Guilty Pleasures: 5 Reasons to Love The Unsuspected (1947)

frenchWhen we first see Victor Grandison’s face, it’s upside-down—a reflection in the desk of the woman he’s just strangled. The arresting shot flashes across the screen for a fleeting second in one of film noir’s best and eeriest opening sequences.

Like almost everything else in The Unsuspected, that shot, reprised several times throughout the film, suggests a world of frightening inversions.

Goodness bores and badness intrigues. Wrongdoers insinuate themselves into circles of normal people without tripping alarms. As Grandison intones for his rapt radio audiences “The guilty must go on and on… hiding his evil behind a mask, the calm and smiling mask of the unsuspected.”

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Plagued by a tight budget and abetted by an elastic conscience, beloved mystery raconteur Grandison kills his niece for her money then disposes of his secretary to silence her. Soon after, a shady stranger shows up at Grandison’s palatial estate and vows to uncover the truth behind the deaths. How high of a body count will Grandison rack up to protect his inheritance and his secrets?

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A forbidding, dreamlike majesty infuses this undeservedly overlooked noir. Although it lacks the raw, hardboiled impact of Warner Brothers’ finest forays into the genre, The Unsuspected compensates with a haunting cynicism and an ambiance of hypnotic dread. The characters, like chess pieces moved by the design of a remorseless grandmaster, wander through a manor of glittering black-and-white contrasts. A chain of guilt and betrayal binds everybody together, leaving no life unblemished by the consequences of lust and greed.

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Fair warning: don’t watch this movie expecting originality, at least not story-wise. I mean, if you don’t see the plot similarities to Preminger’s Laura, released three years before, you’re simply not trying hard enough. According to magazines of the time, Dana Andrews was even the first choice to play the romantic good guy in The Unsuspected.

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I mourn for that missed opportunity, because the replacement, Michael North, displays all the eye shadow of a 1930s Cagney role and none of the charisma. Well, what do you know? The Unsuspected was North’s final film.

The frozen North aside, this oddly little-known thriller serves up enough noirish guilty pleasures to satisfy any classic movie lover. Here are a few…

1. Claude Rains stars as one of noir’s most deliciously destructive tyrant figures.

Should the devil ever show up in hopes of persuading me to sell my soul, he’d be well advised to assume the form (and voice) of Claude Rains. I mean, who could resist?

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He doesn’t get enough screen time, but Rains is at the height of his suave, Mephistophelean powers in this movie. In one of the film’s most amusing exchanges, Grandison chides a gun-wielding killer as though he were talking to a toddler, “Give me that ridiculous weapon. Give it to me, I say, before I lose my temper.” Lesser demons and myrmidons step aside. Because Grandison commands in that sonorous baritone that cannot be wrong, the thug has no choice but to comply. Guns, poisons, nooses, none of Grandison’s weapons are quite as dangerous or disarming as his voice.

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Radio personalities—preferably with pompous surnames like Lydecker and Hunsecker—are invariably evil in film noir, a tendency no doubt fueled by the way radio could threaten moviedom’s popularity. And you don’t need to be Maigret to realize that the radio tyrants of Laura and The Sweet Smell of Success are up to no good.

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Rains’s Grandison, on the other hand, lives up to the movie’s title; affable, witty, and outwardly kind, he doesn’t arouse suspicion. Most creepily, he shares his home with his niece for years all the while plotting her demise (and, quite possibly, obsessing about her in an unhealthy way, judging by the huge portrait he hangs in a place of honor). He executes his wicked schemes with such élan that I find it difficult to condemn him. Even at the end, he stages his own unmasking as a self-glorifying coup-de-theatre. At the risk of spoilers, I won’t disclose any more, but the conclusion has joined the ranks of my favorite Claude Rains scenes.

2. Woody Bredell delivers some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I’ve ever seen, period.

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The director of photography largely responsible for the look and feel of Christmas Holiday and Phantom Lady, Bredell imparted an otherworldly glow to the noirs he worked on. Instead of evoking matter-of-fact grittiness or stark tension, this master opted for something more luminous and mysterious. He coaxed light and shadow into singing a ghostly duet.

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For instance, consider Grandison’s entrance to his surprise birthday party. As he opens the door, the guests stand in the hall of his home as still silhouettes, like revenants come to accuse Grandison of his hidden crimes. In that beat, you can sense the horror that the killer feels, as though his guilt were confronting him. It could’ve been an uninspired shot, a continuity bridge, but through Bredell’s artistry the moment acquires a spooky significance and strengthens the movie’s primary theme of festering guilt.

3. Audrey Totter perfects her tongue-in-cheek femme fatale image.

“The bad girls were so much fun to play,” the late great Totter confided to the New York Times in 1999. You can certainly tell that Totter is having a ball as the decadent Althea, Grandison’s penniless ward who keeps herself tricked out in couture gowns on the strength of her personality. And what a personality it is!

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Althea summarizes her life goals when she tosses a cocktail glass into a fireplace and giggles, “I like to break things.” Glasses, hearts, schemes: Althea delights in wrecking anything she gets in her funeral-lily-white clutches.

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Milking her wide eyes and perpetual pout, Totter plays the juicy role with a childish naughtiness that diverges from the deadpan demeanor of many femmes fatales. Totter handles her drinks and her cigarettes with a theatrical self-indulgence that even Bette Davis might’ve envied. As Grandison says, “You were always my favorite… so charmingly unscrupulous.”

vlcsnap-2014-11-01-12h16m48s1014. Michael Curtiz does double duty as director and producer.

For my money, Curtiz was the greatest director who’ll probably never be celebrated as an auteur. With this irate Hungarian at the helm, material didn’t matter: bring on swashbuckling adventures, films noirs, cult horror flicks, melodramas, musicals (and some empty horses for good measure, to paraphrase a famous Curtiz malapropism). His Warner movies practically all turned out to be at least entertaining and at their best downright sublime.

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By 1947 for about two decades Curtiz had been contributing to Warner Brothers’ reputation for movies that wasted nary a frame of precious celluloid. With The Unsuspected, Curtiz formed his own production company and shouldered a new role. He would go on to produce a handful of other films, among them another terrific sleeper noir Flamingo Road and the Doris Day musical My Dream Is Yours.

A more experienced producer-director might’ve troubleshooted some of The Unsuspected’s soft spots, like a zigzagging plot and a bland juvenile lead. Still, it took guts for Curtiz to exercise some autonomy—and produce a commercially successful film to back it up.

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The director peppered The Unsuspected with some of his specialties, like shadowy compositions to spice up dialogue scenes and a tautly-paced action sequence, as the heroine races to save the good guy at the end.

Curtiz laced my favorite sequence with his characteristic expressionism as the camera roams to discover three characters we haven’t yet met. As one of Grandison’s grim broadcasts fills the soundtrack, a dissolve transports us to a train passing in night where the vengeful good guy sits smoking in his compartment.

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The camera then glides from the moving train to a grimy city street, probing into a seedy hotel room where a thug lies on his bed listening to the radio. As the unknown hatchet-faced man takes a drag on his cigarette, a portion of the flashing hotel sign outside winks in at him: “KILL”.

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From there, Grandison’s sepulchral voice bridges a cut to a series of letters on a desk, being sorted by a dagger-like opener. The camera tracks out slightly to reveal an upside-down face in the desk. Grandison? Why, no it’s actually one of the good guys, a police detective, presented the same way as the lethal radio host. I admire the conviction that it took to fashion such a surreal, disorienting, counterintuitive introduction to three key characters, linking the good and the bad together, practically equating them, through the restless wanderings of the camera.

5. You can bask in the assembled star power of the impressive supporting cast.

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Constance Bennett does her best Eve Arden impression as a sassy career woman. Hurd Hatfield bitterly philosophizes as a drunken painter. And Joan Caulfield radiates delicate goodness and Gish-esque femininity as… well, I’d better not say. Any one of them would give me grounds for checking out The Unsuspected, but all three of them together? Why, thank you, studio system.

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In his 1947 review, the ever-cranky critic Bosley Crowther dissed the supporting cast as “patly artificial as the plot.” If this be artifice, I’ll make the most of it.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

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The Invisible Ghost (1941): Poverty Row Poetry

belaposterI love Poverty Row horror movies the same way I love cracked teacups and moldy vintage paperbacks. The bleak visuals, the improbable scripts, the down-on-their-luck casts give these crackly terrors the half-pathetic charm of unwanted things.

Films like Dead Men Walk and Voodoo Man are crowned by a halo of unintentional tragedy, since we often sense the pious devotion of martyrs to their art: talented actors and directors coping with bottom-of-the-barrel production values and perhaps mercifully brief shoots.

For those not as dorky as I, Poverty Row is a label for the cluster of small film studios, like Republic, Monogram, and PRC, that churned out B-movies for movie theater double bills. Their product would be rented to exhibitors at a flat rate—which meant that no matter how good or popular a Poverty Row flick might be, it was unlikely to rake in any more dough than stipulated.

However, far from the micromanagement that talent had to put up with at big A studios, those working in Poverty Row benefited from an astonishing amount of creative freedom. (Read: virtual indifference.) If you could turn in a salable film with something resembling a beginning, middle, and end—in two weeks—then the producers didn’t care what you did.

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While plenty of hacks earned their bread by marching actors around recycled sets, the occasional genius mined precious jewels out of the rough. And Joseph H. Lewis was one of them. Forever immortalized by Gun Crazy, his pulpy noir ballad to l’amour fou, Lewis cut his teeth on grimy B-movies, often imbuing the most routine assignments with an off-kilter grandeur.

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Which brings us to The Invisible Ghost, directed by a rising Lewis and starring a fallen Lugosi in one of 9 movies he made for Monogram. Fans of silents and early talkies will also get right into the gloomy mood at the first sight of a totally unrecognizable, catatonic Betty Compson. After starting her own business, Compson would pull herself out of low-budget actor purgatory, but she’d never forget the “hurt I got down there on Poverty Row.”

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Okay, so the movie itself is a little creaky and preposterous (“We’ve killed off the love interest? Better give him a twin brother…”) and I’ve seen pieces of broccoli who can emote more than the romantic lead. But I still urge you to watch it. There’s something borderline Lynchian about this stodgy American household… with a killer for a father and a crazy mother secretly living in the garage.

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Savor Bela’s soulful performance. Enjoy the refreshingly wise, likable, and dignified role of an African American butler, not forced to sully himself for offensive laughs. Keep an eye out for clever directorial touches—like swish pans, racked focus, and stark changes of lighting to signify the unleashing of Bela’s latent urge to kill. Drink in the duality of this surprisingly dark, despairing cheapie about an outwardly decent man split between tenderness and rage, a man who becomes a stranger to himself.

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And just try to tell me that those fugue-state scenes—in which Bela prowls the house for nubile young women to kill in the place of his long-lost cheating wife, as he creeps towards the camera with a wicked grin—don’t raise a few goosebumps…

The Invisible Ghost has slipped into the public domain, so you can watch it for free on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With brooding shadows from cinematographer Ray June and directorial influence from Montgomery, Night Must Fall revels in sardonically undermining Hollywood’s idyllic dreams of merry old England. Far from reassuring, this quaint landscape is perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness (as the title suggests).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montgomery’s roguish Irish accent, though pretty darn good, contributes to the mechanicalness of the character: too smooth, too mannered upon closer observation.

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

By contrast, in many medium close-ups from Night Must Fall, his cigarette practically betrays more emotion than he does. Devious melodrama villains snicker and rub their hands whenever they think they’re unobserved; this is at least recognizably human. Danny is spookier, because he possesses the ability to flip his emotions on and off like an electric current—which suggests that he never really felt those emotions anyway.

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

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

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

We see him from the outside, the glass pane a hovering box of light in the midst of darkness, reminding us of the many barriers—lies, charm, violence, false identities—the murderer uses to protect himself. That illuminated square also seemingly holds Danny a prisoner, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as his sins threaten to find him out.

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

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

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

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

Danny’s apprehension, his disgust at the object he’s brought into his own living space, and even a hint of necrophilia—I mean, why steal the head?—all bring the nightmare realm of his mind into relief. He’s not glamorous or sly. He’s the raw nerve, the open, oozing, festering wound that requires such a complex swaddling of lies and pretense.

For the most part, as Cleckley would say, Danny “is not real.” But for about 30 seconds here, shit gets real. All too real.

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

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The stakes of Night Must Fall don’t depend on whether Danny is caught or not, but on whether he succeeds in seducing Olivia and, to a certain extent, the audience. His capacity to horrify relates directly to how much we, like Olivia, are excited by his ruthlessness. Danny draws us into pity with stories of his wretched childhood, elicits awe with the virtuosity of his lies, and even gets us rooting for him by targeting the nasty old bag Mrs. Bransom. The danger of Danny is less what kills than what he awakens in others. How does he compromise Olivia and us, selling the glamour of his dirty deeds, making us believe that evil truly is glamorous and not just gross and sad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blue Blood: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

postRevenge is a beautiful thing. Or so Western Civilization would on the whole suggest.

If there is only one evergreen subject in entertainment for the past, oh, thousand or so years, it’s the pursuit of vengeance, from The Bible to The Oresteia to The Spanish Tragedy to… well, I’d know if I ever went to the movies these days.

I’ve been wronged. I’m hurting. I plan. I kill. Happy ending optional. Why do audiences never tire of this pattern?

Fortunately, I shan’t essay the burning question at length, though I surmise that we prefer to identify ourselves as victims (not victimizers) when we fantasize about eliminating our enemies. I will likewise note that hundreds, probably thousands, of successful plays, films, and television shows have cribbed this paradigm. Some have been insightful. Most have been bloody. Nearly all of them have been as dark as Hamlet’s pantaloons.

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Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is far too well-bred for any of that. Airy, genteel, and soothing as tea in a summerhouse, this witty foray into Edwardian vengeance illustrates the truth of Thomas De Quicey’s argument in  “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:

People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. 

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The puckish style of this black comedy from Ealing Studios would seem at odds with the Golgotha ambiance that we tend to associate with acts of revenge. Yet, far from declawing the horror of murder, this little movie, cherished as quaint and so veddy British, deserves praise for its pervasively tense and acidic comedy. It manages to sustain its satirical tone—but never falls into out-and-out parody—over two hours of joyful wickedness.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. The plot, such as it is, does not require much explanation. Our sociopathic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (a lethally seductive Dennis Price) was raised by his disgraced aristocratic mother—exiled by her family for marrying an Italian opera singer—who taught her son to dream of reclaiming his birthright.

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Once grown, Mazzini does exactly that, variously dispatching the relatives, the D’Ascoynes, who stand between him and the Duchy of Chalfont. Alec Guinness, equipped with his spirit gum, kit of mustaches, and genius for mimicry, gives life to each of these stodgy eccentrics.

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The plot structure does not differ greatly from your average slasher film, in which, one by one, victims are bumped off in far-fetched and occasionally humorous ways. The film performs a delicate high-wire act between absurdity and genuine drama in a frilly parallel universe where, for instance, a pot of caviar might be loaded with explosives and a hot air balloon bearing a militant suffragette might hover precariously over London.

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Yet, I would argue that Kind Hearts and Coronets is so unreal and refined that it paradoxically achieves one of the most calculated and disturbing portrayals of violence ever captured on film. Virtually every encounter we have with celluloid gore and viscera leaves us that much more jaded, inoculated by aesthetic violence against the real thing. And the closer the illusion comes to the real thing, the more the real thing has been betrayed.

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By contrast, Kind Hearts and Coronets refines murder into an artful hobby, as fussy and picturesque as a doily on a parlor grand piano, to reveal how a killer can dissociate himself from the moral ramifications of his actions. We recognize how easily a ruthless mind can turn human lives into secondary concerns and seek refuge in “the alibi of art,” in the words of Roger Shattuck.

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After all, the vast majority of the film takes place inside Louis Mazzini’s head, as he puts pen to paper and writes his memoirs on the eve of his execution. Director Hamer and cinematographer Roger Slocombe endow almost each frame of the movie with the compositional harmony and attention to detail of a quintessential period lithograph or sketch. This gracious, elliptical carnage represents not necessarily what happened, but rather how Louis chooses to portray his succession of killings.

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That Renoir-esque boat, carrying two lovers, gliding past the camera towards a watery grave. That funny cloud of smoke coming over the garden wall which announces to Louis—and to the audience—that Henry D’Ascoyne has developed his last picture. That flurry of harp notes as Lady Agatha falls to earth from her balloon. All of these artistic touches romanticize Louis’s crimes, widening the gap between the beauty of what we see and the ugliness of revenge.

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Plus, much of the film’s hilarity comes from the fact that Louis has to kill off not merely a half-dozen different people, but rather half-dozen people played by the same actor. As much as Guinness invests each of these portraits with a specific set of uncannily apt foibles, it’s still the same guy. We know this. That’s why we laugh. As eight D’Ascoynes die, we realize that there’s just one person behind it all. This comic effect, however, exposes another feature of Louis’s derangement: by his own admission, he has dehumanized his victims. They do not appear to him as individuals, but as embodiments of the family that wronged him, as different variations on the same target. In this light, the decision to have Guinness play eight roles seems a lot less like a gimmick and a good deal more like an astute psychological statement.

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Indeed, Robert Hamer couches several important visual clues in the film’s opening that suggest the extent to which the humor and elegance of the murders are products of Louis’s warped intelligence and perceptions.

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The beginning shots of the film, as a paunchy executioner approaches the prison doors and waddles with a warden to catch a glimpse of his “client” who will be hanged by a silken rope tomorrow. These shots, with their stark lighting and sparse mise-en-scene stand out from the light-dappled beauty and eye-catching richness of the rest of the film, the parts controlled by Louis’s recollections.

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The executioner’s (and our) first peek at the mysterious murderer comes through a peep hole into his cell. There’s Louis Mazzini, sitting calmly at his desk, framed like a picture by a circular window. Then something strange happens—a jump cut without warning to a tight shot of the back of Louis’s head, straightening up, as though he intuited that he’s being watched.

Now, the first shot of Louis is a pretty clear point-of-view shot, but what are we to make of that second one, that puts us practically on top of Louis? In the cell with him? It might be a gruesome joke, a close shot of Louis’s neck, soon to be bound by a noose. I suspect that there’s more to it, though: an intimation of how the viewer will progressively enter Louis’s world and come to root for a multiple murderer.

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Louis’s edifice of rationalizations lulls us into interpreting his life story as just that—a story, an adventure, a personal narrative. Even his imminent death for a crime he didn’t commit fails to shake us out of our intoxication with his vision of lyrical revenge. Only at the last moment of the film do we fully comprehend that we were listening to a confession. The unresolvable cliffhanger conclusion snaps us back to reality. Louis took the lives of six of his kin, and a few bystanders to boot, with absolutely no compunction. Those are the bare facts, as anyone who discovered that manuscript would read them. Our anxiety on Louis’s behalf confronts us with our complicity in his crimes.

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Nowadays, a sympathetic multiple murderer may fail to shock our blunted moral sensibilities (au contraire, it actually seems to be the key ingredient for a hit television show). However, in 1949, let us remember, a hero as villainous as Louis would not have been common onscreen, despite his distinguished literary antecedents, particularly in England due to the strength of censorship.

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Our voyage through the sunny consciousness of a psychopath proves so enchanting largely because of Dennis Price’s astonishing charm. Price, an underrated actor if ever there was one, grew up in an upper class family and invests Louis with an almost supernatural poise. He need only blink his impossibly long eyelashes at the audience and we know exactly what dastardly ironic thoughts are circulating in that superior brain of his. Consider the sly glance Louis barely avoids giving the camera when his employer, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, pulls out the family tree and proceeds to give him a lesson—when Louis could draw the whole thing from memory. In this movie, Price’s face is like a Paganini caprice played on a Stradivarius: dazzlingly, diabolically complex.

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In his own way, Louis Mazzini is a true aristocrat, more of a D’Ascoyne than all of the other D’Ascoynes put together. Traditional noblemen were not cuddly people. Today’s royals may warm our hearts with their stiffly magnanimous little waves and conspicuous displays of largesse, but the axe-wielding chieftains who won these privileges for them would hardly recognize their descendants. Kind Hearts and Coronets playfully hints at this discrepancy between past and present aristos in the scene where the Duke gives Louis a tour through the antique instruments of war that line the walls of Chalfont. Louis can hardly lift one grisly iron broadsword.

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The founders of great families acquired their power through unimaginable brutality or sickening crimes against their own flesh and blood. The film’s alternate title “Noblesse Oblige,” a phrase that encapsulates the duties and burdens of nobility, not only refers to Louis’s blue-blooded mien, but also obliquely alludes to the barbaric duties of this perfect gentleman.

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Out of Tune: Murder at the Vanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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King Leer gets a backstage pass…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just you wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Telefono Nero: Story of a Love Affair (1950)

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Nevertheless, I find something supremely beautiful in the faltering first enunciation of a vision, unwieldy in its boundless ambitions, that you can only detect in early efforts of great artists. I’ll take The Lodger over Vertigo any day, and I refuse to apologize for it.

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

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

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

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

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In 1950, the alienation, the numbness of pleasure, the ugliness of wealth, the general squirmy discontent of post-war Italy all writhed in each frame of Cronaca with a freshness that Antonioni never again achieved. By anchoring his penetrating gaze with the framework of a much-loved genre, film noir, the budding auteur delivers a movie that feels less forced and ponderous than his later art house classics. Antonioni delivers the pleasures of genre viewing while gleefully subverting them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no escape from its prying eyes, just as one can find no escape from one’s own accusing conscience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Speaking of white telephones, I have no doubt that Antonioni intended to give his audiences a little sick joke by making sure that every telephone in the film is not white in the manner of the telefoni bianchi, but a black one! The sheen of the “white telephone” film, the Neorealist lens, and the dark glitter of film noir all merge in Cronaca di un amore. It’s to die for.

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

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Free Friday Film: The Ghost Camera (1933)

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Are you up for a quickie? No, not that kind. Wash your brain out with soap, you n’er-do-well. Today I’m tempting you with a quota quickie, a cheaply produced British B movie produced to satisfy English law.

In 1927, the Cinematographic Films Act required British movie theaters to exhibit a certain percentage (it rose to 20%) of British-made films in an attempt to lessen the influence of American culture, pouring into England through Hollywood films, like the Spanish Armada in celluloid form. Well, tempted by the guaranteed opportunity to have their films shown in cinemas, British studios churned out movies with insanely small budgets—about 1 pound per foot of film, according to the UK Guardian.

Rather like Poverty Row films, many of these quota quickies stank like gone-off Vegimite. However, plenty of them also offered burgeoning directors and actors Michael Powell, Errol Flynn, Vivien Leigh, and Ann Todd a chance to cut their teeth on their first cinematic experiences. And, what with necessity being the Queen Mum of invention, many quickies display creative stylistics and wacky plots—to cover up their budgetary shortages.

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It breaks my heart to inform you that 60% of these movies are considered lost. But Martin Scorsese and the BFI are actively hunting for them. As it is, more and more of these are available on DVD and hopefully we’ll get a full-on quickie festival someday. Wait, that came out wrong…

So, in my usual roundabout way, I come to today’s sacrifice, The Ghost Camera, a 1933 mystery from debut director Bernard Vorhaus, a talented fellow whose Hollywood career was cut short by the blacklist. This entertaining, plot-packed thriller clocks in at about an hour, a refreshing feat in comparison to the bloated two-going-on-three hours spectacles that are showing at a movie theater near you nowadays.

The story follows John Gray (Henry Kendall), a bespectacled, preening intellectual who arrives home from his vacation to discover that someone dropped a camera in his luggage. Deciding to develop a picture in hopes of returning the camera to its owner, our hero discovers—gasp—a picture of a murder!

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Before he can show the image to the police, though, someone nicks it, but leaves the amateur detective with the camera and the remaining undeveloped negatives within. Piqued by the theft and up for an adventure, Gray decides to retrace the photographer’s steps by tracking down the locations where the pictures in the camera were taken. In the process, he meets the camera owner’s troubled sister, Mary Elton, stumbles across a jewel heist, and finally roots out the killer.

As with many quota quickies, The Ghost Camera gives us a glimpse into the before-they-were-famous careers of big names in cinema history. A charmingly baby-faced Ida Lupino graces the screen with her discreet magnetism as Mary, the lady in distress. As she accompanies the sleuth, she both seeks and dreads the truth about her brother and his camera.

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Unfortunately, the print of this film available on YouTube looks like it was strained through cheesecloth (which is why I didn’t pepper this post with screencaps). Nevertheless, the cinematography does shine. The director of photography, Oscar-winner Ernest Palmer, an American, shot the melodically lovely Borzage films Street Angel and Seventh Heaven, so it’s no surprise that he pulls out some bizarre visual poetry even for this cheapie. The scenes in the darkroom, almost total blackness except for a few starkly-lit faces, convey a spooky sense of dread that foreshadows the virtuoso lighting contrasts of mature British noir. Again, when the protagonist investigates an abandoned, ruined fortress, darkness prevails, plunging us viewers into a situation where we must stay riveted to the screen for the slightest flash of light or sound to know what’s going on.

Best of all, the great David Lean earned one of his first screen credits on this film as an editor. He later acknowledged director Bernard Vorhaus as a formative influence on his career. Indeed, combined with the cinematography, the editing here can only be described as audacious. For example, the movie starts with a low angle shot of a looming castle keep. The camera slowly tilts down and pans to a car on the road. Jump cut to the vine-covered walls of the ruin. Jump cut to the backseat of the car into which a camera tumbles. Where did it come from? Who dropped or threw it? Did the car pick it up on purpose or is the driver totally unaware? This pre-credit sequence leaves us intrigued, tantalized. Exactly what you desire from a mystery thriller!

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The first time I watched The Ghost Camera, its visual flamboyance stunned me. Shaky handheld motions, jump cuts, swish pans, and disorienting shifts of focus: you’ll see a lot of things here that we tend to associate with the “groundbreaking” movies of mature European art cinema, especially French New Wave. The jarring, unstable camerawork also awakens the audience to the foibles and strangeness of mechanical recording. That is, we realize that we’re watching a movie, a reality filtered through a camera.

The camera as a recording instrument itself carries an uncanny aura. Think about how many meta-thrillers and horror films revolve around some variation of a ghostly, anxiety-inducing camera or pictures: The Big Sleep, Blow-Up, Chinatown, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, to name a few. The Ghost Camera actually amplifies its slapdash, B-movie discontinuity, its jerky camera movements and warping perspective, to generate fear. The movie camera takes on a life of its own. Meanwhile, the film’s plot, in which developed images serve as clues, shows us how photography’s special bond with reality can bear an alarming witness.

The camera’s truth speaks in tongues, though—as the weird, vertiginous cinematography of The Ghost Camera suggests—that need to be interpreted by human reasoning.

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Mix all this innovative flair and love for the filmic medium with a droll script, really a parody of the whodunit, and you have a beguiling hour’s entertainment. Our mewling hero John Gray continuously treats us to his pessimistic, helpless commentaries. For instance,

“I really don’t know why I continue to go on holidays, Simms. They’re never adventurous. Just the usual people and happenings, unexciting, like myself. Man is an irrational animal, Simms, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent.”

At another vexing moment, he humorously exclaims, “Oh but this is absurd! We’re beginning to talk like characters in a mystery melodrama.” If only he knew…

So, watch The Ghost Camera and celebrate this testament to what wonderful popular art a bunch of clever people can cobble together out of basically nothing. It’s certainly one of the most enduring and satisfying quickies you’ll ever enjoy. Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

N.B. I learned about the history of the quota quickie from these thoughtful sources. I didn’t pull those facts out of thin air and I gratefully and fully acknowledge these articles and their authors for their research and insights. I’m citing them informally, because this is a blog post, not a college paper!

“Fancy a Quickie?” by Matthew Sweet from U.K. Guardian Monday, 1 January 2007.

“In Praise of the Quota.” at British Pictures Article Archive.