Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

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“Arise, my fair love and come away” – Song of Solomon 2:13

The screenplays of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are often literal master classes in hooking the audience. They understand intuitively the construction necessary to bring us into a story so we’re invested. Take the opening of Arise, My Love. Yes, there’s some throw-away text about the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1939. It’s in the aftermath, but then we’re introduced to a telling scene.

One of these soldiers of fortune, American Tom Martin (Ray Milland) sits in confinement as a father (Frank Puglia) from the local monastery pays him a visit. The firing squads right outside his annex make it painfully clear the hour of his own execution is imminent. Those aren’t rubber bullets. The man of faith feels some urgency to ask the prisoner if he even feels penitent — if he needs to clear his chest of anything.

All this sounds rote so far. Anyone could write this scene like so. Then, individuality sets in. Instead of contrition, he bemoans the fact he didn’t get into the action with Chamberlain and Hitler nor has he gotten a chance to take potshots at Nazis. It has the vitriolic gallows wit of Wilder setting up the gag.

Here’s the kicker. The inevitable is whisked right out from under Martin by the most unexpected of Providences. He’s been granted a pardon! It came through the pleading of his wife! It’s an obvious punchline if I know Wilder (and Brackett): he has no wife!

This plucky mystery woman (Claudette Colbert) is a reporter out for a story and boy does she has a way of making a doozy of a spread. They get out of the scenario thanks to her charm, his flying, and a bit of luck.

We are reminded the movie is planted squarely in its moment from the headlines about the Yankees in the World Series and the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara finally being over. Tom was among three American flyboys, who are a group of idealistic interventionists siding with the little guys against the big boys.

Paris, the city of amour, is still free from Nazi influence, and the pilot does his best to channel what’s already in the air. “Gusto” rebuffs him — albeit good-naturedly — because she’s an all-or-nothing gal. She knows if she says “yes” she’ll be head over heels. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But she’s a career woman.

Now Claudette Colbert doesn’t quite strike me as a typewriter-plunking type like Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck — one of the boys as it were — but she comes off as deliriously happy. Because it feels like she’s in her element again in this world, whether or not it’s totally manufactured by Hollywood. As her slighted suitor sits in the Cafe Magenta just betting she’ll walk over from her hotel, she looks to climb the journalistic ladder.

She’s dropped with quite the gig: Special Berlin Correspondent. The previous correspondent was kindly asked to leave by the Nazis. Among other infractions, he went to a reception for Herr von Ribbentropp and yelled “Gefilte Fish!”

The agitated editor (Walter Abel) is a long-running trope, but here it works as well as it did anywhere else in that he provides yet another antagonistic force to push against our heroine. Although, given the state of the world, she hardly needs it. He more likely serves as a bit of comic relief.

Because while Tom decides to go off to Warsaw, Poland to fly with his buddies (“I’ve always wanted to drop something on Hamburg after I got ptomaine from that hamburger”), while simultaneously stealing a few more hours with Gusto, Hitler rudely kicks off WWII. They plan to get out of town on the fated S.S. Athenia. No one told them the battle for the Atlantic has already geared up. Though hit hard, they are luckier than most. At the end of the day, Tom and Gusto are still together (and alive)…

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If you humor me for only a moment, there is a habit that can get me into trouble. Reading other people’s reviews. I’m as insecure as the next fellow about my writing. I could never do it as good as so-and-so or why didn’t think of that! That’s all that comparison gets you. Worse yet it can start infecting your own point of view if you consider other voices. Usually, I hold off until after my words are set in cement.

However, in a rare instance, I happen upon a contemporary review of Bosley Crowther, and it gave birth to some thoughts. He ends his piece on Arise, My Love in this manner:

“It is simply a synthetic picture which attempts to give consequence to a pleasant April-in-Paris romance by involving it in the realities of war — but a war which is patently conceived by someone who has been reading headlines in California. Miss Colbert and Mr. Milland are very charming when tête-tête. But, with Europe going up in flames around them, they are, paradoxically, not so hot. Same goes for the film.”

While I understand where Crowther is coming from, I will politely dissent, armed with hindsight as I most conveniently am. I’m often of the mind Hollywood folks are too self-important. How much influence do they really have? And yet even to look back at cinema in 1940 there is a sense there was real social importance in the movies being made — at least the ones that were truly aware of the cultural moment.

I am reminded Hitler was a cinema nut and Goebbels (derided briefly in this film) was deeply engaged in harnessing film for propagandistic purposes. Hitler even had a special prize for capturing Clark Gable. They really could be taken down a few pegs by the medium they too seemed to admire in spite of all their dementedness, and it’s quite a fitting mode of attack.

Think of Chaplin’s lampoon. Think of the various contours of Nazi menace explored in the likes of The Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, and The Mortal Storm from both inside and out. Hold Back The Dawn shows the implications on the American homefront. Even the passing remark from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday to stick Hitler on the funny pages brandishes something momentarily powerful.

If Billy Wilder is not considered to be an integral part of this company, he deserves to be. Because Arise, My Love taps into the same immediacy available only in those uncertain months. He gladly sticks his nose out to be bitten and whether it was from the relative comfort of California, Wilder was not a stranger to personal heartache. He lost loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a personal context I doubt Crowther could have been aware of. Arise, My Love was promoted as a romance that could only happen in 1940, which is a key to its resonance; it’s effectively encased in the amber of the times.

The final interludes are in a forest, a pasture, as Colbert stands on her soapbox, as it were, in a lasting embrace with her love. It’s not as stunning as Joel McCrea’s delivery of Ben Hecht’s prose in Foreign Correspondent, nor is it Wilder/Brackett’s finest hour. But that’s just it.

For an effort that’s not even that well-remembered in Classic movie circles, Arise, My Love is a charming picture. The word proves apt for much of Mitchell Leisen’s filmography. And yet there is the undeniable wit and sophistication of its writers. Right down to its title. The full passage reads like this:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

So you see, it’s not only an inflection of passionate love but also naturalistic hope.

3.5/5 Stars

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938): Coop and Colbert

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The whole glorious entangled mess of the story feels like an obvious antecedent to Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957), which is one of his lesser films (even with the redeeming presence of both Hepburn and Chevalier). It seems like a fairly obvious observation to make because Wilder deeply admired  Ernst Lubitsch. Love in The Afternoon was an ode to his hero. Although it didn’t quite come off.

I have similar feelings about the screwball comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). It doesn’t quite gel. But first let’s turn our attention to the illustrious opening gambit which, like many of the great Lubitsch beginnings, is too exquisite to pass up as the dramatic situation is brought to the fore.

Gary Cooper staves off the sales floor spiel of the pertinacious shopkeeper with a touch of Parisian charm. All he wants are pajama tops. No bottoms. But in France, this simply is not done. It’s unheard of. The chain reaction is set off from clerk to head clerk — rushing up the stairs to the manager, regional manager…all the way up the president! In a moment of incredulity, the disgruntled fellow rushes out of bed at the words. He yells, “Communism!” only to reveal he has no bottoms. And we’re hoodwinked from the outset as only Lubitsch could do.

It all amounts to a national calamity. You can just imagine the papers printing up a nice spread on the scandal. But none of this happens thanks to a most propitious solution in the form of a woman; she only requires bottoms for her man. If it’s not apparent already, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script might as well have written the book on the rom-com meet-cute.

They’ve piqued our interest and pricked up our ears. If nothing else, thanks to some talk of “Czechoslovakia” in the dark. Far from being risque, it’s supposed to be a handy antidote to insomnia.  The man is obliged to the woman, and they go their separate ways.

The story too moves on from a department store to a hotel hallway where Gary Cooper is still being hustled and harried, this time by none other than the perennial Classic Hollywood hotel clerk Franklin Pangborn.

Better still is Edward Everett Horton, the Marquis de Loiselle, a man squatting in the hotel with rent backdated for months. He’s trying to pawn off anything he can to anyone who will bite including Mr. Brandon (Cooper). He’s also connected with the same pair of PJs in another winking Lubitsch touch before the conversation suddenly switches to bathtubs.

If you want to get technical, the pajamas spell it out for him. It’s the reason why he’ll buy the man’s bathtub, already preemptively planning a honeymoon in Czechoslovakia. It’s Lubitsch shorthand for wedding bells. You see, Coop is intent with getting together with Claudette if at all possible, and it is. She’s the marquis’s daughter.

These elements are wonderfully conceived and textbook Lubitsch execution making the most of the script. However, I failed to feel the same way about the entire movie. If you’ll permit me a digression, I recently saw Paris When it Sizzles and there’s no doubt Lubitsch’s film is head and shoulders above the later picture — more lithe and clever at any rate — but there is the same problem at its core.

It ‘s almost counterintuitive to acknowledge this. The premise in each case feels almost too inventive for the story’s own good. However, it’s rather like we are following the mechanisms of a clever bit of story structure instead of really getting to enjoy the out-and-out thrills of romance, be they comedic or overly dramatic.

We never get past the stage of logline, hook, or gimmick into truly uncharted territory where the two characters are allowed space to breathe and do things that feel, well, natural.

The remaining elements are intriguing enough. She finds out he’s been married so often. Thus, Nicole’s ready to call the whole thing off. Instead, she decides to make him suffer. No divorce, just prolonged separation. It galls him to be so close to his wife and yet so far. He mounts an offensive inspired by Shakespeare.

What follows is a barrage of slaps, spankings, and iodine for bite marks. Colbert is able to out duel him with her onion breath — his fatal flaw is that he positively abhors the miserable vegetable. It’s all potentially brilliant stuff and a lot of it truly diverting with David Niven and a private investigator thrown into the mix. However, the pieces somehow don’t fit together in a manner constituting a decisive story, beyond some hilarious premises and snappy dialogue. Rest assured the film has both.

If we’re able to consider where it goes wrong, we can look to Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert sharing the screen together. There’s no clear antagonism between them per se. Instead of antipathy, they have a kind of anti-chemistry. That is, they’re meant to be opposites. But there must be a sneaking suspicion on the part of the audience that they do really have feelings for one another. At least, this is what all the great screwball comedies of remarriage banked on.

Coop and Colbert never manage the same kind of underlying inertia. I never feel like I’m sitting back and having a grand ol’ time gallivanting through escapades with them. In other words, it’s not quite screwball. That was never the Lubitsch calling card. That’s not what his Touch is about.

Admittedly, I had a similar issue with Design for Living (1933) a film that was quite good on paper (and even in technical conception. The acting talents are to die for. The director one of the greats of visually intuitive comedy. Here we even have a script from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.  It all comes to naught if the parts don’t completely mesh.

One idea I would like to court has to do with the point of view of the story. Obviously, Gary Cooper’s our lead, and he’s far from a virtuoso comedic wit. He is a movie star. Still, what is the essence of the story?

Is it about a woman winning her man over under the most absurd circumstances? The Lady Eve did that quite well: Barbara Stanwyck taking in Henry Fonda. But that will never do with Coop (Then, again there is Ball of Fire). He began as our focal point, and he’s the main focus until the end. Even with a straitjacket gag, he gets the final kiss.

Really this should be Colbert’s movie to win over, where we get to cheer her on and relish her amorous conniving. Heaven forbid our leading man be upstaged (Then, again there is Midnight). Instead, Claudette felt like the enemy, a bit annoying, and because Gary’s strung out a laundry list of wives and meets everyone with a scowl and a brusque dismissal, there’s not much to like about him either.

Maybe the film’s take is too modern or my sensibilities not modern enough, but I couldn’t help feeling letdown. I’m not sure if doing a more thorough anatomy of the screenplay will change this, and I’m okay with that. It’s only a shame I don’t like this movie more. I wanted to. At least I know Gary and Claudette won’t hold it against me.

3/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alcohol The Femme Fatale

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It might be a futile exercise but at least for a brief moment, I will attempt to get back into the headspace from when I first came upon Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I was younger then. Bright-eyed and a budding cinephile. It is the film that defined Ray Milland’s entire filmography for me as I had never seen another one of his pictures (although Dial M for Murder followed soon thereafter).

Now I understand the crucial context. To say Ray Milland is defined by The Lost Weekend is analogous to attributing Anthony Perkins’s entire persona to Norman Bates and Psycho. You wouldn’t be wrong but in order to understand this inference, you have to understand how the viewing public viewed them in the moment. They were matinee idols and boys-next-door. They fit in comedies and as youthful love interests.

It takes a subversive and inventive mind like a Wilder or a Hitchcock to take the inherent expectations provided by an actor only to toy with the audience. Milland, in his early years, could be defined by the likes of Easy Living or The Major and The Minor. Even noir like Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock, though clouded by menace, rely on the inherent likeability of our hero thrown into trauma though he maybe.

The Lost Weekend was an unequivocal gamble for Milland, in particular, and history has proven to be on his side. He gamely throws himself wholeheartedly into the drama, and it pays heavy dividends.

Don Birnam (Milland) is a struggling novelist with a persistent drinking habit. He’s playing at being reformed, about to go on a trip to the country with his pragmatic brother, but just out of sight and out of reach is a bottle. He’s still beholden to the stuff. It’s a hidden cache of security just in case he needs a nip.

His concerned girlfriend (Jane Wyman) has the cutest way of remedying their height disparity when it comes to kissing (bend down). Even as I’ve gained a more full-bodied impression of Ray Milland, I would like to believe I’ve also reappraised the stardom of Wyman with newfound respect.

She’s not merely an ironic Sirkian pawn in melodrama. During the bulk of the 1940s, she more than asserted herself as a quality performer.  In retrograde, the likes of The Yearling and Johnny Belinda show an extraordinary range, redefining how I perceive her for the better. The Lost Weekend exhibits her at her most likable while still being bolstered with personal resolve.

This is evident even as her boyfriend so quickly falls into outrage as if the people who love him most are turning against him. It all plays as a symptom of the real problem. He feels hemmed in or could it be the withdrawals from the alcohol crying out?

Regardless, the theremin has never used as effectively to denote menace in such a different context than the ubiquitous Sci-Fi trope it would soon become. Because one bottle is snatched away and yet it’s simply indicative of a far more pervasive problem. Don has stashed alcohol all over his apartment in the most ingenious hiding places though his brother is equally adept at hide and seek.The premises are really and truly dry. That is until the cleaning woman unwittingly tips him off to $10 he can splurge on. He’s up for a perilous road ahead.

John Seitz photographs the drama like a brooding noir, and it is as if alcohol — the siren on the shelf — is the deadly fatale entrapping Ray Milland in its web. His girlfriend even goes so far as to label the “other woman” and confidently intimates she’s not going to go down without a fight; she’ll help him beat it and keep Birnham for her own.

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Eventually, he succumbs to a bender of a weekend, caught as he is within his own self-exile. What becomes so very evident is how isolating addiction becomes. His only confidante is the local bartender (Howard da Silva in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part).

As Don spirals back into his destructive habit, he recounts how he managed to meet a girl like Helen even in the throes of his alcoholism. There he was sitting in the theater like a fine thespian and yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even the play reminds him of the bottle he has in his jacket pocket, currently stashed out in the coat check. It proved a fortuitous evening as his petulant first impression gave way to charms that won his girl over.

However, it is a portent of all his recurring troubles. The want of liquor leads him into distancing himself from the community just so he can get alone with his bottle. Companionship seems so much more vital and yet we tell ourselves backward lies to rationalize our decisions.

He is a man who suffers from the age-old affliction of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. He even admits there are two sides to his persona. The man about town with a charming public persona, and then the other Don Birnam. The drunk who remains a tortured writer.

He hits the pits of despair, wandering the streets, desperately looking to hock his belongings for one last satiating drink — even a handout if he can get it. But that’s the lie, isn’t it? Just one more time and we’ll reform. Just one more and never again. We gather together the willpower for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until it comes back with a vengeance.

Birnham’s life is indicative of a whole caste of society. The silent and the forgotten in dark rooms and lonely bouts of aggravation. His brother has turned his back, and he won’t respond to his girlfriend. It quite literally feels like a little slice of hell.

The film makes one harrowing detour to an archaic-looking drunk ward where a sardonic Frank Faylen takes care of the jittery new arrival inside the booze tank. He’s confident Birnham will be a regular customer soon enough. It feels like a harsh and unfeeling extension of the world.

For some, The Lost Weekend might be a tempered now antiquated exploration of alcoholism firmly planted in the past. However, I would like to push against this preconception slightly.

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Wilder purportedly penned the piece with his writer partner, Charles Brackett, as a way to explore his relationship with Raymond Chandler and how alcoholism affected their art — the processes of a writer being derailed by drink.  So in this regard, it too is personal and yet about as universal as a picture can be. There is this obvious duality of art and alcohol where one impacts the other in highly detrimental ways.

Wilder’s not always known as a technical director but, if nothing else, he surrounds himself with competent people. A couple names that come to mind in this picture, in particular, are cinematographer John Seitz and then his editor Doane Harrison.

One is reminded of the shots of the overturned lamp repeatedly reflecting the shambles of Birnham’s current life, derailed by drunkenness as it is. In another, it’s Milland’s eyeball spinning psychotically inside its socket. He’s more alive than Marion Crane on the bathroom floor, but we can hardly deign to call this life.

Each of these elements, even the more blatant evocations of his delusions, illustrates the torment of human beings stricken by addiction. It saps our creativity and our energy. It can take away a want for relationships and, in some cases, our desire to live.

The Lost Weekend is a reminder sometimes we need to enter into the storm of our struggles so we might come out on the other side. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the tap is dry, and your body is shaking, the only place to go is up.

However, sometimes we’re not strong enough to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grit, determination, and resolve only get us so far. We have nothing left. We’re broken, alone, destitute.  Utterly defeated. It’s in this place of helplessness when we are forced to look outside of ourselves…to something or someone else. To reclaim all that is lost and be found again.

4.5/5 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

 

Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double_indemnity_screenshot_8It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” – Walter Neff

I can’t say this enough. Double Indemnity is so deliciously enticing each and every time I see it. Maybe it’s the A-grade script from Billy Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler with its noir cynicism and memorable phraseology. Maybe it’s the shadowy, low-key interiors or L.A. exteriors. The monotonous beating score of Miklos Rozsa, mourning impending doom. Maybe it’s the plain, laconic way of Walter Neff or his bloodhound buddy Keyes. Is it the innocent Lola who gives the film morality? Or the artificial wig and the silky smooth purring of Phyllis Dietrichson?

In fact, I named many, if not all, of the many facets of this film, because I want to attempt to acknowledge all of them before I forget. But the reality is I love Double Indemnity at its most basic level as a piece of prime American cinema. Yes, it is film-noir and yes, it came from a European director, but it is very much a product of 1940s sentiment as the war years waned.

The story is pulled right from some pulp fiction sleaze by James M. Cain and cemented itself as a noir classic in its own right with all the trappings that are called for.

It opens with the beginnings of Rozsa’s score reverberating in our ears and it very rarely lets up. A car blazes wildly down the street and winds up in front of an insurance agency. Out stumbles our protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and for the rest of the film, he relates the recent happenings over the Dictaphone of his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). It goes something like this:

During his first visit to the home of a Mr. Dietrichson, he instead has his first encounter with the man’s sensual wife, and his heart goes pitter-patter from then on. His motivation is no longer insurance. Now he just wants the chance to see her more. He gets his chance to advise her on a plan, and it all seems playful enough until she insinuates that she wants to knock off her ol’ hubby. At least that’s how Neff reads it. However, he cannot get her out of his head as he has fallen into her web. There’s no turning back.

They think of everything and Neff has everything figured out to a tee. As he suggests, it’s like having the perfect odds on the roulette wheel, you just need an accomplice to spin and Phyllis is just that person. From then it’s just straight down the line. They corroborate on all the details at local Jerry’s Market, Walter sets up his alibi, and he does the devilish deed as Phyllis stares with cool satisfaction at the road ahead.

They set it all up like an accident as the last touch, because as Neff knows all too well if it looks like Mr. Dietrichson was killed from riding a train the Double Indemnity clause of the insurance will mean double the payoff due to how unlikely the occurrence is.

 Double Indemnity (1944) - UpdatedHis only fear is the inquisitive nose of Keyes and the “little man” inside the claims investigator’s stomach, who warns him of the first sign of anything fishy. He gets close to the truth but not quite there. Neff is too close for him to see it. However, as things begin to heat up Phyllis and Neff must separate.

As Neff tries to console Lola Dietrichson over the death of her father, he quickly finds out what the naive girl has to say about her step-mother. It puts a little light on the subject, and Neff realizes what he’s been taken for. He wants to remedy things while he can, patching Lola up with her boyfriend, and going to confront Phyllis one last time.

It’s the perfect set-up. Darkened rooms with curtains drawn. Phyllis reclined in an armchair with evil intentions on her mind. In walks Walter and they have it out. Shots are fired, literally. Phyllis will never let up with her ploys until Walter gives her a little help for the final time. I’m sure the Hays Codes loved this one. I certainly did.

Back in the office Keyes finally overhears the end of Walter’s “confession” as his friend bleeds to death. In one last touching moment, Keyes returns the favor and lights the cigarette like Walter has been obliging to do the entire film.

Walter: “Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.”
Keyes: “Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter: “I love you too”

Billy Wilder traded longtime partner Charles Brackett for Raymond Chandler, and despite a rocky partnership, they ended up with one of the greatest scripts, chock full of memorable bits of dialogue. You know you have an impressive cast when Edward G. Robinson is your third lead and each character is playing against type. It’s great casting, in a quintessential American drama solidified by great cinematography and storytelling.

It doesn’t get much better than this and it certainly does not need to. You know Double Indemnity is good when I’ve seen it multiple times and each time the bullets still keep me on the edge of my seat. Thank you, Billy Wilder, for teaching us murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle. That’s absolutely beautiful.

Phyllis: “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”
Walter: “Sorry, baby, I’m not buying”
Phyllis: “I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.
Walter: “Good-bye baby.”

5/5 Stars

Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the Homicide Squad – complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved – one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”

So begins one of the most caustic dramas ever constructed in Hollywood, or about Hollywood, and it was gifted to us by screenwriter-director extraordinaire Billy Wilder. His previous hard-edged film noir Double Indemnity had its own cynical narrator with a memorable voice-over of his own. However, Walter Neff was only on the verge of dying. When we hear the voice of Joe Gillis he is already speaking from the grave. It is a fantastic angle in which to look at this seemingly perfect Hollywood construction, and Gillis never ceases to tell his story until we wind up at the pool as the story comes to a close.

For now, we learn that six months back Joe (William Holden)  is a writer who is having difficulties being published, and some men want to repossess his car. Desperate, he pays a visit to a friend at Paramount named Mandrake to pitch an idea, but the script is of little merit according to a pretty young script reader. That’s a dead end so Joe leaves, but the men are waiting for him and he zooms away. A flat tire leads him to drive away into an empty garage connected to a dilapidated old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

There he is mistakenly introduced to drama queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who used to be big on the silent screen, back in the day. Now all she has is money, fan letters, and old memories to rehash, while her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) watches over her. The theatrical actress believes her big comeback is soon at hand, and when she learns Joe is a writer, she takes an interest. He needs the money so he takes a look at the rough script meant to be a vehicle for her. A small commitment turns into a life-consuming undertaking. Desmond constantly hovers and dotes over Joe, going so far as having his things moved into her home and buying him new clothes and trinkets. He reluctantly accepts the first class treatment, not minding the cushy lifestyle. But to Norma, it’s more. 

He is her closest companion. Her love. Joe cannot bear to tell her that she is washed up and that there will never be anything between them. He ditches her intimate New Years party for a more friendly affair where he crosses path with his old bud Artie (Jack Webb) and his girl, the previously critical script girl Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson). She takes an interest in a few of his past ideas, but he does not, and after getting shocking news from Max he is pulled back to his lavish prison.

Eventually, Norma is prepared to drop off her script with her former collaborator the great Cecil B. DeMille. However, it becomes all too clear that her story will amount to nothing, but her friend cannot bear to break her heart. She is sent off again with the strong conviction that her day is coming. Makeover’s, diets, and facials follow in preparation. Joe is indifferent to it all and secretly begins working at nights with Betty on a new screenplay. 

Desmond finds the script and jealousy takes over, causing her to call Betty to ruin the romance that is rapidly budding there. Joe hears it all and angrily tells the disbelieving Betty to come see his set-up on Sunset Boulevard. He acts as if he likes the life, and Betty leaves broken-hearted. Soon after, a fed-up Joe packs his bags to head back to Ohio. Thus, begins the systematic breakdown that we had expected for so long. Norma Desmond completely falls apart and does the one thing she knows to hold on. 

Back in the present the crowds and journalists have turned out to see the has-been movie star who is stark raving mad, and one last time Norma does not disappoint. She glides seamlessly down the stairs with a serenely ethereal look on her face before preparing for her closeup. So ends the career of one Norma Desmond and the life of Joe Gillis. We can only hope that Betty got together again with Artie, otherwise this would remain one of the bleakest tales of all time.

However, that is part of the power of this film. It is strangely dark and ominous. Franz Waxman’s score is fit for a Gothic melodrama and Desmond’s mansion is a creaky old foreboding castle that hardly sees the light of day. Max is a solemn figure who we learn brought Norma stardom, married her, got divorced, and then could not live without her. Joe Gillis gets caught in a cycle he cannot get out of, and in the middle of the whole mess is Desmond herself. She is so preoccupied with herself, so obsessed with her own former glory, and yet she is a lonely, insecure aging actress. In many ways, she is Citizen Kane’s female counterpoint. A person with so much money, prestige, and power who slowly drifts away into oblivion without anyone caring except ravenous journalists. Much in the same way, although Norma is so petty and vain in so many ways, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her sorry existence. She is an utterly pitiful person in the end. No one deserves her fate.

In this way, Sunset Boulevard seems to critique Hollywood, a place that makes stars like Norma Desmond and spits them back out just as easily. It is not easily figured out or understood it just does at is pleases. For instance, Billy Wilder became an immigrant writer and director of great repute. Cecil B. Demille was a longtime respected director. Erich von Stroheim had early success with silent films then had to turn to acting. Gloria Swanson was a silent star then struggled in the 1930s. William Holden broke out in the 30s, hit his peak in the 1950s and continued to act into the 70s. Nancy Olson went on to make a few classic Disney movies and Jack Webb, of course, went on to create the TV Show Dragnet. Each Hollywood career starkly different from the others. 

 There is also such an authenticity in this film so much so that sometimes the line between fiction and reality is blurred. First, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson to play former silent star Norma Desmond in the film, so it seems like she is playing herself (Complete with old promotional photos and silent footage). He also had appearances by both von Stroheim and Demille, who had each directed Swanson in her silent days. Some of Desmond’s bridge friends include other real silent stars including Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the legendary Buster Keaton (His career had also crumbled). Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gets into the mix to tell the tragic story of Desmond, and it all works. 

So whether you watch Sunset Boulevard for the Hollywood angle, or as a film-noir, or a love story, or a tragic drama, the beauty of it, is that it functions as all of those things simultaneously. Gloria Swanson is absolutely loopy, William Holden is as cynical as ever with his smoked-out gravelly voice. Von Stroheim is haunting as the faithful Max, and Nancy Olson is the one young friendly face in juxtaposition with Swanson. Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett is inspired a multitude of times, but instead of telling you I will give you a taste: 

“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”

That’s Norma Desmond in a nutshell for you. That’s Sunset Blvd.

5/5 Stars