Category: Melodrama

Road House (US 1948)

This is a strange film. It has flaws, especially in the script, and never seems quite sure what kind of film it is. Nonetheless it entertains and pleases audiences, mainly I think because of the performances of its four leading players. Top of the bill is Ida Lupino and she holds it all together with Richard Widmark at his most manic and Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm in more conventional roles. William Donati, Lupino’s biographer, tells us that the project was taken to 20th Century Fox by Lupino’s new agent Charles K. Feldman who had bought the rights to the story ‘Dark Love’ for her. He successfully sold the project to Fox with a significant fee for Lupino as the lead.

Ida Lupino as the Queen of Road House

This was a crucial period in 30 year-old Ida Lupino’s career. She’d left Warner Bros. in 1947 after a seven year contract during which time she’d often been suspended and loaned out to other studios, but had appeared in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance trying to arrange her own work. She was also about to re-marry and Donati notes that both she and Collier Young, her new love, had thought that ‘Dark Love’ was the right story. I haven’t managed to find the original  ‘Dark Love’ story. I’ve read elsewhere that it was a short story rather than a novel and it isn’t mentioned in IMDb’s credit list. Instead there are six writers listed with Edward Chodorov as producer and solo writer of the actual screenplay. So, I guess he’s responsible. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, another refugee from Warners who had worked with Lupino on Deep Valley, her last Warners picture in 1947. Donati suggests that Lupino had asked for Richard Widmark who had been a sensation, nominated for an Oscar, in his first screen role as ‘Tommy Udo’ in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was under contract at Fox and the other two leads were the studio’s choices.

The four leads of Road House pose for a promo

As the title implies, Road House features an out of town venue comprising a bar lounge and a ten-pin bowling alley owned by ‘Jefty’, Jefferson T. Robbins (Richard Widmark). The setting is somewhere in the North of the US, close to the Canadian border. The film opens with an almost documentary sequence of the venue’s operations behind the credits and then cuts to the manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) opening the door to find a strange woman in his office. She’s playing solitaire and smoking with one stockinged leg draped over the edge of Pete’s desk. This is Lily (Ida Lupino) – a seemingly sharp ‘broad’ who isn’t very impressed with Pete. He eventually discovers that Jefty found her in Chicago and offered her a six week stint singing in the bar. It’s a great opening and despite a strange and not very attractive hairstyle, Lupino commands the picture from the start. She’s the star and her performance proclaims the fact. All the other three leads in Road House are older than Lupino but she exudes maturity and presence in her performance and Widmark and Holm were relative newcomers to film work (both were experienced stage actors). Cornel Wilde was more experienced after several years as a lead player, playing opposite Ida Lupino in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) and opposite other female stars such as Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. But in this opening sequence he seems slightly awed by Lupino.

Jefty, Susie and Pete in a deep focus composition

The innovation in this film is that Ida sings. She’s a jazzy, bluesy singer with a low gravelly voice. She’s called ‘no voice’ both by the characters in the film and commentators on the film but somehow she ‘performs’ the songs in a darkened room with her cigarette smouldering on the piano (and burning it!). (See the clip below.) The piano playing could be dubbed (but I know Ida composed music, presumably she could play the piano). However, it’s quite believable that the audience in the bar is mesmerised. Two songs were released as singles I think – ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and ‘Again’, specially written by Lionel Newman for the film. Lupino sings four in all. Lily is a hit with the punters and with both Jefty and Pete. In her earlier Warners film The Man I Love (1946), Ida was dubbed as a nightclub singer, so her singing here is a clear benefit of being a freelance – though I guess it might have had to be negotiated.

The narrative offers us a struggle between Jefty and Pete over Lily’s affection

The film has three main sections. I’m not keen on the idea that Hollywood narratives always have three ‘acts’ – usually they have more in my readings. But in this film once Lily is established she becomes a softer character and it seems clear that we are heading into a classic triangular mating ritual in which both men will eventually want to marry her. Celeste Holm’s Susie, the cashier at Jefty’s, is the character squeezed out by Lily’s arrival. Lily seems to change quite dramatically once she has established herself. I believe in Lupino’s performance but I found the change abrupt. Much worse though is the plotting of the events which lead to the film’s climax, which don’t make too much sense, although I suppose they work on a kind of symbolic level. Perhaps if the film’s generic identities were a bit clearer it would be easier to understand.

‘Over-determined masculinity’ with Lily framed beneath the stag’s head

Road House is often discussed as a film noir. Ida Lupino is also often described as a star of film noir, as well as the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953). 1948 is certainly ‘peak noir’ in terms of the numbers of films with noir lighting and mise en scène and doomed characters trying to deal with the immediate post-war world. However, I’m not sure that Ida was ever a femme fatale as such in her studio pictures. Road House was photographed by Joseph LaShelle who had worked at Paramount on two classic Otto Preminger pictures, Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), both of which have noirish elements. ‘Jefty’s’ operates mainly at night and the latter part of the film is shot on what appears to be an extensive studio set of a forest at night. The film is certainly plausible as a noir in terms of lighting. The main problem for me is that the story assumes Jefty and Pete have been friends for a long time. Jefty comes from a wealthy family and has the capital whereas Pete lives above the bar. There is no attempt to invoke the war so the typical film noir scenario of men returning from war with problems doesn’t enter into the discussion. On the other hand, Lily is an ‘independent woman’ who could be in a film noir narrative. I think this is really a romance melodrama that eventually morphs into an action drama. Rather than the usual ‘significant objects’ of a film noir mise en scène, the predominant images of the final section are concerned with an over-determined masculinity as Jefty and and Pete battle over Lily. This is introduced in the early scenes of the film when Lily notes the stags heads in the bar and the office of Jefty’s. She even stays at the only hotel in town, which is called ‘The Antlers’.

Whatever genre categorisation is appropriate, Road House proved to be a popular film (Monthly Film Bulletin called it ‘slick entertainment’) with over $2.3 million in distributor rentals for 20th Century-Fox, the second most successful studio of the year in the US. 74 years later the film still has its fans and for many of them this is a film noir classic. It’s also a film in which Ida Lupino revels in being at the centre of the story. It does make you wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had put her in a similar film back in 1942. Here’s that first scene at the piano:

The Hard Way (US 1943)

In 1942 Ida Lupino was an established star at Warner Bros. She had top billing in the 1941 film that made Humphrey Bogart an A list star at Warners – High Sierra. This followed her performance in They Drive By Night (1940) which had wowed the critics. She had lead roles opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941) and John Garfield in Out of the Fog in the same year. Everything was going well but still Warner Bros. didn’t really know what to do with her. She was loaned out as the lead in two films for Twentieth-Century Fox and one for Columbia before she got another Warners role – and this only because Bette Davis turned it down. She was top-billed in The Hard Way and this turned out to be one of the few films for which she received the recognition for her performance that she always deserved. On the film’s release a year later it won the New York’s Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress.

Helen and Katie at home before Katie’s new career takes off

As in many of Lupino’s films, her role in The Hard Way is not the heroic role but instead the one that drives the melodrama narrative. Lupino plays Helen Churnen, a woman in her mid-twenties who has married an older man, a worker in an industrial town. Her mother had died and Helen thought marriage would save her from poverty during the depression. Now she feels trapped. She intends to prevent her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie), who lives with her, from suffering the same fate. Joan Leslie had been a child performer and after several uncredited roles in films in the 1930s was finally getting adult roles. In 1942 she was still just 17 tears old. The narrative of The Hard Way sees Katie leaving high school and hoping to become a stage performer. Helen determines to be her ‘stage mother’, abandoning her marriage to accompany Katie and trying to make sure she becomes successful. Katie meets a pair of vaudeville performers, traditional ‘song and dance men’ played by Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson’s character, Albert Runkel, falls for Katie in a big way and it is through him that she gains an entry into show business. But it is Helen who makes sure that Katie exploits her talent, sometimes by ‘any means necessary’. Kunkel’s performer partner Paul Collins sees Helen’s involvement as poisonous and what might have been a showbiz ‘rags to riches’ story becomes a dark melodrama with tragic outcomes.

Helen and Albert get together but Paul and Helen have their doubts about the relationship

The original idea behind the film was based on a story by Irwin Shaw about the relationship between Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela. Ginger joined a vaudeville show as a dancer when only 14 and married at 17 in 1928. She eventually got second lead roles in film musicals in 1930. The screenplay for The Hard Way by Daniel Fuchs and Peter Viertel was intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis, but was also offered to Ginger Rogers herself according to some sources. Both turned down the role. Ida Lupino was sometimes seen as Warners’ back-up for Davis but she was ten years younger than Davis (and seven years younger than Rogers). When she made The Hard Way she was just 24, but played the role much older so that the relationship with Leslie’s character sometimes feels like the classic mother-daughter relationship of the 1940s ‘woman’s picture’. In 1942, just a few months into the American involvement in the Second World War, some directors as well as male stars were beginning to become unavailable after signing up for service. Warners clearly saw The Hard Way as a major production but the director job went to the relatively low-profile contract director Vincent Sherman. Sherman had worked on a range of projects, including films with John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart, but not yet with major female stars. After The Hard Way he would direct Lupino and Davis in two films each and later two more with Joan Crawford, so Warners must have been satisfied with what he achieved. Two other significant names on The Hard Way were James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Don Siegel in his familiar role as ‘montage editor’ before his directorial career took off a few years later. Wong Howe didn’t enjoy working on the film because he thought Sherman was too inexperienced. This seems an odd remark (quoted in Alain Silver’s book James Wong Howe, The Camera Eye, Pendragon 2010) and it may simply be that the celebrated cinematographer thought the film wasn’t going to be an interesting story in visual terms. But that too is not really the case.

One montage includes this expressionist image of Katie threatened by clocks announcing her next deadline

When the film was completed, Jack Warner felt it was too downbeat and he asked for the addition of an opening scene with a more glamorous Lupino who would then introduce the story as one long flashback (in a manner not dissimilar to the start of a film noir). This sequence required a set similar to those used by Wong Howe for parts of Out of the Fog, his first film shooting with Lupino. The town of Greenhill, where the story proper begins, is presented using a sequence which is said to have been taken from a Pare Lorentz documentary made during the Great Depression. Later in the story there are several opportunities taken to use the montage skills of Don Siegel for the familiar swirl of theatre handbills, performances, newspaper headlines etc. against a musical medley and a voiceover narration. It’s possible that Lupino spent some time with Siegel (who was also a Warner Bros. contractee). Later he directed the last of the films produced by Lupino’s company The Filmakers, Private Hell 36 (1954). There are certainly expressionist images both in the montages (a screen of clockfaces representing the pressure on Katie as her career develops quickly), in some of the many backstage scenes and in the opening sequence. The art director on the film was Max Parker, seemingly another Warner contractee who would work with Lupino again on her last Warners picture, Deep Valley in 1947. The Hard Way uses many music tracks, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and they are all listed on the film’s Wikipedia page.

Albert devises a nightclub cabaret act with Katie . . .

. . . but Helen is always there ready to manipulate producers, club owners and agents. Helen is here with the agent Max Wade (Nestor Paiva).

The Hard Way was a success at the box office. Variety in January 1944 reported rentals (i.e a net return to the studio production division) of $1.5 million, placing the film as twelfth among the 14 Warners films that returned for than $1 million to the studio in 1943. Lupino also appeared alongside the other leading Warners players in the third-placed title in Warners’ list, Thank Your Lucky Stars – a compendium film of sketches and musical performances, one of several such films made during wartime. This had rentals of $2.8 million. In the same report, Ida Lupino is reported as fourth on the box office list for Warner Bros. after Bogart, Davis and Errol Flynn. Given this high spot in the Warner Bros. roster it’s perhaps surprising that Lupino didn’t get better parts over the next couple of years.

Helen with fading star of musical theatre, Lily Emery (Gladys George), offering her one drink too many and aiming to create an opportunity for Katie

But what did Ida’s loyal fans and more general audiences make of her role and her performance? Too often, even with top billing and her usual strong performance, Lupino’s character was out of the limelight – quite literally in this case. In The Hard Way it could be argued that Helen is the villain, capable of stepping on anyone who stands in the way of Katie’s success. But Helen is doing this for her sister and she only knows how to do it the hard way. Vincent Sherman understood the story and he strove to make the town of Greenhill as grimy and smoky as he could – somewhere that a bright young woman would want to escape from. A wartime audience in 1943, especially one with a majority of women, many in work for the first time, may well have understood the story too, including the bonds between the sisters. Helen is promoting the idea that a woman’s career is important. As some modern reviewers note, the mores of the time meant that no man could cope with the idea that his wife might become the main breadwinner and this becomes the pivotal realisation in the narrative. The film pleased Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in the UK (November 1942) who praised all the performances and saw Vincent Sherman’s direction “leaving nothing to be desired” for a film that “achieves a most unusual sincerity”. According to Lupino’s biographer William Donati, the star at first didn’t take to Sherman and thought she didn’t understand the film. She was quite ill during the shoot but most of all she was devastated by the death of her father, the great stage performer Stanley Lupino, from cancer at the young age of 48. But Ida was a trouper and she completed the film. After the positive reviews she felt better and formed a strong friendship with Vincent Sherman who would then direct two further Warners films with Lupino as lead.

The Hard Way is not easy to find in the UK, but it is available in the US and it’s an essential film in Ida Lupino’s filmography.

Love After Love (Di yi lu xiang, China 2020)

Love After Love was screened at Venice in 2020 where its director Ann Hui was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Two of her earlier films were also screened at previous Venice festivals, including A Simple Life (Hong Kong 2011), one of her most celebrated titles. Unfortunately Love After Love has not fared so well with critics. But it is a beautifully-made film and as a sumptuous romance melodrama is expected to eventually find its audience in East Asian territories. It was released in China in October 2021 and became available on MUBI in the UK a month or so ago. The key to the film is arguably that it is an adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang. Ann Hui directed two earlier Chang adaptations, Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997). Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was a major Chinese literary figure who lived in the US from 1956. Her complicated personal history involved marriage to a collaborator with the Japanese in Shanghai under occupation that later affected her reputation in the People’s Republic. It thrived, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps the best known Chang adaptation in the West is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-Hong Kong-China, 2007) set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation.

Weilong (Ma Sichun) making her way to her aunt’s grand mansion at the beginning of the film

Ann Hui was born in Manchuria in 1947 and moved to Hong Kong as a child. She has made a number of films that reference aspects of Chinese history and her own personal story including The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Golden Era (2014). The Golden Era is a biopic of another major Chinese literary figure, Xaio Hong. Love After Love is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ which was first serialised in a Shanghai magazine in 1943 and made Chang’s name as a writer in the city. The story is influenced by Chang’s own biography and presents us with Ge Weilong, a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Weilong (Ma Sichun) came to Hong Kong with her parents a year or two earlier when the Japanese threat of invasion of Shanghai became apparent. But when her parents decide to return to Shanghai, Weilong decides to to try to finish her education in Hong Kong and asks her aunt, Madame Liang (Yu Feihong) if she can stay with her. Her father’s sister ‘married’ an older wealthy man and when he died she inherited the house and a rich life-style. To maintain this she lures other wealthy men to her house, attracting them with the pretty young girls who act as her maids. Weilong risks being seduced by her aunt’s wealth and relaxed life-style in the louche world of high society Hong Kong in the years leading up to Occupation by Japan at the end of 1941.

The two maids who effectively run the house (under Madame Liang’s instructions) are at first suspicious of the new arrival

We are in the territory of a Chinese melodrama presented with costumes by Emi Wada (who worked on Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985) on her last film and detailed interiors presented in compositions by Christopher Doyle reminding us of his earlier work with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among others. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is restrained for a melodrama but becomes more prominent in sections and is appropriate, I think, for the romance depicted. I note that that all the principal creatives are industry veterans and their work is a joy to behold.

Weilong and George (Nicky Peng) on the day of the garden party

Why then does the film get the thumbs down from so many critics? ‘Empty’ is a common summation. I don’t think the length helps at 142 minutes with some critics feeling that the narrative drags. I found it engaging throughout but it was only really when I watched it a second time that I began to fully appreciate its qualities. This is a complex narrative using several narrative devices in subtle ways. Several critics, especially in the West, tend to compare this film to similar Hollywood films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The similarities are there but the cultural context is different. This film refers to a particular society at a particular time – a colonial Chinese society at a specific moment. Weilong finds herself both constrained by her own traditional background and unsure how to respond to her aunt’s world – “The British Way” in Hong Kong as her aunt puts it. I was also conscious of the class differences. The young girls brought to the house, almost as concubines, are at the lowest level and Weilong finds herself in the middle – between the girls and her aunt’s friends and acquaintances. The romance in the film involves Weilong with a mixed-race young man, the son of a wealthy Chinese man who married a European woman. It occurs to me that the Chinese view of ‘Eurasians’ is slightly different to that of the Indian view of Anglo-Indians in the same period. In Chang’s story, the wealth of Chiao’s family means the son George can’t be marginalised but there is still a stigma attached to his identity and his general behaviour contributes to this. George is played by the Taiwanese-Canadian Nick Peng, now a major star in Chinese cinema. George’s sister Kitty is played by Isabella Leung, originally from Macau.

‘Sir Cheng’ Chiao between his daughter Kitty and Madame Liang

Mr Situ who Madame Liang persuades to act as Weilong’s teacher in the social mores of Hong Kong’s ‘British Way’

I think I need to explore my partial understanding of the status of wealthy Chinese in the British Empire in the 1930s. Britain had exploited China in the 19th century and this continued through what was the unique arrangement in the global city of Shanghai for all Western powers. But the UK had also developed the colony of Hong Kong after taking the island from China during the Opium Wars of 1841 and 1860, finally acquiring the New Territories on mainland China on a 99-year lease in 1899. Hong Kong maintained strong links with Shanghai and also with Singapore and parts of Malaya. Crucial to the economic development of these colonial possessions were two groups of Chinese, the poorer migrants who could provide cheap labour and the wealthier merchants and trading families. Hong Kong and Singapore and to a lesser extent George Town in Penang developed as entrepôts –transhipment ports which facilitated British Imperial trade across South-East and East Asia. The wealthy Chinese families retained and grew their wealth, developing a distinctive culture and status under colonial rule. This is apparent in the opening scenes of Love After Love when Weilong first arrives at her aunt’s magnificent house and gardens. In the evening the maids are first outside lighting the lamps on the drive. This could almost be a scene from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China-Hong Kong 1991) which is set in the home of a Chinese war lord in the 1920s. Later in the evening, after the mahjong, the dancing begins and British officers are among the guests. Earlier Weilong is quizzed by Mir Situ as to whether she can play the piano and play tennis – she nervously replies that she has learned both a little in school. As she sits upstairs in her room listening to the music from the dancing below she might be a young girl in a British country house drama. I don’t think similar scenes took place under the Raj in the same way in India. As if to emphasise this, ‘Sir Cheng’ the head of the Chiao household has an Indian chauffeur. At a later garden party when Madame Liang invites the choir which Weilong has joined, there are Indians and ‘foreign nuns’ in attendance.

Lo Sui-Lun, the young man who wants to study medicine and who is attractive to both Weilong and Mme Liang

I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative. The story events are generally familiar, as are the characters. There have been some complaints that Ma Sichun is not strong enough in the central role of Weilong. I don’t agree. It is a difficult role in that she has to grow from shy schoolgirl into someone who can move through the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong. She is us as she tries to negotiate the pitfalls and grow and learn in her social role. She is also the young woman being offered a ‘sentimental education’. It is true, however, that the real star of the show is Faye Yu (Yu Feihong) who plays Madame Liang with great relish. I do wonder what Eileen Chang wanted to say in her story and why Ann Hui chose to adapt it. The adaptation is by Wang Anyi, a distinguished writer and academic from Shanghai and seen as a successor to Eileen Chang. She also wrote the original story for Chen Kaige’s 1996 period film Temptress Moon. So, with three distinguished women involved in creating the characters, Love After Love can be seen as a female-centred melodrama with characters located in specific socio-economic strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. Each is trying to find some form of fulfilment in her life but is constrained by the social situation. Weilong is the naïf, Ni’er is the country girl and the most constrained in her role as maid. Kitty is in one sense the most privileged but, like her brother, has to contend with her Eurasian identity: she is also the character who seems under-explored in the script. At the centre is Mme Liang whose position depends on her own wits and talent for social intercourse. Is she the feminist hero of the narrative?

Aunt and niece. Everything revolves around Mme Liang

I should mention three other aspects of the narrative. At various points Weilong offers a spoken commentary. At the beginning this is in the form of a reading of the letter she sends to her aunt asking to stay with her. At crucial points we are offered flashbacks to Mme Liang’s early life. These involve traditional rituals/ceremonies that are difficult for non-Chinese audiences to interpret perhaps. This is also true of the use of the wall of photographs in the Chiao household and the subsequent presentation of formal photo opportunities of tableaux of the family. Finally, as part of Weilong’s ‘education’, she has moments where she, in a sense, sees a ghost. This isn’t a straight realist melodrama or a conventional romance, though it has several conventional elements. Surprisingly perhaps, the narrative does not contain any further references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai or Hong Kong after the opening statement. This seems to make the whole narrative a kind of fantasy.

To repeat, this is a very beautiful film. It must look (and sound) fabulous on the big screen, where it should be seen. The costumes are similarly fabulous. Ann Hui is a great filmmaker, under-appreciated in the West.

(In this review I present the names as they appear in the subtitles on MUBI. The romanisation arguably suits the period and the Hong Kong colonial setting?)

Sidney Poitier: A Raisin in the Sun (US 1961)

Ruth (Ruby Dee) and Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier)

I’d known about this film for a long time, but never attempted to see it. I assumed it was a ‘worthy’ filmed play. But when I began to watch as many Sidney Poitier films as possible, I decided to rent the Criterion Blu-ray available on Cinema Paradiso. My assumptions proved misguided at best. I was totally gripped by the film, staying up until 2 am to watch it through. I knew it was of some cultural importance but I didn’t actually know the half of it.

Lorraine Hansberry (from pbs.org)

The original play was written by Lorraine Hansberry and when the production reached Broadway in 1959, she became the youngest, the first African American and only the fifth woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died tragically young at the age of only 34 from cancer in 1965. She also provided the inspiration for the Nina Simone song, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.  What a woman! Her parents were middle-class and it was their experience in moving into a previously all white neighbourhood of Chicago which provided the central idea for the play. The Criterion Blu-ray includes a host of extras, including background on Ms Hansberry.

Lena (Claudia McNeil) wants to grow flowers in her own garden . . .

The production took some time to reach Broadway via openings outside New York and it was a struggle to put on the show – but eventually it found its audience and especially Black theatregoers (though not without dissenting voices). Its success meant that a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable and the rights were acquired by Columbia. The studio were prepared to allow Lorraine Hansberry to adapt her own play, but they weren’t prepared to hire the play’s original African American director Lloyd Richards (who was actually born in Canada as the son of a Jamaican migrant father), claiming he had limited experience of either film or television. At that point he had appeared as an actor on television and as himself in two TV series about the theatre. Instead, Columbia hired the Canadian director Daniel Petrie who had ten years of experience directing dramas, including live plays on US TV, but only one feature film for the cinema (The Bramble Bush in 1960 with Richard Burton and Barbara Rush). Columbia also kept a tight reign on Hansberry. Supposedly worried that the film might be off-putting for white audiences, they barred the use of African American speech patterns and several subjects that Hansberry wanted to broach. Fortunately they didn’t veto the original cast so all the principal players appeared in the film.

. . . no longer only house plants? This MCU shot signifies the power of a cinematoc melodrama

Plot outline

The play features an African American family on Chicago’s South Side. It appears to be a family located on the boundary of working-class/lower middle-class. They live in a rented two bedroom apartment. Father has died and it is his life insurance money that drives the narrative. Mother (Lena) is about to cease full-time work as a domestic servant. Her eldest son is Walter Lee, a chauffeur and her daughter Beneatha is a student hoping to enter medical school. Walter Lee is married to Ruth and they have a son Travis. Walter Lee wants to use at least part of the money to open a bar with two friends. Some of the money should be used to pay Beneatha’s school fees. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Lena has plans to use the money to put a deposit on a house in a white suburb – the only decent house she can find at the right price. If she goes through with her plan there will be consequences, possibly for Walter Lee and Beneatha. There is also the possibility of a reaction from white residents.

Beneatha (Diana Sands) with her Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon)

The film’s title is taken from the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The concept of ‘deferred gratification’ is often quoted as marking the difference between working-class and middle-class approaches to life in capitalist societies. In this play, Walter Lee’s aspiration, after working as a chauffeur for many years, is a business venture whereas Beneatha is prepared to give up several years of earnings in the hope of earning a higher salary in future. For Walter Lee, earning money, ‘making money’, is what defines him as a man. For Beneatha it is acquiring learning and culture that will define her. But for Lena it is family that is most important and that means a home in which the family can thrive. These are universal issues but Hansberry’s play also presents the specific context of African American life and weaves the specificities of certain issues into the narrative. The play’s origination in housing issues and specifically the racial segregation experienced, even in the North before the ‘Fair Housing Act’ as part of the 1968 Civil Rights legislation, is one aspect of this. Beneatha has two suitors in the play. George Murchison is a successful business man and an ‘assimilated’ African American. But Beneatha spends more time with Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba student from Nigeria who tries to educate her about Africa (many (most?) African Americans of this era knew little about Africa). Hughes’ poem about a ‘dream deferred’ points to all the problems associated with African American life in the 1950s.

The filmed play

Stage adaptations have long had a bad rap among film critics and scholars and I confess to having avoided them whenever possible. However, in this case I think the adaptation works. The first major issue is whether to ‘open out’ the play in order to make it more ‘cinematic’. This can produce a very artificial sense of shooting an outdoor scene just for the sake of it. Petrie uses three main scenes outside the apartment – Walter Lee seen as a chauffeur at work and again in his local bar meeting his friends and the whole family visiting the house in the suburbs. The first of these is not strictly necessary but the other two add something significant. But the vast majority of the long running time (128 minutes) remains in the apartment. The studio set was designed and lit to enable particular framings and shot compositions. The most notable feature of the camerawork is the use of deep focus. This means that on occasions shots can be organised so that the whole depth of the apartment could be utilised with characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. There is also a number of high angle and low angle shots inside the rooms. The overall effect is not an expressionist style in which the the mise en scène plays an exaggerated role, but a form of realism in which the emotional playing of the actors can be highlighted. Charles Lawton Jr. was an interesting choice as cinematographer. He was a veteran, often associated with Westerns. Two of the directors he worked with were John Ford and Orson Welles, both known for deep focus staging. He had also worked on live TV plays.

Walter Lee responds to African drumming when Beneatha wears an African print

Since the cast were very familiar with the script they were able to approach their roles with confidence and move freely through the set. As well as Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee and Ruby Dee again playing the Poitier character’s wife on screen, the other two main players were Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. I’m not sure if stage productions are less age-specific in casting, but Claudia McNeil was playing much older than her real age – she was only twelve years older than Poitier. All the central performances are excellent. Most reviews of the play and the film acknowledge the standout performance as Poitier’s and argue that it is a play focused primarily on Walter Lee. I didn’t feel this so strongly. I wouldn’t want to put one performance ahead of the others, but as a narrative I thought this was Lena’s story. Perhaps it is because I see it as a family melodrama which in film and television is usually focused on the women.

This composition of Lena and her daughter in deep focus and with Ruth, the daughter-in-law in the background and two mirror images is a familiar family melodrama image

Commentary

This does appear to be a play which is both specific to the African American experience in the 1950s and early 1960s but is also relatable for universal audiences. As I watched it I did think of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the British New Wave including the stage play Look Back in Anger (1959) and the literary adaptation A Kind of Loving (1962). I was also reminded of a Spanish film, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963). These may all sound unlikely comparisons but they each explore working-class ‘aspirations’ around more or less the same period. They also each use a similar form of what is now known in Europe as social realism. To be more specific, The Executioner uses a neo-realist idea in that a young man accepts the job of executioner for the Spanish state because it confers access to public housing (he has no desire to execute people but he needs a house for his wife and child and father-in-law). A Raisin in the Sun follows the same neo-realist idea – introduce a simple change to the lives of an ‘ordinary family’ and explore what happens. In this case $10,000 dollars of insurance money, rather than ‘solving’ the family’s problems exposes some of the tensions which lie below the surface of family life in South Chicago.

A ‘Big Close-up’ of Poitier as Walter Lee

Walter Lee with his ‘business partners’ in the bar

I feel that director Petrie, cinematographer Lawton and the whole creative team were able to showcase the emotional performances of the principal players. The images presented in this post (including a selection of screengrabs from dvdbeaver.com) show how a stage play can be adapted effectively for the big screen. Poitier is well served by Petrie. His very physical performance is enhanced by the camerawork and compositions. When I consider how Poitier is presented in this film, I see a distinct change from the 1950s roles in films like No Way Out (1950) and Edge of the City (1957). In those films he still feels trapped within the concept of the ‘good Negro’ but Walter Lee is allowed to be human, to ‘fail’, to be cruel and insensitive and to be shamed by his mother. It is the strength of the characterisation of the three women in his life that makes this possible.

The Criterion website is an excellent resource and carries two useful essays on the film as well as details of the Blu-ray and DVD. If you are going to watch this film, I urge you to consider watching the Criterion disc.

Skies of Lebanon (Sous le ciel d’Alice, France 2020)

Joseph and Alice meet and fall in love

This unusual but rather wonderful film was one of several titles from My French Film Festival that have also been streaming on MUBI in the UK. It’s about to disappear from MUBI but is available from other streamers such as Amazon, Apple, YouTube etc. It is a début feature film by Chloé Mazlo after several short features, co-written by the director and Yacine Badday. Chloé Mazlo comes from a background of graphic arts leading to work in animation. She grew up in France with memories of her Lebanese family who left their country during the civil war of the 1970s and the film is her very personal way of trying to represent what happened within her family during the war.

Alice’s parents are represented by puppets . . .

The narrative begins with Alice, a young woman bored and stifled by what she sees as the conformity of francophone Switzerland, who arrives in Beirut in the 1950s as a nanny. Quickly she falls in love with Joseph a research scientist she meets in a café. He has dreams of leading a Lebanese attempt to enter the ‘space race’ by building a rocket. Alice marries into his Arab Christian family and all is well until the beginning of the civil war in 1975. The film narrative is not about the war as such, but about what it does to the family and how they understand it and try to deal with it. The story is told in a long flashback as Alice makes the journey from Beirut to Cyprus in 1977, seemingly to return to Switzerland.

Joseph works on his rocket

The English title of the film is slightly misleading. The French title tells us directly that we are going to experience a story as Alice tells it and how she felt about it. I should point out that there has been an odd occurrence in the last few months since the appearance of this film on UK streamers has coincided with the UK cinema release of Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021) by the Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The parallels are extraordinary. Both films are about memories of the civil war in Beirut, both narrated from ‘exile’ about family life during the troubles and both using drawings, photographs and other artefacts to tell the story. There is also a further connection in that Hadjithomas and Joreige, well-known Lebanese filmmakers, made a documentary about the Lebanese rocket project, The Lebanese Rocket Society in 2012. I’ve just noted that this is actually available on MUBI. I’m not suggesting that one film borrows from the other. Sous le ciel d’Alice was released first but it was made completely outside Lebanon, shot in a French studio with exteriors in Cyprus. Memory Box was made in Canada and Lebanon.

The war on the streets is represented here by the ‘Cedar of Lebanon’ threatened by a skeleton in military uniform

Chloé Mazlo uses a very wide range of animation and graphic ideas to present her story, raging from puppet stop motion animation for Alice’s decision to leave Switzerland to the use of old photographs as backdrops in 1950s Beirut and various costumes and masks to represent significant figures in Lebanon. The first third of the film I found simply glorious in its creativity and warmth. As the narrative progresses the use of these devices reduces in relation to the realist live action scenes (although these still have a conscious use of a colour palette dominated by pastel colours). Mazlo describes this transition like this:

. . . the first movement of the film is based on a colourful and fanciful staging, almost pictorial, more visually striking. These extravagances gradually diminish over the course of the film, even if they remain present, with the rocket project for example. Gradually, we get closer and closer to the tragedy of Lebanon: Alice and Joseph can no longer speak to each other. They try, but they can’t, and they suffer from the lack of levity and innocence of their past. (from a Google translation of the original French)

The film was photographed by the vastly experienced and talented Hélène Louvart, shooting on Super 16mm film. I was reminded of her work on Happy as Lazzaro (Italy 2018) directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Rohrwacher’s actor sister Alba featured in the Italian film and plays Alice in Sous le ciel d’Alice. She is an excellent actor and a familiar figure in contemporary cinema, well cast here. Joseph is played by Wajdi Mouawad, primarily a writer for the theatre, whose books and plays were part of Chloé Mazlo’s education as an artist. Mouawad was born in Lebanon but his family migrated first to France and then to Canada. One of his plays was adapted by Denis Villeneuve for the film Incendies (Canada 2010). The rest of the cast for Sous le ciel d’Alice are all Lebanese.

The family watch the explosions across the city

Alice introduces the story in flashback as she makes the journey to Cyprus

I enjoyed the first part of the film very much and then felt a little deflated when I realised that the amount of animation and graphics was being reduced. I understand Mazlo’s decision as explained in the quote above and perhaps as I watched the Alice’s family life begin to suffer I was being reminded of Memory Box and the way the same period was presented on screen in that film. It isn’t a fair representation as Memory Box has a young protagonist looking outwards whereas Alice is in her forties when civil war breaks out and more focused on her family. Sous le ciel d’Alice requires both Alice and Joseph to age 20+ years. I don’t think this is a problem and both actors carry it off. Overall it is a well thought out script and a fine début film. Alice develops as an artist in the film and her sketches become another form of graphic presentation in the story. The film’s ending is suitably ‘open’, I think. I recommend the film highly. At the moment I don’t think that there are plans to bring it to UK cinemas but it should work fine on screeners as well.

Sidney Poitier: Edge of the City (US 1957)

(from left) Malick (Jack Warden), Tommy (Sidney Poitier and Axel (John Cassavetes)

1957 marked a turning point in American cinema when it was becoming easier for blacklisted personnel in the industry to get jobs and to find sympathetic subjects to work on. Director Martin Ritt began his film career in television but was eventually forced out in the early 1950s after an anti-communist newsletter that accused him of supporting communists in US trade unions. Like Nicholas Ray, his background was the 1930s theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. He was also closely allied to Elia Kazan. After four years back in the theatre world he made Edge of the City as his first cinema feature and looking through the credits of the film I notice several of his creative colleagues are associated with socially conscious films of one kind or another. Ritt himself would go on to have a successful career even though he started relatively late as a director, being nearly 43 when the film was released. His is one of the names I remember from the 1960s because of the progressive subject matter of his films.

Edge of the City presents a story set in the docklands of New York and features John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier as joint topliners. Axel North (Cassavetes) is a young drifter who blags his way into a job as a stevedore (US: longshoreman) based on a tip he must have received, only to discover that he has been duped and that he has to pay a cut of his wages to gang leader Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). But on his first day he also makes contact with another gang leader, the more friendly Tommy Tyler (Poitier). The two quickly form a bond. Though Axel remains wary, he ends up renting a room close to Tommy’s home. Tommy turns out to be be a ‘good guy’ who introduces Axel to his wife (Ruby Dee in one of her several roles with Poitier) and small son. The couple even find Axel a date with Ellen (Kathleen Maguire) and invite them both to dinner and dancing in a club. Axel is very nervous and by chance an incident threatens to reveal something about his background – we already know he has a difficult relationship with his parents. Gradually he opens up to Tommy.

Lucy Tyler (Ruby Dee) in the foreground with Axel and Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire) who develops a relationship with Axel

The closer Axel and Tommy get, the more we fear that trouble at work will emerge created by a vengeful Malick. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t recount any more of the plot except to say that the work confrontation does provide the climax of the narrative. I want instead to make more general comments. The first is to express some disappointment that we don’t learn too much about the job which appears to be confined to a small area in which boxes and other larger containers are being loaded onto railway freight wagons. The presentation of parts of New York is in line with the general realist work familiar from late 1940s films and 1950s filmed TV series. The jazz-tinged score by Leonard Rosenman is perhaps the marker of a period when black and white features like this used jazz as a sign of modernity. The dancing featured in the film seemed almost free-form to me but I’m no expert on dance at this time.

As my title for this post makes clear, I chose this film because of Poitier. At this point in his career he was mostly playing supporting roles. It would be in the following year with The Defiant Ones (1958) that he would receive joint top billing in a major feature. In Edge of the City, though Poitier had featured in prominent roles in several ‘A’ films, his billing was shared with Cassavetes. Two years younger than Poitier, Cassavetes had many TV credits to his name but only two films, being ‘Introduced’ in 1956 in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets. Intrigued by the background of this film I started to research it more deeply. I discovered that it was in effect a remake of a celebrated TV play from 1955 titled A Man is Ten Feet Tall written by Robert Aurthur and directed by Robert Mulligan and Hal Tulchin for ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Poitier repeats his role as Tommy Tyler but the rest of the cast for TV was different. I think the TV version was only 60 minutes whereas the film is 85 mins – I’m guessing that the Axel’s back story featuring his parents is one of the extra elements.

Axel watches Tommy and Lucy dance.

Edge of the City is Axel’s story and, though a major presence, Tommy Tyler is a secondary character. In institutional terms Poitier’s career is not moving forward. The role itself does seem to confirm the Poitier persona as a ‘good Negro’ in 1950s terms. But his ‘goodness’ is presented through the way he welcomes Axel and looks after him. In some ways Tommy seems just too welcoming, too friendly. Is he a bit isolated at work himself? Is it that he ‘feels’ Axel’s sense of isolation and that the two of them would both benefit from a strong bond of friendship? We don’t really learn how Tommy came to be a gang-leader. Come to that, we get only brief glimpses of the management of the dock work. I’m tempted to compare Edge of the City to two other features set around the same time. In Flame in the Streets (UK 1961) it is the possibility that a West Indian migrant might become a factory foreman in a London company that causes major problems within the trade union. The film stars Earl Cameron – in some ways the UK’s own Poitier figure, but not so successful. In 1959 Harry Belafonte heads a starry cast in Odds Against Tomorrow, a New York-set crime film with a little of the same feel for New York as Edge of the City. Belafonte had a quite different career compared to Poitier. Perhaps his star image as a popular singer was a major factor in winning him lead roles starting with his second film Otto Preminger’s Carmen (1954)? Belafonte also moved into co-producer and later producer roles, including his 1972 film Buck and the Preacher, directed by Poitier and starring the two of them.

Axel and Tommy need to remain vigilant at work.

The promotion of Edge of the City and much of the writing around the film focuses on Malick’s ‘bigotry’ and in particular his racism. Malick is certainly a bigot and a bully and racism is part of that bigotry. But I’m not sure that institutional racism in terms of employment opportunities on the docks is represented in the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that the dock workers are all white except Tommy, but this isn’t true. There must be four or five other black workers but I don’t think they are speaking parts – perhaps their silence is a feature of their secondary status? (See the black worker in the background of the image above.) But Tommy is certainly vocal and in a position of some authority. It does look as if Malick’s gang is whites only, but I can’t be sure. Although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed that there was no union presence as such and that other workers were prepared to stand back both when Malick was the attacker and when he was losing a fight or an argument. Tommy doesn’t seem to be associated with the other black workers. Edge of the City is not really attempting to copy On The Waterfront as some reviews suggest. Axel is really the protagonist and the narrative is his ‘journey’ towards finding himself and finding the courage to act. Poitier’s character is arguably another ‘good Negro’ teaching whites how to work and live with dignity and purpose – and suffering for it.

Possibly the film is trying to do too much. Axel’s back story is a driving force and is gradually revealed over the course of the film. It means that the potentially interesting characters of  Lucy and Ellen are perhaps not developed as much as they could be. Cassavetes was well on the way to stardom with this film. It seems to have taken longer for Poitier, though in the end he made it all the way to the top and Cassavetes moved into directing independent films with acting as something to help pay the bills. Martin Ritt would work on a range of films deemed ‘liberal’ including other ‘men at work’ pictures and others with black protagonists. He again worked with Sidney Poitier, alongside Paul Newman Joanne Woodward, in Paris Blues (1961) and later with Cicely Tyson as part of a sharecropping family in the South in the 1930s in Sounder (1972). Despite my misgivings Edge of the City is definitely a film worth watching and an interesting step forward for Sidney Poitier.