Dark Victory (1939): Bette Davis at Her Best

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Dark Victory reminds one how eclectic the Warner Bros. stock company was in 1939 because, in a Bette Davis vehicle, the first visage to present itself is none other than a wry Humphrey Bogart. The movie is a veritable grab bag of assorted talent from Bogart to Ronald Reagan and even kindly, bushy-browed Henry Travers. Despite still being a supporting player (his ascension would come in two years), Bogey is having a grand old time as a smart-mouthed horse trainer named Michael O’Leary.

He is under the employment of one Judith Traherne (Davis) who is coming off her most recent bender, living it up in local social circles. It’s an obvious first impression although, as time goes on, we get quite a different understanding of who she is as a human being. It’s often the case trials and tribulation mixed with romance have a habit of bringing out the truest essence of an individual.

For the Davis character, it begins inauspiciously enough. We expect her to be a frivolous, spirited socialite partying, drinking, smoking cigarettes, like any self-respecting belle in her position. In such a world the happy-go-lucky playboy Alex (Ronald Reagan) seems to be an impeccable match.

Her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is the doting sounding board who might as well be a part of Judith. At any rate, she functions as a guardian angel constantly worried about the other’s well-being. She never fails to be by Judith’s side in all manner of circumstances — it’s almost uncanny — but cinematically, she becomes the necessary foil on which our heroine transfers all her fears.

This is a crucial relationship as the story progresses. For it is Ann who bears the brunt of the sorrow, in effect, freeing Judith to push bravely forward. Ann cries the tears so her friend doesn’t have to. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We must put it out there now that tragedy strikes.

The events are instigated in one frightening instance when Judith all but runs her horse through a jump out on the range. They are both shaken up, but the fall is written off as a lingering after-effect of the previous night’s merriment.

Still, the incidents persist. One afternoon Judith takes a tumble down the stairs while later confiding in her friend about other isolated moments and the recent hangover-induced headaches she hasn’t been able to shake.

While Judith remains peppy and bright, in all manner of speaking, there’s no question these developments have left her frazzled — her nerves undone by this unexplained erratic behavior.

At about this time, our other important character is introduced, a well-respected brain surgeon (George Brent) who is all but prepared to give up his booming practice for a more relaxed mode of medicine. It is only as a favor to a friend he even takes a look at Ms. Traherne (As a  minor side note, it’s staggering to acknowledge this was the eighth out of eleven onscreen appearances Brent made opposite Bette Davis!).

His subsequent examination is basic but wholly conclusive, and it is a clever bit of exposition instigated by director Edmund Goulding. We learn instantly the doctor’s new patient is losing some of her ocular and motor skills. It’s evident something is wrong. Though he does not frighten her in the moment, he has suspicions she is stricken with cancer.

The consequence. She’s going to die. It’s only a matter of time. The main conundrum suddenly thrust upon the doctor and Ann is a deplorable one: To tell her in all truthfulness what is inevitable or let her live in ignorance so her final days might be blissful.

What do you expect to happen? Of course, they never get the chance to make the decision. Two words: prognosis negative, are all Judith needs to put it all together. She feels betrayed and disdains their pity. She will never be the same.

The way Davis approaches each of these scenes with almost a spastic giddiness makes it different than what one might typically consider mainline Bette Davis, whether The Little Foxes or All About Eve. If anything, it reveals her immense aptitude at projecting different sides of humanity. Because she seems so very superficial only to subvert all our expectations with an unassailable strength, bolstering her in her waning days.

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The tear-jerking melodrama is a precarious affair because it must throw out all sorts of tragedies and sentimentalities while all the while compelling the audience such that they don’t completely laugh off the whole idea as poppycock. After all, it’s about the easiest thing in the world to dismiss such a picture — we’ve seen enough soaps in our days to grow weary of them — but the good ones take us through the paces and still manage to get to us.

Dark Victory is no person’s idea of a perfect film, but it does what it sets out to do quite stupendously. Even as someone never quick to fawn over Bette Davis, there’s no recourse but to laud her performance.

Not often am I fond of a Davis character, even the ones you’re meant to like. Dark Victory teeters somewhere in the middle for a while, but the sheer tornado frenzy of giggling life in the face of death wins out. It’s a testament to Davis more than anyone else as she all but sticks the landing, carrying the magnitude of the drama with her implacable performance.

The title itself, Dark Victory, initially sounds morbid or like it’s indicating some form of vindictive revenge. And yet really, this is a happier story imbued with hope in the face of said tragedy. It is a victory over the dark even as the light dissipates for Judith.

In reality, the trills of lasting romance and fearlessness in the face of the great unknown offer her vindication over her struggles. We are not meant to weep over her lot in life. Instead, taking a cue from her own outlook, we must lean into the sweetness in lieu of the tragedy.

4/5 Stars

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Teresa_Wright_and_Joseph_Cotten_in_Shadow_of_a_Doubt_trailerIt is well documented that Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his own films. That’s quite a telling statement when you do a quick scroll through some of the titles up for contention. Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, even The Birds. And yet the famed “Master of Suspense” chose the often glossed over Shadow of a Doubt.  If we take a slightly closer look it makes a great deal of sense as the film follows through with one of Hitch’s most prominent credos, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

That’s, in fact, a great deal of what Shadow of a Doubt is. It’s the cringe-inducing anticipation for what is bound to happen. The inevitable that is plain as day, except not everyone sees it so clearly. But that’s enough ambiguity.

The story opens in a depressed urban city with Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) laid out pensively on his bed. Dollar bills are scattered haphazardly across his floor. Soon he learns two men want to talk with him, and he’s not about to get acquainted so he gives them the slip and heads to the one decent place he can think of. Santa Rosa, California, the peaceful abode of his older sister Emma and her family.

What we learn over time is that Charlie is known at large as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” because he has strangled three such women and taken their valuables. Hitchcock playfully alludes to the fact by opening his film with the “Merry Widow Waltz” and it will pop up throughout the entire story if you’re paying attention.

shadow-of-a-doubt-trainHis train comes barreling towards town with smoke spewing ominously. For now, his oblivious family is just happy to see his face, especially his oldest niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright) who is ecstatic to have something to shake the family out of their funk of normalcy. At this point, there is little to be uneasy about, because Uncle Charlie is not about to do anything rash, but there are a few moments where he gets uneasy. Covering up a paper headline and doing his best to avoid two men taking photos for a national survey. Charlie doesn’t think much of it at first, and it feels just like old times with uncle giving gifts and receiving the royal treatment.

Except the ring he presents to Charlie is plundered jewelry with a mysterious pair of initials engraved on it. Of course, the men interviewing the Newton household are actually trailing Uncle Charlie, and Detective Graham fills Charlie in while also becoming fond of her. But it’s not the kind of news she’s willing to accept. How can she? It’s a late night visit to the local library that finally confirms all her deepest fears. Soon, the telltale signs become more apparent to the audacious girl, and Charlie simultaneously notices the changes in her as well.

This is where the film becomes fidget-inducing because it’s out in the open. Uncle Charlie knows that she knows, and still he remains in their home, in quiet little Santa Rosa, as if nothing has changed. For most of the family, nothing has, but Charlie’s demeanor is completely different. She just wants her uncle gone, away from her family, and then there’s the impending threat that her own life might be in danger. In truth, Uncle Charlie doesn’t want her around, even though it looks like he might get off scotch free.  His mind is already so twisted — so far gone — that he coolly attempts to get rid of Charlie, right under the very noses of their family.

It turns into a psychological mind game between uncle and niece, Charlie vs. Charlie. There’s no detective to save her now because he’s already left town and there’s no other direction to turn. She finally does succeed in getting dear uncle to leave town, and it looks like the living suburban nightmare is coming to a close. Then, in a final instant on the outbound train, Hitchcock’s lets off a BANG! The film’s culmination arrives and is just as quickly passed over. It’s done just like that, but it’s not really what was important. All that nerve-wracking build-up — the meat and potatoes of the drama was what was paramount.

Thus, Hitchcock delivers us a shocking nightmare of a film. It’s not anything like Psycho, existing in a far more mundane world. But Shadow of the Doubt brazenly suggests that murder can reach us even in our homes, even in the places that feel the safest. Hitch exhibits his wicked sense of humor with two characters who love to talk murder in Mr. Newton (Henry Travers) and the next door neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn). They obsess over crime fiction and discussing ways to get away with murder. Little do they know that the man in their midst is trying to do just that.

Teresa Wright is certainly one of my favorite actresses and her role as Charlie is one of her bests highlighting her cordial charm, while also revealing her adeptness in the role of a tortured heroine. We want her to succeed more than anything, and as an audience, we worry for her well-being the entire film. Meanwhile, Joseph Cotten generally plays laconic types, but still, they usually have more goodness than baseness in their souls. Uncle Charlie is a fine role for him because he’s so sweetly cunning and at the same time sadistically twisted.

Shadow of a Doubt pic 3Unfortunately, the role of Detective Saunders feels rather shallow, but that’s hardly something to get stuck on. If that were the case, we could easily point to Charlie’s parents who seem way too old. But they are perfectly average, ordinary folks, as played by Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge. The script work of the preeminent Thorton Wilder (Our Town) and the on-location shooting in the Everytown of  Santa Rosa lend a universality to this thriller’s impending dread.

Dimitri Tiomkin heightens the film with his usually stirring, pulse-pounding approach to scoring. Hitchcock’s camera, while in black and white, is nevertheless noticeably dynamic. He always emphasizes the necessary focal points, and extreme close-ups and high angles only accentuate the drama. His use of the stairwells in the house is absolutely marvelous, implying both distance and foreboding in numerous shots. For every shot that Cotten looks menacing, there is an equal number highlighting the pure innocence of Wright. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of character, in a film that is really only your typical see-sawing struggle of good versus evil. Except it takes place in our own backyards.

5/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Alfred Hitchcock

08054-original_movie_poster_for_the_film_shadow_of_a_doubtIn one of Hitchcock’s earlier American films starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, Uncle Charlie comes to visit his niece namesake “Charlie” and the rest of the family. Initially the whole family seems to be in a funk until they find Charlie (Cotten) is coming to visit them in Santa Rosa. However, what they do not know is that he is a wanted murderer. Over time “Charlie” (Wright) becomes suspicious of her uncle and finally comes across the truth. Her uncle figures out what she knows and decides he must get rid of her. Living in constant peril, “Charlie” finally is forced to face him. In the ensuing struggle she fights madly for her life. With the constant discomfort and suspense, Hitchcock proves how powerful thrillers can be even in the home. Cotten and Wright both do a very good job in this film. Supposedly this was Hitchcock’s favorite among his own films. I think it certainly one of the best of his lesser known movies.

5/5 Stars