Spent Bullets

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Shadowplayer and filmmaker Paul Duane sent me a copy of a movie he likes, as an exchange for my sending him LA FIN DU JOUR (touching how many people have felt moved to offer a swap). This meant I was inclined to be guilt-tripped into WATCHING the damn thing, but I was glad I was.

I have a pretty pleasant history with director William Dieterle, who Edgar Ulmer nicknamed “the Iron Stove” since he was a large man who often played knights in armour when he was an actor back in the old country. “He was a big guy, not talented,” recalled Ulmer.

I beg to differ.

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THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME made a huge impression on me as a kid. Now, Charles Laughton is insuperably the greatest Quasimodo the screen has ever held, and Dieterlealso had the help of massive sets, crowd scenes, Maureen O’Hara and the R.K.O. effects wizards. But the way Dieterle puts together striking, expressive angles, with the aid of cinematographer William H. August (a Dieterle favourite) and editors William Hamilton and Robert Wise, still amazes me. The film is monumental, but moves.

What most wowed me as a kid was the ending: had I been exposed to an unhappy ending before? Perhaps not. Had I ever been exposed to an unhappy ending that made me feel strangely elated? The closest thing would probably have been KING KONG, but the monster dying at the end of a monster movie is not what is typically considered a tragedy, although Willis H. O’Brien’sanimation and Max Steiner’s score certainly play it that way.

I’ve just checked, for the first time, and the script of Dieterle’s HUNCHBACK is by Sonya Levien, a prolific high-profile Hollywood writer, and Bruno Frank, who had mostly German credits — the ending is their’s, not Victor Hugo’s. That ending definitely opened my eyes to the pleasures of the downbeat. Today’s kids, raised on the Disney version, which has many visual and musical splendours, have been cruelly robbed of the chance to experience pleasurable melancholy.

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The second Dieterle to blow me out of my socks was THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, which came highly recommended by Leslie Halliwell, author of a Film Guide and a Filmgoer’s Companion, which were the standard pre-IMDb reference works available to me as a movie-loving kid. Now, Halliwell is wrong about practically everything made after 1950; he has pretty, if middlebrow, good taste up to then, although his critical analysis of even the things he likes is pretty lousy; but I have to tip my hat to his grave and say that he did point me in the direction of a lot of good films. This 1941 Americanisation of the Faust story (Dieterle acts in Murnau’s film of FAUST) beneifts from most of the crew on CITIZEN KANE being around and primed to do their best, and boasts really remarkable, extreme performances by Walter Huston as the Mephisto figure, Mr. Scratch, and Simone Simon as Belle, a stupendously erotic minion of the devil. Bernard Herrmann contributes one of his finest scores, and if the ending lays on the Americanism a bit thick, it’s pleasurably ironic given all the talk about collectivism in the film: even the opening credits are simply a list of the “persons who collaborated in making this picture”, actors and crew co-mingled without distinction or job title — that’s tantamount to communism!

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Wee Kenneth Anger.

I wish I’d seen PORTRAIT OF JENNIE as a kid too, since that would have wowed me even more than it does now. The other major one I did see was A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Comrade K, film writer and costumed crimefighter (they call him “the Comma”) says that Dieterle hits a shade of purple few can match, and I guess that’s true in his star-studded Warner Bros Shakespeare, co-directed with his old theatre mentor (everybody’s old theatre mentor) Max Reinhardt. As a kid I didn’t see it as campy or overdone, though, I just thought it was beautiful.

Most of the Dieterle films I’ve tracked down since have swung towards the fruity, with KISMET and ELEPHANT WALK standing out. There are some nifty Warner Bros jobs from the ’30s, like FOG OVER FRISCO (Comrade K admits that Dieterle could be nimble if he had Harry Warner cracking the whip at his heels) and then there are the dreadful Warners biopics that I don’t feel any urge to revisit soon. As Hal B. Wallis said, “Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks down a microscope, this company loses two million dollars.”

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THE LAST FLIGHT was the film Paul sent me. A film so smart and sensitive it could almost make the term “pre-code” synonymous with good taste and maturity. Adapted by John Monk Saunders from his own novel (that NEVER happened in Hollywood, did it?) it takes a meandering approach to narrative while exploring the lives of some beautiful freaks, four forgotten men and one half-remembered woman. Here they are:

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Richard Barthelmess, top left, who chased Lillian Gish over the ice floe and would later take to the air in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, is Cary Lockwood, a WWI pilot with burned hands and a devil-may-care attitude to life. He’s on a perpetual bender with his friends, waiting until he feels alive again. “Spent bullets,” a doctor calls these guys: “out to face life, when all their training has prepared them for is death.” Barthelmess, with his unlikely, fluting voice and earnest manner — he’s so earnest he hunches forward as he speaks — is a wonderfully strange presence: he made perfect sense in silent cinema, since he’s kind of beautiful, but then in talkies he’s always weird. Absolutely marvellously so in the later Hawks film, where you just can’t take your eyes off him, wondering what he’s going to DO; and absolutely marvellously so here too, but in a different way. This is a film where everything is slightly off, like the characters, and Barthelmess embodies that. “His nerves are tricky.”

David Manners, bottom left, who got a fright when Boris Karloff went for a little walk in THE MUMMY, is Shep Lambert. Shep has a twitch in his eye after falling 4,000 metres when shot down. Drinking seems to ease the tic, so he drinks all the time. Manners is an even stranger actor than Barthelmess, completely sincere and real and yet completely unnatural and wrong at the same time. I’ve never seen him this effective. In DRACULA he’s a bit of a stick.

Johnny Mack Brown, top right, who had a long career without impinging on my consciousness up to now, is Bill Talbot, an Alabaman cowboy who wrestles a horse in the street to prove how American he is. The most enthusiastic of the dissolute gang, he has a good nature and a tendency to act on impulse which means you may have to keep an eye on him at bullfights. If, as seems to be the case, all four men are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, then his illness manifests itself in the form of recklessness.

Elliott Nugent, bottom right, is Francis, who’s even more serious than Cary and Shep — he even has fun with a serious look.  A crack shot who downed a dozen enemy planes, until his best pal got killed: then he “lost interest”. He only comes to life with a gun in his hands.

Helen Chandler, centre, who had a busy 1931 what with Bela Lugosi, is Nikki, a shortsighted heiress with a yen for tragic servicemen, adopted as a kind of mascot by the gang. “I reckon she’s the kind of girl who sits down on phonograph records,” says Bill, and he’s right. Nikki also has turtles decorated with diamante, named Abelard and Eloise. Chandler seizes on Nikki’s pixillated eccentricity, playing her like a bobblehead doll with intense yet glassy eyes. More extreme in her alien weirdness than any of the actresses who make a living today playing “quirky”, Chandler manages to be affecting even while affected — which is kind of true of everyone in this movie.

Walter Byron, bottom right, who looks more like a leading man than the rest of them but never was, is Frink, lecherous journalist and hanger-on, who has no reason to be with these guys except to further the plot with his sleaziness. But 1930s movies seem able to accommodate unmotivated or implausible stuff and get away with it.

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I think what makes THE LAST FLIGHT such an odd and memorable experience is that it’s very overt and yet totally elliptical at the same time. The talk veers between the bluntly expository and the surreally goofy: “I can walk faster in red shoes.” … “He’s gone to shave a horse.” … “I’ll take vanilla.” Although various dialogues set up the psychological disaffection of this lost generation, most of the time the action is played light and carefree, as exemplified by Cary’s line whenever trying to get anyone to take a drink: “It’ll make you laugh ‘n’ play.”

John Monk Saunders scripted, from his own novel — an unheard-of thing In Hollywood, then and now. I may have to try his books. They’re all about flying, and cracking up, and he also scripted WINGS and THE DAWN PATROL, and wrote and directed THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR before killing himself in 1940.

I briefly toyed with playing a drinking game to the movie, matching the protags martini for martini, but you can’t keep up with those ’30s montages, damnit. This is the age when drunks were not alcoholics (it has a grim sound) but souses or maybe dipsomaniacs (happy and gay words!). The journey towards tragedy, with a side-trip to Lisbon, is a surprisingly cheerful one: getting there is all the fun.

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Shep takes a bullet.

Frink takes several.

Bill takes a bull by the horns.

Francis fades into the night.

Cary and Nikki take the train…

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36 Responses to “Spent Bullets”

  1. I was very much looking forward to your take on this, one of my very favourite completely forgotten masterpieces – and this piece is superb, you’ve really caught what it is that sticks in my mind about The Last Flight.
    It has a fascinatingly ‘modern’ take on trauma and dysfunction, the characters all know they’re damaged but don’t allow it to become a big deal. In fact, it’s almost a dealbreaker for Nikki’s entry to the gang when she shows sympathy for Cary’s burned hands (I wonder, in fact, if Barthelmess’s role in Only Angels Have Wings was a backwards nod to this tremendously Hawksian – if we assume the Hawksian profession in this to be alcoholism – story?).
    Every time I watch it I try to figure the Heloise/Abelard angle. Is Cary obliquely referring to another, hidden, wound? It would make sense to think so but the film plays resolutely against this angle.
    I agree that in some ways John Monk Saunders is the hidden auteur of this story, and had forgotten about his suicide – it’s all of a piece with the broken-hearted bravado on display here.
    Finally – it was a very good exchange for La Fin du Jour, they’re both films that will stay with me for good! Thanks again for that.

  2. Well bear in mind that Ulmer had very high standards. He worked with Reinhardt and Murnau and next to them, Dieterle is kind of pale. Ulmer is way better than Dieterle.

    Still Dieterle was very talented. Just not a great director.

  3. The best movie to play the drinking game with is Providence. Get a couple of bottles of Chablis and match Gielgud glass for glass.

    There was a tremendous amount of freestyle drinking in 30’s movies. One thinks of Whale’s Remember Last Night ? and Lew Ayres in Cukor’s Holiday.

    Forgot about Hunchback, which is indeed splendid. But that’s because Laughton is the auteur. In Milk Penn and Franco have a playful food fight climaxing with Penn retreating to his bed and yelling out “Sanctuary!”

    Dieterle’s direction of Jennifer Jones in Love Letters ( a wild piece of treacle by Alicia Rosenbaum) is quite entertaining.

    As for Ulmer I suspect he may have disliked Dieterle personally, and felt he got the breaks in Hollywood that were rightfully his.

  4. Yes, some professional rivalry between Ulmer and Dieterle is possible.

    Dieterle at his worst is certainly supremely turgid. Ulmer at his worst can cause amazement that the films were even released — but Ulmer was working under tough constraints while Dieterle had the might of the studios behind him. But that kind of might can lead to just the kind of stolid torpor Dieterle could be guilty of.

    But why judge them at their worst? Ulmer’s great gift is his eccentricity, which finds free expression in the cheap films. Dieterle doesn’t have the wackiness, but there’s tremendous POWER in his work. I don’t know whether I’d classify him as great, or how useful/precise such a classification can be, but he’s definitely underrated in his current ranking.

    Surprised no one has mentioned his Sex in Chains.

    As to drink, what’s great about The Last Flight is that excess is shown as tremendous fun, liberating and life-affirming — and also destructive, tragic, potentially fatal. Most films pick one side or the other.

  5. I have been on a one-man crusade to make “Drink up – it’ll make you laugh’n’play” into a worldwide catchphrase for some fifteen years now, but so far no dice. I refuse, however, to give up until The Last Flight is on every list of Great Drinking Films right alongside The Thin Man, the complete works of Aki Kaurasmaki, and Withnail & I.

  6. Remember Last Night? should certainly be on such a list too. A murder mystery where no one can remember the murder.

    I keep meaning to watch that Gerard Philipe movie where his character is paralytic for the entire running time.

  7. Actually I was just about to mention Sex in Chains — a genuinely honest prison picture in which Dieterle acts as well as directs.

  8. I was thinking about Huston’s Scratch while I watched Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Murnau’s Faust the other day. In both films the Devil’s portrayed as a being more impish than sinister, although in the latter Jannings does have his moments. My second time watching Faust, and I enjoyed it more this time than the first, only because my initial expectations were so high, and I was expecting something slightly different. Interesting that both drinking and smoking were so pervasive in films back then, yet drinking persists, and of course smoking is now so seldom seen. What kills me about the drinking in films back then is how often it was applied for medicinal purposes, “Here, drink this, you’ll feel better”. And when I say medicinal, we’re talking both body and spirit, if you’re wounded, drink this, if you’re down, have a drink. The Universal Cure-All.

  9. I guess they really didn’t understand about alcohol being a depressant.

    The Last Flight is smart also in this way: the army doctor tells two of the men that their best course is to return to the States at once, and that “normal living” is the best treatment. And he’s right, from his perspective. But they’ve already decided to “Get tight,” and “Stay tight.”

  10. just stumbled across this site!

    I’ll be sure to return often–I think Dieterle IS a legitimately great director–up there with Borzage as a romanticist (a mode auteur types–who often seem as concerned about maintaining a “hard” reputation as early ’90s West Coast rappers were)

    his early early Warners things are fantastic (with Last Flight soaring above the pack, certainly)

    and then he takes off again near the end of the Warners period–JUAREZ is the Dieterle biopic for haters of the genre–it absolutely blows up the entire formula–presenting a tale that could have been very straightforward in such a schizophrenic fashion that it positively short-circuits any of the “hip hip hooray for progress” type stuff that most films of this type encourage… which is only right–because revolutions–although necessary (maybe all of the time) sometimes– are NO FUN, and people get hurt in them…

    then you have Hunchback and Devil and Daniel Webster, followed by a fabulous run of mid- and late-1940s melodramas/”soft-boiled noirs” for Selznick and the special Hal Wallis unit at Paramount, all of them surreal, to varying degrees (with Portrait of Jennie and Love Letters leading the way) … but movies like “The Accused,” “Rope of Sand,” “Paid in Full,” and “Dark City” all made a huge impact on my psyche when I first saw them–all united by a feverish interiority that is Dieterle’s stock in trade

    Dave Fiore

  11. Well said. Hope you’ll stick around.

    I have some of those later softboiled noirs, but I haven’t looked at any of them yet. I’ve only seen bits of Juarez, usually held up as a disaster — you make me very interested to check it out.

  12. Iain Gately, “The author of several books, including ‘Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol’ and ‘Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization'”, has an essay in today’s New York Times which launches his blog Proof, all about the joys and perils of said beverage. Here is the final paragraph of his essay:

    For hooch has the power to inspire, to console, to make celebrations brighter and hard times more bearable. In the words of the Roman poet Horace, drink “unlocks secrets, bids hopes be fulfilled, thrusts the coward onto the battlefield, takes the load from anxious hearts. The flowing bowl- whom has it not made eloquent? Whom has it not made free even amidst pinching poverty?”

    http://proof.blogs.nytimes.com/, for the full essay…

  13. oh I’ll definitely be around!

    and I’d love to see what you think of Juarez–I’ve always believed felt that the critical savaging of JUAREZ indicates the success of the film’s deconstructive venture–but then, I’ve always been (possibly too) quick to embrace narratives that break themselves to pieces!

    one final note on the actors in LAST FLIGHT–I actually love both Manners and, especially, Chandler!

    I may be the only one who loves them in DRACULA, but that strange hypnotized seduction/attempted murder scene on the balcony gets me every time (at one point, Manners chases a supremely fake plastic thing around, muttering, “MYYY, that’s a BIG bat!”

    but Manners is especially awesome in Capra’s THE MIRACLE WOMAN–the only movie in which he received an even better chance to actually DO something than he got in LAST FLIGHT…

    and Chandler is, as you point out, one of the few true beautiful eccentrics of the Studio Age–she’s fantastic in the Dieterle,and delivers one of my all-time favourite performances in Jacques Feyder’s “Daybreak” (1931)… unfortunately, she was very close to being completely insane even in these years, and went completely off the rails very soon thereafter… her story (the little of it that I’ve been able to piece together, at any rate) is one of the saddest I know of…

    Dave

  14. Guy — what a beautiful tribute to the FLOWING BOWL. And why isn’t there a film of that title?

    Dave — I obviously need to resee Dracula since nearly all my memories are from the first half hour. Manner sis grand in The Mummy. Gore Vidal worked with him in TV years later and asked him to repeat his laugh from that scene. “I have quite forgotten it.” said Manners. But Vidal hadn’t, and reenacted it for him.

    My God, that bio-synopsis for Helen Chandler on the IMDb is depressing, I expected it to end “…and her spirit still wanders the earth.”

  15. but have you seen SIX HOURS TO LIVE? If you haven’t, seek it out. It’s so beautifully eerie.

  16. Oke! Will keep my eyes out for it.

  17. Actually, Six Hours To Live does sound interesting. A commenter on IMDB says it’s an “eerie, slow film”, and cites “Dieterle’s misty, creepy visuals”. Like Dracula, it has no music soundtrack. And someone else’s review of the film calls it a “science fiction drama with mystical overtones”. A man has six hours to find his killers before he dies. Shades of DOA…

  18. Yes, only here he’s been brought back from the dead to seek justice. Sounds great — but I can’t get it anywhere at present.

  19. A site called ioffer.com has it for sale, two or three different sellers…

  20. Thanks — I’m going to have to wait until I have money or can get it for free though…

  21. My brilliant economy drive (cut down on eating — only eat during waking hours) will soon have me back on an even keel.

  22. “Feverish intensity” is such a great phrase for Dieterle, who would definitely rank on any list I did of underrated directors. I saw The Last Flight through the kind offices of Goatdog a while back and was duly impressed. Superb writeup and overview, as always. How you manage to write so much and at such a high level is amazing to me, but please keep it up as I’m addicted to this site.

  23. Dan Oliver Says:

    The reason David Manners couldn’t remember the laugh from The Mummy was because it wasn’t his laugh. Manners had the bland hero role again, appropriate since The Mummy is essentially a remake of Dracula, so David Manners plays what amounts to the same part in each film. The actor you’re thinking of, the one who sees the mummy right after it is revived, is Bramwell Fletcher. I mention this only in the interest of accuracy; I think your write-up of The Last Flight is excellent.

  24. I just wish we could’ve heard Gore Vidal’s approximation, wouldn’t that have made a great YouTube clip?

  25. Thanks Campaspe! I’m in awe of your blog, and don’t know how you manage it while raising kids. I can only do what I do through having a pretty simple existence!

    I believe Dan is quite correct re Bramwell Fletcher, and I’m probably misquoting Vidal’s Palimpsest, since that’s not a mistake Gore would allow himself to make.

  26. Hi there–just got pointed here from Self-Styled Siren. I raced here as soon as I saw that your post was on “The Last Flight,” a film I discovered about a year ago and have been cherishing as a prize ever since. I think you captured its oddness and its charms beautifully. Barthelmess’ inflection of “It’ll make you laugh and play!” is as tragic as anything I’ve ever heard. It gives me chills by the end of the film.

    I think I’ll go home and watch it again tonight.

    I actually really love Dieterle. Loved “Sex in Chains,” loved “The Last Flight,” loved “Jewel Robbery,” loved “Man Wanted”….his films are all very atmospheric. I’m not clever enough about the roles of the various crew, so perhaps I’m responding to his cinematographer or his screenwriter or his production designer…but all I know is that they all feel incredibly evocative.

    About David Manners: he’s a strange actor, isn’t he? So very, very good-looking, but often too stiff to have made it to the upper ranks. That just-off performance, though, works perfectly in “The Last Flight.”

    Just a great, great film. Thanks for this tribute to it.

  27. Many thanks to the Siren for pointing so many readers in my direction, and thanks for your appreciation. I think part of what makes Manners work here is the strange dialogue, which can’t be delivered in a naturalistic way. Everybody has their own way of dealing with it, with Johnny Mack Brown’s most informal approach sometimes seeming like the most bizarre, and Manners’s more, well… mannered delivery often seeming like the most naturalistic.

  28. Miguel Marías Says:

    Glad you wrote about the wonderful but ignored “The Last Flight”. But Dieterle should not be dismissed. “Portrait of Jennie” is magnificent, and “Jewel Robbery”, “Love Letters”, “The Searching Wind”, ·Rope of Sand”, “Paid in Full”, “Dark City”, “Red Mountain” and several others are well worth seeing.
    Miguel Marías

  29. I’ve seen several of those, and enjoyed them. Have a couple more ready to run sometime. A full-on Dieterle appreciation — such as a BOOK — would be very nice.

  30. Miguel Marías Says:

    Several years ago, at the Spanish Film Archive, there was a large Dieterle tribute with most of his extant films. However, eithar that did not prompt anyone to write a book, or he did not find a publisher. I recall Hervé Dumont (Swiss author of outstanding books on Siodmak and Borzage) was at the time still writing a book on “The Plutarch of Hollywood”, but I don’t know whether he finally completed it. Of those films not famous or deeply forgotten after some success, I still feel quite rewarding (not to be missed on TV) “Scarlet Dawn”, “Fashions”, “Fog Over Frisco”, “Dr. Socrates”, “Syncopation”, “Kismet”, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, “September Affair”, “Boots Malone”, “The Turning Point” and even “Omar Khayyam”.
    Miguel Marías

  31. I have Fashions, Fog, Doc Soc and Kismet. Very keen to get ahold of the rest! A Dieterle season sometime in the new year, here on Shadowplay, seems like a good scheme.

    Now if I could just find a picture of him with his shirt off…

  32. [...] movie was my second encounter with the writer John Monk Saunders, whose script for THE LAST FLIGHT impressed me so much. No, I tell alie, my third encounter, since I’m a big fan of WINGS. [...]

  33. [...] Kehr’s site, while filmmaker and blogger David Cairns posted an enthusiastic review at his Shadowplay journal. Along with a hearty endorsement from a friend who’s a Richard Barthelmess buff, I had high [...]

  34. The DVD Savant has a nice review up of The Last Flight DVD from the Warner Archive.

    http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s3197last.html

    I’m planning to screencap The Last Flight… someday. I adore this film.

  35. Glenn’s review at Savant is typically eloquent and thoughtful. What a strange and lovely film it is.

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