Road House (1948)

Road House 1“Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?” ~ Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens

Jefty’s is quite the joint. Bowling, drinks, floorshows. In a one-horse town, it’s the place to go especially when the establishment’s proprietor (Richard Widmark) brings in the alluring nightclub singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) to liven up the bar. Although he hired her without much forethought following a trip to Chicago, Jefty’s convinced this girl is really something although his faithful right-hand man Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) has her pegged from the start.  Smoking and playing solitaire. It sums up her life. It’s true.

They don’t exactly hit it off because he thinks he already knows what type of girl she is and she’s not too happy about getting pushed out of this gig. But ultimately she stays, the general public starts coming in droves, Jefty’s happy, and Pete does his best to keep away from her. But she does exactly the opposite. She appreciates Jefty but really has eyes for Pete and she pursues him.

What the film hinges on is really a love diamond with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde at the points. She is the object of desire for Jefty who thinks he could finally tie the knot with a girl. He’s in love no question. But Pete warms to Lily as well and is the one looking to go away with her. There also must be some necessary credit given to Celeste Holm for her performance although she has the most thankless role as Susie, the cashier at the Road House who also has obvious feelings for Pete.

But everything is thrown for a loop when Jefty comes back from a week long hunting trip with big news to spring on Pete. He’s gotten a marriage license. He’s going to ask Lily to marry him. However, over that same week, Pete and Lily have gotten closer than ever. Obviously, when the truth comes out the old friends have it out and the two lovers look to leave town.

The whole film thus far, Jefty has been a bit of a loose cannon but a generally nice guy. Except on a dime, things turn. Soon Pete is being detained for some cash missing from the company’s safe that his old friend claims is missing. It’s Pete’s words (with Lily’s) against Jefty’s with the police in the middle. It seems like a small deal but in a whirlwind sequence of events, Pete is brought to court and convicted of grand larceny. However, in a diabolical turn of events, Jefty becomes Pete’s savior as well as his master following a talk with the judge who agrees to put the convicted man on probation at the Road House. It’s just like old times, the gang all back together again except this time Jefty has Pete in a bind. One false move, one thing that he doesn’t like and Pete goes back to fulfilling his prison sentence. Jefty’s got him on a string and everyone knows it.

It’s in these moments where the remnants of the maniacal cackle of Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death begin to rear their ugly mug. And the next hunting trip Jefty plans with everyone included fills liked forced fun. No one’s having it and Lily and her love look to take one final chance to run away because any life is better than a life under Jefty’s thumb. What follows is a race for the woods and the Canadian border with Susie fleeing after them pursued by the crazed man packing a gun a bit like A Dangerous Game. It’s bound to be a deadly finale. Someone has to lose.

Cornel Wilde always feels too much like cardboard or plastic, whichever you prefer especially when put up against Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. The latter pair is more at home in the worlds of film noir, Lupino being both alluring and assertive, boasting a gravelly voice perfect for rasping out “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” that is enhanced by her smoking habits.

Meanwhile, Widmark always had a handle on the sleazy and embittered characters who were in one moment grinning and in another seething with a cunning anger. There’s a volatile polarity that he taps into that makes most every character he plays enjoyable as we slowly watch their evil tendencies overwhelm any good that is in them (or vice versa). He also likes hitting the sauce. Cigarettes and booze have always been a hallmark with noir and so it is with this film. So if you’re looking for a good time and a bit of uncompromising filmmaking, look no further than the Road House.

3.5/5 Stars

The Snake Pit (1948)

Snakepit1948_62862nThere is a lineage of psychological dramas most notably including the likes of Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. But one of their primary predecessors was The Snake Pit which is a haunting, inscrutable and thought-provoking film in its own right.

But rather than trying to sum it up with words, it’s necessary to look deeper at what makes this such a potent film and it begins most obviously with Olivia De Havilland. She undoubtedly gives the best performance of her career — in so many ways drifting so effortlessly across the emotional spectrum. She’s either sane or “crazy” with fits of paranoia and inner turmoil, voices sounding off in her head and the like. But the most beautiful things are the moments when all the drama derives from the look on her face, a furrowed brow or a panic-stricken reaction we cannot fully understand.

That’s why it takes us the entire film to comprehend what is actually happening and it’s wonderful that we enter her story while she is in a sanitarium. Why and how she got there we don’t know right away, so as an audience there’s a similar sense of disorientation. Several reliable points of reference exist early on. Those being the genial Dr. Kik (Leo Genn)and Virginia’s concerned husband Robert (Mark Stevens) who visits her during every possible hour.

The film does intermittently feel disjointed but that hardly seems due to faulty storytelling and more a convention of Virginia’s narrative. It all comes to us in incoherent bits. In reality, months have passed but her memory is poor, causing her to lose track of the days. She drifts in and out of different wards and soon forgets the people and places that have been there all along. Furthermore, her progress waxes and wanes, with special visits from her husband and the faint chance of being released. Then in her darkest moments come electroshock therapy and even a straight jacket confining her in the depths of the sanitarium.

Anatole Litvak would hardly be considered an auteur but he still finds a way to heighten the tension with whip pans and nightmarish imagery when necessary. A pounding score adds yet another layer of anxiety reverberating with a vengeance, most memorably to simulate the jolts of electroshock therapy. But the greatest compliment that I have for his film is that it knows when to simply sit back and watch, like many of the great Classical Hollywood films. It lets its story, actors, and script all work and, in this case, they develop something with lasting depth.

Earlier I alluded to  The Snake Pit being part of a lineage including Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It contains similarly shocking revelations about the reality behind sanitarium walls except they feel more realistic than the former film. Furthermore, De Havilland is surrounded by a wide array of odd bodies and patients with all sorts of psychoses rather like Randle McMurphy. But although there are some antagonistic people, her problems stem partially from the system around her and mostly from the pain buried deep within her own past.

It’s Dr. Kik who is able to dredge up the truth hidden inside of her over time. His calming, reassuring voice balanced with his psychoanalytic practices are able to work on Virginia’s psyche systematically. But in the same instance, it’s easy for her to get lost among the masses. Nurses do their jobs, doctors pass verdicts but they’re woefully understaffed and overworked.

The film’s resolution is actually hidden within its title. Because like the madmen of old, Virginia was thrown into a snake pit of her own that, far from driving her crazy, revealed to her that she must, in fact, be sane — at least compared to many of those around her. It’s up to the viewer to decide, aside from the happy denouement, if this is a troubling conclusion that the film comes to or not.

However, it’s paramount to note The Snake Pit’s conclusion on personal trauma and mental illness, based on childhood experiences. A lot of Virginia’s struggles came out of guilt and dysfunctional relationships with her parents. Yes, this is the punchline of the movie, but I only say this to point out how frightening or more precisely, how universal that revelation make this movie. Virginia’s parents weren’t altogether bad people and the reality is that all of us will face personal tragedy. We will have our share of guilty consciences too.

It’s how we cope with those things that matter most because it’s going to happen. We can hide it but we can’t escape it. All of us are broken in one way or another — even if we don’t want to admit it. That’s part of what The Snake Pit begins to bring to light.

4/5 Stars

Review: All About Eve (1950)

“FastEveEveMargotCasswellWitten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” ~ Margo Channing

It’s cliche, I do admit, but they simply do not make films like this anymore. Stories about people talking where the actors take center stage. In this case, the story from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is about the Broadway stage and all that happens behind the curtains, in the dressing rooms, and behind the closed doors of the royalty of that profession.There is so much that could be dissected, antagonized over, or acknowledged so I will move through it the best way I know how.

A moment must be spent acknowledging that this is the film that revitalized the career of Bette Davis. She was the tops during the 30s and early 40s, but the role of the histrionic stage icon Margo Channing was her comeback and it thoroughly suited Davis. I have actually never been a fan of hers because I always found her rather arrogant and she scares me visually. However, All About Eve plays on my personal sentiments wonderfully. When we’re first introduced to Margo, she’s everything we expect in a Bette Davis character, and truth be told I don’t really like her. But interestingly enough that changes. That’s where Eve and the rest of the cast come in.

The film is book-ended by the wonderfully wry and snooty commentary of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He makes it his mission to rake every new play over the coals, and he can be merciless. But he also is a great ally and he proves so for young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Because, after all, this film is her story, we just don’t quite understand why at the beginning.

Eve came from humble roots and was the most devoted young fan of Margo Channing. She would attend every one of her performances and wait outside her dressing room timidly, just to get a glimpse of the star. One of Margo’s best friends Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) was accustomed to seeing the girl and in a kindly gesture she invited Eve up to the dressing room. And just like that Eve had her backstage pass into this world rounded out by Margo Channing, Karen, her husband the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and the young director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) who also happens to be Margo’s suitor.

She begins unassuming enough on the outskirts of their little group. Always seen, not heard. Always thoughtful and ready to be of service. Eve takes on the role of Margo’s personal assistant just like that and an ego like Channing doesn’t mind. In fact, everyone seems to like having her around except the skeptical Birdie (embodied by the always spunky Thelma Ritter).

As time marches on, Eve loses her charm. More and more it feels as if she’s analyzing Margo. Watching her every move. Monitoring her success and slowly moving in. She plants the idea that she can be the next understudy and so it is. One fateful night Karen agrees to stall Margo and Eve gets her big chance as an understudy. She of course politely invites all the major critics to see the performance. It was the conscientious thing to do after all. Ironically, it’s at this point where things turn. Margo becomes the victim and in her great vulnerability, while sharing with Karen, we begin to sympathize with this woman hiding behind the facade of Margo Channing. Meanwhile, Eve continues her ascent using whatever means possible. She alienates Margo and begins driving a wedge between the always amiable working relationship of Lloyd and Bill. Eve even resorts to blackmail and home wrecking sharing her master plot with Addison.

She’s used everybody else and so he seems like the next logical target. However, he’s too much like her. He’s too cynical to fall for her act, and he points out a few chinks in her armor. So like that we end up back at the award ceremony where Eve is about to win her big award. Now we know all the clawing and backstabbing it took for her to get there. Now all that is veiled under her perfectly demure features and charming voice. But we see it on the faces of all the ones who sit there knowingly. Each one knows all too well the damage that this girl has done. She came out of the woodwork, used and abused them because everything was about Eve. Nothing else mattered to her.

But the beauty of the film’s ending is that the cycle continues. Margo is fading away yes, and Eve is taking her place, but that means that there are more Eves where she came from. Young girls obsessed with stardom, fame, and success. It’s a frightening evolution and it proves to be a sharp indictment of the industry as a whole.

The five leads are solid and their performances shift as the Margo-Eve dynamic fluctuates. However, George Sanders is possibly the most enjoyable character, because, despite his cruel wit, he’s the one who is outside of Eve’s influence, or at least he catches her in her charade. There’s something utterly satisfying in that. Also, he has some memorable moments alongside the aspiring Ms. Casswell (none other than the show-stopping Marilyn Monroe in an early role). So really this is a film about the performances and they are well worth it because they suggest that in such a cultured world, so many things lurk under the surface. It might be insecurity, fear, suppressed desire, or savagery. Humanity is most definitely messy, you just have to look behind the curtain sometimes.

5/5 Stars

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

A_letter_to_three_wives_movie_posterHere is a story about three wives, the three husbands that go with them, and the one woman who got in the middle of them all. The main plot device is simply this: This woman named Addie Grace, who we never see but who is always being referred to, has left town and she also left a letter addressed to the three wives. The women get it as they board a boat for an afternoon out at sea with some underprivileged children. When they read what it says their afternoon takes a major turn. The one and only Addie Ross has run off with one of their husbands and yet she does not say who it is.

The rest of their time is spent thinking back on their marriages and each recollection is framed as a long flashback. First, comes Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), a farm girl who met her husband during the war. Now with his friends back home she wishes to make a good impression, but she feels like she can never measure up with such elite society. To make matters worse, she learns that before the war it was thought that Brad would marry Addie Grace because they grew up together.

Next, comes Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), who puts on an extra special dinner for her bosses from the radio station she writes for. The night includes a forgotten birthday, sappy radio programs, and all the while Rita is constantly trying to please and appease her bosses. They enjoy the evening but her husband George is upset that she constantly caves to them. To make matters worse, as a school teacher, it is difficult for him, as the man of the house, to have her bring in a great deal of their income.

Last but not least is Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) who grew up in a poor household near the train tracks with her mother and younger sister. She focuses her attention on Porter Hollingsway (her future husband), an older divorced man who also happens to own a chain of department stores. After a great deal of back and forth, they get married but underlying their marriage is this assumption that she only went after him for his money. Their relationship hardly seems to involve true love.

All three women return to their lives. Rita is grateful to find George sitting in the living room. Porter, who Lora Mae half expected to be gone, has come into the house exhausted after a long day of work. Deborah is seemingly not so lucky. All of them get ready for the dance that evening with their spirits all at different levels. However, after Porter shares a revelation the evening gets a whole lot better.

This Joseph L. Mankiewicz precursor to All About Eve is a remarkable drama in its own right thanks to its primary narrative device and fine performances from the cast. Thelma Ritter was as entertaining as ever and Celeste Holme was tantalizing as the unseen voice of Addie. It is interesting how all the stories of the film interconnect characters, making us come to understand each and every one of them a little better. The ending was slightly abrupt but still clever. All in all, A Letter to Three Wives was an interesting concept that paid off beautifully.

4.5/5 Stars

All About Eve (1950)

f37d4-allabouteveEve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a seemingly modest and conscientious girl who gets the chance of a lifetime. She is able to meet a great Broadway star (Bette Davis) as well as her close circle of friends. Soon she is helping this Margot Channing by taking care of errands and odd jobs. This ambitious girl finally convinces one of Margot’s friends Karen (Celeste Holm), to let her be an understudy. And so when Margot is detained the night of a show, Eve gets her chance at the big time. However, Eve soon shows a different side of herself; one of back-stabbing and blackmail. Through her manipulation, she meets a famous critic (George Sanders) and wins an award. However, he has her pegged and the truth becomes evident. By the end of the film, Eve seems to have fallen for the same trap that Margot had. This film was pretty good and featured a good cast including Thelma Ritter and a young Marilyn Monroe. As Davis exclaims, “fasten your seat belts!”

4.5/5 Stars