“Why is it I like to control people? And when I do, I hate them. Sometimes I wish I was dead. Last night I got so mad at myself that I cut myself. I wonder what it’s like to die. Or to kill someone.” —an entry in Evelyn Heath’s diary
Film noir never ceases to enthrall me with its many shades and flavors. In its most recognizable form the genre conjures visions of crime in an urban environment rife with trench coats, slick sidewalks, and tough-guy wisecracks. Which is why I find a film like Guest in the House pervasively disturbing. We watch as a seaside domestic drama quickly spirals into a noirish psychological thriller. The antiheroine of the film is also not what she seems. Full of clingy hand gestures and breathy fragility, Evelyn Heath, a shrinking violet invalid, turns out to be an emotional vampire, wrecking a happy family as she grows stronger and healthier. There’s a reason why the original title for this movie was “Satan in Skirts”!
This rather unusual film stars a young Anne Baxter who proved that, several years before she played the girl-next-door who happened to be a sociopath in All About Eve, she already had perfected the role. Her mesmerizingly passive aggressive performance eschews the mannish assertiveness of an archetypal femme fatale in favor of a subtle, sickly vulnerability that’s much more dangerous.
Under treatment for a long (probably psychosomatic) illness, Evelyn manipulated Dr. Dan Proctor into wanting to marry her. There’s no denying it: the girl’s got issues. She listens to the same record of “Liebesträme” over and over, screams bloody murder whenever she sees a bird, and obliquely alludes to a hellish upbringing by an alcoholic father. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her?
Hoping to speed up Evelyn’s recovery, besotted Dr. Dan decides to let her stay at the Proctors’ beautiful coastal mansion. There, his brother Douglas, a pulp illustrator, lives with his Aunt Martha, his wife, his daughter, and the model who poses for his drawings. Well, before you can say “fatal attraction,” the sly Evelyn has fallen in love with Douglas and resolved to have him at any price. The quaint oceanfront house quickly transforms into an inferno of suspicion and madness.
This well-paced B-movie directed by John Brahm does a beguiling job of translating the noir esthetic into an unconventionally cozy setting. From the first, when Evelyn makes her dramatic entrance into the house, the wide brim of her hat casts large spots of shadow over each of the characters she meets.
This clever use of low-key lighting visually hints how Evelyn will contaminate these normal, lovely people. She herself is a sort of “carrier” for dysfunction. At one point in the film, Douglas’s young daughter asks if you can catch a phobia from someone else; the adults confidently reply that you can’t, but Guest in the House suggests that a certain kind of neuroticism can indeed prove catching.
The homey décor of the majestic coastline mansion slowly acquires creepy and forbidding ambiance as Evelyn comes to exert her will over the household. After the “harmless” invalid sows the seeds of mistrust, the once-inviting rooms of the house change into theatrical spaces where someone is always watching someone, peering through windows or doors. Even the cute ruffled curtains contribute to one of the most striking images in the film—framing Evelyn’s raptor eyes avidly watching Douglas’s wife depart in despair, as a lightening storm blazes all around the house.
Director of photography Lee Garmes’s dynamic, neo-Gothic cinematography, full of Dutch angles and multiple planes of action, emphasizes the morbid mental influence that Evelyn inflicts on all those around her.
I recommend Guest in the House not only because it’s quite entertaining and tense, but also because it features strong performances from Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick, who didn’t get as many chances to show off their acting chops as one might hope.
So, cuddle up with this oft-overlooked flick for a brooding, noirish B-movie melodrama that hits surprisingly close to home. Beware the vamp that doesn’t look like one…
The Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through.
Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.
Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.
Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.
Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.
Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.
Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.
However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.
Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.
Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.
But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:
Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.
Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.
In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.
Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.
As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.
His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.
Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?
I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.
Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks! Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.
“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”
His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:
“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”
It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.
Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.
If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.
But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.
He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.
Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.
Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.
Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?
And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.
As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.
Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.
The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.
Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?
Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?
“You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark and shrouded legions of evil not but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say that they cannot exist?”
—Prologue, Dead Men Walk
The name George Zucco stokes the deepest reserves of my film geek love. This classically trained Englishman, with his cultured, grave baritone speaking voice and his startling black eyes, indecently bulging forward at will, is a veritable institution in horror.
Despite a distinguished stage career and several notable supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, Zucco found much of his work among B-movie chillers from Universal and cheap Poverty Row shockers. No matter how tawdry the material or how small the part, his effulgent glee in playing mad scientists, wicked priests, and all-round nasty rotters makes his performances richly pleasurable.
Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him substantial material that he could really sink his teeth into: a double role as an upstanding community doctor and his degenerate, occult-obsessed twin brother. The story starts with the funeral of Elwyn Clayton, as his brother Lloyd stands over the coffin. (Note to self: never name my child Elwyn.) Gee, Lloyd doesn’t look too broken up. Suddenly, the town crazy lady bursts into the chapel and announces that the dead man doesn’t deserve a Christian burial; he was an unnatural sinner. You know, I get the feeling that something’s not right here…
Sure enough, later that night, vampire Elwyn has risen from his tomb, abetted by his servant, Zolarr, played by Dwight Frye. Because of course he’s played by Dwight Frye. Who else would you call when you need a toady to the undead?
After feasting on a young maiden, Elwyn drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out—rather surprisingly—that the good doctor Lloyd actually killed his blasphemous brother. Or tried to, not knowing that his twin had attained immortal life as a vampire. Gloating over his power, Elwyn throws down the gauntlet, vowing a horrible retribution:
“You’ll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred. Your life will be a torment. I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death. You’ll pray you’re dead long before you die.”
Yeah, and you thought your sibling was a troublemaker! In all sincerity, Zucco’s bald-ish, chortling vampire scares me almost as much as prime Lugosi. As Frank Dello Stritto wrote, “If Lugosi’s vampire is something of a lounge lizard, Zucco’s is a dirty old man.” Indeed, he’s the unassuming retiree down the street who secretly wants to suck your blood. His aged, commonplace appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He glows with malice.
Rather like E.F. Benson’s chillingly ordinary vampire in “Mrs. Amworth,” Elwyn is a stealth threat. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit shocked if the writer of Dead Men Walk was thinking of this particular image from “Mrs. Amworth” when dreaming up some scares: “I saw, with the indescribable horror of incipient nightmare, Mrs. Amworth’s face suspended close to the pane in the darkness outside, nodding and smiling at me…. [W]hichever window I opened Mrs. Amworth’s face would float in, like those noiseless black gnats that bit before one was aware.” Like the titular vampire in Benson’s tale, Elwyn is at his most creepy when hovering outside a victim’s window, bathed in moonlight.
So, who’s going to fight this menace? Surely we have some lovable Van Helsing figure, someone we can identify with and cheer on, right? Not exactly.
(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil vampire twin? Which reminds me, does anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)
While we expect the bad twin to be effectively spooky and awful, the “normal” twin in Dead Men Walk has a surprisingly grim side too. He murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The side of good isn’t so spotless as we might hope, raising questions about the corruption inherent even in fighting evil. The element of fratricide lends gravitas and ambiguity to this dark, dualistic tale of sibling rivalry, a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.
Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, no, it was made at PRC, and it’s not Detour. Directed by Sam Neufield, who’s probably best known for the dorky-as-hell I Accuse My Parents, this movie wasn’t worthy of its acting talent. The pacing definitely lags, and I’m phrasing that kindly.
Mary Carlisle turns in a likable performance, adding suspense to the story as we see her life essence waning under the vampire’s influence. Alas, her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. The visuals are appropriately shadowy—often to the point of blacking out parts of faces to suggest the depravity of the villains. Not everyone agrees with me, unfortunately, and some of the reviews elsewhere are just plain cruel. This movie was probably shot in less time than it takes to coax some of today’s movie stars out of their trailers, so let’s cut it some slack, okay?
If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky but very creepy 1940s horror flick, you can watch this one for free. And if you don’t love that, I will totally haunt you after I’m gone.
This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.