The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Rejected Cornerstone

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Note: This post was originally written a few days after the Notre Dame fire on April 15th, 2019.

“All over France, in every city there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphant monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christian. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history.” Harry Davenport as King Louis XI

We often say rather facetiously “if only these walls could talk,” referring to those hallowed grounds imbued with a history of ages gone by, whether they reach near or far into the past. However, it’s necessary to acknowledge, with a place such as Notre Dame de Paris, such an aphorism rings true. It takes on resonant meaning the very week I write this.

Only a few days ago, this landmark of Paris (even preceding the Eiffel Tower) was stricken by a fire that ran rampant, even torching the iconic central spire, so it came crashing down. Given the context and what this structure stands for — even as implied by this film — it’s no small surprise the news grieved, not simply an entire nation, but the world-at-large.

It is part of the reason I desired to watch this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s lauded novel. It is a bit of a memorial, but also an act of solidarity. We need to remember these bastions of history because they carry so much worthwhile beauty within their walls.

As would have it, this version of the famed Parisian tale begins with the two pillars of authority within the film, rather like the towers of Notre Dame themselves, albeit one good and the other bad. The King (Harry Davenport) is an open-minded, bright-eyed, and benevolent ruler, who looks at advancements like the printing press with only mild amusement. He sees no harm in the people being able to spread ideas.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke), is the local judge and arbiter over the judiciary system. To mollify the production codes, he was changed from a religious hypocrite to a far more secular villain as his behavior is unbecoming a man of the cloth. Disney’s version would rectify this minor faux pas and yet for the longest time, this tweak went all but unnoticed. The sentiments and moral dilemmas work out much the same. Likewise, there’s little doubting the weight of the other performances in this version.

Like A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis, both adapted throughout 1930s Hollywood, the palpable world being constructed here is one of the most prominent assets of this period piece. I might be biased toward these literary adaptations of old. They certainly are not faithful distillations of their sources; they’re processed through the mechanism of Classic Hollywood, and yet they never cease to amaze me for the sheer amount of atmospheric world they are able to put forth on the screen.

Case and point is the initial street carnival hitting the audience full-on with a flurry of activity, gaiety, and sensory overload in every area. There’s no way to fill in all the background with computerized extras or scenery and so what you see is what you get, from a mass of cackling gypsies to a giant hog on a spit, to all sorts of medieval dunces, stilt walkers, and street performers milling about. It’s true such an arena would be impeccable for a fruit fight and of course, there is one.

Charles Laughton’s turn as Quasimoto is a highpoint in an illustrious career because he willfully commits to the character in all of his outward ugliness and ostracization, while still endowing him with the tenderness dwelling therein.

At times, it’s a near-silent performance, which makes it potentially more compelling — so much is left to posture and expressions — the nuances of behavior speak volumes on his behalf. Dialogue might turn into a crutch for other characters, but very rarely for him. His words — when used at all — are chosen carefully and, thus, there is a meaning behind them well worth considering.

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For the day and age, there is arguably no better lass to portray Esmerelda than Maureen O’Hara as youthful, fiery, and supernally beautiful as she is in this very moment. Whether she’s a convincing gypsy or not, it’s easy enough to believe she draws the admiring eye of nearly every mortal man.

So many eligible (and not-so-eligible) men vie for the affections of the striking, thoughtful, free-spirit. She is smitten with the handsome Captain of the Guards: Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who returns her favor. Another is the scorned poet Pierre Gringoire played by an initially unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien, due to the utter youthfulness of his features. Quasimoto harbors his own crush on the pretty maiden, though his is not the only unrequited love.

Frollo, as painted here, is no Disney villain — harsh and corrupt he may be — but there is something buried there to feel sorry for, even as his soul is twisted up inside. Tormented by an infatuation he cannot seem to quell. Ultimately, what remains is his vindictive polemic against gypsies and anyone he deems to be pernicious to his self-prescribed social order.

Here the narratives channels this undercurrent of Aryan prejudice sweeping the European landscape, this heavy strain of anti-Semitism that, ironically, brought a plethora of talent to Hollywood. The parallels are too overt not to comment upon. It goes to show how the social climate of the time cannot be completely stripped away from material which, while timeless, also has striking ties to the contemporary moment.

On a lighter note, what better vagabond to be King of the Hall of Miracles than the one and only Thomas Mitchell. His year would yield performances in a staggering five movies — all of them classics — including Gone with The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and this film. What’s more astounding is the consideration that this might be the weakest of all the pictures he was in! One can never discount the inevitable shadings of color he adds to any ensemble.

The Christ metaphors with Quasimoto are also blatantly clear. He is crowned the King of the people on the first day only to be ridiculed and mocked in the streets the next. He is the scapegoat, taking on all the people’s ills, grievances, and malevolence upon his head. Even the local leaders, as reflected by Frollo, look down on him in disdain and utter malice. So Quasimoto’s station in life is that of a total outcast, despised by everyone.

There is only one person who has pity on him and it is, of course, Esmerelda. She showed it before, marrying the poet to save him from hanging, and this is her second act of goodness. The wheels of justice can be harsh as she is sentenced to death, based on the bleatings of a Goat named Aristotle. The logic used is not unlike Witches sinking during the Salem trials. Her innocence falls on deaf ears, not as a result of clanging bells, but instead, even harder hearts.

There is a certain gravitas with the young vision of beauty bowed on the steps of the cathedral, awaiting her execution. The lingering essence is very much the same to Dreyer’s seminal masterwork Joan of Arc. A figure of such common virtue subjected to such ignominy on such a grand scale.

Again, the Christ-like metaphors cannot be dismissed as yet another martyr is unfairly condemned for practicing witchcraft. It takes one outcast rescuing another and seeking sanctuary in the house of God. While it might seem an antiquated tradition, there is something impactful about the walls of Notre Dame being a haven to all who call upon them.

The final storming of the cathedral feels more like disastrous miscommunication than a fully-fledged battle for the heart and soul of the city. Regardless, the last note is a resounding one. Esmeralda ends up with her man. Quasimoto, in a realistic development, despite being a hero, is forced to carry on his life of solitude.

Though he might not be the most prominent feature of Notre Dame de Paris, it becomes increasingly apparent he is like the cornerstone  — a vital component — mostly rejected and forgotten by the world around him. He did everything out of deep, abiding love, requited or not. Much the same might be said of Laughton’s performance. The whole story falls apart without him, and he handles each scene with his usual aplomb and theatrical bearing.

4/5 Stars

The Other Side of The Wind (2018): Resurrecting Orson Welles

Film_Poster_for_The_Other_Side_of_the_Wind.jpgWith the name of Orson Welles comes any number of conflicting connotations not far removed from his greatest achievement: Citizen Kane. However, if we had to try and pinpoint an apt superlative it would fall somewhere in between a mythic and Brobdingnagian titan of cinema. He was a personality like few others.

Taking this into regard, The Other Side of The Wind could only conceivably be a colossal failure if it were in so many words: facile. Thanks be to the movie fates; Welles’ last work is no such thing. It is a glorious, extravagant mess of a film. Trying and befuddling scene after scene.

It has for many years been “The Holy Grail” for cineastes and to have it finally released to the public 40 years later — with so much hype spinning around, it might have easily been a letdown.

What a pleasure to admit how Wellesian this film is. Looming, unwieldy, pretentious, and loaded with complexities. All of these are compliments, mind you. It is corroded and alas, not the fully cohesive vision of an auteur, but its powers have barely been deluded by time.

The very form of the film, told from so many points of view, with all sorts of angles and qualities of footage, serves the very structure of the narrative. The fact it was indeed shot over half a dozen years, with hours of celluloid to ultimately cull through, only adds to its fractured quality.

The time in between its conception and release allows for fuzzier edges and dust to settle over the history with many of the primary players dead and gone. We still have first-hand eyewitnesses like Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride and yet even they are now so far removed from the material. The myth has been allowed to instill itself.

Simultaneously, Welles once again makes us so radically aware we are watching a film, and he is directing our gaze. It’s his most audacious intent to blur the lines between reality and mere film narrative. It spins on this axis of meta mythos, instantly evoked by the film-within-a-film narrative and the caravan leading up to the 70th birthday of J.J. Hannaford (John Huston).

The biography is too obvious to ignore with thinly-veiled characters and the real-world issues plaguing Welles himself. Where to get the funding, literally making the story up as he goes along, and trying to stay relevant in a Hollywood that has all but abandoned him. It’s the old Norma Desmond conundrum (from Sunset Blvd). He’s still big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small. Furthermore, the fiction is too great to believe every word as the Sunday school truth.

Early on, the cuts are so quick and jarring, the viewer’s head is almost spinning to keep up. Because the choppy, looseness to it all almost feels amateurish and yet Welles is trying to drag us into his charade. He is creating a patchwork for us to get caught up in.

Early-onset fatigue must be acknowledged because The Other Side of The Wind can be a taxing ordeal with the constant cuts, close-ups, and whips from person to person even within a single conversation. It’s the antithesis of all traditional Hollywood continuity, thus serving its purpose.

This is also a fine time to mention the strikingly effective (if perplexing) riff off European art-house, with a startling amount of nudity, especially for a Welles picture. Bob Random and Oja Kodar are spliced into everything else, wordlessly pursuing one another through a cryptic labyrinthine of artistically stimulating landscapes. The film-within-a-film takes most obvious aim at Michelangelo Antonini who no so coincidentally filmed his Zabriskie Point in the home right next to Hannaford’s lair.

It’s also no small coincidence Ernest Hemingway is mentioned in passing as this spirit of the macho film director J.J. Hannaford is put up to the light of scrutiny. Huston himself was very much made out of the same mold. He was the epitome of a hard-living, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping man’s man. Each line of his craggy face tells a story. Each sputter in his voice is from years of such a lifestyle.

While Orson Welles isn’t an immediately similar figure, he ran in the same circles, shared overlapping industry experience, and probably internalized some of the same ideology pertaining to masculinity. They were both members of the Old Hollywood Guard.

Except the fine distinction is John Huston was not over the hill yet with such recent successes as Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, two pictures that could not be more engaging for entirely divergent reasons. The verdict was still out on Orson Welles.

Meanwhile, Peter Bogdanovich adds yet another personal element to the picture. He was rather like Welles’ disciple, if not the propagator of his myth, and certainly a friend. But even their relationship became complicated when you consider the unspoken competition between them.

The young film critic-turned-filmmaker was at the forefront of The American New Wave and, at this point right in the middle of his trifecta of instant classics. The Last Picture Show was even heralded as the most important picture by a young filmmaker since Citizen Kane.

However, feathers were ruffled, jealousies set in, and what was formerly amiable, slowly deteriorated. You can even see it in how Welles is obviously jabbing Bogdanovich not so tactfully about his relationship with the much younger Cybil Shepherd. In the movie she is portrayed by the blonde robot who comes to J.J.’s party, appearing, uncomfortably, like easy prey for a predator.

Other persons of interest are Lilli Palmer who is an obvious stand-in for Welles’ lifelong friend Marlene Dietrich and then an acerbic, intrusive Susan Strasberg doing a send-up of Pauline Kael. I know very little about the Raising Kane fiasco and so it makes it difficult for me to make an educated assessment with what to do with this.

Then, we have posts filled by members of the Hannaford mafia who could easily be members of Welles’s own tribe including Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster.

It’s sad to admit I have little to nothing resonant to add about their characterizations. They merely exist in this discombobulated world revolving around Hannaford.

It’s difficult not to put this movie in juxtaposition with Citizen Kane because they share the same gargantuan camp as only Welles seems capable of. In some ways, we might contend The Other Side of The Wind is Kane outside-in. The former film begins with a token of childhood. The life comes after and it seems ultimately meaningless. Revelations mean very little.

In the latter film, we begin at the opposite end of the spectrum at the end of a life and yet we never work back or get enough of a hankering of who this man is, much less all the phonies and wannabes around him.

I couldn’t help thinking as Hannaford and Brooks parted ways, I hardly know anything about them. There is not a meaningful throughline amid their continual babbling and bits of philosophizing.

What’s more, very little feels sincere. And yet this is itself an insidious lie. Because I know so much about them, that is, Huston and Bogdanovich. I’ve seen their films, I can recount a decent part of their history, their relationships with Hollywood, etc.

So The Other Side of The Wind is a bit like a rich canvass that gets more intricate and reveals more, the more we bring to it. The layers are there, all twisted and tangled, sometimes leading to dead-ends or left unresolved possibly due to narrative oversight. Maybe the actor was no longer available or the footage got ditched altogether. But of course, it’s, again, one and the same.

You don’t have a prayer of knowing much about J.J. Hannaford at the end of his party nor much about this film’s plot — what there is of it — but there is still more. We have these continual undercurrents — these refractions of reality — and we must dig through all the inexplicable pieces to try and discover some shards of truth.

Finally seeing The Other Side of The Wind feels like a giant sigh of relief. Let me say it now. It’s far from a perfect movie. But it is an extraordinary artifact from a phenomenal creative mind. It is a project worthy of Welles’ vision for the very flaws it exhibits from beginning to end.

Because slivers of himself find their way into the frame. His real-life struggles, demons, feuds, friendships, jealousies, preoccupations, and intimate fears all snuck in both overtly and unconsciously. This just might make it one of the most personal documentations we have from the man.

It’s a gift worth acknowledging, warts and all. The most honest word to offer in analysis is the very fact it mirrors the man. It’s the utmost compliment too. Francois Truffaut is quoted as saying, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” One can only surmise if Orson Welles would agree or not. The Other Side of The Wind is as close as we’ll ever get to knowing.

4/5 Stars

The Web (1947)

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An effort like The Web is precisely why many people would “die” for film-noir. Unless I am simply speaking for myself. But I don’t think so. Personally, I perked up upon reading the name William Bowers in the opening credits as one of the architects of the script because it’s quite easy to imagine some of the film’s choicest flirtatious patter being penned by him. He and his accomplices give our stars something to talk about in what otherwise might seem like idle moments. In fact, if it weren’t for its ultimately sinister outcomes, The Web carries a certain lightness of being through much of its run.

That brings us to our stars who are a fine teaming of talent for a B-grade picture. In fact, they are probably about as good as you could get considering. We have Edmond O’Brien, a personal favorite as a noir hero (The Killers, White Heat, D.O.A, etc.) and then Ella Raines, another often unsung but no less important noir heroine (Phantom Lady) of the 1940s.

Vincent Price is impeccable playing his at times beguiling businessman with that usual mixture of charm and slithering cunning. Between his lankiness and those distinct imperious eyes of his, he’s rarely been better. Our last prominent figure is the coolly perceptive William Bendix who despite his persona, knows far more than he lets on, as a generally competent member of the police force.

One morning a cocksure young lawyer named Bob Regan (O’Brien) goes barging into the offices of Mr. Andrew Colby on the pretense that his client, a man named Emilio Canepa who had his fruit cart upturned by negligent driving and he’s calling for $68.72 in damages. The businessman amusedly agrees to it, after all, it’s only a small trifle. But along the way, Regan tries to pick up the man’s loyal secretary Noel (Raines) as well as unwitingly piquing Colby’s interest. He could use someone with guts.

It’s such a dandy and a rather outrageous sequence that we almost forget the actual opening shot showing an elderly fellow being released from prison after a five-year stint. The only person there to greet him is his daughter. We gather he has a bone to pick and that is important for all that is inevitable in the near future.

For now, it’s all Edmond O’Brien. He notes that they have a snug little setup going on within Colby’s closest inner circle. They seem real buddy-buddy in all facets of their affairs. However, straight away Regan joins the operation when $5,000 is waved in front of him to act as a bit of an unofficial bodyguard and it comes with a gun permit he’s able to finagle out of his old friend at the Police precinct.

Of course, he doesn’t realize that just the following day he will be unloading the pistol on someone and killing a man no less — the same man who was just released for prison with the charge of embezzlement. But it was all done with clear intention as bitter Mr. Kroner was going to kill Mr. Colby so in that regard Regan has little to worry about.  And yet he can’t help but start to get ideas because between the police and nighttime visitors he’s given a lot to chew on.

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The film’s script has its share of veiled double talk both sensual and then increasingly threatening as it pertains to the curious events at hand. Because what reveals itself is a deliciously twisted reality that calls for the reevaluation of what we know to be true and who we trust as an audience.  The rational and yes, even the believable might very well fly out of the window but what a noir like this gives us is something arguably more satisfying in terms of impending doom.

Where something like a net — a web of destruction — begins to descend upon and close in around our heroes. It’s been cleverly orchestrated with the clearest of intent clearing up all the loose ends and framing them handily.

The police nab them easily in this case, involving multiple murders, a whole lot of money, and two tickets to Mexico. The question is who will gain from such a resolution and since that question is quite simple to answer, the better one yet is how might they possibly catch the culprit?

I’m not too proud to admit thoroughly enjoying The Web because it embodies everything that the dark genre is promoted as being and you leave the picture satiated after being caught up in something supremely sinister. It was never high art nor did it claim to be but that’s all part of the immense allure. O’Brien, Raines, Price, and Bendix might as well all be character archetypes. The parts they play do the picture a distinct service.

3.5/5 Stars

White Heat (1949)

james_cagney_in_white_heat_trailer_cropWhite Heat burns like hot coals even today as the epitome of incendiary cinema. It’s a gangster picture from master Warner Bros. craftsman Raoul Walsh that’s volatile and intriguing, highlighted by the always fiery James Cagney as a crazed man-child with a mom complex.

Cagney had stayed away from gangster pictures that made him a star for nearly a decade and it’s true that now it’s easy to label this a film-noir given the sweeping tide of the times including other pictures like The Killers, Brute Force, and so on.

Still, everything that is truly inspired from this film stems from Cagney’s performance because we have seen gangsters before, bank jobs, inside men, gun molls, and the like but Cody Jarrett is one for the ages. He throws a twisted wrench into what is already a quality thriller by going absolutely ballistic and simultaneously jolting it in the most peculiar ways.

Before Norman Bates was even whispered on the lips of audiences Cagney burst onto the scene with his demonic characterization, very plainly evil personified as the psychotic Cody Jarrett. He smacks policemen, guns down the worthless, and schemes incessantly. However, he also has a strange sense of family and friendship. He’s prone to crippling migraines like his insane father and still parks himself on his mother’s lap. He even befriends a copper, except he doesn’t know it. He gets duped like a two-bit stooge.

Edmond O’Brien was on the rise at this point following such films as The Killers and The Web. He still owns a supporting role in the sometimes thankless job as the decent heartbeat of law and order. But he has so much more character than all the other stiffs with their fine looks and chiseled jawlines who simultaneously faded into the annals of history.

Although he’s playing support to Cagney, there are a lot worse gigs and the pair works well with each other. At one time strangers, confidantes, and finally bitter enemies in the constantly seesawing dynamic that comes when an undercover agent looks to get buddy-buddy with a certifiable psychopath. Not surprisingly it makes for a thoroughly engaging crime film because the characters actually have something to them.

The iconic Mess Hall sequence brimming with Cagney’s explosive bravado is representative of his flair throughout the entire picture. It just won’t let up. It never lets up. A line of “telephone” takes a message down the row of inmates (including sports icon Jim Thorpe) before reaching the waiting ears of the hardened criminal. Like a stick of dynamite, he goes off and becomes possessed by some unnamed force. It represents the manic, off the wall style of Cagney that still compels audiences today. It’s no longer a simple performance. This is not acting (or it doesn’t seem like it). This is feeling, hate, anger, rebellion, and violence all channeled into a transcendent moment where the man has completely lost himself in a role. No one can touch him. It’s fantastic.

Virginia Mayo finds herself portraying her particular sultry siren accustomed to mink and bubblegum. While Steve Cochran stands tall as the main crony with big ideas, the aptly name Big Ed who is looking to worm himself in on Jarret’s territory (and female company), while he’s incarcerated. Meanwhile, Margaret Wycherly who was previously known as the angelic mother of Alvin York takes on a maternal role on the complete opposite spectrum and she does a fine job as a woman modeled after the notorious Ma Barker.

Any great crime story needs a final set piece where everything can culminate in one ultimate crescendo. White Heat does not disappoint in this regard as Agent Hank Fallon looks to tip off his colleagues following the inception of a big heist of a chemical plant in Long Beach. What follows is a tense dragnet and shootout and it’s a fitting place for Jarrett to meet his maker or in his case his mother. He literally goes into the inferno, blowing up and entering the conflagrations of hell in the most startling of fashions — still clinging doggedly to his mom–his twisted guardian angel of death. It’s a curtain call worthy of such a performance and knowing it can do no better, the film ends there, no fanfare just a grimy picture where criminals aren’t as cut and dry as Hollywood once supposed.

5/5 Stars

D.O.A. (1950)

doa1950As one of the greatest B-films of its day, D.O.A. is framed by a crackerjack gimmick that actually pays heavy dividends. We watch a man making his way down a long corridor as the typically stringent score of Dimitri Tiomkin pounds away behind the credits. In this initial moment, our protagonist Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) rushes into police headquarters to report a murder: His own.

So begins a film that’s a gripping piece of noir from start to finish.  Through the following flashback encapsulating almost the entire storyline, Bigelow recounts his former life. He was an insurance man working the daily grind in beautiful Banning California. When he’s not working he’s trying to dodge the come-ons of his secretary Paula (Pamela Britton).

In fact, he gets away for a little vacation in San Francisco, away from the girl and from his suffocating job and he’s looking to live a little. A lively sales convention that’s taken over his hotel gets his spirits up as does the large population of charming women. In fact, every time a pretty gal walks by his eyes bulge out of their sockets (denoted by comic sound effects). He even makes a few chums.

But this is just the topsoil, the initial slice of life that Bigelow finds himself partaking of. He doesn’t realize what will soon happen and it happens so haphazardly it’s almost hilarious. It’s ludicrous really. Still going on the town, he hits up a jazz club that’s gone absolutely jive crazy as the beatniks of the day might say. It’s a real swinging place. But there’s also something deadly waiting for our hapless protagonist.

In one fateful moment, everything changes. He begins to feel sick. He’s disoriented as his existence takes a nose dive into a world of paranoia — it’s the true markings of noir. The news from the doctors isn’t good either. He’s been infected with a luminous toxin. How or by whom, he doesn’t quite know. It’s all deliciously cruel suggesting that all that is evil, all that is depraved, all that is poisonous, shines ever so brightly in the dark. In fact, that’s where evil thrives.

Still, Bigelow has no idea what he’s gotten himself into and he’s tasked with something that perhaps no one in the history of cinema has ever had to do. Find and apprehend their own murderer. There’s a trail of sultry girls and distracting exposition that all in all makes for a thoroughly bewildering plot. We should expect nothing less. Still, the end goal is finding one George Reynolds or Raymond Rakubian. Bigelow doesn’t quite know which one yet and neither do we.

Needless to say, watching O’Brien scramble across the streets of SF past onlookers and incoming traffic feels quite real and that’s because it was filmed with a certain amount of authenticity. There are scenes that were filmed on backlots to be sure but this isn’t one of them. In such moments, it’s quite easy to get a sense that in some ways this sequence directed by Rudolph Mare could be real. In fact, his background in cinematography can be seen plainly with what he finds interest in shooting. It all works together rather well. D.O.A. has one foot in reality and the faithfully doting Paula gives a little more weight to Bigelow’s state of being. There’s more at stake now, thanks in part to this girl who really does love him. She’s worried about him for most of the story.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, to the elation of film-noir lovers everywhere, D.O.A. does not cop out and it delivers a satisfying conclusion. Aside from a compelling lead performance by the promoted supporting player O’Brien, the hulking Neville Brand comes onto the scene with a psychotic turn as Chester the nervously taunting heavy (always mumbling ‘soft in the belly’). It’s true that many a good film noir needs a quality thug and Brand fits the bill. He personifies the tone of the film — brooding and deadly.

4/5 Stars

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

hitch-hiker_posterPart of the harrowing allure of the Hitch-Hiker is that it’s actually based on a true incident that occurred only a year before the events shown. It’s not as if someone took artistic license with some murderers and made it into a horror spectacle. Hitchcock’s Psycho especially comes to mind.

Instead, director Ida Lupino takes a much more universal approach with an opening title card suggesting that the events that follow about a man and a gun and a car could really happen to any of us. Perhaps it’s a cheap plotting device but it does throw the audience into the passenger seat quickly as they are introduced to a rash of murders and the hardened killer behind the spree Emmett Myers (William Talman) who soon has the entire mobilized police force looking for him.

The meat and potatoes of the film involve the brutal murderer taking two vacationing fishermen hostage and grinding away at them as he utilizes them to flee the authorities and bends them to his will. After all, he’s the one with the gun, and he’s proved numerous times he’s not squeamish about using it.

It also plays into the narrative’s hands that both Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are not necessarily classically handsome. But they work as everymen. If Joel McCrea was the poor man’s Gary Cooper sometimes I think of Edmond O’Brien as the poor man’s Humphrey Bogart but that’s neither here nor there. Because in little films like this O’Brien left an indelible mark on film-noir. D.O.A. and The Bigamist are two other such examples. Lovejoy on his part is extremely understated, not even being able to quite place his face but we cannot help but admire his quiet stalwartness. O’Brien’s character seems the flightiest of the three and within their ranks, we’ve found a triangle that creates the contentious dynamic that’s the foundation of the film’s entire conflict.

A film of this length and from this era doesn’t have any right to be as intense as it is, yet the Hitch-Hiker proves to be just that. It’s chock full of not only frank depictions of wickedness but enough psychological torture to send tremors up the spines of an audience. It’s a real sweaty thriller. William Talman is absolutely diabolical in a performance that is as vindictive as any other role that comes to mind. It’s that evil.

Meanwhile, the deeply underrated cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past) flaunts his skills in low budget filmmaking while former husband-wife duo Collier Young and Ida Lupino team up in another surprisingly compelling project, despite its meager production values. I laugh derisively at any contemporary who might have suggested Lupino could only do so-called issue-driven “Woman’s Pictures” because The Hitch-Hiker is really all about three men where the tension mounts to great proportions. Forget any other category. This is a stone cold crime film that goes beyond a simple gimmick.

3.5/5 Stars

The Bigamist (1953)

the-bigamist-1I despise you and I pity you. ~ Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Jordan

The Bigamist is at first a delightful noir — in one aspect unassuming and yet groundbreaking when put in a broader context. Ida Lupino is not simply a good female director. She is a good director, period.   She left a body of work both behind and in front of the camera that speaks for itself. Even the small ones like The Hitchhiker and The Bigamist have a certain strength about them.

In this case, the film’s title flashes with the superficial tinges of a sordid drama but when you actually get into the thick of it all, there’s a great deal of tenderness and certain heartbreak there.

In some ways, Edmund Gwenn becomes our main character’s father confessor as the protagonist explains how it all began through flashback: The plotting is simple. Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) found himself living a double life. But it’s not just that. He loves his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine). They genuinely care for each other deeply and now they share together in business but he spends a great deal of his time on the road. They’re even planning to adopt a child together since Eve cannot have a child of her own. Obviously, during his frequent bouts on the road, Harry gets lonely and we’ve undoubtedly heard that excuse countless times and it’s been the calling card for a great deal of infidelity.

the-bigamist-2Except at first what Harry does, does not seem like infidelity. In one integral scene Harry takes one of those bus tours to see the stars because, after all, Beverly Hills is that land of movie stars and their extravagant lifestyles. Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Oscar Levant, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman are all given a nod. There are even a few playful in-jokes to the always genial Edmund Gwenn who turns up as the adoption agent. All of this is essentially fluff but it’s on that same ride where he meets someone — a woman named Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino).

It’s true that they’re both looking for a friend and they gravitate towards each other. It’s nothing more than that and Phyllis invites her newfound friend to a restaurant made in the popular mode of Early American Chinese. It’s where she works. But he hardly cares. He sees her more and the most astounding thing is that he tells his wife about it almost in jest saying he met a brunette in California. The reason he cites: she wasn’t beautiful but she was nice.

And right in that moment, you can see what’s particularly striking about The Bigamist. It’s a frank, open, and honest film in an often prim and proper era of certain sensibilities. The Bigamist looks to be a film to trod all over those social mores and yet extraordinarily enough it doesn’t. Yes, in certain ways it dissects them but it does it with great care and a tenderness for all parties involved.

It’s not so much a dark brooding noir but a film of interpersonal tragedy rather like earlier such examples as Pitfall or They Live by Night where bits of darkness pervades the home and relationships which are admittedly fragile because of the humans involved. Topics of divorce, infidelity, and pregnancy further complicate matters.  But not in some lurid exploitive way to sell tickets.

It’s oddly ironic on multiple levels. Of course, we know as an audience that he is seeing another woman but that’s only the beginning. In a major fit of situational irony, it works exactly contrary to what we might expect. Edmund O’Brien’s lead is a good and decent man. His wife is not a holy terror but played by one of the sympathetic heroines of the 40s and 50s, Joan Fontaine. Furthermore, Ida Lupino is not some sleazy femme fatale. In fact, she’s the one who initially rejects his advances and shows reluctance to marry him.

the-bigamist-3It strikes me how it’s often the small, tiny, unassuming pictures that impact me the most and this film did wrench my heart over the course of only a very few minutes. The final court sequence sums up the reasons quite well because it ends the film on a moral note setting up a rather convicting paradigm.

We see both women there. We see the accused sitting in front of the judge and jury willingly admitting his guilt. His is a society that winks an eye at a married fellow with a mistress and yet he, a man who genuinely loved two women, is found at fault under the law. The defense attorney on his behalf calls for punishment tempered by mercy.

When those two women walk out of the courtroom as the proceedings end, it does not mean that any of it can ever go back to normal. Will either of them even take him back? We can make an educated assumption but that’s not really for us to know. However, on a universal level, the words of the attorney reverberate in my ears. Each one of us has aspects of our character that are undoubtedly despicable but also elicit pity. It only makes sense that each of us deserves a certain amount of punishment but also a measure of mercy. It’s up to us to extend that to others. Because the reality is that we might not be that much better than the eponymous bigamist. Judging by his character we might actually be far worse.

3.5/5 Stars

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Starring both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, with Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and direction by John Ford, this is certainly a moody western. Stewart, now a successful politician returns to a small town with his wife to pay his respects to an old friend. In the ensuing flashback he retells his story beginning as a young lawyer who had a run in with Liberty Valance (Marvin). After he got well he strove to bring justice and education to the land. Despite their differences, Stewart finds a friend in Wayne who has his eye on Miles. However, everything eventually goes awry when Stewart agrees to face Valance out in the street. He appears to be a goner because he is wounded, but miraculously a shot hits Valance and he falls dead. Stewart now a hero gets the girl and agrees to represent the town. Wayne fades into the background also a hero. The supporting cast includes Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, and John Carradine. With two great icons and a great director, this western is certainly a classic. Although it did not end up making it into the film, Gene Pitney’s western ballad deserves to be acknowledged nonetheless.

4.5/5 Stars