Christmas Holiday (1944): I’m Dreaming of a Noir Christmas

 

Christmas HolidayMaybe you’ve gotten sick on December gingerbread and need some noirish entertainment to cleanse your palate. Maybe you’re craving a warped, dark, mean movie for any month of the year. In any case, you won’t regret watching Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday—even if it is perhaps the bleakest film ever to include Christmas in the title.

This stunningly perverse crime drama stars Deanna Durbin as a prostitute and Gene Kelly as evil incarnate. Warning: there will be NO singin’ in the rain. Just lots of rain. Its subversive beauty and the wrenchingly effective against-type performances of the two leads will stay will you.

This masochistic little yarn follows the recently commissioned Lieutenant Mason on his holiday furlough. He’s stuck in New Orleans for a torrentially rainy Christmas Eve on the way to San Francisco to confront his girlfriend who recently dumped him… via telegraph—Merry Christmas!

Dragged to a nightclub and (let’s face it) a brothel, our young man happens upon baby-faced torch singer and (again, let’s face it) hooker Jackie who begs him to take her to Midnight Mass where she breaks down sobbing. And a Happy New Year!

Jackie eventually tells the impressionable Mason that her real name is Abigail Manette. She ‘fesses up about her marriage to a charming, well-born gambler and n’er-do-well Robert Mannette who ended up getting sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he definitely did commit.

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As she remembers, we see Robert and Abigail’s doomed, codependent romance unfold in a series of non-sequential  tangled flashbacks. We also watch Robert’s faded Southern belle mother (Gale Sondergaard, wicked and spooky as ever) deciding to blame Jackie for not saving her baby Robert from himself.

Ignoring enough red flags to communicate the script in semaphore, Jackie persists in her delusional love for her murderous, glib bastard of a husband. She wallows in her guilt and punishes herself by becoming a lady of the night.

Christmas Holiday

If the plot sounds predictable and sentimental, I can tell you it simply isn’t so. This film discards clichés like unsold Christmas trees on December 26th.  Take the prostitute-crying-in-a-church cliché, lifted straight from Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier,” in which a troupe of weeping whores teach a group of peasants about the true meaning of Easter.

Well, guess what? When Durban’s fallen woman starts to noisily heave and weep in her pew, she doesn’t offer a spectacle of redemption and spirituality. She’s an embarrassment. An uncomfortable reminder of the discarded people we want to forget about at merry times—the times when we ought to be remembering them most.

Christmas Holiday Christmas Holiday

Christmas Holiday

As all the faces turn toward the Lieutenant, her escort, as if to say, “What is the matter with you and your girl?” Jackie crumples on the floor. Lieutenant Mason looks down with pity (not empathy, I’d say) and hides her with his coat. The withering indifference of the whole world strips us of many illusions about the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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Upon the film’s release, the ever-crabby Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed Durbin’s acting, stating that “[she] is merely adequate in her role.” I disagree.

Throughout the film, Durbin’s rendering of the Garbo-Dietrich fallen woman shtick feels askew—but intentionally so. Because of its awkwardness, its unexpectedness, her performance is simply perfect. We’re watching something we’ve come to see as pure—Durbin and her image—being unmercifully sullied. Durbin never abandons the wholesome, radiantly loving vibe that she channelled in all those musicals… which makes the occasional low-life mannerisms that Jackie’s acquired all the more unsettling and jarring.

Rather than giving us a lesson in noirish coolness, Siodmak employs Durbin’s soulful naïveté to superb effect and demystifies the “gallant hooker” and “codependent noir wife” tropes. He refuses to glorify a twisted relationship, a coupling that would degrade any sane person’s idea of love.

The cuts back and forth between the pure, fresh-faced Abigail of the flashbacks to the faux-vamp Jackie of the present make us realize the silliness of her charade. Jackie’s tough babe act only points to the saccharine motive behind her degradation: atoning for not being a good enough wife. She’s internalized every victim-blaming message beaten into her brain until she wholeheartedly accepts her victimization.

Jackie’s masquerade contrasts with that of her husband. Robert Mannette pretends he’s a decent guy with a few flaws, when it’s not hard to recognize a sociopathic sponger.

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Bet you never thought Gene Kelly could look this scary.

Since this is based on a story by Somerset Maugham and adapted to screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz (of Citizen Kane acclaim), we get some off-hand discussion of this identity play in the dialogue, too:

Robert: “Which do you like better: the person I pretend to be or—”

Abigail: “The person you are.”

Of course, the problem with this exchange is that Abigail cannot know the real Robert. This astute shyster possesses enough skill to reveal a few of his minor vices so as to insist on his overall transparency. His disguise is a double disguise—because he acts like he’s taken off his mask.

Christmas Holiday

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most deceptive publicity shot Hollywood ever produced… and that’s saying something.

Through exploring these rancid guises, Christmas Holiday punctures two sets of Hollywood myths. Classical American cinema tends to perpetuate, in my mind, two main types of fantasy.

1. The normalcy or domesticity myth: “I’m young and perky and will overcome any obstacles to happiness by standing by my man!”

2. The bad-faith noir or tragically hip myth: “I live a bad life because life itself has ruined me for everything else. You wouldn’t want to be me, but you still do, and you know it, because I’m really cool.”

Yes, these are generalizations, but as my math teacher told me, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Well, Christmas Holiday takes these two clichés and knocks their heads together. First, we see that homey, domestic dramas of redemption don’t work out in reality. Girl, you can’t pull him up. He’ll pull you down.

Second, and more crucially, Siodmak mocks the glamorous despair of film noir’s beautiful and damned denizens. Bordellos, bookie bars, dance halls—they’re not dreamy or desirable. They’re shabby and absurd. Snap out of it! Which is what we long to tell the heroine of this mordant drama.

Christmas Holiday

Gee, how I love my awful momma’s boy murderer of a husband!

Jackie, you see, loves being in love. And not in a good way. She’s addicted to the idea of an eternal, unhealthy, unconditional, self-sacrificing love, a child’s concept of l’amour fou. We feel her swelling girlish visions of passion through grandiose shots of a concert hall where she listens, rapt, to Tristan und Isolde… sitting next to a stranger who she’ll end up marrying. (Warning: do not listen to Wagner before agreeing to go on a date.)

Indeed, two musical motifs dominate Christmas Holiday’s Oscar-nominated score: there’s the majestic, tragic strains of Wagner’s “Liebestod” and then the syrupy repetitions of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (Now, it’s a great song, and a favorite of mine, but anything is absurd on repeat.) The movie contrasts these two love anthems to suggest that when real people try to live out the “Liebestod,” though, they don’t become sublime Tristans and Isoldes or even tragically hip lost souls. They turn into cornballs and bad jokes.

Christmas Holiday

Christmas Holiday

This film boasts gorgeous chiaroscuro photography by Elwood Bredell, as even my less-than-pristine screenshots show.

I most appreciated the ways in which the noirish flavor of the domestic sphere comes alive. In this noir, the cozy home isn’t the opposite of the dirty city. No, this den of domesticity is just as dirty. Maybe more so. Every place is bad. Some places are just more honest about their badness. Sinister Mrs. Mannette looms in the frame, ogling the newlyweds with malice. Bedposts, windows, bars, and the shadows of windows and bars imprison Jackie/Abigail in almost every scene.

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And, by the way, don’t watch this movie if you love Gene Kelly. You will never be able to look at Kelly again without seeing the man who comes home from killing someone and proceeds to make love with his wife as if nothing happened. Or the man who says, “I want a shave. I wanna look pretty when I see my wife again…” even as he plans on murdering her.

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Kelly’s spry, lithe physicality suits a vile cad with surprising aplomb and he dives right into the subtle depravity of his character, bringing his wife to a gambling den to teach her all about the things he promises he’ll never do again. As he makes one particularly florid protestation to his fiancée, the sound of unrelated laughter in another part of the bar lets us know, in case there was any doubt, that this man’s promises are worth “two percent of nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler.

Christmas Holiday

For me, the greatest scene, the one that gave me shivers, occurs at the very end of Christmas Holiday—and involves a serious spoiler. Robert dies in Abigail’s arms after he tries to kill her. Lieutenant Mason, looking on, gently tells her, “You can let go now.” We see Abigail cradling her husband, her childish face contorted in an unbecoming sob.

And then, something magical happens: a cut to a close-up of Deanna Durbin—she suddenly shines, looking grown-up, transfigured, and glamorous, like a cross between Norma Shearer and Garbo. You can see her thoughts click. It’s not my fault. It was never my fault. I couldn’t save him. I shouldn’t have had to save him. I can only save myself. Catharsis. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it. It happened in the space of two shots.

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Abigail stands and walks to a window. The stunning backlighting makes her glow. Gazing out a window, she sees clouds part, revealing a twinkling starry sky. It sounds corny, but when I watched it, by God, did it ever work on me. The scene delivers an exhilarating sense of liberation, the cinematic equivalent of a deep breath. I’ve read at least one other review that pans this ending, so perhaps it won’t work for you. But I “bought” it, and I am by no means easily sold on anything.

It’s like a fresh start, albeit one with enough ambiguity to avoid total happy-ending bathos. Sincere, but not gushy. After a downward spiral, we, the viewers, are rewarded with beauty. And we learn a little about what beauty means.

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Beauty isn’t commitment to a bad man. It’s not abject self-sacrifice. It’s not despair. It’s none of the platitudes or cynicisms that we may blindly accept.

Beauty is freedom. The freedom to let go of things before they kill you—which they usually do in Siodmak’s noir films. And that’s the closest to the true meaning of Christmas that any film noir is going to get.

imprisoned

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Rotten Blood: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.

And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.

I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.

But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.

And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.

Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.

A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy.  The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.

I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.

This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.

Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.

Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.

A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.

A knife flashes into, then out of,  the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.

The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.

 

This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.

Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.

The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.

Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.

Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.

Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…

The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.

The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.

 “A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).

She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.

Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.

No such luck.

Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”

I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.

This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.

Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine  link.)

The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.

Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.

A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.

Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.

I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.

(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)

In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.

Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.

However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.

How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?

The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.

Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.

Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.