Scarlet Empress (1934): Marlene The Great

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In the case of his excursions into historical drama, director Joseph Von Sternberg only used the past as a kind of malleable tableau on which to impart his own creative vision. Once more the cornerstone of this vision is Marlene Dietrich, and she is poised to become the greatest monarch of her time: Catherine The Great.

A nice bit of tribute finds Dietrich’s daughter (Maria Riva) portraying Sophia in her youth. Her movie mother’s only desire is to find a fine husband for her to marry to improve the family’s stability. Her father is a far more benevolent figure (C. Aubrey Smith).

Very early on there is the juxtaposition of ghastly torture mechanisms reminding us how dastardly humans can be with their cruel devices. Contrary to this is the sheer opulence and in this regard, The Scarlet Empress is all but unparalleled in its generation of period dramas. Historical accuracy be hanged.

The story continues with pace which is usually a welcomed addition when it comes to the often sluggish genre of period drama. Marlene plays her opening scenes wide-eyed, with a kind of spaced-out innocence. Because she is still a creature of adolescence as she gets sent to Russia as the betrothed of Peter III.

Her husband to be (Sam Jaffe in his debut) is vacuous, head on a swivel with a dopey incredulousness plastered on his face. Meanwhile, her demonstrative Queen Mother (Marie Dressler) remakes the impressionable girl to her liking — with a new name, new clothes, and all the expectations that come with her new station. More than anything else, she is expected to bear a son, an heir to the throne, and this is her primary usefulness. This is her only agency.

It’s almost gluttonous how indulgent the wedding sequence and all the subsequent sequences are in their pomp and regal showmanship. With the nation still dragged down by the Depression, one questions if the common man was taken with the escapism or was nauseated by the sheer extravagance.

While the images are visually splendorous, initially there are far too many title cards interspersed. However, they do begin to make their purpose more evident as the movie never seems to get unnecessarily bloated by dialogue. In some respects, they do set a kind of narrative precedent and use that to create a rhythm throughout the movie. It’s almost more like a silent picture, more concerned with a sweeping overview of a life — the impressions left behind — than honing in on every significant moment.

The sheer scale is staggering in the most extraordinary manner because there is no CGI. Von Sternberg has manicured and incubated this entire consolidated world inside the palace that’s without equal.

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The lighting, the ornate touches, gossamer canopies veiling Dietrich’s face in her chamber, and then outside the inner court hosts of ghoulish gargoyles, statuettes, and iconography of the Pantokrator fill the halls. It gives this uneasy sense of orthodoxy mixed with German Expressionism, but Von Sternberg utilizes it well. The Scarlett Empress really does feel like an exhibition for his skills as a wizard of mise en scene and environment. The costuming certainly is another extension of this.

Dietrich doesn’t really come into her own until a good hour and 10 minutes into the movie. From thenceforward there’s no stopping her consolidation of power. With his mother on a sharp decline and then on her deathbed, the king (Jaffe) is ready to marry his mistress and cast his wife out as he makes his long-awaited ascension.

But Catherine is no longer that ignorant girl she once was who merely avoided her gawky husband. She now knows how to play the political game — the kind of nepotism a station like hers relies on, and she readily uses all the means at her disposal.

Her feminine wiles mean she has the army in her skirt pocket bent to her whim. One of her greatest allies and lovers is the dashing rapscallion Count Alexei (John David Lodge). She has a secret passageway in the back of her chambers where she can usher her lovers in and out so they realize they aren’t totally indispensable.

What’s intriguing about the movie is not distinct plot points but growing to understand the textures of the world and how they form and shape the people in their midst. The Scarlet Empress becomes as much about how people look and how they carry themselves as much as anything else.

Marlene Dietrich might be altogether unmatched in this department. Purportedly she requested her iconic fur hat to be created especially for her, and it met with some resistance from the costuming department. Whatever the qualms, who could ever doubt her?

She only wears it momentarily. Maybe for a mere scene. Is it too frivolous? Certainly, but as she walks through the chambers inspecting the troops, looking as smart as she ever has, she’s totally inimitable. In that moment, she feels like one of the greatest cinematic royals hands down. Images are powerful. We know that.

It has little to do with policy or even action. All these things come later and that’s why we read our history books. No, here in The Scarlet Empress it’s about posture and presence and all those intangibles making the greats great and all the others merely peons and subsidiaries in the game of life.

Amid the clamoring bells and rapid montage, as she charges up the steps triumphant, flanked by her newfound army, Von Sternberg aids in The Scarlett Empress’s ascension to the epoch and with it the ascension of Marlene Dietrich as a star. It takes someone with true magnetism to fill up such a role promising so much, and she handles it with her usual aplomb. You can’t well forget her. She won’t let you. She embodies the Scarlet Empress. She is Marlene The Great.

4/5 Stars

Dishonored (1931): Marlena Dietrich, The Sultry Spy

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The premise is established in broad strokes. It’s 1915 and the remnants of the Austrian empire are caught up in war. This can only have meaning if we see some of the chaos in front of us. In this case, a prostitute lies dead in the street — with a host of onlookers crowded around — a mysterious mustachioed man eavesdropping and poking about. He’s looking for someone, listening to their conversation.

As the people walk through the streets, the sensation of rain sounds almost tinny and fake but this is part of the marvelous illusion. Because this is Joseph Von Sternberg, the famed spinner of bounteous tales offering so much to their audiences in the form of sensations and palpable milieu.

Eventually, the clandestine man — actually the chief of Austrian secret police — settles on a woman, but not just any woman. It is Marlene Dietrich in all her glory. They settle on a romantic rendezvous.

Not only does Dietrich give us so much, as is her habit, but her apartment itself is cluttered with all the sorts of trinkets that allow us to make sense of a person or at the very least appreciate them more fully.

There’s the piano. Sketches up on the walls. The place where she stashes her shoes. The little dancing figurines suspended from the ceiling. The empty bottle of wine. However, more crucial than anything else she proves her own character — she might live a meretricious lifestyle, and yet she’s a staunch loyalist and a war widow. Her allegiances are unmistakable.

It’s immediately evident Marlene is a woman in a man’s world, but she sure has her pick of the litter. Because everyone is bending over backward to escort her, to be with her, to get to know her. Her new superior is well aware of her assets supplying her a new alias — X-27 — and an assignment of vital importance to her homeland.

There’s a casual nonchalance to her when being propositioned spy work. But this only works if there’s a brazenness in the face of certain danger. She has both in equal measure. It’s true the subject matter plays as surprisingly lithe and modern for Von Sternberg as he casts his muse as a Mata Hari-inspired spy with steely poise and a touch of class. She’s an inscrutable beauty fit to play the game.

What’s lovely is how everything is delivered in between the lines. Heroes. Villains. Friends. Enemies. What’s the difference? For these people, it’s their business and so they find time for romance whatever the scenario might be. There are no hard feelings because the current climate has bred this kind of immediacy. Nothing beyond the here and now can matter. One must make the most of the moment.

Dietrich is brilliant at the masquerade party. It’s our first chance to see her in her new regalia — plumed and sequined, teeth smiling from under her disguise — and she’s only one of a myriad. It’s the most gloriously decadent party I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to see for yourself if it’s hyperbole or not.

However, X-27 has other business to attend to. Her first mark is Warner Oland a high-ranking General who’s also subsequently purported to be a turncoat. She must use the art of seduction to implicate him. But he’s not the only one.

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Captain Kranau (Victor MacLagen) was also present at the party and equally taken with the woman’s allure. He’s a Russian Agent playing the same game of cat and mouse she is. In the service, of Ford, MacLagen always felt broadly Irish. Here he seems toned down and well-fitted for the role if only for the fact he hardly tries to upstage Marlene. It’s better not to have Coop. She needs no equal in this picture and it’s true no one can outdo her. This is her story more than anyone else’s.

What more can be said as they joust back and forth globetrotting across borders and meeting under all varying degrees of circumstances? X-27 does her finest impression of a cleaning woman and a kitty cat all in one sequence. He finally has her cornered. We think this spells the end and yet she riggles free. Her wealth of secrets transcribed into music and memorized. She wins another round.

This is what becomes so riveting because the movie is constructed out of these kinds of jocular bits of leisure, but they are a pretense or a visual projection or smokescreen over a very harsh even cutthroat subject matter. He tells her in one interchange, “the more you cheat the more you lie, the more exciting you become.” It’s like a harbinger of Bond decades later.

However, lest anyone misconstrue his intentions, Von Sternberg is vehemently critical of unyielding military protocol. In fact, in a gut-wrenching final scene, it makes a young soldier blubber. He witnesses the utter cruelty of war when it comes to the rule of spy and counter-spy. Still, Marlene takes it with her usual poise — stalwart to the end — and frankly, she’s unforgettable. As she waits out her final days, her last requests are authentic to her character from the beginning. She requests her piano and the black dress she used to wear in her previous life. These are her identity. This is her uniform.

The ultimate irony of the movie is its title. Against the vociferous objects of Von Sternberg, the studio settled on “Dishonored.” But this cut-and-dry analysis of her station in life fails to understand the intent of the entire film. It’s tantamount to saying Sophie Scholl was dishonored in standing up to the Nazis or that the figure of Christ was dishonored for standing up for what he believed in, what he was called to. In X-27’s case, her guiding light was love — even love precipitated in momentary encounters — it can still be a driving source behind any human heart.

We have a fair amount of modern spy movies now anchored by female stars. Their main objective seems to be an exhibition in showing women as powerful entities, capable of kicking butt. This is fine, but sometimes there is no illusion left. No added depth of character. Dietrich is unparalleled, feeling exciting and aloof until the very last frame. We want more of her not less, but she leaves us while she’s still ahead. What a run she had with Von Sternberg, in her third picture following The Blue Angel and Morocco, with still more to come.

It’s less heralded but might just be the best of the lot. It comes quietly and then ambushes you with all its many assets — thoroughly exquisite to look at and also thematically resonate. What’s more, it has a genuine sense of fun and intrigue which isn’t always the easiest combination to come by. Its range of surprises is the kind you relish as a moviegoer. They stay with you.

4.5/5 Stars

Angel (1937): A Mature Lubitsch Love Triangle

For those familiar with Trouble in Paradise, Angel has a  sublime outside-the-window tracking shot in its own right to bring us flush into the world of Parisian soirees. Thusly, we become acquainted with Russian Grand Duchess Anna (Laura Hope Crews), who facilitates meetings between men and women. 

It’s possible to barely catch the subtext here. What’s apparent is by the sheer serendipity of cinema Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas wind up in a drawing-room together. Dietrich feels particularly laid back. Normally, she’s beautifully aloof; here it’s a bit different because she’s not looking to maintain an aura at all. It makes her all the more genial.

Joseph Von Sternberg always cast and projected Dietrich as a screen goddess. Working with Lubitsch, Dietrich feels like a far more relatable human being albeit a beautiful, refined one. She doesn’t totally overwhelm with her sensuality remaining mostly reserved. 

Tony Halton (Douglas) is in town for the day and is looking for a time. She offers up the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower (that big steel thing sticking up in the air), and Notre Dame. No offense to “The City of Light,” but none of them pique his interest. The lady in front of his eyes is far more incandescent. She’s a bonafide angel.  

It’s true there’s something fresh and appealing about their interaction. They don’t know one another’s names nor does she bother to correct the mistaken identity, and it doesn’t matter. In fact, it even augments what they have because they are so fascinated by one another. It means a dinner invitation and spending the night together. This could be the movie right there. 

Then, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) is shown aboard a screeching steam engine 20 minutes into the picture. We almost forgot about him, and we take a total about-face toward events that remain interrelated. Before we ever meet the man, we learn he must be a gentleman of some renown because he’s all over the papers. 

He is served faithfully by his fastidious manservant (Edward Everett Horton), Graham, who has the ear of a very powerful man. He’s seen his fair share of diplomatic affairs: dinners, white ties, and tailcoats. They make him quick to judge the merits of international diplomats. Because his master is one of the finest, single-handedly standing up to 21 countries in The League of Nations (not including the U.S.). 

Barker returns home late one evening to be reunited with his wife Maria (Dietrich). It’s obvious they have affection for one another — they care deeply about their marriage — but before she fell for another man, there was already a third party in their relationship: his work. 

To grasp at obvious metaphors, there’s a tinge of Casablanca married with a kind of Melvyn Douglas Ninotchka romance and the stuffy propriety of Cluny Brown. Take, for instance, the melange of servants headlined exquisitely by Horton and Ernest Cossart.

In perfect Lubitschian fashion, a dinner is viewed from the kitchen’s point of view as they perceptively observe two of their dinner guests are out of sorts. They didn’t touch their food. They weren’t hungry. Although it’s never said outright, Lubitsch allows us to put two and two together. One can only surmise it’s due to lovesickness. 

Because there is only one way this movie can get more complicated and more painful. The men must meet. However, far from being antagonistic, they are old friends meeting on a whim. Once upon a time, they shared a French girl all the way back during the war years when they were both still young. Whether they know it or not, they also share another girl: Angel. They have no idea the beehive that’s been kicked. Lubitsch only gives that to us. We are resigned to watching the outcomes. 

The hourglass structure of the movie means we must end where we began. We know time is running out. We are back in Paris, back with the Duchess, and she performs her narrative duties a bit like a maestro. Unwittingly or not, she has all the main players stashed away in different drawing rooms. It’s inevitable that they find each other. The situation calls for it. There is no other possible resolution. 

In the olden days, you have a sense this film would have been lithe and effervescent as only Lubtisch could offer up. Standing before us are all his penchants for drawing rooms, the affluent classes, and their servants. 

But what sets Angel apart is the tone and the profound solemnity Lubitsch often brings to the proceedings. The melancholy of the central love triangle is unmistakable even in the final minutes of the film. In this case, it’s difficult to totally dismiss the extravagance. Still, we’ve come to understand these people, both their passions and their nobility. Because Lubitsch’s films somehow compel me the most when they grab hold of such feelings, where the emotions cut far deeper than the surface ironies. 

As far as Dietrich’s concerned, it might be one of her greatest performances. In the place of ostentatious allure, there stands a quiet dignity comfortable with silence. The whole movie is made in such a mode where these interludes develop the longing. In a quiet encapsulation, husband and wife walk out of the giant estate both together and apart. Their marriage still standing but on the verge of dissolution.  It’s not so much a paradox as it is an indication of the tenuous nature of their lives moving forward.

3.5/5 Stars

One Hour With You (1931): Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier

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Ah, Spring in Paris! The local gendarmerie is intent on cleaning up the parks of couples canoodling. Among them are Andre Bertier (Maurice Chevalier) and his gal pal Colette (Jeanette MacDonald). But it’s perfectly decent. As they sing, later in bed together, “what a little thing like a wedding ring can do.”

Samson Raphaelson avails himself, having a fine time turning a phrase in all sorts of situations — in a police station or romantic tete-a-tete — it really doesn’t matter, and it serves Lubitsch’s standard suavity wrapped up in the sing-song operetta quite well.

Chevalier offers up his winking monologue to the camera and all the folks sitting out in the audience, providing a theatrical aside borrowed most obviously from the stage. His prevailing charms do not cater to everyone nor does his style of balladeering, but there’s no denying he carved out a niche for himself in the 20s and 30s as one of the most romantic swoons of his generation. Whether that had more to do with his coveted Europeanness or something else…

This story is built out of a taxi ride. Andre happens to hop into the cab with a person of the opposite sex named Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). The possibilities are endless. It’s the fact that they totally dissect the situation, insinuate and flutter their eyes at one another, taking a banal scenario, and instantly giving it romantic tension. In fact, just about every scene informs a world full of sensual suggestions and connotations.

He abruptly ditches the taxi on the verge of a kiss and infidelity, though the damage is already done. No one will ever believe them to be perfectly innocent, and they’ve conveniently created a comic drama for themselves out of nothing. It almost blows up between them, and they are as good as guilty.

This would all mean nothing, if not for the subsequent scene. Colette is reunited with her best friend: Mitzi! They share all the usual chatter, fawning over wardrobes and shared memories. Imagine the devoted husband’s shock when the woman in the taxi and his wife’s best pal are one and the same! We have a real story on our hands and Lubitsch knows precisely how to work it.

Take another scene where Mitzi feigns illness to get the doctor alone with her. Mitzi’s own husband (Roland Young) walks in on a doctor’s visit. It’s all perfectly innocent (as it always is). They trade pleasantries. One’s a doctor, the other a professor — ancient history. It’s an emphatic punchline hanging in the air.

There’s also a glamorous party put on by the Bertiers. All their friends will be there sitting at a table together in a very public environment. A round of name card roulette takes place between husband and wife with diabolical consequences — romantic speaking of course. Colette is trying to protect her man from the wrong woman even as she rebuffs the blundering advances of a madly infatuated socialite (Charlie Ruggles).

Genevieve Tobin remains out on the prowl for Chevalier. It doesn’t much matter what she’s does; it’s how she does it. This is the secret of most of the characters in this movie. It’s the power of inference.

When she musses up his bowtie, he doesn’t know how to remedy the situation (because he can’t tie a bowtie). Going back inside is tantamount to social suicide — people will talk — but if he follows the beguiling harpy into the garden, who knows what fate will befall him. He’s a prisoner on his own veranda! This is the movie’s persistent predicament in a nutshell.

However, there must be a caveat in any discussion of One Our With You. His name is George Cukor, and he was actually the original director of the picture, although he eventually relinquished his duties to Lubitsch.

With complicated productions such as this one, considering where one director begins and the other ends is always an intriguing conundrum. Take, for example, something like Come and Get It from a few years later, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler at different points. One doesn’t often confuse their filmographies but shot to shot it’s not exactly easy to ascertain the difference aside from some intuitive observations.

There are moments of cloying cattiness, particularly between the female characters and at the grand party that we might find down the road in a picture like The Women, but we never quite broach that territory completely. Because ultimately, it’s the overarching sensibilities and the shepherding of the comedy by Lubitsch leaving their mark. It certainly makes for another fine exemplar of his work during the period.

My main qualm is the squandering of its supporting cast. Between the likes of Tobin, Ruggles, and Roland, there are some real personalities, and opposite our stars, they do yeoman’s work in a handful of scenes. However, it does feel like they drop off and disappear rather conveniently. Their arcs never coil up in a sufficient manner — in a way we can appreciate — and they probably deserve a few more minutes of satisfying resolution.

However, Lubitsch is not concerned with a more raucous screwball crescendo. Thus, the ending just about wins it for me, partially because for once MacDonald is in on the gag, and it doesn’t feel like the Chevalier show. They’re in this kissing comedy together, beginning to end, singing to their little hearts’ content. If you like it, you like it…anywhere.

3.5/5 Stars

Broken Lullaby (1931) and The 5th Commandment

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It intrigues me that this fascinating outlier in Ernst Lubitsch oveure, once upon a time was released as The Fifth Commandment. For those keeping count, it’s the one in the Catholic faith that says thou shall not kill or rather thou shall not murder. But already you might see the semantic ambiguities at play in the translation. In modern English, murder and killing can maintain different definitions. Often you only need to look at a human conscience to deduct the difference. This is integral to the movie’s core dramatic question.

However, we must first unveil the scene, introduced as only Lubitsch could envision it. It’s now the first anniversary of armistice: November 11, 1919. It becomes a montage of perceptive comic juxtapositions — with small-town jingoism in full-force — parades, bells ringing, and cannon shots booming right outside a hospital. No one seems to heed the sign calling for silence while the shellshocked vets remain terrified by the living nightmare.

Then, inside a grand cathedral, the minister extolls peace in the wake of such carnage. Thinking better of it, Lubitsch focuses on the sabers of all the military men as they sit listening in the pews, weighed down by their many war medals — no doubt won in battles. The camera focuses on the crucifix hanging on the wall as “bombs burst in air.” These are all incongruous pictures if we want to make any sense of war.

With the stirring homily done, the pews clear out in a flurry and only one man is left prostrate in the pew. He comes up to the religious man seeking absolution. In a former life, he was a first violinist, now he wishes to confess to a “murder.” It registers a response of repugnance until the minster finds out it was out on the battlefield. He is freed from any crime having done nothing but his duty.

For this man, Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes), it’s some small recompense for the tribulation of his soul moaning out on his behalf — on behalf of the man he killed — because surely this is not the way men were supposed to live with one another.

In all earnestness he yells out, “I came to find peace and you haven’t given it to me.” He gets chastised, has his absolution read, and feels little better for it. Again, his heart still aches with guilt. His head goes aloft to the portrait of the Pietta — she lost her son — and she forgave the murderers…

It’s the germination of an idea: a mission of mercy and a personal pilgrimage. Paul must go to the homeland of the man he murdered and see his parents — to call upon their mercies — and assuage his wounded conscience. Holmes is a bit of an exaggerated talent but his zombie-like despondency allows him to function rather well in the shell-shocked part.

It’s apparent from the opening interludes a kind of pre-world war II chivalry and romanticism still exists between the Teutonic and Gallic traditions because they have yet to experience the full thrust of the radicalized regime of Hitler.

This doesn’t mean war is logical and totally naive. Far from it. There’s a prescience in the following line from Raphaelson’s script: “9 million people got slaughtered and they’re already talking about another war and the next there will be 19 million and the world calls that sane.”

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Broken Lullaby simultaneously becomes an impeccable exercise in how Lubitsch is able to take the material from Samson Raphaelson — their first of many collaborations together — and in some integral way, shape it to his will. Continually the dramatic irony can be cut with a knife, and so in specific scenes, you don’t need much more aside from the knowledge. Lubitsch does the rest and uses that to benefit his audience.

Because Renard makes his journey — dutifully visits the grave of the man he killed. War mothers often come to visit and on this day the dead man’s fiancee: Elsa (Nancy Carroll). He flees the scene like a frightened deer, but his mission is clear. He visits Dr. H. Holderein (Lionel Barrymore); he is the father who lost his boy in the war. We know what must come next.

Lubitsch doesn’t make it easy — it detonates in our faces — wrenches the knife into our emotional hearts and forces us to continue on the dramatic arc. Even as Paul is eventually brought into the Holderin family, he grasps at illusions to make them happy — in an attempt to not totally trample the fond memories of their son from when he was alive. Because he only knew the man in the pitiful trenches of war on the edge of death. It’s not a nice type of place to keep people within your memories.

Likewise, the town is a textbook Lubitschian environ of Europe through the lens of Hollywoodland. It’s the old world spritzed with the touches of the movies. It’s a magical land where the discrepancy of language and culture fall to the wayside in deference to emotional truth and visual elegance. Where Zasu Pitts showing up as a housemaid hardly feels anachronistic or out of the ordinary.

It also plays like a precursor to To Be or Not to Be‘s lucid commentary overlapping with the quaint familiarity of The Shop Around the Corner. There are many such establishments in a place like this. Perfect for blissful love to come into bloom. Because it’s true Paul and Elsa take a shine to one another — they share a naive benevolence as they try and pick up the pieces in the shadow of war.

They also turn all the heads and ring all the bells in the town as they walk by together arm-in-arm. In this regard, any sense of realism or authenticity is made superfluous. This is a film made out of its emotional impressions more than anything else.

Meanwhile, Elsa’s scorned suitor drums up conspiracy about the foreigner with his brood of beer drinkers at the local Hofbrau. A newfound absurdity is born as they secretly contest the content of his locked violin case. Surely, it holds something far more nefarious than a musical instrument.

Finally, the good doctor is shocked out of any former strains of narrow-mindedness. He sees it spewed back at him, and it repulses his sensibilities. Barrymore stares down the gauntlet at all the men affronted by his house guest, and he lets them know promptly his wife likes him, Elsa likes him, and he loves him. It’s such a courageous pronouncement in such company.

He says, “No one can tell me the meaning of death or the meaning of hatred. I’ve drunk deep of both of them.” In some form, he’s beginning to understand the world anew much like Paul before him. Fathers drinks to the death of sons (on the other side). Some drink beer and others wine. It’s no different, and they all propagate the system of patriotic butchering. It’s insanity.

Broken Lullaby does what a majority of movies try to accomplish with any amount of dialogue and plot points. Lubitsch doesn’t need them. Instead, we get an impression. Paul is able to take up his original calling once more — that of a violinist — and he is joined on piano by Elsa. The parents look on in a contented reverie. Before us is the reconciliation of residual hurt leftover from an entire war allayed by two melodies joined together in perfect harmony.

We must stand corrected. The Broken Lullaby is the right title for the picture. It might be difficult to categorize for movie pundits, but this is of negligible importance here. What remains are the reactions. In turns, it’s moving and it’s excruciating. I was made totally distraught, and yet the salve is finer still.

Life, even today, is won in no man’s land where no one wants to go. Still, I am reminded of even a monumental moment of harmony like the famed Christmas day ceasefire in 1914. I’d like to believe restoration is possible. Lubitsch seems to suggest as much and he does so quite elegantly. I’d expect nothing less.

4/5 Stars

The Trouble With Harry (1955): Hitchcock, Humor, and The Macabre

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Idyllic is the word for The Trouble with Harry, and it positively crackles with the autumnal delights one can only know in locales where the seasons give way one to another.

Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography boasts many opulent and gorgeously shot sequences, but Trouble With Harry might have some of the most supernal. Part of this comes from the fact it comes in such stark contrast to his environs in Northern California.

Because the East Coast — Vermont in particular — affords him a very particular canvass and he uses them to full effect. The story goes that he went so far as to have leaves pinned back onto trees to try and replicate the shots on a sound stage. Whatever the techniques it boasts something distinctly tangible.

If the locale is not entirely functional, it still manages to be another integral character in the story just as the satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot or the thought of a lemonade out on the porch conjures up visions of a very specific sort. But of course, all of this connotation would be for naught if it was not juxtaposed with the typical Hitchcockian proclivity for the darkly macabre.

The Trouble with Harry might offer his lightest touch — it’s spritzed more evidently with humor than a great many of his movies — but the blackness at its core cannot go unnoticed. Take, for instance, that opening sequence. It’s emblematic of the whole picture. There’s tiny Jerry Mathers freakishly young (even before the days of Leave It To Beaver).

He’s running off on some boyish adventure his toy gun in hand, only to stumble upon the corpse of a man named Harry. The man’s nicely dressed. Laid out in the middle of an open pasture. More importantly, he’s dead.

Hitchcock employs a trick from the painterly masters using foreshortening to make the man’s body envelop the screen as the little boy stares down at him rather inquisitively, ready to run off and tell his mother. From the outset, Bernard Herrmann’s scoring is both rigorous and rather jaunty, perfectly in tune with the sense of place and tone.

But this is no conventional tale of malice or ill-blood. It is, however, the Macguffin to kick our story off. Edmund Gwenn is another fellow who comes upon the body quite by chance — he was out shooting rabbits unsuccessfully — could it be a stray bullet that took Harry out? He thinks it’s better not to risk it and decides to drag the body to more secluded terrain.

However, he’s met by one of his neighbors. John Michael Hayes’ script does splendidly in moments like these. It’s able to place small-town pleasantries up against a grisly murder as if it’s a small trifle — a mere afterthought to be dealt with in the manner of a pothole or a roach problem. In the end, Captain Wiles (Gwenn) and Ms. Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a kindly spinster, set up a date for afternoon tea with the promise of blueberry muffins and genial company.

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What of Harry? It’s true the whole world seems to turn up to find him. Soon little Arnie returns with his mother (Shirley MacLaine), and she hardly bats an eye. A local professorial fellow — his nose always in a book — trips over the body without much of an acknowledgment. Even local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), has time enough to sketch a crude portrait of the dead man.

He’s your conventional starving artist. Kindly Ms. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts his particularly exuberant paintings out for sale near her Emporium, though he doesn’t stir up much business from the cows lingering across the pasture.

Ms. Rogers meanwhile is a twice-widowed young woman, and she admits her last husband was too good to live. She’s pursued by Mr. Marlowe even as the old-timers look to start courting in their own way.

The source of the frivolity and the casual delightfulness comes in painting the town as Hitchcock does — this combination of coloring the idiosyncrasies of the quainter side of life as well as the open-air mise en scene, whether pure illusion or not.

What’s lovely about Hitch is the way every movie becomes a sort of game or puzzle in its own right. Because The Trouble with Harry will never be held in the same regard as many of his most obvious successes — movies from this same period of time — but it’s ceaselessly interesting.

Audiences of the 50s would have had a time pinning it down in a conventional sense because it employs fairly frank dialogue whether riddled with innuendo or not, but it also lacks the kind of obvious star power big studios often banked on to sell tickets. Surely Hitchcock could have garnered the best talent and yet he chose not to.

This is a character piece, and it wasn’t meant for the Cary Grants or Jimmy Stewarts of the world — at least not in 1955. It called for something more mundane. And what of the humor? First of all, there are certain expectations from “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s hard to say they are met; it’s almost like he swapped the formula. He leads with the comedy with accents of suspense and the macabre.

A body buried and excavated, put back in the ground, and exhumed time and time again over the course of the day. It’s the film’s prolonged gag. One of the things that makes it feel continually comedic is the lack of a true villain of any consequence.

The closest candidate is Royal Dano, a slightly curmudgeonly sheriff who has a penchant for old cars. He’s sniffing around, always on the side of law and order. No, this is most definitely a comedy, and the two couples join forces to keep their local secret. Because they know quite literally where the dead bodies are buried. Though it’s quite possible none of them is the actual culprit. It’s typical of Hitchcock that his inclinations of Vermont are informed by murder instead of moonlight.

He is, after all, the man who keenly observed that the medium of T.V. “brought murder back into the home where it belongs.” The Trouble With Harry plays with the same form of morbid levity.

3.5/5 Stars

True Confession (1937) Carole Lombard, Fibber Extraordinaire

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“Must we submit to this three-ringed circus in the guise of drama?” – Porter Hall

Carole Lombard is a comedienne of unequivocal talents. My guess is that it lies in that extra special dial she had. Yes, she was a Hollywood glamour girl and stylist of the 1930s — married to the King of Hollywood himself — but she also was totally at ease being absurdly silly. She would become frenzied and unhinged in a manner that feels rather groundbreaking for her generation. She was a very special performer.

True Confession deserves to be acknowledged as a truly satisfying screwball for how it uses Lombard’s talents. Because, you see, her Helen Bartlett is a woman plagued by tall tales. Her fibs take on outrageous proportions. She’s the girl who cries wolf. Quite literally, tongue in cheek. We see it in full effect early on where she tells a string of increasingly wacky fibs to keep a man from impounding her typewriter.

However, the movie wouldn’t stand up if not for her husband. Ken Bartlett (Fred MacMurray) is tirelessly honest which, in the lawyering racket, isn’t always the most lucrative. He won’t represent anyone who’s guilty and that includes the referral of their local butcher who swiped some hams.

But he has that aching desire to exert his manhood and be the sole breadwinner of the house. He wouldn’t dream of having his wife work. No, she spends her days plinking away at the typewriter trying to finish her latest story. She’s got the personality but perhaps not the prose to be a successful writer.

So she conspires with her best friend Daisy (Una Merkel) over what she might do. Her plan is to take a job as a secretary. What of it that she’s never done shorthand or that her husband will have a fit? These are small potatoes and so she takes the job. Unfortunately, sleazy Mr. Krayler is a serial philanderer and as she skips and back peddles to avoid his advances, Helen realizes she has to get out of the secretarial racket.

This might very well be the end of it. But True Confession is forever altered by what happens next. Depending on the outcome it would end up a mystery drama. Thankfully for us, it remains a comedy.

Because she returns to the office to pick up a forgotten handbag only to find the dead weight of Krayler sprawled on the carpet. Soon the police are on the scene — their bald, hoodwinked leader (Edgar Kennedy) suspects her instantly. After all, she has motive. Soon they’ve drummed up a whole story supposin’ how she fled the crime scene.

But we know she is innocent so if the wheels of justice are actually just, there shouldn’t be a problem. A happy ending is easy enough to foresee. Instead, proceedings get strung out. Helen ends in prison suspected of murder and there’s an ensuing trial in front of a judge. Her husband is going to defend her.

Here’s the real screwball wrinkle. Wait for it. She decides to plead guilty. It’s the biggest lie she’s ever told, but if it pays off, then her hubby will be the talk of the town in the courts with a fledgling career to boot. She wants to give him his biggest stage to prove his acumen even if she has to risk perjury to do it. If it doesn’t work, well, the movie never really makes us consider the alternative.

We’ve alluded to the majority of the players, but one would be remiss not to mention two more. Porter Hall is one of the mainstays of Classic Hollywood entertainment and here he turns in a fine performance as a bellicose prosecutor on the prowl.

Then, who can forget John Barrymore hitting the eccentric heights of his career (and also the skids)? Because “The Great Profile” and titan of the great acting family, was now more of a caricature.

As Charley Jasper, he’s giggling maniacally with his ready collection of balloons, his hair rather unkempt, like a mad professor in the courtroom. Why is he here anyway? Why does the story need him? It seems quite thin. I would never dare spoil this little untouched secret.

Instead, the floorshow takes center stage. Mr. and Mrs. Barlett reenact events for the courtroom crowd in a highly irregular manner, but there is something giddy and glib watching Lombard and Macmurray break into playacting in the middle of the trial. It won’t let us forget for a moment this is a comedy, and it stays true to its roots.

I have to admit there’s an unsettling irony in the comedy’s main conceit: a white woman fighting to plead not guilty for a murder that everyone assumes she committed (though she hasn’t). Of course, there’s a historical precedent in antiquity for a woman’s testimony would not be taken.

Even watching something recently like Just Mercy, a different kind of courtroom drama in tone and content, it’s a reminder of how many people, whether black or marginalized in some way, find themselves in much the same predicament, and in their cases, there’s rarely a screwball plotline to conveniently spring them out of their misfortunes.

Social critiques aside, True Confessions is an underrated screwball gem, and it does itself a service thanks to Lombard and Kennedy, Merkel, and Barrymore. However, in our current context, as we seek a renewed sense of justice in the civil space, it must also give us pause.

3.5/5 Stars

Notes: This post was originally written in June 2020

I Walk Alone (1948) with Lancaster and Douglas

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“All the songs sound alike these days.”

The title of this movie inadvertently made me think of the Dinah Shore number “I’ll Walk Alone.” Granted, the title is slightly different, and it was birthed out of the WWII context where soldiers left their sweethearts behind to wait it out.

I Walk Alone could have easily made a play for this type of story. Instead, it replaces traumatic military experience with a long stint in prison and so our protagonist comes back to the outside world with a slightly different mentality. So there’s really no connection out all, and yet somehow music holds a crucial place in this movie because it comes to represent something about the characters. We hear, among other standards “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Heart and Soul.”

Each of these classics plays as odd counter music to an otherwise rough and tumble story that might yield descriptions ripe with gangsters and noir imagery. When Dave meets Frankie at the train station, we understand the score instantly: 14 years behind bars and now he’s on the outside. Lancaster and Corey are holdovers from the previous year’s Desert Fury (along with Lizabeth Scott).

Ill-will has built up over the same period because back in the days of prohibition, Dave (Lancaster) used to be in cahoots as a rum runner with Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), who has now made a name for himself on the outside. After taking the rap, Dave feels slighted by his old partner, and true to form, his partner is trying to feel him out so he might know how to counteract him. It’s an instant conflict.

Coincidentally, it’s the first crossing of the dynamic wills belonging to Lancaster and Douglas who would continue a storied cinematic partnership over seven pictures. Even at this early date, they have fire in their bellies to drive their dramatic inclinations.

Having the two of them together is a singular delight in a way Desert Fury from the previous year could never deliver. Because in a sense they are on equal footing in terms of cinematic clout and charisma. Not that they’re the same person by any means, but it’s rather like Mitchum and Douglas sparring in Out of The Past. It makes for a far more absorbing picture.

Before he won the privilege to be an irascible hero, Douglas excels at being the cool and calculating criminal type. His voice is almost high-pitched and strung tight giving him an unnerving quality with pointed fury behind his eyes — as dark as ever. Still, he gladly maintains the pretense of friendship; it’s good for business.

When Frankie makes his way to the Regent club, he sees all the old crowd is still around, Dan the hulking doorman, then Ben behind the bar. It’s a bit like old times, but times have changed.

The veiled threats in their first meeting are an extraordinary barrage from the opening warning “Don’t move,” to the insinuations about his health on the outside, and the final flash of flame from a cigarette lighter. Intensions are made very clear.

True to form, Dink uses every resource at his advantage to defuse and exploit his old friend if possible. He’s the consummate businessman even when it comes to women. Lisabeth Scott, the club’s resident torch singer, is a whole-hearted sentimentalist who believes in love and in people — the fact they just don’t make songs like they used to. In this regard, she shares a conviction with Frankie. But she’s supposed to be Dink’s girl; at least she works for him.

However, there’s also Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) a refined beauty with a name “spelled in capital letters” and a cigarette pinched between her feminine fingers. She’s also filthy rich and she doesn’t mind her men philandering; for her romance is as much a business transaction as it is for Dink.

The script has its moments of lively snappiness especially leaving the lips of Lancaster who exerts himself as the brusque, no-nonsense tough operator. He’s not about to let other’s knock him off balance or get too far into his confidences.

However, I Walk Alone charts the changes that went into organized crime while Frankie was in the slammer. Whereas he represents the brawn of the old days, Dink is an emblem of the wily business practices necessary to get ahead currently. He’s able to cast off his old partner’s stake in the company with a convenient signature on a piece of paper.

What has developed is an age where big business steamrolled the olden days of hoods and backstreet gangsters calling the shots. Where three corporations can only be understood and operated through board meetings, diagrams, and dizzying bureaucracy. This web feels like a conspiracy to Frankie while only reiterating the helplessness found in a story like The Grapes of Wrath where modernity has overwhelmed the old ways.

He piles into his old buddy’s office with a posse of thugs including the smart-mouthed Skinner (Mickey Knox), the heavy Tiger (Freddie Steele), and the ubiquitous Dewey Robinson. What he realizes only too late is it’s not a matter of bringing knives to a gunfight. They are mostly outdated tokens just like him. As the brassy one quips he’s “swimming in it.”

What happens next is not unforeseen. There’s a manhunt and the man finds himself a woman who brims with his same spirit; someone who stands by the standards and sentiments of the past. To coin a paradox, they can walk alone together.

Beginning to end, what truly holds I Walk Alone together is the slimy impudence of Kirk Douglas struggling for dominance over Lancaster’s inherent tenacity. Without them, and then everyone else, including Scott, ably orbiting around them, it feels like the story might fall apart. Still, film noir aficionados should have more than enough to gorge themselves on.

3.5/5 Stars

Desert Fury (1947): Small Town Melodrama in Technicolor

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The draw to Desert Fury must begin with its intriguing cast running the range of personalities. John Hodiak and Wendell Corey (in his film debut) are driving into town. There’s this sense that their relationship is familiar but they feel like out-of-towners, somehow bringing a ting of noirish sentiment into what might otherwise be a straight-laced picture from director Lewis Allen.

The town was doubled by Piru in Ventura County and the colors of Charles Lang are grand if a tad on the campy side. All the better to serve the visual melody of the film. Burt Lancaster is Tom Hanson, the sheriff in the small town where he happens upon Lizabeth Scott on Main Street, a rambunctious creature of trouble nosing around for romance in her wood-paneled Chrysler New Yorker Town and Country. He warns Paula Haller to watch herself, which she easily laughs off before driving home.

Part of her disposition must be genetic because while they couldn’t seem different, her mother is a very independent-thinking, straight-talker who lays it out like she sees it. Fritzi feels like the toughest dame Mary Astor has ever played — the cocksure proprietor of the local gambling joint — used to throwing around money and being on top of everything, and well-liked by everyone if she can help it.

That being said, she’s hardly the maternal type — in fact, she hardly feels like a mother at all — even as she’s vehemently against Paula following in her footsteps. Because hers is a tough life doing her best to shield the impressionable girl from the same trajectory. Surely, that must be it…

The Purple Sage proves its own self-contained world for the characters to lose themselves in. Our primary players are thrown together again and it never ceases until the final exhale.

Because out of everything Desert Fury can possibly offer, the relational dynamics are one reason to latch onto the film and stick around just to feel out what’s going on and where it possibly could be heading with each character exerting their own pressures on the story.

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Lizabeth Scott could be simpering but with her smoky voice and youthful looks, she always managed to be an enigma. Not always the most engaging performer but somehow she fits the curious makeup of a picture like this. As her mother observes with an inflection of eros, she’s “nice and fresh and alive.”

John Hodiak is generally curt, with an abrupt delivery and whether it’s his performance or his own nature seeping into the part, there’s no nuance or finesse to what he puts out. But as Eddie, he’s allowed the benefit of a past — a past that makes Fritzie wary of any advances on her daughter. It attributes menace to him regardless of what he is capable of offering.

Johnny is his lifelong companion since their youth, protective of him, even jealous for his affections playing as an inversion of Fritzie — as both housekeeper and bodyguard to his longtime associate. But the secrets run deeper still.

What A.I. Bezzerides and Robert Rossen’s script evolves into is this kind of tug-of-war with Paula acting as both the object of desire and the token with which to play out these feuds and affections. She gladly honks and smiles her way into all sorts of conflicts, driving her town car with a cavalier daring from the very beginning. Her sheer impetuousness propels the story.

She’s drawn to Hodiak, and he’s enchanted by her, showing her the door in another instance only to instantly revert back again to his charmed infatuation. It’s a tumultuous if moderately intriguing bedrock for romance.

Because Lancaster is invested in her too, warning against association with such a character. Whether it’s on account of her personal safety or his own guarded affections feels immaterial. Even as Fritzie offers a pact — land for the hand of her daughter — the proud lawman balks at the offer because he wants romance on his own terms.

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Fritzie knows where he stands but even she doesn’t get it. One evening Lancaster walks into her office searching and yet keeping his cards close to his chest. It’s as if he’s letting her try and figure it out.

Meanwhile, Paula and Johnny have their own strange war playing out over Eddie colored with its share of passionate kisses, flying fists, and slaps of disdain. The incendiary couple ignites most of it.

However, what’s even more important is what is alluded to not simply off-screen but from each individual’s past personal dosier and shared history. They know one another out of the confines of this hour and a half. The ensuing array of heightened dramatics and supposed revelations are nothing unusual or unforeseen on their own.

It’s the observable action speaking in the final stretch (along with the theatrical Miklós Rózsa accompaniment) with cars barreling down the desert highway in hot pursuit of one another.

It’s a Hollywood denouement — hardly a reinvention of themes from love triangles to shadowy pasts — but the melange of performances and the slight subversions teased out speak to something. Where the final kiss is not between Lizabeth Scott and her alpha male but with her mother.

While not a moral tale,  it’s a movie voicing the tangled, clouded, dysfunctional relationships plaguing a small town — and the world at large. The guise of  Technicolor melodrama is a fitting pretense.

3/5 Stars

One-Eyed Jacks (1961): Good and Evil is in the Cards

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One-Eyed Jacks acts as a bit of an anomaly. It was originally meant to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick. Instead, Marlon Brando himself oversaw direction — his one and only time in the director’s chair. The results are as vibrant and totally Brando as they are messy, devolving into something more than indicative of its creative nucleus.

To its credit, the movie, set in the 1880s, earns its world more than Viva Zapata because there is an understanding of cultural differences inherent in the landscape. It does not try to insensitively blur ethnic lines with whites playing Mexicans.

Even Brando’s sense of Zapata, although plaintive, potentially falls prey to this blind spot. But One-Eyed Jacks is as much about the meldings of the cultures as anything. Yes, there are still obvious hierarchies and spheres of existence.  Chinese, for instance (represented by Philip Ahn), are tertiary characters, and the Latino cast is certainly secondary to the Caucasian leads, but this is indicative of the structures in place. There is some attempt at character definition that goes beyond menial stereotypes.

The scenes that strike me, in particular, are between Katy Jurado and Pina Pillicener. Instead of copping out, making these two women converse in English for the benefit of an English-speaking audience, there’s enough confidence in the emotion engendered (even if your Spanish is not up to par to catch every word). It feels wholly honest compared to typical Hollywood convention.

But, in order to explain this world, we must start 5 years earlier with a couple of outlaws. Before the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) are a pair of womanizing bandits robbing banks all over Mexico, living a merry life of crime constantly on the run from the authorities.

It does eventually catch up to them as they are left stranded out in the desert with Federales hot on their heels. The fateful choice to send Dad off to find horses while Rio stays behind winds up altering their steps for good. Rio gets captured and shackled up in a local prison with his compadre Chico (Larry Duran). Dad rides off to start a fresh life for himself without any kind of penance being paid. Their divergent roads spell out what the future must hold.

Even when it lumbers along or willfully bides its time — for instance, watching a couple thugs waiting it out on a porch by the sea — the color scheme as captured by Charles Lang is gorgeous. It’s one of the film’s persistent attributes though it has a handful of others.

My mind drift’s to a shot far later in the story when Brando rides his horse past a gnarled tree right out of Sleepy Hollow. Unbeknownst to him, one of his faithful companions lies shot to death only meters away, and he is riding toward doom — for crimes, crimes he didn’t even commit.

Brando often surrounds himself with interesting folks. Some are tried and true — allies he’s been able to rely on for a long time — like Karl Malden (reunited again after A Streetcar Name Desire and On the Waterfront). And yet even the likes of Katy Jurado and a promising international newcomer like Pina Pellicer bring their own sense of sober candor to the picture. She’s a striking contrast to her leading man even if they share a core sadness.

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The Ben Johnsons and Sam Gilmans round out the assemblage of talent with the gruff essence of imposing masculinity. Slim Pickens, on the side of law and order, is his own version, equally snide and opportunistic — creating the kind of evocative characterizations that westerns thrive on.

It’s this kind of duality — represented foremost by Brando and Malden, then accentuated through their posses — causing one to mull over the meaning of One-Eyed Jacks. The phraseology is not something that gets used too often today. But its origins are from the profile image on a playing card. In this context, it comes to symbolize people who show off their “good side” while conveniently hiding all their faults through duplicity.

Rio is a pathological liar even in the context of people he likes. He knows no other way to go about it, holding onto his anger and letting it direct him toward revenge. But in one sense, he’s straightforward because he’s always taut with tension and the kind of angst Brando built a dynasty out of. There’s always sensitivity on the other side.

Dad is a jovial character. He’s made a life for himself and he has “reformed,” now on the side of the law. But the stroke of fortune that allowed him to get away from the federales 5 years ago and make a new life for himself, has never really left him. He’s a wheedling even deceptive fellow with a merciless, self-serving edge. He’s a man to be feared because he has popular opinion and legitimacy on his side. It’s a far more terrifying prospect.

Here’s yet another western playing with the conventions of heroics and villainy with this newfound muddied and greying sense of morality as Peckinpah would continually work through in the ensuing years. Because the final act is about a man sentenced to be hanged and the root of justice behind it remains totally immaterial. Brando is cast as a local villain even as he remains part victim to the audience. Malden and his crew are symbols of justice — swift and sure — with at least a couple of caveats.

Up until the final shots, One-Eyed Jacks remains a fairly engaging morality play rooted in a host of fine performances and its provocative imagery. Given the circumstances — how an inexperienced Brando captured exorbitant amounts of footage and remained indecisive in his directorial decisions — it feels like a bit of a marvel we got something as passable as this. Its imperfections only make its virtues all the more fortuitous.

3.5/5 Stars