Archive for Mildred Pierce

Doc C.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2020 by dcairns

I always assumed the writers of THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE named it, and its protagonist, with a dirty joke because they assumed none of the ubercatholics at the Breen Office would get it. Co-scenarist John Huston, in his memoir, devotes one line to the film, acknowledging it exists but saying no more. All his other comments concerning Litvak are to do with horse racing — the two men were heavy gamblers, and there are some amazing stories about that, but nothing that really illuminates the A.L. filmography.

Apart from the title, the other mystery here is the ending, which likewise ought by rights to have been forbidden by the censor on the basis of “crime must not pay.”

Asides from these two points, this is a near-perfect film, with surprising fluidity of tone and a straightfaced quality absent in other WB crime comedies, eg A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER or BULLETS OR BALLOTS (though it’s been a while). Edward G. Robinson is very calm throughout, as the scientist who tries to investigate criminal psychology by committing crimes himself (since he naturally doesn’t know any crooks). Once he meets Claire Trevor, Humphrey Bogart and their gang, some broader schtick does ensure — after all, Allen Jenkins, Curt Bois, and other great scene-stealers are around (for Clitterhouse to test). Jenkins’ hysterical mutism is good for some broad yocks.

Then there’s murder, and one of the best trials since Alice in Wonderland. The story is very neatly worked out — minor characters like the nurse, patient and police chief are dropped in early, disappear for the central business with the gang, but come back for delightful curtain calls at the end. John Huston, Barre Lyndon and John Wexley are the writers. Wexley’s name was only vaguely familiar, but he was a Litvak fave, it seems, working on CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, CITY FOR CONQUEST, and THE LONG NIGHT. Only Peter Viertel worked up nearly as many (if you include his uncredited polish on THE JOURNEY).

With Litvak I expect zip pans and expressionistic touches — this movie has one of each, but they’re good ones. The zip pan reveals a surprise Bogie to Trevor, the expressionistic touch is an alarming POV shot from someone who’s received an overdose of sedatives…

Ah-hah! It was a PLAY. So blame the prolific Barré Lyndon.

I think this might be the most Hustonesque — if that is a thing — script job pre-MALTESE FALCON. It’s all about irony, and it’s the story of a kind of failure: a criminal psychologist who becomes both a criminal and a madman in the course of his work.

Ah-hah two! John Wexley, Huston’s collaborator, is interviewed in Patrick McGilligan’s Tender Comrades, which belongs on every cinephiles shelf. On Huston: “Johnny was very verbal. But he wrote strange, jarring things the character never would say. I liked a lot of it, but it didn’t belong. We were dealing with how gangsters would speak and also with a psychologist who joins the gang–he becomes enmeshed and lives a double life–and it never sounded like gangsters or a doctor; it sounded like Johnny Huston. It wasn’t anything great one way or another, but we always had to go back and fix what he did. I had to be awfully discreet about it with [producer] Bob Lord. That lesson may have helped Johnny later; he didn’t do that kind of writing when he did The Maltese Falcon.”

On Litvak: “We became very warm personally. He would tell me all about his problems with women. He had a place in or near Malibu, and we preferred to work at his place.” In fact, Litvak also got a visit from Michael Curtiz, who then modelled the amazing house in MILDRED PIERCE on Litvak’s home.

On Jack Warner: “He was a vaudevillian. I had an argument with him about costs on Clitterhouse. I had a scene where the gang of thieves rob a building to get some minks, and Eddie goes with them. Bogart tries to kill Eddie, locks him in a cold-storage vault. Bogart thinks he’s dead; fortunately, Eddie gets out. We wanted a surprise end to the sequence. It’s a decisive sequence, because next Eddie goes after Bogart. Because I was from New York, I knew that there are elevators that come up on every sidewalk. So in this scene the cops would be standing around, and the top cop would say something like, ‘He must be hiding somewhere.’ The sidewalk opens up, and Eddie comes up in the elevator, debonair, right in the middle of the cops. Eddie says, ‘No one down there,’ lights a cigar, walks off. It would get a big laugh.

“But I got a note from Jack Warner saying ‘We don’t have those elevators [on the lot]. We’d have to dig a hole and get a crank to bring him up. It would cost too much.’ We were already shooting. I called him up and said, ‘What kind of peanut brain are you? Fourteen hundred dollars is all it would cost. I’ll pay it myself.’ That changed his mind. I called Lord and said, ‘Deduct it from my salary.’ Lord said, ‘I’ll pay half.’ Warner finally paid.”

On adapting the play: “The play had an ending, but I invented a trial at the end of the film and a bewildered jury–was Clitterhouse sane or insane? People would leave the theater with that humorous question in their minds.” A smart move: I imagine the Breen Office was as perplexed as the film’s jurors, and so they couldn’t condemn the film’s blatant immorality because it’s not precisely clear whether or not crime pays. Brilliant.

CLITTERHOUSE channels the Warner house style very nicely, but it isn’t realy like any other film I know. Just a really unusual tone, or tones. Another Litvak film I wholeheartedly recommend.

THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE stars Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Gaye Dawn; Fred C. Dobbs; Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke; Battling Burrows; Pearl Fabrini; Doctor Treating Knute; Carson Drew; Inspector Crane; Franzi Kartos; Detective Tom Polhaus; Paul Cezanne; Mrs. Truesmith; Detective Bates; the voice of Drake McHugh; ‘Slapsy’ Maxie; and Angelica ‘Angie’ ‘Angel’ Evans Conway (scenes deleted).

No Man’s Land

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2010 by dcairns

NO MAN OF HER OWN, directed by Mitchell Leisen in 1950, is an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man (and if you’re put off by that absurd title you may struggle with certain integral aspects of Woolrich) which is probably the last really major Leisen movie. Some of his TV work is very strong, especially The 16mm Shrine, made for The Twilight Zone and starring Ida Lupino, which seems like an elegy for Old Hollywood, and there’s the fascinating footnote THE GIRL MOST LIKELY, which was both Leisen’s last film and RKO’s — as each department finished work on the movie, it would be shut down permanently. “It was eerie.”

The Woolrich movie stars Barbara Stanwyck and acts as a sort of rephrasing of her earlier Leisen vehicle, REMEMBER THE NIGHT, scripted by Preston Sturges and described by me here. In both films, la Stanwyck is a woman with a shady past, adopted into a respectable smalltown family, who don’t quite realise what they’re getting. While the thirties comedy pulls of a dizzying series of volte-faces, from screwball to pastoral to tragedy, with a side-route through film noir terrain when we meet Stanwyck’s horrific real family, NO MAN was Leisen’s first and only real noir. It should have opened doors for him and led to a whole series of thrillers. This may be the best discovery of Cornell Woolrich Week (although I’d seen the film before at the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Leisen retrospective).

One of those subjective camera hospital admissions — always welcome!

With typically Woolrichian contrivance, unmarried mother-to-be Stanwyck is injured in a train wreck (Leisen rotates the entire set 180º) with another pregnant woman, and mistaken for her by the slain woman’s grieving in-laws, who had never met their new daughter-in-law. They’ve just lost their son in the same accident, so they embrace the new family member and her child. We’re a quarter of the way into the plot and we’ve achieved the outward appearance of a happy ending, but underneath the situation is absolutely rife with anxiety. Stanwyck keeps our sympathy during this imposture since her plight is so wretched, and the misunderstanding begins as a genuine one, since she’s stunned from the wreck (not the first or the last time a bit of concussion helped a Woolrich plot along).

Just as things are settling down, although there’s plenty of suspense from Stanwyck’s errors signing her name etc, and her love for the dead son’s brother (reliable snore John Lund) creates potential crises, Stanwyck’s evil ex shows up, with a plan to leech her dry by blackmail. As in the novel, the suspense here is positively unbearable (I could only read the book in ten minute bursts, so uncomfortable did I find it), and Lyle Bettger is a superbly sleazy bad guy. Stanwyck herself is too old and theoretically too resilient for her role, which Woolrich conceived as something of a doormat, one of his perpetual victim-saps put on Earth to be trampled by Fate. But Barbara makes it all work — her toughness helps stop the character coming over as an annoying drip, which is one danger with the material, and who but Babs could have created such dread in this scene, where Bettger blackmails her into marriage ~

Regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider, pointing out that Leisen is one of very few gay auteurs to have adapted Woolrich (Fassbinder being the other key example), suggests that this scene has a nice additional meaning, lying outside the realms of the plot — it can be seen as a vision of heterosexual marriage as a death trap. It’s hard not to agree.

The parallels between Leisen and Woolrich aren’t limited to their sexuality (although Mitch seems to have had far less trouble living with his same-sex preference, and did at least manage at least one sustained relationship with a sexual partner, the dancer/choreographer Billy Daniel, strained though it sometimes was). Weirdly, both men ended their lives minus a leg… Sickness and paralysis abound in Woolrich’s work, and Stanwyck’s faux mother-in-law in this film has a convenient heart condition which can be used to ratchet up the suspense nicely: she can’t reveal the truth, it would kill mother…

I’m not sure why this movie isn’t better known… but you could say the same of ALL Leisen’s best works. It’s tempting to blame Billy Wilder for badmouthing Leisen at almost every opportunity, but simple historical forces may be more to blame. This is a terrific film, very faithful to Woolrich’s book. The ending is more upbeat, but the solution has been carefully planted so it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Woolrich’s downbeat ending has the disadvantage of making no sense whatsoever, but then, he always did veer towards the irrational. If Leisen didn’t like the title I Married a Dead Man, he wouldn’t have liked the surreal conclusion Woolrich came up with, a locked room mystery where the two characters present suspect each other of firing the fatal bullet… of course, since they were the only ones present, suspicion would in reality harden into certainty for one, while the other wouldn’t be suspicious at all, since he’d know he did it! The ending is magnificent in its morbid fatuousness.

I always felt the heroine had suffered enough and deserved a happier fate, so I’m glad Leisen and his co-screenwriters Sally Benson (SHADOW OF A DOUBT) and Catherine Turney (MILDRED PIERCE) provided one. Actually, the eleventh hour reassignment of guilt trick was used in MILDRED PIERCE too…