A little over a week ago I caught The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Barbara Stanwyck playing the standard femme fatale role, which wasn’t nearly as effective as Double Indemnity (1944). I was a little disappointed, having her play opposite Wendell Corey who is not a natural lead actor. Leaving her to go into overdrive to make this slow burner of a film noir even begin to simmer. It never really comes to the boil. Tonight’s film however was a very different story, a massive improvement on the leading man with Burt Lancaster and a complete role reversal for Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), leaving me glued to the screen.
It’s great to see a screen veteran in Stanwyck able to play the damsel in distress still, even after 20 years on the screen, opposite up and coming Lancaster who is full of confidence clearly enjoying the chance to play opposite her. Even though characters are restricted by phone conversations and flashbacks that construct the film. Beginning with a stray connection, allowing bed-ridden socialite Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) who only wants to talk to her husband who left the office hours ago. We have little idea how strong a role the telephone will play in Sorry, Wrong Number. A mumbled conversation about a murder plot is over heard on a cross-wire – this isn’t even a shared line like the one found in Pillow Talk (1959), there’s no time for innuendo here. Wanting to do the right thing she’s back onto the operator to try and track down what is essentially an accidental connection.
She wants to reports the crime to the police, but has very little to go on, the time of a train, a New York street, not enough even for a detective to come out to her. Instead the station that took the call is more preoccupied with a baby. Law enforcement has been domesticated whilst shes crippled by an as yet unrevealed condition. We are left wondering how is she going solve this potential crime herself. It’s not like she’s living in a time when murders can be precisely predicted and prevented as in Minority Report (2002). Her only weapon is her phone. Watching this in a time where phones are now so much more than the basic communication device that connects one voice to another anywhere in the country, or even a distant part of the world. She has to rely on notes, memory and the accounts of those she calls. Building up a picture of what has happened, hopefully leading to a happy conclusion. Now we can use social media to broaden our reach, an audience less personal but able to make a bigger impact, then the killer might be stopped before times up.
I wanted to see both Lancaster and Stanwyck on-screen together, we only see this in flashback, understanding how they met and married. Using her position and money to attract Henry J. Stevenson (Lancaster) to marry her. Stanwyck plays a different of Femme fatale, not relying so much on her body and sex appeal, the lure of dangerous encounters. Her position and status are all that small town boy Henry needs, and someone being ignored to ensure they marry. A daddy’s girl who gets what she wants through her condition. A weak heart that could flare up at any minute to control the one she loves. We’ve moved away from simple marital manipulation to calm a situation down like Beulah Bondi in Vivacious Lady (1938) using an “a weak heart” for a simpler life. The wife in both situations is in control, stopping the husband in his tracks.
The flashbacks are the main way of building up the plot. We need to understand the garbled conversation. Who could be behind it. It takes an amateur bed-ridden detective with a phone racking up a massive phone bill to get to the bottom of this crime. One phone call her husbands secretary leads her in the direction of an old love rival Sally Ann Hunt (Ann Richards) who as we see plays detective, spying on her own husband, no-one can be trusted in this film. Wives can’t trust husband who don’t tell the truth or hold things back. It takes another conversation with her doctor Dr Phillip Alexander (Corey) who reveals her condition to be purely psychological, given the film a Freudian overtone, the mother from beyond the grave having a hold over her son-in-law.
All the conversations start to come together as we meet one of her fathers employees Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who adds the final piece of the puzzle that we have been trying to solve. It becomes even more complicated as a man trapped by marriage, wealth and all the trappings of his position, using them to plan his escape, calculated and cold until cracks begin to show. Leaving his wife alone in there home where she slowly looses her mind over the course of the film. A woman who once had all the control has lost everything, her independence, the care of the nurses, her husband and ultimately her life. A climax that leaves you wondering if she will be saved at the last minute, after all those calls, building up a case of confessions and evidence. If only she took the time to write it all down, its all if-only’s now. Left one one hell of a cliff-hanger.
Sorry, Wrong Number has been a film worth waiting for, the structure allows a plot to be told via technology rather than traveling around, the lead character visiting everyone as they carryout a physical investigation. Based instead entirely on her emotions, feelings running wild as she holds a phone receiver to her face. Ultimately it’s Stanwyck owns the film, bringing it into melodrama at times without loosing the darkness of the plot, a murder will be committed somewhere tonight, the only question is – whose the victim? She asks all these questions from the confines of her bedroom, slowly going mad with the help of some interesting crane and mirror shots, we really don’t know if she’s coming or going, it’s a real roller-coaster ride from start to finish.
On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.
Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capra’s Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.
Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.
With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves
It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.
All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about
‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?
“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.
“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10
A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.
I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.
The Haunted Past –
“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.
The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.
These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.
The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16
If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.
Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.
I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.
Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.
I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.
Until recently I’ve not seen a film noir for a long time, even longer since an Edward G. Robinson film, which itself is real treat. Sadly not from the 1930’s, yet to see one of those gems. I’ve had to settle for a Fritz Lang which really isn’t so bad after all. Scarlet Street (1945) a film I’ve been looking out for, along with Woman in the Window (1944), the later film a return of both director, actor and Joan Bennett another chance for her femme fatale to work her charms as she gets her claws into her unsuspecting victim. I can only respond to Scarlet Street which was a real slow burner, working it’s magic on me, drawing me into and under the spell of yet another unsuspecting victim as he goes on a downward spiral.
I can see how Robinson was drawn to this film, a lover and collector of art, this is an easy on-screen expression of that, the lengths that an aspiring artist would possibly go to for success. I’m not drawing comparisons between himself and I, but I can sympathise with him to a point. We see him being celebrated by his colleagues, a lifetime of loyal service as a cashier, a comfortable life however not completely happy however. Leaving him vulnerable to any woman who showed the slightest sign of affection or attention. A man who would naturally jump at that chance also a fallible human being. When Christopher Cross meets Katharine ‘Kitty’ March (Bennett) who is “saved” from a mugging’s encouraged to gain his confidence in order to get money out of him. Believing him to be a successful artist, of course these are boasts that are blown out of proportion, her own ignorance draws her into his own projection.
Both are projecting an image of themselves, one comes from the heart, another from a false place that has no emotional connection. Cold and calculating and manipulated by her boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) who is the real con man of the film. Pulling the strings through manipulation and abuse towards Kitty who may appear to take it without being affected by the control his has over her. The femme fatale is at the mercy of a male counterpart, a term that I can’t even coin for this review Princes role is very rare in the genre, seen more as an abusive lover.
Turning to Christopher again we have a character who is weak and soft, the very reverse of Robinson’s previous work. Maybe he too was tired of the hard roles like James Cagney wanting more emotional and vulnerable roles to get his acting chops around. I can’t help but think of his distinctive role in Double Indemnity (1944) Barton Keyes an insurance man who’s sure of his profession discovering he’s no longer at the top of his game when he works with the insecure and faltering partner Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who tries to fraud the company he works for, all for what he believes is in the name of love. Keyes world of certainty has crumbled around him, he can’t trust his colleague who he has known for years. The modern world of WWII is a far darker place than of a decade earlier, the lengths that customers may go to make a claim see Keyes start to question the world around him.
Robinson’s character a year later in Cross holds a lesser role of responsibility a cashier, it’s still a position of trusts brought into a world that is far different from his regular life. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who all but despises him. She sees him more as a lodger in the way, his painting a hobby that will get him nowhere. When his talents encouraged by his “lover” Kitty he comes alive, living a double life of husband and lover, he’s on fire in aspects of his life that he had long but given up on. Of course Johnny Prince is always lurking in the shadows, wanting to get as much money as he can out of Cross who reluctantly gives into this love-soaked demands for cash. Kitty an “actress” moves to a more expensive apartment, her lifestyle has to be supported if she is to maintain it. Of course it’s all a façade for what they both really want.
Of course this all sounds rather standard, even with a cowardly Robinson who even allows for his work to be accepted as the work of his lover. He can no longer look forward to fulfilling his dreams of being a successful artist in his own right. Giving up one dream for another to make another possible. Is he mad or just human as he sees his work being celebrated yet looking on from the sidelines, unwittingly creating his masterpiece her “self-portrait”. It’s hard to watch him loose grip of his dream, giving more than just his money, his creative control, his dignity, his job and ultimately his sanity. He loses more than what he hoped to gain.
It’s a depressing decline that we hope would never happen, how can our hero of countless films become just another human being before our eyes. The artist in me wanted to shout to him, to take back what is rightly his time, his fortune and glory, to be celebrated, not another overlooked talent taken advantage of. Lowering himself to commit worse crimes than both Kitty and Johnny who wanted on his money, he takes something far more valuable. It is however a work all of his own, committed in the moment that again only he knows who the true artist is which is even more torturous for him. Ultimately none of his work will ever be credited to him by others except all of us who can look passively on.
An experimental short video that explored over-lapping footage onto filmed footage. Using a scene from Double Indemnity (1944) Dir, Wilder and a cardboard set that allowed the characters to move around another environment.