Tag Archives: femme fatale

The Blue Angel (1930)

“The films that von Sternberg made with me speak for themselves. There is nothing, and there will be nothing in the future, that could surpass them. Filmmakers are forever condemned to imitate them.” (Marlene Dietrich)

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, the film The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel) follows the obsession of a reclusive bachelor schoolteacher with a sexually liberated nightclub singer. The night club singer is, of course, Marlene Dietrich, and her unforgettable performance as Lola Lola catapulted her to international fame.

The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, played by the portly Emil Jannings, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small town. While he is meticulous and stuffy in his personal and professional lives, he is also the object of ridicule. Scenes show him in the classroom where as a petty tyrant, the good students fear him and the poor students torment him at every opportunity. The class swot is appropriately named Angst (Rolf Muller). When Rath notices that some of the boys possess racy postcards of scantily dressed women, it’s Angst who tells Rath that the women on the postcards are from The Blue Angel–a popular hangout for the boys after hours. Rath decides to go to The Blue Angel and catch the boys himself, and of course, this is a very intriguing decision since Rath imagines that his jurisdiction spans the boys’ lives outside of the classroom. But there again, given Rath’s own evident surreptitious sexual interest in the postcard which depicts Lola Lola, perhaps moral intervention is just the excuse he tells himself in order to visit the nightclub after dark.

Once in the nightclub, the professor, who’s there ostensibly to catch the pupils drinking and ogling the dancers, falls under the spell of the fabulous Lola Lola. The Blue Angel is definitely a low-rent club, and the women who sing and entertain the crowds are a motley crew–one young woman just stands there and rotates her eyes in her version of ocular bellydancing. Lola Lola is clearly the star of the show, and for each of her songs she dons a different outfit–all of them managing to display her underwear. One costume is a huge farthingale. Not only is the skirt see-through (so we can see her bloomers), but it’s also backless–as the Professor discovers to his astonishment once he’s inside her dressing room.

The initial scenes with the Professor at The Blue Angel are comic, and much of the humour comes from the Professor’s reactions to Lola Lola. He very quickly falls under her spell, and once he’s lost his social position, he is gradually ground down by humiliation and eventually destroyed by the very sexuality that drew him into Lola Lola’s life.

Thanks to the advent of talkies, the career of thick-German accented Emil Jannings was on the wane when he cabled von Sternberg to join him in Berlin in order to make a film–the first sound film at UFA studios. Director Josef von Sternberg was engaged by Paramount and UFA for this joint German-American co production, and Jannings, who’d fought with von Sternberg on the film set before, argued for the employment of this director for what would be his first German speaking film. Jannings stated that “he had the choice of every director, even Lubitsch,” but that “his heart” was “set on” von Sternberg. In reply, the director said that Jannings was “a horrible affliction and a hazard to any aesthetic purpose.” Then he accepted, so Jannings set out to find a project that von Sternberg would accept and direct. In Berlin, Jannings came to von Sternberg with Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrat, and this is what the director says in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I liked the idea of the first part of the novel, met Heinrich Mann and asked him if he had any objection to my changing the structure of his story, eliminating and adding whatever suited my purpose. I told him of my plan to call the film The Blue Angel, to change the name of the girl to Lola, and to alter the ending completely …. Mann had no objections; on the contrary, he told me that he wished he had thought of the suggested changes himself, and gave me full liberty to alter or add whatever I thought advisable.

Josef von Sternberg filmed two versions simultaneously–the English version and the German as the technique of film dubbing was not yet possible. Emil Jannings, who was paid  200,000,  stars as Professor Immanuel Rath, the strait-laced, sexually repressed bachelor professor. Marlene Dietrich was paid a mere 5,000 for her role.

With the leading man already in place, von Sternberg’s biggest task was to find the woman to take the role of Lola Lola, a cheap nightclub singer who is the object of the professor’s obsessive desire and the woman who ultimately leads the professor to his doom. Jannings wanted Lucie Mannheim or Trude Hesterberg for the role, but after seeing Dietrich perform in a play (he’d already passed over her photograph,) von Sternberg knew that he’d found his dark angel– “here was the face I had sought.” 

Moreover, there was something else I had not sought, something told me that my search was over. She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for the buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others, who had been informed that I was to be treated to a sample of the greatness of the German stage. She had heard that I was in the audience, but as she did not consider herself involved, she was indifferent to my presence.

Von Sternberg also noted Dietrich’s “impressive poise,” and also that she conducted herself with a remarkable “bovine listlessness” with eyes “completely veiled.” For von Sternberg, she was perfect.  Jannings and producer Pommer were not impressed, but von Sternberg pushed for a screen test, and she got the part. During the filming, von Sternberg and Dietrich began an affair.   

Take a look of Dietrich’s first rendition of Falling in Love Again, the song that bookends her relationship with the Professor and then compare it to the second which appears almost at the end of the film. In the first rendition, even though the song is sung with a certain amount of indifference, Lola Lola effectively woos the Professor, and in the second rendition, she rejects him with defiance, triumph and an acknowledgment of her nature. Lola Lola appears to have undergone a transformation between the two songs or is it Dietrich we see transformed?

While the film appears to have a simple structure, it’s full of repetition and doubling. The Professor’s world of order is in complete contrast to Lola’s world of make-believe and chaos. The Professor frequently engages with the clown (the clown was entirely von Sternberg’s invention), but the relationship with the Professor and the clown consists of them both staring at each other–as if they are trying to fit this alien being into some sort of frame of reference. Yet the way they stare at each other is also reminiscent of a person staring at a reflection in the mirror–and this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Professor’s tragic fate.

It’s clear that The Blue Angel, light on dialogue is just one short step from the silent era, and perhaps this is why the English version is a curiosity. The English spoken is heavily accented, sometimes unintelligible, and clearly this is a German film–the word “achtung,” for example, appears from the pupils when they hear Professor Rath approaching. Kino released a splendid dual DVD release which includes both the English and the German versions and Dietrich’s screen test. Although the German version is superior, it’s still well worth watching both versions. During the Professor’s first visit to The Blue Angel, he spends time in Lola Lola’s dressing room, and as she leaves to go onstage to sing, she stands in the doorway of her dressing room, and somewhat coarsely readjusts her stockings, garter and underwear. This small, and yet deliciously telling detail is absent from the English-speaking version.  

The Blue Angel is an iconic, remarkable film. As the first talking picture made at UFA studios, it has its historic value of course, but it also is a product of the marvels and talent of Weimar Germany–soon to be washed away.  Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert, the magician, was forced by the Nazis to direct a propaganda film extolling the kindness of the Nazis to the Jews. After making the film, he and his wife were gassed in a concentration camp. Karl Huszar-Puffy who plays the innkeeper was trying to travel to Hollywood and, according to von Sternberg’s autobiography, he was removed from a ship and interned in a concentration camp in Kazakhstan by the Russians where he starved to death. Emil Jannings who played the Professor went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films, and he was named as Artist of the State by Joseph Goebbels in 1941. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich took a different path entirely. She opted for American citizenship and rejected Goebbels’ attempts to woo her back to Berlin with an offer of 50,000 pounds tax-free to return to Germany to make one film.

The Blue Angel is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.


Filed under German

The Perfect Host (2010)

You can’t kill me. I’m having a dinner party!”

DVD trailers sometimes appear to be selected with the idea of common tastes, so with that thought in mind, I wondered what to expect when I painstakingly made my way through the cheesy trailers on the DVD The Perfect Host. I couldn’t remember how The Perfect Host had found its way onto my netflix list. This is the first full-length feature from Aussie writer/director Nick Tomnay, so I know I didn’t select the film due to the director, and neither did the film feature any star whose work I follow.  I probably put the film in the netflix queue simply because it’s a crime film from an Aussie director, and I can’t resist those. So… as I watched the trailers for a handful of cheap and possibly gory thrillers, I began to wonder what was in store for me with The Perfect Host. The film’s tagline, by the way, is Dinner Parties are a dying art….

The film begins with a wounded man, John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) hobbling away from the scene of the crime. Taylor, a heavily tattooed career criminal, is haunted by bad luck. Fate derails his plans for escape and without any money or identification, he decides to try a little home invasion and use the home of some innocent bystander as a hiding place just until the next day. So he starts knocking at the doors of upper-middle class Hollywood Hills homes playing the victim in distress. But hey, this is California! Most people aren’t going to fall for that.

After one door is slammed in his face, John can’t believe his luck when he’s allowed into the beautiful, elegant  home of a quirky, effete middle-aged bachelor Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce). Warwick is busily cooking a meal for some friends who are expected at 8. After John learns that one of them is a prosecuting attorney, he decides that it’s time to take over the house and hold Warwick hostage until morning. And that’s when everything goes wrong….

By necessity this is going to be a short review because to write too much more will reveal this film’s delightful plot. While The Perfect Host appears to take the viewer down some fairly familiar paths of genre, this film is not what you expect at all. Obviously writer/director Nick Tomnay is very familiar with some of the genre’s clichés, and he subverts them with great and darkly comic results here.

David Hyde Pierce has to be seen to be believed and after watching the film, I’m still not entirely sure about this character. Nathaniel Parker plays a tenacious detective and Helen Reddy plays Cathy Knight, Warwick’s nosy neighbour.

Anyway, check out this film–I loved it, and here’s the site: www.theperfecthostmovie.com


Filed under Australia, Crime

Out of the Past (1947)

 “I know a lot of smart guys and a few honest ones.”

In the film Out of the Past Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the owner of a small garage in the sleepy town of Bridgeport, California. He keeps to himself, and that arouses the suspicions of the locals, and some of them disapprove of the fact that he’s courting the saintly Ann Miller. One day, a mysterious stranger appears in town bearing a summons from Tahoe-based gangster, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Bailey reluctantly agrees to meet Sterling. They have some unfinished business together, and Bailey cannot refuse.

A protagonist running away from a sordid past is a popular theme in film noir. In Out of the Past Bailey’s pre-Bridgeport history catches up with him, and suddenly it’s time to face past mistakes.

Years before, Bailey was a New York private detective. He was hired by Sterling to track down Sterling’s runaway girlfriend, Kathie (Jane Greer)–as well as the $40,000 that disappeared with her. Kathie, apparently, used Sterling for a little target practice before she disappeared. Bailey begins searching for Kathie, and, eventually, he catches up with her ….

Humphrey Bogart was slated for the role of Bailey. Mitchum does a credible job–he’s not as edgy as Bogart, and there’s a certain laconic sloth to his personality. It’s easy to accept Mitchum as the corruptible P.I. who accepts a dirty job from Sterling, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to see Mitchum falling for Kathie. As a Dark City femme fatale, Greer delivers a stellar performance. Bailey tells her: “You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” Kirk Douglas as gangster Whit Sterling really adds to the atmosphere of the film. He has a chilly politeness and ironic–yet threatening–sense of humour.

For film noir fans, Out of the Past is a hidden gem. Unfortunately, the plot loses some of its tight drama when the action moves to San Francisco. This results in a red herring or two which detracts from the action and the tension. This slight flaw noted, however, film noir fans will enjoy the performances, and the dialogue is full of acid-based one-liners. From director Jacques Tourneur and based on a novel by Daniel Mainwaring.

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Filed under Film Noir

Too Late for Tears (1949)

 “So you’ve already started spending it.”

Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) and her husband, Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are out one evening, when a bag of money literally lands in the back seat of their car. Alan wants to turn the money over to the police, but Jane sees it as the answer to all their problems. Jane persuades Alan to at least hide the money until they decide what to do with it. He gives in to her pleading, but then after she goes on a spending spree, he decides to hand the money over to the police. Jane is determined to keep it, and that means she’ll get rid of anyone who stands in her way.

too-late-for-tearsJane is an incredible character. She’s cold, calculating and manipulative. From the start, when the money falls into her lap, she takes charge of the situation by grabbing the steering wheel and engaging in a high-speed chase. As a film noir femme fatale, she’s on a level with those other two great wicked women, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) and Cora Smith (Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice). Jane is bad, bad, bad.

Dan Duryea plays Danny Fuller, a hard-boiled, sleazy crook. He begins his relationship with Jane by pushing her around, but by the time she’s done with him, he’s in a perpetual drunken stupor, quivering, whining and obeying her orders. He feels guilty in spite of the fact that he tries to make light of their crimes by suggesting, “I say, let’s kill these people in style.” Danny might appear to be the brutal, muscle element of this criminal pair, but in reality, Jane dominates and controls their crimes. Both Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea are great favourites of mine. Scott really makes a great deal of this role. Too often, she gets stuck as the supporting actress, but here she’s in full force, and she shows exactly how well she can handle the starring role. She’s almost kittenish when she wants to be, but always that cold emotional detachment lurks underneath the surface–even when she’s turning on the charm. Too Late for Tears is one of my all-time film noir favourites. Dirceted by Byron Haskin.


Filed under Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott

Pitfall (1948)

 “People were born to have certain things.”

pitfallIn Pitfall middle-aged married insurance agent John Forbes (Dick Powell) is bored. He has a pretty, slightly nagging wife named Sue (Jane Wyatt), a precocious son Tommy, and a tidy little home in suburbia, but he feels as though he’s on a timed treadmill. Forbes’s tedious domestic life is shaken up when he meets the beautiful clothes model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott).

Forbes is trying to recover $10,000 embezzled from a company by Bill Smiley (Byron Barr). Smiley is now in jail, but his girlfriend, Mona Stevens, is waiting for him. Forbes sends private detective MacDonald (Raymond Burr) to trace the missing money, and MacDonald returns with his report along with a glowing review of the beautiful, uncooperative Miss Stevens. Forbes goes to interview Mona and see if he can recover any money or goods bought with the stolen money.

Soon Forbes is lying to his wife about Mona, and MacDonald is jealously stalking both Mona and Forbes. Then tangled passions explode into violence ….

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when MacDonald arrives in Forbes’s office for the first time. There’s a sullen obsequiousness about MacDonald–like an untrained dog, he waits for a sign of approval from Forbes, and when none comes, he becomes resentful and misbehaves. It’s a tribute to Powell’s acting ability that his dislike for MacDonald is conveyed in such subtle, slightly dismissive ways.

With the insurance company theme, it’s impossible not to begin comparing Pitfall to Double Indemnity–one of the great noir films of all time. The characters in Pitfall are not quite as deeply explored as those in Double Indemnity–the emotionally detached Forbes doesn’t plunge into the deep end of evil–he sticks his big toe into the hot water of infidelity and then immediately tries to scramble back to shore. Mona Stevens possesses a vulnerability and fatalism that causes her to become a natural victim to the men in her life. The husky voiced Lizabeth Scott is one of my all-time favourite film noir actresses–how sad her career was ruined by rumors that she was a lesbian. Raymond Burr as the Machiavellian villain of the piece is well cast–one tends to forget how sinister he could be before assuming the Ironside persona.

Pitfall is a nice tidy little noir drama–definitely enjoyable and a must-see for connoisseurs, but Forbes and Stevens are too timidly rooted in socially accepted behaviour to make this film one of the all-time greats. (I’m thinking:  The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Narrow Margin, Double Indemnity…) From director Andre de Toth.

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Filed under Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott