with panache and brilliance.

Alas, Phantom Lady brushes the darkness of its heroine under the rug before the last act. The movie wraps up prettily and conveniently, as if afraid to ponder the implications of Carol’s journey into night.

Yet, thanks to Bredell’s haunting low-key cinematography and Rains’s performance, maybe we feel the precariousness of any good girl’s goodness all the same. Maybe we realize that the women who keep the universe in balance must walk a tightrope of light over a chasm of nightmares.

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John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23

From Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies (1995):

“In the old two-strip Technicolor… the color blue couldn’t be reproduced, but now the three-strip process covered the entire spectrum. Extra-wide cameras could expose three negatives simultaneously, each recording one of the primary colors. This is Gene Tierney, an angel face with the darkest of hearts. Leave Her to Heaven was a fascinating hybrid: a film noir in color….

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“Now, you have to remember that color was rarely used for contemporary drama then. It was more associated with period pieces and musicals. John Stahl’s direction and Leon Shamroy’s cinematography conjured up an unsettling super-realist vision. This was a lost paradise, its beauty ravished by the heroine’s perversity. Rather than encourage realism, the Technicolor palette went even further and added flamboyance to the melodrama.”

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