Psychobabble vs. Psycho Rabble

The paralyzed pinkies of Chester Morris clutch at psychoanalytic salvation!

A 1939 proto-noir from Charles (GILDA) Vidor. A home invasion melodrama in the tradition of THE DESPERATE HOURS, but it’s also an early psychoanalysis movie, with a spectacular line in dollarbook Freud and a couple dream/flashbacks that must’ve been hugely influential.

Ralph Bellamy: he looks like that guy in the movies, what’s his name? And Chester Morris, he looks like near-sighted football.

Shrink Ralph Bellamy is entertaining a few guests for the weekend, when his house is taken over by escaped jailbird Chester Morris and his gang (including perennial stooge Marc Lawrence and moll Ann Dvorak). They’re all awaiting the arrival of a getaway boat to take them across the lake (one supposes to Canada), which never comes, for reasons never actually explained.

But never mind the boat, what excites and startles is the dollarbook Freud, laid on thick and stupid with a trowel by pipe-puffing Ralph. See, Chester is a neurotic case, with hysterically paralysed fingers on his left hand (just the pinkie works) and a tormenting dream that recurs every night. After one of his pals is gunned down, Ralph decides to turn the power of analysis against his foe: “I’m going to take apart his mind and show him the pieces,” figuring to cure the guy and thus rob him of his psychopathic power of murderousness.

And it works! Forced to confront his suppressed childhood trauma, Chester regains digital dexterity, but his trigger finger now lacks its previous itchiness, resulting in his becoming a sitting duck when the cops show up. Not sure how this squares with the Hippocratic oath.

But never mind the malpractice, check out Vidor’s expressionist elan — first, the dream, in which Chet gets wet, pursued by rainstorms and forced to shelter ‘neath a leaky umbrella which sprouts imprisoning bars. And all in negative!

Then, the flashback which shows the dream’s true meaning — after turning stoolie and leading the cops to arrest his louse of a dad, young Chester ducks under a bar table. Dad, riddled with bullets, collapses over it, and leaks blood onto his cowering son through a crack in the tabletop, as the cops surround the table, their legs forming a circle of “bars”.

It’s all a goofy melodrama, with distinctly B-list stars (I like Ralph, though, and Chester is appealingly limited, one of those familiar faces which accumulates a certain audience affection just by dangling in front of the camera on so many occasions), but entertaining as heck. Ralph’s explanation of the subconscious should replace Freud’s — he sketches an outline of a head, and divides it into two levels, strongly implying that this is the actual physical structure of the brain. Further, he introduces the idea of the “censor band”, a previously unknown concept, which seems to work like a kind of gastric band for the mind, constricting the circulation of naughty thoughts and thus preventing the contamination of the spotless conscious mind with all those dirty unconscious feelings.

It’s a really lovely idea, this “censor band”, a term with no foundation in analysis that I’m aware of: Hollywood attempts to map the human mind, using as its model… Hollywood!

Film noir is a great American tradition, a triumph of western civilisation, a small high in the history of artistic achievement. I can’t expect each of you to run out and find the lost ending of DOUBLE INDEMNITY or the lost beginning of SUNSET BLVD, but you can do your bit for film history by clicking here and donating to help preserve Cy Endfield’s THE SOUND OF FURY ~

On behalf of the Film Preservation Blogathon, operating out of here and here.

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18 Responses to “Psychobabble vs. Psycho Rabble”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Columbia remade it in 48 as THE DARK PAST (dir. Rudolph Mate). Better acting from Holden, Cobb, Foch–but the film is virtually identical in terms of plot and characterization. And the “breakthrough” is the same after the same oneiric trauma. It’s all over in an hour and a quarter.

    To my eyes, Michael Pitt (star of BOARDWALK EMPIRE) is starting to look like Ralph Bellamy did in the 1930s.

  2. […] at Shadowplay, David Cairns gives us a proto-noir from Charles (Gilda) Vidor, Blind Alley (1939). Looking at the luscious screencaps, I’m inclined to agree. Tuesday, February […]

  3. I can’t see Ralph Bellamy in Hedwig and the Angry Inch or that Bertolucci movie about May ’68.

    Chester Morris is at his best in The Bat Whispers

  4. Yes, Morris had something in the early talkies, and he pulled it back and became a bit less effective. His last speech, “The bat always flies at night, and always… in a straight line!” is terrific.

    Never seen The Dark Past and didn’t realize it was a remake, but it makes sense — Blind Alley has so much noir in it, how could they resist?

  5. Those screen grabs are amazing. Had I known this film had this kind if camerawork I would have seen it long ago. I’m reminded of the dream sequence in STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR released a year later in 1940.

  6. The comparison is valid. I wish more of BA was in that mode, but what there is, is thrilling. I’m interested in what the dreamstuff is like in Dark Passage — can anyone enlighten me?

  7. I have it on VHS from years ago, and it’s been a while since I’ve last watched it. I honestly don’t recall a dream sequence. But that’s not to say that it’s not there.

  8. Christopher Says:

    if you’re talking about the Bogie-Bacall Dark Passage,theres a bit of a dream sequence when Bogart is anesthetized while under the knife for plastic surgery by a creepy sidewalk doctor who tells him before putting him under with the slip of a hand he could end up making bogart look like a Bulldog….or a monkey..Theres a moment in the dream where the doctor,with a distorted face,repeats over and over..”like a BULLdog,or a MONKey..”Its big like your movie here or Stranger on the 3rd Floor..

  9. Sorry, I meant The Dark Past. I always muddle it with Dark Passage. Which I clearly need to see again!

    Tonight’s viewing, meanwhile, is Too Hot to Handle, which might not get a blog post of its own, but does star Jayne Mansfield, Carl Boehm, Chris Lee, Babs Windsor…

  10. tinkyweisblat Says:

    My goodness, this film does sound like a mishmash–and yet…….

  11. It’s a fun mishmash. Vidor was a smart and resourceful filmmaker, when the material gave him any scope, and this story has plenty.

  12. Those screencaps of the dream in negative singlehandedly convinced me to seek this out! I love nothing more than when that type of avant-gardish sequence unexpectedly turns up in a Hollywood film.

  13. Charles Vidor had real experimental tendencies, which tended to get somewhat quashed in Hollywood. But his silent short adaptation of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, titled The Bridge, is really something.

  14. Well I for one think Gilda and Cover Girl are pretty damned experimental.

  15. I do want to write something about Gilda… on Rita’s first scene… tentatively titled “Shoot the Money”.

  16. I see to recall that The Dark Past has a flashback/dream, with Holden recalling a childhood memory of being under a table, witnessing a spoiler event.

  17. Ah, good! That sounds much like the one in Blind Alley, then (which has no Blind Alley in it, although it certainly does feature a dark past).

  18. […] of expressionist dream sequences in 40s movies (a trend seemingly begun by Charles Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY, 1939) would be fun to research. I’m particularly interested by those in comedy films, where […]

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