A Patch of Blue (1965)

I hope my analogy does not get misconstrued, but A Patch of Blue plays like a sublime fairy tale. It’s set in New York, a city that often feels as much of a visual fabrication made out of magic and myth as it is a real place anchored in time and space. Here is the very same world that exists in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s or other such pictures.

Shelley Winters is at her nastiest and most acerbic as a street tramp Rose-Ann. An evil “stepmother” if you will, because she and her daughter are on a first-name basis. Aside from that, you’d hardly realize they’re kith and kin. Because you see our cinematic cinderella, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman), is blind thanks to a violent altercation in her childhood and is now resigned to spending most of their time locked up in the shabby apartment.

Wallace Ford, bless his soul, is Ole Pal and though his heart might be in the right place, he’s not much used to the world because he spends most of his waking days home from work griping at the insufferable Rose-Ann or going out on the town to get royally plastered. 

When Selina’s not slaving away at chores, she’s stringing beads together for mere pennies. Otherwise, she’s considered useless. She’s blind after all. It’s hardly a life at all. At least, that’s what the world around her seems to suggest and any minor pleasure like an afternoon in the park feels more precious to her than gold. 

It’s in this said park where she first meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). If we wished to describe him, you could highlight any number of salient characteristics. He’s tall, handsome, and intelligent. He works the night shift and he has a brother (Ivan Dixon) who’s training to be a doctor. He’s also black…

But Selina cannot recognize or know any of this during their first encounter. Instead, she learns about him through his actions and words. Rather than being an impediment to their connection, somehow it provides the most sincere indications of human affection. She finds him to be kind and patient in a manner she has rarely experienced.

In this first encounter, she’s dumped her precious beads all over. She can’t possibly gather them together again and so we have an effortless meet-cute. For all we know, Gordon appears at her tree, but whatever the means — fate or happenstance — the film is never the same again. The metaphor of this movie is evident even for those who’ve never seen it. The cliche that “love is blind” is made quite literal because, for young Selina, that’s what happens. She falls in love for the first time. 

Guy Green does not employ altogether flashy filmmaking notwithstanding some fitting match cuts, but this leaves ample space for his narrative focal points. There’s something undeniable blooming between Hartman and Poitier making this movie a tender slice of romance brimming with sincerity. 

Poitier empowers her in a way no one has bothered to before, and it’s an awakening of the world around her even as her sense remain attuned to everything. Though Poitier isn’t necessarily stretched beyond his limits — he’s perfectly at ease being a benevolent guide — his customary affability and charm feel infallible at this point. 

True to form, he comes back in subsequent days to check in on Selina, providing her sunglasses to cover the scars on her face. Another day he offers her a can of pineapple juice, which she takes with relish. He broadens her horizons further by traveling together on the crosswalk for pastrami at the local delicatessen and then to pick up his groceries.

To us, these seem like mundane tasks, and yet for Selina, these are such generous acts because someone has taken the time for her. And though she is mostly unawares, there is a sense that in 1965, just there being together, existing in the world, and taking part in life together, is a meaningful act of solidarity if not total rebellion against prejudicial behavior. At its most fundamental level, it courts these ongoing themes of friendship and tolerance.

 Most importantly, it is Gordon who rescues her from the pit of despair and the vengeful jowls of Rose-Ann once and for all. Remember, it is a fairy tale — Poitier acts as the fairy godmother whose job never has enough contours for us to really know what he does; he appears when he is needed most. His performance is matched by the agreeable whimsy of Jerry Goldsmith’s score dancing softly in the background. It can end no other way even as this adolescent girl’s life still hangs in the air partially unresolved. 

Although the words have been echoed many a time, it does seem like Selina comprehends Dr. King’s incomparable words in their totality. Because in her mind’s eye and in their day-to-day actions, she has no difficulty judging Gordon, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

It’s another sentimental picture and you can rail against it, although I’m predisposed to enjoy its quiet bounties. Even compared to a more high-profile option like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there’s something unostentatious and rather attractive about this movie. It has Poitier’s sense of decency and there’s a message of tolerance, but the scale feels wonderfully mundane. So, perhaps it’s a realist fairytale. 

4/5 Stars

The Informer (1935): John Ford and Victor McLaglen

The opening title card sets the stage in strife-torn Dublin in 1922 with a reference to Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ to be killed. The allusive nature of the story becomes apparent only with time, connecting with John Ford’s own deeply religious inclinations as an Irish Catholic.

I won’t say Ford’s able to make a soundstage more atmospheric than the real place because reality would provide a grittier, more authentic ambiance, but here we have the mist, large vacant sets, and crumpled up newspapers that flutter around like tumbleweeds. It’s Dublin as can only be conceived in the dream factories of the studio system. 

Some might forget before John Wayne was one of his primary avatars, Victor McLaglen came to represent Ford’s version of hardy masculinity even earlier, and it’s no different here. Even when he was displaced in later years, he still found time to turn up in the director’s pictures, most notably in The Quiet Man and his cavalry trilogy. Ford never seemed to forget actors who had put in their service with him.

As The Informer set down its roots, it feels a bit like watching Hitchock’s England pictures from the ’30s. You can see the early brushstrokes of the master, but it’s almost as if the technology hasn’t quite caught up with their ambitions and the capabilities of what they’re yearning to do. Sound, color, lighting, and the like would improve in the ’50s and ’60s as would both men’s budgets leading to some of their finest achievements and a plethora of the most lauded pictures Hollywood has ever known.

For now, they work with what they have and manage to spin a decent cinematic yarn all the same. Because necessity is the mother of invention; still, it’s also about how you utilize the time and resources on hand to make something as substantive as possible.

The Informer was made for RKO probably due to the fact no one else was willing to take a chance on it. It’s a meager picture in many regards, and this is easy to forget since it was a stunning success during that year’s award season. But it was a film made for a relative pittance over the course of a couple of weeks plus change.

While one would probably never call it Ford’s most profound achievement, you can tell he’s put his blood into it — his history as a proud Irish-American — and its core dilemma is a powerful bulwark to build a film around and an acting performance.

Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) is a man caught in the middle of civil unrest plaguing the lands since their inception. The British think he’s with the Irish and the Irish think he’s with The British. Mostly he’s out for himself just trying to subsist and earn himself a bit of merriment. Still, he can’t scrounge up a job from either side. It’s far from a desirable place to be.

He does have a few friends: Katie (Margot Grahame) is his lady although because he’s not good for much money, she works as a streetwalker to scrape out a living. Still, she’s devoted to the big lovable oaf. Another is Frankie McPhillips (Wallace Ford), a wanted hoodlum for the IRA resistance and a brother in arms for Gypo. They’ve grown up together and as is the prerequisite for a community like this, their friendship is forged in a life lived in proximity. Gypo loves the man, but he’s also penniless with no prospects.

It’s not exactly 30 pieces of silver, but Gypo makes a rash decision to sell out his friend — this isn’t so much of a spoiler — because this becomes the context for the rest of the movie. He’s tortured by his conscience even as no one suspects him in the wake of the tragedy he instigated against his friend and the man’s grieving family.

His only defense is to swim in self-absorbed debauchery. It gets him out of the moment providing a brief escape from his guilt. He belts a policeman and another lad on a street corner before wrangling fish and chips for a whole host of onlookers in a show of drunken generosity thanks to his newfound wealth.

In another scene, he stumbles in on a hotsy-totsy establishment run by a local matron where all the men and women wear top hats over drinks, conversation, and other things. He bowls them over with his rowdy entrance pushing down pipsqueak and gathering pretty girls up around him. These all feel like a part of his mental smokescreen.

Behind the scenes it’s a much grimmer scenario as the pragmatic Dan Gallager (Preston Foster) sends his cronies out into the streets to track down Frankie’s betrayer. This isn’t a mission of mercy. They live in a kill or be killed economy, and they’re prepared to take the necessary actions to preserve their cause against traitors, even those with deep roots in the community.

The drunken Gypo is pulled into a meeting with another suspect (Donald Meek) as the truth is slowly sussed out. The tribunal standing by has echoes of M, though it’s now been superimposed by this sense of Catholic guilt and justice.

McLaglen makes his way through the entire movie boisterous, gruff, and drunk like any good McLaglen performance except this easily must be the bar by which to judge all others. It’s either a really good job of acting or Ford helped him get into the part with a little trickery and added encouragement from the spirits. At least that’s how the story goes. Either way, it works with the actor dispensing this trail of blustering, sniveling, disoriented guilt, and gravitas making the picture go.

Dudley Nichol’s script doesn’t necessarily employ great prose — it’s not a thing of beauty — but Ford is able to utilize its framework to tell a worthy story. The final images culminate in the ultimate biblical picture.

Gypo stumbles into a church with one final chance to pay recompense for his sins. He gains absolution from the Mother (Una O’Connor), standing before the Crucifix, arms outstretched (May God Have Mercy on His Soul). The sentimentality doesn’t feel like typical Ford — though he could certainly be deceptive about it — and this form of religious iconography is something relatively apparent even in his final picture Six Women.

The Informer’s unparalleled success paved the road for him ahead with many great entries to come. Ford certainly was a master in blending classical storytelling with his personal vision. It shows how personal filmmaking can break through the barriers and resonate with audiences on an impactful level.

4/5 Stars

Possessed (1931): Joan Crawford and The “In” Crowd

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We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.

Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”

It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.

She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.

Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.

At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.

In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.

However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.

For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.

What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.

Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.

Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.

Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.

It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.

A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.

In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.

Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.

Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.

3.5/5 Stars