Quai Des Orfevres (1947): Directed by Henry-Georges Clouzot

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Unearthing Quai Des Orfevres is a glorious discovery of post-war French cinema. Because Henry-Georges Clouzot is always a man I heedlessly clump together with Jacques Becker when it comes to French film history. Not because of an immediate connection but, on the contrary, it’s the very thinnest of labels.

They both have a handful of superior films to their names and yet never seem to reach the full-fledged prominence of some of their countrymen as far as their bodies of work are concerned. If we want to oversimplify the situation we have Jean Renoir on one side and then the youthful revolution of the Nouvelle Vague with the dawning of the 60s thereafter.

And yet, to acknowledge Clouzot was considered by Alfred Hitchcock himself as a true rival for the title of “The Master of Suspense” seems a heady admission. On the laurels of Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques alone, there is some merit in the conversation. Most agree Psycho was a reaction to the latter film (since Hitch could not get the rights).

One area Clouzot can claim primacy over Hitch is the fact he personally wrote most, if not all, of the screenplays he directed. Quai Des Orfevres benefits as much from his writing as anything, yet another robust entry to his filmography. Though it came to fruition only after a substantial ban from the French film ministry.

That is a story worth dissecting on its own because his previous picture, made in occupied France, was all but bankrolled by the Third Reich. You can imagine that this didn’t sit well with people. It’s a fitting anecdote for the very reason that the war no doubt affected his characters as much as it affected him.

The France featured here is not quite the post-war Vienna of The Third Man, but it’s merely a hop, skip, and a jump away. For that matter, it evokes a bit of Carol Reed’s world from Odd Man Out too.

In this case, Clouzot’s focused on a group of performers at some shoddy theater house. It’s hardly glamorous entertainment, but for all those involved, at least it’s a meager living. If nothing else, they look after their own.

Right in the thick of it is vivacious stage talent Jenny Lamour  (Suzy Delair) and her balding husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), who can constantly be found accompanying her on the piano. Between her shameless flaunting and flirting and his burning jealousy, it proves to be a highly volatile cocktail.

The conflicts, in this case, are not political or instigated by human avarice. They are of a more personal nature, between a husband and wife in turmoil. We do not know their history, but if the scenes around them are any sign, they are coming off hardship, with the war being indicative of their entire life together.

A local photographer, named Dora (the glamourous Simone Renant), who has some business with Jenny, is also paid a visit by a hunched, beady-eyed creep who happens to have quite the portfolio of financial holdings; it’s the only reason any girls give him the time of day. In this instance, he brings a pretty young thing to pose for him.

In some twisted way, it’s mutually beneficial. They want his influence and he wants pretty girls to dominate. One bystander notes, if Brignon (stage actor Charles Dullin in his final performance) were poor, he would have been in prison long ago.

Despite the generally disquieting nature of these themes, it’s even more sobering to admit, somehow it still remains timely as a portrait of men in power using their capital to lord it over the opposite sex. There is social repugnance, but they label him a “dirty old man” and leave it at that.

What’s more, Jenny Lamour is going to see him; it’s good for her career. Maurice despises the smutty scuzzball and with his anger justified for once, he goes to confront him at his hotel room; the staff and manager catch the tail-end of his outburst.

This only matters in reference to the film’s crucial inciting incident. Brignon is murdered one evening. It’s not unfamiliar or unexpected. Still, keeping the details murky for those unfamiliar with the story is in the best interest of all. But, needless to say, law enforcement gets involved when the body is found — his apartment in disarray.

This, of course, cuts out a large swath of the story. Because it is not a mystery. This is a character study. The man who winds up drawing out the performances and reactions from everyone else happens to be the curious Inspector Antoine (Louis Jourvet). It’s true colorful detectives are a mainstay of the police procedural with Columbo, courtesy of Peter Falk or even Alistair Sim’s Inspector Cockril, from Green for Danger, springing to mind.

In fact, in the preliminary stages, the inspector can be found poking around the musical hall, not unlike a Columbo — unassuming and out of place — and trying to decipher what he has to work with.

Later, in his office, he helpfully summarizes a deposition for Mr. Martineau to save the man time (He’s the most obvious suspect if it’s not apparent already). Bringing in the rest of his person’s of interest takes up the remaining daylight. It’s only a matter of time before a resolution is met. The Inspector’s generally insouciant when it comes to the daily grind, though he’s deceptively astute when it counts most.

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To reiterate, the story is not necessarily about the tautness of the plotting. There are too many questions. Not enough answers to loose ends. How does Jenny remain so even-keeled while her husband is the one sweating it? The alibi Maurice makes up is so flimsy. His case lines up so serendipitously with a bank robber who stole his car the same night. Why does Dora involve herself? But all these details are almost beside the point.

We know the perpetrator almost before the case has started — we think — and at any rate, it’s before the inspector comes on the scene. To evoke Columbo again, this is not so much a mystery as much as it is a “How’s he gonna catch them.” But in this version, it’s not an elementary case of fun and games.

Rather, a statement is being made on the state of law and order. Where the police search after a murderer of a despicable man because it is there job. Because these are the working-class folks. Criminals, in one sense of the word, yes, but also victims in another.

The characters and their dynamics become the seat of all the intrigue. The decisions they make. The logic they use. What they choose to disclose and hide from one another. Jenny, Maurice, Dora, they all are involved, but it’s more complicated than surface-level perceptions might suggest.

Even Inspector Antoine, the film’s most splendid creation, as realized by Jouvet, is given the benefit of a personal history outside the context of the film. His beloved son, from his time abroad in the French colonies, is the love of his life. The case almost seems like an unwanted distraction from what he’d really like to be doing. It’s this insightful brand of humanity found within most of the characters transforming Quai Des Orfevres into a truly singular take on the conventional crime thriller. The final shots sum up these ideas in succinct terms.

4/5 Stars

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): Robert Mitchum Shows His Chops

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Charles M. Schultz was one of the great memorializers of WWII in that he kept events like the D-Day invasion or the art of Bill Maudlin in the public forum for as long as Peanuts was syndicated. If I remember correctly, it was also through his strip I first became aware of the name Ernie Pyle.

It’s not too far of a stretch to think the former Sergeant Schultz (who saw action in Europe) eventually saw this movie because, before he ever penned a frame of Peanuts, this was the first homage, not necessarily just to Pyle, but also to the soldier that he chronicled for the folks at home.

We jump right in with a truck loaded with men being hauled to the front where the action is. Not only do they pick up a furry passenger, they take on a civilian as well because Pyle (Burgess Meredith) is intent on getting as close to the epicenter of the action as possible. He wants material bearing an authentic mark.

The man who agrees to let him aboard is none other than Robert Mitchum, their scraggily and sleepy-eyed leader, who never seems to be perturbed. As a related consideration, it becomes intriguing to chart his early career with all his bit parts as soldiers finally leading to a heftier role. These included his blink and you’ll miss it cameos only a couple years prior, in everything from The Human Comedy to Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. What followed were stepping stones like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and finally, The Story of G.I. Joe.

It doesn’t feel so much as we are seeing Mitchum transformed into his future persona. He appears unflappable as much off-screen as he is on. It’s more so a matter of Hollywood realizing who he was and what compelling qualities he brought to the lead. Certainly, he’s masculine; he has a handsome, distinctive face, but there is something more to him. It’s the suggestion of not caring about any of the distractions around him. This underlying coolness in any manner of situations. It all catered to his future stardom at RKO.

But back to the trenches. Although we get Artie Shaw out on the front, the production also ladles on the dramatic diegetic scoring a little too thickly when they experience their first casualty. We know the import of the moment only to get clubbed over the head with it just to make absolutely certain it didn’t escape us.

Otherwise, the film causes us to brush up against the elements in an immersive even dispiriting manner courtesy of cinematographer Russell Metty. You begin to live vicariously through the platoon and understand their daily struggles. This is The Story of G.I. Joe at its most effectual, succeeding in precisely what Pyle was striving to do. We get a tactile sense of his life’s work as a war correspondent.

Day after day, company C, 18th Infantry makes its way across Italy. All sorts of men, big and small, fill up their ranks. Freddie Steele, coming off his intriguing turn in Hail The Conquering Hero, is no less watchable here as a grizzled soldier intent on finding a victrola so he can hear his son’s voice. It’s the sole shred of home, keeping him sane in the chaotic world he’s subjected to day in and day out. Many of the others aren’t so lucky, more or less lacking his indefatigable brand of grit. The mental toll is high for all parties.

I know it’s set in a different country but with the rubble, bell tower, infantry, and tanks rolling across the grounds I couldn’t help thinking of the midsection of Saving Private Ryan because The Story of G.I. Joe, as one of its precursors, documents the life of the common man as well as the skirmishes he’s subjected to.

They systematically take down a pair of Germans lurking behind the debris to clear the area. Later, one of their company (John R. Reilly) has an impromptu wedding ceremony in the bombed-out premises — Pyle being tapped to give the bride away. A little over a decade later Stanley Kubrick would end up marrying his wife who appeared in his seminal war movie Paths of Glory. William Wellman cut out the middle man, so to speak, by having his wife (Dorothy Noonan Wellman) in an uncredited role as the nurse who weds the G.I.

Without resting on their laurels, they are tasked with taking a new position. It’s ruled over by a monastery — a religious relic the enemy have conveniently fashioned into an impregnable observation post; they won’t give up the ground. What’s worse, the hesitant allies won’t bomb the building. We’ve reached an impasse until human life finally takes precedence over maintaining ancient artifice. As it should.

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The holidays come, and it’s a drab affair, men clinging to dreams of the family and food back home — from turkey to cranberry sauce. Of course, they aren’t granted such amenities where they are so all they have are their private memories. In between the barrage of artillery fire, one of the company’s members (Wally Cassell) picks Pyle’s brain about his time in Hollywood. For a brief solitary moment, he drools over starlets like Carole Landis; it removes him from his current reality of muck and mire.

Christmas might be a complete wash if not for their commanding officer scrounging them up some turkey and a bit of wine as they slog through the perpetually miserable conditions. They manage a bit of yuletide cheer in spite of the bleak landscape around them.

It feels less like propaganda in the typical sense or at least it’s all the more effective as an empathy picture, putting us in the boots of the soldier so we get a feel for the lives they lead out on the front. You begin to realize how extraordinary they are in their very ordinariness.

Ernie Pyle winning the Pulitzer is like a drop in the can. It feels so inconsequential in the face of all they have gone through together, but the beauty is Pyle has gone through it with them. They have mutual solidarity in the thick of this continual absurdity.

On Christmas evening, after a typically long day, he sits down with the leader of the pack and pulls out one last turkey leg from under his jacket.  He picks off any fuzz and partakes in the delicacy. It’s a much-appreciated gesture. They trade off taking swigs of Italian moonshine scattered with conversation.

The most revealing revelation is the sergeant’s agitation of having to write the families of every young man who gives his life. In some queer way, he feels like a murderer, and it rankles him to see every new fresh-faced recruit who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. There’s a helplessness in him and yet it’s his job to keep them together, so he does the best he can under the deplorable conditions.

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This scene might be the most meaningful impression we get of Mitchum as a human being because he’s a believable G.I.b but here we see his honest chops as an actor. It’s no coincidence that this is the picture helping him transition to stardom.

The ending continues in this manner, offering up a melancholy denouement that feels like one of the more candid depictions of wartime reality. Where the war rolls on no matter what happens. It cannot wait up for the story of a film to catch up.

Of course, Ernie Pyle would never live to see the finished film, which he actually served as a technical advisor on. He was too busy continuing his work in Okinawa where he was killed by an enemy machine gun. It’s a tragic detail, but it makes The Story of G.I. Joe all the more pertinent. If anything, it gets the truth behind Ernie Pyle’s writing, both his life and his death, right. It is the ultimate tribute to the man who tried to get the stories out of everyday heroes back to the reading public sitting in their living rooms.

3.5/5 Stars

“I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That all together we will try out of the memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that a never great war can never again be possible and for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do but perhaps murmur: Thanks, pal. Thanks…”

~ Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): WWII Written by Dalton Trumbo

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“One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here.”

It’s easy enough to lump Air Force and Destination Tokyo with this subsequent film because we have the impediment of years between us. We have yet another cast rallied around a star; this time it’s Spencer Tracy leading the charge, as the pragmatic James Doolittle, on a highly confidential mission that would be known to future generations as the Doolittle Raids.

In the contemporary moment, if they had enough time and/or money an audience would possibly have a much easier time differentiating because each picture took on a slightly unique facet of the war. Air Force is all but a flying fortress in the days leading up to and directly following Pearl Harbor. Destination Tokyo is about the recon needed for the Doolittle Raid. 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is a bit like the triumphant exclamation point or at least the start of one.

The work wasn’t done for the Allies but it was a sign of forward progress. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can fill in the open-ended conclusion. We know V-J Day eventually happened only a year later. Consequently, it was also deemed one of the more accurate war pictures as far as military details go.

Much of Tracy’s time is spent as a no-nonsense observer of what is going on. The rest of his performance feels like it’s made up of monologues and yet, as is normally the case, he’s so candid and earnest when he delivers them. He quickly draws the moviegoer in just as he does with all the crew members under his command. It’s the magic he has over a rapt audience to the point you believe every word he says.

Otherwise, Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is pretty much our lead. I know he’s not much of an emoter, but he might as well be our stand-in for the American G.I. For the time being, he is surrounded by a bevy of compatriots including Robert Walker, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum, among others. They all raise their hands when it comes to volunteering for a top-secret mission.

There’s an electricity in the air as they prepare for news of their assignment even as they are warned that they will be pushed to the limit of their capabilities and then some. The utmost secrecy is maintained and their training is commenced in earnest. The work is hard and they play hard after.

One of the crowd is a goofy down-home caricature portrayed by John R. Reilly. He can be found pounding away to the rhythms of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the barracks, intent on any merriment he can muster during off-hours. Meanwhile, the crew of the self-proclaimed Ruptured Duck becomes proficient in their new skill set.

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In his free time, Lawson (Johnson) looks to get all the time in with his beaming wife as possible. Though Phyliss Thaxter glows with utter radiance in every scene, it does feel a bit overly twee at times.

Since a group of the fellas have their brides with them, they get together to dance, finding solidarity in songs like “Deep in The Heart of Texas” and a Hollywood mainstay, “Auld Lange Syne.” It’s especially effective for wringing out every last drop of emotion. Wives tearfully cling to their husbands for the last time, knowing that they will soon be separated for who knows how long.

Sure enough, the men get their assignment after coming aboard an aircraft carrier. They will be paying a visit to Tokyo by air and the anticipation sets in even as the flyers all look a bit like fish out of water (on the water). Regardless, it becomes a perfect excuse to play up the camaraderie between the army and the navy away from the football field. They’ve got a job to do, and they’ll do it together.

Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson share a most curious conversation lounging on the prow of the boat, staring off into the darkness. One can only imagine it is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo speaking — not in propaganda but humanity.

First, Johnson offers up how his mom had a Jap gardener once who seemed like a nice fellow. Mitchum says he doesn’t like ’em, but he doesn’t hate ’em either. They agree you get mixed up sometimes. Where are they going with this meandering interchange?

The answer: Trumbo’s brand of what might be most precisely termed “American progressivism.” Some rationale must be proposed for what is at hand and so he does his best. Though it foregoes demonizing the enemy, it takes an alternative path with the same conclusion. It’s the most rational progression. Drop a bomb on them or they’ll be dropping a bomb on Ellen or loved ones like her. It’s highly practical even as it remains problematic.

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Still, the gears are turning. They have their final briefing with Doolittle and agree to meet in Chungking for the biggest party they’ve ever seen. In reality, the moment of truth really does feel like little more than thirty seconds. When they hit the mainland a flurry of Japanese Zeroes fly over, only to pass them by without notice, moving on with their normal patrol. It’s a lucky break.

They end up dropping their loads on the designated targets with efficiency. It’s the aftermath where things get a bit dicier, not so much due to the enemy but weather conditions. The Ruptured Duck is forced to bail out, sustaining injuries, and rescued by Chinese locals under bleak conditions.

Though poorly resourced and kept on the run by impending Japanese, the Chinese are held aloft as loyal Allies ready to aid in this joint cause against the Japanese. It becomes so intriguing how they become such sympathetic figures. Two close-ups come to mind. The Chinese characters are not kept at arm’s length. We are given a chance to study their faces. It’s maybe not a lot, but it’s something. The juxtaposition between the Chinese station versus the Japanese is made supremely obvious.

So while Thirty 30 Over Tokyo has understandably been lauded for a certain level of historical accuracy, there is still a necessity to parse through its stances as a cultural artifact. Like any film, it is a product of its times and a tribute to the minds behind it, whether Mervyn LeRoy or Dalton Trumbo. Each man no doubt had his own agenda, be it bugetary or ideological.

To that point, the picture is framed by a corny romantic crescendo that’s difficult to take seriously. Otherwise, it an intermittently rewarding portrait of a specific time in WWII history. It’s difficult to remake a movie such as this without losing some of its inherent credibility.

3.5/5 Stars

Sahara (1943): Bogart Against The Nazis…Again

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The opening crawl of Zoltan Korda’s Sahara sets the scene, though contemporary audiences were probably already well aware of current events. This war film details the exploits of members of the Armored Corps of the Army Ground Forces. In June 1942 an American detachment joined British forces in North Africa to aid against the troops of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

We meet three of our heroes in the heat of battle. Their tank is stalling, mortars are bursting all around them, and they are the only contingent left from their company. With the finesse of a man whispering sweet nothings to a lover, Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) coaxes their tank Lulu Belle into operation.

His meager crew of Doyle (Dan Duryea) and Waco (Bruce Bennet) are grateful, if not slightly incredulous. However, they’ve learned to trust his shrewdness under fire. As becomes a habit, they make a bet on the outcome, and one of them always comes out of the jam a little bit richer. It’s this manner of gallows humor that allows them to cope with these high stake scenarios.

Before losing radio contact, they were ordered to head south, and they follow through on their orders, wind their tank coalition back from whence they came. However, this story, although it boasts an eventual objective, is really about the arid road to get there. Because out in the bleak sands of the Sahara they find themselves gathering up the dregs of other units, left all but obliterated by enemy stukas.

One can almost hear Bogart explaining how he came to the Sahara for the waters. He was misinformed, of course, but then that’s a different film altogether. In this picture, it’s all about camaraderie. A typically hardboiled Bogey takes the lead with his usual tenacity only after the British officer (Richard Nugent) of more propriety defers to his command.

He knows full-well they must enlist total discipline if they are ever to survive the perils set before them. The first order of business is rationing water against the cries of indignation from his subordinates and yet the rest of the British crew begrudgingly fall in, including the token “Frenchy” (Louis T. Mercier), who is resolved to do whatever it takes.

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The storyline systematically introduces new characters into the sand-swept drama, and they are not just new stimuli. They feel like living, breathing characters to tease out another facet of the world conflict. The first is a Sudanese soldier (Rex Ingram) toting a groveling Italian prisoner (J. Carroll Naish). In a plea to be taken along, he speaks of his wife and child and the relatives he has working in a steel factory in Pittsburgh.

The film looks destined to take its darkest turn when Bogart is intent on leaving the enemy soldier behind — they need to conserve as much food and water as possible — but he relents because in Hollywood the allies don’t do such things; even Bogart briefly sheds his steely surface layer.

The Nazis, on the other hand, are another matter. A solitary German fighter pilot (Kurt Kreuger) looks to wipe out their faction with several sweeps overhead, strafing them with all he’s got. Ultimately, he’s shot down and taken prisoner. Of course, his Aryan philosophy means he doesn’t want to be searched by an inferior race.

Admittedly, it feels like a slightly ironic footnote. Major Tambul gets vouched for by his American ally and yet this country wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of racial equity either.

Later, the captured German turns his attention to the entire company, sneering at the ragtag assortment of soldiers they’ve gathered together. They’ll never outlast the German war machine. They’re too disparate. One is reminded of a similar tactic used by Sam Fuller in The Steel Helmet to highlight how the enemy (in that case, a North Korean) looks to play mental war games.

As a side note, it always fascinates me when you have seemingly native German speakers in these old WWII movies. Obviously, this never happened with Japanese (enter Richard Loo) and rarely with Italians. But with Germans and other Eastern Europeans, it was a different case because of the scourge of Hitler.

Kurt Kreuger, as well as John Wengraff, are a couple actors to add to this very unique category. In some ways, although they no doubt detested playing the despicable, the very fact that they are so diametrically opposed to the people they were portraying is another level of cutting derision.

In a subsequent desert storm, the company seeks desperately for any kind of shelter. It proves rather fortuitous leading them to water, which they must painstakingly extract from a trickling well, deep in the ground. It’s a vital resource, and the Nazis are in need of it too. They are the lumbering beast who is rapidly approaching — desperate for resources.

Now time is of the essence, but water is life so they wait to fill up their reservoirs. What this interim period does is give the Allies time to care for their equipment, but, practically, it also allows us to get to know each man better. Their religious beliefs, their wives, the places they call home.

I couldn’t help thinking of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan when one soldier asks where their commander is from. Gunn is far less accommodating. He simply says “no place, just the army.” In each case, their responses more than fit their respective backgrounds, and it gives them a moment to assert themselves as being all the more human.

When a German recon unit arrives, they are dealt with soundly and tempted with water. It’s all a ploy to draw the enemy in for as long as possible. Waco volunteers to try and go off for reinforcements to aid against the impending Nazis. For now, all they’ve got are the men in front of them.

Generally, the film revels in pithy dialogue, but there are a few instances it can’t help but wave the flag for a moment or two. For instance, when Bogart gets candid it feels like a “hill of beans” speech in Casablanca. It could be corny and sentimental but Bogey somehow makes his speech, spattered with references to Dunkirk, Bataan, Moscow, and China, feel like a stirring call to arms.

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However, they still have a treacherous enemy in their midst, bent on sounding the alarm for his countrymen — by any means necessary. Because, of course, the outpost is now drained of its liquid gold. They’re being played for suckers. This is when the Italian, Giuseppe, gets his moment to shine — his own speech denouncing Hitler and the German way. It’s a stirring stance even if it’s purpose is blatantly obvious.

With waves of German soldiers looking to take their post, the Allies rally to hold them up for a while, taking as many men down with them as possible. They fight the hundreds with their lusty force of less than ten. It’s a David versus Goliath-like struggle.

The tension doesn’t abate as Sergeant Major Tambul chases down the fleeing Nazi pilot in no man’s land. He tracks him down in a scene imbued with so much real emotion that Ingram got so caught up in the moment, he nearly choked Kurt Kreuger to death.

The strafing is heavy on both sides. Waves upon waves of Germans are brushed back, even as the defenders are knocked off one by one. American fortitude and teamwork involving everyone rules the day as want of water finally cripples the opposition. The drama cools off even as we must take account of the losses. Sacrifices are warranted on all sides.

Sahara is a rousing war film for the very fact it builds a whole world out of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert further fortified by a compelling scenario that’s easy to relate to. What it forfeits in terms of all-out authenticity, it more than makes up for with character. All of a sudden, World War II becomes personal and spearheaded by Bogart — a perfect embodiment of American grit and determination — we soon get behind every heroic action. It’s home front propaganda, nevertheless, functioning, at its best, as unadulterated entertainment.

4/5 Stars

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

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For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.

However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.

Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.

In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.

One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.

There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.

He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.

In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.

Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.

Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.

The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.

With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.

Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.

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It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.

Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.

The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.

It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.

But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954): Gabin’s Aging Gangster

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On only two occasions have I had the pleasure of watching a Jacques Becker film, and I hold him in the highest esteem even based on this admittedly meager sample size. It seems a fitting observation to acknowledge how closely he was tied to one of France’s foremost titans, Jean Renoir, serving as his assistant director on a number of his projects including A Day in The Country and The Grand Illusion. 

The overt connections between the so-called poetic realism of Renoir and brethren like Marcel Carne seem intuitive, not merely in visual style and content, but going so far as casting some of the same actors — in this case, a Renoir regular like Jean Gabin.

While completely seamless transitions are hard to come by, it’s not all too difficult to go from Renoir to Becker and see how his work bleeds into the crime pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville and then the Nouvelle Vague and so on and so forth. If nothing else, it is a tangible reminder that all cinematic artifacts find their roots in ancestors. Nothing exists on its own completely outside the undue influence of others. As it should be.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, translated to “Hands Off The Loot” in English, rarely gives much pretense of being a crime picture. Sure the people within its interiors are criminal types; it’s easy enough to decipher just watching and listening, but this is a film reminding us how mundane even their lives can be.

If there is anything half resembling a prototypical inciting incident it would be the brief moment when the veteran gangster, Max (Gabin), scans the newspaper to note a cache of gold bars have been stolen in Orly. Nothing is said of it but the implications are obvious, and Becker’s movie is made up of such moments.

The director never telegraphs anything to the audience, remaining content to examine scenes, playing around with seemingly trivial or unimportant details, and letting his story rely on such details for its enjoyment. The trick in the initial scenes is the feeling we are driving toward some inevitable end while Becker is content to coast along. As a Hollywood-bred audience, we wait a bit impatiently for the next beat to rev up the action, but the real game is right in front of us the whole time.

In his own way, Jean Gabin has the weight of a Brando or a Jimmy Cagney. He can be “The Godfather,” and we believe it, and yet there is something amiable dancing in his eyes this time around. Of course, he’s nothing like those other men — never unhinged and always settled in his surroundings — but he brings the same boldness of being.

When he’s in a room with others we want to watch him and see what he will do. There is an instant gravitational pull toward him. He can carry these moments like the greats. It’s not to say he can’t be violent, even brutal. Burning like hot coals at times. Slapping people around. Still, he’s always measured.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi opens as a series of scenes (like most movies) where we go from a restaurant to a car to a club. Two gangsters, including Max and his cohort Riton, are spending time with their pleasant female company (Jeanne Moreau and Dora Doll) — it’s the customary social life of people in their business — they have to make the rounds and keep up appearances.

We are privy to this as an audience and maybe we are waiting for something to happen in the conventional sense. There’s a conference in a backroom were Max pays his respects to a couple of work associates, one a thuggish gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura), the other a bespectacled nightclub owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur). In another accompanying sequence, he walks in on Angelo with his partner’s girl Josy. Still, he doesn’t do anything rash. He takes it in stride as Josy defends her decisions. In a movie where a plethora of lovely ladies (including Miss America Marilyn Buferd) exist as eye candy, Moreau manages a few defiant acts of rebellion.

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We follow Max home only for him to be tailed by a shady ambulance with two “physicians” looking to take him in. He nonchalantly walks up to his flat, pulls his gun out of a drawer, and wards them off with his piece, darting off into the night to pay a visit to his accomplice Riton (dour-eyed Rene Dary). Call it action if you will, but it’s all a bit discombobulating, never smooth or modulated. This in itself speaks to something. Nothing is written out on a billboard for us. We have to infer and do the work on our own. Becker is content with this arrangement.

Finally, Max and Riton are sitting around a table once again, crunching on food disconsolately. Why are they so bleak? It barely seems as anything has happened to them. Perhaps this is the point. We realize for the first time their discontentment with the life of crime. They are old, at least for such a young man’s racket. They’ve seen it all and as Max says, they’re fed up with it all. More than any amount of danger, it’s a nuisance staying ahead of the pack.

As with any such person, whether thief, gangster, gunslinger, or outlaw, it becomes very difficult to run away from a lifestyle once you’ve been marked by it. The world you initially chose reciprocates by choosing you, and it always has a habit of catching up with you.

For now, they watch and wait. Never before have I witnessed a robber gargling as he gets ready to bed down in his pajamas or later on reaching into the cupboard to pull out the bedclothes. It’s practical, but surely, this is not kosher. Unwritten rules say cinema is life with the boring bits cut out. Becker is brazen enough to make a gangster picture with the dull bits stitched back in. In his own creative patchwork, they inform his characters.

We’ve all but forgotten about their payload. That is until Max pays a visit to his uncle, who also happens to be his shady dumping ground. Haggling over hot money has even lost its luster. It takes all the fun out of having wealth.

Most importantly, we are reminded Max is human. It’s what previous generations — namely the Greeks — would have termed hamartia. This is his fatal flaw. For us, it simply makes him more relatable. He’s a sentimentalist — no longer The Godfather figure. He is fallible. His weakness has been ousted. Surely these themes slowly progressing through the story are not unfamiliar ones about aging and friendship in a dirty business. But they have their own crucial perspective — an individual point of view.

One of the most gripping scenes occurs in a cellar. They’re shoving a young kid down the steps for spying, ready to work him over. He gets a few smacks. In such a banal world it feels all the more terrifying, clamped in our faces with glowing close-ups. There’s little in the form of action up to this point, aside from the film’s fairly explosive climax, as a kidnapping triggers a mini gang war.

Again, Becker appears more interested in the outcomes than the actual events. What is leftover would normally be termed superfluous scenes, but once more, they hold true to the essence of the characters. The ending gives way to these curious moments with Max back around a lunch table with a beautiful woman, on the phone, and hearing some sad news. The melancholy sets in. It all matters. Some might argue there is no movie at all. For me, there’s no movie without Gabin.

4/5 Stars

Destination Tokyo (1943) and There’s No Place Like Home

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“This is sort of a blind date. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” – Cary Grant as Captain Cassidy

No pretense can be made to suggest Destination Tokyo functions as an original entry of a “men on a mission movie” from a couple decades later. For one thing, Cary Grant doesn’t strike one as the soldiering type. He’s not Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson.

However, it must have worked on at least one kid. Years later Tony Curtis would recount how he saw the picture in theaters and the images of Grant looking through the periscope inspired him to enlist (and maybe become an actor).

He ultimately realized both aspirations — even starring with his hero in the Blake Edward’s comedy Operation Petticoat, which ironically, is set aboard a submarine! In Destination Tokyo, Grant is more business but an amiable skipper nonetheless, with a family waiting for him back home. Still, he’s more than prepared to face the task at hand.

Although they are not much of a secret, thanks to the built-in spoiler in the title, Captain Cassady (Grant) waits the designated 24 hours into their excursion before opening their orders. Obviously, they’re headed to Tokyo. They are also required to pick up a package en route: a meteorologist named Raymond (John Ridgely).

What the film does well is creating an ecosystem for characters to be empathized with because once we have the framework of the task at hand, we can readily spend our time getting to know the men onboard.

There always must be the callow recruit and this story is no different with Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton) stepping into the role. Meanwhile, John Garfield has a fine time hamming it up as the spirited Wolf enthralling the stir-crazy crew with his exploits with the fairer sex. His active imagination fuels their own hopes and dreams about sweethearts all across the sea, whether they exist or not.

Dane Clark readily complies to the rank and file with his own average G.I. Joe, “Tin Can,” an equally spirited Greek-American intent on getting his chance to make the “Japs” pay. Alan Hale, always counted on for comic relief, is little different here as the bubbly chef Cookie doing his best not to clang pans when they’re diving deep to evade the enemy.

Otherwise, he’s a handy fill in for Santa Claus for a Christmas spent 20,000 leagues under the sea, metaphorically speaking, of course. For someone like Adams, this is his first Christmas away from his family and the accordion accompanied quartet singing out “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a few other yuletide favorites is a much-appreciated touch of home.

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The crew begins to truly feel the weight of circumstance when a pair of Japanese zeroes come upon them on the seas. They let ’em have it with their anti-aircraft deck guns firing into the sky.

One curious stylistic choice is to actually show the enemy pilots raining hell down on them. It hardly feels like an empathetic turn, however, and more of an easy way to label them. If you see someone like this, know they’re the ones doing injustices against us. We’ve got to stick it to them whatever the cost. It becomes more blatantly clear only minutes later. They’re backstabbers.

In a film with an understandable but generally misguided sense of Japanese culture, it does become an intriguing task to begin to unwrap the ideologies being promoted. One cannot quickly forget this is propaganda meant to mobilize mom, dad, and everyone else back at home.  It makes it easier to comprehend how ignorance and general misconceptions can be so widely propagated.

Delmer Daves would soon become well-versed in these kinds of wartime tales from The Very Thought of You to Hollywood Canteen and The Pride of The Marines. One can note actors like John Garfield, Dane Clark, and John Ridgely readily being recycled throughout. However, to its credit, instead of merely painting all Japanese people as terrors, it frames them as victims of a broken system of government.

The token metaphor alighted on are roller skates — those vehicles of carefree child-like recreation — we need more rollerskates in this world including the next generation of Japanese kids. Because it’s a far better alternative than more international conflict.

In the most harrowing interludes, the crew of the USS Copperfin surreptitiously sneak into the minefield of Tokyo Bay under the cloak of an oblivious enemy cruiser. They squeak past the enemy netting and hold their breath as they move into the heart of enemy terrain. Their covert mission continues with three men, including Wolf, going ashore to undertake reconnaissance. It feels somewhat eery for the very reasons two years later nearby locales would be absolutely obliterated by Big Boy and Fat Man.

The balance of the human drama with wartime objectives remains the film’s greatest strength. It’s not all pulse-pounding action necessarily, but it maintains interest through the investment in its characters over the long haul.

An unexpected complication involves an impromptu appendicitis operation. A former pharmacist student, not formally trained as a surgeon, is given the unpleasant task of removing the burst organ based on the written procedures in a textbook. Meanwhile, on land, Tokyo Rose jeers the Allies only for our protagonists to send vital weather reports over the radio to waiting Allied receivers. This entire operation is purportedly under the nose of oblivious Japanese operatives.

The most laughable reaction comes from an incredulous Garfield, “If the Japs pick it up, they’ll think it’s one of their own guys.” He didn’t take into account how stifled John Ridgely’s pronunciation sounds. My Japanese is abysmal, but it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to know he’s probably never spoken a lick of Japanese in his life. But I digress.

The return trip is fraught with bombardment from above as the Japanese get wise and in the ensuing pursuit, the sub gets hammered. The situation is dire with the interior leaking and filling up with water. It’s all hands on deck just to bail them out.

However, when the proverbial fog clears, miraculously, they’ve got off scot-free. The next prominent landmark they see is the Golden Gate Bridge, and it triggers all their fluffy feelings of Americana. After being in foreign waters, the relief of being back home in the good ol’ U.S.A is too great to pass up. As an American who has lived for an extensive period of time in Tokyo, somehow I can relate, though for very different reasons. There’s no place like home.

3.5/5 Stars

Air Force (1943): Howard Hawks Takes on WWII

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At times, Air Force functions like a staged documentary. It feels both instructive and informed by Howard Hawks’ own passion for aviation. It has the simple task of making sure the folks at home can empathize with their boys up in the air. In fact, it falls short of being a mere instructional manual because its highest purpose is to be a stirring propaganda piece.

Certainly, the War meant all hands on deck, even when it came to filmmaking. You had John Ford famously capturing The Battle of Midway. Frank Capra oversaw the series Why We Fight, as a member of the Army Signal Corps. George Stevens notably took footage of Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated. This is Hawks’ contribution to the same effort, mobilizing the American public behind the war, in part, by harnessing their emotions. In this regard alone, Air Force is generally a success.

Although some of its players have been generally forgotten in the modern movie pantheon, Air Force features a surprisingly robust cast of actors. Their leader is pilot “Irish” Quincannon (John Ridgely), who has been charged with leading the crew of the Mary-Ann, a much-beloved B-17 Flying Fortress. Its caretaker is a crusty veteran (Harry Carey) whose own boy is currently stationed in the Philippines.

The rest of them feel like fine red-blooded Americans, from co-pilot Gig Young, navigator Charles Drake, and a youthful Arthur Kennedy as their bombardier. George Tobias adds his humor while John Garfield ably plays the outsider with a chip on his shoulder.

They are a perfect menagerie for Hawks to impose his always cognizant sense of male camaraderie because what more galvanizing situation is there than the throes of war? Very little.  It’s this link — a kind of communal gravitational pull — that helps them weather thick and thin, as the enemy hounds them at every turn. Without it, the picture wouldn’t have much pathos. These relationships are experienced vicariously by the audience.

Their assumedly routine mission is humanized through sendoffs from loving mothers and wives. Later on, they pay a visit to a sister stationed as a nurse on an island hospital. All these touches are very purposeful, implying how each life is interconnected with a web of loved ones and sweethearts. This could be any of us if we grew up in wartime America.

Against these waves of systematic sentimentality, the bad boy cynicism of John Garfield fits like a glove, and he peddles his usual pessimism with ease. For a time, that’s all the conflict we have.

Then, they pick up Japanese radio chatter — it’s odd — they don’t understand what could be happening until they see it for themselves. It is, of course, December 7th, 1941, and they’re right in the thick of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When they finally get a chance to inspect the situation on the ground, the aftermath is understandably grim.

In the moment, creating a broad conspiracy involving fifth column dirty treachery on Hickman Field is an effective paranoia tactic. However, in hindsight, there are a few pernicious details used to paint the scenario, namely, a band of rogue vegetable trucks used to clip the wings of planes on the ground. As if the enemy had ground forces orchestrating sabotage to coincide with the aerial attack. This, in fact, (considering the Munson Report) never occurred.

Regardless, the crew is ordered to get on the move again before any other trouble arrives. Their next leg is Wake Island en route to the Philippines. Along the way, they strike up a playful competition with a pursuit pilot, allowing our men to reconcile their differences. Even a dog christened “Tripoli” conveniently doesn’t like Japs (ie. Mr. Moto)

The ensuing dog fights in the skies feel atmospheric and like a dead ringer for George Lucas’s original Tie Fighter-Millenium Falcon duel, with turret guns blasting away. In this chaos, their one solitary flying fortress becomes an emblematic symbol in itself, representative of the American spirit, grit in the face of adversity, and a never say die mentality.

Battered and broken as it is, their sole purpose becomes putting it back together again, to fight another day, and it’s fitting because that’s very much what America was forced to do after Pearl Harbor. A victory at The Battle of Midway would have meant little if we didn’t get to that point. Air Force seems to suggest, with men as tough of these, we got there and ultimately we prevailed. It’s an easy narrative to swallow about the “greatest generation,” and there is a certain amount of truth in it. However, it’s certainly not a nuanced picture. We know its intentions full well.

The final minutes are all but a foregone conclusion, necessary for closing out the dramatic arc. There’s quite a large deal of bombs bursting, planes crashing, guns blasting — all key elements of the fog of war. Even in their archaic simplicity, there are some thrilling moments. However, most of what’s of interest still remains up in that airplane – – the men we’ve gotten to know along this arduous journey.

Of course, in 1943 the journey wasn’t done yet. Thus, there was the need for this picture in all of its patriotic fervor. In this realm, it’s fairly effective, amassing the third-highest box office pull in its day. There’s no doubt it spoke into a particular cultural moment. For those admiring of Howard Hawks, it’s a less-heralded but still intermittently gripping adventure in the skies, awash with jingoism though it may be.

3.5/5 Stars

Possessed (1931): Joan Crawford and The “In” Crowd

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We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.

Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”

It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.

She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.

Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.

At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.

In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.

However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.

For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.

What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.

Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.

Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.

Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.

It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.

A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.

In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.

Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.

Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.

3.5/5 Stars

Our Dancing Daughters (1928): Joan Crawford Ascending

Our Dancing Daughters is an inflection point of silent film for the very fact it stands out for setting Joan Crawford up to be in incandescent star for generations to come. She calls upon her flapper talents and bouncy effervescence fully embodying the jazz age through the character of “Dangerous” Diana Medford.

Between glitzy wardrobing and the Charleston, she exerts herself as a first-rate girl about town. Because she, like everyone else of her age demographic, is out to have a good time, dance with boys, and partake of everything else youth affords. Although it is still a silent, the added benefit of a synchronized soundtrack imbues the party scenes with life to go along with Crawford’s infectious hoofing as the balloons fall all around them. 

Di’s doting friend Bea (Dorothy Sebastian) is having her own romantic tribulations, based on the searing baggage of a past love affair, now impinging on her present. Meanwhile, her greatest rival, Ann (Anita Page), a conniving opportunistic with a mother cut out of the same cloth, continues to jockey for the most advantageous romantic partner. Page is an unholy riot giving the part her all as the duplicitous gold digger who turns into a raucous and rebellious drunk. She more than holds her own as a foil and the film’s primary villain.

This is great, but we still have to contend with all the various trysts and dalliances taking place; what do they matter? All the talk of merrymaking and marrying rich gets kind of monotonous. The picture’s premise feels quite flat and it may be an added effect of antiquity.

Another complaint is how so many of the male co-stars blend together aside from John Mack Brown. They’re a generally innocuous bunch of ne’er do wells. Why are we supposed to be drawn to any of them? However, even as other elements feel staid and pat to go with the passage of time — the ending included — Crawford still manages to draw the eye. 

This prevailing curiosity feels genuine and not simply an academic appreciation from a historical distance. She engages when the movie doesn’t always manage to do so. It’s not merely about looks or fashion. These are only cursory traits. But can we all agree that those great big expressive of hers were made to be in movies?

Thank heavens we have Joan Crawford and her heroine to bolster Our Dancing Daughters. It begins with garnering a certain reputation. The charm drips off of her, or better yet, it flies, landing like pixie dust on all her beaus and the audiences out in the theater seats. Crawford as a persona is coming to the fore and becoming fully apparent. She might not be the proverbial Clara Bow “It Girl,” but there’s a similar infectious magnetism even sensuality to her, bursting off the screen.

Thus, when she catches the eye of a Mr. Blaine (Brown), an eligible, very rich, young bachelor, people take note; they snicker. Diana the Dangerous is at work. But for all her reputation, Di is really a very sympathetic, vulnerable girl. It’s like Hollywood (or maybe the entire country) had not yet been burdened with the cynical inclinations of the Great Depression.

They have yet to see utter destitution or debauchery a la Baby Face or Red-Headed Woman. In 1928, women in the movies still dream of the right man, they marry for love, and the heroic ones are bound to get their hearts broken. This is so crucial to Diana. She’s hardly as superficial as we would assume.

She falls more and more for Ben only for him to make a major faux pas by going for Annikins and her false showing of pious propriety. She’s anything but. Whereas Di’s totally out there and inherently honest. And what does it get her? Heartbreak. Because Crawford has youthful good intentions, open to being wounded, and she’s more than susceptible to it.

She begins her career on this surprisingly sympathetic note, heartbroken by a man, and forced to come to terms with it. But she plays it sincerely, where all the frivolity evaporates when it really matters, and when it begins to hurt the most. This is the key to the movie. It starts to mean something. We realize why we are watching. 

As her sceen life merged with her personal legacy, I’m not sure I always considered or ever imagined Joan Crawford to be a terribly sympathetic figure. She was larger-than-life, yes, but I rarely felt connected with her. At this early juncture in her career, she more than proved her mettle as a “good girl,” and when it’s done well, there’s nothing wrong with being good. In a world that’s unfair and harsh, it gives us stories fraught with genuine weight. There would still be time enough for Joan to grow scales. She was a resilient one to be sure. She had to be.

3.5/5 Stars