Posts Tagged ‘1940s’

Following my success, if that’s the right word, in finally tracking down a copy of Queen Kong on the internet, I decided to see what other vintage movies I have long had a hankering to watch could be found on well-known video-sharing sites. Possibly my first choice was influenced by the dim memory of first becoming aware of Queen Kong while flicking through, if memory serves, The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, edited by Stephen Jones. One of the other movies in that volume which snagged my attention was 1943’s Captive Wild Woman, an unrepentant B-movie directed by a (fairly) young Edward Dmytryk. And, lo and behold, this movie is also available to watch. (There are no dinosaurs in Captive Wild Woman, before you ask, but the Jones book includes all manner of ape-related movies, too.)

The year may have been 1943 but you will search Captive Wild Woman in vain for any acknowledgement of the wider world situation at the time it was made. The film has bigger and more urgent concerns, and depicts a world in which Americans can still go travelling abroad whenever they feel like it. As the story gets underway, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) is returning from an animal-trapping expedition somewhere abroad. Exactly where he has been is a little unclear as he has managed to come back with both lions and tigers, which of course aren’t usually found in close proximity to each other (maybe he’s just been buying second-hand from zoos). Also amongst his acquisitions is Cheela, a large and unusually intelligent female gorilla.

On his return, Mason is greeted by his devoted fiancée Beth (Evelyn Ankers), who is naturally delighted to see him again, even though she is concerned about her sister Dorothy’s ‘glandular condition’. The exact nature of this is kept tastefully vague, and all we learn is that Dorothy has been losing weight. This is still enough for Beth to take her off to the not-at-all sinister Crestview Sanatorium, run by Dr Walters (John Carradine), who is one of the world’s leading experts on glands (this is not a film to watch if you don’t like gland-related dialogue), and has possibly the most reflective hair in cinema history.

Beth and Dr Walters have been getting on famously (mainly because the plot demands it) and Walters turns up at the circus where Mason is working as an animal trainer (of the old-school whip-and-chair variety). You can see the gland expert’s eyes light up at the sight of Cheela the gorilla, although the reason why is not immediately clear. Soon enough he has arranged with a disgruntled ex-employee of the zoo to steal the ape, and when his accomplice asks to be paid casually pushes him into Cheela’s murderous grip (yes, of course he’s a mad scientist, what else were you expecting).

Walters is convinced that glands hold the secret of life and by manipulating them you can achieve just about anything (I’ve manipulated a few glands myself in my time, but I must confess I never thought about it in such a lofty way). His scheme is to transplant Dorothy’s glandular material (there’s a passing reference to this being sex hormones) into Cheela the ape, which transforms the gorilla into an exotically lovely young woman (Acquanetta), which modern science suggests is entirely plausible.

Walters’ nurse has ethical objections to this (better late than never, I guess) and does the classic thing of telling the mad scientist she’s going to the cops while they’re alone together in his secret underground laboratory. Walters puts himself out of the running for Employer of the Year 1943 by murdering the nurse and transplanting her brain into Acquanetta (as you would). He decides to pass the ape-girl off as one Paula Dupree and takes her to the zoo to see if it stirs any memories of the simian phase of her existence (which seems unlikely, given the brain transplant, but it’s probably best not to think too systematically about the plot here).

Well, it turns out that Paula has uncanny powers to influence the behaviour of wild animals, which comes in handy when Fred Mason’s animal training practice goes unexpectedly south while she’s there. She gets offered a job at the circus as Mason’s assistant, and soon finds herself bearing a bit of a torch for him. When he remains totally devoted to Beth, however, this stirs up powerful feelings of resentment and jealousy, which (according to Captive Wild Woman) is bad for any transplanted glands you may have in your body. Paula finds herself beginning to revert to an ape-woman form even as her homicidal feelings towards Beth increase…

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking – this is schlocky horror and a bad movie, no matter how you cut it. It’s certainly one of the minor entries in the famous Universal monsters sequence (although it still managed to spawn two sequels) – I doubt we’ll be seeing a remake with a Russell Crowe cameo any time soon. That said, there are many films made nowadays which arguably have equally silly and improbable premises, especially in the horror-fantasy genre, so I’m inclined to be generous towards the whole ape-woman plotline, especially as it’s executed so full-bloodedly, with Carradine clearly having a lot of fun as the mad doctor. The film is so short that it doesn’t really get properly developed, unfortunately – any pathos the Paula character might generate doesn’t really register, as she is such a minor character in many ways – the film is much more about Beth and Fred, who are wholesome but dull.

It’s the other elements of the film which are more likely to genuinely disturb a modern viewer, anyway: Captive Wild Woman makes such extensive use of stock footage from the 1933 circus-themed film The Big Tent that Milburn Stone appears in the lead role solely because of his resemblance to someone in the earlier film. The ape-woman mad-science plot feels like its sharing the film with some gosh-wow-look-at-this stuff about wild animals at the circus and the spectacle of brave animal trainers (there are some sequences of Mason fending off a lion with only a chair which are a bit hair-raising even today). Accompanying this are quite a few scenes depicting behind-the-scenes at the circus, and it’s these which many may find a bit queasy – the treatment of the big cats is crude, at best, and at one point a fight between a lion and a tiger is shown, which appears to have been entirely genuine and most likely contrived by the film-makers.

But, as I was saying, this is a film of its era and if nothing else we should be grateful for how far we have come, in the field of animal welfare if not glandular transplantation. This is a compact, fairly enjoyable film, perhaps somewhat let down by a rather frantic ending which doesn’t quite come together in the way you hope it will. More of Acquanetta and Carradine would probably have improved it, but for the most part this is the good kind of bad movie.

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Now of course, if we are going to talk about famous auteur comedians, then the place to start is surely with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is a curiously ambiguous figure these days: he remains possibly the single most recognisable person in history (while in his Tramp rig, anyway), and is still considered one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, but his films have – generally speaking – fallen out of favour and are little-watched these days. All this was really presaged in Chaplin’s lifetime, with his immense popularity in the early part of the last century declining to the point where he was essentially obliged to leave the country at the beginning of the 1950s.

With hindsight, the moment of Chaplin’s peak commercial and critical success was also one in which the seeds of his fall from grace were visible. I’m talking about his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was his biggest hit at the box-office, and is one of his best-regarded films these days, possibly because of the subject matter. At the same time, though, it’s one which demands you keep its historical context in mind.


An opening caption informs the audience that the film is set between the two world wars, a period in which ‘Insanity cut loose… and humanity was kicked around somewhat’. From here we go straight into a lengthy, quite lavish sequence depicting the final hours of the First World War, and the exploits of a hapless soldier fighting in the army of Tomainia (played by Chaplin himself, clearly as a variation on the Tramp character). After various misadventures he ends up being sent to a veterans’ hospital with amnesia.

Twenty years pass and Tomainia falls under the control of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, making the most of his passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler), who institutes a regime of vicious oppression against his Jewish citizens. When the soldier, now revealed to be an unnamed Jewish barber, is discharged from hospital, he is shocked to discover what has befallen the country.

What follows is basically a film with two main plotlines – one concerning the barber, his romance with a local woman (Chaplin’s then-soon-to-be-ex-wife Paulette Goddard), and their attempts to live some kind of life in the ghetto, which mainly consists of sentimental melodrama and slapstick comedy, and one focusing on happenings within Hynkel’s palace. This is mostly farcical satire, with lots more slapstick in the mix. In the end the two storylines come together, with the fact that Hynkel and the barber are identical crucial to the denouement, but there’s never a moment where someone says ‘You know what, you look just like him!’ – the similarity is never commented upon prior to the moment it becomes central to the narrative.

I think that before you decide about your opinion of The Great Dictator, you really do have to remember that this is a film made at a particular moment in time: in 1940, to be precise. Why is this significant? Well, for one thing it is important to remember that this was a full year before the USA entered the Second World War, and the two countries were still technically at peace; for Chaplin to make a film which so openly ridicules both Hitler, Mussolini, and various other senior Nazi figures was a bold choice (after Hitler saw the movie he put Chaplin on a death list, or so the story goes).

But there’s more than this. These days you sit down to watch The Great Dictator in expectations of a timeless masterpiece in the modern sense. In the opening minutes what you get is a sequence in which Chaplin is in charge of firing a piece of artillery: he pulls the ignition cord, the gun goes off with a big bang, Chaplin falls over and waggles his legs in the air. Enemy planes attack the area and so Chaplin mans an anti-aircraft gun; frantically spinning the wheel that controls its direction and angle of fire, he ends up whirling around uselessly like a man on a fairground ride. Assigned to help a group of infantry, he is given a hand grenade; having pulled the pin, the grenade drops down his sleeve and ends up in his trousers. And so on.

In short, this is very broad slapstick, and not especially distinguished as such (later sequences in the film make it quite clear what an astonishingly accomplished and capable physical performer Chaplin was, even in his fifties). To a modern viewer there is something inescapably out-of-kilter about this sort of thing appearing in a film about Hitler and the Nazis. But it persists as the film continues: Goering and Goebbels are lampooned as Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as a homophone of ‘garbage’), Mussolini is played as a cartoon Italian gangster (it is somewhat eye-opening that the performer, Jack Oakie, was Oscar-nominated for the role); and yet in the same film there are scenes of Jews being beaten and robbed by Hynkel’s stormtroopers, having their homes burnt to the ground, eventually shot… this is not the stuff of comedy, by any sane metric. It is an uneasy juxtaposition.

But, as I say, you have to remember this is a film from 1940 and the full scale of Nazi atrocities had yet to become clear. Over twenty years later Chaplin himself wrote that …had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose. But the film is still uncomfortable to watch in parts.

Apparently, Hitler was under the impression that Chaplin himself was Jewish, and if this had been the case it would have explained the film-maker’s decision to lampoon the dictator with quite such asperity. But he wasn’t, and – beyond simple moral outrage – there doesn’t seem to have been a particular reason for him to make this film, although he himself observed that ‘one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi, just a decent normal human being.’ Then again, apparently Hitler held a strange fascination for Chaplin, the two men having so much in common – they were born within days of each other, both rose from backgrounds of extreme poverty to immense fame and power, and so on. ‘[Hitler]’s copying your act,’ observes Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin; perhaps Chaplin felt the need to return the favour in some form.

Whatever the reason, The Great Dictator is clearly a heartfelt piece, and this is never more clear than in the concluding sequence, in which the barber (now pretending to be Hynkel) addresses his followers. Chaplin is speaking straight into the camera, in a monologue that goes on for nearly five minutes, calling for peace, brotherhood, freedom and democracy. Some people think it is beautiful and uplifting, others that it is overly earnest and quite simply preachy (it has been identified as the moment at which Chaplin’s personal politics began to impact upon his public image, to his eventual detriment). Personally, I can only agree with Chaplin’s sentiments, I just don’t think this is the stuff of good film-making.

But then The Great Dictator is not really traditional film-making, in the sense that this is not primarily entertainment – Chaplin’s intention seems to have been to use his popularity, especially as the Tramp character, to attract audiences to a film with an overtly political purpose. Chaplin’s physical performance is terrific, and there are some very funny scenes (such as the one with the puddings filled with coins). But that’s never quite the point. Judging The Great Dictator as entertainment kind of misses the point of it. As a piece of political satire, though, I have to find its intentions admirable even if the execution often makes me rather uneasy.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.


It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

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Something curious and historically interesting happened to popular culture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, not that most people would have noticed it at the time: the idea of the shared fictional universe came into existence, where events in one story could have consequences in others that weren’t simply sequels, where characters didn’t just spin off but converged as well. Given that this concept underpins the business plans of a number of major film studios nowadays, we should probably remember that it was rather a derided one for many decades – although even today we’re still talking about the kind of films which aim to make money rather than win awards. The key players, Marvel and DC, are heavily rooted in making superhero movies, although also reputedly having a bash are Universal, with their stable of horror characters.

This seems entirely appropriate given that capes and monsters were where the first fictional universes started to crystallise: the mythos created by Lovecraft, and the DC comics universe kick-started by All Star Comics #3 in 1940, for instance. Both of those were probably happening under most people’s radar – a little more visible, perhaps, was the appearance of Universal’s original shared movie universe, which was inaugurated with Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, released in 1943.


This was the fourth sequel to the iconic Karloff-Clive version of Frankenstein, but to begin with it seems much more strongly linked to The Wolf Man, to which it is the first follow-up (apparently writer Curt Siodmak only suggested the movie as a joke, but didn’t object to being paid to produce an actual script). It opens in that notorious hotbed of lycanthropic savagery, the Welsh countryside, where a couple of unwise locals in unfortunate hats break into the family vault of local big-shots the Talbots, intent on plundering the corpse of prematurely-deceased heir Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr).

However, it turns out that all that ‘shot with a silver bullet’ stuff is not strictly accurate, for four years after his interment Talbot is still alive – apparently being a werewolf makes you immortal! The shock of finding himself not dead means that Talbot ends up in hospital in Cardiff, although quite what happens is a little obscure. Here he meets Dr Mannering (Patric Knowles), who eventually proves to be a rather remarkable individual, and local copper Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey).

Never mind the Universal Monsters shared-world, for a moment it looks as if another crossover is on the cards, as Dennis Hoey is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his role as the impenetrably thick Inspector Lestrade in half a dozen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, also for Universal. Hoey gives exactly the same performance as Owen as he does as Lestrade, in an identical costume – it’s enough to make you speculate about Lestrade being sent on an undercover mission to the principality, and imagine Rathbone’s Holmes facing off against the various monsters. Not to be, unfortunately.

Anyway, Talbot fangs his way out of his straitjacket and goes on the run in search of a way out of his predicament, eventually catching up with the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the mum of the guy who originally bit him. We’re now quite a long way into the movie and I suspect most viewers will be quite relieved when her only suggestion is that they look up a notorious scientist with an unparallelled knowledge of the secrets of life and death, Dr Frankenstein!

Unfortunately, all the various members of the Frankenstein dynasty with medical diplomas have died by the time the duo arrive in Frankenstein’s home village, mostly as a result of the family’s most famous creation going off on one. Talbot and Maleva are thus somewhat stumped, until Talbot stumbles across Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen in ice. This happens quite by chance, by the way: I suppose this is the sort of thing which happens when you are a werewolf who spends most of his time being chased around by mobs of angry villagers.

Once defrosted, the Monster proves extraordinarily helpful in trying to find Frankenstein’s original notes (especially so when you consider that he is supposedly blind at this point and also had his brain replaced in the previous film in the series), but Talbot still has to call upon the help of Frankenstein’s granddaughter (Ilona Massey), a woman who really knows the value of plaits, in order to find what he wants.

At this point Mannering turns up, having tracked Talbot across Europe, and having proven himself to be not just a top doctor but also a remarkable sleuth, reveals he is also a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy. He agrees to rebuild Frankenstein’s lab and use the machinery there to drain the vital energy from both Talbot and the Monster, thus ending the threat of the two monsters forever. What can possibly go wrong…?

You would, I suspect, have to be a particularly sensitive and delicate individual to actually find Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man frightening or horrific by modern standards. Perhaps the most alarming thing in the film is the obligatory musical number (not performed by either of the title characters, alas), which features startling numbers of fiercely cheerful gypsies and villagers in lederhosen going ‘tra la la’ more than you might imagine possible.

Or perhaps not. Actually frightening, this film is not, but it still possesses a weird, morbid atmosphere, primarily because this is really a film about suicide: the chief motor of the plot is Lawrence Talbot’s desire to die. The film in general and Chaney in particular are not remotely subtle enough for this to be quite as affecting as it could be, but a modern film with this kind of theme would have the potentially to be truly disturbing and unusual.

But then this is obviously the product of another era, when a horror film was still second cousin to a fairy tale, mostly set in ruined castles and graveyards in quasi-mythical lands far across the sea, populated by superstitious villagers and enigmatic gypsies. Good and evil are still almost palpably real, in the world of the film at least. The genre has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

Is it really any good, though? Or – was it any good when it was made, by the standards of the 1930s and 1940s? Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask, for I tend to find the original Universal horror movies painfully slow and lacking in incident, certainly compared to those made by Hammer a generation later. Even The Bride of Frankenstein, the film generally held up to be the zenith of the series, seems to me to be awkwardly self-conscious and twee. Well, anyway: the story is odd enough to be watchable, even if the plotting is rather melodramatic and some of the characterisation highly peculiar – Mannering variously functions as an expository tool, the romantic lead, and the de facto villain, depending on what point in the film we have reached. He briefly goes bad simply to facilitate the climactic battle.

Yup, before Batman Vs Superman, before Alien Vs Predator, before Freddy Vs Jason, before King Kong Vs Godzilla, there was the concluding barney of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Again, by modern standards the battle is energetic but ultimately quite tame, and it’s pretty brief too. You can see they’re making kind of an attempt to make the two combatants fight in different ways, but it really just boils down to the kind of rasslin’ you might see outside a pub in the small hours of any weekend night. One of the prime rules of the all-star death match is established even this early on – in that the clash is not fought to its natural conclusion with a real winner emerging. In this case, a convenient collapsing dam washes away the venue of the struggle while events are still in progress, the Baroness and Mannering (back to being a mildly heroic figure at this point) having discreetly scarpered by this point.

Then again, the makers of this kind of series always eventually figure out that by killing your monsters off too permanently you’re only making trouble for yourself when it comes to writing the next movie, so I suppose we can’t be too critical on that score. I find it quite hard to be especially critical of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man on any grounds – it’s not high art, of course, and it’s just as much a weird collection of disparate bits as Lugosi’s character, but its very oddness gives it a strange charm I find very hard to resist.

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One of the pleasures associated with going to the vintage classics strand at the local Picturehouse is trying to predict how many other people you’re going to be sharing the cinema with. Sometimes it can be absolutely packed out, and not necessarily for the films you might expect – I recall Touch of Evil being particularly ram-jammed – and sometimes the lack of interest in a genuine classic can be really sort of dismaying (I recall a screening of RoboCop with probably less than a dozen people there). This week’s revival was Charles Vidor’s 1946 movie Gilda. This is to some extent just a vehicle for its star, Rita Hayworth, and much of the pre-screening chatter concerned the one-time Mrs Welles: ‘I’d’ve thought more people would come to see Rita Hayworth! She’s so glamorous! I guess young people just haven’t heard of her!’


In the end there was a pretty decent turn-out for a film nearly 70 years old and we settled down to enjoy this noir-ish classic. Set in Argentina in the mid-1940s, the film is narrated by one Johnny Farrell, played by Glenn Ford (an actor probably best known to modern audiences for playing Clark Kent’s adoptive father in the 1978 Superman). Farrell has just arrived in Buenos Aires, and, being a natural grifter, migrates into the more suspect circles of city life. Soon enough he has made the acquaintance of casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready), and ends up working for him, rapidly rising to the position of de facto manager of his gambling operations. Mundson is up to his neck in something else, however, and Johnny can’t quite figure out what.

All this is put somewhat on the back burner, however, when Mundson returns from a business trip with a new bride, the beautiful and vivacious Gilda (Hayworth, of course). The only problem is that Johnny and Gilda have history together, intense and intimate history of which her new husband is completely unaware. There is, to put it mildly, unfinished business between the two of them, and finishing it could end up destroying all three members of this rather suspect triangle…

There is a lot that is noir-ish about Gilda – it has a fairly amoral sensibility, ambiguous characters, and a certain degree of low-key mayhem, to say nothing of the shimmering black and white photography – but on the other hand there is a lot that isn’t. One of the odd things about it is the way that what starts out as a crime thriller about a lowlife on the make keeps threatening to turn into something else – initially, it would appear, some sort of Casablanca knock-off. There’s the exotic foreign setting (nearly all realised on sound stages in California, of course), the American adventurer hero, and a selection of foreign types – more than that, there’s the way the script embellishes a straightforward thriller plotline with some fairly sparkling dialogue.

The film sustains this tone well past the point of Hayworth’s arrival, which isn’t that early in the story – but once she does appear, the film heavily favours her, visually at least. She rarely looks anything less than ravishing and alluring, even while her character is being depicted as an inconstant, amoral hedonist. That said, there is a striking shift in perspective towards the end of the film – to begin with, Farrell is definitely the point of audience identification, with Gilda presented as a threat to what he and Mundson can achieve together. By the end, however, the audience is strongly encouraged to see Gilda as the unfairly victimised target of Farrell’s animus – a much more sympathetic character.

This would probably be more effective were the third act of Gilda slightly better constructed. Most of the film does work very well as a noirish, slightly overcooked thriller about a clearly-doomed love triangle – but the last third of the film opens with someone faking their death and grows ever more melodramatic from there. On reflection, we’re invited to assume Farrell is acting out of a sense of guilt, feeling that he has somehow betrayed Mundson, but this isn’t quite set up or articulated well enough. That the plot partly revolves around a bizarre, obscure scheme to make a vast fortune from monopolising tungsten production doesn’t help much. A couple of diversions into musical numbers just add to the sense of a film which doesn’t quite know what it is any more – one of these is basically just filler. The other, Hayworth’s much-imitated and dare-I-say-it iconic rendition of Put the Blame on Mame (as much as someone can be said to be rendering a song when they’re dubbed by someone else), at least supports the plot, but it seems to me to be undercut just a bit by being so heavily trailed through the rest of the film.

Still, this is an entertaining and slickly-made film, especially in its middle section, and it has achieved legendary status – well, bits of it at least. Sometimes the films that last longest aren’t necessarily the best ones. There’s a lot of good stuff in Gilda, but it’s still not what I’d call a great film overall.

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When it comes to attempting to write something interesting and novel about Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, you really are on a hiding to nothing: millions of words have already been produced about what’s quite possibly the most beloved film in the history of American cinema. Few films contain quite so many iconic moments and characters, few have spawned such an attendant industry of other films and productions that haven’t actually been sequels or prequels. When screenwriting guru Robert McKee deconstructs the perfect script to see how it functions, it’s Casablanca that he uses. This is a film as secure in its status as an unimpeachable work of art as any you could hope to find.


And yet still, it seems, there are people around who haven’t seen it. I took just such a person to a revival at the Phoenix the other day, and as the Marseilles faded away at the end their verdict was that ‘it was really pretty good’. Oh well, can’t win ’em all, I suppose: but it nice to see a good turn-out from people of all ages for the screening. If Casablanca comes on the TV, I’ll always try to find the time to watch it if I can, but being able to see it on the big screen still felt like a bit of a treat. Nice to see others feel the same way.

The story, it may not surprise you, is set in Casablanca at the tail end of 1941, with the city something of a melting-pot: technically still under the control of unoccupied France, it is chock full of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, all desperately trying to find a way north to Lisbon and then across the Atlantic to America. The cheerily corrupt local Prefect of Police, Renault (Claude Rains), is doing his best to profit from this situation, as is the gangster Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). Keeping himself somewhat aloof from it all is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American ex-mercenary now running one of the city’s more chic nightclubs.

But all this changes with the arrival of resistance figurehead Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful young wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), also looking for a way to the States. At the behest of visiting Nazi officer Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Renault is under orders to make sure Laszlo stays in Casablanca, but Rick has come into possession of travelling papers which will allow them to escape. The complication is that Rick is in love with Ilsa, following a brief fling in Paris the previous year, and still bitter about the way she left him without any explanation.

And so the stage is set: will the Nazis find a pretext to get Laszlo back into their clutches? Will Ilsa stay with her husband, or will Rick’s saturnine charms prove irresistible? Will Rick hang on to the papers, or will his better nature make a long overdue reappearance? And will people ever stop using the most famous misquote from this movie?

On paper, there isn’t very much to distinguish Casablanca from a great many other mid-range studio pictures of this period – there’s a (somewhat spuriously) exotic setting, a strong note of romance, some slightly overcooked intrigue, a dash of wit. But nothing to suggest the legendary status that the film now enjoys. (Complete, by the way, with a whole clutch of attendant myths – like the one that Ronald Reagan was at one point considered for the role of Rick, or that the ending of the film was ever really in doubt – the censors office wouldn’t have permitted a conclusion where a wife left her husband for another man.)

Perhaps it’s partly a result of the sheer sincerity that much of the cast brought to the film. The story is a bit hokey and sentimental, but the sentiments are powerful ones, and never more so than during the darkest depths of the Second World War. The fact that Casablanca only features three American performers is, I think, a less well-known fact than it ought to be. Many of the supporting actors had themselves fled Europe during the rise of the Nazis (including, ironically enough, some of those playing Nazis in this film), so it’s entirely understandable that they would have felt a strong sense of commitment to the film.

That said, this may be a very sincere film with a (certainly by modern standards) hokey and sentimental message about self-sacrifice and standing up for the Right Thing at its heart, but this cloaked by what at first appears to be a façade about decadent cynicism – there are a few jokes at the expense of the more naïve refugees, while in many ways the film’s most appealing character is Louis Renault, whose conversion to the side of the angels at the climax is rather more arbitrary than Rick’s. Cynically and ironically witty lines pepper the film (this is, of course, one of the most quotable films in history), and they do give the impression that you’re watching something sophisticated and fashionably worldly, even when you’re really actually not.

But then again, this is a film with – for the most part – an impeccable structure and plot (you can probably quibble about why the Germans don’t just have Laszlo arrested, and how the letters of transit are just an obvious plot device), brilliantly cast, filled with memorable moments and lines of dialogue. This is one of those films where ‘the best bits’ basically comprises the entire running time – I’ve always been most taken with the genuinely moving moment where the patrons of the club sing the Marseilles to drown out a Nazi drinking song, a sequence of real feeling in the midst of some of Louis’ best comic lines.

Mark Kermode has written cogently on Casablanca’s appeal as Exhibit A in the ‘they don’t make them like this any more’ discussion, with particular reference to how modern focus groups might object to its famously self-denying ending. Is it fair to say that part of Casablanca’s magic is that it’s the product of a less cynical, more innocent era? Possibly it is, but in the same way it’s perhaps the film’s great success at being both cynical and idealistic, heartfelt and yet hokey, important and yet trivial, which has resulted in it becoming the legendary movie that it is.

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Sometimes you look around at the best of the films of today, your Boyhoods and your Birdmans, and you ask yourself how well they are really going to stand up to the test of time – some people are already suggesting that Birdman‘s true posterity will be as the answer to the pub quiz question ‘What film won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that Boyhood didn’t?’ Will any of these films be getting re-releases in 20, 30, or 40 years time?

Some hardy perennials of the cinematic landscape do seem to have this kind of immortality. I saw Touch of Evil at the Phoenix a couple of years ago and am not especially surprised to see it making another appearance there very soon, while currently enjoying its second major revival (at least) in sixteen years is Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 66 years old at the time of writing and looking just as splendid as ever. (Clearly the message is: if you want your film to have staying power, hire Orson Welles as your bad guy – though this inevitably leads one to wonder why 1986’s Transformers: The Movie doesn’t figure more prominently on the art house circuit.)


Apparently there are still people around who haven’t seen The Third Man (personally I’ve been watching it fairly regularly since I was a teenager), so here is how the story goes. Vienna after the Second World War is a dreary, bombed-out, desolate city, occupied by a coalition of international forces and in the grip of vicious black-marketeers. To this place comes American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), hoping to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime. But he is distraught to find Lime’s funeral in progress as he arrives, and even more outraged when army policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) shows little concern over the death, proclaiming that Martins’ friend was a gangster who deserved to die.

Martins resolves to clear his dead friend’s name and solve the mystery surrounding his death, despite the warnings of everyone involved that he should just leave Austria as soon as possible – even Harry’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli), doesn’t seem very supportive of his crusade, although the two of them do perhaps strike up a connection of a different kind…

Very few films, classic or otherwise, have such a distinct identity as The Third Man, and this is partly a question of sound and vision: the film’s all-zither soundtrack is justly legendary, while the streets, ruins, and sewers of Vienna are a unique backdrop. Uniquely filmed as well, as of course: the black and white cinematography of the film is by turns luminous and murky, as the story requires, while Reed’s skewed camera angles are also unmistakable.

It’s this aspect of the film that usually leads observers to link it, in some fashion, with the film noir genre, which was also enjoying its heyday during the late 40s and early 50s. But if The Third Man is noir it is noir of a peculiarly British flavour: there are no hard boiled detectives or femmes fatale here. Reed’s protagonist is a deluded, somewhat clownish figure, and the leading lady is far more vulnerable than she is brassy. Not that there is no moral ambiguity here, of course, but this too comes from a slightly odd angle – no-one, ultimately, doubts the utter amorality of Orson Welles’ villain, or that he is a vicious and unrepentant criminal, but both Cotten and Valli’s characters find it wrenchingly difficult to condemn him. They both seem quietly aware that he is a more charismatic and capable person than either of them and – to begin with – defer to him as a result.

This, I think, is the ultimate source of the atmosphere of melancholy which permeates the film – or contributes at least as much as the bleakness of the setting. ‘The dead are happier dead,’ observes Welles’ character, ‘they don’t miss much here, poor devils.’ Welles himself certainly seems to be playing the happiest character in the film – all the other major characters seems quietly consumed by their own failings and shortcomings.

This probably makes The Third Man sound like a pretty heavy-going piece of work, but as well as an examination of guilt, loyalty, and lapsed friendship (perhaps even love), it also functions superbly as a thriller, and a remarkably witty one as well: you’re never very far from a sharp line or a memorably weird character. Apparently the famous speech concerning cuckoo clocks was inserted into the script by Welles himself, as Graham Greene was at pains to point out in later years, but this film is in every way a collaborative effort.

But why has it lasted so well? Is it just a question of quality? I’m not sure; I think it may be. Certainly, this film – set, as it is, in a very particular time and place – has something about it which gives it some degree of universal appeal. Everyone has had their disappointments, I suppose, everyone has fallen in love with the wrong person at some time or other – perhaps everyone has pondered on the strange allure of bad people. The Third Man is about all of these things, and manages to tell an engrossing story about them which is also marvellous to look at. That’s the basis of it, I suspect: the rest is probably simply magic, and beyond rationalisation.

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