Revoir—To See Again

I took film criticism in college. It was mostly wasted on me. Dr. Wagner, my professor, wanted to discuss all the technical aspects of film. All I could see were the stories. But movies are like novels. For ones of any quality, seeing or reading it once generally is not enough. Three times will probably let you see what needs to be seen--story arc, acting, cinematography, directing. You might even smack your forehead and wonder where you were the first time you saw it. That’s me.

TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” brought me back to several great films noirs I’d seen before--M (1931), GILDA (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951).

I only got to see the climactic scene from Fritz Lang’s M (1931), but that’s enough to get the power and the empathy. Keep in mind this film is now 84 years old. It was barely a talkie. The cops can’t catch a serial child killer, so the criminals go after him. In the end, they bring him to trial before them, complete with prosecutor and defense counsel. Of course, it’s a kangeroo court. The verdict is a foregone conclusion. Or is it? 

Fritz Lang’s brilliant film comes to rest in the hands of Peter Lorre, who gives a great, mesmerizing performance as the paedophile, In his self-defense, Lorre’s character, M, argues that paedophilia is a compulsion he cannot control or avoid. It’s a disease, a mania. Lorre’s performance commands us to feel for this sick, little guy. He may be the most loathsome of criminals, but he is also human. It also turns the jury of criminals toward him. A woman, however, appeals to mother love, and that appeal to emotion goads the crime bosses to give into the base angels of their already debased natures. The secondary point is that criminals in general are human, too. Ironically, both points are hard sells today.

If Peter Lorre was underrated, so was Glenn Ford. He plays the card cheat Johnny Farrell in GILDA. He’s rescued from his own deserved comeuppance by Ballin Mundson (played by George Macready with all his considerable cultured villainy), a casino owner in Argentina. Johnny goes “straight” for him and becomes his casino manager. It’s a sweet arrangement until Ballin comes home with a wife, and Johnny’s hard pressed to decide which is more shocking--Ballin married or Ballin’s wife, who is Johnny’s ex-wife, Gilda, played by Rita Hayworth. An unstable triangle is created. Outside pressures are added with the police watching Ballin who’s engaged in a nefarious plot with Nazi agents. (The Nazi subplot is a distraction and not very convincing.) 

While some critics don’t think it’s a noir, GILDA is a great film with lots of emotional pop--especially with the not so suppressed homosexual triangle in which Gilda becomes the combustible, unstable third. Or is it Johnny who’s unstable? He’s got a good thing going with Ballin, something he doesn’t want messed up by his hot-to-trot ex-wife. 

I want to know how I missed the homosexual aspects the first time I watched this movie. Maybe I didn’t know what I was looking at. I still haven’t decided if Ballin impulsively marries or he does it deliberately to provoke, or more likely, test Johnny. The tensions rise, Gilda flees, Ballin dies, and Johnny’s left holding the bag. He then enters into a sexless, entrapping marriage with Gilda. But who’s entrapped? By what--love or hate? The detective says love, but I’m not so sure. Johnny and Gilda have done this dance before. It didn’t end well.

Speaking of not ending well, the classic noir OUT OF THE PAST deals in bad choices and a driven femme fatale. Jacques Tourneur directed this film adaptation of Daniel Mainwaring’s novel BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH. It’s a framed story that opens in a hick town when a hood recognizes the gas station owner, Jeff (Robert Mitchum), and tries to put the arm to him. Jeff ends up explaining to his want-to-be girlfriend how the past has just come zooming up to slug him.

Kathie (Jane Greer) will do anything to keep her mitts on her dough, her freedom, and her life. Her gangster boyfriend, Whit (Kirk Douglas), tries hard to get her back. He sends his pal who’s a PI, Jeff, to find her and bring her back. Jeff chases her all the way to Mexico where they fall in love and decide to make a go of it on their own. A murder gets in the way. He backs away from Kathie and runs out of the PI business, but there’s no fleeing from the past. Jeff gets pulled back into Kathie and Whit’s orbit, outfoxes an impossible double cross, and finally decides where this nihilistic journey’s going to end and by whose will.

Because it’s Tourneur, there’s a touch of French existentialism--Are you going to think with your head, your heart, or your dick? Are you going to let circumstances run over you? As a film, it’s beautifully shot in classic noir fashion--lots of shadows and shading. Only in noir are sunny California and Mexico depicted as menacing mirages of unattainable happiness and prosperity. 

I originally saw this film because it starred Robert Mitchum, one of my favorite actors; however, on the second time through, it’s clear. Jane Greer makes this film. She plays Kathie as a mutable character, a woman who can be whatever is necessary to get what she wants from the guy in front of her. She’s soft, feminine, beautiful--and as deadly as a rattlesnake. What a player! She’s leading a real pair of tough guys, Jeff and Whit (played by two he-men), around by their dicks. What a pair of patsies!

When I first saw STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in film crit class, I remember being bored by it because I thought the story was so improbable. Lots of noirs do have improbable plots. Aside from pushing the envelope on willing suspension of disbelief, these plots do pose moral questions. What if somebody offered to kill somebody whom you hated or who blocked your path to success? The price tag--you kill somebody for them. Would you take the deal? Not answering is still an answer.

Bruno, played by Robert Walker, sidles up to Guy, played by Farley Granger, on a train and suggests such a wild thing. Guy blows him off, thinking he’s nuttier than fruitcake. It doesn’t stop him from killing Guy’s wife, a tramp who won’t give Guy a divorce to marry the Senator’s daughter. (BTW, Guy is a man’s name, but here, it suggests just a guy.) Bruno keeps demanding that Guy fulfill his part of the “bargain” and kill his hated father. He becomes a stalker, with all the (homo)sexual undertow that word brings. At the same time, the cops have Guy pegged as the killer. Guy has to fend off both at the same time. Who’s the victim? The dead woman or Guy, her living widower?

The first time I saw it, it was Hitchcock’s intercutting which drove me nuts. It still drives me nuts. Once the clock starts ticking--clearly shown to the viewers--the scenes get progressively shorter, but more dire for both protagonist and antagonist. Even more, the carousel scene becomes a grotesque parody of a western chase scene with horses thundering around in circles instead of across the plains.

In this viewing, it was the acting and the undercurrents in the script that got me. Robert Walker runs and backtracks along a bewildering emotional gamut--a charming, debonair mamma’s boy who’s by turns fanciful, vengeful, and scary. He a latent or a supressed homosexual playboy with an Oedipus complex. As an actor, Farley Granger was nothing to write home about, but the role of Guy wasn’t that demanding. It unbalances the film, and lets Robert Walker steal it. 

When Bruno and Guy meet, the shadows from the blinds fall on Bruno’s face, but not Guy’s, suggesting imprisonment, this time to insanity. Much of the lighting shows Guy’s on the spot and suggests the interrogation lamp. Angles, lighting, and scene composition all indicate Bruno’s off-balance, going tilt-a-whirl (reinforced by the carousel). In one pivotal scene, Bruno’s in the foreground, his parents are in the background, but his father’s loud, domineering voice can be heard over everything.

Maybe I got more out of film crit than I think I did. Dr. Wagner might be proud of me. Or maybe noir isn’t that subtle. See enough films noirs, and you’ll get the picture.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst