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Deception (1946)

“They say never confess a secret to a woman.”

Deception, a 1946 film from director Irving Rapper, frequently appears on film noir lists, but the story seems rooted in soap-opera drama more than anything else. The plot involves a love triangle between pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and eccentric composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).

The film begins in New York with Christine arriving late to a concert. Judging by Christine’s emotional reaction to the cello playing of star musician Karel Novak, this is no ordinary concert, and that proves to be correct when after the concert Christine goes back stage to meet Novak. He’s surrounded by fans, but after they melt away he sets eyes on Christine. This is clearly a reunion, and it’s revealed that Novak and Christine were lovers during the war in Europe. Separated by circumstances, they lost contact, and it’s a miracle that they’re reunited.

Christine takes Novak home, and he imagines that she’s had it tough living on her own piecing together a living as a struggling musician. Christine’s home is at the top of huge skyscraper accessible, for the most part, by a lift. The film shows Novak and Christine exiting the lift and then there’s a dark set of stairs up to Christine’s apartment. Novak clearly imagines Christine lives in a garret (so did I), but Christine’s splendid, spacious apartment is decorated with antiques and one whole wall gives a marvellous view of the skyline of New York. Novak is obviously suspicious about where the money came from for such luxuries, and his suspicions are confirmed as he prowls around her apartment and spies fur coats in the cupboard and fine paintings on the wall.

The lovers who’ve been separated for years are at each other’s throats within minutes, but Christine manages to dissuade Novak of his suspicions with stories of taking wealthy, talentless pupils for piano lessons. Obviously Novak has no idea about rents in New York otherwise he’d sniff that the story is ridiculous, but he swallows it hook, line and sinker.

Christine and Novak plan a wedding with a reception to be held in her apartment. The champagne flows generously but the party is broken up by the arrival of grumpy, imperious composer Hollenius whose rudeness sends the guests out the door. The composer’s speeches to Christine indicate the possessiveness of a jilted lover, and once again Christine mollifies Novak’s suspicions with stories that Hollenius is an eccentric, wealthy friend and nothing more.

As the plot thickens, the ties between the three main characters tighten. Hollenius appears to befriend the newlyweds, and he indicates that he wants to take Novak under his wing and nurture his career. Christine suspects Hollenius’s motives, but there’s not much she can do without telling Novak the truth about her relationship with Hollenius.

Claude Rains as Hollenius seems to have the best role and the best lines here. He’s a petty, jealous tyrant capable of pitching the most outrageous scenes both publicly and privately. In one scene, he takes Novak and Christine out to dinner and plays the temperamental epicurean to the hilt. In another scene, Christine storms Hollenius’s bedroom ready to do battle for her man, but she’s met with sarcasm and derision:

“To be faced with a virago at this time of the morning, Christine, my constitution simply will not stand for it.”

Shots focus on interiors. Christine’s modern apartment is in contrast to the interior of Hollenius’s house which resembles, rather appropriately, the inside of a lavish medieval European palace and reflects the temperament of its owner. One marvellous shot shows the reflection, in shadow, of an ornate staircase on the wall.

Deception is not Bette Davis’s best film, but it’s well worth catching for the scenes that include Hollenius. Claude Rains seems to have great fun with this role as he moves from imperious demands to almost bitchy feigned indifference. The film’s best scene takes place between Christine and Hollenius in his palatial bedroom, and he makes some excellent points about Christine’s erratic behaviour.

Deception (a Warner Bros. studio film), was the first Bette Davis film to follow the only film she made with her own production company Stolen Life (1946). According to biographer, Barbara Leaming, Davis, whose behaviour was “even more arbitrary and destructive than usual,” on the set of Deception, announced her pregnancy during the filming. She was married to third husband William Grant Sherry at the time and the marriage was to end in divorce a few years later in 1950.

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A Life of Her Own (1950)

“Listen you small-time chiseler, I don’t want any small favours or any big favours from you. Or anything else you use to buy with. I’m not in the business you think I am, and I’m never going to be, but if I were I’d be out of your price range. If I were it would take me 10 years to get around to you.” (Lily to Lee)

 

A Life of Her Own is a classic drama starring Lana Turner as small-town Kansas girl, Lily James who seeks fulfillment through a modelling career only to find that success–without love–is a hollow triumph.

It takes Lily 6 months to save for the fare from Kansas to New York, and this is evidence of her determination to succeed at the career she longs for. She arrives in the chaotic offices of the Thomas Caraway agency and manages to attract the attention of the owner (Tom Ewell). While he agrees to take Lily on as a model, he has reservations about her potential. After many years in the business, he considers himself a good judge of character, and a kind streak appears in his treatment of has-been, boozed up model, Mary (Ann Dvorak).

It’s fate that Lily meets Mary in Callaway’s office. Lily is right on the verge of beginning her career and aging Mary, after 13 years on the modeling circuit, is washed up. Mary takes Lily under her wing, and Lily’s first, significant night in New York is spent with Mary, her date advertising executive Lee (Barry Sullivan), and Lily’s date,  lawyer Jim (Louis Calhern). Lily is a new fresh face in town, and Lee makes it clear that he’d rather be with Lily than with Mary. It’s a horrible evening with bitterly jealous Mary getting drunker by the minute. As it turns out, it’s a night that Lily never forgets, and Lee plays a small yet significant Faustian role in Lily’s life when he reappears much later.

Lily takes a harsh lesson from Mary and so begins her climb to success. Her famous, perfect face is on the cover of every magazine, but in spite of the fact she is a 50s ‘super model,’ her personal life is negligible, and her feet remain firmly on the ground. Lily continues to live at that bastion of female propriety, The Betsy Ross Hotel–a hotel which restricts male visitors to the mezzanine with a forced 10 pm departure. Always lurking in the shadows is the memory of Mary and how easy it can be to slide from fame and fortune into obscurity. Lily’s world is shaken to the core when she’s introduced to Steve Harleigh (Ray Milland), a wealthy copper mine owner. They fall in love, but Steve is a married man….

A Life of Her Own is essentially a soap drama, and beautiful Lana Turner is the best element in the film. It’s easy to imagine her single-minded devotion to her career, and it’s also equally easy to understand how she’ s side-swiped by love. Ray Milland doesn’t quite cut it as the lover–he seems tired or perhaps defeated as the man torn between love and duty. This is the classic cornelian dilemma (choix cornélian*) in which a character must choose between two courses of action with either choice resulting in a negative result on someone involved.

 As with any soap, some of the elements are corny or hyped up to add to the drama. In this film, Steve’s wife, Nora (Margaret Phillips) is angling for sainthood, and of course this just makes the affair between Lily and Steve that much more atrocious. Lily initially shows a great deal of fire and backbone when she deals with the slimy Lee, but unfortunately the script reins in Lily and instead doles out passivity and victimhood. I rather liked A Life of Her Own in spite of its flaws. I liked the film’s structure, its emphasis on character, and the way the plot followed Lily through her rise to fame while showing the hollow triumph of her success. Lana Turner does a terrific job with the role she’s handed, and I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Lee. We can practically see Lana’s skin crawl with disdain for this low-life, opportunistic character.

Wendell Corey was initially cast in the role of Steve, but in her autobiography, Lana Turner mentions that she asked that he be replaced. She’d never thought him suitable for the part anyway, but then after overhearing a remark he made, she refused to play opposite him. Corey was replaced with Milland. A Life of Her Own is from director George Cukor

* Special thanks to www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com for explaining the choix cornélian–a term derived from the plays of Pierre Corneille.

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Holiday Affair (1949)

“And I want a girl that’ll drop everything and run to me, no matter what the score is.”

Every Xmas, I tell myself that I will watch a few christmas-themed films, but I usually don’t. This year, however, I managed to catch Holiday Affair, a 1949 film starring lovely Janet Leigh and her somewhat unlikely co-star Robert Mitchum. This delightful film aired on Turner Classic Movies, with the host Robert Osborne explaining that the film was quite a departure for Mitchum. Howard Hughes (RKO pictures), apparently wanted Mitchum to clean up his act after a drug bust in 1948. The intro didn’t mention that Mitchum’s fellow bustee was Lila Leeds. As part of her ‘correction process,’ she made the film She Shoulda Said No (AKA Wild Weed)–a cheesy film, unsurprisingly, about the evils of Marijuana. Lila was finished in Hollywood but Mitchum emerged unscathed.

Holiday Affair is set in the Xmas season in New York and concerns a plucky young war widow named Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) who lives alone with her son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Connie is a ‘comparison shopper’ and works undercover buying products that are scrutinized by a competitor and then returned. While buying a toy train, Connie is served by Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) who sells her the train before she dashes home. This initial encounter should be trivial, but it isn’t, and Steve Mason seems to drink in every detail about Connie–even if she’s distracted and in a great hurry.

Connie appears to have a simple home life, but there are complicated undercurrents. She’s courted by staid, responsible lawyer, Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), but she can’t let go of the memory of her dead husband. Carl wants Connie to marry him, but Connie isn’t sure….

When Connie returns the train to the department store the following day, she runs into Steve Mason again. He spots her as an employee of ‘comparison shopper,’ and he’s fired when he doesn’t ‘out’ her to his hovering supervisor. Connie feels responsible, and soon the two are off to lunch and a friendship begins. This friendship, of course, threatens Carl but delights Timmy.

With Robert Mitchum vs. Wendell Corey, the film’s conclusion is obvious from the outset, but it’s all so delightfully done, perfectly timed and realized. Unlike some Xmas films, Timmy isn’t too angelic (one scene pushes the boundary), but he throws a few fits and tantrums along the way which help the reality factor.

Connie isn’t the great interest here. Instead it’s the two men, In each other’s company (usually on Connie’s territory) their every action and word carries a deeper meaning. Carl, who’s understandably threatened by Steve tries to stake out prior ownership, and this leaves him in an unflattering light. Sympathies for Carl erode during these scenes as we cheer for Steve the underdog, who has materially, a lot less to offer. Mitchum, naturally, steals the film. Steve Mason is an intriguing character, and for him poverty seems a choice and a definite moral value decision. It’s interesting to see how others make judgments about Steve based on his loner, non-materialistic behaviour. But by far the best (and funniest) scene in the film includes a police lieutenant (Harry Morgan) who tries to unravel the complicated relationships revealed right before him.

Anyway, if you want a decent Christmas film that you haven’t watched a million times, keep your eyes open for this one.

From director Don Hartman.

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Sidewalks of New York (2001)

“We’ll put that romantic crap to bed for once and for all.”

It’s impossible to watch Sidewalks of New York without realizing that the film is either a homage to, or derivative of, Woody Allen. But that doesn’t make Sidewalks of New York a bad film, and if you’re a Woody Allen fan, you may find yourself enjoying the film more than you thought.

sidewalks of new yorkSimilar to Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny Husbands and Wives, Sidewalks of New York also examines male-female relationships, infidelity, and marriage through a handful of characters. And as in Husbands and Wives, during Sidewalks of New York, from actor/writer/ director Edward Burns, scenes also segue to interviews in which the characters are asked key questions regrading their personal relationships and their attitudes towards sex, love and relationships.

Sidewalks of New York begins with Tommy (Edward Burns) engaged in an argument with his girlfriend. After being thrown out, he moves in temporarily with middle-aged Lothario, Uncle Carpo (Dennis Farina) and then tries to find a new apartment. He uses real estate agent Annie (Heather Graham) who’s married to cheating dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci). Griffin’s self-confessed “European attitude to marriage” has him in an affair with scrappy waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy). Ashley is doggedly pursued by doorman/future rockstar Ben (David Krumholtz). Ben was married to teacher, Maria (Rosario Dawson).

The interconnected relationships between these careening characters are explored with humour, but honestly Dennis Farina as Uncle Carpo steals the film, with Stanley Tucci coming in as a close second. The all-too brief scenes with Farina are hilarious. Carpo’s advice to the love-lorn Tommy: “Nothing heals a broken heart like a brand new piece of boodie”  is enough to screw up a man for the rest of his life, for while Carpo thinks he knows all about women, his approach to women might have worked in the 50s but it’s too out-of-style to work in the 21st century:

“I’m an animal. I’m twice as vital as any married man 1/2 my age. I’ve had sex with with over 500 women, and I’ve left them all baying at the moon.”

The weakest part of the film is Maria’s relationship (such as it is) with Tommy. She is the sketchiest drawn character of the lot. Heather Graham just doesn’t cut it as Griffin’s wife, and since she is a main character, this is unfortunate. Here as Annie, she delivers her lines to Griffin with a little smile that sometimes just seems out of place, but she seems much more at ease in her scenes with Burns.

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Husbands and Wives (1992)

“I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”

The film  Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny examination of marriage, begins with married couple Professor Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow) engaged in a low-level bicker right before their friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) arrive for the evening. The two couples plan a night out enjoying each other’s company over dinner, but before they leave for the restaurant, Sally has an “announcement.” With a sort of subdued excitement, Sally tells Gabe and Judy that she and Jack are going to separate.

Husbands and wivesSally’s announcement is delivered with the same sort of emotion you’d expect if this couple had made a decision to go on holiday in the Bahamas rather than their usual destination. While Judy is devastated by the news, which to her seems irrational and enitrely unexpected, Gabe is suprised but content to accept Jack’s statement that it’s “no big deal.” The news is so unsettling to Judy that the evening is entirely spoiled.

Sally and Jack’s announcement of a separation kick starts the rest of this very funny film. While the tightly-coiled Sally claims to look forward to being single, she becomes the date-from-hell when she discovers that Jack has had a woman on the side for some time, and that he’s now living with his bimbo aerobics instructor, Sam (Lysette Anthony).  Judy fixes up Sally with the lonely office bachelor Michael Gates (Liam Neeson), a man who’s just broken up with his long-term girlfriend. And added to the pot is Gabe’s young student, Rain (Juliette Lewis) whose short story “Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction” gets his attention.

The film follows Sally’s dating adventures, and Jack’s ‘relaxed’ new life with his aerobics instructor, while in the meantime Gabe and Judy’s marriage dives into the slow-burn of decay and disintegration. Gabe and Judy engage in night-long bickering that begins innocently enough with pointed questions tossed like javelins, and these sometimes esoteric questions devolve into accusations as the night wears on.

As the characters pursue each other in a sort of A Midsummer Night’s Dream compendium of unsuitability, shrewish, sour Sally dates the needy Michael, Jack watches inane comedies with airhead Sam, and Gabe wonders if Rain will be his next kamikaze woman.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style, the drama is intersected with interviews conducted with each of the subjects as they answer questions or render their version of events. Woody Allen’s savvy and often merciless approach to marriage captures all the subtle nuances–denial, avoidance, projection, and sex as a tool to dance around so many other issues. Judy’s ex-husband even makes a few appearances in interview slices as he recalls Judy’s passive-aggressive behaviour and while he argues that she “gets what she wants,” we see it happen through flashback encounters with Gabe and in a passionate argument with Michael.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is my favourite Woody Allen film, but Husbands and Wives comes a very close second. Marriages are impenetrable to outsiders, and each marriage has its own rules of play–often unspoken and barely understood by its participants, but in Husbands and Wives Woody Allen’s wit and intelligence effectively dissects the hellish dynamics of two very different relationships. From any other director, Husbands and Wives would be just another drama, but Woody Allen constructs two very believable marriages and then tears them apart with his usual inimitable style.

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Baby Face (1933)

 “Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame?”

The marvelous Barbara Stanwyck stars as gold-digger Lily Powers in the pre-Hayes code film, Baby Face. Lily is raised in a depressingly poor and grimy mill town. Her father runs an unofficial speakeasy and makes his own moonshine in the outdoor shed. Lily serves drinks–and a lot more–to the male customers. When Lily becomes tired of her father’s ‘arrangement’ with some of the male customers, she escapes to New York. Here she begins her long, hard climb to wealth–man by man. Along the way, she ruins careers, wrecks lives and even causes a suicide.

babyfaceLily Powers is a great character–very focused, avaricious, hard-edged and driven. Thanks to the early scenes that depict the harsh realities of her life, her ambitious and self-protective need to accumulate wealth is clearly understood. When she first arrives in New York, she identifies a building she wants to work in, and then rapidly rises to the top of the food chain using her looks and various male supervisors along the way. The film doesn’t try to hide Lily’s harpy-like materialistic tendencies, and she’s seen beginning work at literally the bottom floor of an office building. Then scenes depict Lily’s plying her tactics (this includes letting men look down her blouse). Honky tonk music plays as the camera sweeps the front of the office building and Lily moves up to another department (and figuratively improves her place in society). With each new department, she brings herself to the attention of increasingly wealthier men–until she manages to reach the top floor–leaving a trail of broken men in her destructive climb.

As Lily’s jobs become more important, so do the men she seduces. At first, the men have little to lose–she discards a very young John Wayne with little more than a broken heart, but as she crushes more powerful men, the stakes become greater. And this inevitably leads to a front-page scandal.

Stanwyck fans will love watching her unleashed in this role–at one point she acknowledges: “I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.” There’s little pretense regarding her single-minded ambitious drive, and from the beginning of the film until the last scene, this is clearly Stanwyck’s film.

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Illicit (1931)

 “Marriage is disastrous for love.”

The pre-code film Illicit stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck in one of her earliest roles. She’s cast as the freethinking, independent Anne Vincent who’s involved in a relationship with the wealthy Richard Ives (James Rennie), the son of a prominent society family. While Richard wants to get married, Anne refuses–she sees marriage as the killer of romance. But when rumours reach Richard’s father that the young couple are sneaking off for weekends in Connecticut together, he urges them to marry. Both Richard and Anne try to make opposing moral stands on the issue, but Anne eventually submits and becomes Mrs. Ives.

ilicitAnne and Richard return to their Long Island home after an extended honeymoon in Europe, but the trouble really begins when they return to New York and to their old crowd of friends. Both Anne and Richard are tempted to stray by former loves–Margie (Natalie Moorhead) and Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez). While the film contains Anne’s proto-feminist ideas, it also quite clearly contains the message that there are different standards of acceptable behaviour for Richard and that there’s a certain amount of shenanigans that Anne should just ignore.

In this role, Anne’s behaviour is rather mealy-mouthed, so this is not the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck at her best. But in a couple of scenes there are flashes of the emerging Stanwyck temperament, and her presence in this film raises it above the ordinary. Directed by Archie Mayo, Illicit was re-made and retitled as Ex-Lady just a couple of years later, and that version starred Bette Davis.

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