Tag Archives: 50s film

Paid in Full (1950)

“You can build a career on being beautiful but not a marriage.”

If I watch a tearjerker, then I want a film that gives enough unabashed, glorious lurid melodrama that we can wallow in it. Douglas Sirk was the master at this sort of thing. Take Written on the Wind for example–an alcoholic playboy marries the woman who’s secretly loved by his best friend, and the best friend is the quarry of the playboy’s nympho sister. See what I mean? Tacky, tawdry, lurid and proud of it.

paid in fullGet out your hankies for the 1950 melodrama Paid in Full which stars the marvellous Lizabeth Scott. Paid in Full is, strangely enough, based on the true story of two sisters: Jane Langley (Lizabeth Scott) and her younger sister, Nancy (Diana Lynn). The original story appeared in the May 1946 edition of The Reader’s Digest and was written by the doctor who attended both women. When the film begins, Jane is a career girl who works closely with Bill Prentice (Bob Cummins), and Nancy is a floor model, modelling expensive gowns she can’t afford. Nancy is despised by her co-workers who nickname her “the Duchess” for her airs and graces and the fact that she thinks she’s better than everyone else.

While Jane is obviously in love with Bill, he’s in love with spoiled nasty Nancy. The two sisters are contrasts in personalities. Jane is saintly, sweet, loyal and self-sacrificing and Nancy is selfish, materialistic, bitchy and immature. Since Jane raised Nancy after the death of their parents, Jane is more of a mother figure to Nancy than a sister, and unfortunately, when it comes to Nancy, Jane overcompensates for the lack of parents. The result is total indulgence. The two sisters have an unwritten creed: What Nancy wants, Jane gets for her.

Bill is so oblivious to Jane’s feelings for him that he discusses his relationship with Nancy, and even shows her the ring he plans to present to Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy, who finds Bill dull and boring, has her eyes on a relationship with a millionaire. After being dumped by her wealthy beau, Nancy turns to Bill’s proposal with relief. While Jane (who according to Nancy has read too many “marriage manuals’) waxes on ecstatically about the glories and sacrifices of marriage, it’s clear that to Nancy marriage is a relationship in which she can be spoiled, ‘made happy by her husband’, and when she can finally buy all those dresses she’s modelled for other people. Already things don’t look good for the Prentice marriage.

Jane stays in the wings as bitchy Nancy uses and abuses Bill, but he takes whatever she dishes out, until she demands a divorce. The best scene in the film occurs with Nancy sitting in front of her dressing table while Bill finally tells her what an abominable excuse for a woman she is.

But these are the melodramatic moments of Paid in Full. There are also the tearjerker points with the theme of motherhood as a redemptive state.

Lizabeth Scott glows in the role of Jane. When she looks at Bill, her entire face illuminates with love, but he’s such an idiot, he doesn’t recognise her feelings. Actually I think he does sense Jane’s adoration, but he chooses to ignore Jane’s feelings because part of him wants to be a doormat. Bill wants a woman he can put on a pedestal and worship–or at least he thinks he does. Several excellent scenes show just how Nancy plays Bill, and these scenes show their relationship at its best and at its bitter worst.

Bitchy nasty Nancy is played well, and I particularly loved the scenes of her modelling job and then her former employer’s revenge.

The film’s biggest problem is the insertion of male authority figures: Dr Winston (Stanley Ridges), a lawyer friend of Bill’s and a psychiatrist who appears towards the end of the film. While the two male doctors deliver sanctimonious lectures to the females in the film, the lawyer friend of Bill’s tells Bill that Nancy is seeking a divorce. What happened to confidentiality? These male authority figures dampen the melodrama and move the film away from its tawdry lurid depths. I prefer more drama and less lectures. Plus then there’s poor Bill–a man who’s used as a sperm donor by these two women while they play ping-pong with his heart. If Bill were in his right mind, he’s wish he’d never set eyes on these sisters in the first place.

For fans of Lizabeth Scott, Paid in Full is a must-see. While Scott’s best role (for me) is Too Late For Tears, she does an excellent job as Jane and the role as it is written. Personally, I would have loved to see the film with both sisters as evil, scheming bitches.

From director William Dieterle

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Filed under Drama, Lizabeth Scott

Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955)

“I’ve seen more tears run down the pretty faces than the plain ones.”

Many years ago I saw the film The Red Velvet Swing–a story of the explosive love triangle between prominent New York architect, Stanford White,  Philadelphia millionaire Harry K. Thaw and showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit stayed with me. The three formed one of those poisonous cocktails of a relationship, and it all ended badly with one of the most infamous murder trials of the 20th century.  The film is based on this true story, and the names of the major players haven’t been changed. Note I didn’t say the guilty or the innocent here, but more of that later. I’ve thought of the film–and its characters–quite a bit over the years, and when I saw a copy recently, I decided it was time to revisit the film.

red velvetSet in The Gilded Age, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is an explosion of colour and rich sets, but in spite of all its gorgeous trimmings, the story falls down by a superficial, uninteresting and whitewashed version of the character of Evelyn Nesbit. She was the only one of the three main characters alive when the film was made. All three of the main characters are whitewashed, by the way, but the script at least created well-formed characters in White and Thaw.

The film’s strength is to be found in its portrayal of White (Ray Milland) and Thaw (Farley Granger). The plot indicates that this pair were feuding (Thaw had been barred from White’s gentleman’s club and Thaw thought White was responsible for this) long before Evelyn Nesbit (Joan Collins) arrives on the scene. The plot implies that some of this was envy. White is an elegant gentleman and considered New York’s first citizen. Thaw is rich, but from Philadelphia, and for all of his throwing his money around, he still can’t seem to get the respect that White commands with his elegant grace.

White is introduced to Evelyn by another chorus girl, and the two women are then invited to lunch at one of White’s secret hideaways. This particular hideaway is behind a shop, and the film captures Evelyn’s naivete and wonder as she steps inside and views an exotic apartment designed by White. A brief affair ensues with Thaw’s anger growing as he realizes that White got to the girl he liked first. The plot plays with the idea that Thaw’s main interest in Evelyn comes from the fact that she is White’s, and over the course of several scenes, White and Thaw are like two dogs with a bone–the bone being Evelyn, of course.

While White and Thaw are strongly-drawn characters (White as elegant gentleman and Thaw as a loony with two handlers in tow), Evelyn’s character is problematic. Naive to the point of perpetual victimhood, she’s a bit of a ninny. The plot gives us hints that both White and Thaw are ‘deeper’ than shown here–White for example has the debris from a party strewn over his love nest, and what about the business with the pie? In the same vein, Thaw’s unhealthy relationship with his mother indicates where some of the problems spring from. But that leaves us with Evelyn. Here she’s a gorgeous face (and vain about it), yes, but empty as a drained coke bottle. It’s hard to imagine anyone being driven to insanity or murder by this woman. She’s too docile.

The film is directed by Richard Fleischer who directed a number of noir titles including Narrow Margin and Follow Me Quietly. Marilyn Monroe was originally slated for the role of Evelyn but was replaced by Collins. The dialogue isn’t great, but there are a couple of allusions to the sex sneaked in behind all the heavily whitewashed drama. In one of the film’s most visually stunning scenes, White pushes Evelyn higher and higher in a swing he has set up in his little love nest, and the empty swing indicates…well watch it and see. In another scene, Evelyn proudly lights White’s cigar and gushingly confesses that she used to light her father’s cigar and never “choked once.” Perhaps I have a dirty mind, but I wondered about that line.

The film’s determination to avoid the more salacious details and create the innocent and the guilty spoilt the true real-life tale. The plot sets White and Evelyn’s mother as the moral centres of the film with both characters vainly trying to ‘save’ Evelyn from debauchery. It’s impossible to miss White’s hypocrisy though. It’s fine if he debauches Evelyn–just as long as no one else does. The plot sweeps away this awkwardness by depicting White as so in love with Evelyn that the poor bastard couldn’t help himself. So he has to ship her off to a boarding school in order to keep his hands off her. The truth of the matter, which seems to matter little to the film’s plot, was far from that depicted here. In reality, there were no innocents–just shades of guilt. Back to that poisonous cocktail again, and back to the idea that should a film based on real-events make more of an effort to show what really happened?

According to author Michael MacDonald Mooney’s book, Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White, Love and Death in the Gilded Age (which I read after watching the film), the relationship between Thaw, White and Nesbit was much more complex and corrupted than shown. In sparing our sensibilities, and pleasing the censors, truth is the victim here.

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Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)

 “This is a girls’ school. Men ain’t safe here.”

blue-murderBlue Murder at St Trinian’s is the second film in the extremely popular St Trinian’s series. St Trinian’s is an all-girls school that is the bane of the local police force, the dread of the townspeople, and the thorn in the side of everyone at the Ministry of Education. The St Trinian’s films echo the theme of the original cartoons created by Ronald Searle, and chronicle the madness and mayhem of the totally out-of-control girls’ school. While the prim and proper students of elite boarding schools learn such valuable social skills as deportment and dancing, the girls of St Trinian’s learn how to make explosives and bootleg gin. If you are interested in the St. Trinian’s films, and haven’t seen any yet, then I recommend beginning with The Belles of St Trinian’s and watching the films in the order they were made:

The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)
The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

Blue Murder at St Trinian’s begins with Miss Fritton (Alastair Sim) in prison. Meanwhile, the school’s resident fixer–Flash Harry (George Cole) is in control. Flash Harry has a number of business interests with the school–illegal gin, bookmaker for the 200 plus pupils, and now he also runs the St Trinian’s marriage bureau. Compiling albums of sexy photos featuring shapely 6th form St Trinian’s girls, Flash Harry then treks the globe to meet wealthy clients and arrange meetings. These arranged marriages work well for the girls as the unsuspecting foreigners have no clue about St Trinian’s stinky reputation, and so wealthy European males imagine that they are marrying the cream of delicate British womanhood while in reality, the wealthy families of Europe are slowly being seeded with delinquents.

Flash Harry’s latest customer is a wealthy Arab prince. The prince, while poring over photos of the long-legged lovelies, cannot decide which flower of British maidenhood to select as his bride, so he convinces Flash to agree to bring the girls over so that he can see them in the flesh. But how to pay for the trip? Flash Harry has a brainstorm. There’s a UNESCO essay competition that will send the winning school on a goodwill tour of Europe with stops at Paris, Florence and Rome. It would be a perfect opportunity to get The Ministry of Education to finance the trip, but there’s just one drawback, there’s no way that St Trinian’s will ever win that competition fair and square. They’ll have to resort to other means….

Meanwhile, St Trinian’s is without a headmistress. It seems that Miss Fritton is inexplicably detained at a ‘resort,’ and so the Ministry of Education employs a Dame Maud Hackshaw–otherwise–known as ‘Kill ’em or Cure ’em Hackshaw’–to replace Miss Fritton. But battleaxe Dame Maud (Judith Furse), who runs a Borstal-type institution has to sail from Australia (no one in England is daft enough to take the job). In the meantime, a state of siege has taken place at St Trinian’s with troops surrounding the school to maintain some sort of order. The troops are supposed to hold the fort until the headmistress arrives, but “the fiends in human form” test even the British Army’s mettle.

Dame Maud may be a dragon, but even years of experience with the delinquents of Australia find her woefully unprepared for the Girls of St Trinian’s. Luckily, or unluckily depending on your perspective, one of the girl’s fathers, Joe Mangan (played by Lionel Jefferies), a notorious jewel thief, hides out in St Trinian’s, and he finds himself enlisted as the new headmistress. Soon Mangan is on his way to Europe in drag while Dame Hackshaw is suitably…errr…retired.

One thing about St Trinian’s films: you only ever see fourth form and sixth form St Trinian’s girls. The fourth form mirror the original image created by Searle, messy, disheveled beasties who use violence to achieve their ends–whereas the sixth form are leggy, shapely beauties who use their sexuality to get their way. But where is the fifth form–the in-between stage of transformation when the fourth begin to morph into the sixth? The fifth is glaringly absent. Wisely, the films absent the fifth form and leave that transformation to the imagination.

Many of the familiar characters from The Belles of St Trinian’s appear in this film–Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) is still engaged to Sgt. Sammy, Miss Fritton (Alastair Sim) sadly makes only a very brief appearance, and Flash Harry (George Cole) is still the shiftless, much-loved spectre who haunts the school grounds. This film, however, also showcases Terry-Thomas as the fortune-hunting, slightly seedy, bankrupt Dreadnought bus company owner, Romney. Romney is somewhat daunted by the prospect of driving the girls across Europe, but since he’s faced Rommel and the “Japs in Burma,” Romney accepts the job. Terry-Thomas, who was stricken later with Parkinson’s disease, is such a marvelous comedian, and this role is perfect for him. Romney sniffs that Ruby may be an heiress, and the scenes of Romney’s crafty romancing of poor Ruby Gates are priceless. The indomitable St Trinian’s school trip across Europe is hilarious, and their antics including hijacking a Mozart festival, the hospitalization of several dozen French schoolgirls, and the tour-de-force is the “liquid massacre” that takes place in Rome. I think the St Trinian’s Girls could give British football fans a run for their money.

From director Frank Launder, Blue Murder at St Trinian’s is written Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.

Jolly Hockeysticks!!

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The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)

 “I’ve been lenient with her to the point of imbecility.”

“The natives have risen, old sport.”
“I propose to storm the barricades.”
“I thought hockey was a game, but with you girls it’s more like jungle warfare.”
“You’ve no idea what’s going on in the summerhouse. It’s practically an orgy.”
“I’ve never seen such an exhibition of savagery.”

The Belles of St Trinian’s is the first of four British comedy films centered on the infamous girls boarding school, St Trinian’s. Cartoonist Ronald Searle created the idea of St. Trinian’s, and this first film appeared in 1954. These immensely popular films quickly earned cult status, and they remain some of my all-time favourite comedy films. The films appeared in this order:

The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)
The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

belles1There have been some cheesy knock-off St Trinian’s films over the years, but in my mind, these films don’t ‘count,’ so they are not included here.

St Trinian’s is the antithesis of the snotty, private school for ‘young ladies.’ We tend to think of British schoolgirls as demure, obedient and well behaved. Well leave that idea behind and enter the World of St Trinian’s and see a very different sort of intrepid British schoolgirl. Indeed as Miss Millicent Fritton (Alistair Sim in drag) is fond of saying:

“In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.”

The Belles of St Trinian’s begins with a wealthy Arab sheik (Eric Pohlmann) deciding to send his precious daughter, Princess Fatima (Lorna Henderson) to a proper British boarding school, and the Princess’s current governess, dressed in modest tweeds, suggests sending the Princess to St Trinian’s–a school run by a former chum. The Sheik, blissfully unaware of the school’s awful reputation but impressed with the school’s proximity to the racetrack, agrees and little Fatima embarks for the boarding school.

Meanwhile back in England, it’s the start of a new school year with the return of the girls. Pandemonium reigns at the train station and locals who live in the nearby village board up their shop windows when news breaks of the girls’ imminent arrival. From the local police constabulary all the way to the Ministry of Education, St Trinian’s school is perceived as a blot on the British educational system. Indeed Superintendent Samuel ‘Sammy’ Kemp-Bird (Lloyd Lamble) would love to shut the place down, and Manton Bassett (Richard Wattis) at the Ministry of Education has sent a number of inspectors to the school, but attempts to reign in this out-of-control school for delinquents has led to the mysterious disappearance of several school inspectors, and the subsequent formation of a club known as ‘The Lotus Eaters’ in the school’s greenhouse. So the region suffers from an unchecked crime wave involving: “arson, forged fivers, poison pen letters.” Bassett and the police superintendent join forces and decide to send policewoman Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) undercover into the school posing as games mistress, Chloe Crawley (she rapidly becomes known as Creepy Crawley).

St. Trinian’s is beleaguered by financial problems, and the headmistress, Miss Fritton, has been forced to pawn the school trophies, so it is with delight that the teachers and headmistress receive the wealthy Princess Fatima and her allowance of one hundred pounds. Clarence, Miss Fritton’s evil twin brother is an avid gambler, and he is also delighted that Fatima is attending the school. He intends–along with his daughter (another St Trinian’s pupil)–to nobble the Sheik’s horse, Arab Boy in the upcoming races and thereby win a bundle. To complicate matters, Miss Fritton also bets on Arab Boy to win.

Things turn ugly when the fourth form (who put aside their gin-making temporarily) battle against the sixth form, and it’s every man for himself on Parent’s Day when war wages between the besieged fourth formers and the aggressive sixth. Fortunately, a bus full of ‘old girls’ comes to the rescue armed with Zulu spears and shields.

Alastair Sim doubles for both the delightfully distracted Miss Fritton and her twin brother, the conniving Clarence. Miss Fritton has a marvelous way of ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the girls’ behaviour, chalking it up to ‘high spirits,’ and she positively encourages the St Trinian’s girls in their violent behavior during the hockey match. Joyce Grenfell is extremely funny as the besotted, long-suffering, lovelorn police woman Ruby Gates–persuaded against her better judgment to operate undercover as Creepy Crawlie, St Trinian’s Games Mistress. And George Cole is marvelous as Flash Harry–the odd character who haunts the bushes of St Trinian’s–and who imagines that he is the soul of discretion. I think he’s my favourite character in the entire film.

Keep your eyes open for comediennes Beryl Reid (Miss Wilson), Irene Handl (Miss Gale), and Joan Sims (Miss Dawn). Sid James also stars as Clarence’s side kick, Benny, and very young Barbara Windsor and Shirley Eaton appear as St Trinian’s girls. Directed by Frank Launder and with the script co-written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder.

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The Company She Keeps (1951)

 “Save it for the jail, sister. Better acoustics and more time.”

In The Company She Keeps from director John Cromwell, gravelly-voiced Lizabeth Scott plays sunny, sweet parole officer, Joan Wilburn opposite Jane Greer as ex-con Mildred Lynch. In the film’s first scene, a parole board gathers to determine whether or not to grant parole to Mildred. From a 21st century perspective, the board members appear to be a fairly sanctimonious lot, poker faced, middle aged, middle class women who sit around a table passing judgment on Mildred.

company-she-keepsBefore Mildred enters the room, the women on the board–and a sole male–discuss her behavior and her past. Abandoned at age 11, Mildred has had a tough life, and she landed in jail for a bad check, shoplifting and receiving stolen goods. It seems that hoping for parole, Mildred is given to obsequious behavior that hasn’t really fooled anyone, and so the board members are about to try and ascertain just how sincere Mildred is in her declarations of rehabilitation. But the parole board decides to show some mercy and Mildred is granted her parole–along with a new name, Diane Stuart. Traveling to LA, Mildred–now Diane–meets her dedicated new parole officer, Joan Wilburn.

It’s when Diane meets Joan for the first time, that the veneer of obsequiousness slides off, and underneath Diane is revealed as a hard-edged and tough talking dame. To her, Joan is an enemy, a snoop, and while Diane realizes she has to play the game, she’s not going to make it easy for Joan. Diane complains about her room in a boarding house, her job as a nurse’s aide in a hospital working the night shift, and also about her clothes. The efforts that Joan has made to find Diane a nice clean, safe room are ignored.

Joan takes Diane out for dinner one night, and here Joan runs into her long-time beau, newspaper reporter, Larry Collins (Dennis O’Keefe). Joan has made it clear that her career preempts her love life, and Larry has to wait in the wings for Joan to make time for their relationship. And then Diane runs into Larry one night at the hospital….

The Company She Keeps raises some complex issues but then never deals with them, instead veering into a fairly straightforward love triangle. The tastier issues–Diane’s motives in setting out to seduce Larry, and Joan’s flare of jealousy and power are raised–but dropped. The film hints that Larry is the sort of man that Diane isn’t ‘allowed’ to have–that he’s considered too good for the likes of an ex-con, but there’s also an element of rivalry here. Diane and Joan are similar age and build, and Joan has all the things in life that Diane would like and to some degree feels entitled to. One scene shows Diane contemplating shoplifting a coat for a night out on the town. While she hesitates and overcomes the urge to steal the coat, Diane really does shoplift–or steal–Larry from Joan, and her motives remain questionable.

Diane’s giant chip on her shoulder is evident in the scenes with Joan, but Diane manages to hide her bitterness whenever she feels it’s to her advantage to do so–with Larry for example, and with the parole board (particularly the sole male on the board), Diane only shows the sweet side of her nature. For Lizabeth Scott fans, The Company She Keeps is worth catching (even if Scott’s role is too saintly for my tastes). Unfortunately the plot veers away from the more interesting, calculating aspects of Diane’s dual nature, and instead keeps the story fairly simple. Some of the best scenes occur when Diane is forced to take part in the humiliation of line up. Here, treated like cattle, the women are subjected to cracks by the detectives who round up suspects and ex-cons alike, and this scene underscores the idea that these women, in spite of ‘serving their time’ never completely leave their pasts behind.

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Head Against the Walls (1959)

“You said society was a game—you had to know the rules.” 

In Georges Franju’s film Head Against the Walls (La Tete Contre Les Murs) 25-year old Francois (Jean-Pierre Mocky) the son of a prominent, affluent French lawyer (Jean Galland) finds out the hard way just what happens when he tries to fight the system. A moto-cross rider, unemployed, and with the tendency to get into trouble, Francois breaks into his father’s study and deliberately burns some important documents. When confronted, Francois scoffs at the notion that his father will call the police. He reasons that his father won’t want the scandal. And he’s correct about that, but he underestimates his father’s power and range of influence, and promptly finds himself locked up in an insane asylum.

The asylum is run by Dr. Varmont (Pierre Brasseur)—a man who’s just as much a prisoner as his patients. Addicted to old methods, he refuses to deviate from his desire for correction, and in his mind, he’s protecting society from “contamination” by keeping the patients contained apart from society. Stripped of any rights, Francois has no way to fight his committal. His stay in the mental asylum seems indefinite. There’s no concrete course of treatment, and no legal recourse.

The asylum is a nightmarish place. When Francois first arrives, he appears to be in a zombie-like state, and while this hints at sedation given to transport him there, it also underscores the surrealistic feel of the asylum. It’s an institution that supposedly houses the insane, but there’s an insane quality to the way it’s run. In the dining room, Francois is introduced to various inmates: a shell shocked war hero, a sham blind man, and a man tied up in a strait jacket who’s subjected to force-feeding.

Francois’ initial evaluation by Dr. Varmont is not promising. A torch is shone Francois’ eyes, and he’s asked if he has venereal disease. Varmont labels Francois as a person with “character and behaviour troubles.” These rapid conclusions about his patient’s character arise partly from Francois’ lack of employment. While Francois hints at moments from his past that might hold clue to his hostility to his father, Varmont ignores an opportunity to learn more. It’s obvious that Varmont isn’t really that interested in what caused Francois to become an “incendiary,” and of course, that also leads us to doubt Varmont’s sincere desire for a “cure.” Varmont assures Francois that the asylum is a nice place, a sort of holiday camp, which will provide a calm, restful environment. Meanwhile a fight breaks out on the grounds as one patient attacks another with a saw and slashes his face open. A third patient watches the incident from behind some bushes, and some rather heavy-breathing indicates sexual arousal—perhaps even masturbation—although the film just hints at this and doesn’t explore it further.

Over time, Francois makes friends with an epileptic named Heurtevent (Charles Aznavour) who plans an escape. To Heurtevent, there are two options: transfer to the humane care of Dr Emery (Paul Meurisse) or escape to the outside world. High brick walls and barbed wire surround the asylum, and one particularly cruel “treat” for the patients is to allow them to ride around the compound on a miniature train which circumvents the boundaries of the asylum. Does Dr. Varmont truly believe that patients cherish this child-like activity? Does Varmont really imagine that this circular non-stop ride on a kiddie train is a facsimile of freedom?

Stephanie (Anouk Aimee), a young Parisian woman Francois met the day before his incarceration comes to visit Francois. She fails to grasp the cruel net thrown over Francois. She thinks it’s just a matter of Francois making up with his father, and a later interview that takes place between Francois and his father illustrates just how deep the breach is between father and son. Francois sees that his father as an immoral man, and he recalls a time his father fought to have a man hanged, but then came home and showed how the man could have been set free. There are also hints of some dark, long-buried secrets regarding the death of Francois’ mother.Francois does manage to escape with Heurtevent, but their bid for freedom is short lived. After they are returned to the asylum, Heurtevent, unable to escape, unable to transfer to Dr Emery’s humane care, takes the third option and commits suicide. Francois escapes a second time, and while a network of friends establishes an underground life, instead Francois seeks Stephanie and is captured and returned to the asylum once again.

Francois is depicted as an unsuccessful rebel who struggles against his father’s authority, and then is flung into an institution in which Dr Varmont, a godlike figure, is the ultimate authority. The asylum is run in conjunction with yet another institution—the church, and there are several scenes of patients rounded up for various religious services. Francois, as an anti-authoritarian figure fails to subvert his father’s control over his life initially because he returns to conduct a petty act (the burning of documents), and secondly because he’s lured into believing he can have a normal, above ground relationship with Stephanie. The film’s ending implies that this time, Francois will be locked up for good. There will be no more escape attempts and instead Francois will return to the nightmarish existence at the asylum where he will, eventually, go insane. The mental asylum becomes the battle ground for the individual against the power, control, and violence of the institution.

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Tight Spot (1955)

“Whenever I deal with something dirty, I always get a little soiled.”

Tight Spot AKA Dead Pigeon is a little known but surprisingly good crime film, loaded with excellent performances, strong dialogue, and a very tight script. If you’re a fan of 50s gangster films, then there’s a good chance you may enjoy this one

The film begins with the murder of a snitch–would-be government witness Tonelli is assassinated before he can start singing in the courtroom. With the government case against mobster Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene) weakening, district attorney Lloyd Hallett (Edward G Robinson) arranges for the transportation of the only remaining possible witness, good-time girl Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) from the state prison to a swanky hotel room. Here Hallett hopes to convince Sherry to get up into that witness stand and testify against the brutal Costain. Hallett has two carrots to help entice Sherry to testify: he promises to cut the remaining eleven months of her original 5 year sentence, and he also lectures her about her “debt to society.”

Costain’s trial is due to begin Monday morning, and on Saturday Sherry is transferred without a word of explanation from the prison to the fancy hotel. Her escorts are a prison guard, Willoughby (Katherine Anderson), and a hardened cop Vince Striker (Brian Keith).

The film is based on a play and the film certainly maintains a tense claustrophobic atmosphere with its limited, mainly interior scenes and very controlled situations. Over the course of the weekend, Sherry is pressured to comply with Hallett’s request to testify, but wise-cracking, tough-talking Sherry has learned all about self-preservation. She’s not about to put her life on the line to ‘protect’ a society that’s largely screwed her over, and when it comes to the idea that she owes a debt to society, Sherry doesn’t see it that way at all. Sherry is portrayed by Ginger Rogers as a basically decent person whose Achilles’ Heel just happens to be men. As far as I’m concerned, Ginger Rogers stole the film from her very first scene when she lectures a new prison inmate about how to slack off inside (“See if you can’t think about this joint as a training ground for future life”). This is an important character-setting scene as it establishes that Sherry is no dummy, and she’s not a pushover either. She’s not about to break her back working in the prison to help facilitate a system she despises.

Locked in the hotel room, Sherry begins to build relationships with Willoughby and Striker. While Willoughby treats Sherry with compassion, natural adversaries Sherry and Striker eyeball each other warily. To Striker, Sherry is just a gangster’s dame, and to Sherry, Striker is another no-good cop put on the planet to harass her. As Sherry’s story becomes clear, she earns grudging respect from Striker, and they begin to see each other as three-dimensional human beings. When Sherry’s sister arrives on the scene, even the DA begins to feel sorry for his potential star witness.

One very clever element used in the film is the concurrent television charity marathon, which features a soulful, annoying crooner. Just as the crooner is locked into the weekend’s action, Sherry and her protectors are stuck too. Sherry, however, is fully aware that she’s a sitting duck, and she’s not about to let herself be used in anyone’s game–no matter the bribes she’s offered. Alienated from a society that’s taught her to be wary of any government offers, she’s interested in self-preservation–until caring about other people finally breaks through her brittle veneer. From director Phil Karlson.

Some lines from the film:

“You mean you brought me up here to let me be insulted by some cheap dame even if she is my sister.”

“I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask if my civil rights is being violated.”

“Look sister, I wouldn’t know styles if you shoved ’em down my throat.”

“Men–they ought to trade themselves in for something a girl really needs.”

“And being a cop, you can’t imagine it might be a phony rap, could you?”

“I thought newspaper reporters were supposed to be drunk by this time on Saturday night.”

“Here’s to the men who blow up prisons.”

“You’ve no idea how utterly desirable you are to a girl.”

“Government officials bribing people. I thought it was the other way around.”

“Maybe it doesn’t pay to be an honest hardworking woman.”

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Filed under Crime, Gangster

The Tingler (1959)

 “I know a wonderful psychiatrist with a perfectly divine strait jacket just your size.”

After reading that The Tingler is on director John Waters’ top film list, this made it a must-see for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. Campy and strange–nonetheless, The Tingler is a surprisingly good film. It’s from William Castle, perhaps cinema’s most eccentric director, and The Tingler is considered one of this cult director’s best. It would be so easy to dismiss this film as campy fun, but it’s really much more than this. It’s a very well crafted exercise in weirdness.

tinglerThere are only two normal people in the film, and their roles are kept to a minimum and serve as a contrast for the film’s collection of bizarre characters. Vincent Price as gently spoken, well-mannered pathologist William Chapin heads the cast. Chapin has theories of the “fear tensions” within the human body, and he’s long since come to the conclusion that the “force of fear” unleashed in the human body can result in the cracking of vertebrae. At the beginning of the film, he becomes convinced that there’s actually something physical living in the base of the spine–a parasitic creature known as The Tingler that grows with the host’s exposure to fear. Chapin’s theory is that screaming releases these tensions and ultimately this freezes or immobilizes the Tingler, thus saving humans from dying of fear. Obviously proving the Tingler’s existence by examining the spinal cords of people who are either paralyzed by fear or who die of it, is not an easy matter, but then again, Chapin is a pathologist….

The film begins with a terrified man being dragged screaming down a hallway to his execution by two prison guards. A few minutes later, a body on a gurney is wheeled into the autopsy room, and here pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) proceeds to conduct an autopsy on the dead man. And this is where the film begins to get bizarre–the dead man’s brother-in law, Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge) stands by and watches Chapin perform the autopsy. Now perhaps Chapin performs autopsies on a regular basis, but this must be a unique experience for Higgins, who owns a cinema that caters to silent film. But the two men have a nice calm chat while Chapin carves up the corpse, and by the time he’s done, Chapin and Higgins have established enough rapport for Higgins to ask for a lift home.

Higgins introduces Chapin to his wife Martha (Judith Evelyn) who just happens to be a deaf mute. When Chapin discovers that Martha also has a terror of blood, he realizes that he has the perfect subject–someone with a built in mechanism for terror who cannot release her “fear tension” through screaming…

The Tingler hits all the right notes to create a very strange tale with a very bizarre tone. Peculiar things take place in the film, but the characters all act as though these things are perfectly normal. Chapin’s assistant, for example, is running around town kidnapping animals to serve as guinea pigs for Chapin’s latest wacko experiments. All the characters in the film accept this as perfectly normal, and the film’s insistence on the normalcy of outrageously bizarre behaviour is a tactic that Castle uses within the film many times–Higgins attending the autopsy of his brother in law, for example. Higgins should express at least some distaste of the autopsy. He could turn away, vomit, or even faint. These reactions would all be within the range of normal for a person who’s attending the autopsy of a relative. But instead Higgins doesn’t even swallow hard–he’s perfectly at home in the autopsy room watching his brother-in-law get carved up. This presentation of the bizarre with the ho-hum reaction to an every day event creates the atmosphere of a lunatic asylum. As we watch the story unfold, we realize that what is happening is not normal, but it’s presented by the characters as perfectly acceptable. The dissonance between normal and abnormal created by the film forges a fascination between the audience and the film characters. Just how far off the deep end is Chapin prepared to go? Do his gentle, refined manners and voice mask the mind of a madman?

This acceptance of the abnormal as normal is also demonstrated in the two marriages depicted in the film. These marriages are pathological and laced with murderous intent, but this is masked by the politics of polite behaviour, so that leaves only two people in a ‘normal’ relationship–courting couple, Chapin’s sister-in-law, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) and Chapin’s lab assistant David (Darryl Hickman). Chapin’s first appearance in the old homestead immediately establishes marital discord when he addresses Lucy with the heavily sarcastic question “where is my darling wife?” Isabel, who obviously doesn’t trouble herself with putting hot meals on the table for hubbie appears some time later. Isabel Chapin (Patricia Cutts) seems to be a very unsuitable partner for Chapin. Sexy, blonde Isabel has the naughty habit of floozing out on the town with a series of strange men.

Another tactic used by Castle is that most people (with a few notable exceptions) in the film remain perfectly calm–almost frustratingly so. They should be objecting, refusing, questioning, but they tend to very calmly go along with the action, accepting the nuttiness as everyday stuff.

The Tingler really is a very clever film. The first time I watched it, I loved it, but the second and third times, I began to really appreciate it. The first time through, for example, the film leads us to certain conclusions about Chapin’s character, and with subsequent viewing, I came to appreciate Castle’s manipulative skill a great deal more.

Anyway, thanks to John Waters for pointing me towards this gem of a film. The DVD is excellent quality, by the way–in black and white–except for one scene that contains…well, a lot of red. The picture is clear and crisp, but the whole package is so well put together with some interesting extras, including an introduction by William Castle. Well worth the purchase, but I still wish I could persuade someone to release a version of The Tingler with commentary from John Waters.

“Scream for your lives. The Tingler is loose in the theatre!”
“Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned corpses for peeping out of windows.”

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Filed under Cult Classics

Clash By Night (1952)

  “People have funny things swimming around inside them.”

In the film Clash By Night Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home after a ten-year absence to a small coastal fishing town in California. Her brother, Joe, doesn’t ask too many questions–he can tell that she’s down on her luck. Mae arrives with just a single suitcase and a large chip on her shoulder about life and men.

clash-by-nightJoe’s boss, Jerry D’Amato, shows interest in Mae. Jerry is a very solid character. He owns a fishing boat, and he takes care of his demented father and irresponsible Uncle Vince. Mae marries Jerry–making it clear that she does not love him–but that the relationship offers her security. After a year of marriage and a baby, Mae, who has long been attracted to Jerry’s sleazy friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), breaks out of her housewife routine and begins an affair with Earl.

Clash by Night is film noir, but it has soap opera tones too. The thing that prevents one from reaching for the nearest hankie is the performance of Barbara Stanwyck as hard-as-nails Mae Doyle D’Amato. Although her dilemma is clear–security vs. excitement, Stanwyck’s hard-edged speeches eliminate the need for tears. It’s difficult to feel sorry for her husband, Jerry. He’s a good, decent man, and obviously out-of-his depth with Mae, and he goes into the marriage knowing she doesn’t love him. Jerry is the sort of man other men like to make fun of–probably because they can never be as solid and reliable as he is. Jerry seems emasculated and this is largely due to Uncle Vince–an opportunist who blatantly uses Jerry.

Mae’s attraction to Earl–even though he’s exactly the sort of man she’s trying to avoid–adds interest to the plot. Also, Marilyn Monroe stars as Peggy, the tomboy sweetheart of Joe Doyle. She works in the cannery, and the cannery represents the sum total of the career opportunities in town. Peg sympathizes with Mae, and it’s curious to see a very young Monroe in the role of a tomboy and without that carefully developed blonde bombshell role.

Clash by Night is directed by Fritz Lang. It was filmed in Monterey, and fans of Barbara Stanwyck will find the film well worth watching for its strong characters and excellent acting.

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Filed under Barbara Stanwyck, Film Noir, Marilyn Monroe

Crime of Passion (1957)

  “I hope all your socks have holes in them.”

crimes-of-passionIn the film Crime of Passion, tough, successful career woman Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) abandons her newspaper column and a prestigious new job to marry LA police detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). She imagines a life of domestic bliss, and soon she’s living in suburbia–along with all the other detectives’ wives. Doyle is happy plodding along in his career, but Kathy really can’t stand the life she finds herself in. The Doyle’s social life is composed of dreary evenings with Doyle’s co-workers. The men play card games, and the women chatter on about inane subjects. While no unpleasant words exit from the mouths of the detectives’ wives, it’s quite clear that a strict social hierarchy exists. In particular, one wife, Sara Alidos, is all too happy to carry on at length about her intimate friendship with the Police Commissioner Pope (Raymond Burr) and his wife. Kathy really doesn’t belong with these other wives. Try as she might, she just doesn’t fit in, and her own lack of conformity drives Kathy to the brink of a breakdown.

But then Kathy has an idea. In Kathy’s mind, her husband is superior to the other detectives, and she is cleverer than the rest of the wives. And so Kathy sets out to use her brain to promote her dullard of a husband through whatever means are necessary.

Barbara Stanwyck is excellent in the role of Kathy–a woman who gives up her career and lives to regret it. Kathy is hard and tough, but when she meets Bill, she gives into romance, and in her case, this is a big mistake. Bill Doyle is a good, hard-working man, but Kathy doesn’t respect him. Raymond Burr as Pope is the man who sees past Kathy’s persona and sees the conniving woman underneath.

From director Gert Oswald, Crime of Passion contains some extremely interesting comments especially about the roles of women in the 50s. For film noir/Stanwyck fans, this is a film well worth watching.

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Filed under Barbara Stanwyck, Film Noir