Category: Hollywood

Phantom Lady (US 1944)

I think I must have first seen Phantom Lady on TV in the 1970s. In those days my TV screen was small and all I remember from that first viewing was a bar, high heels clacking on the dark streets and Elisha Cook. Everyone knew poor Elisha would never make it to the last reel in any of the dozens of films in which he appeared and he certainly didn’t in this one – he’s also playing a drummer in a jazz group! Other than that and that the film was directed by Robert Siodmak, the director of that remarkable German film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), I could remember nothing. My recent viewing via MUBI proved to be a revelation on a larger TV screen in HD it sets up a whole range of interesting questions as well as providing much visual pleasure.

The ‘phantom lady’, Ann Terry (Fay Helm) with Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) in the opening scenes

Elisha Cook as the drummer, the first witness

Phantom Lady is an adaptation of a ‘breakthrough’ novel by Cornell Woolrich published under his cover name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was immensely prolific and IMDb lists 42 film titles based on his stories and novels. He’s best known as the writer of the short story that became Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and for the stories adapted for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). He’s also known as one of the key sources for Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s alongside Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain. After watching the film I looked up two detailed studies of the film, one by Michael Walker in an essay simply titled ‘Robert Siodmak’ in the MovieBook of Film Noir (ed. Ian Cameron, 1981) and the other, ‘Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the abandoned city of the Forties’ by David Reid and Jayne L. Walker in Shades of Noir edited by Joan Copjec (Verso 1993). One of the most important revelations of these two pieces is that Woolrich wrote in such detail about scenes that Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell with art directors Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman were able to form very clear ideas about how to put them on screen. The narrative is set in New York City but filmed on Universal Studio lots in Los Angeles which are used to conjure up streets very effectively. There is definitely a feel of German Expressionist Cinema about them.

Two shots of the studio sets as Kansas’ (Ella Raines) tails the witnesses. This one is from DVD Beaver’s Blu-ray review

As Walker points out, the narrative structure is clearly defined in three sections. In the first a professional engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) visits a bar feeling depressed and buys a drink for a woman who seems similarly down. He persuades her to join him at a variety show as he has two tickets. At the end of the evening they part and she leaves him without revealing her name. When Scott returns home expecting to find his wife with whom he quarrelled earlier, he finds her dead and a trio of police detectives waiting for him. He believes the ‘phantom lady’ will provide him with an alibi, but although she was wearing a very distinctive hat, none of the obvious witnesses remembers her with Scott. He is arrested and later convicted. In the second section one of Scott’s employees (her role in his office is not clear), Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman (Ella Raines), is convinced that he is innocent and sets out to find the ‘phantom lady’. But the witnesses she questions tend to disappear. At the end of this section she meets Scott’s close friend Marlow (Franchot Tone) back from South America and in the third section she and Marlow seek the final witness, the ‘phantom lady’ herself. They are supported by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) who by this stage believes that Scott Henderson may have been framed. In between each section, a bridging scene sees Kansas visiting Scott in prison awaiting execution. It’s apparent that she is in love with him. There is a clear resolution to the narrative with a ‘happy ending’ – something which many viewers find banal after the mystery/suspense twists and the look and feel of the film overall.

The ‘bridging’ narrative in which Kansas visits Henderson in prison

Kansas, picked out by the light, is determined to break the barman’s testimony

Kansas, as played by the wonderful Ella Raines, is an unusual female lead. She acts something like a femme fatale at one point in order to get information off a witness. Towards the end of the film she needs to be rescued, but for much of the film she is an intelligent and resourceful investigator. Although her role in Henderson’s business is never clearly defined, she is a professional office worker and independent woman – unfortunately rare in Hollywood narratives of the 1940s. Ella Raines had a film career which was probably not that unusual for talented and attractive young women in the mid 1940s. She was ‘discovered’ in a drama school stage production by Howard Hawks and put into The Nelson Touch (Corvette K-225 in the US) in 1943. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films, usually in the lead film role and opposite major male stars such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Charles Laughton and directed by name directors. She made three films in all for Robert Siodmak, two for Preston Sturges and Brute Force (1947) for Jules Dassin. But after 1950 her film career petered out and she moved into television. She virtually retired from film and TV aged just 36. I had always thought of her as a B picture player, but her films were, I now discover, A features. Robert Siodmak didn’t suffer the same fate and I’m going to dig out some more of his work.

Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez), Kansas and Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) now back from South America

Kiss Me Deadly (US 1955)

Velda (Maxine Cooper) and Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker)

It seems scarcely credible that Kiss Me Deadly is over 60 years old. It still carries a punch with its brilliant camerawork and editing and its story about a brutish man in pursuit of what turns about to be a disturbing pre-echo of a contemporary scare, referred to in the film as “the great whatsit”.

Mickey Spillane, author of the original novel, died in 2005. His obituaries faithfully recorded his enormous popularity in the 1950s with millions of paperbacks sold and the establishment of the aptly named Mike Hammer as a certain kind of American hero. Misogynistic and fascistic, Hammer is a private eye who blunders his way to a ‘solution’ of each case with excessive violence – about as far from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe as you can get. Spillane had a strange relationship with Hollywood, appearing both as himself and as Hammer in a couple of films and also seeing his stories and his hero taken on by an unlikely group of filmmakers.

Cloris Leachman starts the film as Christina- a woman needing help . . .

. . . Gaby Rogers as Lily/Gabrielle has obviously never heard of Pandora

Victor Saville was a well-known British director who began making films in the 1920s, was successful in the UK in the 1930s and went to Hollywood in the 1940s as a producer-director for MGM. In 1953 Saville formed Parklane Pictures and bought the rights to four Mickey Spillane novels, simply on the basis of their popularity. He directed two of the films himself (The Long Wait, 1954 and My Gun is Quick, 1957) and produced the other two (I, the Jury 1951 and Kiss Me Deadly). The films made very good profits and Saville next identified Ian Fleming novels as similarly lucrative properties, but was too early into the market and couldn’t make an appropriate deal with United Artists.

Kiss Me Deadly was less commercially successful than the other Parklane films, but it has gained a high critical reputation as one of the two great ‘late period’ films noirs (sharing the honour with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1957)) and credited as a major influence on the directors of La nouvelle vague in France at the end of the 1950s.

Robert Aldrich (1918-83)

Parklane hired producer-director Robert Aldrich to make Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich was from a wealthy Eastern family of bankers, but he turned out to be one of the most radical filmmakers in post-war Hollywood. University-educated, he got a job at RKO through a relative’s influence and learned his trade as an assistant to directors such as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Losey. He made several programmes for television in 1952-3 and directed four features before 1955, including two Westerns for the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). These early films helped introduce a new kind of ‘tough’ and more ‘realistic’ Western with a focus on the Apache and American incursions into  Mexico. Aldrich and Lancaster returned to similar territory with Ulzana’s Raid (1972) an unsettling film with clear references to Vietnam. Aldrich was a radical who enjoyed turning Hollywood expectations upside down. He must have been intrigued with the possibility of Hammer as hero/anti-hero on a quest in a world with no clear moral order. Ralph Meeker turned out to be perfect casting for Hammer and Aldrich went on to become the leading ‘tough guy’ action director of the next thirty years.

Robert Aldrich in the mid 1950s

The script with its witty one liners and ironic references to high culture is by A. I. Bezzerides, writer on pictures for Bogart, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and another leftist to dismay Spillane. The wonderful cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, a regular with Aldrich and later Stanley Kramer, who had previously lensed the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and Jo Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951). With art director William Glasgow, also an Aldrich regular, he created the first ‘modern’ noir.

Further reading

http://sensesofcinema.com/2019/cteq/kiss-me-deadly-robert-aldrich-1955/

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.

Apache (US 1954)

Apache was a box office hit in 1954 for the independent production company Hecht-Lancaster releasing through United Artists. Burt Lancaster was perhaps the most successful of the actor-producers who were part of the changing structure of Hollywood during the decline of the studio system in the 1950s. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the key directors of the period for ‘action pictures’ but here early in his directorial career on just his third feature shot in only 30 days. The story, based on incidents in the life of a historical character, was adapted from Paul I Wellman’s 1936 novel Broncho Apache by James R. Webb, a prolific screenwriter who would later pen John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.

In the early 1950s there was a cycle of films that featured Native American characters and unsurprisingly most of them were Westerns. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), George Sherman’s Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise ( 1954) and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) were just some of the films in the cycle. Historical Native American characters were generally played by white actors. Jeff Chandler plays the Apache chief Cochise in three of the above titles. The casting of Burt Lancaster as another Apache warrior Massai in Apache is therefore conventional for the period.

Massai (Burt Lancaster) and Nalinle (Jean Peters) have to survive a long, cold winter in the mountains

Many of the films in the cycle refer to the ‘final’ war between the US Cavalry and the Apache nations in the late 1880s in Arizona and New Mexico. Massai was a warrior invited to join Geronimo but he was disarmed around the time Geronimo surrendered. Like Geronimo he was put on a train to go to a prison camp in Florida but escaped and walked back 1200 miles to Arizona. These events are shown in the film, but the remainder of the film narrative is more creative with historical events. Lancaster is in his athletic mode in the film; leaping, rolling, riding and generally outwitting capture. The plot sees him being betrayed by a local chief, the father of a young woman he wants as his bride. Nalinle is played by Jean Peters and eventually she will overcome Massai’s anger about the betrayal (which at first he thinks involves her). Perhaps the crucial sequence in the narrative is when Massai on his long walk back to his home meets a Cherokee man who has ‘become white’, living in his own ranch house and adopting a white life. This man gives Massai the warrior a bag of seed corn and urges him to be a farmer not a warrior. Although Massai at first appears to dismiss the Cherokee man’s ideas, we know that what he has said has more meaning than it might have coming from a white settler or US government agent.

As Massai, Lancaster is athletic, intelligent but stubborn and brutal when he needs to be. The depiction of his treatment of Nalinle is disturbing to watch now but it’s important for the narrative. It’s a great performance and over the next couple of years Lancaster would reach his peak as the athletic and charismatic leading man. He went on to work with Aldrich on Vera Cruz, also released in 1954.

Charles Bronson (left) as Hondo and John McIntire as Al Sieber

The film does give time to what I would now see as the colonisers of the West, represented here by the US Cavalry, various private ‘agents’ and the important historical figure of Al Sieber, the ‘Indian hunter’ whose job was to find those Apache warriors who became ‘renegades’. Played here by John McIntire is the familiar figure who understands his quarry and will eventually find him and, sometimes reluctantly, deliver him to the coloniser. It’s also worth noting that the film represents the large numbers of Apache who take the US dollar and serve with the Cavalry as scouts and regular soldiers. Charles Bronson makes one of his early credited appearances as the scout Hondo working closely with Sieber.

The ending of the film was forced on Lancaster-Hecht and Aldrich by the distributor United Artist, but what we see in the main part of the narrative has been acknowledged by various film scholars who deem the film one of the strongest of the cycle. I enjoyed the film and it was interesting to see it and to be reminded of more recent films covering aspects of the same story, including Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) with Native-American actor Wes Studi in the lead role. It’s also interesting to see Aldrich and Lancaster working together on their first film and to be reminded of Ulzana’s Raid (1972) one of the most important of the ‘allegorical’ films commenting on the Vietnam War.

Reading some of the many blog entries of Western fans and scholars about this and similar films is a fascinating exercise. Much comment is made about Lancaster as a ‘blue-eyed’ Apache warrior. The eyes are certainly noticeable and like Lancaster’s flashing white teeth, stand out against the heavy make-up. As I’ve noted this casting decision was the convention at the time and we should remember how the film industry followed the racist attitudes of the wider society, but this shouldn’t mean we ignore the film. I noted one comment that suggests that ‘blue-eyed’ Native Americans are not that uncommon and may have been around for several generations. More disturbing for me was the significant number of right-wing commentators who want to dismiss Aldrich and Lancaster as having anything to say about American history. Some do this in a disguised way by simply arguing that this is a poor Western and laying out all its ‘inauthenticities’ – Apache was shot mainly in California with just a few landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico and the story is very much a fictionalised version of the events. I don’t think this distracts from the central purpose of the film which is to show us the final stage of the process of colonialist settlement from the perspective of the colonised, rather than the coloniser. Apache was a popular film and one of the more influential films of the 1950s.