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.

Le Corbeau

Paris, StraßenszeneAll of France resisted the Nazis, if not actively, at least in their hearts. So argued Jean-Paul Sartre in “The Republic of Silence,” an uplifting little address he published a month after the Liberation. “Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest,” he wrote. “And here I am not speaking of the elite among us who were real Resistants, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and day throughout four years, answered NO.”

Of course, Sartre knew better. In “Paris Under the Occupation,” published a few months later, he presented a different picture of the compromises that daily life under the thumb of the Germans entailed. Here he admitted that his countrymen, for the most part, were too demoralized to resist. And yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to acknowledge how eagerly many complied.

Millions of people denounced their neighbors in anonymous letters to the authorities during the Vichy era. You could say this was something of a patriotic tradition in France. During the ancien régime, secret letters led to the imprisonment of countless “enemies,” who would languish in jail, never knowing what crime they had been accused of, not even knowing the name of their accuser. The practice was stopped during the French Revolution, but the habit persisted. Under Napoleon Bonaparte it was said that half of France was paid to inform on the other half. Informers were also employed during the colonial struggles after the war.

Betrayal was an uncomfortable fact of life under the Occupation, and Henri-Georges Clouzot made it the subject of his 1943 suspense film, “Le Corbeau.” Remarkably, the film was produced by a German-owned company, Continental. More remarkably, early publicity for the picture highlighted the theme:  “Informing, the shame of the century!” Goodness, what were they thinking?Le_corbeau_release_poster

The film was a smash hit. The Catholic Church gave it a “6” on its moral scale—“1” being appropriate for all audiences, even children, and “6” being a film so pernicious that it deserved to be banned—ensuring that it would find an audience for decades to come. In fact, prominent critics on both ends of the political spectrum condemned “Le Corbeau.” Clouzot was accused of treason in the collaborationist newspaper Je Suis Partout; anonymous letters were “necessary” to maintain public order claimed fascist writer Lucien Rebatet. The Left, meanwhile, objected to the complete absence of admirable characters. Nobody comes off well. Not a single soul. Children, nuns, peasants, shopkeepers, teachers, workers: all are corrupted by the poison pen letters circulating in their small town.

“You think that the good are all good and the bad are all bad,” the head of the hospital, Vorzet, tells the film’s protagonist, Germain, in a famous scene. “The good is the light and the bad is the shadow.” (Here Vorzet swings a lightbulb that is dangling from a wire overhead.) Germain is having an affair with a woman in the town. He desires her, but says that he wouldn’t hesitate to turn her in if she were found to be the culprit sending the poison pen letters. “But where is the shadow, where is the light?” Vorget asks. (By now the zones of light and shadow are shifting crazily as the bulb swings back and forth.) “Do you know if you are in the light or in the shadows?”

It’s only natural to seek clarity, particularly during times of upheaval. Simone de Beauvoir argued in favor of the death penalty for war criminals for precisely this reason.  Salutary executions were the only means of restoring the moral certainties that were compromised during the Vichy era, she proclaimed in her essay, “An Eye for an Eye.” And yet both she and Sartre stood up for Clouzot when the postwar French government barred him from making any more films on account of his alleged ties with the Nazis. Sartre even worked with Clouzot on a screenplay during the two-year period before the ban was lifted.

clouzotFor his part, Clouzot seems to have been quite a piece of work. Germain’s intolerance for the hypocrisy of human nature seems to have mirrored the director’s own. He was not an easy man to work with; more than one actress complained of being slapped around on the set. On the other hand, he got fine performances out of his cast and is one of only three directors to have won the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin (the other two were Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Altman).

So, where is the shadow and where is the light?

In a Lonely Place

I just wanted to haul Gloria Grahame’s character aside In_a_lonely_place_1950_posterand tell her in no uncertain terms: Honey, forget him.  He’s bad news, even if he’s not a murderer. Sure, he’s Humphrey Bogart, and a very vulnerable Humphrey Bogart at that, but he’s trouble from the get-go.

Imagine what a basket case Rick must’ve been right after Ilsa left him, before he opened that night club in Morocco. If he’d gone back to the U.S. and started hanging out with cynical Hollywood people instead, he might have turned into the mean drunk he plays in this picture, a guy who picks fights and gets into road rage incidents, beats women around and displays not a trace of emotion when the innocent hatcheck girl he was with the night before turns up dead.

It’s certainly a change, to see Bogart playing the line between alienated artist and psychopath — and coming out on the psychopath side. None of the people in his orbit know how to take him. They’re all walking on eggshells, bracing themselves for the next explosion and yet, inexplicably, they keep coming back for more abuse.

Grahame’s character is attracted to him, and you do see why.He gives off a dangerous allure and there’s an animal intensity to their first encounter. Bogart’s hot!lonely place Flash forward three weeks and he’s grown cuddly.  Nothing like the love of a good woman to turn a guy around. But soon it’s Grahame’s character who’s a basket case. She suspects Bogey of murder (with good reason) and he picks up on her doubts and gets paranoid and possessive.

The movie turns into a mess at this point, although you’ll keep watching. Stick with it and you’ll get the ironic twist on Bogey’s best line, from the screenplay he manages to finish with Grahame’s loving support: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

The Razor’s Edge

Maybe it’s not possible to make a good movie from a mediocre book, particularly one as rooted in its time (1940s America, and Europe as they imagined it back then) as Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge. 20th Century Fox put more than a million dollars into the picture, and it had a stellar cast. But the story is so melodramatic, it’s impossible to take it seriously, and it just drags on and on.

Tyrone Power plays the intense, war-scarred searcher, Larry Darrell.  He can’t seem to settle down with the lovely Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), even when his rival for Isabel’s affections, the millionaire Gray Maturin, offers him a high-paying job.  Instead he heads off to Paris to find himself, living in a run-down hotel and doing menial jobs while consorting with authentic French people.

Power and Tierney are wonderful to look at, and then you have the delightful Clifton Webb as Isabel’s uncle Elliot, a variant on the character he played opposite Tierney in “Laura,” along with Anne Baxter as a nice midwestern girl gone bad — really bad (our last view of her is as a concubine to a dissolute sheik in an opium den) and John Payne (of “Miracle on 34th Street”) as the millionaire. There’s even a cameo appearance by Elsa Lanchester, who plays the Scottish secretary to some social-climbing American “princess.”

No, it’s not the cast.  It’s the story.  The cheesy sequence with the Indian holy man, who sends Larry to the top of the Himalayas to find enlightenment, was so bad it was almost good. Almost.

Chinatown

Wow. How did I miss this film? Thirty-six years it’s been out there and I’ve just seen it for the first time. No wonder it’s on everyone’s top-ten list.

Yes, the noir atmosphere is superblyStyle-in-film-Faye-Dunaway-in-Chinatown-9 conveyed. And yes, the acting is flawless. Faye Dunaway is stunning, and very compelling as the troubled femme fatale. I’d forgotten that Jack Nicholson wasn’t always demonic. Makes me want to see “Five Easy Pieces” again, not to mention “Easy Rider” and “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.” (Watch this space…)

But what really struck me was the tone of “Chinatown.” The film was released in 1974, my senior year of high school. In August of that year Nixon finally resigned over Watergate, after the evidence of his involvement in the conspiracy and the cover-up had become impossible to ignore.Right up until the day he did, though, it seemed as if he was going to get away with it and I graduated high school a hardened cynic.  I remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in English class and thinking that it didn’t seem far-fetched at all. Paranoia was the order of the day, to the point where even soap operas like “All My Children” used hidden tape recorders as plot devices.

Corruption in high places. Justice that is far from blind. Money running the show. Tell me something I didn’t already know.

jake

Unhappy endings? Funny thing. We used to be able to handle those in blockbuster movies.

Laura

The creepy parts of this picture are not what you’d expect. Yes, the murderer does sneak out of the kitchen at the end of the film, waving a gun at the heroine. But by the time he does this, we’ve seen him do worse. The way Clifton Webb’s character fawns over Laura, keeping tabs on her, chasing away all rivals, trying to get inside her head, to change her feelings: that’s scary!

Then there’s Dana Andrews’ character, the detective assigned to investigate Laura’s alleged murder. He ends up falling in love with her. If you can call it love. He goes through her drawers, practically sniffs her lingerie, hangs around in her apartment reading her diary and drinking her scotch. Laura calls him on it when she returns, then lets him haul her into the police station and interrogate her. Next thing you know, she’s in love with him.  That’s scary too!

Guess who comes off as the most affable of all Laura’s suitors? Vincent Price.

I’m not kidding. As the spoiled southern gentleman who was engaged to Laura before her alleged murder, he’s charming and has no illusions about himself. Suspecting that Laura killed the woman he was fooling around with in her apartment, he’s ready to sacrifice himself to keep her out of prison. Or, he’d like to be the sort of man who would do that, but maybe he’s not quite up to it? Or maybe Laura isn’t worth the sacrifice since it’s clear she doesn’t really love him.

The best noir shows people at their worst, and “Laura” gets to that place by the end. The story leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Too much honesty, yet it’s not quite enough to make you like these characters. All the performances are brilliant, pushing the boundaries of the genre but never over-the-top.

Sunset Boulevard

The dead monkey is the tip-off. William Holden has just arrived at Gloria Swanson’s estate and is mistaken for an undertaker by the butler. “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Erich von Stroheim tells him, directing the screenwriter upstairs to the has-been actress’s lair. A few scenes later, he watches the two of them burying the animal in the garden by candlelight. Cut to a pair of white-gloved hands playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on an ancient organ. This is the stuff of horror movies, dark territory, for sure:  perverse and unsettling.

Don’t look for a killer jumping out from behind the curtains with a knife. The creepiness here is Joe Gillis’s decline into dependency and self-loathing as he allows himself to be “kept” by the has-been actress. We’re all afraid of going there.  Giving up on our dreams, losing our integrity. Letting someone else call the shots, the person with the checkbook.

Early in the film, Joe corners his agent and begs for a loan. “I’m doing you a favor by not lending you the money,” the agent says. “When you’re hungry enough, you’ll write.” Ha!  Those are the words of someone who’s never starved. The sweet little script reader played by Nancy Olson nailed the problem early on. Joe’s screenplay is “flat and trite,” she says, “….a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Maybe he once had talent, she allows. “That was last year. This year, I’m trying to earn a living,” is his bitter retort.

Bitterness is the leitmotif of “Sunset Boulevard.” Long before Swanson shoots him, Holden’s character has died inside.  Norma Desmond may have been enfolded by her dream.  Joe Gillis was killed by his.

Angel Face

Bad women in B movies have to die. Usually they take some poor sucker down with them. Makes for a better story, a cautionary tale. But sometimes you can feel the director chafing against the constrictions.

That’s the case with “Angel Face,” Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Awesome camerawork, wonderful acting, and one hilarious line in the prison mental hospital where Simmons’s character has been committed after murdering her father and stepmother, with the presumed help of Mitchum’s character. Simmons is wealthy, and the family lawyer is determined to get her off, so he convinces her to wed Mitchum’s character right there in the ward. Mitchum resists; he’s really a decent sort, but no match for Simmons. Guy’s out of his depth.

So the Justice of the Peace pronounces them man and wife. Simmons is in bed, with Mitchum (under police guard) standing next to her. Off to the side, one of the lunatics applauds, then the camera pans to her and you see she’s carrying over a little wedding cake, trailed by another lunatic:

“There ain’t much we can say but, kid, we sure hope you beat the rap!”

I wish that irreverent spirit had been maintained throughout the film. Unfortunately, it grew more ponderous as it went on and by the end—which took ages to arrive—I was predicting that Simmons would kill both herself and Mitchum. It seemed like the only way out. Still, I was unprepared for the way she carried it off.

She had this sports car and she was supposed to be driving him to the bus station (he was leaving her). She brought along a bottle of champagne and two glasses. As he was opening the champagne, she reversed at high speed and backed them over a cliff.

Very satisfying.

The Third Man

It’s not difficult to understand what Anna saw in 3-the-third-manHarry Lime, the crooked American whose death is at the center of this film. Amid the ruined city of Vienna, the grim faces of its inhabitants, the climate of suspicion and paranoia that prevails throughout the occupied zones, regardless of which army is in charge, Harry stood out.  He never grew up, “the world grew up around him, that’s all,” Anna explains to Harry’s old friend, Holly Martins.  She refuses to face the truth:  that Harry’s black market dealing caused the deaths of countless children.  She prefers to hold onto her romantic illusions.

Can you blame her?  Three years after the Second World War ended, Europe — as embodied by the once shimmering cultural capital of Vienna — is bombed out, exhausted, physically and morally.  The grand ideals for which the war was fought are nowhere in evidence.  Freedom seems to be particularly lacking:  Holly is shadowed, manipulated and lied to, pushed around by the British occupiers, threatened by the black marketeers.

But there’s Harry, staging his own death to free himself from surveillance.  “He could fix things… [he knew] how to avoid this and that,” Holly says admiringly.  Holly himself is hopeless at fixing anything, barely able to look after himself in corrupt postwar Vienna.  Straightforward American integrity is a liability in this setting.  What’s needed is a clever liar like Harry.

And our first glimpse of him, sheltered in a doorway, unexpectedly illuminated by a streetlight, confirms the impression that he alone is at ease in the darkly-lit world. Look at how he’s smiling.

third-man

Seductive, the way he doesn’t let his guard down even when he knows you.  Even when you love him.  Irresistible to Anna, for sure.  I suspect that Harry Lime is Graham Greene’s alter ego. “I like to have a secret love affair, a hidden life.  Something to lie about,” the author of “The Third Man” once said.

Anything is possible from a man like that:  betrayal, certainly, but also excitement.  He gets his thrills from danger, and danger was everywhere in those days, but his zest for life keeps him one step ahead of the police.  Time and again you think he’s cornered during the dramatic chase in the sewers, but he manages to outwit his pursuers.  We see his fingers poking up through the grate the way a plant sends out new shoots.  Toward escape, toward the air.  Toward life.