31 Flavors of Noir on the Fringe to Lure You In! Part 1

“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”- Force of Evil

“All that Cain did to Abel was murder him.” –Force of Evil

“He pushed me too far!… So I pushed him just far enough.” –The Lineup

“You’re like a rat in a box without any holes” – I Wake Up Screaming

“From now on, no one cuts me so deep that I can’t close the wound.” – I Wake Up Screaming

“I’m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it so you don’t hear the bullets!”- The Big Combo

“I was born on a Monday, I might as well go out on a Monday. Like dirty laundry.”- Man in the Dark 

Heads up… this feature includes spoilers…💣

1-I Wake Up Screaming 1941

I Wake Up Screaming is the first official noir produced by Fox, directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (he worked on Charlie Chan programmers and B-movies) who was not considered a noir director. With a screenplay by Dwight Taylor based on the novel by Steve Fisher. Eddie Muller said it personified film noir, and calls the 1941 film – Proto-noir, as it was the first of it’s kind.

Darryl F. Zanuck wanted the film’s location changed to New York City, so it wouldn’t reflect badly on L.A. There are a number of sleazy characters involved and he wanted to shift the story from Hollywood to Broadway.

The film was remade as Vicki in 1953 (with Jeanne Crane and Jean Peters, though it lacked the highly stylized artistry) Photographed by Edward Cronjager (Seven Keys to Baldpate 1929, Hell’s Highway 1932, The Monkey’s Paw 1933, Island in the Sky 1938, The Gorilla 1939, Heaven Can Wait 1943, Desert Fury 1947, Relentless 1948, House by the River 1950, The Girl in Lovers Lane 1960) pours out murky noir shadows, darkened streets, unusual camera angles, low key lighting and the high contrast, onepoint lighting that illuminates the ink black threatening spaces. The film is stark yet dynamic.

With music by Cyril J. Mockridge, you’ll hear the familiar often used noir leitmotif, the melody Street Scene by Alfred Newman. I Wake Up Screaming stars Betty Grable as Jill Lynn, Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, Carole Landis as Vicki Lynn, Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell. The film also co-stars Alan Mowbray as Robin Ray and Allyn Joslyn as Larry Evans. Quirky character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays Harry Williams the desk clerk in Vicki’s apartment building who’s a real weirdo. William Gargan plays Detective Jerry ‘Mac’ MacDonald.

Cook is great at playing quirky oddballs (Cliff the crazed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944, George Peatty in The Killing 1956, anxious trench coat wearing Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon 1941, Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill 1959).

I Wake up Screaming bares a resemblance to a whodunit, as the killer is chased down with the story playing a bit of a shell game with us. There are common noir themes of obsession, perverse lust, corruption and homicidal jealousy. The film is also has a preoccupation with images and artifice, tossing up flashbacks like a circus juggler.

Right before model Vicki Lynn heads to Hollywood to reach for her rising star, she is brutally murdered. Delicious Betty Grable in her first non-music role, plays Jill Lynn, Vicki’s sister, who is drawn to the man (Victor Mature) who is presumably her sister’s murderer.

Vicki functions as an essential part of the narrative early on in the film and is resurrected by way of flashbacks. Frankie knows that while there are images that still exist of Vicki she is no longer present. In fact Vicki is a myth and a manufactured deception in some ways. Jill on the other hand is genuine, unpretentious and warmhearted.

Carol Landis who died at 28 from an overdose, plays murder victim Vicki Lynn. I Wake up Screaming back flips into the weeks leading up to her death. The film is also somewhat of a noir variation on Pygmalion, as Victor Mature who plays Frankie Christopher, sports and show business promoter, discovers a beautiful girl waiting tables and gets the hot idea of turning Vicki into a celebrity and society girl. Vicki’s appeal, is the sphere of influence that drives the plot. Mature always makes the screen sweat with his sexy brawny build, swarthy good looks, strong jaw line and the aura of his glistening obsidian hair.

The film opens with a sensational news headline ‘MODEL MURDERED’ right from the top Frankie is being grilled by the cops in the interrogation room. Burning white hot lights are up close in his face. He says to the shadow of Cornell (Cregar) who’s a bulky shadow shot with single source lighting) to his opaque figure, “You’re a pretty tough guy with a crowd around.”

The flashbacks begin. Frankie goes back to the first time he meets Vicki at the lunch room on 8th Avenue while eating with Larry Evans (Alan Joslyn) and Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray). Vicki asks “Is that all?” Lary Evans says “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” She handles his come on, “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” Frankie pours on the charm. He gets the notion to take Vicki and mold her into a celebrity. “You know I bet in 6 months I could take that girl and put her on top of the ladder.” Mature and Landis worked together in One Million Years B.C.

Has-been actor Robin Ray (Mowbray) and ruthless gossip columnist Larry Evans (Joslyn) decide to get involved in developing Vicki Lynn’s mystique and cultivate her glamour on the road to fame. Of course both men wind up having a yen for her. A cynical Ray (Mowbray) complains that all women are alike. Evans (Joslyn) tells him,“For Pete’s sake, what difference does that make? You’ve got to have them. They’re standard equipment.”

Frankie takes Vicki Lynn out into New York cafe society – All three schemers, the columnist, the washed up actor and Frankie, bring her to the cafe and make a big noise, grabbing the attention of Lady Handel (May Beatty) who invites them over to her table. In order give the impression that Vicki will now be a new sensation, Larry Evans brags in front of the table, that he’ll plug her In his column. They also think that it’ll help Vicki to get noticed if she’s seen on Robin Ray’s arm. The outing is a success. When they bring her home to her apartment building they meet the squirrly desk clerk Harry Williams (Elisha Cook), who takes his sweet time, getting up for Vicki. Frankie gives him a hard time after being so disrespectful. Williams sneers, “She ain’t nobody.”

Back to the present and Frankie’s still in the sweat box. They’re questioning Jill too. She’s telling the cops about Vicki’s plans. She’s got, “Grand ideas about becoming a celebrity.” They ask about Frankie’s involvement. Another flashback – the sisters are talking about Vicki’s new venture. Vicki tells Jill, “They’re gonna glamorize me.” Jill tells Vicki that she doesn’t trust Frankie’s promises, and apologizes for sounding stuffy. She warns Vicki about having unrealistic aspirations. Flashback even further. Frankie shows up at the cafeteria. Vicki keeps dishing out the wise cracks. He shows her the newspaper article about her making a splash at the El Chico Club.

“Why all the cracks you don’t even know me?” “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Back at the present day, at the police station. Jill continues to tell the cops how successful Vicki’s climb was. Backwards once again-

Jill Lynn I don’t want to tell you your business, but don’t you think you’re making a fool of yourself?
Vicki Lynn What do you mean?
Jill Oh, this Frankie Christopher. People like that, what have they got to do with people like us?
Vicki Jill, they’re going to help me!
Jill In what way?
Vicki They’re gonna’ glamorize me. They may have started this thing as a gag, but, after taking one look at those million-dollar debutantes tonight, I realized I can give them cards in spades and still come out on top.
Jill Vicky, you’ll never come out on top by any shortcuts. One week your picture’s on the cover of a magazine, the next it’s in the ash can.

Frankie arrives at the girls apartment, and Vicki breaks the news to Frankie that she’s going away to Hollywood. She’d done a screen test and signed a long term contract. He’s angry. She went behind Frankie’s back after everything he did for her. She defends herself “Some people think I’m a pretty attractive girl. I’m no Frankenstein you know!” Frankie comments, “I wonder.”

Jill tells the cops she was pounding a typewriter breaking her finger nails, and Vicki did get the Hollywood contract, so she might have been right about taking the risk with an acting career and becoming a star.

Another flashback The three men are sitting around the bar..

Robin Ray [indignant] Can you imagine her walking out on me, after all that I’ve done for her? Me!

Larry Evans [slightly incredulous] “You’ve” done for her? What have *you* done for her?

Robin Well, I took her out to all the bright spots, I let her be seen with me everywhere… It made her feel important.

Larry Why, you parboiled old ham! You don’t think anybody thought there was anything between *you* two, do you? If it hadn’t been for my plugging in the column, people would’ve thought she was your trained nurse.

Robin Why, you ink-stinking word slinger! I was famous when they were changing your pants 20 times a day!

Jumping to the present again, Jill is still being questioned by the cops. They want to know if Vicki had anyone in her life. Jill remembers a peculiar thing that happened. She tells them she was sitting at the table in the cafeteria waiting for Vicki to get off work. The peeping prowling, Ed Cornell’s giant shape stares at Vicki through the window. He has a queer look on his face. Jill maintains her stare, holding her coffee cup, she is unable to put it down as she studies him, uncomfortably. Once he notices Jill catching him ogling Vicki, he skulks away. Mockeridge’s score undergoes a sinister change, emphasis on the rhythmic accents of a classic horror picture.

Jill tells her sister, “You seem to have an admirer there’s some guy looking through the window like the wolf looking for the 3 little pigs.” The girls are walking on the street, Cornell is leaning against a wall, Jill points out to Vicki that he’s the one. “He gives me the creeps” Vicki says, “You’ll have to get used to that, they’ve got more wolves in New York than they have in Siberia” She tells the cops she saw him several times after in odd places. He never said anything but watched Vicki, it frightened Jill. There was something strange about him, the way he looked at Vicki. Always turning up in strange places. The cops look skeptical about her “mysterious stranger.”

The cops think Jill is trying to protect Frankie “I just don’t believe he did it, that’s all” They ask if she’s involved with him, and accuse her of being in love with him and wanting Vicki out of the way. Jill demands to see someone in authority, so they tell Mac to get Cornell. Who walks in? The creep who watched Vicki through the plate glass!

Enter rabid, self-righteous homicide Detective Ed Cornell (Cregar). Once he sets his sights on Frankie he begins to mercilessly hound him to the ends of hell if necessary, going after him with a flaming vengeance, trying to pin the murder on him. Cornell knows that Frankie is innocent but he is determined to persecute him. Cregar made an all too short career out playing imposing characters. He died at 28 in 1944 due to complications from a crash diet, always struggling with his weight, striving to obtain leading man status.

Jill is startled, the room is smoky and this massive shape looms over her with his girth “That’s him, that’s the man!” They think she’s crazy. First it’s a mysterious stranger peeking through windows and now it’s Ed Cornell. “Thats my job to look at people.” Leaving the dark corner of the sweat box into the smoke factory with Frankie, things become more visible as Cornell emerges as a menacing force. She insists, “I did see you.” “Alright Alright I’m a peeping tom.”

Jill Relates what happened on the car ride with Frankie, the night he learned Vicki was leaving, and she tells him he’ll be glad to get rid of her, because Jill is in love with him. That Jill is just covering up her feelings. Frankie says Jill being in love with him, never entered his mind. Vicki is sure, “I know it’s much deeper than that. That’s why its so dangerous. Anything might happen.”

Cornell writes down everything in his pad. Jill says that Vicki didn’t mean the line about being glad to get rid of her, but he corrects her, “What she meant doesn’t count. It’s what she said.”

The night Jill found Vicki, as soon as she came out of the elevator she got a feeling something was wrong. There was  music blasting from the radio. Frankie was there already – ”Jill you don’t think I did it, do you?” Jill is in shock.

Cornell goes back into the interrogation room with Frankie and tells him he knows about Vicki’s ‘get rid of me’ statement. The obessed Cornell comes up with a scenario. Frankie’s mind got more and more inflamed with jealousy and hurt pride. Went up there and killed her in cold blood. Cornell loses his cool and lunges at Frankie, ”I’ve got a mind to kill you right now.”When Cornell gets rough, the other cops have to break it up. They all like Frankie and ask if he’s got any tickets to the fights. They ask Cornell “What’s the idea of riding him, so hard?” “I have years of experience in this racket. If that isn’t the look of a guilty man, I’ll take the rap myself.” The District Attorney winds up getting his back up with Cornell when he focuses so much on Frankie’s guilt.

The District Attorney (Morris Ankrum) apologizes to Frankie. Jill is in the office too, and tells him they think they know the identity of the killer. It’s the switchboard operator at the sisters’ apartment building. They think it’s Harry Williams. Jill leaves the police station and Frankie asks why they think it’s Williams. The D.A. tells him, William’s been missing since 5pm last night, probably hiding out scared and shaky.

Frankie is released and later that night, Mature wakes up to find the huge, menacing Cregar sitting beside his bed, “Well that’s the first time, I had a bad dream with my eyes open.” “Someday you’re going to talk in your sleep, and when that days comes I want to be around.” The scene hints at Cornell’s repressed homosexual passion.

Cornell tells him he’ll get all the evidence he needs and tie him up like a pig in a slaughter house. Frankie unrattled, tells him, ”You’re the bright boy” and reminds him that they think Williams murdered Vicki. Victor Mature is so smooth, so mellow when he’s playing at being sarcastic, He says, “You’re like something out of a museum you ought to have a magnifying glass and one of those trick hats with the ear flaps” Frankie throws Cornell out after he calls him cocky, and has had it his way too long. First with Vicki, then Jill. Cornell’s resentment is showing.

Jill finds Harry Williams who’s returned to the apartment building. She’s moving out, but he has already packed up her bags and taken them down to the lobby. Williams is a suspiciously hollow little insect who Jill finds strange. Frankie meets up with Robin at the police station. The cops show a reel of Vicki singing at a night club. Cornell watches her longingly which gives Frankie a window into Cornell’s longing for the dead girl. Cornell looks at Frankie with contempt.

The film of Vicki appears in the dark room filled with cigar smoke that makes wispy clouds float, and the rays of light from the projection booth. The light cast on Frankie’s eyes are like an illuminated mask, it accentuates his epiphany — that Cornell is obsessed with Vicki. He catches something in his stare. The light on Cornell’s face as HE stares back at Frankie, unmasks only half of his face, revealing the duplicity Cornell projects throughout the picture. It’s a brilliantly framed shot by Cronjager.

The film reel resurrects Vicki from the dead, like a ghost haunting the room. Robin Ray squirms in his chair and runs to get out. The door is locked. His behavior hints at his guilt. They put the lights on and bring him into the D.A.’s office. Ray tells them how he felt about her. She laughed at him. Called him “a has-been and didn’t want to hitch her wagon to a falling star.” He’s the one that arranged the screen test but she went down there alone. He is obsolete, they decided they didn’t need him. While he talks about her, Cornell looks out the window. Daylight casts patterns from the venetian blinds that cut across his face. Odd angle profiles tilt the two-shot of Cornell and Mac off kilter. Ray has an alibi. He was at a sanitarium. Cornell checked it out already and is gleeful that it rules out yet another suspect. He wants Frankie to fry for it. Cornell would have Frankie in the death house by now. “That won’t prevent you from going to the hot chair.” 

As Frankie is leaving the police station Cornell asks him for a lift uptown “Sure, always happy to oblige a goon”

Ed Cornell [bumming a ride in Frankie’s car] “I’m sorry to have to ask you to do this, but I’m a little short on cash lately. You see, I’ve spent so much of my own dough, trying to build up this case against you.”

Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) Well, if there’s anything you need, just let me know.”

Ed Cornell Oh, I imagine they’ll make it right with me when I bring in the material for your trial. They usually do in these cases. I nick a guy on my own time and send him up to the chair, then I get back pay.”

Frankie Christopher “Must be a great life – like a garbage man, only with people!”

Ed Cornell “I got practically all the evidence I need now. I could arrest you today for that matter, but you might get some smart mouthpiece and get off with life instead of the chair. I won’t be satisfied until I’m *sure* it’s the chair.”

Frankie Christopher “You’re a gay dog, Cornell. You make me feel as if I’m driving a hearse!”

Ed Cornell Oh, I know your type. I’ve seen hundreds of them. I don’t scare you enough to make you commit suicide, but I worry you just the same. And when the day comes they all act different. Some scream, a few faint, some light a cigarette and try a wisecrack. But it sticks in their throats – especially when they’re hung.”

Cornell shows up at Jill’s new apartment to intimidate her. Jill “What’s the good of living without hope?” Ed Cornell signals his own personal torture- “It can be done.” He advises her to just play along, insisting that she’s not even sure Frankie’s innocent. Once he’s left, Jill pulls out a note from behind a framed painting on the wall. It’s from Frankie to Vicki, “After what you did last night, the sooner you’re out of the way the better it will be.”

Frankie takes Jill to the fights and then out on the town. She asks if he ever brought Vicki to the fights, and tells him it’s the first New York night club she’s ever been to. The El Chico club, he first took Vicki to. She sees how nice he is without all the flashy bluster and pretense. He’s actually very real. Cornell follows them. Frankie asks her why she suddenly called him, “The trouble with you is that you pretend you don’t care about things but you do. You were very upset about Vicki’s death weren’t You? He tells her he’d like to find the guy, “Save the State on it’s electric bill. She was a good kid” Jill doesn’t want him to be guilty. “Did you love her? “No, do you think if I’d loved her I would have tried to exploit her the way I did?… Vicki was pretty, gay and amusing She had lots to offer and I wanted to put her in the right place on the map. After all that’s my business But when a man really loves a woman, he doesn’t want to plaster her face all over papers and magazines. He wants to keep her to himself.”

Looking into her eyes, he tells her he’s in love with her. Larry Evans sees them together and calls in the story “Stepping out… Dancing on the grave.”

Frankie takes Jill to his favorite swimming spot. It’s a lovely scene, that brings some lightness to the external space in the story. She shows him the note he wrote to Vickie and he asks why she didn’t turn it into the police. Jill tells him she knew he was innocent and what the note meant, at the moment they were dancing at the nightclub. When they are back at the apartment, Cornell walks in and takes the note. They cuff Frankie. Cornell who is obviously framing him is just waiting for the chance to catch him. Frankie tells him anyone could have written a note like that. He was burned up when Vicki dropped the bomb that she was leaving. He finds out that Cornell has planted a set of brass knuckles in his apartment. Vicki was hit hard behind the ear with a heavy object. The depraved Cornell punches Frankie in the guts. “You’re like a rat in a hole.”

As Cornell is about to take him downtown, Frankie on the ground after Cornell’s hostile assault, Jill hits Cornell from behind, and helps Frankie escape. Big fat head bullying him, she says.

Frankie proposes, “Mind marrying a hunted man?” She tells him, “Most married men have a hunted look anyway.” He tells her his real name – Botticelli, the son of Italian immigrants. Then he shows her how to hide in the city. They duck into in an adult movie house, watching the same picture over and over. Then they decide to split up for the time being and she goes to the public library. The cops find her, and Frankie sees them taking her away. The newspaper headline says “Christopher eludes police dragnet.” Cornell stalks the streets. Frankie sneaks up on him. “Let Jill go”, and he’ll turn himself in. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” “You’re not a cop you’re crazy trying to frame an innocent man.” Frankie throws a tootsie roll at him and takes off. Cornell assures him, he’ll eventually get him. Always smirking like the devil.

Cornell tells the D.A. a parable about the African Butterfly and how to trap the male is to let the female free. He wants him to let Jill out of her box to lure Frankie. She goes home, sneaks out through the window, and surprises Frankie at the adult movie house. At the apartment she has found little cards from flowers that were sent to Vicki, and at the funeral. She shows them to Frankie. The message on the cards say, “Because I promised.”

They go to Rosedale Cemetery and when he meets the caretaker, Frankie pretends to be reporter and ask if anybody lately has been around Vicki’s grave. There were many flowers at the funeral, and the caretaker tells him that the grave’s been getting flowers each day since she died. Frankie learns where they were sent from, and goes to Keating Florist. It turns out the Larry sent them. Frankie confronts Larry who admits he was with Vicki the day she died. He had promised to send her flowers every day when she left for Hollywood, and he wanted to keep his word. Larry winds up giving Frankie a clue about the killer, and he goes to the old apartment and gets Mac to give him a half hour. He has a strong hunch.

The next scene is ripe with atmosphere when Frankie leans against the wall in Vicki’s old apartment. The lattice shadows fence Frankie in. Harry Williams is sleeping at the front desk. Vicki rings the desk and speaks in Vicki’s voice “Hello Harry, this is Vicki” He’s visibly shaken. Frankie watches his reaction. His eyes open wider as the buzzing mocks him, “Harry this is Vicki. Why did you do it Harry? Didn’t you love me?” Frankie confronts Williams. “You let yourself in with your pass key and waited for her. You loved her. She panicked and screamed.” William’s admits,  “I told the cop that when he chased me to Brooklyn. Cornell knew all along it was Williams. The dirty Cornell told him to just come back and keep his mouth shut. Mac hears the confession. Frankie tells him, he wants 5 minutes alone with Cornell.

He goes to his apartment finds a perverse and macabre shrine to Vicki. Her image is like a talisman in his sufficating little apartment. He discovers the prominent photograph of Vicki in an elaborate frame. Cornell unaware that Frankie is there, comes in and places fresh flowers underneath the photograph, as an offering. Frankie watches then emerges, “You knew. Why’d you want to fry me?”He tells Frankie, “I lost Vicki long before Williams killed her. You were the one who took her away from me” Cornell wanted to marry her. Had this furnished apartment set up. Bought her perfume. “Til he came along and put ideas in her head. She thought she was too good for me. He could had killed him then.” Frankie puts it to him, “Why didn’t ya?” “Cause I had the hook in your mouth and I wanted to see you suffer.”

Cornell resented Frankie’s closeness to Vicki, and inhabits a world that excludes him. In contrast to the suave Frankie Christopher, he is a lumbering and awkward outsider. To Cornell, Vicki will always be as unattainable as the first time he gazed upon her through the window. He was struck by her beauty, but she was completely and forever out of his reach. Cornell is like a lurking monster straight out of a classic horror movie. His uneasy presence lends to a surreal and menacing mood.

A Trailer a day keeps the Boogeyman away! I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Continue reading “31 Flavors of Noir on the Fringe to Lure You In! Part 1”

🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1956 — Part Two

CapturFiles_7

TO SEE 1956 PART ONE – HERE!


A MASTERPIECE OF SCIENCE FICTION OPERA, FREUD’S id AND SHAKESPEARE’S THE TEMPEST – IN SPACE.

Forbidden Planet

Earthmen on a fabulous, peril-journey into outer space!

🚀

A month after Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released, 12 years before the studio wowed audiences with it’s mesmerizing, complex production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, MGM released their spectacular, colorful, big budget science fiction space Opera – Forbidden Planet. Replacing the threat of an alien intruder seeking to take over our minds, the enemy WAS our mind and it’s potential to manifest a subconscious monster- a cartoon animated monster from the id. Perhaps a variation of Stevenson’s horror of duality, Jekyll and Hyde set in a futuristic milieu – on another planet.

Recognizing this theme, Walter Pidgeon’s character Morbius emphasizes the duality that exists within his nature. Behind the facade of the rational mind prowls the primitive instincts and desires, now incarnate right from it’s source – Freud’s id. Morbius is in denial that he has in fact manifested the monster himself. It’s an allegory of insatiable ego, internal agony and torment and perhaps incestuous jealousy. A collection of his suppressed rage hidden behind the outwardly rational scientific mind.

Shakespeare informs Prospero  – “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”  Morbius is the true villain in Forbidden Planet, embodied by a power, intensified a thousand percent from the ancient science of the exinct Krell, who brought into existence their nightmares, ultimately proving to be the end of them.

Forbidden Planet has been the benchmark of the science fiction genre for years by it’s sheer scope of its production values. MGM was the studio that had painted for us, an unforgettable daydream – The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Director John Landis referred to the studio as making pictures with ‘gloss’ and Forbidden Planet was their feature science fiction film trading in Singing in the Rain for robots and ray guns. John Carpenter says that in terms of traditional science fiction ‘formulas’ this film ‘broke it’ Carpenter also attributes Forbidden Planet to his wanting to become a director.

And John Dykstra who did the FX on Star Wars comments – “It was a serious attempt to represent a completely unique world… it’s gotta be a world that nobody knows and at the same time everyone recognizes as being alien.”

Forbiden Planet is an allegory of technological power and mortal arrogance.

After years from its initial release Forbidden Planet finally reached its cult following, and is considered the Star Wars of the 1950s with its flamboyant color scheme, Wide Screen presentation, indelible visual effects and endearingly kitsch touches. Only one other dazzling post-war science fiction space Opera of the 1950s comes to mind -Joseph M. Newman and an uncredited Jack Arnold’s This Island Earth 1955  nears Forbidden Planet’s exhilarating yet a bit tacky tone.

Historian Carlos Clarens has remarked that Forbidden Planet is “a rare flight of fancy by the earthbound MGM – it resuscitates the classical elements of the horror movie, with ultra modern decor.”

Seth Lerer from his article Forbidden Planet and the Terrors of Philology -called it Esteemed science fiction film, a blend of high cultural allusion and high camp effects.”

Forbidden Planet has the feel of a fantastical pulp tale straight out of Amazing Stories, Astounding or Fantastic Adventures Magazine. The film showcases all the great elements of a classic science fiction story. Advanced technology, space travel, furturistic tidbits like forcefields, lightning inspired laser beams, brain boosting machines, transport beams, subtarranean worlds,  – rayguns, the vast planetary energy wells, likeable robots and a terror inspiring monster that lurks and tears it’s victims limb from limb. It’s interesting to note, we see Earthmen traveling in a typified flying saucer of 1950s alien flicks instead the traditional phallic shaped rocket.

Aside from ‘The sensuousness of the color’ (Carlos Clarens An Illustrated History of the Horror Film and Science Fiction)–or the sensorial experience brought about by the lush colors, my heart used to pump and pound (and still does), when as a kid I’d await the scene where the fiery id materializes. It emerges menacing, startling, causing a delighful jolt of fear and I was thrilled to see It’s sparking outline ambushed in the force field. This iconic scene is one of the contributing joys that gave me an appetite for classical science fiction, fantasy and horror in my childhood.

Forbidden Planet was directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox with a screenplay by Cyril Hume who adapted his script from an original story by Allen Adler & Irving Block. So much has been written on how they presumably modeled the film after the fatalistic comic allegory – William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (uncredited).

Continue reading “🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1956 — Part Two”

Ladies in Retirement (1941) Though this be madness

I am so thrilled to be joining CMBA’s Hidden Classics Blogathon! There are many great contributions this year–  so many unsung gems for the offering! Thank you CMBA for allowing me to share this little obscure suspense yarn with all of you!

The Great Broadway Melodrama Comes to Flaming Life on the Screen!

Ladies in Retirement, with its play-bound vibe and all it’s macabre thought-processes, is directed by Charles Vidor  who did not shy away from films that manifested a gutsy imagination. Vidor is known for films that bordered on the edge of their genres, such as the 1930s horror classic The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932, the sinister obscurity Double Door 1934, and the symbol of unforgettable film noirs like the tension filled Blind Alley 1939 and the seductively arousing  Gilda 1946.

While it’s been referred to as film noir, I believe it meets the criteria of the 1940s suspense genre with a trace of — I don’t know — ‘Gothic melodrama noir’ for it’s use of light and shadow and familiar noir tropes like the focus on class, scandal (Fiske was a courtesan, Albert -thief and blackmailer, Ellen -murderess, Emily-dangerously unstable), and of course by the end fate steps in. In addition, there’s use of noir iconography, with its visual interest in staircases.

It’s also an old-fashioned horror story– not vampires or ghouls– but the haunting feeling you’d get from fog filled marshes off the Thames River, the tinny sound of a not quite tuned piano, a body behind the wall, or the disorder of insanity vs a murder of desperation and opportunity. Where as with all of Val Lewton’s startling contributions, the “unspoken and the unseen were the true sources of dread.” (Judith Crist)

The lighting particularly accents the player’s expressions as they emerge from the dark edges around their form, with merely an aureole on their face or eyes– like a lit mask. This is truly effective in bringing out the intense concentration of Ida Lupino’s beautiful eyes and Ellen’s inner turmoil. The angles in the set up of the interior are odd and sharp, once again the source of light, Lupino’s face lit from underneath used to provoke the contrast between black and a deathly pale white.

Columbia Pictures studio purchased the rights to Denham and Percy’s story with Rosiland Russell in mind for the starring role as Ellen Creed. Russell was featured as the lead Olivia Grayne in another psychological thriller Night Must Fall in 1937. But, Ida Lupino, as always, was worthy of the role and had a remarkably innate grasp of a woman torn by her strong sense of preservation. She was also married to Louis Hayward at the time of filming.

Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60-minute radio adaptation of the movie on September 27, 1943 with Ida Lupino reprising her film role. According to contemporary articles in The Hollywood Reporter, Lillian GIsh Judith Anderson, Pauline Lord, Laurette Taylor and Helen Chandler were all considered for roles as one of the demented Creed sisters. 

Though the film is stage-bound, it preserves the feel of the original play, and has a visual moodiness thanks to distinguished and skillful cinematographer George Barnes (Footlight Parade 1933, Marked Woman 1937, Rebecca 1940, Meet John Doe, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, Force of Evil 1948,The File on Thelma Jordan 1949, The War of the Worlds 1953). Barnes started as a still photographer which explains the aesthetic of framing scenes like an arrangement of still lifes. He was nominated 7 times, one for his work on Ladies in Retirement, with over 200 films to his credit, he was a hard working cinematographer from 1935- 1949. 

Responsible for the art direction and interior design that won him an Academy Award is Lionel Banks (The Awful Truth 1937, Holiday 1938, Golden Boy 1939, His Gal Friday 1940, The Boogie Man Will Get You 1942, The Soul of a Monster 1944, Cry of the Werewolf 1944. He designed the South American set for Only Angels Have Wings 1939, and conjured up the turn of the century for the fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan 1941 and again for Charles Vidor’s lavish A Song to Remember 1945. Banks added to the stage play atmosphere of the film with it’s collection of sparce surreal, gnarled trees that look fake, fog shrouded heaths, and a heaviness to the interior as a suffocatingly enclosed space. The entire exterior scenes have a look of unreality, the outside appears like a murky dream-scape with painted clouds floating in a painted sky, where there is no departure.

Filmed mostly as a set piece in the parlor of a slowly waning old house on the marshes of the Thames Estuary some ten miles to the east of Gravesend, in 1885. The shots are set up with odd angles and the shadows create a sense of confined spaces with unseen rooms and staircases that go nowhere. Barnes and Banks even made a low stone wall of the cottage, seem to constrain the borderline of the house. 

The actors are positioned as the primary focus on the screen back dropped by the scenery that hints only at the suggestion of dank marshes, melancholy trees and craggy rocks surrounding the house. Much of the set pieces remind me strongly of an episode of Boris Karloff’s anthology series THRILLER, titled ‘THE LAST OF THE SOMMERVILLES’ released in 1961. Elements that are similar are the exterior shots that seem unreal, depicting an  obscuring fog with fake trees and pale grays, with the interiors also as closed in spaces of an antiquated house owned by an equally flitty old dowager (Martita Hunt) like Leonora, who preens and is prone to theatrics. She is taken care of by her dutiful companion played by Phyllis Thaxter who plans to murder the old gal. This perfectly macabre installment of the series happened to be directed by Ida Lupino! Perhaps she drew her inspiration from Ladies in Retirement. The art direction for that episode is done by Howard E Johnson, set by Julia Heron and John McCarthy Jr.

Martita Hunt and Phyllis Thaxter in The Last of the Summervilles 1961

Ladies in Retirement flourishes from it’s tense and stodgy narrative more than the dark humor that Denham could have chosen. Unlike the brisk screwball comedy of Arsenic and Old Lace 1943, by director Frank Capra and screenwriter Julius Epstein which was also based on a play by Joseph Kesserling. That play inspired Denham and Percy to write their own story about a pair of eccentric older women.

The stage play in 1939 went on to receive rave reviews with 151 performances at the Henry Miller’s Theatre. The story was written by Reginald Denham who spent the main part of his career directing Broadway theater, and Edward Percy. The play starred Flora Robson in the role as Ellen. Director Bernard Girard’s psycho-sexual and often grotesque The Mad Room 1969 is a modern re-working of Denham and Percy’s play. The film stars Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens with Michael Burns and Barbara Sammeth replacing the mentally ill Creed sisters. Denham also wrote the screenplay for the 1969 movie. He penned 2 episodes of Lux Video Theatre, ‘Help Wanted’ episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956, 4 episodes of Suspense 1949-1950-‘Help Wanted’, ‘The Suicide Club’, ‘Murder Through the Looking Glass’, and ‘Dead Ernest.’ Denham also directed films from 1934-1940.

Continue reading “Ladies in Retirement (1941) Though this be madness”

🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1956 — Part One

CapturFiles_7

BODY SNATCHERS, MAN BEASTS AND MOLE MEN

1984

1984 (1956)

Will Ecstasy Be a Crime… In the Terrifying World of the Future?

Directed by Michael Anderson, the film is based on the novel by George Orwell that tells of a totalitarian future society in which a man whose daily work is rewriting history, rebels by doing the unthinkable– he falls in love. 1984 stars Edmund O’Brien as clerk Winston Smith of The Ministry of Truth for the Outer Party who refuses to accept the totalitarian state of 1984, where all the citizens are under surveillance at all times. When Winston meets Julia they bask in their physical pleasures outside of the watchful eyes of Big Brother but are betrayed by a member of the Inner Party, O’Connor (Redgrave). Each state functionary must adhere to their designated positions and Redgrave gives a superb performance as a proud drone who possesses a drive as he demonstrates his responsibilities to the state.

The underrated Jan Sterling plays Julia of the Outer Party, David Kossoff is cast as Charrington the junk shop owner. Co-starring in the film are Melvyn Johns as Jones, Donald Pleasence as R. Parsons, Carol Wolfridge as Selina Parsons, Ernest Clark as Outer Party Announcer, Patrick Allen as Inner Party Official, British character actor Michael Ripper as Outer Party Orator and Kenneth Griffith as the prisoner.

It was in 1954 that Nigel Kneale (writer creator of the Quatermass trilogy, The Quatermass Xperiment 1955, First Men in the Moon 1964, The Witches 1966, Quatermass and the Pit 1967, The Woman in Black 1989 first adapted George Orwell’s dystopian ordeal for BBC television starring Peter Cushing as Winston Smith.

Director Michael Anderson (who would later take on another futuristic cautionary tale, Logan’s Run 1976) unveils Orwell’s bleak vision, it’s passage of vigilance, yet it has been criticized for lacking the deeper essence of his novel and the gravity of its contributions – a premonition of things to come. The ferocious inclinations of man that creates- Big Brother. A destiny intent on tyranny, depersonalization, the all watchful eye of the totalitarian state and the loss of free will.

There were two endings made. The British release that presents Winston Smith (O’Brien) defying Big Brother and dying for his principals. The American version has lovers O’Brien and Sterling brainwashed, reconditioned and ultimately abandoning their relationship.

“Thus, in place of Orwell’s savage satire on the rise of the authoritarian state ( and specifically Stalinism), producer Rathvon and Anderson mount a vapid romance in which beefy O’Brien and mousey Sterling are clearly intended to represent the undying spirit of rebellion. Even the drabness of life in Oceania that Orwell creates so convincingly, is lost in the film which, like so many literary adaptations, centers on the slim storyline of the novel.” -Phil Hardy

 

Continue reading “🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1956 — Part One”

Lee Grant Interview now with Audio!

Come spend some time with me and Lee Grant, while we both enjoy an informal chat about her legendary career and life in general!

LEE GRANT at the 63rd annual Writers Guild Awards
at the AXA equitable Center 2-5-11-Photo by John Barrett/Globe Photos

 

“Out Loud” Part 2– My Extraordinary Conversation with the Legendary Lee Grant…

YourEver Lovin’ Joey sayin’ I love ya Lee, you’re fearsome !

 

Quote of the Day! My Darling Clementine (1946)

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)

“Mac, you ever been in love?”– Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda)

“No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”– Mac the Barman (J. Farrell MacDonald)

 

I’ve come late to the party, but I finally got my formal introduction to legendary director John Ford by good friend and notable blogger Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. While I’ve always felt that The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to be a cinematic triumph with memorable performances–  one such is the ubiquitous John Carradine as Jim Casy who also appeared in Ford’s Stagecoach is one of my favorites– I didn’t really focus my attentions to the director himself.  My first real exposure to John Ford was through his immensely beautiful film of pure visual poetry How Green Was My Valley (1941), the poignant story by way of voice over reflected upon through the eyes of young Huw played by Roddy McDowall. The narration is told by a now grown up Huw, recounted using the voice of actor/director Irving Pichel, who tells of the lives of a resilient and decent family in a Welsh mining town, who struggle to get by in the midst of often brutal hardships. It is truly one of the most aesthetically moving films I’ve ever seen.

Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall and Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Ford on the set of My Darling Clementine (1946)

Recently we celebrated Ford’s work by watching an exciting western themed double feature, Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Both are striking in their composition as I’m learning how Ford frames everything we see with explicit detail and thoughtful determination. What strikes me as another essential style of Ford is how the peripheral characters –particularly notable in Stagecoach (1939)– fill out the visual narrative with their presence and their valuable expressions as akin to the material faces found in a classical painting. Character actor Jane Darwell who plays Ma Joad in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) makes an appearance in My Darling Clementine.

Jane Darwell plays dance hall owner Kate Nelson, which was her second appearance in a John Ford film. Before Clementine, she previously worked with the director who used her as a voice over actor along side Henry Fonda in the war documentary The Battle of Midway (1942). Darwell worked with Ford in 3 Godfathers (1948) as Miss Florie and was cast in several other of his films. Her last appearance as a Ford regular was in The Last Hurrah (1958).

My Darling Clementine deserves a more thoughtful eye and I can see why it is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. I read that this was his last collaboration with Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox, who unfortunately chopped off a half hour of the film. It is included in the AFI’s list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.

Ford paints each scene of his poetic, folkloric romanticism with vast open spaces and fantastical clouds for miles, that are in contrast and simultaneous to intervals of intimacy in shots that appear like still life. If we are not bathed in the bright sky, we witness carefully orchestrated motion or transfixed images through frames within frames lit by glowing sources of light, like fireflies it enhances figures silhouetted in the darker spaces.

each frame, a photograph…

Ford and MacDonald bring about a fairy tale like realism that is meticulously designed to draw your eyes to each frame, capturing a sense of thoughtful contemplation.

While both Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine are considered his masterpieces, the unhurried pacing of Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp leads My Darling Clementine through an astonishingly blithe journey, for such a dark story. Fonda’s quietly measured self-assurance and nonchalant humor works as a buoy to ensure that the film is never bogged down in gloomy spirit.

Ford took liberties with the re-telling of the legend of Wyatt Earp -Doc Holliday partnership and the infamous feud between Marshal Wyatt Earp and the ornery Clanton clan (a young John Ireland as Billy Clanton, Grant Withers as Ike) led by monstrous and malicious patriarch Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) whose expressions and mean as spit sparse commentary are as potent as a snake bite.

The boundless, dusty panorama of My Darling Clementine is striking with its haunting skies, incomparable rocky buttes and the vast open isolation of the Old West filmed in Monument Valley, Utah. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (Panic in the Streets 1950, Pickup on South Street 1952, The Young Lions 1958, Walk on the Wild Side 1962, The Carpetbaggers 1964, The Sand Pebbles 1966) paints a melancholy landscape depicting the American wilderness of the late 1800s.

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) head into the unruly fatalism of Tombstone, leaving their younger brother James to watch over their herd of cattle. When they get back to the site, the cattle has been stolen and they find James murdered, shot in the back. Wyatt winds up accepting the job of Marshal, with his brothers as deputies. He is determined to hunt down the men who killed his brother. Shortly after taking over as Marshal he meets the bad tempered Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) who drowns himself in booze, has an unrelenting cough and spreads his brooding disposition around Tombstone. Regardless of Doc Holliday’s heavy-hearted yet sympathetic personality, the two become allies.

each frame, a picture…

From the beginning Wyatt strongly suspects the ruthless Clanton gang of killing his brother, especially after he finds James’ medallion on Doc’s current lover, the sensuous saloon gal Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) Doc’s former fiancé comes all the way to see her beau but sadly discovers  he has moved on. Wyatt falls in love with the sweet mannered girl while he sets out to quietly avenge his youngest brother’s murder, culminating in the iconic shoot out with the Clantons at the O.K. Corral.

IMDb Trivia

John Ford, who in his youth had known the real Wyatt Earp, claimed the way the OK Corral gunfight was staged in this film was the way it was explained to him by Earp himself, with a few exceptions. Ford met Earp through Harry Carey.

Walter Brennan disliked John Ford so much that he never worked with him again. One time when Brennan was having a little trouble getting into the saddle, Ford yelled, “Can’t you even mount a horse?” Brennan shot back, “No, but I got three Oscars for acting!”

John Ford wanted to shoot in Monument Valley, UT, which had proven to be the perfect site for Stagecoach (1939) and would quickly become his favorite location and the landscape most closely associated with his vision of the Old West. The real town of Tombstone, AZ, however, lies at the southern end of the state, closer to the Arizona-Mexico border. So he had a set for the complete town built at a cost of $250,000. Ford also chose Monument Valley because he wanted to bring some business to the economically depressed Navajo community there

Jeanne Crain was scheduled to play Clementine. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck ruled against her, writing in a memo that the part was so small that Crain fans might be disappointed by not seeing her in more scenes. That’s how contract player Cathy Downs got the part instead.

Walter Brennan, John Ireland, and Grant Withers were required to do their own riding and shooting in the scene where the clan rides into town during a dust storm. John Ford used a powerful wind machine and told the actors to fire their guns close to the horses’ ears to make them ride wild.

Vincent Price was considered for the role of Doc Holliday.

The movie was featured in the TV series M*A*S*H episode M*A*S*H: Movie Tonight (1977). It was said to have been the favorite movie of Col. Sherman Potter.

Henry Fonda was John Ford’s first and only choice to play Wyatt Earp.

Tyrone Power was an early possibility for Doc Holliday, but for some unknown reason his name was dropped from consideration early in the pre-casting stage. John Ford was enthusiastic about Douglas Fairbanks Jr., telling Darryl F. Zanuck in a memo, “He might be terribly good in it. He would look about the same age as Henry and as it’s a flamboyant role it is quite possible he could kick hell out of it. Think it over well.” He was not happy with Zanuck’s choice, Victor Mature, and he began pressing for Vincent Price instead. However, after meeting with Mature, Ford told Zanuck he was not at all worried about the actor’s performance. He was never very happy, however, with Linda Darnell as Doc’s Mexican spitfire lover.

Sam Peckinpah considered this his favorite Western and paid homage to it in several of his Westerns, including Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Two actresses considered for the part of Clementine were Fox contract players Anne Baxter and Jeanne Crain. Instead, John Ford was given Cathy Downs, who was an unknown at the time.

This is your everlovin’ Joey sayin’ I’m not lost and gone forever my darlings! See ya soon back at The Last Drive In…

Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”

“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”

“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)

Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018

Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually nonnormative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of it’s apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.

The horror film in particular, found it’s place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.

As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.” So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.

On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.

The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”

The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down the Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks and Fay Wray.

In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X starring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.

Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!

All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)

Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific non conformists.

The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.

Bela Lugosi looking down upon David Manners in a scene from the film ‘Dracula’, 1931. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film which has no connection to Poe’s story but in name, is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophelia, incest, sadism, satanism and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all taking place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high constrast lighting.

Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933) with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.

And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fastasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!

The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters

Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”

By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”

Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveals similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similiar to the self discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity as Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.

There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing, led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.

Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff

Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies, points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operates with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.

Mad doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camararderie-and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express the homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.

According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”

George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victims hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul he becomes a monstrous queer.

In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of story telling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.

In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.” For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, that causes him to become sickened.

But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.

Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, it’s persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.

Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, with in their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientation in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in full power of it’s universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality, and the subversion of sexuality.

The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from dometicity and normalcy.

In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. What his motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be a sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. The scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.

MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on a Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.

Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, not just as rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of the science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as doctor and his subject Stephen.

Mad Love possesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”

In similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.

Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Monmartre tonight.”

Gogol’s maid Francoise talking to the statue,“What ever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”

A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.

Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire. Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein

Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephens hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist, but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.

On the surface the plot of Mad Love appears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)

In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom, and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the origianl story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.

Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.

In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves. Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire into Mad Love’s within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” what the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.

The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)

Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886 and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. In the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations, were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations, were ‘not socially sanction and shunned.’

It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)

“My darling”….

James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. In his picture The Invisible Man (1933) adapted from H.G. Wells story and starring Claude Rains, it was classified as a horror film by the Code.

Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”

What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for it’s ‘queer’ humor.

Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933

The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.

“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)

Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of Jame’s Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound, until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”

According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal) ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”

Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)

The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”

Continue reading “Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3

Vanishing Point (1971)

It’s the maximum trip… at maximum speed.

Watch carefully because everything happens fast. The chase. The desert. The shack. The girl. The roadblock. The end.

Director Richard C. Sarafian (prolific television series director, The Twilight Zone ep. Living Doll 1963, Fragment of Fear 1970, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing 1973). With a screenplay by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, story outlined by Malcolm Hart. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo (Bloody Mama 1970, Harold and Maude 1971, Lady Sings the Blues 1972, Chinatown 1974, Norma Rae 1979). Alonzo offers up a minimalist vision not unlike Steven Spielberg’s first film Duel (1971).

Vanishing Point (1971) conjures an image of Americana with it’s dusty realism yet the landscape seems to exist on a desolate otherworldly planet.

The groovin’ sound track is a collection of various artists who create the perfect fabric of seventies resonance. The singer/songwriter (of Bread fame) plays the piano with the J. Hovah singers during the revival scene in the desert. Other songs include Mississippi Queen sung by Mountain, Welcome to Nevada by Jerry Reed, Nobody Knows sung by Kim Carnes and So Tired sung by Eve. Carnes’ most notable song is the cult hit, Betty Davis Eyes.

DJ Super Soul: “And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin’ closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”

… speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.”

Vanishing Point stars a very gruff and sexy Barry Newman (The Moving Finger 1963, The Salzburg Connection 1972, Fear is the Key 1972, Petrocelli 1974-76) as Kowalski, dynamic Cleavon Little as blind radio DJ Super Soul, Dean Jagger as the prospector, Paul Koslo as Deputy Charlie Scott, Robert Donner as Deputy Collins, Severn Darden, Karl Swenson, Anthony James as 1st gay hitch-hiker, Arthur Malet as 2nd gay hitch-hiker, Gilda Texter as Nude Rider, and although she was deleted from the U.S. version, Charlotte Rampling as hitch-Hiker.

The film has a beautiful bleak vision and atmosphere of “Dead-already-ness” in the narrative that foreshadows Kowalski’s ultimate destiny. The film doesn’t contribute much essential dialogue, in the way The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) thrives on it’s repartee. Vanishing Point is fueled by it’s visual movement.

Vanishing Point seems to reject the sensibilities of a contrived ‘road movie’ that embodies or symbolizes liberation, but in actuality “the road is not ‘open’ but merely a channel through which the vehicle hurtles.” (John Beck)

Vanishing Point is an inauguration of the New Hollywood road/chase movies of the 1970s and one of the most significant cult road movies of the mythic ‘wandering hero’ archetype and ‘the outsider’ roles of that decade. What makes Vanishing Point stand out from other more mainstream Hollywood rebels and road movies is it’s resistance to embrace the glorification of films boasting the (as writer John Beck puts it) “freedom to drive.”

[Warning: SPOILERS]

Continue reading “70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3”

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 2

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

 

1:23pm. Grand Central Station, New York. A packed commuter train is hijacked. A ransom is set – at one million dollars. The subway is a closed system. For the four hijackers, surely there is no way out. But they have a deadly plan.

Directed by Joseph Sargent  (Colossus: The Forbin Project 1970, White Lightning 1973, predominantly a director for television series and made for TV movies- Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Invaders) with a screenplay by Peter Stone (known writer Charade 1963, Father Goose 1963, Sweet Charity 1969) The iconic sneeze which leads to one of the most memorable endings in 70s films was actually conceptualized by Stone. And based on the best selling American crime novel by John Godey.

Stunning visual auteur and cinematographer  Owen Roizman (The French Connection 1971, The Exorcist 1973, The Stepford Wives 1975, Three Days of the Condor 1975, Network 1976, True Confessions 1981) and driving score by David Shire (The Conversation 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, Saturday Night Fever 1977, Norma Rae 1979). Like the score the film itself begins with the sense of a dialogue and characterizations just as accelerated as a runaway train. The initial part of the film is completely immersed underground with it’s murky greens, grays and shadows lit only by the subway lamps.

Director Joseph Sargent instructed Owen Roizman to shoot the picture in Wide Screen, which would create the effect of not having a high ceiling, the over head and bottom of the screen being cut off giving the film a more of the closeness and claustrophobia of being in a subway car. They filmed the picture at The Spike in Brooklyn which was totally closed off at the time. Director Sargent referred to it as “hell on earth” and actor Robert Shaw dubbed it “Dante’s Inferno.” Like The French Connection and 3 Days of the Condor also filmed by Roizman, these were films that were at a defining time in history portraying a gritty New York lensed with a perspective toward realism. The camera’s were lightweight, moved quickly through the streets and utilized natural lighting. The colors are muted browns, faded greens and grays. The film demonstrates alienation of the city and the urban nightmare.

One of the films from the seventies that utilizes the subway as a symbol of the ‘changing nature of the city partly from the perspective of it’s citizens primarily it’s commuters.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is one of the most definitive films of the seventies that features an all star cast of great character actors with standout performances by Walter Matthau as Lt. Zachary Garber, Tom Pedi as Caz Dolowicz who only gives a damn about his trains running on time.

“Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?”

James Broderick as Denny Doyle head motorman, Dick O’Neill as the foul mouthed Correll, Jerry Stiller as Lt. Rico Patrone, Rudy Bond as Police Commissioner, Kenneth McMillan as the Borough Commander, Doris Roberts as the Mayor’s wife.

And of course our four colorful criminals, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) Hector Elizondo (Mr. Gray) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman ) match the primary tones of the film. Their faces obscured by disguises that are caricatures.  An interesting note the color of the men’s hats correspond with their pseudonyms. In contrast to the earthy tones of the film Garber’s wears a banana yellow tie. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the titular nicknames in his ultra violent Reservoir Dogs 1992.

There is no real set-up, or background relationship between the four hijackers. After seeing Martin Balsam exit a yellow cab, and Shire’s dynamic score comes into play, the film has an immediate tempo of being out of control. The film opens with one of the most popular scores of the seventies, David Shires, driving aural waves of dissonant jazz. With military type snare drum rolls and resounding trombones and electronica. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is perhaps one of the most iconic action thriller of the seventies era. Opening with the dynamic life force of a pulsing New York City. Cabs, bodies in motion, unique to the city with it’s dialect “Fifty Foist Street” And the mania of people rushing down below in the subways, hot, grimy and anonymous.

When subway line Pelham One Two Three which is a subway car that begins from the Lexington Avenue station is hijacked by four seemingly random criminals Mr. Green, Mr. Blue, Mr. Gray and Mr. Brown all dressed in hats to match the colors of their pseudonyms, overcoats, black rimmed glasses and phony mustaches it throws the New York City transit into chaos. The Transit Authority personnel as well as the subway’s passengers are portrayed as stereotypically New Yorkers, rough around the edges of various ethnicities.

The train’s passengers are represented as a row of assorted stereotypes including the wise-but-kvetchy Jew, the “fairy,” the Black pimp, the hysterical Hispanic woman, the disarrayed mother who has no control over her children, the long haired hippie, the tough as nails whore and the clueless drunk who sleeps through the whole nightmare. What comes off with this device is that the ordeal of the story is just an everyday occurrence on the New York City subway.

And these passengers are actually listed in the credits as The Maid, The Mother, The Homosexual, The Secretary, The Delivery Boy, The Salesman, The Hooker, The Old Jewish Man, The Older Son, The Spanish Woman, The Alcoholic (who sleeps through the entire seizure), The Pimp, Coed #1, Coed #2, The Hippie and The W.A.S.P. One of my complaints of seventies cinema — though it is one of my favorite sub-genres of cinema– is the inherent misogyny and easily permissive racism and homophobia.

Mr. Blue calmly informs them that they want one million dollars or they will execute one hostage for every minute they don’t receive the ransom.

Dick O’Neill’s gruffness is delivered fluently as he grunts over the microphone at Mr. Blue “Keep dreamin’ maniac!”

Walter Matthau, who is the master of owning any picture he’s in, throws out more hilarious one liners which brings the much needed levity to the nervous tension. That is not to say that Tom Pedi and Dick O’Neill veteran stage and character actors don’t supply their share of snarky New York witticisms.

While the commuting passengers are concentrating on getting to where they need to go, one at a time the four hijackers board the train. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw who plays a very composed and menacing British Mercenary). Accompanying Mr. Blue is Mr. Green, the continually sneezing Martin Balsam (who was fired from the transit department as a motormen suspected of trafficking drugs in the train cars) Later Garber figures out that one of the hijackers must have knowledge of handling a train, “Somebody down there knows how to drive a train. You don’t pick that up watching Sesame Street.”

Mr. Green (Shaw) enters the conductors car and hold a gun on head motorman James Broderick. “I’m taking your train.”

They begin to set up their scheme. Hector Elizondo who plays Mr. Gray is a unstable psychopath whose  infantile outbursts and uncontrollable belligerence show him capable of violence at any given moment. “I’ll shoot your pee pee off.” Later on Mr. Green tells Mr. Blue that he doesn’t trust Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo who is playing to type) and to keep an eye on Mr. Gray “I also think that he is mad. Why do you think they threw him out of the Mafia.”

Lastly Mr. Brown enters with a box for long stem roses. When the time comes, they pull out high powered automatic weapons and announce their plans to the horrified New Yorkers.

George Lee Miles as the pimp and Mr. Green (Robert Shaw) exchanging cutting remarks as commentary on the post Vietnam weariness and racism. “What’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?”

While the take over of Pelham One Two Three is underway, we are privy to the pressurized control room where the core of operations happens. Lt. Garber is showing a group of Japanese men who run the subway system in Tokyo, the works while throwing out wisecracks, “In the course of a normal work week, the average TA policemen deals with such crimes as robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness illness, vandalism, mishegas, abusiveness, sexual molestation, exhibitionism… “ means of mocking the four visiting Japanese executive’s assumed that they do not speak perfect English. Garber tells Rico- “Take these monkeys up to 13” Garber is enlightened after these very quietly polite men tell him that it was a most interesting tour.

The film boasts it’s built-in racism and visits it’s bias through a series of faux pas. Garber (Walter Matthau) has the privilege of his comedic traits can get away with lines as when he meets the Inspector Daniels who is black played by Julius Harris. Garber uncomfortable tells him, “I hadn’t realized you were… so tall.”

Kenneth McMillan veteran character actor adds his bellicose bluster to the film!

Of course there is also the prevalent acceptable and misguided jokes in 70s films wielding homophobia. As seen in 70s films for example, the psychopathic drag queen in Freebie and the Bean (1974) and the flaming hitchhikers in Vanishing Point (1971) Garber assures the undercover long haired hippie cop who’s been wounded and lying face down on the tracks, “We’ll have an ambulance here in not time, Miss.”

Along with his colleagues who assume they don’t speak English. Lt Rico ( Jerry Stiller ) adds his comedic genius for instance when he tells the executives, “we had a bomb scare in the Bronx yesterday, it turned out to be a cantaloupe!” 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not only a tight moving tribute to the implicit action films that emerged during the seventies, it is dominated by some of the best dialogue of that decade’s action/thriller genre.

Once the hijackers have taken control over the subway train the command center tries to raise them on the radio.

“How come that gate isn’t locked?” “Who’s gonna steal a subway car?”

Once the control center realizes that something is wrong, they watch on the computerized board that tracks all the trains. The four men have disconnected the last set of cars and released a group of passengers with the head motorman leaving the front car, the conductor and 18 passengers.

“For Jesus Christ’s Sake the dumb bastard is moving backwards.”

Meanwhile at the control center they see that the train has stopped between stations. “Well stopped is better than backwards.”

They inform the passengers, “what’s happening is you’re all being held by four very dangerous men with machine guns.”

What the control center sees is that Pelham has powered off their radio and jumped its load. Mr. Green’s nose begins it’s trail of sneezes and eventual Gesundheits which will become part of the plot’s shtick.

Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) in his usual chillingly sober manner tells Garber “Your train has been taken.” He informs Garber of three essential points. 1) Pelham is in our control 2) We have automatic weapons and 3) We have no scruples about killing. One of the most central forces of the suspense is how Robert Shaw’s unwavering voice sounds so wickedly, deliciously deadpan when he takes up that microphone to talk to Walter Matthau.

They want $1,000,000 for the release of the passengers. Garber asks “Who am I speaking to?”

Blue stiffly tells him, “I’m the man who stole your train.”

The old Jewish passenger asks Mr. Blue “Excuse me sir what’s gonna happen if you don’t get what you want?” “Excuse me sir, we will get what we want.”

Earl Hindman as the more subdued Mr. Brown

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a pragmatic depiction of inured and balsy New Yorkers at that time in the city. One of the passengers, the prostitute tells the hijackers, “What do you mean you’re hijacking the train! I have an important appointment.” 

Mr. Blue doing the crossword puzzle while making his deadly serious demands…

Mr. Gray “Hold it right there, cowboy!”

Caz Dolowicz “Who the fuck are you?”

Mr. Gray “Well you’ll find out if you take one more step!”

Caz Dolowicz “I’m warnin’ you, mister, that’s city property you’re fooling around with!

Mr. Gray “Well that’s too fucking bad!”

Caz Dolowicz Why didn’t you go grab a goddamn airplane like everybody else?”

Mr. Gray “Cause we’re afraid of flyin’! Now get back or I’ll shoot your goddam ass off!”

Caz Dolowicz “The hell with you, I’m comin’ on board!”

Mr. Gray “I warned ya, stupid!”

It is immediately after Mr. Green warns Mr. Blue that Mr. Gray is mad, that he opens fire on Caz Dolowicz. When Fat Caz (Tom Pedi) goes underground and tramples the tracks insisting to get aboard his train, crazy Mr. Gray opens up on him with his machine gun.

Nathan George (One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1975) as Ptl. James who is monitoring the siege down in the tunnel. Rico asks if Caz Dolowicz is dead. “Wouldn’t you be Lt.?”

Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll bellyaches throughout the entire film. He does not care that the subway is under siege. He is the epitome of the perceived typical attitudes of an older generation of New Yorkers who only see the hijacking as an inconvenience to him for keeping his trains scheduled on time. “Screw the goddamned passengers.”  “What do they expect for their lousy 35c – to live forever?!”

Garber hears Mr. Green sneeze and there begins the first Gesundheit” “Thank you” replies Mr. Green casually.

The mayor (Lee Wallace) laughably resembles Mayor Koch who wouldn’t become Mayor until 1978-1989, is portrayed as an incompetent bureaucrat surrounded by his nurse, tissues and a trudge of indecision, who needs advice from the real brains in Gracie Mansion his wife Doris Roberts.

Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill) tells Garber “You’re playing grab ass with a bunch of goddam pirates.”

Garber follows his hunch and has them start to go through the files for any motormen discharged for cause. In the meantime, they are told to restore power, turn all signals green and remove all police from the tunnel. With all the details worked out and going their way, Garber figures they also have a plan to make their escape out of the subway tunnels.

Everyone is baffled when Pelham starts to move too soon before Command Central has everything set up, and everyone in the control room keeps asking — who’s moving? Garber responds, “What’s the matter with everybody? How many hijacked trains we got around here, anyway?”

With the green lights on the train will be able to continue on without being stopped, and this doesn’t trouble Garber at first because he knows there is a safety catch involved referred to as “Dead Man’s Feature” which is a handle the train is equipped with in the event the motorman dies while driving the train and they need to come to a stop. Pelham stops below 18th street. They haven’t cleared the tracks yet. Garber orders cops at every point of the tunnel and exits. They figure that the four won’t be able to get off the train without being stopped. What they don’t know is that Mr. Green has constructed a make shift metal bar that acts as an arm to hold down the Dead Man’s Feature and while they sneak off by an exit in the Village the train and it’s passengers are now speeding out of control with all the green lights go and no way to stop it from heading toward a crash.

“No one’s on the breaks!” “There’s nobody driving the fucking train!”

My favorite, Martin Balsam as Mr. Green aka Harold Longman rolling in the cash…

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying hang on to your seats and stay tuned for Part 3 !

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 1


The early seventies witnessed a fertile moment in film-making that reflected a uniquely framed vision of sexual exploration and an ever changing measurement of morality. The studios too were taking more risks with their films conveying realism. What developed on screen was an explosion of symbolic portrayals featuring sex and violence and explicit imagery for American audiences to process. With the arrival of the women’s movement during the mid sixties through the seventies, until it was killed off in the eighties by Reagenism, these films did not push forward an evolved perspective or positive representation of women. Often the suggestion of women’s sexual freedom was portrayed as demeaning and counter-productive to women’s empowerment. As feminist theorist and critic Molly Haskell writes “the ten years from 1963 to 1973 have been the most disheartening in screen history.”

Conversely men were portrayed as rogue outsiders and anti heroes not unlike noir figures but pushing the envelope with a hyper violent masculinity often without the usual fatalistic culmination of judgement and universal law that bound their destiny. When they die, it is their decision, they are in a dance with death, it is not an unmitigated penalty for breaking the rules. In particular these themes are seen within the suspense-thriller.

The seventies offered a gritty, stylized world that enhanced and synthesized focus on the dark underbelly of society, cultural unrest, paranoia, masochism, neurosis and psycho-sexual wiles. From American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations — Movies and the Exploitation of Excess by Mia Mask “Women Take Center Stage: Klute and McCabe & Mrs. Miller- “For feminist critics and scholars, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute perfectly exemplifies this period’s ambivalence toward women, particularly in regard to its prostitute-heroine Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). The film recasts and updates conventions of classic film noir by centralizing the investigatory/confessional pattern while making sexuality figure more obviously in the narrative.”

Klute (1971)

One man is missing. Two girls lie dead. …and someone breathing on the other end of the phone.

You’d never take her for a call girl. You’d never take him for a cop.

“There are little corners of everyone that are better left alone.”

Klute (1971) directed by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, producer To Kill a Mockingbird 1962, Love with the Proper Stranger, , Up the Down Staircase and director of Sophie’s Choice 1982) written by brothers Andy Lewis and Dave Lewis who mainly wrote for television drama series. Cinematography by Gordon Willis nicknamed The Prince of Darkness (The Landlord 1970, The Godfather 1972, The Godfather II 1974, The Paper Chase 1973, Annie Hall 1977).

Pakula on Willis and setting up the framing of the cinematography- “From the visual point of view, I wanted Klute to be a vertical film. And with Gordon Willis, the director of photography, I tried to go against the horizontal format of Panavision, by seeking out verticals. Horizontals open out, create a pastoral feeling, and I wanted tension. Bree’s apartment should have been seen as if at the end of a long tunnel. I framed a lot of shots with the back of another character in front, to mask a part of the screen, or made use of other sombre surfaces as masks, in order to create this feeling of claustrophobia which reflects the life of this girl.” – from 1972

The evocative score adds to the illusory tension and arresting mood of the film. The music is written by Michael Small (The Stepford Wives 1975, Night Moves 1975, Marathon Man 1976, Audrey Rose 1977, The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981, Black Widow 1987). Small’s haunting lullaby blankets the film in a pensive swaddle, with the uneasy tinkling of a piano like a childlike music box and vocalizations. The score awakens a voyeuristic ambience as if someones is watching, which they are– throughout the entire film.

“New York City as a site of, and metaphor for, the extremes of urban existence.

It places them in film history, New York City history, and U.S. urban history more generally, finding that they offer an update on earlier century narratives of the connections between urban areas and deviant sexuality. In this modern version, it is not just a moral tale but also an economic one, where, because of the historical decline of the U.S.city and of New York in particular,sex work becomes a plausible, if unsettling means of support.These films find both narrative and spatial terms for advancing the contemporary anti-urban narrative, envisioning New York as an impinging vertical space and seeing possible redemption only in the protagonists leaving the city.” From Stanley Corkin’s Sex and the City in Decline: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Klute (1971)-Journal of Urban History

The film stars Jane Fonda (who was coming off playing ingenues in Barefoot in the Park and Barbarella when she had her breakthrough performance in Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 1969) as call-girl Bree Daniels with a complex inner life, Donald Sutherland as the quiet spectator detective John Klute, Charles Cioffi as psycho Peter Cable, Roy Scheider as pimp Frank Ligourin, Dorothy Tristan as Arlyn Page, Rita Gam as Trina Gruneman, Vivian Nathan as the psychotherapist, Morris Strassberg as Mr. Goldfarb, the nice old Jewish john who works in the garment district, and Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers 1969) as Mama Reese. With appearances by Jean Stapleton as Mr. Goldfarb’s secretary, Richard Jordan as the young man who kisses Jane Fonda in the bar scene, porn star Harry Reems at the Discothèque and Candy Darling. 

The film brings into play various traditions of film noir as it lays out the search for the missing Gruneman and emphasizes the relationship between the cop and the call girl.

Klute was nominated for two academy awards, best actress and best screenplay, with Jane Fonda winning the Oscar.

From Mark Harris “menace seems to choke every frame, contains almost no violence at all”

The use of tape recorders as visually recurring iconography “finally deployed as a monstrous psychological weapon at the film’s climax.”

“When Alan J. Pakula began preparing for the production of Klute (1971), he screened a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films…{…} instead he came away dispirited at the thought that he was about to make might contradict one of Hitchcock’s central principles: “You don’t try to do a character study in a melodrama” Pakula said. “Klute, of course, is a violation of that.”

Klute features Donald Sutherland as the film’s protagonist John Klute, a Tuscarora Pennsylvania private investigator hired to locate a friend Tom Gruneman who has vanished in New York City and may be living a double life. Obscene letters to a NYC prostitute have been uncovered in his desk at work “written by a very disturbed man”. Gruneman went missing six months prior and John Klute offers to leave his suburban shelter to investigate in the big bad city. The trail leads Klute to a complicated and seductive New York call girl Bree Daniels an “emotionally introspective” prostitute (skillfully brought out by Jane Fonda). Bree is an unwitting connection to a brutal murder and Klute becomes her paternalistic protector/lover. Bree is shut off from her feelings, driven by her instincts of suspicion, ambivalence and low-self esteem. “I wish I was faceless and body-less and be left alone.”

Bree is a complex character who seeks to emotionally remove herself from society through the flawed principle that she is in control of her life and her body. Frequenting a psychotherapist, going on modeling cattle-calls, (similarly she is peddling her flesh, though legally and publicly) studying acting, smoking grass, and reading books like Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, a primer of the seventies metaphysical movement. Living in her own private world of her Manhattan apartment with her calico cat, Bree surrounds herself with the only space that truly insulates and isolates her from the vicious and people-eating world. A world of sin, glitter and wickedness. A world of voyeurs.

Klute watches as well as listens to Bree’s conversations recording equipment to tap her phone from his little dank room as one of her voyeurs. She tells him “go get those tapes and we’ll have a party.”

“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that.”

She also admits to him that she’s in the midst of paranoia “I’m afraid of the dark, it’s just nerves I’m a nervous broad.” But this is not paranoia, the fear is real… everyone is watching everyone else.

He watches her when she visits the old Jewish widow where Bree dresses like a cabaret singer, regaling the gentle Mr. Goldfarb of her nights in Cannes with a sophisticated older man not unlike himself. She tells Klute he never lays a hand on her. Klute’s silent, morally superior, unemotional manner seems to provoke Bree’s animosity toward family type men and uptight provincial.

“What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? Are you a talker? A button freak? Maybe you like to get your chest walked around with high heeled shoes. Or make ’em watch you tinkle. Or maybe you get off wearing women’s clothes. Goddamned hypocrite squares!” When he asks her about the john who tried to kill her and beat her up, “he wasn’t kidding, usually it’s a fake out.”

She shrugs Klute off, “Look, will you please just try to get it from my side? A year ago I was in the life full time. I was living on Park Avenue. It was a very nice apartment, leather furniture… and then the cops dropped on me, they caged me. They started asking me about a guy, some guy, that I’m supposed to have seen a year before that. Two years ago! He could be in Yemen. Gruneman… what does that mean? It’s a name! I don’t know him! And they start showing me these pictures, and they don’t mean anything to me. And then they started asking me if I’ve been getting letters from some guy out in Cabbageville.”

After Bree comes down to Klute’s little room in her pajamas and they have sex, she mocks him “Don’t feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does.” Once Bree starts to feel some kind of emotion toward Klute, she feels the need to destroy it, she had more control with her tricks.

During her various appointments with her shrink, Bree asks her “why do I still want to trick?” Her therapist becomes more forceful explaining that she can’t just fix Bree, telling her she has “no magic potion.”  “Cause when you’re a call girl you can control it. They want a woman and I know I’m good… And for an hour… for an hour, I’m the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world.” “Why do you say you’re the best actress in the world.” “Well, because it’s an act.”

There is a bit of not only a slight intrusion of a laugh, in the midst of all the darkness, when Bree is in bed with a john and she’s doing an acting job as if he’s turning her on while he’s on top of her, she coos for him- “Oh my angel! Oh my angel!” looking over his shoulder at her watch… It’s telling of how Bree can cut herself off from being a sex-worker and the men she is with, and how she aspires to be an actress and basically how many women may feel while they are having sex they feel nothing. Bree is great at role playing believes there is nothing wrong with it morally and doesn’t enjoy it physically.

Bree- “You don’t have to feel anything, care for anybody, just lead them by the ring in their nose. In the direction that they think they want to go in. Get a lot of money out of them in as short of period of time as possible. And you control it, and you call the shots, and I always feel just great afterwards.”

Therapist- “And you enjoyed it?” 

Bree- “No”

Therapist- “Why not? You said there’s nothing wrong with it. Why not?”

Bree- “Well there’s a difference. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it morally, I didn’t enjoy it physically. I came to enjoy it because it made me feel good. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It made me feel like I had some control over myself that I had some control over my life. That I could determine things for myself.”

We learn about Bree’s impressions of the world, her motivations and hints at past trauma through the scenes involving sessions with her therapist (Vivian Nathan). As a neo-noir film, it follows that the heroine experiences alienation and is punished for her female sexuality and excesses. Even as the film opens depicting a scene at a ‘family’ dinner, the intrusion of Bree’s lifestyle shows the downfall and breakdown of the American family. Invading bourgeois landscape, we see the tableau of desperate junkies, disco dives, the pimp’s flat, — all decadent and corrupt secret underworlds of the city, damned for it’s self-indulgence, materialism and perverted gratifications.

In some ways there are certain divergences from the noir traditions of the 1940s. There is a linear movement in the narrative with the hero retaining control of the events, in contrast to the revolving story, reversals and breaks in the plot. In terms of the investigation and the heroine’s sexuality, Bree’s place is different within the story, she is not the catalyst of Tom Gruneman’s fate she is the signpost to discovering his outcome. Therefore the relationship between John Klute and Bree is very different from what is usually the case in classic film noir. In this way Pakula explores the potential of the genre through a contemporary lens. “The metaphoric power of noir conventions is brought into more conscious play” (Gledhill)

Another consideration of Pakula’s film depicting a feminist backlash is how the women are positioned as ‘objects’ and physical products, emblematic not only by the scenes where Bree is selling her body, but where she sits in a line-up with other beautiful women waiting to be chosen for a modeling job. The agency executives heads are cut off in the scene which accentuates the human disconnection and impersonal enterprise of being picked for profitability and worth. Each one scanned then dismissed because of their perceived faults, both models and prostitutes symbolize the fetishization of desirability and society’s measurement of a woman’s value. If dissecting the film’s symbology more closely there are carefully placed clues as suggested by Judith Gustafson who observes the images behind the models impersonal scrutiny and the wall photos behind them of a face dotted in silver like ‘bullet holes’ on either side depicted by the identical image yet in negative that makes the female face appear as an ‘alien being.’

“Has anybody talked to you about the financial arrangements? Well that depends naturally on how long you want me for, and what you want to do. I know you, it will be very nice. Well I’d like to spend the evening with you if its, if you’d like that. Have you ever done it with a woman before, paying her? Do you like it? I mean I have the feeling that that turns you on very particularly. What turns me on is because I have a good imagination, and I like pleasing. Do you mind if I take my sweater off. Well I think in the confines of one’s house one should be free of clothing and inhibitions. Oh inhibitions are nice, cause its always to nice to overcome. Don’t be afraid, I’m not. As long as you don’t hurt me, more than I like to be hurt. I will do anything you ask. You should never be ashamed of things like that. I mean you mustn’t be. You know there’s nothing wrong. Nothing. Nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to, is to let it all hang out ya know. Do it all and fuck it!”

When Klute meets Bree she toys with him, flaunting her independence and manifesting a casual attitude about his investigation. Her self aligned liberation dictates contempt for convention and criticism. Hard-edged Bree enjoys her freedom though she is seduced by the need to pick up the phone and maintain her high-class status as a pimp free call girl. Roy Scheider plays her old predatory pimp Frank Ligourin who flashes his Italian silk shirts and his Mephistophelean smile. Ligourin and call-girl Janie McKenna who was jealous of Bree are the ones responsible for sending Bree to the psycho john who beat her up. “put the freak onto Bree.”

Though it’s not what drives the story, in the darkened halls of the film is the sadistic degenerate Peter Cable ( first time actor Charles Cioffi), affluent businessman and friend and associate of the missing Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) and detective John Klute.

Cable is a psychopathic misogynist who obsessively listens to his secret recordings of his exploits with Bree. He begins stalking her, suspecting that she may reveal his identity as the perverted John who beat her up and murdered her friend Janie and eventually kills another prostitute, a strung out junkie Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan).

“Make a man think that he’s accepted. It’s all a great big game to you. I mean, you’re all obviously too lazy and too warped to do anything meaningful with your lives so you prey upon the sexual fantasies of others. I’m sure it comes as no great surprise to you when I say that there are little corners in everyone which were better off left alone; sicknesses, weaknesses, which-which should never be exposed. But… that’s your stock in trade, isn’t it – a man’s weakness? And I was never really fully aware of mine… until you brought them out.”

Pretty much into the beginning of the picture we know who the killer is. The plot-line is more focused on the journey and relationship/character study of silent John Klute and turbulent Bree Daniels, and drawing the killer out into the open. It is the examination of the darker side of human nature, collective disorder and the undercurrent of psycho-sexual machinations as one of the central points to the film.

According to Joan Mellen not only is Klute a study in female sexuality, villain Peter Cable is the “projection of Bree’s self-contempt — a materialization of her fear of the dark.” Though the film presents an atmosphere of paranoia the threat is very real. Cable is “he also represents what she believes she deserves, the all destroying punisher who will make her pay for having bartered herself so cheaply.”

Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels is shown in her room as Willis’ camera pulls back it informs us that she is afraid of the phone ringing and the menacing breather on the other end. This is when John Klute first shows up. There is an interesting correlation with the two men, cop and killer. 

The idea that this film is feminist in nature because of the sexual freedom of it’s central character is best challenged by feminist scholar Christine Gledhill. “The ideological project surrounding this version of the independent woman stereotype is the same as when it emerged in the 1890s under the guise of the New Woman… However fascinating, different, admirable the would-be-emancipated woman, struggling to assert her own identity in a male world, and professing a new, nonrepressive sexual morality, in the end she is really neurotic, fragile, lonely and unhappy.”

Critic Pauline Kael had a much different experience of the film upon its initial release, she called Bree Daniels “one of the strongest feminine characters to reach the screen” though Fonda’s brilliant performance creates a complexity worthy of analysis, in the end, she is still an object of male fantasy.

While the film’s critics focus mainly on feminist shortcomings there is also the understanding by some that it also shines a lens on masculinity. Klute “lacks dynamism” “sexless” and “out of place” perhaps or virtual psychopaths, and castrated males. Perhaps a commentary on men’s sweeping fear of the women’s movement and the transformations of femininity and masculinity. Also an interesting observation by Mia Mask is how the protagonist John Klute and psychopath Peter Cable though essentially an antithesis of each other’s persona’s there is an element of a ‘doppelgänger motif’. Diane Giddis points at the the threat of Cable, Bree’s potential killer can be seen as the incarnation of the emotional danger she feels threatened by with the emergence of John Klute. From the beginning of the film, “the two men are almost always shown in juxtaposition.” The morning after Bree gets the eerie ‘breather’ phone call from her stalker, Klute appears at her door.

“Like Cable, Klute appears uninvited at her door. He, too, spies on her through windows and from archways. He, too, violates the privacy of her telephone by secretly recording her calls, just as Cable secretly records his session with her. The film even emphasized these parallels by showing the men in similar shots…{…} Ultimately Klute and Cable are two sides of the same male personality. One side punishes women for their sexuality and power plays; the other neutralizes the threat by inviting child-like dependence.” –Judith Gustafson from Cineaste (1981) The Whore with the Heart of Gold

At the time of Klute’s release it gave the appearance as not only a straight suspense story but that of a radical film, filled with contradictions between what feminist critics would say is artifice and what represents women in real situations. Within this ‘new American cinema’ the film purports to be about a ‘liberated’ heroine inhabiting the structure of a thriller with an homage to the femme fatales of film noir. The contradictory implications lie between the film’s ‘modernity’, psychotherapy and the problem of women places it within a humanist realist tradition of European art cinema’ (Gledhill). Yet it also bares the stylistic qualities –a highly detailed visual polish and ‘baroque stereotypes’ in noir thrillers, an atmosphere predominately summoned by American films of the seventies. “The real world and fictional production” Gledhill asserts that stems from the Women’s Movement rather than studies in film theory. The idea of realism and genre are in total opposition with each other. Klute presents as an independent heroine yet each frame reveals the attack on Bree’s free will.

“While realism embraces such cultural values as ‘real life’, truth or credibility, genre production holds negative connotations such as ‘illusion’, ‘myth’, ‘conventionality’, ‘stereotypes’. The Hollywood genres represent the fictional elaboration of a patriarchal culture which produces macho heroes and a subordinate, demeaning and objectified place for women.”

And beyond the constructs of film noir, seventies thriller genre and criticism by feminist theorists of Pakula’s Klute, Bree Daniel’s conflicts are a universal struggle for women ‘the assertion of love vs the affirmation of self-determination. Bree’s uneasy self reflection makes the perspective of a movie prostitute as a breakthrough characterization. She isn’t a tragic figure nor is she weak nor contemptible. Bree explores her compulsion and potential self destructive behavior as a sex worker as an externalized symptom stemming from past mental and internalized physical injury and she strives to uncover the answers in her own way.

Pakula re-invents some of the noir traditions and places them within an examination of the modern world. With his masterful film, he strives not only for visual ecstasy, the dramatic flourish of the thriller genre and though there has been acute dissection of his film, he seeks to the divulge a truth that becomes a revelation of acting by Jane Fonda.

In a 2019 interview with Jane Fonda conducted by Illeana Douglas, Fonda refers to Alan J. Pakula whom she worked in subsequent films, Comes a Horseman and Rollover, as a “still director.” “He allowed time for things to happen.” Jane Fonda explains that she loves films from the seventies because there was time left for things to happen. “more silence, than words.”

During the rehearsal for Klute Jane Fonda in order to prepare for her role as Bree Daniels, arranged to spend a lot of time with call-girls, streetwalkers and madams. Prostitutes on the bottom rung, strung out from the underbelly of the city and very wealthy madams, whom Fonda said made it clear the more money the client the weirder the sexual appetites and fantasies. She also talked about her decade living in France where she got to know the legendary Madam Claude, famous for taking beautiful women and molding them into high price call girls. Jane Fonda got to know many of them. Many she met were tough, often sexually aggressive she she said, and also sexually confident. She had learned that often they were the survivors of sexual abuse. What she referred having their ‘agency taken away’. These women inspired Fonda to model Bree after them. This is why Fonda’s performance pivots so well from self-confidence to vulnerability.

Illeana Douglas compliments Fonda by telling her that there’s “something going on in your eyes” which made Fonda recall that acting instructor Lee Strasberg had told her the very same thing in his class, that something was going on in her eyes that made him think that more is going on.

Fonda also had what she calls a ‘hair epiphany’. She had just come off filming cult sensation directed by husband, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella where she had all those blonde waves. Her friend hairdresser Paul MacGregor who lived in the village worked on what is now her iconic hair style from Klute.

Jane Fonda worried that as a white privileged middle class actress couldn’t possibly bring to life a prostitute and make it believable. She insisted to her director Alan J. Pakula that he hire Faye Dunaway instead. Pakula burst out laughing.

Jane Fonda was allowed to add a lot of her own insight into the character of Bree, little details and director Pakula often took them as excellent suggestions that worked well with the story. For instance, it was Fonda’s idea to live in the apartment for weeks. She lay there at night as if she were Bree trying to get inside Bree’s head and summon up the things she would do within her private time. We don’t know the backstory behind Bree Daniels many permutations. We are only to privy to hints of the damage.

Jane Fonda conceptualized many of the set’s subtleties. What would Bree read, what would adorn her little space. She thought of having a cat, because cats symbolize independence and Fonda imagined that Bree’s persona wanted a companion that would be more like herself. In many ways, Jane Fonda dressed the set with these little introspective details. The film became a very personal experience for her. And one that initiated her feminist transformation. Even when she was smoking the spliff in her apartment, it wasn’t in the script but she spontaneously began to sing that little hymn, it was very natural and emphasized how real her character was. Fonda tells of how this was a very spontaneous improvisation as a plot detail that was not in the script but struck her at the moment.

Illeana Douglas also astutely pointed out that there was a lot of glamour to the film. There were moments where Klute was framed with close ups of Bree. Even with the evocative Cymbalon melody – the Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish music) movement that guides the scene it reminds of the languid strut of Marlene Dietrich, the allure of Greta Garbo and had the flavor of night club singers in Paris and Germany. When I watched the incredibly thoughtful and in-depth interview it hit me how much that was true. I saw it as clear as day, that Jane Fonda’s aura did truly give off that mystique that essence of glamour of the great actresses’ personae. Superb fashion and costume designer Ann Roth chose the alluring dress that Bree wears when she visits the old man, Mr. Goldfarb. 

Jane Fonda also points out that Bree could have been a great actress but within her craft something would have triggered her to return to selling her body, which is a violation to the soul, and it’s very different than acting, as it comes from a deep place of trauma and the need to control and not open up her heart.

[voiceover] “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I… I just can’t stay in this city, you know? Maybe I’ll come back. You’ll probably see me next week.”

 This is your EverLovin Joey saying see you on the tracks! Part 2 coming up!