Category Archives: movie

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 portrayal of racism

Although it is film written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz between “A Letter to Three Women” and “All About Eve,” (for which Mankiewicz won Oscars for his direction and for his screenplays in both 1950 and 1951), “No Way Out” is best known as the site of Sidney Poitier’s screen debut. Poitier plays the part of a young doctor in a public hospital accused by Ray Biddle, a psychotic “white trash” racist (played with all the stops out by Richard Widmark) of killing his brother after the two of them had been shot during a failed robbery. Playing Dr. Brooks’s brother John, a mail carrier who jokes that his brother may be able to deliver babies but is not qualified to deliver mail (because he does not know what the capital of South Dakota is), Ossie Davis also made his screen debut in “No Way Out,” as did his real-life and often-time screen wife, Ruby Dee.

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Poitier was billed fourth, Davis and Dee not at all, but the film was obviously important in showing an African American professional and a range of sympathetic African Americans onscreen. “No Way Out” is also a gripping melodrama with a race riot (actually a pre-emptive strike from “N_____rtown” against the white slum from which the Biddles came). Mankiewicz has a reputation for being a great writer of dialogue with little interest in the visual aspects of cinema: “all talk, and no action.” To me, “The Quiet American” is decisive disproof of this indictment, though I wonder how anyone who has watched Bette Davis descend the stairs at the party in “All About Eve” could have thought such a thing (even with all the great lines Davis and George Sanders have in that delirious backstage epic).

Although he had just played a heroic doctor (with Jack Palance playing the villain) in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets,” Richard Widmark turned in a frightening performance as the fomentor of a race riot and rabid racist. His own 1947 debut in “Kiss of Death” established him as the primo psycho of the post-World War II decade. Widmark had a frightening smirk and a truly blood-curdling giggle.

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Instead of getting to chew up the scenery and act out every impulse, Poitier’s character is trying to prove himself and to be “a credit to his race.” He tries to dissuade a black orderly (played by Dots Johnson, who played the drunken M.P. in Rossellini’s “Paisà”) from taking off to join the rumble, telling him that, if he does, he’s “no better than they are.” The orderly replies that it is too much to expect black folks to be better than white folks, since trying to prove they are as good as white folks gets them attacked, maimed, and killed.

Dr. Brooks’s boss, Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally) also counsels pragmatism, but Dr. Brooks is determined to prove himself. He undertakes a dangerous course to get the autopsy that Ray Biddle refuses, even after his former sister-in-law Edie (played by Linda Darnell, who had been Lora Mae, another woman who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and bettered herself in Mankiewicz’s previous film) tries to convince him to authorize it and thereby test the claim that the “n____r” doctor killed his brother.

There is little preaching in Mankiewicz’s screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Mankiewicz’s script for “All About Eve”). It also has a refreshingly direct confrontation of tokenism and double standards. The film’s ending is predictable, and Edie’s oscillations are as unconvincing as is her couture (for a divorced drive-in car hop), but the film is more than a historical curiosity. It is a gripping, noirish melodrama without outstanding performances. . . and striking black-and-white cinematography by Milton Krasner (Bus Stop, A Double Life, Boy on a Dolphin, and Oscared for Three Coins in a Fountain).

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who, like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, really was the author of the films he directed (and in many instances produced) deserves greater recognition in the pantheon of film-makers. During the 1950s Mankiewicz stretched Marlon Brando into Mark Antony and Sky Masterson (in, respectively, “Julius Caesar” and “Guys and Dolls”), and I particularly like his adaptations of “The Late George Apley” and “Sleuth,” Some of his own witty screenplays include “People Will Talk” (the film he chose when the San Francisco Film Festival honored him with its lifetime achievement award), “The Honey Pot,” “The Quiet American,” and “Five Fingers.” The latter two are the most visually striking of his films and among the best espionage films ever made.

 

copyright 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Tony Richardson’s “Mademoiselle”

The success as a stage director of Tony Richardson (1928-91) seemed to flow seamlessly to film. Richardson directed John Osborne’s plays “Look Back in Anger” and “The Entertainer” first on stage then on screen for a company (Woodfall) he and Osborne founded. I’d like to see the adaptation of William Faulkner’s sordid Sanctuary (1961), which starred Lee Remick as Temple Drake, but have never had an opportunity.

Before winning an Oscar as best director for the winner of best picture of 1963, Tom Jones, Richardson directed Rita Tushingham in an adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey” (1961). Tom Courtenay and Ralph Richardson in an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” And he followed up “Tom Jones” with an adaptation of the black comedy about the funeral business in LA by Evelyn Waugh, “The Loved One” (1965) with a very mannered performance by Rod Steiger.

Though he also had male lovers, Richardson seems to have had a passionate marriage to Vanessa Redgrave (1962-67) until he was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to Jeanne Moreau (also born in 1928 and still going strong) that ended his marriage and his string of film successes. At her behest he directed “Mademoiselle,” from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras of a screen treatment a decade earlier by Jean Genet that was booed at Cannes in 1966, followed by the hideous 1967” The Sailor from Gibraltar” in which Redgrave played the wife who lost her husband to Moreau. Then Moreau found other romantic interests. Richardson’s career was not done, but he made unsatisfying movies including “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968), an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (1969), a bizarre movie about the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly with Mick Jagger playing Kelly, a creditable adaptation of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1973, reuniting him with Lee Remick in a cast headed by Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield), a disappointing return to Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) in “Joseph Andrews” (1977 with Ann-Margaret and Peter Firth) and only four more movies: the underrated “The Border” (1962 with Jack Nicholson) and “Blue Sky” (not released until 1994 with Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange in a performance that won an Oscar), the overrated “The Hotel New Hampshire” (1984), and a two-part tv movie of “The Phantom of the Opera” (1990) from Arthur Kopit’s book for his then-unproduced smash-hit stage musical “Phantom” (with Charles Dance and Burt Lancaster).

It is a puzzling filmography, the main continuities of which are obtaining the services of talented actors and actresses and a penchant for literary adaptations (I guess I include the two Osborne plays from the start…).

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Having finally seen “Mademoiselle,” I’m not sure why it was booed at Cannes, where the similar but worse “The White Ribbon” was the highest prize, the Palme d’Or, in 2009. Both movies were shot in black-and-white and are set in villages in which malignity rules. (The village where Richardson filmed was, I kid you not, named Le Rat, in the Corrèze département of central France.)“Mademoiselle” opens with Moreau opening a sluice gate and shows the flooding of a farm that follows. This has been preceded and will be followed by arson of barns. Moreau’s character is revealed to be the teacher of a one-room local school and the municipal secretary. Unmarried, she is perhaps a frustrated virgin (repression kills). For sure, she is a menace to the community in general and to an Italian woodcutter (Manou, played in Italian by Ettore Manni), who is servicing various frustrated wives and none too popular with the cuckolded husbands.

Mademoiselle bullies Manou’s son, Bruno (Keith Skinner) in class and eventually has her night of amour (out in the countryside during a rainstorm) with Manou, sealing his fate. Mademoiselle is more calculating than a noir femme fatale, and not only fatal but toxic.

With an English boy playing the son of the itinerant Italian in a French village, there is not a lot of dialogue. There are long takes (many of them long shots in distance as well as duration) of the underlit house where Manou and Bruno stay and of small human figures in the landscape. Cinematographer David Watkin was nominated for a BAFTA for his work, which for me was the best aspect of the movie (just as the cinematography in the 2011 Palme d’Or-winning “The Tree of Life” seemed to me superior to the very minimal storytelling). (Watkin had already begun working with Richard Lester, starting with “The Knack …and How to Get It (1965) which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1965 and “Help!” and went on to win an Oscar for his cinematography in “Out of Africa” in 1985). Steven Soderberg has said that “Mademoiselle was the most beautiful black-and-white film I have ever, ever seen.”

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Mademoiselle’s motivation remains opaque, even for a character from Duras or Genet. (She is somewhat similar to the character Moreau played for Buñuel in “Diary of a Chambermaid,” but more extreme and more respected by the citizens who ruthlessly scapegoat the alien and don’t suspect the native “bad seed.”) And her viciousness is recognized only by Bruno, who says nothing to anyone though his father is being blamed for the fires she sets.

I don’t think it is a good movie, though less annoying than either “The White Ribbon” or “The Tree of Life,” both of which are even murkier. “Mademoiselle,” is better than the mind-numbing “Lady from Gibraltar,” but then most anything is. For sure, there is none of the frenetic pacing of “Tom Jones,” Joseph Andrews,” or the Richard Lester movies David Watkin shot! I do have to mention the long snake that Manou has wrapped around his waist and then thrusts at Mademoiselle.

The only bonus feature on the MGM DVD is a trailer. Had I seen it first, I’d have avoided the movie. It certainly shows that Richardson was very famous at the time…

 

©2012, Stephen O. Murray

 

Add me to the ranks of writer/diretor Greta Geriwg’s “Lady Bird” (2017)

As have many others, I liked Greta Gerwig’s 2017 “Lady Bird,” set around 2002. I was especially surprised to like Tracy Letts as the father who was laid off and couldn’t get another job. Saoirse Ronan has deservedly been much praised as the rebellious title character (né Christine). Laurie Metcalf’s character is very rough, but she is remarkable.

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As usual, I adore Lois Smith, who herein plays the wise principal of a Catholic school in Sacramento. I am glad for Lady Bird that Sister Sarah Jones is there to protect her, even though LB is expelled (which was a certainty) after popping off against a long-winded anti-abortion speaker who has invoked her mother’s decision not to abort her as regrettable: words to the effect that then the assembly would not have to sit through her speech. The line is great, but the speaker’s look of total shock is the high point of the movie for me.

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Timothée Chalaméet is pensive and accedes to LB’s need to be seen as having a boyfriend and for a prom date. I don’t understand why she is so bent out of shape to learn that he was not a virgin before she deflowered herself on him. Nor am I sure why her best friend , Julie (Beanie Fedstein), gets so annoyed with her, but there is a lovely prom night reconciliation (Kyle ends up not going to the prom after picking up LB, honking from the street to her father’s unhappiness of such treatment). Her earlier castmate/boyfriend (Merrily We Roll), Danny O’Neill is gawky as a boy not sure how to come out of the closet (after LB finds him kissing another boy in a bathroom stall).

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I also don’t understand how Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) is her brother. Must have been adopted, though Marion is having trouble supporting her husband and daughter). He is quite easy on the eyes though.

I like Jon Brion’s musical score, Dave Mathews’s song “Crash Into Me,” the complex relationships, especially the hard-pressed mother and restive daughter one (both of them brittle and outspoken), and the shots of Sacramento, a city I don’t know very well, though I have been to its museum twice, and Tamar’s wedding. As in “Riverdale,” class is a major focus, and I know why Marion wonders with dismay how she raised such a snob as a daughter (though I was more like her, or maybe like Kyle, or like LB’s father, than like the other characters).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

pre-code enforcement grab-bag from Paramount

Other than high society oblivious to the Depression and lots of lingerie and production by Paramount there is little in common among the six 1931-mid-1934 movies on three discs of “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection.” There is also a brief overview of Hollywood censorship that would be helpful for those unfamiliar with the Hayes Office and what went before in the way of an unenforced code.

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I have a very dim view of small-town small mindedness, but even I was shocked by William Seiter’s (1932) “Hot Saturday, in which Nancy Caroll’s attempt to avoid rape by Edward Wood lead to her being maligned or shunned. I the end Cary Grant is driving off to New York with her but after horribly false gossip that even her childhood sweetheart (Randolph Scott) wavers in disbelieving her. She also has a very censorious and greedy mother, played by the usually benign Jane Darwell.

Seiter also directed Astaire and Rogers in one of their best movies (Roberta, 1935) and Astaire with a divine Rita Hayworth in “You Were Never Lovelier” from 1942. Plus the hilarious Marx brothers’ “Room Service” (1938) and the ludicrous but amusing “One Touch of Venus” (1948) with Robert Walker and a divine and funny Ava Gardner. I guess he was something of a “women’s director.” Nancy Carroll (Shopworn Angel) was affecting and lovely as Ruth Brock. Cary Grant, in a much bigger role than in “Merrily We Go to Hell,” wore a lot of obvious makeup and s fey kimono, while Scott was all butch, all stiff. For me, this is the standout of the collection.

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The searing but not sleazy 1932 “Merrily, We go hell”, directed by Dorothy Arzner, with a dipsomaniac Frederic March, and the love of Sylvie Sydney, who some reason in in luck with him, though he is always drunk and often cruel. I like her stand-by father (George Irving) as she makes stupid, self- harming decisions, and Sydney registers pain March’s character is too drunk to notice. Cary Grant appeared for part of a nightclub scene (the high life scenes from 1930s movie continue to amaze me. Depression, what Depression?) March really put the ”maniac” in dipsomaniac in a remarkable performance.

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“The Cheat” was the oldest of the four Tallulah Bankhead movies I’ve seen (1931, directed by George Abbott). It was over the top with Bankhead playing a woman desperate to cover her gambling dead and Irving Pichel as a collector of Japanese art desperate to have her. The flat-chested Bankhead acted up a storm of desperation first about the gambling debt, when about her husband taking the blame for her shooting Pichel.

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Re “Torch Singer” (1933:) I can’t decide which is more preposterous, Claudette Colbert as a chorus girl who zooms to being Manhattan’s premier chanteuse or the plot in which she bears and has to give up a child while the father, not knowing she was pregnant, is in China. The movie is notable for being one in which Ricardo Cortez is not shot by a outraged woman. Colbert could sing, but could not sell a song like Marlene Dietrich playing a nightclub singer and desperate mother in “Blond Venus,” made the previous year.

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Finished and released just before enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934, “Search for Beauty” has some male rear nudity (a locker-room scene) but no sex. I’d say it had some violence, rather sadistic treatment by Aryan athletes suggested by Buster Crabbe (a 1932 Olympic gold medal-winner who plays Don Jackson, who becomes the editor of a fitness and exercise magazine) of sleazy older men and women. The models of fitness quickly turn into fascist squads enforcing a schedule of mandatory exercise that begins at 6:30 AM. Rarely has “body fascism” been so fascist. Leni Riefenstahl included black bodies, Paramount only white ones and more credibly portrayed athleticism as well as smooth-skinned models of Aryan perfection (from North America and the British Empire, including Ireland).

In addition to an often-shirtless Crabbe, clad only in swimming trunks, it starred an unrecognizable (voice or face) Ida Lupino (in her film debut), and a recognizable James Gleason in an unusually dull as an echo of Robert Armstrong, the wheeler-dealer who want to publish little-clad people and have sexy stories under the guise of promoting exercise. The physician on its board of directors say that it has “just enough moral to sneak them through the mails,” It objectifies men (especially Crabbe) as much as it does women. As the upholder of truth and righteousness, Crabbe is scenic but off-putting. As much as the magazine, the movie is smut posing as moralism.

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An even more peculiar 1934 (getting in under the wire of the Production Code) is “Murder at the Vanities,” directed by rising director Mitchell Leisen. It includes an inept murder investigation by oafish police lieutenant Victor McLaglen, who is more interested at ogling chorus girls than solving the case of two murders in and above the opening of a musical by fast-talking impresario Jack Oakie. Carl Brisson was tall, but had no talent acting, singing of dancing. Kitty Carlisle had little do other than stand supportively by and go on with the show even after two attempts to murder her occur between her dressing room and the stage. (There are three consummated murders of women as well within the movie, one of them onstage.)

The music is mostly operetta with a very bizarre invasion by Duke Ellington and his orchestra (notable for having an early mixed-race production number. It also has a lot of skimpily dressed women onstage and backstage (and some passing black female nudity). Even Carlisle has a number in which she is close to being naked. And another in which she sings in praise of “sweet marijuana.” The numbers of a stage set musical as not as delirious as Busby Berkeley ones, more stage-confined.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Barabbas, book and movie

I think that Barabbas, Swedish Nobel Prize-winner’s 1950 novel, was his best known work even before it was the basis for a Biblical epic movie made by Dino Di Laurentis with Anthony Quinn in rhe title role. The book begins with the freed prisoner skulking to watch the crucifixion of the man the crowd chose to be crucified, Jesus called the Christ. Barabbas recognizes one of the two thieves crucified with (besides) Jesus and is struck by the woman who is obviously the mother, filled with sorrow but not crying. The disturber of religious orthodoxy is frail. Barabbas knows he will not last long and is appalled that the Romans superintending the crucifixions offer a sponge dipped in vinegar when Jesus asks for water.

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Barabbas is terrified by the mid-day dark an earthquake that was not noticed by those who hang out in his favorite tavern. He sounds out some believers in the crucified one and is puzzled by their faith that he will be resurrected. He befriends a young believer with a harelip who gets herself stoned for preach the Christian heresy, knifes the man who cast the first stone, and later removes the girl’s body from the pit where she was killed.

It’s not clear to me in the novel how Barabbas is condemned to Roman sulfur mines from which no one emerges alive. His weaker partner (they are chained together), Sahak is a Christian, eager to hear from someone who saw the Savior. They are reassigned to pull plows like oxen, and eventually chosen by the Roman governor(‘s wife) to accompany him into retirement in Rome.

Sahak refuses to renounce his god and is crucified. Barabbas watches again. He tracks down Christians meeting in catacombs and eagerly participates in Nero’s burning of Rome. That is blamed on Christians. The nonbeliever Barabbas is the only one who takes enthusiastic part. The Apostle Peter explains to him why Christians do not make war in the name of their religion, and Barabbas is crucified with many Christians. He is the slowest to die, and, unlike Jesus has no group watching in solidarity.

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I think tat the movie made several improvements on Lagerkvist’s stripped-down prose. First, it shows Pontius Pilate giving the crowd a choice of which condemned prisoner will be release. In a spectacular sequence (which may not be an improvement) it shows Barabbas dragging Sahak (played by Vittorio Gassman) to the surface when an earthquake destroys the sulfur mine. After the same transition through field labor to being part of the retiring governor’s household in Rome, the two are cast into gladiator school. There they are particularly hated by the master (a slave who has risen to training and supervising the other gladiators), Torvald, who is played with full-throttle malice by Jack Palance. Torvald kills Sahak is killed by Torvald (after the executions throw their spears around the required target) for refusing to renounce his god, and in a scene not in the book, Barabbas and a net go against the arrogant and vicious Torvald in a chariot. This is quite an exciting action sequence in which Torvald is outsmarted and eventually dragged around behind his chariot by his frenzied horses.

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Nero frees the surprise victor, and Barabbas carries another corpse (Sahak’s) to proper burial.

Barabbas is lost in the catacombs. When he emerges the city is burning. He adds some torches and is crucified in a tableau (as in “Spartacus”). Barabbas wants to believe in the new religion that he only partly understands, but dies a martyr to the faith he would like to have, but doesn’t quite have.

Quinn as the brute intrigued by the man (regarded by Christians as the son of god) is quite good, as is Gassman as the frailer (but not frail) believer with whom Barabbas bonds during twenty year’s brutal mistreatment underground and continues to associate even after they are no longer chained together. Palance was over-the-top but appropriately so, Aldo Tonti’s color photography was notable, and there was some early electronic music in Mario Nascimbene’s score.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

This is a part of a re-examination of one of my adolescent self’s favorite writers, which is also includes The Sibyl (my favorite) and The Dwarf. It is also an example of movie being better than source book. Losing the interior reflections of an unretrospective and unanalytic  character was more than compensated for by big spectacles, including the final crucifixion field.

 

A little-known 1944 Warner Brothers look at Nazi occupation of France

I had no expectations going into watching the 1944 “Uncertain Glory,” directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Errol Flynn and Paul Lukas. I am a Paul Lukas fan, have mixed reactions to Errol Flynn on screen, and to Raoul Walsh films. IMO “White Heat” (1949) guaranteed immortality for Walsh; The Douglas Fairbanks Sr. “Thief of Baghdad,” “They Drive by Night,” “Strawberry Blonde,”High Sierra,” and “Capt. Horatio Hornblower R.N.” solidify the position, though there are many lesser accomplishments.

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Flynn wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and “Uncertain Glory” provided a rare role of complexity, not neglecting his charm and womanizing, but also showing a sometimes coward. The viewer does not learn of the crimes that led Jean Picard to the guillotine at the start, where after having his collar cut away, a British bomber aiming at the next-door Renault factory allows an escape. Given the character of his long-time pursuer, Inspector Marcel Bonet (Lukas, initially seeming to have the monomania of Javert relentless pursuing Jean Valjiean in Les Miserables) it seems impossible to believe that Jean was not guilty of the crimes that led to guillotine.

Bonet rather quickly captures him again in the south (Lyon). Saboteurs have just blown up a bridge that a Nazi troop train was costing, and the Nazis have announced that they will slay a hundred locals if the saboteur is not caught. Among the ironies is that he is caught, but rescue by Bonet’s credentials. Jean convinces Bonet to let him be shot by the Nazis instead of being guillotined, saving the hundred innocent hostages. Though Bonet accepts the offer, he is very unsure that Jean will go through it after enjoying three days of freedom, which include a romance with a local girl (dancer Jean Sullivan) who looked like Jennifer Jones of that era to me. There are other complications, most notably the villagers wanting to pin the sabotage on the stranger (Jean), though the stern local priest (Dennis Hoey) forbids this de factp murder by French people of the stranger.

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As in probably all Hollywood movies about Nazi occupation, the sneering Nazis are a step behind the French police, who are a step behind Bonet.

Sid Hickox was DP, and the film has a very Warner Brothers look (not quite noir). There is not much action, but the relationship enacted by Flynn and Lukas is interesting, and the propaganda is muted examination of troubled consciences. Except, perhaps, for the premise shared with the 1944 Bogart vehicle “Passage to Marseilles” (and to some degree also of the 1942 “Casablanca”)of criminals sacrificing themselves for la patrie.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

A mongoose scratching at a well-fed cobra

Although Joan Crawford made many movies that have not seen, it seems that most cast her as a determined-to-rise and quick-study woman from the wrong side of the tracks. Her characters have to overcome considerable disdain from those born to the upper class and flashes of self-doubt. Although she often seems to be using men whose status is higher than their IQs or will, generally the screenplays try to make the audience believe that she really loves the men and give her chances to prove devotion beyond her interest in securing and maintaining a status in the elite of whatever locality she is operating in.

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The 1949 “Flamingo Road,” based on a long-forgotten best-selling novel, sticks to the formula; indeed it reunites director (Michael Curtiz), male and female leads (Zachary Scott and Crawford), and, unfortunately, supplier of frenzied overkill music (Max Steiner) from “Mildred Pierce,” the overwrought melodrama that revived Crawford’s career after she was dumped by MGM and won her an Oscar.

I have been watching a number of late-1940s movies in which the leads were far too old for their parts (Greer Garson in “Valley of Decision”, Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in “B. F.’s Daughter”), but at least those other movies covered long spans. Even with repeated reference to being tired of knocking around, Crawford was fifteen years too old for the part of the traveling-carnival exotic dancer who does not flee with the carnival. She was also ten years older than Zachary Scott, who was also 5-10 years too old for the part of Fielding Carlisle, the son of the deceased, highly respected Judge Carlisle and protégé of the local boss eager to use that family name.

The boss, Sheriff Titus Semple (played with cold, calm menace by Sidney Greenstreet), has made Field a deputy sheriff with few responsibilities, but sends him to serve papers attaching the carnival for nonpayment of debts. The only remnant of the carnival is a tent in which Lane Bellamy (Crawford) is listening to the radio. Field takes her to a diner and gets her a job waitressing there. Such a romance does not fit with Titus’s plans. He more or less orders Field to marry a member of the local elite (those who live on Flamingo Road) Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston).

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Titus also makes Lane disappear, having her picked up and thrown in jail for 30 days for soliciting prostitution. Lane is not so easily driven off. She makes some interesting alliances with a man and a woman of some independence from Titus. Much of the fun of the movie is watching Crawford and Greenstreet glower at each other while making polite talk in front of others., Eventually, they have it out alone in private.

In that Crawford really did rise from the wrong side of town through dancing and marrying up (ultimately to the president of Pepsi Cola), as well as making a career out of playing upwardly mobile women, her clawing her way up the social (/economic) ladder is believable. The problem is that her character could not possibly have kicked around as a second-string feature in a third-run carnival so long before starting her ascent. The incongruity of the 45-year-old in the part of Lane is only made more glaring by the repeated references to her as a “girl.”

What redeems the movie is the relentlessness of the story and of the antagonists. In the immense Sidney Greenstreet, Crawford had a rare male worthy opponent. (The only time I can think of that Crawford was overmatched was by Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, though Mercedes McCambridge in “Johnny Guitar” and Ann Blyth in “Mildred Pierce” were formidable in their hatreds of her.) In earlier roles (Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) Greenstreet played grasping, amoral characters with a certain amount of sardonic charm. Titus is content for people to maintain their stereotypes of joviality being a concomitant of fat, but is a completely cold-blooded grafter. His smiles are mostly grim. If he has any emotions, they are so well padded that they do not emerge. As Crawford goes from being potential trouble for his plans to being a clear-and-present lethal danger, he never shows anger. He drinks pitchers of milk, rocks on the porch of the Palmer House Hotel, collects his graft in cash, minimizes movements, and pulls strings to bring down anyone who gets in his way.

Zachary Scott was good at being pushed around (as in “Mildred Pierce”). Gladys George played savvy survivors in many movies and provides a leavening of wit to the fast-rising melodrama. Fred Clark plays against type, an idealist newspaperman who dares to criticize the corrupt state and local government (which state is not specified; from the title, one might think Florida, a state that democracy still has not reached; but the milieu seems as western as southern). David Brian plays a peculiarly written role of a builder who became a political boss because contracting in the state was so corrupt that he could not be an honest builder. He falls fast and hard for Crawford, which ensures that Greenstreet will arrange legal troubles for him.

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If one can accept Joan Crawford starting her move upward looking obviously more than 40, and enjoys watching evenly matched characters battling to the death like a mongoose (Crawford) and a cobra (Greenstreet), “Flamingo Road” is a lot of fun. It certainly has a consciousness of class that is missing in third millennium American movies (to take an instance with another machine-picked politician named Fielding, “Waking the Dead”). For all its cynicism about electoral democracy, like so many late-40s Hollywood movies, “Flamingo Road” affirms the American dream of rising in the social and economic hierarchy through individual effort, making it is an interesting document of postwar American ideology. It also shows that 1949’s Oscared “best picture,” “All the King’s Men,” was not unique in portraying graft-ridden government and political bosses (which Preston Sturges had already done in “The Great McInty,” anyway.) A bonus is the nourish look provided by cinematographer Ted D. McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden).

 

©2002, Stephen O. Murray