Sweet Land of Liberty: Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR (Universal 1942)

The Master of Suspense puts the pedal to the metal once again in SABOTEUR, another “double chase” spy thriller that doesn’t get the attention some of Alfred Hitchcock’s other films do, but should. I’ve always enjoyed the performance of Robert Cummings as the “ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation”; his naturally laid-back, easygoing charm makes him perfect playing Barry Kane, accused of sabotaging a wartime aircraft plant and killing his best friend in the process, who winds up on a cross-country chase alongside reluctant heroine Priscilla Lane . SABOTEUR is certainly an  important film in Hitchcock’s body of work for one very important reason: it’s the director’s first film for Universal Pictures, a studio he’d have a long and profitable association with, and where he’d later create some of his finest movies.

SABOTEUR is in many respects a loose remake of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS , transplanted to America and updated to reflect the (then) current global conflict. Like the previous film, the protagonist is hunted by both the police and a dirty gang of Fifth Columnist spies. The heroine is suspicious of him, thinking the worst, but eventually coming around to believe his story. The spies, led by suave Otto Kruger , are all wealthy, urbane types. There’s an isolated cabin in the woods echoing the Scottish farm Robert Donat hides out in, but the gender roles of it’s occupants are reversed. Here, blind Uncle Phillip (Vaughn Glaser) is sympathetic to Kane’s plight, while niece Patricia (Lane) wants to turn him over to the authorities. Kane makes his escape from the law by jumping off a high bridge into the river below, and the scene in a movie theater, with the real saboteur (Norman Lloyd, who also serves as the movie’s McGuffin) causing a panic, is equivalent to the scene in the music hall featuring the unforgettable Mr. Memory (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!).

Despite these similarities, SABOTEUR stands on its own as a damn good thriller. My favorite scene has Cummings, with Lane forced to accompany him on the lam, hopping on the last truck in a circus caravan. The truck is occupied by a group of sideshow freaks: The Human Skeleton (Pedro de Cordoba), The Fat Lady (Marie LeDeaux), The Bearded Lady (Anita Bolster), a belligerent midget (Billy Curtis ), and a pair of Siamese twins (Jean Romer, Laura Mason). Seeing the shackles still on Cummings’ wrists, with Lane patiently by his side, they debate whether or not to turn him in when the cops pull the caravan over. The midget says yes, the twins are split, and the fat lady sits on both sides of the issue. The Bearded Lady and the Skeleton Man have the deciding votes, and elect to help Cummings hide from the law. The scene is both funny and poignant, as these outcasts of society show compassion toward their fellow humans, and one of my favorites in the Hitchcock canon.

The freaks stand in sharp contrast to the Fifth Columnists, men and women of wealth and stature who wish to do harm to their country for the cause of totalitarianism. Kruger is all Cheshire Cat smiles as Charles Tobin, leader of this rat’s nest. Norman Lloyd’s Frank Fry was the first of a long association between the actor and Hitchcock; he appeared in SPELLBOUND, then served as a producer (184 episodes), director (22), and actor (6) on the Master of Suspense’s long-running TV anthology series. I’m happy to report Norman Lloyd is alive and well as of this writing at the ripe old age of 102! (My favorite Lloyd role was his Dr. Auschlander on the series ST. ELSEWHERE from 1982-88). Alan Baxter , Alma Kruger, Clem Bevans, and Ian Wolfe are among the co-conspirators on the wrong side of history.

The most famous (and probably most discussed) scene in SABOTEUR is undoubtably the Statue of Liberty scene  where Fry, after his escape from the movie theater, hops the ferry to Liberty Island. He’s unknowingly followed by Patricia, who tries to stall him until Kane and the authorities arrive. Fry heads to the viewing platform, pursued by Kane, and they engage in a struggle that finds Fry hanging on for dear life. Kane has him by the sleeve as the cops make their way to the top, but the sleeve rips, hurtling Fry to his doom. Jack Otterson’s art department created a striking replica of Lady Liberty, and actual footage filmed in New York was rear projected and made to look eerily real by Universal’s resident special effects wiz John P. Fulton . The scene is tense, taut, and typically Hitchcockian!

The screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker is humorous and exciting, with plenty of patriotic fervor reflecting the wartime atmosphere. Cummings and Lane, though not Hitchcock’s first choices, make a fine romantic duo, and Kruger has never been slimier as the main villain. And yes, Hitchcock has his traditional cameo in the film; I’m just not going to tell you where or when. For that, you’ll have to watch SABOTEUR for yourselves, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

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Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!

Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)

This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga detailing the lives of merchant marines aboard the ship Glencairn  on the cusp of World War II. The film is episodic in nature, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols wove the four one-act plays into a cohesive narrative. Duke is ‘Ole’ Olsen (no relation to the great vaudevillian), a sweet-natured young buck longing to return to his homeland and his elderly mother. Ole is a gentle giant of a man, whom the hardened sailors look out for, treating him as a kid brother. The naïve Ole has been out at sea ten years, trapped as the others are in a cycle of time on the ocean followed by spending all their dough on liquor and women when they hit port, forcing them to return to their cruel master the sea. This time around, they’re determined to make sure Ole gets back to his farm in Sweden, to break free of the lifestyle they are all caught in by fate and misfortune.

Wayne’s much-maligned Swedish accent isn’t all that bad, as some critics have harped on. Duke was nervous about doing the part justice, and had Danish actress Osa Massen (A WOMAN’S FACE, YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) coach him with the rhythm and cadence of the language. His big scene at the bar, where he’s being set up to be shanghaied by the ship Amindra’s salty crew, shows Wayne’s accent was more than passable, and once again proves to the audience he could do more than just sit tall in the saddle and throw a mean punch at the bad guys. John Wayne, when the occasion called for it, could act.

Due to the structure of the screenplay however, Wayne doesn’t have to carry the film on his broad shoulders. Though ‘Ole’ is the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the ensemble all take their turns in the spotlight. The standout here is Thomas Mitchell , winner of the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH, as the boisterous veteran seaman Driscoll, a two-fisted Irishman whose sad fate at film’s end will haunt you. Ian Hunter, an underappreciated actor, plays the role of Smitty, whom the others suspect of being a Nazi spy, but instead harbors another dark secret. Ward Bond , the rowdy Yank, is given a solemn death bed scene, and gets a chance to show off his own acting chops. Barry Fitzgerald seems to be preparing for his role as Micheleen in THE QUIET MAN as Cocky. Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields is the philosophical Donkeyman, who never leaves the ship for fear of triggering his alcoholism. Mildred Natwick makes her film debut as the prostitute Freda, charged with the task of seducing Ole before he’s shanghaied. John Qualen does his own inimitable Swedish part as Axel, mentor and protector to Ole. Familiar Faces Billy Bevan, Danny Borzage, James Flavin, J.M. Kerrigan, Wifred Lawson, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor), Jack Pennick, and Joe Sawyer round out the rugged cast; most were members in good standing of Ford’s stock company.

The real star of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Gregg Toland, who Ford had compete trust in to create the film’s visual mood. Toland’s experimental deep-focus style, utilizing back projection, makes the film an illusion of reality, his heavy shadows and dramatic lighting schemes a definite precursor to what would become the film noir style. John Ford was no stranger to making art films, and together with Toland certainly achieves success. Orson Welles once said he watched STAGECOACH over 40 times before filming CITIZEN KANE; there’s no doubt in my mind he did the same with THE LONG VOYAGE HOME.

While it’s not the type of film one would normally associate with the John Wayne/John Ford canon, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME should be watched by fans of both men’s work. The somber mood is laced with black humor, the cast is superb, Toland’s influential camerawork is a marvel to behold, and it’s a chance to see a different side of John Wayne. Sandwiched between STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME doesn’t get the attention the other two attract, but deserves a place in the pantheon of John Ford’s masterful film classics.

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea) is sent to Europe to cover the impending war with a fresh set of eyes. Given the rather pretentious pen name ‘Huntley Haverstock’, Johnny goes to London and meets up with fellow reporter Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has a weakness for booze and women. He’s assigned to cover the Universal Peace Party’s big conference, where Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman), who holds the key to peace or war in Europe, is scheduled to appear. Van Meer doesn’t show, but Johnny does meet the UPP’s leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his beautiful daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and of course Red-Blooded American wolf Johnny tries to put the make on her!

Next stop: Holland, where Van Meer is to make an important speech, only to be shot dead on the steps of the conference hall. The chase is on, with Johnny tracking the assassin, with help from Carol and reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, on the good guy’s side for a change), to an old windmill. It’s there Johnny discovers Van Meer alive but not well, drugged by a nest of rotten spies! Johnny returns with the police, only to find the windmill deserted except for a tramp. What happened to Van Meer? Who’s behind the spy ring? You’ll have to watch to find out!

One of Hitchcock’s motivations for coming to America was the chance to work with top Hollywood stars, and in Joel McCrea he got an actor at the height of his success. Already a star with films like DEAD END and UNION PACIFIC under his belt, McCrea’s everyman persona would serve him well in the decade to come. Here, he’s Hitchcock’s “stranger in a strange land”, in over his head with all this foreign spy business, but comes through in typical All-American hero style. Laraine Day’s career was just getting off the ground, having costarred in the MGM DR. KILDARE series, and she and Joel make a fine romantic duo, once things get going.

Humorist Benchley had a hand in the screenplay along nine other writers, both credited (Benchley, Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton) and uncredited (Harold Clurman, Ben Hecht, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahan, Richard Maibaum), and adds his dry wit to the proceedings. Sanders shines as the secondary lead, and German actor Basserman deserved his nomination. Herbert Marshall had appeared in Hitchcock’s MURDER! ten years earlier; his role as Fisher is among his best. Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn plays an assassin hired to off McCrea. Their scene together atop Westminister Cathedral is just one of the film’s many highlights. There are lots of other Familiar Faces in this game of cat-and-mouse: Eduardo Cianelli , Harry Davenport, Charles Halton, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie, Barbara Pepper , Charles Wagenheim, and Ian Wolfe . And of course Hitch in his traditional cameo!

There are so many ‘Hitchcock Touches’ in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, it could be a primer on how to make a Hitchcockian thriller! Van Meer’s secret “Treaty Clause #27” is the film’s McGuffin, vital to the characters yet meaningless in terms of plot. Danger in high places is covered with McCrea climbing out his hotel window to escape two ersatz cops (then the scene turns into a crowded chaos direct from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!), and later on the eventful plane ride. Danger in public places comes in both the murder on the conference hall steps and inside those ominous windmills. There are comedic bits with Benchley (and with McCrea having trouble holding on to his hat), mirror images, winding staircases, and Hitchcock’s sure sign of portending doom, birds! All this, plus a stirring call to arms by McCrea at the conclusion, adds up to one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. Just think, this was only his second in his new adopted homeland! Many more classics were to come, but FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT remains one of my personal Hitchcock favorites.

Gothic Art: Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (United Artists 1940)

REBECCA is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece. I remember watching it for the first time in a high school film class, enthralled as much by its technical aspects as the story itself. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s  first American film, though with a decidedly British flavor, and his only to win the Best Picture Oscar. There’s a lot of film noir shadings to this adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s  Gothic novel, as well as that distinctive Hitchcock Touch.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, begins Joan Fontaine’s narration, as the camera pans down a dark road overgrown with brush and weeds, fog rolling in all around, as we come up on the once majestic castle called Manderley, now lying in ruins. This first shot was all done with miniatures, another wonderful example of Hitchcock’s innovative use of the camera, looking and feeling totally believable (take that, CGI!). Flashbacks bring us to when Fontaine’s character, who’s never given a proper name in the film except “The Second Mrs. de Winter”, comes across her future husband Maxim de Winter standing at the precipice of a cliff, contemplating suicide.

Maxim of course is played by the great Laurence Olivier , as tragic a romantic Gothic hero as you’ll ever find (and I include his role as Heathcliff in the previous years WUTHERING HEIGHTS in that statement). His wife, Rebecca, has recently died in a horrible boating accident, and the brooding de Winter is in Monte Carlo trying to forget. Maxim takes a shine to the young girl, a “paid companion” to snooty Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and, after a whirlwind courtship, asks the girl to marry him. She accepts, and the couple return to England and de Winter’s lavish estate Manderley.

The servants are all welcoming to Maxim’s new bride… all but one, that is. That would be Mrs. Danvers, head housekeeper, played to icy perfection by Judith Anderson . The ghoulish Mrs. Danvers gives the second Mrs. de Winter (and us) the creeps, as she slavishly devotes herself to Rebecca’s memory, lovingly caressing the dead woman’s clothing, keeping all her monogrammed possessions on display, and sabotaging the new bride’s costume ball. Anderson is disturbingly sinister as Mrs. Danvers, a role so iconic it’s been parodied time and again in movies and television skits, notably in 1946’s THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, when Lou Costello says to similarly creepy housekeeper Gale Sondergaard, “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”.

Things take a wrong turn for Maxim when Rebecca’s body is found in a capsized boat, though he’d earlier identified his late wife’s body elsewhere. This is when the truth about Rebecca finally comes out in a scene inside a seashore cabin, Maxim among Rebecca’s old things, as he tells his new wife the real story behind Rebecca’s death (there’ll be no spoilers, just watch the movie!). Olivier is brilliant in this scene, as are Hitchcock and his cinematographer George Barnes, who won an Oscar for his work.

George Sanders is on hand as Rebecca’s “cousin” Jack Favell, a cad and a bounder who plays an integral part in the plot. Sanders always excelled in this type of role, and his Favell is one of his most memorable scoundrels. The supporting cast features such British Familiar Faces as Nigel Bruce Leo G. Carroll , Gladys Cooper, Melville Cooper, Lumsden Hare, Reginald Denny , Forrester Harvey, and C. Aubrey Smith. Franz Waxman’s haunting score is among his very best, and that’s saying a lot. Waxman was the man behind the baton for classic scores like BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SUSPICION, HUMORESQUE, and SUNSET BOULEVARD, to name just a few.

Producer David O. Selznick and director Hitchcock had totally different approaches to filmmaking, and frequently clashed during REBECCA’s production. Hitchcock had a rocky relationship with Selznick, and in all the time he spent under contract to the producer, Selznick only used him for this, SPELLBOUND, and THE PARADINE CASE. All of the director’s other 40’s output was made on loan out until his contract expired in 1947. While the other two collaborations have their flaws, REBECCA is perfection in all respects, a film classic that has stood the test of time and essential viewing for movie lovers. You don’t come across films of this caliber very often, so if you have never seen REBECCA, I urge you to do so soon as possible. You will not be disappointed.

 

 

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

Hot in Argentina: Rita Hayworth in GILDA (Columbia 1946)

If COVER GIRL made Rita Hayworth a star, then GILDA propelled her into the stratosphere. This 1946 film noir cast Rita at her smoking hot best as the femme fatale to end ’em all. Surrounded by a Grade A cast and sumptuous sets, GILDA gives us the dark side of CASABLANCA , moved to Buenos Aires and featuring star-crossed lovers who are at lot less noble than Rick and Ilsa ever were.

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me”, Hayworth is famously quoted as saying. Who could blame them, as Rita is absolutely stunning in this film. From our first glimpse of her, popping into view with that iconic hair flip…

…to her sultry faux striptease singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, Rita burns up the screen with her smoldering sexuality. Lines like “If I’d been a ranch,  they’d’ve named me the Bar Nothing” leave no doubt as to Gilda’s character, a woman unafraid using her feminine wiles to get her way. It’s an electrifying performance, and Hayworth plays up her erotic charms to the nth degree.

Glenn Ford  returned to the screen after his WWII stint in the Naval Reserve to play Johnny Farrell, Gilda’s ex-lover and narrator of the tale. He’s an American gambler down on his luck in Argentina who’s befriended by casino owner Ballin Mundson, becoming the latter’s right hand man. When Ballin returns from a trip with a new bride, Gilda, we know right off the bat there’s a history between the two. The sexual tension between Johnny and Gilda is so thick you could slice it with Ballin’s unique sword-cane, a weapon that becomes important to the denoument of the story.

Johnny’s job description now includes keeping close watch on Gilda, not an easy task as she flirts and frolics with every man she sets her sights on. Johnny and Gilda have an unhealthy love/hate relationship, spitting lines at each other with unbridled vitriol (Gilda to Johnny: “I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me”). Ballin’s involvement in a shady tungsten cartel results in murder, and he fakes his own death in a plane crash, but not before catching the locked in an embrace in his own bedroom.

After he’s declared dead, Ballin’s estate leaves everything to Gilda, with Johnny as the executor. Johnny takes over the cartel and marries Gilda, making her a canary in a cage out of spite. She runs away to Montevideo, but Johnny cleaverly retrieves her before she can file for divorce. The cartel is dismantled by the police, and Gilda and Johnny meet in an empty casino. She’s about to leave for America, and Johnny pleads to go with her, his defenses finally broken. Then Mundson returns from his watery grave, brandishing his sword-cane and demanding, “I want my wife back”…

Hayworth and Ford made five films together, beginning early in their careers with 1940’s THE LADY IN QUESTION, and continuing with THE LOVES OF CARMEN (’48), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (’52), and THE MONEY TRAP (’65), but GILDA outshines them all. Their onscreen chemistry probably had something to do with their decades-long on-and-off love affair, and it shows in the eyes of both stars. Standing out in support is suave George Macready as Ballin, one of the most elegant villains this side of George Sanders. Joseph Calleia has a pivotal part as Detective Obergon, always standing on the movie’s fringes until the ending. Also worth noting is Steven Geray as Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant loyal to Gilda and contemptuous of Johnny, calling him a “peasant”. Familiar Faces standing in the shadows are Joe Sawyer , Gerald Mohr, Symona Boniface, Eduardo Cianelli , Ludwig Donath, Bess Flowers (naturally!), John Tyrell , and Phillip Van Zandt.

Marion Parsonnett‘s biting, sophisticated script (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) surprisingly made it through the censors, given the era. Vidor’s direction is enhanced by Rudolph Mate’s brooding chiaroscuro photography. The costumes for Rita designed by Jean Louis make Rita luscious even in black and white, especially in the musical numbers “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amore Mio”, a two-piece outfit showing off her slinky hip-wiggle. GILDA is an indisputable classic of film noir and highlights Rita Hayworth at the peak of her movie-star power. What more could you ask for… go watch it!