Archive for Barbara Stanwyck

Iverstown

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2014 by dcairns

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Do you think MOLLY LOUVAIN and MARTHA IVERS ever got together to talk about their STRANGE LOVES?

Possibly not, the one film being a Curtiz precode and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS being a classic post-war noir. But not one that seems to get discussed a whole hell of a lot — I looked through a whole shelf of noir textbooks at the Edinburgh University Library without finding more than a passing mention. Still, along with ALL QUIET and OF MICE it’s the most admired Milestone film — OCEAN’S 11 and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY are well-known, but LM gets no respect for those.

The film does get referred to as a female-centred noir, which strikes me as slightly misguided. Van Heflin is very much the lead character, and Stanwyck only starts to assert a major share of the screen time in the last half. Her snarky scene with Lizabeth Scott is a joy though.

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TSLOMI is a notably scabrous and acerbic picture, even for a noir. It’s one of Robert Rossen’s best screenplays before his directing career began (he screwed up Polonsky’s script for BODY AND SOUL) and has a fascinating sub-theme about snitching — several of the characters’ have their integrity tested by the demands of authority figures (dads, DAs) that they betray confidences. Poignant, considering that Rossen ultimately suffered considerable intimidation by HUAC — and eventually sold out.

The structure is weird, too, beginning with the three main characters as teenagers (played by kids who in no way resemble the adults, though where you might find pubescent versions of Stanwyck, Douglas and Heflin I don’t know. At any rate, Darryl Hickman can thank his stars he grew up quite differently.). It might have been nicer (and more noirish) to fold this sequence into the story via a flashback or two, but that would have accentuated the problem of kid-adult mismatch. You shrug it off. There’s a killing in the first fifteen minutes that the whole plot will turn upon — and I don’t mean the poor cat, clubbed to death by a rampant Judith Anderson.

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Now it’s the present day, and Van Heflin, with his weird putty starchild face finds himself back in the town he grew up in, and meets sexy Lizabeth Scott. She’s a thief fresh from the joint, he’s a gambler — also a war veteran, but this fact is only mentioned by the cops, who treat him with contempt.

Visually, Milestone’s direction isn’t at its showiest — there’s a murder by montage, which doesn’t quite convince (cut too slow) — modern audiences would laugh — but some nice gliding movement up and down a grand staircase and into bars. The casting of faces in smaller roles is wonderful, and a Milestone speciality — THE RACKET seems to anticipate SCARFACE with its grizzled gangster mugs, and here the array of gnarly character types creates a whole world of vice.

Good violence too — Van giving a PI a dead arm as he reaches into his jacket — something you just don’t see!

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Iverstown, inherited by Stanwyck after the opening murder, is industrial, booming, deeply corrupt. The cops we meet are sneering thugs, there are brutal private eyes, the DA knowingly sent an innocent man to the death house, and the real power is robber baroness Babs Stanwyck. Van Heflin’s innocent, chance arrival will stir things up and bring old secrets bubbling to the surface.

Ultimately, the grim view of the postwar American heartland is only background, and the film is about amour fou, exerted by Stanwyck over VH and the young Kirk Douglas (startlingly cast as a drunken milquetoast). There are enough balls in the air and enough dodgy behaviour even from the more likable characters (the gambler and the thief!) to keep us guessing where things are going to end up, even if we know that crime must not pay as long as the Breen Office reigns. Or, it CAN pay, but eventually you’ll pay it back, possibly with a slug in the guts.

Made furious by The Furies

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2012 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean weighs in on a film last heard from in Anthony Mann Week — and she makes points about an aspect of the movie I think completely neglected to mention. Because of the nature of the questions discussed, the piece is unavoidably spoiler-heavy –

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The Furies is one of three westerns made by Anthony Mann for different studios that were released in 1950. Together with Winchester 73 (his first collaboration with James Stewart) and The Devil’s Doorway, this period marks his transition from maker of B pictures to big budget features. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Niven Busch, author of Duel in the Sun, who also wrote the screenplay for Pursued, another noirish western with Freudian undertones.

Walter Huston made his last screen appearance in The Furies. He died in April 1950 at the age of 67 and did not live to see its release. It was my intention to write about Huston’s performance (and, believe me, there’s plenty of meat on that bone), but the film contains a scene that I found so shocking, it’s been bothering me ever since and left me with lots of questions.

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Here’s how the scene comes about.

Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is the daughter of TC Jeffords (Walter Huston), a New Mexico cattle baron, owner of The Furies ranch. On the land that he has acquired is a long-established Mexican community. Juan, eldest son of the Herrera family (Gilbert Roland), has been friends with Vance since childhood and is in love with her. Their scenes together are relaxed and affectionate and therefore in sharp contrast to the grand guignol on display elsewhere.

There are heavy hints of incest in the relationship between Vance and TC and when two outsiders, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a gambler with a grudge against TC whom Vance falls for, and Flo (Judith Anderson), the wealthy widow TC plans to marry, appear on the scene, the furies are truly unleashed.

Vance suffers a double defeat. Her advances to Rip end in rejection and humiliation and when she learns of TC’s impending marriage, which will jeopardise her inheritance, she attacks Flo with scissors, permanently disfiguring her. In revenge, TC carries out his plan to evict the Mexicans then, despite having promised the Herreras immunity, orders the hanging of Juan for horse stealing, the slimmest of pretexts.

Vance refuses to demean herself by begging for his life, and Juan calmly submits to his fate. This casual killing of the only honourable and sympathetic character is quite horrible, and the matter of fact way in which it’s presented only makes it worse. I watched with mounting disbelief as Juan’s mother and two brothers pray with him and then accompany him to the scaffold without a murmur of protest. He removes his hat, lowers his head, and the noose is placed around his neck.

Maybe it’s just a testament to Mann’s skill as a filmmaker, and the power of the writing, that this has so effectively got under my skin, but here’s what I want to know.

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Why do I find this so much more disturbing than scenes of execution in other westerns? I had confidently predicted an outcome whereby Vance would choose the loving, principled Juan over the devious Rip, (well, who wouldn’t go for Gilbert Roland rather than Wendell Corey?) and they would gallop away from The Furies together, but it’s not just that my romantic expectations are overturned by Juan’s death.

I am appalled by Vance’s inaction. Why won’t she plead for Juan’s life? And equally appalled by his passivity. Why doesn’t he fight back? Admittedly, he is avenged in the closing scene by his mother, who shoots TC in the back, but this is small recompense for the brutal nature of his death.

Is it an indication of racial sensibilities of the time? Did social attitudes dictate that Vance must marry Rip, as she does in the end, however morally compromised he may be? Was it not possible for a young, attractive, white woman to be seen forming a romantic attachment to a Mexican? Surely Gilbert must have played non-white characters in other films who got the girl?

Or is it, as my partner says, social realism in that when people sense resistance is futile, as occurred many times in WW2, they go to their deaths like lambs?

I have no answers myself, but all this left me wondering how did – or, indeed, do – actors feel when playing parts where their ethnicity determines the outcome. Did they feel humiliated? Or did they just shrug and bank the money?

***

Coming soon to The Chiseler: a letter by actor Clarence Muse that addresses, in a way, that very question…

Film Stocking Fillers

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2011 by dcairns

A wild west Christmas tree from LES PETROLEUSES.

I hate lists, generally — too much film writing is based on the list structure, and at this time of year, “best of” lists proliferate horribly. But if I’m honest, the reason I never participate in them is I can never remember whether I saw something in the last year or the year previous. Or the year before that.

However, the idea of a list of neglected Christmas movies did seem potentially worthwhile — if you have access to nay of the below, or they turn up on TV, they might plug an otherwise unproductive gap in your schedule as you lie replete with turkey and pudding, or might even unite homicidal family members in yuletide bliss for ninety minutes. Anyhow, they’re all films I like, and many of them can be explored further on this site or elsewhere — links will be provided.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT — the first Christmas edition of The Forgotten focussed on this lovely genre-twisting 1939 charmer from screenwriter Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen. What begins as a contrived screwball comedy, with assistant DA Fred MacMurray saddled with jewel thief Barbara Stanwyck over the holidays, dips a toe into rustic tragedy, settles into bucolic sentiment, then takes a side-swerve into near-tragedy. While Sturges typically pulled tonal shifts out of a seemingly bottomless hat and shuffled them like playing cards, here the film sticks to each emotion long enough to settle, which makes the mood swings all the more surprising, but also effective. And it captures some of the authentic family experience — good and bad.

L’ASSASSINAT DU PERE NOEL — not as iconoclastic as it sounds. Christian-Jacque directs this snow-bound murder mystery, with Harry Baur as a definitive Santa. The opening titles, where he lumbers, Frankenstein-like, out of darkness, sets a disquieting tone otherwise eschewed in favour of the peculiar cosiness a good whodunnit so often generates. An air of magic fringes on Cocteau territory, the feelgood fuzziness of the ending is accompanied by the funniest wrap-up to a mystery I ever saw.

LYDIA — Julien Duvivier’s not-exactly-remake of his own CARNET DU BAL doesn’t come on strong as a Xmas flick, but there’s enough studio-bound sleigh-ride romance to make it qualify. You may NEED to shed those tears, this time of year — otherwise you’ll be lugging them around in your ducts like ballast for another twelve months. No movie with Merle Oberon and three suitors sitting around with great wads of latex all over their heads should have any claim on our emotions, but this one does.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG — I like it when the Christmas spirit ambushes you, leaping from behind an Esso station and slugging you across the skull with a sack of presents when you’re least expecting it. And said spirit includes a fair share of melancholy, right? Of course, not every film with snow at the end is a Xmas film — I wouldn’t make that claim for FAHRENHEIT 451, although come to think of it, that red fire engine is kind of festive.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE — the concentration is on New Year’s, an even more tragic and melancholy time than Xmas, but this still counts. The Sjostrom version is a true classic, but the Duvivier remake deserves more love too — it has Louis Jouvet, and amazing constructed snowscapes, and the same morbid, redemptive storyline: it’s a little like Scrooge, only he has to die.

Stuff I saw on TV as a kid which I haven’t revisited recently enough — Chuck Jones’ A Cricket in Times Square and its sequels, the Harry Alan Towers production of CALL OF THE WILD (with an epic, emotive Mario Nascimbene score), and the Richard Williams animation of A Christmas Carol.

Your own suggestions, please!

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