Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946): Brutal Noir- The First 12 Killer Minutes!

Lancaster The Killers

“Noir exploits the oddness of odd settings, as it transforms the mundane quality of familiar ones, in order to create an environment that pulses with intimations of nightmare.”Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen

You can read more about this iconic noir masterpiece in The Dark Pages feature issue

Here’s the link below to order a copy of The Dark Pages for yourself or subscribe all year round… so you’ll always get your fill of everything Noir from this sensational publication!

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The Dark Pages Giant Killer Issue

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Produced by Mark Hellinger (The Naked City, Brute Force and The Two Mrs Carrolls Music by Miklós Rózsa; Cinematography by Elwood Bredell (Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, Phantom Lady 1944). Boldly directed by the great Robert Siodmak. The Screenplay is by Anthony Veiller and uncredited co-writers John Huston and Richard Brooks.

The Killers (1946), with it’s doomed hero, flashbacks, and seedy characters is one of the finest in the film noir canon. The film is a gritty dream with carnal fluidity and monochromatic beauty. The Killers is a neo-gangster noir film with a liminal and evocative intensity. Director Robert Siodmak gives the film a violently surreal tone— it’s a stylishly slick, richly colorful black and white film where the players live in a world condemned by shadow. Burt Lancaster plays out the obsession theme with ‘unfaithful women’ leading to his ultimate demise.

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The evocative opening scene is one of the most powerfully ferocious in film noir. It is faithful to Ernest Hemingway’s short story. The determined thrust of the first twelve minutes mesmerizes. It has a villainous and cynical rhythm, paced like shadowy poetry in a dark room with no open windows. The film opens with Miklos Rozsa’s ominous brassy jazz that later becomes the killers motif. Two men drive into a small town, Anywhere, USA. We see them from behind in darkest black silhouette inside the car.

While cars and trains are iconographic means of escape in noir films, the opening sequence of The Killers offers no escape. The two gun men enter the screen in their vehicle veiled by the darkness of the highway road. The vision is more like one of bringing the means of death to this ordinary environment. The peculiar, unsettling gunmen Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) are two dark forces invading an ordinary landscape with their malicious and aggressive presence. The dark highway is a typical Hemingway metaphor for the eternal strife, of ‘going nowhere’ and his cycle of ‘heroic fatalism.’ The road is an unfinished trajectory, unpredictable and unknown with no way out but ‘the end.’

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We see the two walking onto the street silhouetted in shadow. We know they are trouble. They enter a diner reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks.’ Perhaps this American Diner scene influenced scavenger hunting director Quentin Tarantino for his Pulp Fiction in 1994.

The men ask about a man they’re looking for, ‘the Swede.’ They make no effort to hide their malevolence. They revel in belligerence as they demean and degrade the men in the small town diner. Al and Max begin to psychologically torture George (Harry Hayden) who works the counter and Nick the boy at the end of the counter. They exude an offensive egotism and a cruel antisocial spirit as they barrage the men with perverse assaults.

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George: “What’ll it be, gentlemen?”
Max: “I don’t  know. What you want to eat, Al?”
Al: “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
 Max: “I’ll have the roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes.”
 George: “That’s not ready yet.”
 Max: “Then what’s it on the card for?”
 George: “Well, that’s on the dinner. You can have that at six o’clock. That clock is ten minutes fast. The dinner isn’t ready yet.”
 Max: “Never mind the clock. What have you got to eat?”

The conversation is absurd and meaningless. It is just a mechanism to bully these townsmen. They continue to harass George asking “you got anything to drink?” George tells them “I can give you beer, soda or ginger ale.” Al: “I said you got anything to drink?” George submits a quiet “no.” Max says “this is a hot town, whatta you call it?” George: “Brentwood.” Al turns to Max “you ever hear of Brentwood?” Max shakes his head no. Al asks George “what do you do for nights?”

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Max takes a deep breath and groans “They eat the dinner, they all come here and eat The Big Dinner.” The outsider mocks the small town conformity of eating whatever is served. George looks downward murmuring “that’s right” and Al says “you’re a pretty bright boy aren’t you?” He uses “boy” to demean. George mutters “sure” and Al snaps back “well you’re not!”

Al now shouts to the young man at the end of the counter“hey you, what’s your name?” he looks earnestly at Al and says “Adams. Nick Adams.” Al says, “Another bright boy.” There is sadism at work here, almost subconsciously homophobic/homoerotic in the way they are using the term “boy” to subvert these bystanders’ manhood. Max says, “town’s full of bright boys.”

The cook comes out from the kitchen bringing the plates. ”One ham and one bacon and” George starts to serve the men the food and asks “which one is yours?” Al says “Don’t you remember bright boy?” the continued use of this phrase truly begins to tear at the layers of our nerve endings. George starts laughing and Max says “What are you laughing at?” “nothing.”

“You see something funny?” “No.” “Then don’t laugh.” “Alright.” Again Max says ”He thinks it’s alright.” Al says “Oh, he’s a thinker.” It’s an antisocial backlash to an intellectual society that would perceive Al and Max as outcasts. This is where a noir film begins to break the molds of Hollywood civilized society. The two intruders have trespassed into an ordinarily quiet community to shatter it’s sense of security. It is the death of humanism in film language.

Max and Al tie up Nick and the cook in the kitchen. “I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen, we’re gonna kill the Swede, you know big Swede, works over at the filling station.” He lights a cigarette. George says, “You mean Pete Lund?” Max takes the cigarette out of his mouth and the smoke enervates George’s face, “If that’s what he calls himself… Comes in every night at 6 o’clock don’t he?”

Georges asks “what are you gonna kill him for? What did Pete Lund ever do to you?” Max replies,”He never had a chance to do anything to us he never even seen us.” The conversation is so matter of fact that it’s chillingly absurd. Again George asks, “What are you gonna kill him for?” Max smirks “We’re killing him for a friend.” Al pokes his head through the sliding window to the kitchen “shut up you talk too much” but Max says ”I gotta keep bright boy amused don’t I?”

When George explains that ‘the Swede’ never comes in after 6pm, the killers head to the station where he works. George unties the men in the kitchen. Nick leaves to warn ‘Swedes,’ jumping fences on his way to the rooming house.

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At the rooming house, Pete (Lancaster) is on his bed in almost complete darkness, face hidden in the shadows, his body’s repose in stark contrast to the backdrop of the frenetic orchestration by Rozsa. Nick enters and urgently warns him about the two dangerous men. Nick asks, “Why’d do they want to kill ya?” He replies: “There’s nothing I can do about it. I did something wrong. Once. Thanks for coming.” His tone is soft and fatalistic.

Nick offers “I can tell you what they’re like?” Swede replies “I don’t wanna know what they’re like… thanks for coming.” ”Don’t you wanna go and see the police?” “No that wouldn’t do any good.” Nick asks “Isn’t there something I could do?” “There ain’t anything to do.” “Couldn’t you get out of town?” He answers “No… I’m through with all that running around.”

A merciful violin plays while Swede remains resigned to the dark bed. His large hands rub his face. We hear the squeaking of a door downstairs as it opens slowly then shuts. The Swede turns his head looking slightly worried for the first time. He leans up in the bed, the light from outside hitting his face, as Al and Max mount the staircase that leads to his room.

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The Swede listens like a trapped animal. He does not betray any fear, only a gloomy resignation that his life is about to end. It is not death that he ponders, memories and another enemy. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell switches between closeups of Lancaster’s face and the door, then suddenly the two men come in blasting. From pitch black begins a light show, arcing like electricity striking a void. The canon fire gunshots pound into a field of blackness. The killers walking up the stairs acts as foreplay and the gunfire like violent intercourse… White hot flashes of light break grave blackness. The last image we see as it fades to black is Lancaster’s hand falling limp by the bedpost. The last words we hear are Swede uttering “Charleston was right, Charleston was right.”

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This is where the powerful prolog ends and Hemingway’s story leaves us with no explanation as to the reason for Swede’s murder, nor insight into why he acquiesces to his death by not trying to elude the killers and his fate. From this moment on Veiller’s screenplay starts to expose the back story to the killing.

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Look at the killer chemistry between Lancaster & Gardner… I’d get shot up in the dark for either one…!

This has been a killer post! Your Everlovin’ Joey

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) The ‘Angel of Death’ and a nice glass of warm milk!

As part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol

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THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

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When I found out that Rachel from The Girl With the White Parasol was hosting a Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I chomped at the bit to participate. I love Stanny, pure and simple. She not only changed the way women demonstrated their power in film, she’s gutsy, gorgeous and persuasive in a very unconventional way.

Barbara Stanwyck, unlike some of her other vice-ridden murderous roles, plays Sally Morton an archetypal woman in peril, although not as individuated as ‘hysterical’ or pathetic like Leona Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948.

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The consummate Woman- in -Peril is Stanny as Leonora Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948

Stanny brought a unique kind of dynamism to the Suspense & Noir landscape. She’s got a face bred with burning spirit and animal coolness, that exudes a subtle psychology ferocious independence and dramatic intelligence.

The Stanwyck role was originally performed by Elisabeth Bergner in Martin Vale’s stage play. A suspense-thriller that fits within the realm of noir with Gothic tinges of horror. Humphrey Bogart appeared in the classic horror film The Return of Doctor X 1939. Bogart plays the subdued, yet sinister malefactor Geoffrey Carroll. He’s a cynical, eccentric and alienated artist. Stanny plays Sally the woman he kills his first wife for, poisoning her with glasses of milk just like in Hitch’s Suspicion 1941.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is also the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith, who plays Cecily Latham the ‘other woman.’ She first acted opposite Bogie in Conflict 1945 where he played Richard Mason pursuing his wife’s sister Alexis Smith’s Evelyn Turner.

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Bogart and Smith in Conflict 1945

Produced by Mark Hellinger for Jack Warner and directed by Peter Godfrey (Cry Wolf 1947 also starring Stanny & The Woman in White 1948) The Two Mrs.Carrolls is a woman in peril, female victim story à la Hitchcock.

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Barbara Stanwyck in Peter Godfrey’s noir thriller Cry Wolf 1947

Stanwyck’s role diverges from some of her more famous female villains, the noir femme fatale who embodies the unacceptable archetype of the sexually aggressive woman. In this film she plays the more marginalized ‘good woman’ who is worthy of being a wife and often the victim, contrasted by the lustful and conniving Cecily (Alexis Smith) who embodies treachery and a freely expressed sexuality.

The film co-stars Nigel Bruce as Dr. Tuttle, Isobel Elsom (Ladies in Retirement 1941,Monsieur Verdoux 1947) as Mrs. Latham Patrick O’Moore as Charles Pennington (Penny), Ann Carter as Beatrice Carroll, Anita Bolster (The Lost Weekend, Scarlet Street 1945) as Christine the maid, and Barry Bernard as the blackmailing chemist Horace Blagdon. There’s a welter of melodramatic music by Franz Waxman, plenty of Gothic shadows by cinematographer J.Peverell Marley (Hound of the Baskervilles 1939, House of Wax 1953) & gorgeous fashions by Edith Head.

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Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning throughout the film, in the costumes envisioned by Edith Head

Made in 1945 Warner Bros. most likely held back the release of this film as it was very close to Bogart’s role in Conflict that same year. Bogart the quintessential scruffy cigarette smoking everyman equip with trench coat fedora and gritty sneer is very capable of playing complex characters with a disturbed pathology of inner turmoil. I think of his role as the controlling and ill-tempered script writer Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place 1950, or Captain Queeg in The Cain Mutiny 1954.

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Humphrey Bogart as the unstable Dix and Gloria Grahame in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 psychological noir In A Lonely Place

In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Bogart is cast as Geoffrey Carroll a Bluebeardesque psychotic who first feels driven to paint his muse, the object of his desire, only to feel compelled to destroy her once he’s done exalting her essence using poisoned milk as his method of murder. He is not unlike Vincent Price’s anachronism of a Hudson Valley nobleman driven by an insane need for an heir in Dragonwyck 1946, in an extension of the Bluebeard mythos as he kills his wives who are incapable of giving him sons.

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Michael Redgrave as the derange architect married to the object of his desire/destructive force Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948

Certain Noir films are the manifestation of psychosis, emerging in the form of the ‘mad artist’  most notably Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard 1944. Franchot Tone was the obsessively deranged sculptor in Phantom Lady 1944, Architect Michael Redgrave in Fritz Lang’s incredible depiction of noir psychosis in The Secret Beyond the Door 1947 which had suggestive imagery of a dream like atmosphere with it’s overt Freudian fairy tale patterns tied to psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood trauma and sexual significance. Joan Bennett refers to her own ability to purge these ‘repressed poisons’ because she is so chatty and exorcizes her demons by talking too much.

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Joan Bennett gazes at her own image in Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door- the iconic mirror!

Peter Godfrey’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948 are ideal examples of a leading man portraying creativity and obsessiveness driven to madness. In the former Barbara Stanwyck plays Sally Morton who has a whirlwind romance with painter Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) only to learn that he is actually married to an invalid wife. Though Carroll is desperate to possess Sally as he claims she has ‘saved’ him, so that he can now paint again. Before they had met, his work suffered. When Sally finds out that Geoffrey is married she flees their romantic sojourn leaving Carroll in a cave showing dismay and turbulence on his face. Carroll goes to London and sees a chemist, signing a fictitious name. After several glasses of milk the first Mrs. Carroll is dead, and Sally becomes the second Mrs. Carroll.

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Sally becomes his new ‘subject,’ a replacement as artist’s inspiration and love object. But once the wealthy and decadent tigress Cecily Latham (she wears animal print) aggressively pursues him to paint her and become her lover, Sally’s fate is sealed. Carroll transfers his fixation to his new object, Cecily Latham, played by the gorgeous Alexis Smith (I saw her on Broadway in the 70s. She won a Tony award for her performance in the hit Broadway musical Follies… what a treat!)

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The film is an odd and edgy thriller which opens in a pastoral setting in Scotland where Sally and Geoffrey are having a quaint picnic by the lake, while Geoffrey sits upon a rock and sketches her. The initial loveliness and serene atmosphere sets out to misdirect us as a place much like Eden. The couple we learn have been dating for two weeks. Everything bares the most ordinary of appearances, as Geoffrey and Sally’s budding romance seems filled with a lighthearted joyfulness in alliance with the surrounding paradisal scenery.

McGregor tells him he’s caught a fish, Geoffrey yells to him, “Well from this distance that takes real talent. Throw that whale back, the way I feel today I don’t want even a fish to be unhappy!”

Geoffrey Carroll tells Sally, “two weeks of the only real happiness I’ve ever known… I love you Sally, I love you.” As soon as Geoffrey utters these words and the couple embrace, the sky begins to well up with uneasy clouds. Accompanied by old man McGregor who has the typified Scottish accent warning them of the rough weather brewing.

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As the opening serenity is quickly broken by the foreboding torrential rain storm, this symbol of strife and disturbance that oppresses the joy and becomes a metaphor as the film ends with a similar rain storm that besets Sally’s world.

This will inevitably turn into a nightmarish landscape for Sally but the serene local diverts us from the darkness to come, as we soon discover that Carroll is a disturbed artist who constantly needs fresh female inspiration in order for his art and sexual gratification to thrive. His art depends on it, and he is willing to kill the women he once desired to sustain himself.

The couple seek refuge from the rain in a nearby cave. As Geoffrey goes to get his fishing gear and picnic basket from McGregor, Sally remains behind holding his jacket. As she calls after him, a letter falls out of the pocket. She picks up the small white envelope and is horrified to see it is addressed to a Mrs. Carroll. The extraordinary range of emotions Stanwyck is capable of reflecting within a single frame is cogent and palpable, as she shifts from content glances to an interior that aches. Her eyes glimmer with crushed spirit. Franz Waxman’s dramatic score confronts the moment as Sally is framed in by the dark outline of the cave.

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Once Geoffrey returns to the cave he finds Sally suddenly unyielding and in emotional distress.

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“This fell out of your pocket you evidently forgot to mail it when we left the inn. It’s addressed to a Mrs. Geoffrey Carroll.”
“My wife”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
” I tried to from the first day but I couldn’t. There’s a child too.”
“Are you separated?”
“No that letter was to ask for a divorce.”
“Have you been married long?”
“We’ve been together for ten years, my wife’s been an invalid ever since the child was born.”
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“Do you think I’d marry you now. I’m afraid you don’t know me very well.”
“I know I love you.”
“I don’t want that kind of love… why didn’t you tell me before, why?”
“I didn’t want to lose you.”
“But it would have saved so much hurt, and now it’s no use.”
“I don’t believe that… ” “Before I found you I was finished. There was nothing. I couldn’t work I couldn’t think I didn’t care. We mustn’t lose each other Sally, ever. We couldn’t if we tried because our love is…”

Sally breaks down and flees the cover of the cave crying ‘No… no’ not wanting to hear Geoffrey’s excuses she runs out into the pouring rain.

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“Miss Morton, do you hear me, you’ll catch your death,” McGregor’s calls out to Sally his words echo within the walls of the cave, reverberating in Geoffrey’s mind.

He gives a tortured look as symbolic bars of rain  obfuscate his figure. As Waxman’s music acts like a buzz saw in his twisted psyche he looks down at the letter lying at his muddied feet he grips his head.

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The scene switches to Blagdon (Barry Bernard) the cash chemist sealing up a package with wax. He’s an unsavory character with a scar that gives him an added edge of sleaziness. Bladgon hands Geoffrey the register, “You’ll have to sign for this sir.” Blogdan answers the phone, he’s lost a bet on the horses.

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“You see this scar Mr. Fleming, is it?… well I got this scar when I was 9 years old I was kicked by a horse and I been trying to get even with the ‘orses ever since but it aint quite worked out.”
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The two walk over to an easel holding a painting. Bea tells her father, “You’re a genius… wait until you finish this one father, The Angel of Death.”
“You think it’s good huh?”
“I should say I do. It’s frightening of course, makes me shiver sometimes, but so definitely mother. Do you think she’ll live until we finish the picture?”

Geoffrey Carroll returns home to his London flat where he greets his daughter Beatrice. He takes the little white package from the chemist and puts it in his pocket. Geoffrey asks how her mother is doing, she tells him about the same.

He says, “What are you talking about, well of course she’ll live. What you mean?”
“Don’t get excited father. We both want her to live because we love her so much. That doesn’t mean she will live does it?”

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Bea tells her father that although she spends more time with her mother she adores him… “I love you too, and I admire you tremendously”

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A bell rings, it is time for Mrs. Carroll’s milk. Beatrice goes into the kitchen to prepare the hot white liquid for her mother. Geoffrey enters the room and takes the sauce pan and glass from his daughter pouring the milk himself. Standing outside the bedroom door, holding the glass of warm milk a queer look sploshes over his face like waves of disequilibrium. He suddenly tells Bea that starting tomorrow she’ll be going away to school.

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Carroll lurks outside his wife’s door like a fiendish vampire

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Christine the maid greets Mr.Pennington at the door, her angular face always an expression of joy!

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Bea-“I said it was tremendous “
Penny-“Yes but it’s a bit creepy don’t you think?”
“That’s only at first. You get accustomed to it. Then you think it’s wonderful. She was my mother. Died a little less than two years ago.”
“I’m sorry.’
“You needn’t be. We all die sooner or later.” Bea’s comment is calm and canny.Penny says, “I’ve heard a rumor to that effect.”
“It isn’t exactly as mother was, because it isn’t a portrait. Yet it is like her too. Father says it’s representational.”
“Your father took the very word right out of my mouth.”

Two years later, Sally now the second Mrs.Carroll and Geoffrey are living in Ashton in Sally’s Gothic manor house inherited from her father.

Charles Pennington (Patrick O’Moore) or Penny is greeted at the door by Christine (Anita Bolster) the house maid. As he waits for Sally, he studies the painting of the first Mrs. Carroll, not noticing Beatrice who is sitting in the armchair. She tells him the painting is tremendous.

Ann Carter as Carroll’s precocious daughter Bea figures prominently in the film as sort of the lens in which the conscience of the story reveals its moral code. Ann Carter exudes a mature seriousness reminiscent of Curse of the Cat People 1944 with her otherworldly air. She possesses a no nonsense touch to the mixed up morality she’s surrounded by that contributes to the pervasive despair and instability.

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Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning as she enters the room. Sally tells Bea she needn’t leave, that Penny is a dear old friend. Bea tells her they’ve already met, and he’s nice, quite nice.’  Penny asks how old she is ’45 or 50?’ She does give that impression, but she’s sweet.”

Penny is kind and obviously still very much in love with Sally. In a very evolved and civil manner, he hasn’t forgiven her for running out on him. She feels terrible about it, and says she should have given him some word. But when she met Geoffrey, when he came back it was as if nothing else mattered. He tells her that all a disappointed suitor need do is look at her. He asks if she’s as happy as she looks. Sally tells him “he’s good to me.” “He better be. Purely out of morbid curiosity I should like to meet him.”

She tells him that Geoffrey is working upstairs in his studio, and that she’ll call on him. Penny tells her that he’s not the only visitor. Mrs. Latham and her daughter Cecily are expected any minute. They’re friends and clients of his.

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“And Penny in case I didn’t make myself clear. It’s grand to see you again really grand.”
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“Thanks in case I didn’t make myself clear… Oh Sally.”

Sally runs up the staircase excited about her guests, she addresses the vinegary Christine

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“Christine there’ll be other visitors take them straight to the garden. Tea for five”
“Tea for five! Bread and butter?”
“Yes and some cucumber sandwiches.”
“Some cakes too?”
“Well if there are any.”
“We haven’t got any cakes.”
“Well then don’t serve them”
“I will.”

Waxman’s dynamically turbulent score breaks the witty moment, as Geoffrey paces his studio. Throwing down his paint brush and grabbing the canvas, he begins to rub the oil with turpentine wiping away what he has painted with hostility.

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Several frames show Geoffrey bisected by the large paint brushes. This might a visual indication of his fractured personality.
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Sally enters the room and sees him “What are you doing.”
“Something I should have done weeks ago, I’m sick of looking at it. A phony.”
“You can’t always paint masterpieces.”
“Well I can always try… I don’t understand it Sally, this fine old house, the most beautiful surrounding I’ve ever known and You. I have everything here. Then why isn’t my work better, what’s wrong?”

Continue reading “The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) The ‘Angel of Death’ and a nice glass of warm milk!”