Hour of The Gun (1967)

The story is as old as the mythology of the West. You cannot avoid tales of Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 and the famed Gunfight at The O.K. Corral. John Ford covered the events most famously in My Darling Clementine headlined by Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, and Walter Brennan in the title roles.

A generation later, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up to do their version. And the lineage runs a lot wider and deeper than this. It leaves one to wonder how many ways you can retell the same story with the same central characters.

Director John Sturges answers the question almost immediately by doing away with the one scene that this whole mythology effectively hinges on. The movie opens with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which feels more like a glorified street fight, done in seconds, with Clanton standing by and unharmed by the events at hand. Whether it plays more to the timber of actual history or not, it sets a precedent and recontextualizes everything we must relearn about these legendary figures of the West.

The men who play them are more than up to the task because of what they bring to the characterizations. Their names should be familiar. James Garner. Jason Robards. Robert Ryan. They are featured prominently in the title credits like figures on the marquee.

There might be some questions of where the movie might possibly go from here because it quickly disposes of its most “climactic moment,” underwhelming or not. Still, there manages to be a story built off the foundations of this inciting incident.

It becomes part courtroom drama momentarily, then it’s a town-wide conspiracy against the Earp brothers, and it finally turns deadly when they are ambushed with shotguns in the dead of night. The bloody gunfights and surreptitious ambushes are quickly deliberated over in the very same courtroom. There’s a kind of legal impasse.

Ryan always managed to be a fine villain, and it’s no different here. He plays Clanton as a shrewd businessman with most of the town on his payroll including sheriffs, public prosecutors, and a bevy of wanted gunmen (including a young Jon Voight). Though he never pulls the trigger himself, he has many minions in his pocket prepared to do his bidding. It’s a lot more convenient since he has the money to spend.

Hour of the Gun also feels like a western straddling two generations. Garner and Robards represent it well. Garner’s Maverick and to some extent his Local Sheriff put a different spin on the western genre as a kind of anti-western star, at least compared to the James Arness or Chuck Connors archetypes.

And Jason Robards, who only a year later would find his way into Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti opera Once Upon a Time in The West, is equally adept in such an environment. He can be rugged and tough but not without a kind of wry sense of humor and intuition. We like them both for who they are. First, as performers and then as two of the West’s most prominent figures: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday respectively.

Lucien Ballard was a Hollywood veteran with saddlebags full of movie credits including many entries shooting his wife and leading lady Merle Oberon. Jerry Goldsmith takes on scoring duties with work that observes the purview of the West while reminding us of his crucial role in future New Hollywood and blockbuster hits.

It’s curious how the movie hews closer to history, and it looks to dispel myth and tell a version of the tale that feels more like a procedural. In some ways, it is a more modern expression of the western, though John Sturges is not in the Eastwood, Peckinpah, or even Leone school.

He was actually the very same man who helmed The Gunfight at The O.K. Corral with Lancaster and Douglas. But this is hardly a reworking in the way Howard Hawks remade Rio Bravo multiple times. Rather it feels like Sturges is intent on telling the tale with different terms more to his liking.

Initially, it builds off the legacy of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape where there’s something honest and sure about its telling, but it’s not gun shy. There’s still a sense of violence and ambiguity in other ways. Because hypocrisy exists in a world where as long as men have warrants and badges or they are fighting wars, killing is legalized. In all other contexts, it’s not permissible.

It becomes so easy to bend the rules either in service of good and often in the service of evil. Hour of The Gun ultimately is quick to distance itself from the comfortable morality of earlier westerns. This too is a bridge to its future brethren in the genre.

Doc is the man who ultimately assembles the troops; it’s a sequence we know well and somehow Sturges’s best films always captured this brand of male camaraderie — the kind of scenes that little boys of a certain generation aspired to. Getting together with their friends to fight the baddies. There’s still a sense of good fun and the kind of innocent naivete the western used to breed. Though it never amounts to anything.

It all comes down to Wyatt Earp and his personal vendettas. Garner shows a ferocity and a simmering rage that’s rare in him or at least he hides it well often through down-home charm or a coward’s prerogative. Here he’s driven by a sense of justice for the deaths of his brothers. He’s not squeamish when it comes to searching it out either.

The ending could not be a further departure from its predecessors. It feels like the dilapidated, windswept ruins and facades in pictures like Vera Cruz or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid where the classic western modality goes to die in some sense.

Wyatt finally completes his search for Clayton and comes face-to-face with the man who was so very hard to find. Doc and some bandits stand by testily as Earp flips his badge to his friend, signaling this is a personal action not enacted under the letter of the law.

It’s a quick, unsentimental climax, but it stays true to the opening depiction of the O.K. Corral. I would not hasten to say it’s realistic as much as it gives a more murky and unembellished version of the story. Still, whether he meant to or not, Sturges effectively revises one of the most quoted American myths adding yet another complicating footnote to how we come to understand it. All other things considered, from the imagery to this commitment to a raw account of history, Garner and Robards are still the ones who make the picture.

3.5/5 Stars

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

It’s initially intriguing to have a western pairing of Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark, rather like what we get out of Warlock from Henry Fonda and Widmark the year after. My estimation of the dashing ’30s matinee idol has refined over time as he matured into such worthwhile westerns as The Devil’s Doorway, Westward The Women, and even Saddle the Wind.

Here again, Taylor holds the mantle as the inscrutable, no-nonsense lead and Widmark falls back into his role as a merciless reprobate, prone to all sorts of aggression. What’s more, there’s something delightfully skeezy about his voice. He slips into it so seamlessly playing a kindred of Tommy Udo or any of his more reprehensible characters.

The premise is set up immediately with a brazen jailbreak — one man comes in for his pal — and then they shoot their way out of town toward freedom. However, it quickly becomes more complicated. Jake Wade (Taylor) and Clint Hollister (Widmark) are not so much friends as former acquaintances.

This is merely an act of reciprocation because when they raided the Yankees during the Civil War, they formed an uneasy alliance, out of necessity, before eventually parting ways. If they don’t entirely hate each other’s guts, then at the very least they’re deeply mistrustful.

It’s even more curious when Jake returns to his current life. He’s a town’s marshall. How do you make sense of him? In one moment he commits a brazen act of jailbreak, and yet in another, he sits behind a desk in a decent, sleepy town holding a position of repute. Here the noir element is made evident — the way a dark past always comes back to haunt the protagonist and the life he’s tried to make for himself.

In the meantime, the imagery and more specifically the snow-covered mountains are an awesome backdrop and something only the western landscape affords. Jake also is keeping company with a pretty gal. Patricia Owens reminds me a bit of Julie London, mousier but deeply sensible. Her requests make sense, but her man can’t tell her his misgivings without dredging up unwanted memories.

Because Widmark is the force out of his past he can never totally get rid of. We wonder why he pulled him out of prison. It might come down to some moral prerogative, but it feels a lot like letting the monkey out of the cage so it can end up on your back again.

The old gang moves in and Taylor is taken prisoner with the sole purpose of leading them back to a cache of gold pieces he buried in some forsaken town years before. The journey is long and arduous and the callous Clint makes his old partner do it with his hands tied behind his back. He’ll give him a horse, but he doesn’t trust him with more. If you give him an inch, there’s no telling what will happen.

Deforrest Kelly never quite does it for me as one of the heavies — though he’s quite a psychotic hulk in Warlock. Of all the sidekicks, Henry Silva has real umbrage and a chip on his shoulder, coming off smug and vaguely dangerous.

However, in its best moments, it really becomes a fitting inverse of The Naked Spur held aloft by the two central performances dueling it out. The bad guy is the one holding the reins and dictating the story while our hero and his girlfriend are under his watchful eye as they go on the hunt for the buried treasure. The tension rides with them every moment of their trek.

When Widmark skirts off to catch the Native scouts that bode trouble, there’s a fear something will be lost in the movie. We stay back with the others as they wait it out in the ghost town, and it feels mostly stagnant. The dynamic brought by Taylor opposite Widmark is momentarily relinquished.

In its wake, there’s a run-of-the-mill shoot ’em-up Indian barrage. I couldn’t help but compare it with the shootout in Man of the West also preoccupied with a ghost town. However, whereas that film has Cary Cooper and a mythos about it like a knowing predecessor to Sergio Leone’s stylized showdowns, Jake Wade feels mostly unspectacular. It’s a shame because the film packages together a handful of worthwhile performances and tangible menace in fits and starts.

3/5 Stars

Time Limit (1957)

Time Limit sounds like it should be the title of a syndicated TV program or at least a game show in the heyday of family entertainment. It is not. The themes are heavy, and there’s a weight behind the picture that means something. And in spite of the clunky title, it bears testament to the main players both behind and in front of the camera.

Like his acting compatriot, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden only ever directed one full feature-length picture. Here it is before us, and you can see his sensibilities in it if only because it does stand for something. There is a purpose to it.

Although we never even see the inside of the courtroom, it still reminded me nominally of Man in The Middle with Robert Mitchum solely due to the scale. They both seem to rely on performance and actors who are up to the task.

Time Limit hones in on an investigation into a potential court-martial of a major who looks to have caved to Communist ideology and committed acts of treason against his men and his country in a North Korean POW camp.

Richard Widmark, as the producer and one of the primary architects, is the anchor of the movie as the primary officer — a clear-minded Colonel — called upon to compile the details of the case.

But it is really Richard Basehart with the most complicated, ever-shifting role. It’s easy to sleep on him because of his stint in Europe, and he was never intent on being a movie star. And yet over a serpentine career, he left a trail of memorable noir (He Walked by Night, Tension), arthouse classics (La Strada), and mostly forgotten dramas like Reign of Terror or Fourteen Hours.

Because Time Limit functions mostly as a character piece albeit laced with flashbacks and ratcheted with tension. The ensemble itself is made up of a handful of others. General Connors is the Colonel’s immediate superior, and he’s pushing for a quick court-martial. He doesn’t want the boys to suffer through any more trauma. Although he’s not a totally unlikeable fellow, he does have a very concrete way of thinking. It’s abrasive, to say the least.

If you’ve read me before, you know I have a soft spot for Martin Basalm, and it started with movies like 12 Angry Men and Psycho and steadily built over time. He’s just so versatile while never losing his personal DNA as a performer.

Time Limit finds him on the more irksome spectrum as a busybody rat fink, who always has a way of divulging information to interested parties, much to Widmark’s displeasure. But for every tattletale by Sergeant Baker, there’s a supreme act of loyalty by the faithful and whipsmart corporal Jean Evans (Dolores Michaels). If we were to codify the movie purely between good and bad, she is one of the movie’s unsung heroes.

But they must also have witnesses — people with first-hand knowledge of the case — both personal and otherwise. An almost unrecognizable Rip Torn is a clean-cut, fresh-faced member of the unit who was there in the POW camp when the Major turned. Mrs. Cargil (June Lockhart) has a much different point of view because she still can’t believe the debilitating change that has come over her husband. It’s not like him. Something else is going on under the surface.

The score rages too much for my liking, but for what it is Time Limit plays quite well. The General starts breathing down Edwards’ neck — with personal interest invested — his son was one of those killed in the camp. It certainly cannot be discounted. Then, there are these very particular repetitions in the many testimonies (describing factors like acute dysentery). Something does not add up because everything lines up almost too perfectly.

More than anything, it does feel like Malden makes his actors look good. I’m thinking of a particular scene where Widmark is absent. Basalm leads Basehart into the office to wait but then prepares to ambush him and give him a piece of his mind. Michaels makes sure she is present to moderate, but first Basalm leans over his superior in his chair. Then, the close-ups cut back and forth between him and Ms. Evans as they have at it.

The tension in the sequence is palpable because the scene is blocked and covered in such a way that we feel the entire essence of what is going on. The visuals not only augment the performances but also the emotions underlying the sequence.

Winston Churchill is cited as saying, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies. Widmark turns these words on their head because he says, “Truth can be more rotten, more vicious, and destructive than any lie.” Within the context of this move, he’s right.

Like Act of Violence, it becomes a film of making sense of a clouded past under circumstances the offenders are not proud of. The General invokes an unbreakable code for all his men — even his son — a code that must be adhered to with unswerving resolve. It’s a graceless proposition that no one can stand up to. Because for the hundreds of days men are heroes, there’s always going to be a few where they falter.

The question remains how do we canonize others? Is it at their most cowardly and despicable or at their very best? For those paying attention, the irony in the General’s final convictions should not be lost on us, “The Code is our Bible, and I thank God for it.”

If you’ll allow me one final digression, a book that’s pierced me to the core is Silence by Shusaku Endo. It is about Catholic priests, not soldiers, but they face a similar conundrum: the desire to attain some sort of martyrdom. However, what if someone is forced to face the ultimate ignominy instead? Each must struggle and make peace with a world that will openly disdain them, and that is a tough pill to take for any person.

3.5/5 Stars

Backlash (1956)

Only in a western could we meet our protagonists in a sand trap known as Gila Valley. It says everything you need to know about the Arizona landscape, and then the sweeping Technicolor tones say a bit more.

Richard Widmark is easy enough to place as an enigmatic figure. There’s a glint in his eyes, and we know from his pedigree he’s capable of playing shifty. The true pleasure is watching Donna Reed — because she becomes very much his equal — another sturdy customer with her own personal agenda.

It feels so very unaccustomed for the woman who played Mary Bailey and anchored her own family comedy. Then, again, the edges of From Here to Eternity are not too far in the past. It’s hard to forget what she did there across from Monty Clift.

The movie gets its legs when a man takes a shot at Jim Slater (Widmark) from the rocky crags above. He thinks he’s been a mark. The woman, Karyl Orton, was trying to play him, and he nearly fell for it. Leaving her behind, he scurries to the rockface to have it out with his enemy on the high ground.

Backlash is a constant exhibition in deciphering characters’ intentions. Because as an audience we are thrown into the action and asked to follow what’s going on. She’s searching for some gold, and he asks us to believe his interests are purely in his father who disappeared in the territory.

Although it’s adapted from source material, it does feel reminiscent of some of Borden Chase’s other patented efforts with a craggy showdown reminiscent of Winchester 73′ (1950). Thematically, John Sturges’s turn as director also proves a decent facsimile of some of Mann’s best westerns where the blending of psychological duress, perturbing imagery, and in-your-face action strings out the story into a taut state of tension.

It’s easy to become genuinely immersed in the first act with a fleeing stagecoach looking to cut across the open plains with Indians in hot pursuit. As they fall back, they’re forced to hold down an isolated trading post against the onslaught of marauders.

Unfortunately, all this buildup feels a bit too convenient. Because Slater searches for a seasoned soldier named Lake (Barton MacLane), who was a part of the detail that found the dead bodies that were left behind in an earlier massacre. In serendipitous Hollywood fashion, the old man keels over from a battle wound, just before divulging the remnants of what he remembers of a “6th man.” Surely he is the key to the movie, and Slater has been propelled forward.

If we can stop for a moment to acknowledge them, Backlash has a couple doozy bits of casting with the normally maniacal heavy Jack Lambert playing a sniveling Indian trader. Then, Harry Morgan, in a role reversal, takes on the role of a squat, no-nonsense heavy out to hunt Slater with his big brother. Because Slater killed their sibling.

But if there was any doubt in the red-hot chemistry of our primary stars, it sizzles while Reed brandishes a knife to cauterize the gunman’s most recent injury. It is a movie moment made for the big screen audience if there ever was such a thing. This smoldering passion and growing relationship are nearly enough to salvage the picture in its slower ebbs as they continue their search for answers.

In the end, they split the thread pretty thin between the two of them. It can only go one of two ways. Either the man he’s looking to find is her long-lost husband, a corrupt man, or it’s his own father — a man he’s never known a thing about. We must wait to discover the answer.

But the factions in the buildup are interesting. Our protagonists meet a man named Major Carson (Roy Roberts), who runs a local ranch. He seems like a pragmatic, sensible sort of fellow, and he’s got a range war on his hands thanks to a man named Bonniwell (John Mcintire).

One hotheaded sharpshooter (William Campbell) goes turncoat, and there are still thugs looking for Slater to gun him down in an act of retribution. The local sheriff (Robert Foulk) aims to remain impartial in all of this while still maintaining some manner of civility. He’s not concerned with private vendettas, only some semblance of local law and order. Widmark quickly gets tossed into the jailhouse, effectively sidelining him and leaving him incapable of exerting any influence on either side.

I won’t spell out the final act because that’s part of the fun of the picture, watching it unfold. There’s a dog-eat-dog mentality; it’s about family, but it never stops being a picture founded on Richard Widmark and Donna Reed. If you’re curious about seeing them together, that’s a good enough reason as any to invest in this western from an often underrated craftsman.

3.5/5 Stars

Autumn Leaves (1956)

You might not immediately connect Joan Crawford and Nat King Cole, but his brand of velvet crooning provides a fine backdrop (and namesake) for Autumn Leaves. It presents the consummate leading lady with a lighter more congenial personality — the kind of Joan Crawford who seems easier to connect with.

She’s known for her typing speed, working from home before it was en vogue, and banging out manuscripts for thankful clients. Although she leads a solitary existence alone, she’s buddy-buddy with her landlady and seems generally contented with life. When she goes out to a show or dinner, she’s comfortable going alone — it doesn’t feel foreign to her — and she enjoys her time in solitude.

There’s a moment in Autumn Leaves as Crawford sits in an audience, the lights go out so the spotlight is only on her, and the pianist on the stage takes her back into her memories. It felt so reminiscent of a scene in Penny Serenade where music, whether live or on vinyl somehow fills up the human heart and carries with it so many easily-tapped emotions.

“Autumn Leaves” feels less like a gimmick to cash in on the season’s newest love song, and it starts to pervade and then slowly suffuse throughout the entire movie until it becomes the tactful accent to almost every scene of the ensuing romance.

Because this all feels like a prelude. We have yet to meet our other primary player. Cliff Robertson was from the east coast and an actor forged out of his training at the Actor’s Studio. He’s still fresh-faced and Autumn Leaves was his second truly substantial movie role after the movie adaptation of Picnic with William Holden.

When he steps into the bustling restaurant and eyes Milly in the one booth with an extra seat, he makes his way over. There’s a disarming approachability about him. It starts to melt the ice and break down the barriers between him and his new acquaintance. Partially because there’s no threat to him though he’s still good-looking. Rather you feel like you can get to know the guy and like him. And she does.

They spend time together, going out more and even taking day trips. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and yet I hesitate to use these terms because it makes it sound mercenary. In the most innocent ways, they just enjoy one another’s company, and it shows.

The former Army veteran shows off his beach body on one outing chasing Milly into the waves. He feels like a movie creation. Can Joan Crawford have her own version of a 1950s manic pixie dream boy? But this is only a momentary suggestion. He becomes more of a person in the ensuing scenes. When she prods him about his old girlfriends, he shrugs them off. “Young people are too young for me,” he says.

If they do seem like an odd couple, they aren’t totally unprecedented. Because while loneliness is not a foundational reason to get married, it’s true we need each other. Burt believes that sometimes you meet someone and you know; they provide something you are lacking. I’m reluctant to say they complete you. Still, maybe with someone else’s hand to hold, it makes the world just a little less lonely and the pain a little less galling. Milly loves him and after minor reservation, falls into his arms for better or for worse.

They have a bit of marital bliss below the border, and yet something starts happening. Burt lets bits of his biography slip. All very matter-of-factly and there’s nothing guileful about it; it feels innocent enough, but she begins to realize they don’t match up. First his hometown, then his military service, and there are other discrepancies.


Then, Vera Miles shows up on her doorstep as a manifestation of all her sinking fears about Burt. His insinuating father (Lorne Green) is next to appear. There was a time when the movie could have easily been Joan Crawford’s Middle of The Night. Instead, she becomes devastated by the newfound revelations about her husband, and then must become protectorate shielding her love from the unfeeling world all but ready to exacerbate his condition.

She’s ready to battle for him. If it’s not righteous anger then it’s certainly indignant anger. She sees people for who they really are and calls them on it. Whatever Burt’s shortcomings, he has everyday, common decency. Her maledictions against the character of others might seem excessive (“Your filthy souls are too evil for hell itself”), and yet she’s not entirely wrong. If nothing else, she’s lashing out as a defense mechanism.

However, she’s also caught in the most excruciating of conundrums — one of those scenarios where it seems you are required to do something against your nature out of the deepest sense of sacrificial love, even if it’s not perceived as such. Her deepest longings are for Burt to be born again — that he might live a new, better life than he had before. It leaves the door open for another outcome. It’s very possible if he overcomes his illness, he might come out on the other side as a man who wouldn’t need her anymore. It’s either keep him for herself or watch him return to a happy, normal life (without her).

In the meantime, Burt isn’t getting better. In fact, his circumstances are far worse, and so Crawford is stirred to action. One of the film’s more pronounced shots is of Crawford as she reaches for the phone and resolves to make the fateful call. The low angle makes her loom large in the frame, not so much in a threatening way, but expressing just how much magnitude this moment is imbued with. Her eyes flicker slightly, this way and that, before she speaks into the receiver. There is no turning back.

Whether it’s purely a credit to the scenario, the direction, or the winsomeness of Crawford, I’ve never felt so devastated for her before. She’s put through the emotional wringer, not from noir tension or antagonism, but the kind of burden cutting deep and breaking your heart in the most tender of ways. She’s rarely been more sympathetic and her fortitude is easy to admire.

The final moments are quick, but that is not to say they aren’t pregnant with meaning. The couple is reunited, and I will leave the rest up to you to experience. Robertson and Crawford make the movie work, and this whole story hangs in the balance of their rapport. They weather both the mundane and the melodrama together. It’s pleasantly captivating watching them.

4/5 Stars

Sudden Fear (1952)

I had no prior knowledge of what Sudden Fear was about, and I was relatively taken aback to see a film set during a stage rehearsal. You have your lead actor in the middle of a passionate soliloquy. This is Jack Palance getting a go at a more substantial role. Then, there’s the writer and authoritative creative mind behind his current material: Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford).

They are immediately at odds because she proposes to give him the axe and being the artistic force that she is, she makes the decision stick. He’s not her idea of a true romantic lead. This level of occupational animosity feels like a portent for something to come — what it is exactly we don’t know yet.

It starts out fairly innocuous when the writer and actor reunite. It’s quite by chance. They get awfully chummy on a train to San Francisco cutting through the awkwardness to play poker and share a drink together. The story trades the New York atmosphere for the West coast and with new geography comes new developments in their story together.

Her rejection of his casting was nothing personal, and she grows fond of him. He in turn gets brought into her life little by little. One moment in her office, he’s caught up in the swells of her poetry and speaks it back to her through a fancy dictaphone.

Crawford’s reaction shots are evocative, on the verge of something as if she’s just about ready to run over to him for an embrace. She’s been moved, but the dividing line between reality and fiction, or at least stage acting, is not something a writer should so easily confuse. Still, emotions get muddled.

What follows are interludes of pure ebullient joy appropriate for a budding couple. It’s hard to describe but amid all of this, there is also a mild sense of unease. The feeling is perfectly encapsulated by the moment when the newlyweds trek down to the water’s edge together only for the man to say just how dangerous the drop below looks to him. It’s something for us to put away for later consideration.

It seems apropos that the introduction of Gloria Grahame would almost instantly act as an augur of total noir. Suddenly, the movie has its twist toward the shady and undesirable. It’s the shift one waits for and relishes just the same. And this is just the beginning.

Some part of me wants to proclaim Sudden Fear the crowning achievement of the woman in peril subgenre or at least the greatest of the San Francisco iterations, though there are others like House on Telegraph Hill (I’m conveniently leaving Vertigo out since it’s mostly from the male perspective). Regardless, it has to do with laying the dramatic groundwork as well as fully utilizing the reputation preceding Joan Crawford.

Because Grahame and the scorned Palance not only know each other, they have a history, and Myra Hudson is a part of their plans. However, it hinges on the dramatic irony. Their target finds out what’s going on.

Voices amplified and booming out into the open space sends her back peddling against the walls in sheer horror. It’s her slice of domestic bliss being totally annihilated in one instant. Then in her distress, she loses her one shred of definitive evidence. From there we’re sucked into her dilemma as all rationality quickly evaporates. We don’t have time to care.

Obviously, everything in the movie is between actors; this is not reality. However, it’s intriguing to think about how the level of performance shifts. Palace is playing an actor, but then Crawford finds out his true intentions, now she must put on a performance of her own and so they are both playing parts within the movie to satisfy one another. The question remains who will break first in this charade. Because it must end at some point.

If you care about spoilers, my discussion of Sudden Fear might be a letdown, but for me, it feels like a picture wrought with tension more than relying on secret keeping. This is how we can make sense of it and appreciate all its mechanisms working on us as an audience. It’s so important for these women in peril movies that there is some level of identification or at least empathy for our lead. In this case, Crawford.

The whole ordeal weighs on her because she’s not trained to be an actor, and yet she takes to her role whether it’s snooping around an apartment or touching up her penmanship. Her final performance is almost as premeditated as any crime might be, and there’s some pleasure in watching it play out.

There are an array of these subtle intricacies executed in front of us for our viewing pleasure. A brief glance. A note left in a glove. The emblematic shot is the shadow of a clock hand swinging like a metronome across Crawford’s incomparable face. There’s an inevitability of what’s coming next…

I’ll double down on my early championing of Sudden Fear as a superlative woman in peril movie. However, my reasoning developed a new layer. What makes this movie particularly thrilling is not the fact Crawford is set up solely as a victim. Actresses whom I admire like Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly all faced similar fates in the movies.

The difference here is how Crawford takes matters into her own hands, not just in a last-ditch struggle for survival or a convenient turn of events. She’s prepared to end others just as coolly as they wanted to end her. I’m not sure if it’s believable, but it’s a stunning transformation nonetheless. We must also recognize this is not really who she is. Her core humanity is made very plain.

Only after the fact with some space do we recognize the vortex of this entire story. There are no policemen or your typical authoritative experts. No helpers. Bruce Bennett and Virginia Huston are no use (even future P.I. Mike Connors is negligible).

It’s really a cat-and-mouse game with three characters and no innocent bystanders. Sudden Fear feels lean and gaunt because the thrills are directed very intensely and there’s not a lot of expositional fluff. That’s what the introduction was for. In the end, it’s pure noir drama with a kind of blistering doom.

4/5 Stars

Joan Crawford: Possessed, The Damned Don’t Cry, Harriet Craig

In our ongoing exploration of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s filmographies, here are three more films building on Crawford’s renewed critical success in the 1940s after Mildred Pierce (1945) and Humoresque (1946).

Possessed (1947)

Possessed opens with Joan Crawford wandering the city streets past cable cars and hamburger joints with a far-off look in her eyes. Although I should briefly clarify this is Possessed from 1947 (as the actress made an earlier movie with the same title). The unknown woman is searching for a man named David, and instantly we have the pretext for our story.

There’s a  wonderful extended POV shot of Crawford being wheeled into the hospital as she is overtaken by a catatonic stupor, and the doctors try to piece together what to do for her and who she is.

If they’re in the dark, then we at least learn a little bit more about her. David (Van Heflin) was a man in her former life, in love with a piano and a parabola but not ready to marry her. He doesn’t want to be tied down and his ambitions lie in his work and a job up in Canada.

She’s obsessed and crazed with him, and the thought of him leaving her forever. Instead, she resigns herself to a life with her employer (Raymond Massey) who has lost his wife and has sent his kids away to school.  Crawford’s not a villain, but how this relationship blooms, there’s another obvious reference point. It’s apparent how the movie blends and finds itself at the crossroads of Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce.

As her mental instability takes over, it’s almost as if a scene from Mildred Pierce is playing out in her head as she duels with a vitriolic stepdaughter. However, while this feels more like a facsimile of the prior’s year success, it’s really Hefflin who steals the picture’s other half.

Because Possessed finds Hefllin at his most caddish and cold (“My liver rushes in where angels dare to tread”). He has wit like Johnny Eager, but he’s also willing to run roughshod over Crawford without any amount of remorse. He’s a hedonistic, self-serving creature, and it only becomes more evident when the impressionable Carol (Geraldine Brooks) gets drawn in by his casual wiles.

They get married and Louise becomes more paranoid and hallucinatory by the hour. This movie is bookended by her descent into mental turmoil, and it’s hard not to laud Crawford for her genuine alacrity for the part making the rounds of psych wards and facilities just so she could provide greater authenticity. No matter what feels antiquated to our modern sensibilities, the movie is worthwhile for her performance, which seems to come in sharper relief with each subsequent layer of her ever-shifting personality.

3.5/5 Stars

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

The film’s title was ripped from a Eugene O’Neil quote, and it gets at the poetic essence of the movie more than its particulars. When a racketeer’s carcass is found ditched near a desert resort, it sets off alarm bells and triggers a search for a missing oil heiress played by Joan Crawford.

The impetus of her entire existence in the film is summed up in a single scene of definitive exposition.  She lives alongside her husband, parents, and their little boy near the oil fields where her husband works. It’s a meager life. They can’t afford pleasure. And so when she splurges to get their son a bright new bicycle, her agitated husband (Richard Egan) tells her to take it right back.

The bike effectively becomes a vehicle for their marital conflict since they are scrimping and saving just to make ends meet. However, it’s also a token of tragedy in Ethel’s life searing her with wounds she will never forget. She leaves her past behind to make a new life for herself as an individual because her corner of familial bliss looks to be dead.

As the story progresses, it feels like a bit of a throwback for Crawford from the ’30s and her days as a driven working girl making a go of it. She learns quickly how to play the game to get ahead, modeling and then doing some overtime with out-of-town buyers after hours.

Then, she literally meets a man, a CPA (Kent Smith), at the water cooler. She winds up sprawled out on his desk asking for a cigarette and making his acquaintance with her self-assured flirtations. She has some misguided notions about his importance and yearly take-home pay. Either that or she confuses her acronyms.

In other words, he hardly has the money to bankroll the evening he has unwittingly been escorted to. Still, she goes to bat for him putting Martin in contact with some of her other “friends.” It starts out with the men discussing business together behind closed doors with Lorna left in the drawing room withing for their return. It feels oddly uncharacteristic because we know Crawford will get into that room eventually (and most likely dominate it).

George Castleman (David Brian) is the kingpin at the top, an elegant self-made mobster fascinated by art and antiquities. He’s trying to keep his cronies in check, the most headstrong of the bunch being Steve Cochran, who’s running the racket out in California. This is not Martin’s world, but Ethel has gotten him into it, and for the time being it’s lucrative enough.

But with her innate ambitions, Crawford’s character always has her sights set on the next prize. With the help of the society pages, she turns herself into the newly-minted heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes.  Going forward, the movie blends the world of some of Crawford’s Pre-Code working-class drams with that of 711 Ocean Dr., another ’50s film concerned with wires, bookies, mob influence, and of course, California desert getaways.

Here it’s a more hands-on approach. For most of the film, Cochran waits in the wings brooding, but he gets his moment in California with some filming even taking place at Frank Sinatra’s own home made up in mid-century modern. Crawford has them all. The whole crux of the drama is composed of these spokes radiating out of Joan Crawford leading to four men who are attached to her at different times.

It gets so overblown and preposterous, and yet you can’t quite look away because the dilemma is made plain. She’s ingratiated herself with so many people to get what she wants, and since she’s caught between so many options, for the first time in her life, she’s not sure what to choose.

Everything must succumb to a bombastic round of Production Code comeuppance where all retribution is neatly doled out and moral ambiguity is left to languish. It makes for a hearty round of theatrics but also a minor disappointment. Because we’ve seen these tactics used in this kind of forced storytelling so many times before. Still, you can’t take the film’s title away. It’s one for the ages. Moreover, Crawford seems more than worthy of it.

3.5/5 Stars

Harriet Craig (1950)

“How many ways do you lie Harriet?” – Wendell Corey

In Harriet Craig, Joan Crawford plays the quintessential domineering lady of the manor. Before we even see her onscreen she has her whole staff in a tizzy as she rushes off on a last-minute visit to her sickly mother. If we can make an early observation, she’s a bit beastly.

Wendell Corey makes her stand out all the more thanks to his free and easy charm as her husband. He’s rarely been more likable playing gin rummy with the elderly Mrs. Fenwick, a woman of good humor and a light in her eye.

As Crawford’s opening perfectionism slowly burns off or at least is put aside, Harriet Craig somehow gives off the sense of an early sitcom of the era. It has to do with the setting and the world — the way the spouses interplay — and it doesn’t seem like the scenario could possibly boil over into something cataclysmic.

At first, Harriet feels nitpicky and fastidious. These aren’t negative qualities on their own per se, and her husband coaxes out brief moments of good humor. However, it becomes evident how deeply manipulative she really is.

Suddenly Harriet Craig becomes a blatant subversion of the portrait of post-war suburban bliss. Walter is offered a job to work with the company over in Japan. It’s a big promotion, and he’s elated. Harriet finds ways to derail this threatening source of change.

She drops a few intimating remarks to keep her orphaned cousin (K.T. Stevens) and her husband where they can serve her best. She gets snider by the day trying to preserve her life under glass.

One of the few who sees through her is the perceptive housekeeper Mrs. Harold, who has faithfully shared Walter’s family for years, but recognizes just how much Harriet is a canker. Her household is all a sham cultivated by its primary architect: Harriet.

Eventually, her pyramid of well-orchestrated deceit begins to tumble as all her half-lies and casual mistruths are found out. In all her neurotic pride, she’s prepared to rot in that house. The irony of the picture is how she’s tried to control everything — she’s particular about every iota of that place — and now that she’s made her own mausoleum, she has to lie down in it. That home is all she has.

I’ve never ventured to watch Mommie Dearest, and far be it from me to pry the fact from fiction, but part of me wants to know how the core faults of Crawford’s character were indicative of her real self. Part of me likes to believe she intuitively made the role into something that resonated with her, whether she fully recognized it or not.

3/5 Stars

Humoresque (1946): John Garfield and Joan Crawford

The manner in which Garfield is lit in the opening scene is striking. We don’t know the reason yet, but there’s a prevailing angst and discontentment spelled out over his face. It sets the tone for the rest of Jean Negulesco’s swelling drama Humoresque.

I’m not sure if it’s curious or not how John Garfield, the man who made a break for himself with Golden Boy on the stage, did a boxing movie — a story of brawn — and then did a violin picture — one focused on art. It’s as if he broke off in both directions thereafter because these are the two dualities at the core of Clifford Odett’s original work.

At first, I didn’t know who wrote Humoresque, but these themes made it ridiculously simple. Yes, Odett obviously wrote this too. It inhabits the same world and gives Garfield a similar context — one that he knows firsthand.

On one fateful birthday, Paul (Robert Blake) wants a violin. His father (J. Caroll Naish) holds firm and won’t buy it for him, but he’s not a bad man. Just a poor shop owner. However, his mother (Ruth Nelson) wants to cultivate her son’s talents opting to buy him the extravagant present in the hopes he will make good. Instead of playing ball, he stays home and practices, eventually growing into his own. He literally turns into John Garfield.

At first, Oscar Levant featuring in this movie feels a bit like Hoagy Carmichael in the Best Years of Our Lives. They don’t necessarily fit with the continuity of the drama, but we have enough grace to forgive them and enjoy what they bring to the table. To his credit, Levant evolves into more of a snarky mentor before coming into his own as Garfield’s quipping second banana.

Of course, that’s what he always seems to be, but piano playing aside, that’s what he was always so good at, ready with a remark for every situation. He’s one of the singular figures. Naturally gifted in front of the camera, but also an astounding artistic talent.

Garfield also has some of the best fake instrument playing I’ve seen in some time. Isaac Stern is his stand-in, and yet they film Garfield in a way that feels especially tight, never fully breaking the suspension of disbelief. He feels like a virtuoso on strings. Levant, of course, needs no assistance.

But we’ve held off long enough mentioning Joan Crawford. She was coming off her own success in Mildred Pierce from the year prior and during the ’40s and early ’50s, she would continue in a row of pictures that continue to bolster her reputation (ie. Daisy Kenyon, Sudden Fear). It’s no different with Humoresque.

She makes her ravishing appearance at a soiree. It’s Paul Boray’s coming out party with some real tastemakers. His first acquaintance is an older fellow, not unkind but passively resigned to his fate with a bit of wry commentary. This is Mr. Wright. She’s the woman at the center of it all: Mrs. Wright. Slightly tipsy, near-sided without her glasses, yet still alluring and swarmed by a host of other men.

They all fall away as she puts on her glasses to watch Paul play. She playfully rides him, and he fires right back. It sets the precedent for what their relationship will be, and we would expect nothing less from both stars.

Violin films are few and far between, but during Garfield’s first grand performance when everyone turns out from his family, including a local sweetheart, and then the social elite led by Crawford, the cadence of the scene is rather like a boxing film. You have the action, in this case, his fingers on the strings, instead of boxers in the ring, and then everything is made by the reactions from the crowd. They play in tandem with one another to add up to something richer than the sum of their parts.

The Garfield-Crawford dynamic really is appealing because they carry off such command of the screen. She calls him an obstinate man, but she’s hardly a pushover, and it makes their working relationship, with the suggestive romantic undercurrents, all the more intense.

There’s a cut from her seltzer water to the ocean surf that feels like an ellipsis in the story and their relationship. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense. Garfield is suddenly more forward in pursuit of her, although prior he was busy trying to ward her off. It’s analogous to his romp at the beach with Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice as the visual consummation of their romance.

Later, there’s a lovely introduction of an ice rink and the adjoining restaurant. It’s instant ’40s atmosphere, and Paul and the long-smitten Gina (Joan Chandler) sit waiting for the perenially tardy Levant. It leaves ample space for dialogue over their relationship, which, aside from a couple scenes and mild inference, is all but non-existent. What it suggests is the promise of an alternative life if Paul were to choose it. She is the good sensible girl his mama would love. But, still, there’s his music to think about…

In another packed-out hall, he plays again, and this time Mrs. Wright watches from the balcony. The camera lingers on Crawford’s face and closes in on her expression, with a look that can only be described as ecstasy washing over her eyes and lips. They can hardly be seeing this, and yet as the camera cuts to his mother and Gina in the cheap seats down below, their own faces fill with worry. Their intuition or the cinema fates are telling them Paul is lost, and he’s been taken over by other powers altogether. Something uncontrollable has taken over.

I’ve never taken much notice of Jean Negulesco, but here the artistry of the creators feels very much on display in the most intriguing ways. It pairs nicely with the motifs of Odett’s work dabbling in art and commerce and dreams versus pragmatism. Because these are often the forces that divide people when it comes to pursuing a life of art and then sticking with it. Boray finds someone to commission him even as he has plenty of his own private ambition.

There’s a perceptive change in his parents as well. His father becomes warmer and proud of his son’s talents in old age. Then his mother, who empowers and even coddles him, grows highly protective. She becomes wary of the company her son keeps.

Oddly enough, I never found myself totally detesting her. Because I see her point of view. She wants her son to have stability but also the space to pursue his life’s passion. As a divorcee and a different breed of woman, Helen strikes out on two accounts. But it’s not simply this. Ruth Nelson has a gaunt sadness in her eyes I could not get away from.

Even as his familial relationships shift with his newfound success so does his love life. Helen goes from mere patron to jilted lover. She doesn’t want their relationship to be business and formalities, and yet she’s “playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven.” Paul’s first love is really his music.

In the final concert, Helen listens from her Malibu beach house. His parents have gotten upgraded to a box. Gina still sits by faithfully in the audience. But it’s all overshadowed by Crawford as she heads out to the shore. Her listless walk on the beachfront is perplexing. A man playing with his dog wanders into the frame, and it feels unexpected. Because she is in her own world overwhelmed by the music totally deluging her life at this moment in time.

I was mesmerized by the waves crashing around as we get fully submerged through image and score, immediately comprehending the weight of what is happening before us. The actual ending doesn’t rationalize or totally sugarcoat this story, but the words Garfield gets out can’t do anything to improve on the preceding images.

Humoresque feels like an uncommon movie. Its subject matter in this particular form is not often examined with this much detail, and John Garfield side-by-side with Joan Crawford makes for a tumultuous, rapturous, confounding melodrama. Try as I might, I can’t quite put it into words. It deserves music.

4/5 Stars

Bette Davis: In This Our Life, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington

In an effort to gain a greater appreciation for the breadth of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s careers, we wanted to watch some of their films including a majority we hadn’t seen before.

Here are some of our thoughts on a trio of Davis movies from 1940s Warner Bros:

In This Your Life (1942)

It sounds like an impeccable title for a soap opera, and this presumption is not totally baseless. Here John Huston early on in his career takes on another Warner Bros. project. This one has no bearing on The Maltese Falcon or much of his later work. Instead, it became an outcropping of his contemporary fling with Olivia de Havilland.

As such, the movie is set up early around a local family. The father (Frank Craven) is a man with a benevolent twinkle in his eye. His wife (Billie Burke) is a bit of a drama queen playing favorites between her grown-up daughters. De Havilland is the sensible one, Roy, who is betrothed to be married soon. Stanley (Bettie Davis) is the feisty one with plenty of temerity. We never learn how their parents arrived at their naming conventions.

However, we do meet their uncle: ever-domineering, agitated uncle Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) with a touch of Rockefeller and an affinity for tough-minded folks such as himself. Namely, Stanley. And right about this time, given the tone, content, and world, we realize we have been handed a small-town melodrama easily playing rival to the likes of Kings Row.  Max Steiner’s score rages quite liberally to accentuate the narrative unrest in case we had any lingering doubts.

In other words, the story feels worthy of Bette Davis. Her particularly protuberant eyes somehow undercut her actions. She doesn’t look all that bad, but as Kim Carnes famously sang in “Bette Davis Eyes,” “She’ll tease you. She’ll unease you. Just to please you.” She also has no scruples.

Dennis Morgan is featured in one of his more “daring” roles. He only remains a soft-spoken heartthrob for the majority of the movie. There are actual interludes where he’s petty and unstable. Of course, he can’t hold a candle to Davis or De Havilland.

Because it does become a drama of fluctuating love interests. George Brent starts the film with Davis (his perennial costar) but spends most of the movie being uplifted by De Havilland. It is a film mediated by the weak and the strong, the soft-hearted and the hard-hearted.

Olivia de Havilland comes off like most of her early, generally thankless ingenues, but there’s some sense she is inching toward something more substantial. We see it later as she evolves in front of us — hurt by her own sister — and vowing to never let something this egregious injure her again. She resolves to switch camps once and for all.

But I have yet to mention the film’s most intriguing character and arguably its lynchpin. Parry (Ernest Anderson) is the young black man who works for the family. However, he has ambitions that include becoming a lawyer. He is well-spoken and indirectly combats all the stereotypes piled up from years of dismissive cinema. It’s so refreshing to have a part that looks and feels so strikingly different than many of its contemporaries.

And he becomes far more crucial as the story progresses, thanks in part to the histrionic privilege of Stanley. She tries to use Parry in her own lies knowing intuitively the state of the world: A black man’s word will never hold up against hers (“It ain’t no use in this world”). In the end, Hollywood morality must prevail even if reality feels like a much murkier affair.

3.5/5 Stars

Now, Voyager (1942)

If films like All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? were in dialogue with Davis’s persona on and off-screen, then Now, Voyager seems totally representative of what her Hollywood image actually was. She’s the homely girl who in the same breath can transform into an immaculate beauty. This is her success story and grand fairy tale.

Mrs. Vale (Gladys Cooper) is a stern woman of authoritative means when it comes to ordering the life of her youngest child and ugly duckling Charlotte. I have difficulty looking at Bette Davis early on not because she’s “ugly,” but because they’ve tried so hard to make her frumpy, and it just looks a bit unnatural. In general, I find the deglamorization process a bit mystifying for these types of pictures.

Claude Rains provides his brand of benevolent authority that’s never threatening and lends a level of enlightened wisdom to the proceedings. Ilka Chase and Bonita Granville add levity, and I’d be remiss not to mention the incomparable Mary Wickes.

20 minutes in we see Davis emerge totally reincarnated as a regal creature capped in the most iconic of hats. Paul Henreid is rightfully pleased to make her acquaintance, and we have our movie.

The shorthand of glasses and ugly duckling syndrome being cast off feels rather simplistic, but I tried to stretch my imagination to make this into a Hans Christian Andersen world.

Paul Henreid lays the groundwork for Casablanca by playing the quintessential symbol of self-sacrifice, which in itself is such a powerful bulwark for romantic drama. In Now, Voyager his lot in life is made plain. Not that he goes grousing about it, but it’s evident he has a wife back home who plays the martyr. He’s tied down to her.

The moments between Davis and Henreid are like a dream and the rest of the movie feels like unnecessary baggage at times. That’s not to say we should cast off all the cares and responsibilities of life, but in the movies, these are the details that somehow get in the way. They distract from the reverie between two people.

Of course, it’s perfectly articulated in its most intimate and imitated act of affection, if not out and out chivalry — a man lighting up two cigarettes in his mouth and giving one to a lady. It plants Now, Voyager in a different era and perhaps this is part of the rose-colored allure.

I do appreciate what the lapse in the middle means for them both. He must go off, and she returns home to her mother’s house, prepared to do battle there. Because she is different, no longer a child anymore. Then, when she makes a big reveal in front of the family, she commands the room with the aplomb of a seasoned socialite.

Finally, the moment arrives and the two lovers are reunited when their private tete-a-tete crosses back into the real world at a dinner party. Alas, it cannot be so Charlotte must find ways to show her affection vicariously. She takes on a pet project — it’s a mission of mercy — to bless her man.

Although I will always subjectively like Greer Garson in Random Harvest or Gene Tierney in Ghost and Mrs. Muir better, I must admit Bette Davis is one for the ages. Try as I might, I could never take that away from her or begrudge the legacy she rightfully garnered for herself. Now, Voyager reminds us — no matter the pitfalls of the studio system on display — people like Davis really could turn it into a dream factory. In bandying about words like auteur, she certainly lays some claim to the label because the whole movie feels molded to her vision. She commands not just the screen but the entire production.

3.5/5 Stars

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

The opening plays like an Epstein Brothers riff off an Ernst Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. There’s an immediate comic lightness to the scenario. A row of eligible young men show up fashionably early to pay a visit to Fanny. It just so happens they all had the same idea.

They also adopt that slightly risible movie convention of constantly calling one another by first names, but of course, that’s part of the point. They’re partially hoodwinked when another man pops in and saunters up directly to Fanny’s quarters. No, he’s not another love interest but her solicitous older cousin George (Walter Able).

Davis is as airy-voiced and bright-eyed as ever doted up in the most flamboyant regalia. It covers up the salient fact that she and her brother are broke, and they have wealth in name only. They’ve all but used up everything their dear departed father ever bequeathed them.

Fanny’s a superficial girl, chatty and taken by the many whims of the wind. She’s turned off when the proclamation of war spoils her perfectly good dinner engagement with a quiet gentleman named Mr. Skeffington (Claude Rains).

There’s something about Davis and Rains together that’s easy to favor. I think they noticed it too, with Davis supposedly saying years later that he was her favorite costar. She went to bat for him, and he wound up in one of his most prominent roles. He’s never going to upstage Davis, and yet his wit is deceptively charming. It settles the movie and gives it an anchor.

Over time it feels like a gargantuan narrative, albeit not without its curiosities. One of those is the undercurrent of the whole picture. It starts with Skeffington himself. He is a man like so many remade after a childhood kicked off at Ellis Island. There’s a sense about him and his origins, even an inference here and there, but never anything outright.

And then, he sits at dinner with his daughter as a final goodbye. He has paid a settlement to his wife, they are getting a divorce, and his daughter will go live with her mother. She doesn’t want to leave him, and he explains part of what makes them different. He is Jewish. She is not.

In the year 1944 and the contemporary moment, it suddenly becomes a far more serious issue worth our time and consideration. Though within the movie it feels mostly like a loose end as Rains all but disappears from the picture. At least for the time being.

However, the movie evolves into something else almost like a vanitas portrait of the Charles Foster Kane variety. Vanity of vanities, thy name is Fanny Skeffington. It becomes evident that beauty is fleeting as her suitors stay young, and she continually staves off the advances of age.

She has a bit of a nervous breakdown; all her old boyfriends are long since gone, balding and gray-haired, and she looks in the mirror and her illusions are shattered by the lonely fragility staring back at her. Because time can be cruel. Her daughter (Marjorie Riordan) returns as a grown young woman and Fanny recognizes how the years have passed her by. She missed out on knowing her.

But it’s inevitable. Our primary players must have a reunion. The final scene has a real emotional import as we wait for Rains. It’s building to a crescendo and then falls into place as a weirdly contrived propaganda piece. The development is a bit disappointing because it means Skeffington isn’t able to explore all of its themes. Given its length, this is profoundly unfortunate.

3.5/5 Stars

A Woman’s Face (1941)

The movie’s faux Scandinavian backdrop can be traced back to its origins in an early vehicle for Ingrid Bergman back in her native Sweden that was released in 1938. Since I haven’t seen the original, I cannot attest to Bergman, but she doesn’t immediately spring to mind in a role that calls for some amount of moral ambiguity — at least on screen.

Still, A Woman’s Face was a stepping stone part for Joan Crawford, from her effervescent flapper days and pertinacious working gals to something vulnerable and bold for a fresh decade. She sheds all glamour, something used so often as a mask in Hollywood, and willfully puts on a different facade of scars and perceived ugliness. It’s a move her rival Bette Davis readily made as well.

Here Crawford is a creature tormented and self-conscious about her own appearance. She’s crawling with shame. Mildred Pierce always gets the plaudits, and rightfully so, but surely there’s room in the conversation for this picture. Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We stand by as a prisoner is marched through the hallways of a court. A menagerie of witnesses has been called to testify in the wake of a murder trial. The very same woman, her face hidden by her hat brim, stands accused, and the film effectively uses each of these disparate individuals to elucidate her story for the sake of the jury (and the audience).

It’s not an unheard-of device, but it’s rather clever, starting on the outer ring with a peculiar sort of character before getting closer and closer to who she is as a person with each subsequent flashback. As such, a sprightly waiter (Donald Meek) and a more guarded manager (Reginald Owen) recount their days serving at a local tavern.

One of the guests, Torstein Barring (Conrad Veidt), is a curious fellow. He’s the life of the party and expects certain privileges. One of those is running up an overflowing tab at the establishment after a merry night of wining and dining. He exhibits a piercing kind of magnetism, sleek and somehow unnerving.

When the lady of the tavern steps out of the shadows and excuses his bill, he’s immediately taken by her. She’s scarred over her face, and yet all he sees are those striking Joan Crawford eyes. There’s something immediate between them, and it comes out in the courtroom that the whole tavern was essentially a set-up for petty blackmail. When people get giddy their tongues loosen, and they are availed of all their faculties.

There’s a level of dubiousness and doublespeak with her underlings providing another layer to the film involving both humor and intrigue. Because they ran a fine and highly lucrative con game complete with all manner of deception. Now they’re looking to save their necks.

The ready victims are the adultress Vera (Osa Massen) — wife of reputed surgeon Gustaf (Melvyn Douglas) — and then her latest beau. The joy of A Woman’s Face is how there are building blocks for melodrama. In literary form, it might come off as convoluted and unclear, but the cinema screen makes it sing.

In one moment Anna (Crawford) is trying to peddle some stolen letters for a weighty sum with a level of vindictiveness. She scoffs at others. In another, she meets Gustaf, who returns home unexpectedly both catching this woman in the act and becoming genuinely interested in her. His wife doesn’t want any of her dirty business getting out so she reluctantly plays along.

Almost everyone has an enigmatic side, some sort of angle or self-serving motive we’re trying to detect. Melvyn Douglas is the one character who is straightforward and easy to read. He offers to transform her face. Not with an ulterior motive, but out of a sense of decency.

There’s a fine level of suspense waiting to see Anna’s face reconstructed. We know what it will be and yet are forced to wait for moments with the camera working to evade a direct shot of her; it adds something, a level of expectation.

It’s yet another soap opera contrivance that works wonders. Because Joan Crawford takes this blemish and turns it into something powerful and ultimately beautiful. With it comes new confidence and new life. Anna and Torstein grow closer and closer and he’s even more drawn to the vision of her rebirthed self. Also, her disposition shifts.

Still, he has almost a Nietchzean charisma, and he coaxes Anna into playing nursemaid to a young relative who’s set to inherit a large fortune. She’s become a governess of the Phyllis Dietrichson persuasion.

Watching Crawford come down the stairs with the precocious little kiddy, I couldn’t help but think of those old glossies of Marion Davies parties except this is a party at a Scandinavian version of Hearst Castle. Images of piano and dancing superimposed over Crawford’s face say everything.

Actually, I misspoke earlier because aside from the young tyke and the kindly Gustaf, the Consul Barring (Albert Bassman) is a jolly old man, who welcomes Anna cordially even as his housekeeper (Marjorie Main) remains distrustful of their latest guest. In truth, they’re both right. They see the two different sides of Anna on display.

There’s an old Hollywood axiom about getting an actor’s good side, and I couldn’t help noticing how A Woman’s Face plays with this practically. Crawford’s right side is kept hidden for much of the first half of the movie and traditional 180-degree filming means it’s all but masked from us.

I noticed the change at the party when she meets the good doctor again. Finally, she’s on the left side of the frame fully unmasked and open to us. It’s true we see her in a different light just as he does too. Perhaps she’s changing — softening even — and he has something to do with this.

Arguably the best scene of the entire movie comes when Crawford’s with her charge in the trolley over the waterfall. It’s the moment akin to Gene Tierney letting the crippled boy drown in the lake in Leave Her to Heaven. There’s the intent. We know what’s happening, and we watch the mechanisms on the face of Crawford. It’s totally wordless and, thus, so effective because the whole sequence is borne on her features. She has a choice to make — caught in a moral conundrum — and it’s a showcase for the total evolution of her character.

In some strange sense, it feels like the dissolution of a femme fatale starting out one way and then slowly changing and eroding until she has a heart of flesh and blood again. She chooses her inclinations to protect over those to destroy. It comes with consequences. Watching a crazed villain disappear into the snowy rapids below is mesmerizing in black and white. Somehow something so deadly looks equally gorgeous.

The ending itself is pat as Anna is exculpated in the courtroom, and yet it somehow works contrary to a whole generation of noirs made in its wake. In other words, I don’t mind the happy resolution because it leaves just enough to the imagination.

4.5/5 Stars