The Monkeybitch Enigma

As the early Joe Mankiewicz noir SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT unfolded, I started praying it would keep up its high standards to the end, but I wasn’t all that optimistic because (a) part of the film’s charm was a sense that it didn’t know where it was going and (b) it doesn’t have much of a reputation, often a sign that a film has fallen at the final hurdle — the climax of a movie often determines disproportionately how people will feel about the film as a whole.

In fact, much of the film’s third act comes together nicely, and there’s ample evidence that the sense of random aimlessness that enlivens the early-middle sections is actually a cunning ploy disguising a tightly-plotted plan. But the climax is over too soon, handed to a supporting character, robbing the hero of the chance to distinguish himself. Since he’s played by the odd-looking John Hodiak, distinctly second-rank, he needs all the opportunities the screenplay can give him. He has the face of a monkeybitch.

Actually, Hodiak’s lack of charisma helps the film in some ways — he’s effective as a lost and confused nobody, struggling to make sense of the world. (This is an AMNESIA MOVIE. Yay!) A big-shot movie-star might well have seemed more likely to come out on top. The greater error is casting Richard Conte as the leading lady’s friend. She keeps talking about what a nice guy he is. We think, “Uh huh, rrrright…” and as it turns out our skepticism is justified.

But knowing all that, one can derive a lot of pleasure from this film. Hodiak plays a G.I. with a misplaced memory, thrust into what you might call your basic shadowy realm of subterfuge as he tries to uncover the secrets of his past. This galloping cliché of a plot gets a shot in the arm from some strong visuals early on — Mankiewicz plays with subjective camera and seems in a more experimental mood than usual — and from the writer’s intelligence, constantly seeking to bolster characterisation and liven up dialogue. One of his notions is to suggest that the characters know what kind of movie they’re in, and feel themselves slightly above it. There is musing on why movie detectives always keep their hats on. The action stops for a Chinese meal. The bad guys are charming and urbane, or cheap but sassy.

And then there’s THIS lovely fellow/shot:

Fritz Kortner’s master-criminal character actually suggests sitting in this spot because the lighting will be suitably mysterious. And he has the face of a monkeybitch.

For much of its running time this is a throughly superior caper — one major plot twist is thoroughly pleasing, and surely original (I guess it’s been copied a few times since), and the sense that everybody’s just making it up as they go along is probably more to do with the unusual fluctuations of tone than the lack of an overall scheme (although one major bad guy remains uncaptured at the end — “We’ll pick him up,” suggests the detective, but will they? WILL THEY?). Amid the banter and suspense scenes, there’s one heart-breaking scene where the wandering hero finally finds somebody who recognises him — only to learn she’s a lonely neurotic, fantasising a connection with him in order to stave off the emptiness of her existence. Nicely done.

*

Louis B. Mayer’s nickname for Joseph Mankiewicz was Joe Monkeybitch.

*

Mankiewicz always said that if he was remembered at all it would be as “the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dialogue” in THREE COMRADES. Fortunately, he was wrong. But he’s remembered as “the dialogue guy” who did ALL ABOUT EVE, and there’s a bit more to him than that.

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12 Responses to “The Monkeybitch Enigma”

  1. Hodiak’s anti-charisma is in full flower in The Harvey Girls and Desert Fury.

  2. Chris B Says:

    >Louis B. Mayer’s nickname for Joseph Mankiewicz was Joe Monkeybitch.

    Oh! Haha, you said it once and it stuck with me to the point where I refer to him as MonkeyBitch by default; when asked what I’m jabbering on about, I used to say “Scottish friend coined the term.”

    Anyway, onto LA TRUITE…

  3. Let me know how you get on with that, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m currently perusing a different aquatic lifeform: THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

  4. Chris B Says:

    Quite an underrated film it seems, with two of my favourite actresses (Moreau and Huppert) towing predatory males into a state of frustration that inevitably escalates into self-destruction and murder. In a way it’s like Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW in that each character fails to adhere to the signs of their undoing, as Huppert gives a little but consumes their soul in order to prosper (par example: she’s wearing a T-shirt which reads “peut-être” on the front and “jamais”on the reverse during an early sequence in which her and her homosexual husband hustle at bowling).

    Would’ve liked to have seen a better copy, though.

    Great quote, btw: “Nowadays heterosexuality and homosexuality mean nothing. You’re either sexual or you’re not.”

  5. Chris B Says:

    *NB: It’s Huppert that induces men into mental paralysis, not Moreau, as I may have implied above.

  6. Great line, and the whole thing sounds pretty enticing. We must do another disc trade sometime! I now have a disc of Antonioni’s Story of a Love Affair (prefer the Italian title’s sound, but don’t trust myself to spell it).

  7. Chris B Says:

    Yeah, it retains the power play of THE SERVANT and, quite amusingly, the man Huppert’s husband is seeing, reminded me (dress sense) of the protagonist from TROTSKY (I’m sure there are numerous similarities you could pick out across his body of work).

    I also have the excellent MOONLIGHTING by Skolimowski. Have a list of films here that you’ve asked for and I shall get on it soon. I’d like to have said “is there room for one more in June” but I have an overdraft to pay and as an unemployed, anti-work member of society, I think it’ll be a slow process. A shame as LE FOU FOLLET is a deeply personal film and I’d love to have seen it in 35mm, alas.

    Have the 2-disc edition of CRONICA DI UN AMORE here (some foreign titles I seem to remember quite easily)… recently purchased the restored edition of Criterion’s THE WAGES OF FEAR, only for the bastards to embrace Blu Ray with an upcoming 1080p transfer *drool*.

  8. Chris B Says:

    *apologies for the amount of “have’s” used in those three paragraphs, waking up at 6am every morning is not good for my concentration.

  9. Why are you waking up at 6am?
    You’re welcome here if you can make it in June.
    I have a VHS of Moonlighting but an upgrade would be welcome.
    I’m not sure which of the Moreaus are being screened in 35mm — La Feu Folet COULD turn out to be a DVD projection, as is increasingly common, alas.
    David E’s right about Trotsky, it IS a great final line — I just finished watching it.

  10. Mention of “La Truite” brings to mind a fine scene, in that film, involving a drink thrown in someone’s face — a scene which I won’t give away for fear of spoiling it for those who’ve yet to see the film.

    What it ALSO brings to mind, though, was the reaction of Husband #1 when he and I saw the film. What he found particularly troubling was the scene where Huppert meets Jeanne Moreau — in a BOWLING ALLEY.

    H#1 loved Moreau, and he was familiar with her from films like “Jules et Jim” or “La Notte” But the notion of this Axiom of Cinema, Moreau the Glamorous and Enigmatic, being visible in a bowling alley … it was too, too much for him

  11. It should be pointed out that Roger Vaillard wrote the novel with Brigitte Bardot in mind for the title role. Huppert is as far afield from Bardot as you can possibly imagine, yet the film works.

  12. That’s one of the beauties of casting, and something I’m forever beating my poor producer over the head with: actors who are totally different in every way can both work in a given role, and it has nothing to do with appearance. And sometimes even radically different performance styles, while they of course change the result, can both work. The only thing that won’t work is casting “the obvious choice” because that will be dull.

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