Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

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Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


My Darling Clementine - Darnell and Fonda

My Darling Clementine: Preview edition / Release version (1946)
John Ford’s return to studio filmmaking after the Second World War. A small masterpiece diminished, although not quite ruined, by Darryl Zanuck’s interference.


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In a Lonely Place (1950)
A minor psychological thriller (based on a major popular literary exercise by Dorothy B. Hughes) with superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, its reputation expanded to impossible dimensions of greatness by over-enthusiastic auteurists. There was no place in my review to note this, but the movie’s costumer designed low and weirdly over-broad shoulders for all of Bogart’s jackets; he looks like a badly-dressed mannequin newly escaped from the window of a vintage clothing shop specializing in zoot-suits.


Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come.


Little Caesar
Little Caesar (1931)
With The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that created, and defined, the gangster picture and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Cagney but Edward G. Robinson’s performance is certainly worth a look, even if he’s not especially well served by the  workmanlike script until the last five or ten minutes.


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet
An amiable, funny but very loud Western comedy from the Disney studios in which Jim Dale plays twins — one a missionary, the other a violent rowdy — as well as their crafty old father (that’s Dale, above, with the beard), Darren McGavin is the town’s crooked mayor, Don Knotts its belligerent sheriff, Karen Valentine the feisty schoolmarm, Jack Elam an incompetent gunslinger called “Rattlesnale” and John Williams, who was apparently born old, a put-upon valet. It was made with no particular style and with little on its mind other than providing some clean laughs. For the most part, it gets them. As usual with movies of the period, the rear-screen projection is miserable, but the Deschutes National Forest locations are glorious, and even the inevitable children (Michael Sharrett and Debbie Lytton) are tolerable. Like so many comedians, Jim Dale had too odd a face for movie stardom, with a narrow head, a recessive chin and a nose that seemed to have been stretched out of putty. But he’s as nimble, affable and inventive onscreen as his stage reputation suggested; in a couple of years he would be Barnum on Broadway. The picture’s stunt crew was kept so busy its members got special credit in the opening titles, and they’re like the Proteans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tumbling in and out of scenes, falling off cliffs and buildings and seemingly everywhere at once.

For those who treasure pointless trivia, the movie’s associate producer was the hitherto stultifyingly obnoxious Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, who seems to have gone on to a long career as an assistant director.

Anything that kept him behind the camera rather than in front of it…


To Have and Have Not - poster resized

To Have and Have Not (1944)
Arguably a trivialization, and certainly not a true representation, of its grim source, this is still one of the most entertaining movies of the Hollywood Studio era. The ultimate Howard Hawks movie, and (to my mind, anyway) his best. It’s one of the most pleasing ways I know to spend an evening, and it never fails to pick me up.


Cowboy (1958)

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A quirky, sometimes appalling, occasionally funny adaptation of a 1930 memoir by Frank Harris — yes, that Frank Harris — of his days as a youth in the United States trying to become a cattle man. (Jack Lemmon, as Harris, eschews the English accent, and indeed the filmmakers omit any sense of the character being anything but 100% American, from Philadeplhia, yet.) Dalton Trumbo, in his blacklist period, wrote the script, with Edmund H. North as his front. Intended as the cinematic equivalent of radio’s “adult Westerns” such as Gunsmoke, The Six-Shooter, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun Will Travel, the picture is an oddity in that it contains more deliberate cruelty to animals than I think I’ve seen in any other fiction film, and with few exceptions the cattlemen on the drive are irresponsible, cowardly and murderous… and that’s when they’re at their “fun,” as when they toss around a rattlesnake which, thrown about the neck of a tenderfoot (Strother Martin) bites and kills him; when Lemmon’s Harris objects, and calls them on their responsibility for the man’s death, they all turn on him. Harris becomes more and more of a hardass and a martinet as the drive continues, and who can blame him? Cowboy isn’t merely an adult Western, it’s an anti Western. See it, and you may be so disgusted you’ll never want to see another.

While Lemmon gives his usual engaging performance, brash boyishness alternating with hard-won maturity, it’s difficult to judge Glenn Ford’s, because it’s always difficult. The surest way to keep me from giving some movie a chance is to tell me Ford is the star of it. (I’ve deprived myself of Gilda for decades because he’s in it.) He was no actor, so what exactly was he? A movie star, I suppose, but even that puzzles me; he made Gregory Peck look like Laurence Olivier. And at least Peck improved as he aged; Ford stayed resolutely Ford. Brian Donlevy has a nice role as an aging, gentle but bibulous lawman, although the director, Delmer Daves, sabotages it by having him die off-stage. Among the trail-hands are Dick York as a young rake, Richard Jaeckel as one of the worst of the hell-raisers, and King Donovan as the likable cook. Daves’ direction is serviceable but seldom more, and the widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. has a number of puzzling moments when the camera either shakes, or moves abruptly, and that feel like mistakes left in out of an over-zealous attachment to the budget.

One of the best things about Cowboy is its opening titles, the distinctive, witty work of Saul Bass set to a rousing, Coplandesque theme by George Dunning. Those two minutes are so good the movie almost can’t hope to compete with them.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Diamonds
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s.


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Wolfen (1981)
The director (and co-writer) Michael Wadleigh’s beautifully conceived and executed exercise in environmental horror, despite studio interference, is a movie that looks better — and more prescient — with every passing year.


 

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The Towering Inferno (1974)
In spite of everything, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” somehow still works, at least on the level of exciting trash.


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The Train-Robbers (1973)
A quirky, wonderfully entertaining late John Wayne Western, written and directed with intelligence, style and sly humor by Burt Kennedy.


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Cromwell (1970)
Ken Hughes, directing a script he wrote (with interpolations by the playwright Ronald Harwood) delivers a pointed depiction of the English Civil War starring Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness a splendid Charles I. The political parallels to our own age and place should be studied, and countervened with all speed.


The Big Sleep - Bogart and Bacall (resized)

The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of (and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on) the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler original.


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

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A fairly routine ‘40s Western with an odd addition — and no, I don’t mean what in Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks memorably termed Gabby Hayes’ “authentic frontier gibberish.” I’m referring to Ella Raines as a frontier wildcat. Raines’ character has no emotional filters, and the actress doesn’t reign her in; hers may be the most aggressively unpleasant performance in John Wayne’s filmography. She does elicit from Wayne a memorable set of responses, however, when he walks away from her in quiet defiance and she shoots in the direction of his departing back; each time one of her carefully aimed bullets hits something in front of him or to his side, he staggers slightly, and winces. Imagine… John Wayne startled… and by a woman!


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Dumbo (1941)
Arguably the most emotionally plangent of all Disney features, this 64-minute charmer about the elephant child whose oversize ears become an irresistible asset also boats one of the finest song-scores ever composed for a movie.


Born Free (1965)

Born Free (resized)

Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson, with the lioness who “plays” Elsa.

This adaptation of the 1960 bestseller by Friederike Victoria Adamson (nicknamed “Joy’ by her second husband) is one of the most pleasing nature movies ever made, perfect entertainment for children. Not there’s anything remotely childish about it, only that it contains beautiful shots of its African savannah setting, wonderful animal photography (the cinematographer was Kenneth Talbot), is only very occasionally upsetting, and is for the most part as comprehensible to a small child as to an adult. The picture holds the same sweet fascination as a good boy-and-his-dog story — White Fang with lions, and a girl hero — as Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (McKenna’s real-life husband Bill Travers) first adopt and then attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa back into the wild, and Lester Cole’s screenplay is smart enough to be straightforward, and to present the relationship between the Adamsons as human and not idealized. McKenna makes a wonderful Joy Adamson, charming and maternally devoted to Elsa (the couple was, perhaps significantly, childless) and Travers is himself a bit of a lion; his prickly responses to his wife’s sentimental obsession finds its parallel with Elsa and her eventual mate.

Geoffrey Keen gives a nicely judged performance as George’s boss, and Peter Lukoye is delightful as the couple’s native retainer. James Hill’s direction is refreshingly clean and entirely uncluttered by the sorts of attention-grabbing, studiedly spectacular shots which would almost certainly mar a contemporary movie of this material. And John Barry, who won two Oscars for the picture — one for his music and one for the end title song he wrote with Don Black, the latter of which I recall as pretty much ubiquitous in the ‘60s — composed one of his distinctive scores, accommodating appropriate African rhythms (and, occasionally, instrumentation) and melding them with his own, string-and-horn-heavy melodic invention.

Horribly, both Joy and George were later murdered in Africa, in separate incidents (although her death was initially reported as the result of lion attack) perhaps proving they had less to fear from wild animals than from their own species.


That's Life - Lemmon and Andrews

Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

That’s Life! (1986)
A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Knight-errant on a mean street: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

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“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.” — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

By Scott Ross

The Big Sleep was Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of — and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on — the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler novel that, with John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was one of two war-era American pictures (three, if we count Casablanca) that cemented not only Humphrey Bogart’s tough-guy persona, but the image we carried then, and carry still, of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective characters. Others have played Sam Spade (on radio, anyway) and Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum and even, Heaven help us, Elliott Gould) but it’s Bogart we think of when we read those books, and Hawks’ conceptions of the “mean streets” Marlowe operated on we imagine.

The picture did not come together as easily as Falcon. There was considerable confusion in the minds, not only of Hawks and his screenwriters but, oddly, of Chandler, as to who killed the chauffeur or even whether or not he was murdered. It’s made perfectly plain in the novel, so why Chandler was fuzzy on it is baffling. (Unless his inability to remember was related to his alcoholism?) But the book has a tendency to meander, and doesn’t so much end as taper off. Worse, from Hawks’ perspective — and that of Warner Bros., which very much wanted to capitalize on the heat Bogart and Lauren Bacall generated in To Have and Have Not, and to save a suddenly valuable property from her own thespic incompetency — the daughters of Marlowe’s aged client in the novel are impossible. The younger, Carmen, is either psychotic or a moron, if not both, and the older, Vivian, a spoiled, manipulative, irredeemable rich-bitch. The screenwriters (who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) were encouraged to get some of the teasing banter going between Marlowe and Vivian that sparked To Have and Have Not, and while Vivian may be insolent in the Chandler novel, she’s hardly encouraging, so they had their work cut out for them. Perhaps to make Vivian more available, they dropped her position in the book as the wife of a missing man and brought her into the climactic scenes as an ally for Marlowe, as well as a possible mate. When even that didn’t help, Hawks was required to re-shoot a number of scenes after the 1945 preview, and added some new ones. They improve the quality of the picture immensely, although some clarifying material was lost in the process, making the movie’s plot murkier than it needed to be.

The Big Sleep - Malone, Bogart

“Why, Miss Malone – without your glasses, you’re beautiful!

Hawks’ direction of the material, however, is first-rate. In tandem with his cinematographer, the gifted Sidney Hickox, who lit To Have and Have Not and would later shoot White Heat (1949), Hawks’ images are beautifully crisp and his staging immaculate, especially in some of the re-takes. He handles the Bogart/Bacall dynamic so well, and with such cheeky erotic command, it’s a shame the three never worked together again. (A thwarted would-be Svengali, Hawks was furious when he discovered Bacall had married Bogart.) Insolent sexiness was the one thing Bacall could do well, and her dialogue sequences with Bogie are small masterpieces of innuendo and insinuation, to a jaw-dropping degree when one considers the prevailing moral censorship of the time, as is the scene in which the bookshop proprietor (Dorothy Malone) entertains Marlowe, and her literally letting her hair down, accompanied by a discreet fade-out, tells us the two are doing a lot more in that bookstore than merely sharing a drink.

The Big Sleep - Bogart, Martha Vickers

There are other interesting sexual matters on the periphery of the narrative. In the novel, the murdered blackmailer Geiger is identified as homosexual, which was of course taboo under the Production Code, but you can’t escape the implication in the accurate design of his home in the movie, with its prissy Orientalist décor (Chandler: “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party”), nor in the presence of the avenging angel, Geiger’s young boyfriend Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). Chandler, of course, makes his usual snide fetish of this, reassuring his (male, hetero) readers that, despite Carol’s deadliness with a gun and his butch physicality, no faggot (his word, not mine) can throw a punch. Presumably, his wrist isn’t stiff enough to land a good slug. And, just as Lundgren’s reasons for his revenge killing is obscured, his favored direction — presumably, based on the position of the em dash, “Go fuck yourself” — is diluted here as “Take a jump, Jack,” but I doubt a 1946 audience had difficulty translating it. And while Carmen visits Marlowe’s office she does not, as in the book, invade his bed, or attempt to trick him into letting her shoot him. Yet she’s still clearly a nymphomaniac, a word I use advisedly, in its psycho-medical sense, which is as one with her general air of (again, physiological) moronism. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on The Big Sleep in praise of Martha Vickers’ quite eerie performance as Carmen, but her instincts are unerring, especially those blank looks she gives as her initial response to Marlowe’s sarcasm before she realizes he’s joshing her, and her impact is considerable.

Those who have only seen a couple of Bogart movies may think they have him pegged as a rough-edged romantic, and can see little difference between his performance as Sam Spade and this one. But Bogart’s Spade is, despite his tolerant amusement at the den of thieves he’s stumbled into, tightly coiled. He’s frustrated, and angry, not merely at the gallery of prevaricators with which he’s surrounded but by his loveless affair with his slain partner’s wife and perhaps over something else, some disappointment or betrayal we can only guess at. When he slaps Elisha Cook, Jr’s Wilmur, or, later, knocks him out, there is genuine fury there, as there is when he “pretends” to throw a violent fit of pique in the Fat Man’s hotel suite; you know it isn’t entirely an act. Bogart’s Marlowe is, by contrast, more laconic, and emotionally contained. He uses his fists, or his gun, only when there’s no other option, and does so dispassionately. And although he’s also amused by the outrageous, and as cynical as Spade, he has the ethics of a knight-errant. Spade admits he’s tempted by the lure of easy money, and turns Brigid O’Shaunessy over to the homicide cops for reasons of professional ethics even he doesn’t entirely understand. Marlowe keeps his reasons to himself, but is dogged both in protecting his client and in pursuit of what he has been contracted to do, and no matter how much personal danger that doggedness puts in his path. He’s easier with women (or at least with some women) than Spade and, even when he knows Vivian is lying her head off to him, is more intrigued by her than annoyed at her lies. You also sense that he expects to be lied to, even by his clients, and enjoys watching the process and trying to discover what they’re lying about. And while he’s no one’s fool, he seems to genuinely like people more than Spade, whether they’re agreeable to him, hostile, or trying to lead him down a false trail, something Bacall’s Vivian chides him about (“You like too many people”) when he’s tied up and wondering whether he’ll get away or be slowly tortured to death.

The Big Sleep - Bogart in bookshop (resized)

“You do sell books… mmmm?”

Bogart (and his screenwriters and director) have some fun with the process of detection, occasionally in ways that twit the Breen Office, as when Marlowe visits Geiger’s alleged rare book shop. In Chandler, he assumes the persona of a stereotypical, lisping pansy-type. In the movie Bogart raises the brim of his hat, lowers his shades and mugs in an outrageous, indeterminately effeminate manner one suspects Hawks figured would be just eccentric enough to defy anyone pinning it down definitely as gay. As with John Huston’s pulling off the various homosexual characters in Falcon, a contemporary viewer may feel less offense at the implication than amusement that the people involved got away with it.

Hawks honors his source as much as possible, albeit with some variations and elisions, even to the extent of replicating the autumn Los Angeles rains that are the novel’s near-constant atmospheric phenomena. The action of the book is necessarily compacted, and streamlined, as with Vivian no longer being the wife of the missing Sean (Rusty in Chandler) Reagan. Much of the dialogue, other than the suggestive byplay between Bogie and Bacall, comes directly from the novel, and the action follows it very closely. The only major change is the explosive, cleverly constructed finale which Hawks, with his habitual disregard for crossing the same river twice, recycled for the climax of Rio Bravo (also written by Leigh Brackett) thirteen years later, and since Rio Bravo is such a damnably entertaining picture, I suspect only those who dislike Hawks’ movies generally get worked up about that. There’s some marvelous repartee between Bogart and Bacall in the re-imagined sequences, including an improvised Ma-and-Pa routine between Marlowe and Vivian and an unseen police officer they confuse and antagonize in equal measure. (Bogart’s “Oh, I wouldn’t like that” in response to a buzz of a line over the telephone makes it clear the cop has just suggested something identical to Carol Lundgren’s preferred instruction in the novel.) And if the Marlowe of the movie is not as disgusted with his own, unwitting, complicity in the process of death as Chandler’s detective, neither is he indifferent to it.

The Big Sleep - Cook, Bogart

As usual with Hawks, the supporting roles are wonderfully cast, and the performances, however brief, perfectly modulated: Dorothy Malone’s sharp, sly bookseller, who never makes a wrong move even when required to remove her glasses and let down her hair to get a reaction from Marlowe; John Ridley’s alternately suave and dangerous casino proprietor who knows far more than he ever lets on; Peggy Knudsen as his supposedly estranged wife; Regis Toomey’s nicely judged police inspector; Charles D. Brown’s butler, less silkily insinuating than his coeval in Chandler; Sonia Darrin as a bad girl two men die for and who isn’t worth a beating let alone a murder; Charles Waldron’s strikingly honest and unself-pitying old reprobate; and, especially, Elisha Cook, Jr’s low-key hustler, hoping to parlay a little information into a payday. “Harry Jones” is almost the flip-side of Wilmur in Falcon, soft-spoken, un-threatening, courageous when it matters and even capable of being mildly offended at one of Marlowe’s nastier cracks; his understated reaction shames the speaker, who slowly (if too late) begins to appreciate the true-blue quality of the “little man,” even in the face of certain, and particularly unpleasant, death.

Max Steiner’s score is briefer and less obtrusive than usual, and he came up with a couple of very fine motifs, especially the minor-key love theme for Bogart and Bacall. When even as bombastic an auditory scene-stealer as Steiner can be inveighed upon to embrace subtlety, it’s a pretty good indication that something more interesting than normal was going on.

The Big Sleep - poster

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

What gold makes of us: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)

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By Scott Ross

“It isn’t the gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist.” — B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

“That’s the gold. That’s what it makes of us. Never knew a prospector yet that died rich.” — Howard (Walter Huston) in the film

If those two statements seem contradictory, John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is still one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come. Nearly everything Traven gets at in the book is there, only with fewer lengthy parables and less Marxist hectoring. And if Huston slightly reverses the author’s message at the end, it’s not a fatal reinterpretation, or even a misinterpretation. It’s simply a means of making the best of things, and leaving the audience a little something to dream on: Traven’s survivors share a bitter joke, and defeat. Huston’s shoulder the black irony as well, but both are left with something to look forward to.

Traven’s economic Marxism is not incorrect, mind you, merely pushed at a bit too hard: The narrative itself is its own Marxist parable and doesn’t require such heavy editorializing. It’s the same problem one encounters so often with Brecht; when creative writers, even proven artists, become rigidly dogmatic their tendency to the pedantic militates against their artistry, and hammering home a point to make sure the slowest mind in the back stalls can grasp it sure plays hell with art. Traven isn’t as boringly doctrinaire as Brecht, but his digressive parables are overlong and all come to the same point: Where riches are concerned, men and women destroy each other, and themselves, pursuing them. Since the narrative arc of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre makes that abundantly clear, the parables become slogs to get through, even when they’re written with grace and peppered with sharp observation; we want to get back to the story, and the author isn’t going to oblige us without a lecture first.

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Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs and Tim Holt as Curtin.

The one digression that feeds directly into the action of the book, the appalling massacre by a cadre of bandits of passengers on a train they’re robbing, is foreshortened in the movie, the calculated murderousness elided. (Although one suspects that, if the brigands gained control of the train, a lot more than cash would be taken.) Huston makes his three protagonists direct participants in the defense of the train whereas in Traven’s book the incident is reported on to suggest that the bandits, although their ranks are gradually thinned out by the Mexican Federales, and while they are scattered about in smaller groups, are still a danger. The bandidos who bedevil Traven’s characters are random, and varied, while Huston has his actors encounter the central villain, referred to as “Gold Hat,” three times. That may make for easier audience identification, but it stretches credulity past the breaking point. That’s one of the few missteps Huston makes. Another is his using some of Warners’ rather poorly disguised outdoor sets and not really attempting to disguise them with better lighting. Reality, captured in more natural light, renders contrivance superfluous, if not in a way obscene; compared in the same picture to Huston’s vibrant location shots in Mexico, the manufactured outdoor sets look even phonier than is usual with these things.

If you weren’t aware that this was his first studio picture since 1942, you’d never know there was such a gap between Huston’s movies. Not that he had been idle; as a Motion Picture Unit officer, he made a number of documentaries for the armed forces and, even if most are tainted by Huston’s re-creating incidents depicted in them, he doubtless picked up invaluable experience on the ground that affected his post-war work, as well as emotional experience that expanded and deepened his point of view. Unlike John Ford, who as as result of his armed service activities became besotted with all things military, Huston left the European Theatre with a lifelong loathing for war. And it’s telling that his most anguished documentary, the 1946 Let There Be Light, about the treatment of emotionally damaged vets, was, following a single screening at the Museum of Modern Art, suppressed by the U.S. government for over 35 years. After all, we mustn’t let the mass public ever see the true human cost of allowing their sons to become cannon-fodder.

As the picture’s screenwriter, Huston honors the source, as he did with The Maltese Falcon, and  although he takes more liberties with Traven than he did with Hammett, you don’t mind most of them. He streamlines a slightly unwieldy narrative, and focuses it, removing the digressions. On the negative side, although Huston adds little, those additions he does make are not necessarily felicitous: For example, the way Curtin (Tim Holt) reminisces about an Edenic summer spent working with migrants, a monologue of joyous hard labor that smacks of capitalist propaganda; or the convenient sentimental letter Bruce Bennett’s Cody (Lacaud in the novel, where he isn’t killed) has in his pocket, which is read aloud after his death and which sets the agriculturally-inclined Curtin to thinking about the man’s young widow.* And when Howard (Walter Huston) is kept at the Indian village, instead of chafing at his enforced vacation as he does in the book, his reverie is a virtual paradise of the senses: Fruit and melon fed to him by beautiful girls who coo over him as he lies in a hammock receiving gifts of squealing piglets. It’s poster-art tourism as a state of mind, and the mind isn’t really Howard’s. (Perhaps it was Huston’s?) Interestingly, while Gold Hat’s famous lines about badges are taken directly from Traven, Humphrey Bogart’s most well-remembered exclamation (“Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean”) is pure John Huston, as is the sequence with the gila monster. And if the writer-director softened Traven’s Socialism, and completely eliminated his intelligent and entirely justified anti-clericism, he left in the original author’s critique of unfettered capitalism, and of the way riches — or even the mere promise of them — alter human beings for the worse. Getting away with that, in the happily capitalist late 1940s, and under a Production Code that glorified bankers, was not nothing.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bedoya

No stinking badges: Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat.

As a filmmaker Huston serves his screenwriter, and Traven. He fully captures the grungy milieu of post-oil boom Mexico, when American corporate interests had just about finished raping the land and carrying away the Mexican people’s natural treasure, leaving a gigantic labor void in their careless wake where stranded workers, many of them foreign, were ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous fly-by-night speculators like Barton MacLane’s Pat McCormick. (No wonder Traven laid his Marxist lessons on with a trowel.) Huston also evens things out a bit, as in the sequence in which Dobbs and Curtin brace their fellow American McCormick, who owes them their wages for weeks of back-breaking work and pretty obviously has no intention of paying, in a bar. In Traven, the pair subdue him quickly. In Huston, it’s a well-matched battle, McCormick giving as good as he gets until he’s finally overmastered by superior numbers. (Although the staging is sometimes awkward and some of the punches are too obviously pulled, lessening the impact of the action.) But it was censorship that flattened out what should have been the movie’s most dramatic moment, when Dobbs is decapitated by Gold Hat. If you watch closely and know to look for it, you can after the edit that follows see ripples in the water where his head, in the shot Huston was forced to cut, rolled into the river. The picture was already tough and unsettling; did the Hays Office imagine this moment was going to drive its viewers irrevocably ’round the bend?


One of the pleasures of the book, and especially of the movie made from it, is the conception of Howard, the old hand who leads Dobbs’ expedition in search of gold. He could have been a twinkling, saintly bore, too true to be good; perhaps aware of this, Traven (and even more so Huston) make Howard wise but not omniscient and, as he explains to Dobbs and Curtin, more trustworthy but not necessarily more honest than his companions. It’s a also role that could have been emptily and annoyingly garrulous if the hands of a lesser actor than John Huston’s father.

Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

“Go ahead, go ahead, throw it. If you did, you’d never leave this wilderness alive.” Walter Huston’s Howard is unimpressed by Dobbs’ anger.

Walter Huston, while never a film-star, was often the best thing about any movie he appeared in and, in the 1936 William Wyler-directed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, gave one of the so-called Golden Era’s indisputably great performances — and in one of the truly splendid, and uniquely adult, American movies, not merely of its time but of any time. Huston’s voice was one which, as recognizable in its subtler way as that of Cagney or Robinson, could wind itself as easily around virtue as rascality. His range was so extensive he could play Satan (in The Devil and Daniel Webster) or Abraham Lincoln, a corrupt president or an honest banker (surely an oxymoron even for Frank Capra!), George M. Cohan’s dad or Ambassador Joseph Davis, and be utterly convincing as each. He even, while appearing as Peter Stuyvesant in the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson musical Knickerbocker Holiday, had the late 1930s equivalent of a Top 40 hit in “September Song.” His rendition, as precariously pitched as a Gertrude Lawrence aria, remains definitive.†

At John’s suggestion, Walter removed his dentures for the role. On his own impulse, he spoke Howard’s lines very fast; he reasoned that, when a man is honest, he doesn’t have to think a great deal about what he’s saying. Although his son undermines him at a crucial juncture, lingering too long on Howard’s doubtful countenance when Dobbs and Curtin pledge their good faith to each other — the moment could have been twice as effective at a third the length — it’s nearly impossible to think of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre without grinning at the sheer love of acting he displays. The moment when, taking a leaf from Traven’s description he begins dancing a jig (one Huston said was taught to him by Cohan) and letting loose with gales of wheezy cackling as he taunts his compatriots for their ignorance is one of the highest moments in American movies. (That it also lays the groundwork for Howard’s burst of what Traven called “Homeric laughter” at the end is surely not coincidental.) But it isn’t all mad dances and explosive laughter; Huston is equally good in calmer moments, when his quiet dignity commands attention. Think, for example, of that extraordinary sequence, so beautifully lit and shot by the cinematographer Ted McCord, in which the old prospector ministers to the little Indian boy whose puzzling coma is what brings Howard into the camp. Howard is no doctor; he knows that most of what he’s doing is dumb-show, and that the child will either recover or not without his assistance. Yet even his showing off has a gentle serenity that commends to him our rapt approval. Walter Huston won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for this performance, but even if he hadn’t, it would be still be among the imperishable treasures of American film.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Blake

“You can take dat to da bank, señor“: Little Bobby Blake, about to have a glass of water thrown into his face by Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart, meanwhile, is Dobbs to the life. He fixes the character’s desperation, and his embarrassed awareness of his own extreme poverty, from the first moments, and his performance strongly suggests the actor knew, whatever the ultimate box-office returns of the movie, that this was going to be a career-high role. In the previous seven years, due in large part to the success of Huston’s debut as a filmmaker, The Maltese Falcon, Bogey had become a major star, at least the equal at Warners of Bette Davis if not indeed her superior at the box office. His public romance with (and later marriage to) Lauren Bacall deepened the new aura of sexiness that had surrounded him after his emergence as a romantic leading man in Casablanca, and while moviegoers liked him best as a tough hero Bogart couldn’t be limited that way; although he’d struggled a long time to get the sort of better roles (and better pictures) that led to this new popularity, he was too good an actor to be put into a box and, whatever the feudal qualities of the Hollywood system’s creative servitude, too valuable to his studio to be forced into roles he didn’t want in scripts he didn’t like.

Dobbs is the antithesis of Rick Blaine of Casablanca, or Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe or even Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not. He is closer, physically, to Duke Mantee, the scruffy gangster Bogart portrayed in the stage play (and, later, film) The Petrified Forest. Not that he’s a gangster, or anything close. But his unshaven state is not dissimilar, nor is his essential roughness of personality. Dobbs isn’t unlettered, exactly; in both the novel and the movie of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre you get the sense he’s at very least a high school graduate. It’s more a matter of his bitterness, and his degradation. Like many Americans at that time, he’s been stranded in Mexico with no means of getting back home for so long he’s more than begun to wonder if he’ll die in Tampico, or end up a complete derelict. That’s he’s relatively young — not as young as Curtin, but young enough — is no comfort; what do youth or health mean when you can’t find work? Dobbs’ situation is Traven’s ultimate rebuke of the notion of capitalism itself, in which your very existence depends on some rich bastard hiring you, usually for as little as he can get away with, and his paying you that only when you can catch him. Bogart gets all of this across, almost without speaking. And Huston, as the writer and director, deepens our appreciation of Dobbs, as when Bogart, seeing a lit, discarded cigarette in the street, hesitates and is beaten to it by a small Mexican boy.§

As in the novel, Dobbs’ change of persona in the movie is gradual. He isn’t presented, either by Traven or by Huston, as even potentially villainous, merely as a man on his uppers for so long his ideals (which may only be skin-deep anyway) don’t require much of a nudge to slip away entirely. Although he doesn’t admit to such thoughts, as Howard does,  the very decent Curtin has his moment of temptation, when the mine caves in on Dobbs and he pauses before going to his rescue; you can see Tim Holt, as Curtin, weighing the odds and calculating how much richer he will be if Dobbs perishes. The difference between him and Dobbs, and between Dobbs and Howard, is that their basic decency intervenes. Dobbs is missing something fundamental in his psyche that might ward off his baser impulses, and Bogart is almost uncanny in the way he makes that lack work for him as an actor. It’s in the lines, of course, and the story’s rising action, but the final and most important push is his. The desperation Bogart lets us glimpse early in the picture, together with the character’s growing paranoia, prepares us for his ability to wrap his mind, increasingly unbalanced by the presence of the gold slung over the backs of their mules, around the idea of killing Curtin, and we’re not shocked by it when he shoots him. It says something fundamental about the idiocy of award races that Academy voters, faced with Bogart’s just about perfect performance, didn’t nominate him for its Best Actor Oscar® that year… although they did find room for Dan Dailey in a musical no one remembers. One would almost think the nominating members of the Academy in 1949 were 21st century Democrats.


Treasure of the Sirra Madre - finale

Homeric laughter: Holt and Huston in the ironic finale.

It speaks well of Tim Holt’s innate resourcefulness as an actor that as Curtin he is able to not merely hold his own between Bogart and Walter Huston but manage as well to be nearly as fine in a far less showy part. The son of a silent movie personality, and a young man determined to be a Western movie star, Holt worked largely in B-movies (what Orson Welles referred to as “all sorts of six-day Westerns”) yet managed to be in several big pictures in roles of varying importance: Stella Dallas (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), Back Street (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946, as Virgil Earp) and the two pictures for which he is best remembered, this one and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, in which Holt is superb as Georgie Minifer, monstrously spoiled and eminently deserving of his “comeuppance.” In Curtin Holt assays Georgie’s antithesis, a man of a basic decency, and makes him memorable. Watch him especially in the scene where Howard laughs at the loss of their gold: Holt looks puzzled at first, then shocked, then frightened at Howard’s sudden hilarity, before slowly giving in to the cosmic joke of it. That’s one nice piece of acting.

While most of the movie’s running time concerns itself with Bogart, Huston and Holt, Bennett creates a strong impression in his brief role as Cody, and MacLane is typically blustery (Bogart and Huston fans will remember him as the surly police detective in The Maltese Falcon bent on nailing Sam Spade for… whatever he can) as the duplicitous contractor Dobbs and Curtin have to nearly beat into a coma just to receive their pay. Little Robert Blake (billed as “Bobby”) does a beautiful job as a hustling street urchin, Alfonso Bedoya is genuinely frightening as “Gold Hat,” John Huston makes a strong showing as a white-suited American whom Dobbs pandhandles once too often, and Jack Holt, Tim’s actor father, shows up in the last-rung flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin first encounter Howard.¶

Treasure - Steiner (Rhino CD)

Steiner’s score on a Rhino/Turner CD release. Note the cleaned-up star portraits from the original poster, and the superfluous señorita promising the potential ticket-buyer a little sex with his treasure-hunting. Alas, the first third of the master tapes are missing, but the disc beautifully represents Steiner’s best score after King Kong and Gone with the Wind… and one of his least annoying. 

In addition to the then-unusual amount of location shooting, which gives the picture much of its solid verisimilitude, Huston was abetted enormously by McCord’s rich black-and-white cinematography. McCord had a splendid eye for contrast, and his images are rich and resonant. The people involved in this project seemed to know it was special; even the often bombastic Max Steiner delivered a score that is more subtle than was his wont. Aside from his appropriately fable-like opening theme and a recurrent motif for the trio of gold-miners that has the feel of plodding uphill with burrows but without the sort of dogged literal-mindedness that spoiled Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Steiner’s finest accomplishment here is the way he scored the sequence in which the men watch, and wait, for the arrival of the bandits at their camp. He scores the onset with a long, sustained chord by harp and other strings and low rolling drums which, repeated, accentuates the tension nearly to the breaking point. It’s so effective it was later duplicated by John Williams for the sequence in Jaws where Quint prepares to hook the shark, and where it was equally successful.

Huston’s direction throughout is almost shockingly right. The camerawork is clean and effective, the pacing, despite an unusually long running-time for the period, is brisk yet never hurried, and attention is paid in exactly the correct proportions to place, and to people. This, I think, is part of the advantage of being a writer-director. And like Howard Hawks, or George Cukor, both filmmakers intimately involved in the crafting of their movies’ screenplays (especially Hawks, who like Hitchcock was usually an un-credited writer on his scripts) Huston seemed to know instinctively how to group his actors, and where to place his camera, to achieve the maximum dramatic impact, without calling attention to himself. If this translates as a lack of style among pure image junkies — if they cannot appreciate how a director can frame his material without distracting the audience with fancy camera moves — they deserve nothing better than a steady diet of Scorsese and Coen.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was fairly costly ($2,474,000) and it took in less than twice its budget, earning $4,095,000 on its initial release. But it was highly praised, by people who seemed to grasp that darker, less compromised movies than had been the norm for decades were now in the wind, and that John Huston was not merely a figure to watch, but very likely one of the people who would be pushing the medium hard in the future. Whoever B. Traven was, one likes to imagine he did not feel betrayed by the motion picture made, so lovingly and so well, from his most famous book.

Walter and John Huston - Oscars

Walter and John on Oscar® night 1949. The first, and so far only, father/son winners in the same year, for the same picture.


*Curiously, although Curtin explicitly states that his golden summer was spent in California (the San Joaquin Valley), Max Steiner, the movie’s composer, called his music for this sequence “Texas Memories.” And while I am not fond of the letter Huston added, which strains to jerk tears for a character about whom we know little and care even less, the line about the crops (“the upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm”) is lovely.

†I still can’t figure out what the progressive Weill was doing in collaboration with a reactionary like Anderson, especially on a show whose villain was a stand-in for FDR. But they worked together four times, so the playwright (and occasional lyricist) must have offered something to Weill in the way of artistic compensation.

§The boy seems to be Bobbie Blake — he wears the same sort of striped shirt and dirty overalls as Blake in his later scenes in the movie — but he’s on screen for so brief a moment it’s difficult to tell for certain.

¶Welles used, anachronistically, a poster for a Jack Holt silent during one of the street sequence in Ambersons, “just to make Tim happy.”

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Cinematic neoteny: “In a Lonely Place” (1950)

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By Scott Ross

There is a fair amount to admire in the 1950 thriller In a Lonely Place, but you may respond to it more fully than I did if you have not read the 1947 Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it is ostensibly based. Hughes’ book is the earliest I know of in American popular literature (although there are probably others) to examine what we now routinely call a serial killer, and to do so from his point of view. The Dixon Steele of Hughes’ short, sharp character study is an almost classic sociopath, smug, narcissistic and paranoid, for whom every word spoken, or action undertaken, by others is a potential threat to his imagined security. And although he blames his monthly killings of young women in the Los Angeles area on “megrimes,” any suggestion in his own restless mind of a betrayal can set him off. It’s a thoroughly chilling portrayal, weakened only by Dix Steele’s double phallic pun of a name and a credulity-stretching climax (would Dix’s friend, the police detective Brub Nicolai, really put his own wife in danger after repeatedly telling Steele how he’s infected her with his fears?) and illuminated throughout with writing which, while often strikingly beautiful, is in no way stereotypically “feminine.” Hughes was as hard-boiled as Chandler, but without the fussiness, or the macho chip on the shoulder.

As written, Steele is the sort of character Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark usually got typecast as, although Hughes describes him in a way that suggests he’s young-male-ingenue handsome. And while the Steele of the book pretends to be writing a mystery novel so he can give a legitimate reason for inserting himself into the investigation of his own crimes, the Dixon Steel played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie is a professional screenwriter teetering between success and failure and hampered largely by his explosive temper. I’m not sure I accept that a minor Hollywood scribe could get away with as many violent incidents as Steele has — the list, and it’s a long one, is enumerated by the police captain (Carl Benton Reid) directing the case of the young woman (Martha Stewart) murdered shortly after leaving Dix’s apartment — or that a purported failure could live in quite as nice a place as Steele does, but everyone who knows him seems to be aware of, and to accept, his almost homicidal rages. People, in Hollywood and elsewhere, are ostracized for less. But the champions of In a Lonely Place, movie critics and movie directors, love self-referential pictures almost as they love something they identify, usually wrongly, as film noir.

Being auteurists to their core, they especially love that the gifted hack Nicholas Ray directed it. I don’t knock Ray entirely; he had a certain feral energy as a director that lent itself well to grungy thrillers. But it’s difficult to look at hifalutin programmers like On Dangerous Ground, symbol-laden and unintentionally hilarious Technicolor camp such as Johnny Guitar or pretentious and hysterical trash on the order of Rebel Without a Cause and find a great movie artist at work among their ruins. That Jean-Luc Godard could write, with utter seriousness, in a review of the botched Bitter Victory, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray” probably explains Godard better than anyone else could. Nor am I in sympathy with those who go into rhapsodies over what a great movie about Hollywood In a Lonely Place is; the Dixon Steele of the movie could be a writer of any sort inspired by love to turn a job of work into something better. There’s no special air of “Hollywood” to the picture other than that, and the fact Ray had the apartment building designed to resemble one he’d lived at during his earliest days in the city. Certainly In a Lonely Place isn’t a patch on Sunset Boulevard, which had more to say about movieland than merely getting off the occasional witty aperçus that decorate Andrew Solt’s screenplay.

In a Lonely Place - Bogart, Mel Lippman, Robert Warwick, Grahame resized

What shall we do with the drunken actor? Humphrey Bogart, Art Smith, Robert Warwick and Gloria Grahame.

And what of that script? On the plus side it has those one-liners, a few good scenes, and makes a rich, full (and likable) character out of Hughes’ calculating sensualist Laurel Grey so that when Steel falls in love with her it isn’t, as in her novel, one-sided. (Although it should be noted that nowhere in the book does Laurel deceive Dix into thinking she loves him back; he just can’t see how she couldn’t.) And since either Solt, or Edmund H. North who did the adaptation, made the narrative less Hughes’ portrait of a killer than a sketch of a man who might be a murderer, now or at the moment someone isn’t around to stop him, that is to his (or their) credit as well. In the minus column… well, pretty much everything else, from the way the script renders Hughes’ troubled police inspector a tough-guy cliché, to its adding in a lugubrious sentimental drunk ham-actor (Robert Warwick) for Dix to take pity on, to another addition, Steele’s long-suffering agent (Art Smith) who is either harder up than he admits, in love with Steele, or as lacking in intellect as he is in self-esteem; he certainly behaves like an idiot. On the Criterion disc Curtis Hansen, who in his writing and direction ruined (to great acclaim from semi-literates) what is probably James Ellroy’s finest novel with his disastrous transliteration, calls the In a Lonely Place screenplay “a model of adaptation.” Like L.A. Confidential?

The movie is structured like a conventional mystery, although it’s fairly obvious from the beginning that this Dixon Steele is not a serial murderer but, in his unstable excesses of rage, has the strong potential to kill, and the picture carries us along largely on our curiosity about whether he will. The Dix of the movie, unlike the more certifiable Steele of Hughes’ novel, seems a victim of psychological neoteny — juvenile rages which make Dix brother under the skin to so many Baby Boomers and their tantrum-throwing progeny who, as others such as Eliot M. Camarena have pointed out, actually weep in public when one psychopathic presidential candidate loses to another. I’ll give Nicholas Ray this: Although he shot the ending Solt wrote, in which Dix murders Laurel in a murderous fugue (the cover of the Criterion release seems to be a still taken from that) he had second, and better, thoughts about it. The best thing in the picture, in fact, aside from the performances by Bogart and Grahame, is the ending he came up with, which replaces violence and repentance with a nearly unbearable sadness. Whether this seemingly insuperable anguish burns the rage out of Dixon Steele is doubtful, but it kills love, and hope, and one can imagine Dix spending the rest of his days afraid to love again.

IALP_Bogart_Grahame_murder

I think it’s this devastating climax that endears In a Lonely Place to so many cineastes, and causes them to label it, wrongly, noir. And if the rest of the picture were anywhere near as good as those three or four minutes it would indeed be a classic. But much of it is flat, leaving us little to cling to between Steele’s bouts of uncontrollable rage except the actors, and our vague uneasiness about exactly when, and how, Dix will next explode. (And yes, I know that’s what turns some people on about the movie. I just don’t think it’s enough.)

Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is good but not great, and he repeats a terrible device from the 1931 Dracula, in which when he’s directing Nicolai and his wife as they re-enact the girl’s murder Bogart’s eyes are illuminated by a baby spot, to emphasize Steele’s… something or other. It’s as annoying here as it was when they did it to Lugosi, but at least with Dracula the filmmakers had the excuse that the character whose eyes were having light thrown at them was supernatural. (Naturally, the auteurists on the Criterion disc go into ecstasies over this nonsense. So profound!) And although George Antheil’s music seems to be trying for a Miklós Rózsa flavor the composer hasn’t the feel for it. (Of the Hollywood composers prominent at that time, Rózsa would have been best for this job, followed by Franx Waxman and David Raksin.) There are two notable scenes involving black actors which, while they do not emphasize the race of the performers, also do not denigrate them for it: Hadda Brooks’ sequence in a nightclub, playing and singing the appropriately-titled “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You,” and a brief scene between Bogart and Davis Roberts as a flower shop employee, a moment notable for how normalized Roberts’ role, dialogue and performance are, and which does credit to the movie’s director.

Grahame, who a couple of years later would win an undeserved Oscar® for an extended cameo — and over Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain! — shows how good she could be at playing a bright, independent woman who, as Bogart’s Steele observes, knows what she wants. “I also know what I don’t want,” she advises him. “And I don’t want to be rushed.” Unlike the Laurel Grey of Hughes’ novel, Grahame is avid for more than sex; she’s a helpmeet and a friend and she hangs with Dix until she can no longer ignore the signs that he’s dangerous. Before his jealous rages begin, she and Bogart have a mature, relaxed and cheerful give-and-take that is the most pleasurable aspect of the picture.

In a Lonely Place - Bogart and Grahame resized

Steele is one of those roles that stretched Bogart, and you feel he was lit up by the possibilities. (His company produced the picture.) The extreme, mercurial nature of the character plays to all Bogie’s strengths: His tenderness, his wry humor, his low-key sarcasm, his graceful physicality, his righteous indignation, his ability to brood without our losing sympathy and his own, occasionally frightening, penchant for expressing instantaneous fury. Performances like this one remind us of just how much was lost when Humphrey Bogart died at the obscenely young age of 57.

As with many of Bogart’s movies, In a Lonely Place could be a great deal better. But I don’t see how he could.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: January, 2020

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By Scott Ross

As my quarterly reports seem to be getting longer and longer, and because I’m watching more movies of late, I’m trying a monthly capsule in place of my usual quarterlies. At least this month. If I see fewer movies in future I may go back to the quarterly model, or perhaps a bimonthly accounting.

As ever, click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

Gilbert and Dara Gottfried

Gilbert (2017) Neil Berkeley’s surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.


Anything Goes - Sinatra, Merman and Lahr

“Good evening, friends…” Sinatra, Merman and Lahr in an unreasonable facsimile of Anything Goes.

Anything Goes (1954) A mess, with compensations.


Snow White - bedroom

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney’s first animated feature still delights — and terrifies —  80-plus years later.


Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty - spindle

One of the most visually compelling of the animated features made at his studio while Walt Disney was alive, Sleeping Beauty, initially released in Super Technirama 70mm, is a knockout on a wide theatre screen… a pleasure I am sorry to say few in America will ever enjoy again as I did with Disney cartoons, often, in my youth. It still looks good on a plasma screen, and its climax is beautifully animated, but it’s a rather cold movie — a triumph of design over substance. Disney, busy with his park, let Eyvind Earle impose his style, based in large part on John Hench’s evocations of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, on the picture, and often backed Earle over his animators. The major problem with Sleeping Beauty is that what should be its central character is little more than a cypher. Cinderella, the previous Disney animated feature focused on a young woman (as opposed to the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland) gave its heroine rich character, and dimension, from the very first scene. She was kind, and generous, and we understood that, while laboring in terrible circumstances, she never wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself, even if she occasionally (and deservedly) expressed resigned irritation. The teenage Brier Rose/Aurora, this story’s princess, has only one important sequence (directed by Eric Larson) before she falls under the wicked fairy Maleficent’s spell, and while it’s a lovely one, and lengthy, it isn’t enough. And in its aftermath, when she learns her identity from the fairies who raised her and is told she’s betrothed and can’t see the boy she’s met in the forest, her reaction seems petty, like a petulant schoolgirl throwing an after-school fit because her mother’s grounded her.

None of the other characters are especially fulsome except Maleficent, and that’s largely due to Marc Davis’ animation (he also animated Aurora) and Eleanor Audley’s superb vocal performance. Three who come close to being well-defined are the good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, animated almost entirely by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (Milt Kahl’s Prince Phillip has dimensions, but he’s no more fully sketched-in than the Princess.) Wolfgang Reitherman, who later took Disney animation into an almost entirely sentiment-free realm as the director of every feature between 1961 and 1977, was responsible for the picture’s most effective sequence, the epic battle between Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a great dragon. Interestingly, Reitherman’s mediocre work as the director of the hipper, less emotionally plangent titles of the ’60s and ’70s, is bordered by two of the studio’s best features, 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers. Somehow, something more came through in those pictures. Whatever it was, a tincture or two should have been applied to Sleeping Beauty.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons 194373582Although it physically sickens me whenever I think about what RKO did to it, I tend to see what could have been Orson Welles’ masterwork more or less yearly as I get older, and, as with Citizen Kane, usually notice something fresh in it I hadn’t quite seen before — some little detail, or even just a look on one of the actors’ faces, that had previously eluded me and that enriches the experience. And each time I see it, Agnes Moorehead’s performance moves me more. It’s among the most naked jobs of acting in movies; I don’t think the kind of shrill, bitter, self-pitying loneliness she evokes as Fanny Minifer has its equal anywhere in American film, and she doesn’t make you wince; despite yourself, you pity her. That Moorhead was herself as plain as Fanny in the story makes her work doubly impressive, and poignant. And she isn’t afraid to look ugly, as when she mocks Georgie (Tim Holt); you understand, without being told (although it’s made explicit later in the picture) that she has put up with this spoiled brat’s mean-spirited teasing for 20 years, and is giving back in the same, immature, vein — the only response possible. Although Welles maintained that Moorehead’s best scene was removed from the picture and burned, she has two sequences that are almost shocking in their raw emotionality.  One, famously, is near the end, when insupportable reality drives her to hysteria. But the first, when she realizes just how terrible are the consequences of her hurt carelessness, is, although briefer, in its way even greater. The way, leaning over on the staircase nearly in pain, Moorehead moans out Fanny’s misery and regret (Oh, I was a fool!) as if she’d like to push every harmful word she’s ever spoken back down her own gullet, and choke on them, is so utterly without guile or calculation it’s almost a new form of acting. Stanislavsky would have had little to teach her.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder - Gazarra, Stewart
Otto Preminger was a superficially gifted filmmaker who, perhaps because he was as publicity-conscious as Hitchcock, routinely got credit for more than he deserved, and ink for outraging the system, itself largely out of proportion to his achievements. (Burt Kennedy: “I drove by Otto Preminger’s house last night… or is it A House by Otto Preminger?”) I give him a certain amount of credit for unblinkingly depicting addiction and withdrawal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1954) and for twitting the idiot Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953) but his alleged genius eludes me. That said, Anatomy of a Murder stands not merely as the finest of all courtroom dramas, and a sneakily subversive one, but as one of the greatest of all popular American movies. Much of the credit goes to the sceenwriter, Wendell Mayes, for taking a mildly diverting (and somewhat self-serving) novel by a former Michigan County Prosecuting Attorney — and then state Supreme Court Justice — and improving it in nearly every way. I don’t know how much of this revision was guided by Preminger, but the movie’s deep sense of ambiguity, regarding the law, the behavior of its characters and the case itself was surely shared by the picture’s director. James Stewart gives a career-high performance as the wily defense attorney, and he’s met blow-for-blow by the supporting cast: Lee Remick as a curiously sensual rape victim (one can just hear today’s “a woman never lies” crowd gnashing their teeth and murmuring, “How very dare they!”), Ben Gazzara as her intelligent brute of a husband, Arthur O’Connell as a bibulous former attorney, Kathryn Grant as the murder victim’s heir, George C. Scott as a sneering prosecutor, Orson Bean as an Army shrink, Russ Brown as a trailer park caretaker, Murray Hamilton as a hostile witness, John Qualen as  a prison deputy, Howard McNear as an expert witness, Jimmy Conlin as an habitual drunkard happy to sacrifice his liberty for a case of fine liquor, Don Ross as a shady con, Joseph N. Welch — himself lately, and famously, a defense attorney for the Army against a certain Senator from Wisconsin — as the presiding judge and, sublimely, Eve Arden as Stewart’s wry and long-suffering secretary. Few months have passed since my seeing this movie the first time that I haven’t had occasion to hear Arden’s “If I was on that jury I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t know” reverberate softly in my head.

Anatomy of a Murder - Eve Arden resized

Preminger will never be a favorite of mine, but this movie certainly is.


Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Of all the gin-joints…

Casablanca (1942) I hope it isn’t true, as I have read, that Millennials and their even younger counterparts don’t know, have not heard of and have never seen, one of everybody else’s favorite movies… but I suspect it is. Because it’s in black-and-white? Because it’s older than Star Wars? Because it’s concerned with people, as opposed to special effects? Well, they don’t know who Jack Kennedy was either, or care that he was probably murdered by their government. Whatever the reasons, the losses are theirs entirely. Or soon will be. And then they’ll be the world’s.

Still… imagine a time, 40 or 50 years from now, when no one remembers Casablanca. I’m glad I’ll have been long dead.


My Dinner with Andre
My Dinner with André (1981) In the nearly four decades since this nonpariel movie was released, I don’t think a week has gone by without my recalling something André Gregory said in it. So much of what he and Wallace Shawn discuss seemed at the time both extreme and all too possible. Now their conversation feels entirely prescient.

Wallace Shawn: “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”


Key Largo (1948) Key Largo - Bogart on boat
This adaptation, by Richard Brooks and John Huston, of Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 blank verse drama retained little but the basic narrative set-up, a character or two, and the title. The antagonists of the reactionary Anderson’s play were Mexican bandidos, and the Humphrey Bogart character was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War. (He’s also, in typical poetic/nihilist 1930s fashion, killed at the end, after redeeming himself. Huston and Brooks let Bogie off that unnecessary hook.) As a high-tension melodrama, the picture is vastly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously for a moment.

Among the things that can’t take much scrutiny is Huston’s desire to make a cheap hood like the Edward G. Robinson character stand in for all the evil of the post-war world. But if you ignore the unworkable metaphors and Lauren Bacall’s inability to do much of anything except smolder and concentrate instead on the performances by Robinson, Bogart and, especially, Claire Trevor as a broken-down alcoholic former gun-moll, as well as the thick Florida atmosphere, the mechanics of the thriller plot, the bits of dialogue that don’t strain for profundity and the best moments of Huston’s direction, Key Largo always makes for a robust evening’s entertainment. The Max Steiner score is a little easier to take than some of his earlier bombast, and the cinematography by Karl Freund is really sumptuous. Freund was the lighting director on some remarkable silents (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Variety, 1925; Metropolis, 1927; and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) as well as the 1931 Dracula and the 1936 Camille. He was later responsible, in conjunction with Desi Arnaz, for the development of the three-camera technique for television comedy and was, from 1951 to 1957, the director of photography on I Love Lucy. That hasn’t anything to do with Key Largo, but it’s impressive.


Night Moves 6

Night Moves (1975) Paul Vitello, in his 2013 New York Times obituary of the Scottish novelist and sometime screenwriter Alan Sharp, wrote that “his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love and friendship,” and it seems pretty obvious it was Sharp whose sensibilities most informed this little-seen but essential 1970s detective thriller. It’s as dark and nihilistic as Chinatown, and while I would not claim for it the richness of that landmark of ’70s cinematic Americana, it’s an infinitely better movie than some of the more well-known Arthur Penn-directed pictures of the time like Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles P.I. with a crumbling marriage, on the trail of a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith). The mystery isn’t that search — Harry finds the girl fairly easily — but what is going on with her stepfather in Florida, and why she is suddenly killed, seemingly by accident.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. As the femme fatale, Jennifer Warren’s line-readings are so odd they eventually become false and off-putting, a key telephone answering machine message goes un-listened to and with no dramatic payoff, in an early appearance as a mechanic James Woods doesn’t just chew the scenery but every engine in sight, and some of the scenes don’t seem fully shaped. But it’s wonderfully observed, always intelligent, often witty, and even Griffith is good in it, perhaps because she’s an adolescent and, for once, her little-girl voice is appropriate. The terrific supporting cast includes Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward and John Crawford, Michael Small composed the brief but effective score, and the beautiful photography is by the great Bruce Surtees.


Sahara 1943
Sahara (1943) I don’t know how a movie this implausible can be, conversely, so cleverly contrived, so intelligently written and so engagingly acted. Sahara certainly had some impressive writers involved in it: The screenplay was by John Howard Lawson (with an un-credited assist by Sidney Buchman) and Philip MacDonald wrote the story. The main titles tell us that the picture was based on “an incident depicted in the Soviet photoplay The Thirteen” (Тринадцать, or  Trinadtsat, listed in the credits as 1936 but actually 1937) but a cursory look at the plot for that Russian movie suggests that Sahara is in fact a direct adaptation; the only aspects that seem notably different are the setting (the African desert in 1943 as opposed to Turkestan before the war), the antagonists (Nazis rather than Asian bandits as the besieged heroes’ bêtes noire) and their much greater number. The picture concerns the remnants of a tank crew, a troupe of British Medical Corpsmen its members encounter while on retreat, a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner, a duplicitous Nazi (as if there were any other kind), a phalanx of German soldiers and a desert well. Although not above the occasional war-movie cliché, Sahara is refreshingly restrained and only rarely gives out with one of those bits of Allied propaganda that were de rigueur during the War but which have induced cringes in audiences ever since. The incidentals, such as Rudolph Maté’s crisp, glorious cinematography, Miklós Rózsa’s prototypical score and the Imperial County, California locations, could scarcely be bettered.

Zoltán Korda’s direction is straightforward and without fuss, yet takes time to examine the faces of the actors, and they’re worth lingering over: Humphrey Bogart, of course, as the tank commander, the amusingly named Joe Gunn, but also Dan Duryea in an immensely likable performance as Bogie’s pilot; Bruce Bennett as his navigator; Richard Nugent as the British Captain; Rex Ingram as the Sudanese; and J. Carrol Naish as the Italian. Lloyd Bridges shows up just long enough to get strafed by machine-gun fire, linger a bit, and die, and Peter Lawford is alleged to be among the British but I didn’t spot him. Naish is splendid as the conflicted prisoner (he got an Oscar® nod for it) and if Ingram with his distinctive speech patterns couldn’t be anything but American and isn’t any more believable a Sudanese than he was an Arabian djinn in the Kordas’ 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, anyone who quibbles about that is just spoiling for a fight.

Having recently re-encountered The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo, I’m in a Bogart mood these days; this entry, while on no account one of his best, made for a more than adequate diversion. And at 98 minutes, Sahara was exactly the right length.


Cutter's Way - John Heard and Jeff Bridges
Cutter’s Way (1981) A beautifully observed study of three more or less desperate people in the form of a grungy thriller, based on an interesting novel, and improving on it. Jeffrey Alan Fishin wrote the incisive screenplay, the recently-deceased Ivan Passer directed with economy and compassion, and I don’t see how the performances by the leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn) could be improved upon. One of the last gasps of 1970s personal cinema, and one of the best arguments for it.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The wow finish: “Casablanca” (1942)

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By Scott Ross

Probably the moviest of all movies, Casablanca was created in both control and chaos; its screenplay was a mishegoss, yet the picture is considered by many the prime exemplar of Hollywood studio system product.

What’s made is still product, of course — indeed, has never been more obviously so — but there are enough gullible cineastes out there who swallow the “only directors matter” argument, and enough annual spectacles of millionaires handing each other awards, that many when assessing an obvious slick franchise picture still invoke the word “art,” if only for the (usually shoddy) special effects. Casablanca was no less a sausage than 99 per cent of the movies made in Hollywood in 1942, and definitely no more individualized than any factory film of the period. (The Magnificent Ambersons may be the only genuinely idiosyncratic, personal movie made that year, and it’s very much to the point that it was mutilated by its studio for “accessibility” before release.) Professional auteurists can never admit to the simple fact that, however gifted or influential a movie director of the studio era was, the system was streamlined; it depended on enforced collaborative effort, even among the few writer-directors of the time, just as it still does. Anyone who, as Steven Spielberg does on the 2012 Casablanca Blu-ray, goes into rhapsodies over Michael Curtiz is nakedly, and rather desperately, trying to justify his own position because the fact is, direction is less vital than screenwriting, acting and producing, and most directors know it. A competent assistant or second-unit director has enough talent to put together an entertaining movie, and it’s no coincidence that one of the best and most perceptive books ever written on movies is Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, which (surprise!) named producers as the presiding geniuses of the factory.

In the case of Casablanca, the man most responsible for the picture was its producer, Hal B. Wallis. Yet even he, with all the accomplishment and organization he brought to the movie, was not, ultimately, what made the picture an exceptional event. Nor can even Wallis’ exceptional oversight fully account for what the movie became — what it means, and has meant, to succeeding generations of its admirers. Casablanca transcends everything: Its filmmakers, its studio, its moment in history and its original status as a superior popular entertainment. (Not to mention some of its more risible romantic dialogue.) It’s tempting for the neophyte who has read a little (usually not the best) movie history to assume that the picture’s specialness began in the early 1960s when the Brattle Theatre in Boston ran the first of its now-annual Humphrey Bogart festivals during exam week and students in the city discovered, and embraced, the actor generally and this movie in particular, leading to the Bogie cult of the late ‘60s. But Warners, which made the movie, knew the picture was special long before that. Why else make a pilot for a television series in the ‘50s? Umberto Eco said of Casablanca that it “is not one movie; it is ‘movies,’” and I can think of no other picture of World War II, or about that war, that enjoys the kind of resonance Casablanca has; it’s a movie very much of its time, yet somehow oddly timeless.

Casablanca - Bogart, Raines, Henried and Bergman resized

Perfection: Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman

A great deal more credit than is traditionally given for this belongs to Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the authors of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s upon which Casablanca was based and which James Agee in his contemporary review in The Nation nastily and without foundation referred to, without having perused it, as “one of the world’s worst plays.” (It was unproduced when Warner Bros. purchased it, for a record price, so Agee couldn’t have seen or read it. But then, personal ignorance of a work of popular art didn’t stop him from sneering at, for example, Oklahoma! as phony folk-art without having seen it, which, living in New York in the ‘40s, he could easily have done.) Much of the structure of the eventual movie was in the play, and the characters, and even a lot of the memorable dialogue, were also in place. Casablanca’s screenwriters refined these elements, expanded on and deepened them; certainly the twins Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein were responsible for much of the movie’s verbal wit, it is well known that Howard Koch punched up the politics, and the intrigue and the uncredited Casey Robinson beefed up the romance — sometimes to its, and the movie’s, detriment.

        The genius of the system: Howard Koch, Casey Robinson, Julius J. Epstein
                                                        and Philip G. Epstein

It’s in the speeches, and the occasional monologues, that Casablanca reveals itself as one of the most adult Hollywood movies of the Production Code era. There are moments, such as when the desperate young Hungarian (Joy Page) who is about to sleep with Claude Rains’ Vichy official Captain Renault to obtain an exit visa for herself and her immature young husband (Helmut Dantine) comes to the saloon-keeper Rick Blaine (Bogart) to determine whether the Captain is trustworthy, that are almost disconcertingly risqué by the standards of their time:

Bogart: How did you get in here? You’re under age.
Page: I came with Captain Renault.
Bogart: I should have known.
Page: My husband is with me, too.
Bogart: He is? Well. Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

It must be obvious to anyone in the audience above the age of 10 what the pair is discussing, and that Rick’s jest is a nod to a ménage à trois. How Wallis managed to get this stuff past the Breen Office, I can’t imagine. Rick’s saving the girl from prostituting herself presumably redeemed the scene, yet studio pictures routinely ran afoul of the censors for far less, and in fact Casablanca did as well. Take Rick’s searing, drunken rebuff of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when she comes back to the club after unexpectedly meeting him earlier and he, shattered by that confrontation, has drunk himself into a state of bitter insobriety… and after we in the audience have seen in flashback what happened in Paris:

Rick: How long was it we had, honey?
Ilsa: I didn’t count the days.
Rick: Well, I did. Every one of ’em. Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides had been kicked out.
Ilsa Can I tell you a story, Rick?
Rick: Has it got a wow finish?

Ilsa: I don’t know the finish yet.
Rick: Go on and tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along.
Ilsa: It’s about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she’d heard her whole life, a very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him, worshipped him, with a feeling she supposed was love.
Rick: Yes, that’s very pretty. I heard a story once. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. ‘Mister, I met a man once when I was a kid,’ they’d always begin. Well, I guess neither one of our stories is very funny. Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells?

Casablanca 6 resized

Again, there’s no question what Rick is referring to (a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs) and his bitterness towards Ilsa (“Or aren’t you the kind that tells?”) is exactly as explicit as it needs to be. She certainly knows what he means; it’s the line that drives her from the café. I don’t know whose work this is, the Epsteins’ or Koch’s or Robinson’s, but it’s just about perfect. It expresses better than tears the nearly unbearable pain both Ilsa and Rick are experiencing, and his hostility, while cruel, has the ring of intoxicated verisimilitude. And that “wow finish”! Vaudeville slang applied ironically to the moment of Rick’s most acute agony. Ridi, pagliacci, ridi.

Robinson was highly esteemed but, perhaps owing to his Mormonism, a man of deep conservative prejudice — he referred in a memo to the black Sam (Dooley Wilson) urging Rick to get away from a potential entanglement with Ilsa as “Darky superstition” when Sam’s concern is quite obviously for a friend and employer seemingly poised to drown in the dangerous emotional currents that once nearly destroyed him. He also cobbled the movie’s worst lines, dialogue that makes audiences groan now and doubtless caused derisive laughter in 1942. It’s Robinson’s writing that dates Casablanca most, and (if only briefly) removes viewers from their otherwise pleasurable identification, making them derisively aware of its cornball elements. The Paris flashback is largely his, and so are cringe-inducing lines like Ilsa’s “A franc for your thoughts” and the picture’s biggest howler, “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?” No wonder the actors were laughing at the script on the set.

Fortunately, there are few such clinkers in Casablanca, which otherwise boasts one of the strongest, smartest (and wittiest, not always the same thing) screenplays of its time. Whatever the conflicts that existed then, or later arose, between Koch and the Epsteins, and bearing in mind what in it came directly from the play, their patchwork script is a minor miracle of observation and satisfying narrative. And it takes nothing away from them that what is arguably the best sequence in the picture, the defiant singing of the “Marseillaise,” was Murray Burnett’s. The collaborative nature of the movie is a large part of what makes it so remarkable. Auteurists would have us believe that anything good in a movie springs from the director, anything bad from others, usually the scenarists. Casablanca is the perfect refutation of that; almost everything in it is good, and once Wallis had a script he felt he could proceed with, Michael Curtiz was assigned to it.

Bogart, Bergman and Michael Curtiz

I don’t wish to seem to be attacking Curtiz. He was a good journeyman filmmaker, and made some enjoyable pictures: The Errol Flynn vehicles Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) as well as The Sea Wolf (1941) starring Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield. But he was a competent studio craftsman, no more, and to ascribe some sort of stylistic genius to the man who directed such crowd-pleasing Hollywood pap, however agreeable, as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mission to Moscow (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), Night and Day (1946), Life with Father (1947), the Danny Thomas Jazz Singer (1952), White Christmas (1954), The Egyptian (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), King Creole (1958) and The Comancheros (1961, completed by John Wayne) is taking auteurism to a preposterous extreme. Curtiz’ direction of Casablanca is very fine — fast and exciting. It’s a good, workmanlike job of direction, with some nice dolly work and thick slabs of tasty atmosphere, and I doubt Curtiz can be blamed for such lapses as that terrible little model plane in the opening sequence. He and his remarkable director of photography Arthur Edeson, a master of shadow who also lit The Maltese Falcon (1941) evoke a fantasy vision of North Africa, filmed on soundstages and the Warner back lot, filled with the wonderful faces of immigrant actors. Appropriate enough, given that Casablanca is a movie very much about migration, and it’s moving now to see so many European émigré actors for whom not only was reestablishing lost European stardom impossible, just getting a walk-on could be a challenge: S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Madeleine Lebeau, Marcel Dalio, Helmut Dantine, Corinna Mura. They more than enrich the picture — they give it its almost palpable texture. Who can forget Lebeau singing “La Marseillaise” with tears in her eyes? Who would want to?

Casablanca - Madeliene LeBeau resized

 


An aside: Apart from the immense pleasure it always bestows, what prompted me to watch the picture again was my recent reading of Noah Isenberg’s oddly titled We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, [sic] and Afterlife of Hollywood’s [sic] Most Beloved Movie (Norton, 2017). The author didn’t need that third comma, and his subtitle likewise inadvertently suggests that the picture is beloved in or by Hollywood and nowhere else. But this stylistic confusion, as one discovers while reading, is de rigeur for Isenberg, who — rather frighteningly — is a professor and so, one presumes, has influence over the thinking and writing of young people. He frequently peppers his overview with smug little identity-politics eruptions of an especially numbing, knee-jerk variety: Of Wilson’s career, post-Casablanca, for example, he writes, “he returned to the New York stage, playing — with tragic irony — an escaped slave in Bloomer Girl,” an important Broadway musical he mis-identifies in his index as a “musical film.” What is either tragic or ironic about that? Bloomer Girl, set in antebellum (and bellum, and postbellum) America, is concerned with such typical musical comedy concerns as feminism, undergarments and enforced captivity, and the love plot hinges on the abolitionist heroine’s refusal to marry her Southern beau unless he frees his slave (played by Wilson.) Moreover, the actor got a rich score’s best number in the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg “The Eagle and Me,” a glorious ode to freedom. One can only assume Professor Isenberg is entirely ignorant of all of this; his citing of Wilson’s Bloomer Girl role is merely a convenient peg upon which to hang a reactive, faux-scandalized (and, moreover, ill-defined, badly expressed and ultimately meaningless) observation about an actor’s race.

Casablanca - Dooley Wilson

Alas, the entire book bubbles with such little bons mot. Of Rick’s observation to the desperate young Hungarian who asks him what sort of man Captain Renault is, Isenberg ascribes to Bogart’s response (“Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so”) “a wink and nudge,” as if the line was being uttered by Eric Idle, when of course it carries no such macho implication. But that spurious “wink and a nudge” permits the author to impute to the line a smirking, smarmy attitude by a man (boo!) towards a woman (yay!) I’m only surprised the paragraph doesn’t also carry a strategically-placed hashtag trailed by the words “Me Too.” What I chiefly object to here, aside from his poor writing, is Isenberg’s shamelessness. I picture him at his desk, constantly looking over his shoulder as he writes in hopes that someone will notice just how “woke” he is.

Isenberg is ever keen to spot an opportunity for societal trendiness: He writes the old newspaper phrase “burying the lead” anachronistically, as “burying the lede,” for example, and of the movie’s occasional whiffs of possible homoeroticism, the author murmurs that this is “of course” a 21st century issue, when most of the commentary — much of it specious — that drew attention to it was written in the 1980s and ‘90s, if not before. When Robinson remarks in a memo on the memorable sequence in Casablanca in which Ilsa comes to Rick’s apartment over the café in hopes of obtaining the letters of transit everyone knows (but cannot prove) he possesses, “This is a great scene for a woman,” Isenberg loses no time in hitting the fainting couch, rushing forward to condemn this observation by a screenwriter about an acting scene as “his shameful views concerning the perceived nature of women”(!)* Well, goddamnit, it is a great scene for a woman… which is what an actress is. And Ingrid Bergman, it will shock no one to learn, was both.

We’ll Always Have Casablanca does not pretend to be a “making of” tome, for all that it draws extensively on Aljean Harmetz’s indispensable 1992 Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca — Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. I doubt any such volume on this movie will ever replace Harmetz’s, just as no subsequent book on The Wizard of Oz has surpassed her 1977 study of it. But the professor draws so extensively on Harmetz, and his own observations about what Casablanca has come to mean to the world are so trivial (when, that is, they aren’t wrapped self-consciously up in current, jingoistic identity equations) one wonders what a major publisher saw in the book. Still, it’s sobering to read such ineffable tripe about an enduring American picture, and to know that this is the best we can expect now in the realm of popular movie scholarship, particularly when it receives a cover blurb from Sam Wasson saying of it that its idiot author writes “with equanimity, grace and delectable insight.” Where Wasson saw any of that in Isenberg’s manuscript I can’t imagine, but whatever its flaws (and, as opposed to Isenberg’s book, they are minimal) a movie as fulsome, as delicious, as emotionally plangent, as satisfying — as much fun — as Casablanca deserves better than this sort of reactive drivel.


Conrad Veidt and The Joker resized
The faces in Casablanca, and the pleasure they provide, are no small part of the picture’s appeal, and not just the leads. (Or were they “ledes”?) Conrad Veidt, who died in the spring of 1943 and was before that perennially typecast, due to the War, as a Nazi in Hollywood, had more long-term impact on American culture than is commonly supposed, and not merely for his appearance here. He was the wicked Vizier in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad for Alexander Korda, and his likeness was copied pretty assiduously for the Disney Aladdin in 1992. But his most important, and lasting, influence as far as pop culture is concerned, was as Gwynplaine in the 1928 The Man Who Laughs, which directly inspired The Joker of the Batman comics in 1940. Although at least one of the men who participated in the character’s design disputes that, Veidt’s look — the swept-back hair, the heavily marked eyes, the long tapering nose, the almost artificial looking grin and the dark, painted lips, and even the long ears — is too close to the Joker’s for the resemblance to be mere coincidence. As Major Strasser, the Third Reich representative, his sibilance (which he also used as the Vizier) indicates the character’s sinister, Übermensch nature as readily as his thin, pursed lips and pencil-thin mustache.

Casablanca - Bogart, Lorre

Sydney Greenstreet has a much smaller and less decisive role here, as the black marketer Signor Ferrari, than he did as Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, just as Peter Lorre’s appearance as Ugarte is far briefer than his Joel Cairo in the Hammett, but both give value for money — especially Lorre, whose short scene with Bogart in the casino constitutes a tiny master-class in making the most of the little you’re given, notably in the diminutive actor’s use of his large, expressive eyes. I also don’t think Lorre ever looked better than he does in Casablanca, trim and almost beautiful.

I remember being shocked in my youth to realize that the actor who plays Henreid’s underground contact Berger is the same man who appeared as Muley in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and whose choked-out monologue so memorably illustrated the emotional toll the Dust Bowl took on its farmers even before the banks took their land. (“That’s what makes it our’n — bein’ born on it… an’, an’… workin’ on it… an’ dyin’ — dyin’ on it!”) The shock, I think, comes from Berger being so soft-spoken and obviously educated when we’re used to seeing and hearing John Qualen as a pleasant but scarcely intellectually formidable Swede, or as an untutored peasant like Muley. Watching him this way, in a non-stereotypical role, you wonder why someone at one of the studios didn’t see his range while he was exhibiting it.

Casablanca - Henried and Qualen

If Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo comes off as a bit of a pill, it’s really not his fault. Laszlo is one of those characters over whom a halo is forever suspended and with which no actor can do much, even Brando. (Talk about no good at being noble…) The writers let him down, which may have been as much the fault of the times as anything else; for a world in flames, cinematic heroes had to be stalwart, and without a flaw much more damning than a certain stodginess — or at least so the Hollywood studio bosses believed. Henreid was given a nice scene with Bergman, before she goes to Rick to plead for the letters of transit, in which he apologizes for not being what a young woman deserves and which at least indicates that he’s not entirely a heroic automaton. But if Lazlo’s thoroughgoing decency at the end is a bit too good to be true, Henreid occasionally cuts an inspiring figure, as when he commands the band at Rick’s to “Play the ‘Marseille’ — play it!” that helps mitigates such groaners as Bergman having to implore, “Victor, please don’t go to the political meeting tonight!”

Casablanca 6 - Rains and Bogart resized

Claude Rains had enjoyed excellent movie roles before Casablanca and would have a few good ones after, but I don’t think he was ever as relaxed and genial — and funny — as he is here. As the cheerfully corrupt Renault, Rains seems well aware he’s got, if not all the wittiest lines, the lion’s share, and relishes them appropriately. Yet nothing about his performance is studied; he lobs his epigrams lightly, almost carelessly, as if for Renault one witticism is no more important than any other, and where it came from there are plenty more. Rains expresses Renault’s affection for Bogart’s Rick without ostentation, or any even particular favoritism; he’d arrest him if he had to, and regret it, just as he knows at the climax Rick will shoot him if he must. Renault’s conversion at the end (in the play Rick is arrested) would strain credulity but for three related items: He’ll never be able to satisfactorily explain Strasser’s killing, he’s already admitted to Rick his loyalties “blow with the prevailing wind,” and he’s made enough barbed remarks about the Germans to indicate that, for all his alleged neutrality, he’s not quite the complete Quisling he pretends to be. You get all that and more from Rains’ performance without his ever pushing any of it.

Casablanca-Ingrid-Orry-Kelly

Although she is every bit as beautiful now, encased in the time-stopping amber of film, as she was in 1942, it’s probably impossible for younger viewers of Casablanca to appreciate just how breathtaking Ingrid Bergman was, and why she had the enormous impact she did at the time. She claimed to work naturally, without make-up, but of course she did wear it; you have to, to be photographed properly under those arc-lights. Bergman just used a lot less of it. There was a freshness about her the camera loved, and unlike those famous Nordic and Teutonic femmes fatale who preceded her — Garbo, Dietrich — she wasn’t vague, or cool, or above it all. She was direct, and passionate. She wasn’t seductive, but neither was she the girl-next-door. She was a lovely, somewhat earnest young woman, and her quiet intelligence was obvious. Bergman was emotional instead of commanding, and while she wasn’t exactly soignée, she looked good in almost anything. Orry-Kelly’s costumes for her as Ilsa, along with her thick, lustrous hair, soften her slightly hard facial features appealingly, and when she wears one of those cleverly designed, strategically tilted picture hats Bergman is a dream of romance. She has a pair of bookended moments during the “La Marseilles” sequence that illustrate just how wonderfully expressive she could be while doing very little. In the first we see her at her and Victor’s table: Her eyes are averted from the scene, wide and staring into the middle-distance, and in her terror she’s breathing hard, trying to steal herself for her husband’s arrest or assassination. In the second, she’s looking up, at Victor, and allowing a smile — of pleasure at the scene, then of deep pride in him — to spread slowly across her face. It’s then we understand just what he means to her; Rick may have Ilsa’s erotic passion, but it’s a safe bet she’d never feel about him as she does, at that moment, about Laszlo.

Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Casablanca is a collection of such little moments, and small gestures, that convey deeper emotions and greater meanings for its characters. They may be in the service of melodrama but they have a cumulative power, and most of them are either Bergman’s, or Bogart’s. After ordering Sam to play “As Time Goes By” and listening to it for a few bars. Bogart turns to him, starts to say something, and stops himself. “That’s enough,” is what we assume he’s about to say, but in his advanced state of drunken anguish the effort is too great, or he’ll have to say more than he wants to… and anyway, why waste all that masochistic pain? The scene is almost the sequel to Bogart’s misery as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon as he contemplates throwing Brigid O’Shaughnessy over for his partner’s murder. The actor is so right in this sequence that Rick’s pain transcends his gender even as it also comes to stand for the anguish of every man who ever loved, and lost, and found he couldn’t weep over it when he needed to. When you watch him helplessly drowning in Rick’s bitterness, you know how good Bogart could be.

The scene would lose its impact, however, if we hadn’t seen Rick from the beginning of the picture as unflappable and unemotional — a witty embodiment of sang-froid — at which Bogie was especially adept. Rick isn’t a man of action, he’s a man of self-imposed inaction, and you can feel the tension in Bogart between what Rick is, and the image he’s cultivated over his scars. It’s there in his carriage, which seems languid but isn’t, quite; in the white tuxedo that sets him apart from his patrons (except, interestingly, Ugarte); in the clipped speech he affects with some (although not all) of the people around him; and even in the ready wit he displays, itself a form of self-protection. It’s the sort of characterization Bogart was master of, and even when he lets us in he’s seldom emotionally naked, the way Brando could be: There’s always a patina of reserve there, which is why the “Of all the gin-joints” scene is so visceral and shocking. It doesn’t only shatter Rick’s stoicism, or Bogart’s — it obliterates the traditional masculine preserve.


There are a million other little things to notice, and to comment on, in the picture: The way each of the other major characters refers to Rick differently, for example (Ilsa: “Richard”; Renault: “Ricky”; Sam: “Mr. Rick”; Laszlo: “Monsieur Rick”); that Code-defying dissolve from Ilsa and Rick in his apartment to Rick smoking a post-coital cigarette in the window; how overbearing most of Max Steiner’s score is; the rightness of so much of the dialogue and the wrongness of a little (Wallis’ dopey “Beautiful friendship” line at the end, for instance, which now excites idiots to make claims on Renault’s sexuality, and Rick’s.) But you don’t have to justify everything you love as “art,” or even as popular art. Your love is enough. Casablanca isn’t a work of art or even especially important — not in the way Orson Welles’ movies are important, or some of Ford’s, or Renoir’s, or Coppola’s, or Kurosawa’s, or even Oliver Stone’s. We don’t have to tie ourselves into knots trying to make the picture relevant, or blow air into it to inflate its value the way Norman Mailer tried to justify his unrequited lust for the dead Marilyn Monroe by making absurd artistic claims for what was essentially an overly voluptuous body, a certain dazed vulnerability and a nice aptitude for comedy.

I suppose some people might argue that criticism itself is a form of justification, but I think of it more as an explanation than a defense: This is a good performance or a bad picture, and here’s why. In any case, it isn’t necessary for us make extravagant claims for Casablanca in order to cherish it. Bright people who saw it in 1942 or ’43 knew a lot of it was hokum and didn’t take it seriously but probably also recognized at the same time that it was markedly better than the average, written with wit, acted with panache and made with a decent amount of flair. There are all sorts of reasons to love the picture now, but if it resonated especially then, it likely did so most with those who’d endured goodbye scenes of their own, or would soon, with a young man who might not come back. For those couples (and fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends) there were no artfully written speeches, and the ache of parting was not mitigated by thoughts of higher purpose.

Maybe, when you get right down to it, Casablanca gave its original audience some laughs, a couple of thrills and a good cry — any one of which might be the best payoff for a wow finish.

Casablanca - Bergman


* This sort of nonsense is now so close to Victorianism I’m surprised Isenberg doesn’t call Robinson an unspeakable cad and offer to horsewhip him for besmirching a woman’s honor.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Sitting under the gallows: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

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By Scott Ross

Late in John Huston’s just about perfect adaptation of The Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tells his unreliable paramour Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) that they have to get their stories straight for the police who will arrive within minutes. In Spade’s memorable phrase, “We’re both of us sitting under the gallows!” Huston in his memoirs maintains that he saw no particular continuity of style in his work — an unconscious echo of Andrew Sarris’ typically rash condemnation of him — and while this may be true on a purely technical level, yet Huston had a theme peculiar to him and to which he returned again and again in the screenplays he adapted from the novels of others: What I think of as group excursions toward failure. In picture after picture Huston’s characters are sitting under the gallows… and, one way or another, they usually hang.

Sometimes the “group” is two people (Prizzi’s Honor) and occasionally the failure falls on a solitary figure only (Moulin Rouge, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, The Dead). But in nearly every movie John Huston directed, whether he wrote (or co-authored) the screenplay, and whether the tone is dramatic, comic, serio-comic or satirical, his protagonists do not succeed. It is a motif as obvious, and as pervasive, as those of disguise and deception in Billy Wilder’s movies, or loneliness and loss of innocence in Orson Welles’. Only when the movie is a romantic adventure (The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a “biopic” (Freud), an adaptation of a play (Key Largo, The Night of the Iguana) or a fantasy of one sort or another (Victory, Annie) do the central characters succeed… and even then, their triumph is usually muted and may even seem like punishment. Does Richard Burton’s Reverend Shannon look overjoyed at the end of Iguana when he says he may have some trouble “getting back up the hill” and Ava Gardner’s Maxine ripostes, “I’ll get you back up, baby. I’ll always get you back up”? Huston famously argued with Tennessee Williams over Maxine during the shooting of the picture; the playwright saw her as a spider, and she is. Shannon is her fly, and he knows it. But then, the director regarded Williams’ attitude as a misogynist/homosexual response to an earthy, sensual heterosexual woman. That Williams was forever wedded to the many sympathetic portraits of women in his work (including, along with the neurotic, some notably erotic ones) and that Huston’s own misogyny is legend, puts paid to the argument between them.*

Maltese Falcon - Huston and his stars

Huston and his principal Falcon cast: Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart, all in character.

While one would have to be a trained psychologist perhaps to comprehend what in Huston’s weird mind drew him to his principal theme, or identified it as important — perhaps, as with his colleague and friend Orson Welles it was disappointment at finding himself a mediocre painter — one has only to think of the prospectors of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the criminals in The Asphalt Jungle (co-written with Ben Maddow); the adventurers and criminals in Beat the Devil (Huston with Truman Capote); the mariners of Moby-Dick (Huston with Ray Bradbury); The Misfits (Arthur Miller); the spies of The Kremlin Letter; and the hopeful imperialist duo in The Man Who Would Be King (both by Huston with his associate Gladys Hill), to see the pattern.

So it is entirely in character that John Huston should end the screenwriting phase of his career with High Sierra, whose doomed ex-con Roy “Mad Dog” Earle both enhanced Humphrey Bogart’s profile and set the downbeat standard for Huston’s more mature work as a writer-director (and, later, director of others’ scripts.) His major weakness, as Lawrence Grobel pointed out in his mutli-generational biography The Hustons,† was his predilection for second-rate literature — for W.R. Burnett and Rudyard Kipling as opposed to, say, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder (although he got to Wilder just before he died). Of course it can be argued, and indeed I have done so elsewhere, that the greatest prose resists transmigration to another medium, which can only reduce it to the bare outlines of dialogue and plot, whereas a canny adapter can make art out of the third- and even fourth-rate; ergo, while Huston foundered on Malcolm Lowry and Flannery O’Connor he soared with C.S. Forester and Noel Behn. Indeed, only twice, with the very fine but studio-mutilated The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and the sublime The Dead (James Joyce) did John Huston do full honor to a great work he admired. (As his final completed work, The Dead did honor to him as well.)


The Maltsese Falcon had already been filmed, twice at Warner Bros.’, first under its own title in 1931 (it was reissued later as Dangerous Female) and then in 1936 as a comedy-mystery starring Warren William and Bette Davis (Satan Met a Lady). Huston, and Henry Blanke, his producer, felt that the studio had not gotten the book’s values on the screen, and the directing tyro was on the right track when he asked his secretary to re-type the novel in standard script form: It’s a book of dialogue as much as of plot, and damn good dialogue at that. Except for Sam Spade’s paraphrase of Shakespeare at the end, nearly every line spoken in Huston’s movie comes directly from Hammett, or is a slight variation. His deviations are largely for the sake of telescoping, although rather less explicably he omits the sequence in which Spade tosses Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s flat. She assumes it was either Joel Cairo or the young gun-thug Wilmer, and without that scene we make the same assumption. It may be that Huston couldn’t find a way around Hammett’s frame (Spade slipping out while O’Shaughnessy sleeps in his bed) that would satisfy the censors. He had also, perforce, to delete the moment in which Spade forces Brigid, whom he suspects of palming a thousand-dollar bill, to submit to a strip-search. Perhaps such sops to conventional morality were a ruse, or acted as one, because what the screenwriter did get past the Production Code is jaw-dropping. Take, for instance, the moment in the novel in which Spade and Brigid first become intimate. Hammett’s Brigid wonders explicitly if she can buy the detective off with her body; Huston’s Brigid asks, anent Spade’s mention of money, “What else is there I can buy you with?” and his Spade instantly kisses her, roughly, stroking her cheekbones with his thumbs, not caressingly but as if he’d like to raise them just a bit and use them to gouge out her eyes.

Maltese Falcon - Lorre with cane

Sometimes a walking-stick is just a walking-stick: Lorre as Joel Cairo.

Even more astounding, however, is that Huston served up a cinematic mystery in which the genteel culprits are comprised almost entirely of homosexual men, and one rather promiscuous dame who’s a pathological liar. And if Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo is less flagrantly gay than as described by Hammett — in the book he’s depicted as a mincing, thin-armed, heavy-bottomed fairy — he is nevertheless introduced by a gardenia-scented calling card (lavender in the novel) and, as he talks to Spade, sucks briefly at the tip of the decidedly phallic handle of his walking-stick. If that wasn’t eye-popping enough, Huston retains just enough of the dialogue in which Cairo and O’Shaughnessy snipe at each other over a boy in Istanbul she couldn’t make and he did that when she lunges at him, you know precisely why. Cairo’s sexuality is also on display later when, after he and The Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreet) have sold the gunsel Wilmer out and Spade has cold-cocked him, Lorre hovers over Elisha Cook, Jr. like a mother hen. The movie’s Kasper Gutman, like Hammett’s, is more ambiguous — the more so for Huston’s omitting Gutman’s duplicitous young daughter, who pretends being drugged to waylay Sam in his search for Brigid — but it’s hard to miss the implication that Wilmer is not merely the man’s bodyguard but his kept boy, particularly in Gutman’s, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.” And where Hammett invokes the term “gunsel” a single time only, Huston uses it repeatedly; the movie’s Spade rarely calls Wilmer anything else.

And here we pause for a lesson which seems increasingly necessary… and is seldom, if ever, heeded. I’ve tried myself, more than once, but here goes: Chiefly I think because of this movie, the word “gunsel” (Yiddish, literally “gosling”) has come to mean a cheap hood when it was used in Hammett’s time exclusively in reference to the passive young partner in homosexual union with an older man: A bottom. That’s the reason Bogart’s Spade uses the word so often in his needling of Wilmer, and why the boy gets so angry when he does. Huston’s very knowing employment of the epithet for a gun-toting kid has, unfortunately, given rise to know-nothings casually tossing it off to indicate a gunman of any kind. Thus we get such howlers as Dennis Lehane, in his otherwise excellent crime novel Live by Night, evoking the unintentionally hilarious image of “an army of gunsels.” Not exactly the Spartan 300. Well, Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon is both a gunsel and a cheap hood.

Huston may not have been able to let Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) refer to Cairo as “queer”; permit his Spade to sneer, when Wilmer reacts against Cairo’s physical solicitude, “Lovers’ quarrel”; or do more than indirectly imply the situations, but as in the book there is clearly something going on between Wilmer and Joel in the movie, and the imposed ambiguity is an asset. Huston also upped the ante when Spade twits the police lieutenant, Dundy, repeatedly referring to him as Detective Polhaus’ “boyfriend” or “playmate.” I like to think that it tickled Huston to throw so much “sex perversion” at the Breen Office in one movie, and for that largely Catholic censorship organization to miss it all.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Cook

Gunsel and cheap hood: Sam Spade confronts Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in the lobby of Cairo’s hotel.

Of greater impact in The Maltese Falcon than these matters is the visual style of the picture, one of the progenitors of what post-war French critics deemed film noir (literally, “dark film”) and which was and remains so misunderstood. The shadowed look was, usually, of necessity on below-B movie budgets. That the chiaroscuro effects aided the storytelling was something of a happy accident, but low-key lighting was most often used to camouflage cheap sets with modest light sources. Even Orson Welles and Gregg Toland resorted to these tricks on Citizen Kane, not a “B” picture but one made at a cost-conscious studio with every reason to be nervous, and Kane is now, like Falcon and Double Indemnity, considered by many as one of the de facto early noirs. (Although, again, Indemnity was an “A” project from the outset.) And while Kane had not begun its theatrical run when Falcon was shooting — it was delayed by the contretemps with Hearst — I suspect Huston had seen and admired it, as his movie debut as a director also, like Welles’ and unusually for the period, favors visible ceilings and close, low angles.

Huston’s San Francisco is a city not merely of fog but of night. Only two, brief, outdoor sequences occur during daylight hours, and even the short scene (the murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s business partner) imposed on the picture by nervous executives for the benefit of patrons who can’t piece something together even when it’s discussed in detail, while directed by someone other than Huston, takes place on a fog-bound, deserted street in the hours just after midnight. The Maltese Falcon is a movie of dark rooms with drawn shades (only Spade’s apartment has diaphanous curtains, and, perhaps significantly, his windows are almost always open.) Huston’s cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a master of light who also shot the Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty and three James Whale projects (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man). He also, coincidentally, lit Satan Met a Lady, and a year after Falcon he would produce the sumptuous photography for Bogart’s vehicle to immortality, Casablanca. This was a man who understood darkness, and how to exploit it.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart in shadow

The dark night of the soul is sometimes two a.m. rather than three: Spade after learning of the death of his partner.

Speaking of Bogart brings us to the fourth reason for the picture’s lasting appeal beyond Hammett’s story, Huston’s compact screenplay and his subsequent stripped-down direction: The movie’s superb cast. Although a far cry from the green-eyed “blond Satan” of Hammett’s description, Bogart is in every other way the ideal Sam Spade — indeed, the one who defined the role forever, as he did five years later with his Philip Marlowe, and after whom (pace Howard Duff) no others need apply. “Spade has no original,” Hammett once wrote. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” You can take Hammett’s words about Spade and apply them equally to Bogie. Nearly every man in the 1940s wanted to be him, or to at least possess his self-assurance.

And Sam Spade was the role Bogart had been waiting for. After years of supporting parts, thankless inanities and almost-leads he’d burnished his reputation considerably playing “Mad Dog” Earle for Raoul Walsh (and scenarist John Huston) and Spade was, for the actor, a definite step up: This time he wasn’t a criminal, and although emotionally wounded, he at least didn’t die in the end. Bogart won the role after George Raft, who was possibly Hollywood’s least precise chooser of roles, passed, largely because Huston was, as director, an unknown quantity. Raft made a habit of turning down parts that paved the way for others, especially Bogart: The gangster “Baby Face” Martin in Dead End, Roy Earle, Spade, “Gloves” Donahue in All Through the Night and, allegedly, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, the part that cemented Bogart’s stature as not only a bankable star but a desirable, even sexy, leading man.‡ Spade calls forth from Bogart a unique set of attitudes. He is, on the one hand, a detached observer and, on the other, and in his own fashion, passionate about justice. A pitiless cad (he’s carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, and, throughout the picture, treats her with barely disguised contempt) yet despite Brigid’s… I believe the polite phrase would be “unreliable veracity”… he’s genuinely shattered at the end by his own decision to surrender her to the police. He seems to be every bit as avaricious as the casually murderous gang he’s drawn into assisting — note the manic gleam in his eye when he unwraps the falcon, and the dark glee with which he exclaims to Lee Patrick as his secretary Effie, “We’ve got it, Angel! We’ve got it!” — but remaining on the level is ultimately of more interest to him than treasure-hunting. Nor does Bogart tip his hand; we’re unsure until the finish just how far he’ll go.

There’s also remarkable equanimity in Bogart’s performance; although he needles Wilmer mercilessly (and not without reason) he’s more amused by than contemptuous of Cairo when the perfumed dandy holds him up a second time, and his startled laughter at the little man’s audacity feels absolutely real. The same holds true when, exasperated by the Fat Man’s intransigence, he smashes his drinking glass and gives the old chiseler what for; the rage is incandescent, yet when he exits Gutman’s suite he’s grinning at his own performance, even unto the hand he suddenly notices is shaking in the aftermath of his outburst. And when at the climax he explains to Brigid why he’s sacrificing her, he looks absolutely poleaxed by the whole thing. That haunted gaze of his, staring at nothing as he tries to make Brigid understand what she cannot begin to comprehend, marks Spade’s emotional wounding as surely as the faraway look in his eyes when, after Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks him what the black bird is he replies, “The, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” It’s a dream he’s trying to shake, and we sense there will indeed be as he suggests to Brigid “some rotten nights,” and a lot more of them than he lets on.

That is, I think, one hell of a performance.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Astor

“We’re both of us sitting under the gallows.”

The casting of Mary Astor as Brigid is truly inspired. In the Hammett novel, she is, altogether improbably, a girl in her early 20s. With the more mature but no less alluring Astor in the role, the character’s lies and evasions take on both greater believability and a peculiar resonance: Brigid becomes a woman with a past, and a sense of desperation that goes beyond her fear of violent death.§ It’s a tribute to Astor’s fulsome performance that we are never quite certain, even after repeated viewings, where the lies end and the truth begins; when she breaks down at the climax, is her reaction wholly to the certainty of life behind bars, or even hanging, or does she perhaps actually love Sam Spade, at least a little? He can’t tell, and neither can we. The final shot of her, behind elevator door bars that creepily evoke the cell waiting for her at Tehachapi, is as devastating as Astor’s shell-shocked gaze.

As Cairo, Peter Lorre beautifully illustrates why in Berlin he was considered one of the finest young stage actors of his generation. The baby-fat he’d exhibited as the child-murderer in M was long gone by 1941 (although, at least in part due to morphine addiction, his heaviness would return) and the leanness of his face becomes Cairo as much as the curled hair that suggests the Levantine of Hammett’s novel. And despite the clear implications of a homosexual persona, there is nothing prissy or effeminate about Lorre’s performance, merely a weary sophistication alternating with an excitability that just verges at times on hysteria. Although Cairo is amoral, we somehow don’t dislike him, as it is nearly impossible to dislike Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, no matter how threatening he may seem. His avuncular jocularity somehow skirts being tiresome — an improvement over the novel, in which the character is both repetitious and, ultimately, exhausting — and the figure becomes at once unknowably malign and irresistible. He is not, incidentally, called “The Fat Man” in the novel. That moniker was one of Huston’s most apposite additions.

Maltese Falcon - Greenstreet, Lorre and Bogart

The supporting roles are no less impressively cast. Lee Patrick does wonder-work with Effie Perine, showing none of the masochistic hurt of the character in the novel that makes her seeming to push Brigid on Spade so perverse. Gladys George’s Iva Archer is nicely judged, as is Ward Bond’s ambivalent Detective Polhaus, and Barton MacLane gets the right measure of surliness in Lieutenant Dundy, soured by the prospect of Spade’s not being a killer. (Walter Huston also shows up, unbilled, as a walking corpse, a role he undertook to give his son some needed confidence on the first day of filming.)

Although Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer is not the pretty boy of the novel, the actor clearly read the book; when attempting to shadow Spade on the street he keeps his eyes shaded by his lashes just as Hammett describes the character. Cook also has an effective scene in Spade’s apartment when, knowing he’s being sold out, he threatens the private detective through barely controlled tears. He understand at that moment that he is indeed only a boy, not the hardened thug he pretends to be, and that the ease with which he’s murdered at least one man in imitation, one presumes, of the gangsters he’s seen at the movies has finally caught up with him.

The Maltese Falcon is one of those rare movies one can see again and again with complete happiness, ever succumbing to its mesmeric blandishments, always finding something new. I initially saw it, at a library screening, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 (it was my first Bogart picture), have watched it repeatedly in the years since — including twice recently in preparation for writing this — and know that I will revisit it many times in the future. It would be a masterpiece of its kind had it been written and directed by an old pro with a couple dozen such pictures under his belt. For a novice to have made it is almost beyond belief.

Huston’s people may be doomed, but when they’re this good, they are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of.


*Huston was comfortable enough with gay men as long as their public miens comforted his bigotry, as with Capote. It was only when confronted with a homosexual man (Montgomery Clift) whose persona eschewed the flamboyant that he couldn’t handle it.

†Along with illuminating the lives of Walter and John, Grobel takes in as well the youths and early careers of Angelica, Tony and Danny.

‡Raft also said no to Double Indemnity, to Billy Wilder’s relief. About the only good role he said yes to was that of Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot. Would The Maltese Falcon be half the picture it is with him? Would High SierraDouble Indemnity? Care to see Raft in Bergman’s arms? His complacency was American cinema’s benison.

§In one of the essays that accompany the published screenplay (in the Rutgers Films in Print series) one Ilsa J. Bick refers to Astor, absurdly, as “matronly.” I wonder how old Bick was when she wrote that.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

To Have and Have Not (1944)

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By Scott Ross

When I consider the Hollywood movies that have entertained me the most, Howard Hawks’ is the name that — aside from Billy Wilder’s — most often recurs. This is arguably his most sheerly enjoyable movie, and manifestly more pleasurable than Casablanca, which enjoys the greater popularity. It’s the one that introduced Bogie to Bacall, and you can actually see them falling in love as the picture unreels.

The plot has little to do with the much darker Hemingway novel, treated more seriously later as The Breaking Point (1950). It’s more about Hawks working through his favored themes of camaraderie under fire and sharp male/female banter. The screenplay was credited to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, but it has Hawks all over it, and includes a classic bit for Bacall: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Part intrigue, part action flick, part comedy, it’s perfectly integrated into one blissful package.

With Hoagy Carmichael, Marcel Dalio and the peerless Walter Brennan, who asks the immortal question, “Was you ever bit by a dead bee?” The picture also contains one terrific Carmichael/Johnny Mercer song, “How Little We Know,” memorably purred by Bacall (and not, as movie legend had it, a teenage Andy Williams.)


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross