The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai casino run by Mother Gin Sling is like Disneyland for the depraved: a stately pleasure dome (to borrow Coleridge’s phrase from “Kubla Khan,” his opium-induced fantasy poem about the East) where Westerners go to indulge in illicit activities. tierney“It smells so incredibly evil,” says Gene Tierney, who’s there to do a little slumming. “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. . . Anything could happen here.”

Fresh out of finishing school—and absolutely stunning in this role—Tierney’s character “Poppy” is easily corrupted. She can’t wait to lose control. Seduced by Victor Mature’s fez-wearing Persian gigolo, she’s soon addicted to drugs and reduced to pawning her jewelry to pay her gambling debts. It’s all part of Mother Gin Sling’s plan to wreak revenge on Poppy’s father (Walter Huston), a wealthy Englishman who’d toyed with her years earlier, taken advantage of her innocence, then tossed her aside when she became pregnant.

Ona Munson, the white actress who plays Mother Gin Sling in yellowface, is lacquered to within an inch of her life in her dragon lady hairdo. Hosting a dinner party in her private quarters, she has her bare-chested minion (professional wrestler Mike Mazurki, billed simply as “The Coolie” in the credits) open the curtains in the dining room to show her guests the spectacle of women in bamboo cages being auctioned off as sex slaves. mother gin slingShe was reduced to selling herself after her abandonment, and describes the brutal treatment she endured: “My soles cut open and pebbles sewn inside to keep me from running away . . .”

The Shanghai Gesture was a play in the 1920s, and even more louche than the film. You could get away with more in the theater, and audiences at the time were especially receptive to fantasies about Asian decadence. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian to play an Asian character onscreen, was a matinee idol well before Valentino. Best known today for his performance as the sadistic but honorable Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he gained notice in the role of a Japanese ivory dealer who brands the white woman he lusts after on the shoulder in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) — an act that seemed to enhance his appeal in much the same way that Valentino’s rape of the dancing girl would in Son of the Sheik (1926). “My crientele is women. They rike me to be strong and violent,” Hayakawa allegedly told a reporter.

An early Frank Capra film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), yen 2features an interracial romance between a white missionary played by Barbara Stanwyck and a Chinese warlord (Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther in yellowface). Stanwyck’s character is captured by the warlord and she has an erotic dream about him, imagining him as a brutal and passionate lover, although he turns out to be a gentleman and, in a departure from the novel upon which the film was based, their mutual attraction remains chaste. Miscegenation was taboo, even before the Hays Code, and General Yen was yanked eight days into its run, the sight of “a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman,” as Sam Shain put it in Variety, too shocking for audiences at the time. Nevertheless, the film was selected for the opening of Radio City Music Hall.

Of course, director Joseph von Sternberg was drawn to kinky material. “The pain that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,” in Baudelaire’s famous line, was always his subject.

seduction

 

Strangers on a Train

With thanks to Tim

I like this posteroff the beaten track from Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, because it highlights the film’s zaniness. Robert Walker’s character (Bruno) is creepy, right from the beginning. You can’t imagine why Farley Granger’s character (Guy) agrees to dine alone with him in his compartment, even if the business of their feet touching beneath the table in the train’s bar suggests a homosexual attraction. Hitchcock chose the bisexual Granger for the part, knowing full well that audiences would make the association—which was even more explicit in the Patricia Highsmith novel—but Bruno is clearly a psychopath. And yet, you can’t help smiling in the scenes where Bruno appears. Like Guy, you’re drawn in, just as Hitch intended.

As a director, he left nothing to chance. Throughout the picture, we’re meant to focus on Guy’s cigarette lighter. An expensive gift from his mistress (Anne), it features a pair ofMcGuffin Lighter tennis rackets and an engraving: A to G. Bruno borrowed it and we just know he’s going to use it to implicate Guy in the murder of his unsympathetic wife (who was killed by Bruno). In a tense scene, Bruno drops the lighter down a storm sewer and we see his hand, coming through the grate, fishing around among the debris, a wet leaf, a chewing gum wrapper, a bit of orange peel and a scrap of paper, each item carefully selected by Hitchcock.

He cared more about the visuals than anything, and in thinking about the look of this picture, he was inspired by the cartoons of Charles Addams. This one, for example (is that Uncle Fester, enjoying himself there in the second row?)

addams theater
Hitch has a scene at a tennis match that clearly references Addams’ cartoon, with Bruno in the center, his attention fixed on Guy while everyone else’s heads are going back and forth, following the ball. Offbeat humor.

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Another nice touch, at a cocktail party, involves a society matron (Mrs. Cunningham) who is encouraged by Bruno to imagine how she might knock off her husband. She really gets into the game, coming up with an amusing little scenario where she drives off with her husband, knocks him over the head with a hammer, pours gasoline over him and sets the whole thing ablaze. We’re going along with it too, until Bruno puts his hands around Mrs. Cunningham’s throat and suddenly things get serious.

Raymond Chandler was brought in to write the screenplay for Strangers on a Train, but had a falling out with the director and was removed from the project, his contributions deleted. He considered Hitchcock a philistine for not recognizing “that what is said and how it is said is more important than shooting it upside down through a glass of champagne.”

Sorry, but I’m with Hitch on this one.

Macao

Macao (1952) was  the last film Josef von Sternberg made in HollywoodMacao slouch and he didn’t get to finish it. A tyrant on the set, particularly with his actresses, he treated Jane Russell so abominably that Howard Hughes removed him from the picture and brought in Nicholas Ray to reshoot the ending.

I can’t condone a director who calls his lead actress a “beautiful stupid broad” and makes every effort to humiliate her on the set. I guess this was the pattern, from Marlene Dietrich onwards, and it seems to have worked with Dietrich. The two tormented one another over the course of seven films—the best either would make: Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express among them.

But getting back to Macao, there’s an awful lot to like here even if Ray messed with von Sternberg’s vision. Robert Mitchum slouches to excellent effect, winning Jane Russell’s heart, and charming the tough-as-nails croupier played by Gloria Grahame while he’s at it. The dialogue is edgy from the start. Even bit players get their moment: the opening scene of the would-be Lothario doing a little rumba all by himself in his cabin, all to no avail, is a delightful vignette. 

The shadows are perfectly calibrated, during the chase scenes especially, when fishing nets lend a claustrophobic touch to the action. Russell sings, and she’s pretty good as a torch singer — far better than in her musical number with the gymnasts in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This noir may not be noir enough to satisfy purists, but I enjoyed it.

Release Date: March 18th!

AllTheWrongPlacesFront

Old Hollywood glamour comes vividly to life in historian, novelist, and film blogger Lieberman’s series debut, highlighting the effects of the 1950s Red Scare on the movie industry and the tragedies that happened off the silver screen. Aficionados of Alfred Hitchcock and Hollywood-themed mysteries will find this historical noir right up their alley.

 – Library Journal

Mambo

Robert Rossen named names to the House Un-AmericanMambo Poster Activities Committee — fifty-seven of them. Then he went to Italy and made this ponderous film. Mambo (1954) is a mishmash of neorealist solemnity and “women’s picture” melodrama. The actors all seem to be holding back, as if they too found the story implausible. The dancing scenes lack joy. Rossen himself considered the movie a failure, and yet he poured his heart and soul into the project. “I got involved, took it seriously, but it just didn’t come off,” Alan Casty quotes him as saying in Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist.

No, it didn’t work as a movie, but as a cri de coeur, Mambo is strangely compelling. Here is Rossen’s attempt to justify his betrayal of his former comrades, an anguished plea for understanding, if not forgiveness. He can’t forgive himself, you see, but as we watch his confused heroine Giovanna (Silvana Mangano) abandon her dreams and her integrity under the sway of her ne’er-do-well lover Mario (Vittorio Gassman) and her dissolute aristocratic admirer, count Enrico Marisoni (Michael Rennie), we can’t help but notice Rossen’s remorse.

Like many Jews who made their way to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, Rossen was drawn to Communism. The Party was “dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in,” he told his son, and his early scripts featured working-class characters and explored big themes like bigotry and injustice. But after the war, he grew disillusioned with Communism’s monolithic structure and left the party, as did many others. His Academy Award-winning adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1949) gives a more jaded perspective on working-class heroism, showing how easily even noble ideals can be corrupted.

But Mambo demonstrates that Rossen had not abandoned his idealism. He used Katherine Dunham’s interracial dance troupe for the mambo scenes — this in the segregated pre-Civil Rights era — and he has Ms. Dunham herself instructing Giovanna on the virtues of hard work and rigorous training, belying the general perception that such “primitive” dance forms came naturally to African peoples. At the end of the film, after she has caused the deaths of two people, Giovanna seeks salvation through rejoining Dunham’s troupe and losing herself in her work.

Rossen was initially called to testify before HUAC in 1951, and had taken the Fifth. Blacklisted, he had two years of unemployment to reconsider his principles and when he was called again in 1953, he caved in and gave the committee what it wanted. “It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn’t know what to do,” his son explained.

After Mambo, he went on to make six more films, including the epic Alexander the Great (1956) starring Richard Burton, Island in the Sun (1960), a controversial story about interracial love in the Caribbean which featured Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Bellefonte in serious roles, and The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, now considered a classic. Akin to the flawed Giovanna, work figured in Rossen’s salvation, I would say.

Double Indemnity

Raymond Chandler’s classic discussion of the noir genre, “The Simple Art of Murder,” includes the famous line

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story, Chandler says (thinking of Dashiell Hammett’s Marlowe) must be such a man. And the point of the story is not so much solving the murder as seeing how the character of the hero unfolds. His redemption is what makes the story work, what makes it art, as opposed to schlock.

Chandler was writing within a schlock genre, but he aimed to create art. “To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it,” he said, “is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.”

When Billy Wilder brought him in to write the screenplay of James M. Cain’s novella, Double Indemnity, Chandler got his chance. tumblr_okydzvPUWB1uybf9ro2_1280Cain’s hero, Walter (Fred MacMurray), is a smart guy whose talents are wasted in his job as an insurance salesman. He isn’t really played by Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), the lonely wife of a wealthy man who wants to cash in on her husband’s accident insurance policy. He plays himself:  the murder is a challenge, a high-stakes game that’s more of a turn-on than Phyllis.

When I met Phyllis I met my plant. If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick a stack of chips, it might not seem so funny if you were back at that wheel, instead of out front.

Chandler took this motivation, but he made it more explicit by having Walter narrate the story of his crime to his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Walter was attracted to Phyllis from the get-go; he saw her standing at the top of the staircase, wearing nothing but a towel. “I wanted to see her again. Close, and without that silly staircase between us.”

But he went into the relationship — and the crime — with his eyes open. What makes him nervous isn’t the fear of getting caught. He thinks he has that little wrinkle figured out. All he has to do is to murder Phyllis, and pin the murder on the young man he believes she’s two-timing him with, the boyfriend of Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola. His boss, Keyes, already suspects the two of them. Piece of cake.

Then Walter surprises us. He realizes the boyfriend is not in cahoots with Phyllis and sends him back to Lola, takes the rap after all. WHY?

It’s about redemption, Watson. Chandler told us that. He confesses the whole sordid tale to Keyes, and Keyes forgives him. Yeah, he’s going down. He doesn’t care, so long as Lola knows the truth. And as long as Keyes understands.

The Maltese Falcon

In appreciation of Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre: I love those guys! Bogey playing the kind of hard-boiled-on-the-outside-but-with-a-tender-center detective that he was made for. 968full-the-maltese-falcon-posterJohn Huston directing his own screenplay of the great Dashiell Hammett novel. No wonder Roger Ebert called “The Maltese Falcon” one of the greatest films of all time.

Ebert also said that the plot of this picture is the last thing you think about. (And I thought it was only me who had difficulty following the story…) What matters, what makes “The Maltese Falcon” worth watching again and again, are the stand-alone scenes. You hardly care what’s come before, or what’s coming next, you’re so caught up in the perfect moment.

Bogey’s classic line:  “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Wish I could say that the way he does, and mean it. Heck, he’s even plausible when he wants to talk about the bird.

 

“The movie is essentially,” Ebert noted, “a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It’s all style. It isn’t violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak, and embody their characters.”

Think about San Francisco and you think about Sam Spade. The shabby office with the frosted glass door. The city streets by night. I’ve walked that town with key scenes in my head, from the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street, where Spade’s partner was done in (there’s actually a plaque to mark the spot) to the fancier locales around Union Square. I’ve even stayed in Joel Cairo’s hotel, the Belvedere (now the Monaco, a Klimpton property with a delightful restaurant).

Indelible.

A Touch of Evil

When I heard that today is Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 96th birthday, I was motivated to finish my review of “A Touch of Evil,” Orson Welles’s fascinating swan song as a director. You can understand why this was the last film he was allowed to direct. Even in its restored version, it fails to follow through on the promise of that brilliant opening sequence with the bomb in the trunk of the Chrysler.

As I said, brilliant. But let’s get back to Zsa Zsa. Her little cameo epitomizes the problem I had with this film. I was taken out of the story by her brief appearance as a bordello mistress. A glamorous Hungarian in some seedy Mexican border town? Really? And some thought Eva was incongruous in “Green Acres!”

Dietrich was anotherdietrich matter. You feel she belongs in such surroundings. You understand that she’s fallen on hard times since “Blue Angel” and you’re just happy to see her again, playing opposite Welles and smoking that Tiparillo. (Sorry, couldn’t resist an age-revealing allusion…)

That’s the thing:  Dietrich is an audience-pleaser. Welles’s performance is superb in a depressing way. Dennis Weaver’s nervous night clerk at the eerily empty motel where poor Janet Leigh is terrorized puts Norman Bates to shame. But other name-brand actors are wasted in this picture. Janet Leigh, Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff (as a Mexican?) and Charlton Heston (another alleged Mexican). Maybe auteur directors like Truffaut and Godard got a kick watching Welles show-off, but audiences were left in the cold, their needs for a coherent story unmet.

Anyhow, happy birthday, Zsa Zsa.zsa zsa

Rebecca

You can’t blame Hitchcock for the kinky sexual subtext in “Rebecca” because it was in the novel. rebecca-1940-2Stuff like the sinister Mrs. Danvers showing the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) the old Mrs. de Winter’s underwear:  “They were made specially for her in a convent in St. Clair.”

In case you had any doubts, your suspicion that Mrs. Danvers is unhinged is confirmed when she pulls out Rebecca’s nightgown, marveling over how sheer it is (“Look, you can see my hand through it!”) And then, just for good measure, she goes the extra mile, suggesting that Rebecca comes back to watch her former husband and his new wife together. You know what “together” means.

Fontaine’s performance makes the picture memorable. You watch her harden as the story develops, taking on the responsibilities of her role as mistress of Manderley, rallying behind her unstable husband (Laurence Olivier). She comes across as natural, spontaneous, whereas Olivier strikes me as more studied, as if he’s watching himself playing the character of de Winter.

Hitchcock’s sure touch with the pacing and camera work perfectly conveys the gothic feel of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. The menace you feel from the moment you enter Manderley, the tension in every scene, which grows more unbearable as the film goes on — so much so that you’d like to stop watching because you fear the story cannot end well, but of course you can’t stop. You’re in too deep.

You won’t breathe until it’s over.

Suspicion

Even a die-hard fan of Cary Grant will find him hard to admire here. I blame the screenwriters. The novel on which “Suspicion” was based is psychologically complex, and quite dark. The heroine of the book (played by Joan Fontaine in the picture) strongly suspects that her husband Johnny (Grant) is trying to kill her, but she’s so in love with him that she drinks the glass of milk he gives her, believing that it is poisoned.

Milk

This scene occurs in the film, but Fontaine’s character leaves the milk untouched on her bedside table. You see her face as she contemplates drinking it; Fontaine does love Grant. Who wouldn’t, right?

Well, actually, he is not his usual lovable self in this vehicle. You get flashes of the charming rogue here and there. In one scene, as they drive away from a party and Grant’s character tries to steal a kiss, Fontaine asks him how many women he’s had. Far too many, it turns out. “Once, when I couldn’t go to sleep, I started counting them,” he tells her, “just like sheep jumping over a hedge, and I fell asleep at number 73.”

At moments, you believe that Johnny is truly as bad as Fontaine’s character fears. He seems to have no conscience, is quite manipulative, a pathological liar intent on his own pleasures. He takes advantage of his friend “Beaky” (played by the wonderful Nigel Bruce—imagine a slightly dissolute Watson, still thick but endearing as ever), embezzles from his cousin, threatens Fontaine more than once.

But the evil you begin to perceive is always deflected and in the end you are supposed to think that Johnny is hopeless at managing his finances but at heart a decent sort who can be saved by the love of a good woman. Too bad, because watching Grant abandon his leading-man goodness and embrace a truly immoral role would have been interesting.