MonsterGirl’s Halloween 🎃 2015 special feature! the Heroines, Scream Queens & Sirens of 30s Horror Cinema!

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Horror cinema was at it’s spooky peak in the 1930s~ the era gave birth to some of the most iconic figures of the genre as well as highlighted some of the most beautiful & beloved heroines to ever light up the scream, oops I mean screen!!!!

We all love the corrupted, diabolical, fiendish and menacing men of the 30s who dominated the horror screen- the spectres of evil, the anti-heroes who put those heroines in harms way, women in peril, –Boris, & Bela, Chaney and March… From Frankenstein, to Dracula, from The Black Cat (1934), or wicked Wax Museums to that fella who kept changing his mind…Jekyll or was it Hyde? From the Mummy to that guy you could see right through, thank you Mr. Rains!

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Gloria Stuart The Invisible Man

Last year I featured Scream Queens of 40s Classic Horror! This Halloween 🎃 – I felt like paying homage to the lovely ladies of 30s Classic Horror, who squealed up a storm on those stormy dreadful nights, shadowed by sinister figures, besieged by beasts, and taunted with terror in those fabulous frisson filled fright flicks… but lest not forget that after the screaming stops, those gals show some grand gumption! And… In an era when censorship & conservative framework tried to set the stage for these dark tales, quite often what smoldered underneath the finely veiled surface was a boiling pot of sensuality and provocative suggestion that I find more appealing than most contemporary forays into Modern horror- the lost art of the classical horror genre will always remain Queen… !

Let’s drink a toast to that notion!

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The Scream Queens, Sirens & Heroines of 1930s Classic Horror are here for you to runs your eyes over! Let’s give ’em a really big hand, just not a hairy one okay! From A-Z

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phantom in the rue morgue 1954
Phantom in the Rue Morgue 1954

ELIZABETH ALLAN

Elizabeth Allan

A British beauty with red hair who according to Gregory Mank in his Women in Horror Films, 1930s, left England for Hollywood and an MGM contract. She is the consummate gutsy heroine, the anti-damsel Irena Borotyn In Tod Browning’s campy Mark of the Vampire (1935) co-starring with Bela Lugosi as Count Mora (His birthday is coming up on October 20th!) Lionel Atwill and the always cheeky Lionel Barrymore… Later in 1958 she would co-star with Boris Karloff in the ever-atmospheric The Haunted Strangler.

Mark of the Vampire is a moody graveyard chiller scripted by Bernard Schubert & Guy Endore (The Raven, Mad Love (1935) & The Devil Doll (1936) and the terrific noir thriller Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) with sexy Steve Cochran & one of my favs Ruth Roman!)

The film is a Tod Browning’s re-take of his silent Lon Chaney Sr. classic London After Midnight (1927).

The story goes like this: Sir Karell Borotin (Holmes Herbert) is murdered, left drained of his blood, Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) believes it’s the work of vampires. Lionel Atwill once again plays well as the inquiring but skeptical police Inspector Neumann.

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Irena (Elizabeth Allan) and Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) hatch an intricate plot to trap the murderers!

Once Sir Karell’s daughter Irena ( our heroine Elizabeth Allan) is assailed, left with strange bite marks on her neck, the case becomes active again. Neumann consults Professor Zelin the leading expert on Vampires. This horror whodunit, includes frightened locals who believe that Count Mora (Bela in iconic cape and saturnine mannerism) and his creepy daughter Luna  (Carroll Borland) who trails after him through crypt and foggy woods, are behind the strange going’s on. But is all what it seems?

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Elizabeth Allan and Carroll Borland Mark of the Vampire
Elizabeth Allan (below center) and Carroll Borland as Luna in Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935)
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Elizabeth Allan and Carroll Borland Mark of the Vampire (1935)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Directed by the ever interesting director Maurice Elvey (Mr. Wu 1919, The Sign of Four, 1923, The Clairvoyant 1935, The Man in the Mirror 1936, The Obsessed 1952) Elizabeth Allan stars as Daisy Bunting the beautiful but mesmerized by the strange yet sensual and seemingly tragic brooding figure- boarder Ivor Novello as Michel Angeloff in The Phantom Fiend! A remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s first film about Jack the Ripper… The Lodger (1927) starring Novello once again.

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Ivor Novello is the strange & disturbing Michel Angeloff. Elizabeth Allan is the daughter of the landlords who rent a room to this mysterious fellow who might just be a serial killer. Daisy Bunyon falls captivated by this tormented and intense young man…
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A.W. Baskcomb plays Daisy’s (Elizabeth Allan)father George Bunting and Jack Hawkins is Joe Martin the regular guy in love with Daisy
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Michel Angeloff (Ivor Novello) to Daisy Bunting (Elizabeth Allan) “Stay away from me… don’t ever be alone with me…{…} -You trust me, no matter whatever I’ve done?”

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)

There is a murderer loose in London who writes the police before he strikes with a sword cane, he signs his name X. It happens that his latest crime occurs on the same night that the Drayton Diamond is stolen. Robert Montgomery as charming as ever, is Nick Revel the jewel thief responsible for the diamond heist, but he’s not a crazed murderer. The co-incidence of the two crimes have put him in a fix as he’s now unable to unload the gem until the police solve the murders.

Elizabeth Allan is the lovely Jane Frensham, Sir Christopher Marche’s (Ralph Forbes) fiancé and Police Commissioner Sir Herbert Frensham’s daughter. Sir Christopher is arrested for the X murders, and Nick and Jane band together, fall madly in love and try to figure out a way to help the police find the real killer!

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HEATHER ANGEL

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Heather Angel is a British actress who started out on stage at the Old Vic theatre but left for Hollywood and became known for the Bulldog Drummond series. While not appearing in lead roles, she did land parts in successful films such as Kitty Foyle, Pride and Prejudice (1940), Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943) and Lifeboat (1944). IMDb notes -Angel tested for the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), the role was given to Olivia de Havilland.

Heather Angel possessed a sublime beauty and truly deserved to be leading lady rather than relegated to supporting roles and guilty but pleasurable B movie status.

The L.A times noted about her death in 1986 at age 77 “Fox and Universal ignored her classic training and used her in such low- budget features as “Charlie Chans Greatest Case and “Springtime for Henry.”

Her performances in Berkeley Square and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were critically acclaimed… More gruesome than the story-lines involving her roles in Edwin Drood, Hound of the Baskervillles or Lifeboat put together is the fact that she witnessed her husband, stage and film directer Robert B. Sinclair’s vicious stabbing murder by an intruder in their California home in 1970.

Heather Grace Angel was born in Oxford, England, on February 9, 1909.
Heather Angel in Berkeley Square (1933) Image courtesy Dr Macro

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932)

Heather Angel is Beryl Stapleton in this lost (found negatives and soundtracks were found and donated to the British Film Institute archives) adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holme’s thriller Originally serialised in The Strand magazine between 1901 and 1902.

In this first filmed talkie of Doyle’s more horror oriented story it calls for the great detective to investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville and solve the strange killing that takes place on the moors, feared that there is a supernatural force, a monstrous dog like fiend that is menacing the Baskerville family ripping the throats from it’s victims. The remaining heir Sir Henry is now threatened by the curse.

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Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

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Douglass Montgomery as Neville Landless and Heather Angel as Rosa Bud in the intensely superior rare gem The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

Mystery of Edwin Drood (played by David Manners) is a dark and nightmarish Gothic tale of mad obsession, drug addiction and heartless murder! Heather Angel plays the beautiful and kindly young student at a Victorian finishing school, Rosa Bud engaged to John Jasper’s nephew Edwin Drood. The opium chasing, choir master John Jasper (Claude Rains) becomes driven to mad fixation over Rosa, who is quite aware of his intense gaze, she becomes frightened and repulsed by him.

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The brooding & malevolent Rains frequents a bizarre opium den run by a menacing crone (Zeffie Tilbury), a creepy & outre moody whisper in the melody of this Gothic horror/suspense tale!

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Valerie Hobson plays twin sister Helena Landless, the hapless Neville’s sister. (We’ll get to one of my favorites, the exquisite Valerie Hobson in just a bit…) When Neville and Helena arrive at the school, both Edwin and he vie for Rosa’s affections. When Edwin vanishes, naturally Neville is the one suspected in his mysterious disappearance.

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Olga Baclanova

Though I’ll always be distracted by Baclanova’s icy performance as the vicious Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s masterpiece Freaks which blew the doors off social morays and became a cultural profane cult film, Baclanova started out as a singer with the Moscow Art Theater. Appearing in several silent films, she eventually co-starred as Duchess Josiana with Conrad Veidt as the tragic Gwynplaine, in another off-beat artistic masterpiece based on the Victor Hugo story The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning produced & directed this eternally disturbing & joyful portrait of behind the scenes melodrama and at times the Gothic violence of carnival life… based on the story ‘Spurs’ by Tod Robbins. It’s also been known as Nature’s Mistress and The Monster Show.

It was essential for Browning to attain realism. He hired actual circus freaks to bring to life this quirky Grand Guignol, beautifully grotesque & macabre tale of greed, betrayal and loyalty.

Cleopatra (Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor) plan to swindle the owner of the circus Hans, (Harry Earles starring with wife Frieda as Daisy) out of his ‘small’ fortune by poisoning him on their wedding night. The close family of side show performers exact a poetic yet monstrous revenge! The film also features many memorable circus folk. Siamese conjoined twins Daisy & Violet Hilton, also saluted in American Horror Story (Sarah Paulson another incredible actress, doing a dual role) Schlitze the pinhead and more!

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Anyone riveted to the television screen to watch Jessica Lange’s mind blowing performance as Elsa Mars in American Horror Story’s: Freak Show (2014) will not only recognize her superb nod to Marlene Dietrich, but much reverence paid toward the Tod Browning’s classic and Baclanova’s cunning coldness.

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( BTW as much as I adore Frances McDormand, Lange should have walked away with the Emmy this year! I’ve rarely seen a performance that balances like a tight rope walker, the subtle choreography between gut wrenching pathos & ruthless sinister vitriol. Her rendition of Bowie’s song Life on Mars…will be a Film Score Freak feature this Halloween season! No I can’t wait… here’s a peak! it fits the mood of this post…)

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Baclanova and Earles

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“You Freaks!!!!”
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Gooba Gabba… I guess she isn’t one of us after all!

here she is as the evil Countess/duchess luring poor Gwynplain into her clutches The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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Continue reading “MonsterGirl’s Halloween 🎃 2015 special feature! the Heroines, Scream Queens & Sirens of 30s Horror Cinema!”

The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942) “Every man knows what sort of a woman she is!”

This post is celebrating Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen on Oct. 12, 2015

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“When I look at myself, I am so beautiful… I scream with joy!”-Maria Montez

Maria Montez the Queen of Technicolor

The Queen of Technicolor!….   Maria Montez!

“You must always act as if you are the most beautiful desirable woman in the world, you must always be treated like a queen and you must not let any directors intimidate you, because the public has the last word!”

Mystery of Marie Roget

BEAUTIFUL BEAST! MADDENING… WITH HER SOFT CARESS! MURDERING WITH STEEL-CLAWED TERROR!

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was originally published in 1842 a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, it was his first fiction story that played out like a true-detective tale about an unsolved murder that he placed in Paris rather than in New York. This was Poe’s follow up to his Murders in the Rue Morgue and follows the exploits of crime solver detective Paul Dupin. Incidentally the detective had been named Pierre Dupin in Rue Morgue 1932

Adapted to the screen by Michael Jacoby (Doomed to Die 1940 with Boris Karloff, The Undying Monster 1942, The Face of Marble 1946).

The Beautiful Cigar Girl murder mystery

Loosely based on an infamous story that made the headlines in New York during the 19th century, it concerns the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers who earned the nickname “Beautiful Cigar Girl” who disappeared once, only to find out that she had run off with her sweetheart, a naval officer. The next time Marie showed up was three years later, floating in the Hudson River. Because of the notoriety Marie had become a national conversation piece for quite a while. Until the inquest, where her fiancé had committed suicide, leaving a remorseful note next to an empty bottle of poison. An unsolved mystery that still haunts New York.

This wonderfully atmospheric film is directed by Phil Rosen (The Crooked Road 1940, I Killed that Man 1941, Sidney Tolar/Chan films, Spooks Run Wild 1941 with Bela Lugosi) Patric Knowles play’s Poe’s detective Dr. Paul Dupin. Also part of the marvelous cast is the great Maria Ouspenskaya as Mme. Cecile Roget, John Litel as M. Henri Beauvais, Edward Norris as Marcel Vigneaux, Lloyd Corrigan as Prefect Gobelin, Nell O’Day as Camille Roget, Norma Drury Boleslavsky as Madame De Luc and Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon) as the zoo curator.

Patric Knowles as Paul Dupin and Lloyd Corrigan as Prefect Gobelin truly steal the show as their banter is marvelous and they succeed in playing a team of the straight man and the comic foil.

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Maria Montez with her black hair as shiny as a raven’s wing, the most sensual full shaped lips and creamy complexion Montez was considered The Reigning Queen of Technicolor in the 1940s A Diva on and off the set. She had a single minded professional drive and wouldn’t settle for anything less than being a star.

Peter Rubie who wrote Hispanics in Hollywood claims that the beauty from the Dominican Republic- Montez learned English by reading magazines and listening to American pop songs. After her short term marriage in 1939 she dumped her husband left for New York and decided to become a model. Creating an incredible wardrobe for herself and hiring several maids to keep up on her trousseau.

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She’d go out at night with her dazzling wardrobe flirting and flitting about at all the ‘in’ places to dine and dance, until a talent agent from RKO saw her and signed her. Later on Universal saw the screen test she made and they scooped her up with a better offer.

Montez arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1940 and started working on becoming a star….

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Maria Montez in Sirens of Atlantis (1949)

Universal could promote her easily because the camera loved her. They did these promotional stills of her. She was so sensational to photograph, and had a presence that just leaped off the page.

She was loaned out to 20th Century Fox to be in a film with Carmine Miranda, Don Ameche and Alice Fay called That Night In Rio 1941
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Though she was only in the film for less than a minute, LIFE magazine took so many photos of her, she could not become anything but a STAR….

Now about the suspense film where she plays a Parisian beauty who goes missing twice, the second time having been murdered. It’s called The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)

A slick Universal mystery with all the eerie trappings to attract the horror trade. “Who is the Phantom Mangler of Paris?

This is an effective Universal chiller, though a ‘B’ movie in the ranks, what elevates it to a higher level of macabre deliciousness isn’t just that it’s based on a Poe short story, but the means by which the murderer mutilates his victim’s faces is rather horrible and grotesque for the time period it was released. One could see sparks of competition with RKO’s master teller of chilling tales, Val Lewton due to it’s device of using a real leopard, i.e The Leopard Man (1943) Cat People (1942).

Even Mme. Cecile’s (Maria Ouspenskaya ) pet Leopard might be a suspect as the murderer in this mystery chiller.

In The Mystery of Marie Roget, the killer has a fetish for using a steel-claw as the murder weapon, which is how he destroys the women’s faces beyond recognition. It also might remind you classic horror fans of the underrated SHE-WOLF of LONDON (1946) starring June Lockhart.

Cinematographer Elwood Bredell Man Made Monster (1941) The Strange Case of Dr X (1942) Christmas Holiday 1944, Phantom Lady 1944, The Killers 1946 The Unsuspected 1947 Female Jungle 1956.

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MAN MADE MONSTER 1941

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The Strange Case of Dr X (1942)

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Robert Siodmak’s The Killers 1946

Murders in the Rue Morgue 1932

In Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932) Poe’s detective Dupin is played by actor Leon Ames. Reprising the role, his name is changed to Paul Dupin as the forensic expert in this film with actor Patric Knowles ( THE WOLF MAN 1942 & FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN 1943.)

Maria Ouspenskaya has more presence in this film than in The Wolf Man 1941,

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playing off the Prefect of Police’s Lloyd Corrigan as Gobelin, the gesticulating police chief, who’s marvelous facial expressions make for great comedic relief.

To capitalize on Montez’s growing popularity she became the Universal attraction in this mystery chiller, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short follow up to his Murders in the Rue Morgue. Montez receives star billing in the film’s opening credits!

Jacoby who adapted the screenplay also imbued the story with a bit more sensationalist pulp from the original tale, adding veritable Poe-esque elements of the macabre, also using ‘B’ movie red herrings necessary to throw us and Dupin off the scent of the truth.

When the story opens in the late 19th century Paris, we are thrown into the middle of the frenzy concerning the missing popular musical comedy star of Comédie Française -the beautiful Marie Roget.

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An real character reading the paper with her husband laughs- “Every man knows what sort of a woman she is, I’ll wager she has gone off with one of her sweethearts.”

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during the argument when Beauvasi threatens to have the prefect relieved of his commission.

Gobelin-“Believe me I haven’t slept for the past ten days, I have every gendarme in the city on the case now what more can I do? ”

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Henri Beauvais (John Litel), a friend of the Roget family is in the office of Police Prefect Gobelin (Lloyd Corrigan The Manchurian Candidate 1963, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 1963 ) who’s facial expressions are delightfully droll and add such great comedic relief to the dark and dreary mystery. Henri is harassing Gobelin to find Marie who has been missing for over ten days, that it is of the utmost importance.

Gobelin introduces chief medical officer Dr. Dupin to M. Henri Beauvais (John Litel) the minister of naval affairs, a very close friend of the Roget family.

Beauvais “ Dupin?… you had something to do with those murders in the rue morgue didn’t you?”
Gobelin say- “He practically solved those murders single handedly”
Beauvais barks- “Yes then why haven’t you done something about this Marie Roget case!?”

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Beauvais threatens both Gobelin and Dupin that they better solve it quickly
They are interrupted when comes in an reports that a woman’s body has been found floating in the river Seine at the wharf below the second bridge, believed to be Marie Roget… It has been mutilated beyond recognition as her face has been completely destroyed. “She has no face!”

Gobelin says-“Good Good Marie Roget You see we found her ! I told you we would”
Beauvais “Why are you so sure it’s Marie Roget?”
Dupin “ Why that’s easily decided Monsieur, You yourself can identify her.. will you come with us now?”

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‘Her face! (he winces) -Dupin “ Steady Monsieur can you identify the body?” Beauvais-“I don’t know… About the same size as Marie Roget, same shaped head and color hair.” Dupin “ Does it look familiar Monsieur?” He says “Yes, yes it must be she. But it has no face.”

Gobelin asks “Who could have done it Dupin?” Beauvais says it’s the “work of a fiend.”
Dupin answers… “Or a beast. It looks as if the face had been torn to a pulp by the claws of an animal.”

Gobelin and Dupin go to the Roget home to tell Madame Cecile the grandmother and Maire’s

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Mme Cecile Roget (Maria Ouspenskaya) is in her wheelchair feeding scraps to her pet leopard. Camille says “Oh Granny even if we heard anything definite.”

Mme Cecile “My child.. the police are doing everything possible to find your sister.

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Beauvais and Gobelin enter, Camille asks if they found Marie… He tells her that she must be brave. Granny Cecile says “Speak up. Where is she? Come come what have you found?”

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When he tells her that unfortunately there is nothing more they can do for her granddaughter. “We found her body in the river.”

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Camille doesn’t believe it… as Beauvais tries to calm her… suddenly who sweeps in like a gust of dressed up wind… But Marie Roget!

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sister Camille about the news, suddenly Marie Roget enters the house as lit up as a string of paper lanterns, acting as if nothing has happened. When they tell her that her disappearance has been a sensational news story and ask where she has been.

“The police found a body in the river that they thought was yours.”

Cecile “Marie where in heaven’s name have you been?” Camille is just happen she’s home, but Beauvais says she owes them an explanation. Gobelin tells her that she’s had the whole city in an uproar. Cecile hands her the paper.

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Marie remarks about the news headline and asks who Gobelin is- “What an awful picture of me… Who is the little man?”

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“Madamoiselle I happen to be the Prefect of Police” Marie “hhm how nice!”

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Granny Cecile insists on knowing where she’s been-“Oh Granny You too!”

Gobelin goes on that she doesn’t understand he must make a full explanation to the public
CapturFiles_1a“Oh you must, well I’ll explain to you. It is nobody’s business where I go, what I do… “
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Beauvais  tells him to consider the case closed. Granny Cecile says “You heard him… there’s no more need for the police monsieur. ”

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As Gobelin leaves Grandmother Cecile’s eopard growls he comically frightened asks “What’s that?”

“A leopard, what’s the matter with you! (Granny Cecile barks at him) …. Haven’t you ever seen a leopard before?”
Beauvais remarks “It’s perfectly harmless I assure you.”

Gobelin shaken mumbles to himself- “yes, of course.”

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Gobelin puffs on his cigar tells his clerk to file the case away, and Dupin comes in and tells him that the murderer did a thorough job. Gobelin says it’s the most curious case, “A woman without a face.” Dupin has different means of identification and he will not quit…

Gobelin also has a hunch that there’s a definite connection between the mutilated body and the Roget case.

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“Maybe it’s too fantastic to mention but you yourself said that the claws of an animal could have done it!” Dupin answers “Yes but I said could of I didn’t say did. What’s on your mind?”  “The Old Lady old Madame Roget! now there’s a queer customer. She’s eccentric. She’s a little bit twisted I think. She’s got scads of money and a yet she lives in an old fashioned house in the Latin quarter. And listen to this. She’s got a pet cat. (Dupin just sit quietly calmly listening to Gobelin as if he had lobsters crawling out of his ears- Gobelin leans in -) Only it’s a leopard!” Dupin remarks quizzically- “A Leopard?”

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“A full grown leopard” “That’s very interesting Gobelin but it’s a blind alley” Well I”m not so sure…” Dupin tells him… “ You can forget it!”
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Dupin walks out of his office… Gobelin still trying to talk to him, “I can, well wait..” Dupin slams the door on him…

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Camille (Nell O’Day) is sitting in the parlor with Marcel Vigneaux (Edward NorrisThey Won’t Forget 1937, The Man with Two Lives 1942, Decoy 1946 ) She’s telling him that she wants Marie to be the first to know of their engagement. Marcel wants to elope and surprise everyone. “But I’d have to tell Marie Marcel I’ve never had any secrets from her” “Well does she tell you everything?… Do you know where she’s been for the past ten days?”

“No, but it’s been the first time she hasn’t. For that matter you haven’t told me where you’ve been yourself for nearly two weeks” She pouts…

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Marie comes into the room, telling Camille that it’s nearly 8 O’ Clock and they’re going to be late. Then she notices Marcel… and acts happily surprised. Camille tells Marie that they are going to be married. She wishes them “all the happiness in the world” She says she will be late, then she turns and tells Camille that she forgot her purse. “Would you be an angel and get it for me” Marie walks Camille out thanks her touching her back gently then slams the door and turns around as if she were a python about to strike! “Our plans didn’t include you marrying Camille!” “I don’t intend to marry her. (the cad, the scoundrel) “Then why did you propose to her?”

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“Now take it easy Marie don’t let your temper spoil all our plans!”

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Just then Grandmother Cecile walks down the stairs with a cane in each hand. The shadow on the wall, could be a frame right out of a Val Lewton shadowplay film. She overhears the two arguing. Marie threatens to tell them everything. She doesn’t care if anyone hears…

“You’re not going to change my mind!” Marcel tells her “Don’t be a fool Marie” “A fool is what I’m not going to be. I won’t let you marry her. I’ll tell her everything. That you promised to marry me.

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“Are you going to let petty jealousy ruin all our plans?” “Our plans did not include you marrying Camille. I won’t let you. I won’t!” “ I have no intention of marrying her.” “Then why did you propose to her?” the scene cuts to Cecile behind the door listening to the couple conspire. Marcel tells her “It should be very obvious to you. It’s only to cover us. Who would possibly suspect me her fiance when she disappears tomorrow night can’t you see!” 

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“Marcel, darling you’re so clever! and I am stupid, you do love me don’t you?” “Nothing can ever change that if you’ll just believe in me.” “Then we’ll go through with our plans at the party. Once Camille is gone, we’ll have everything.” The two embrace. The scene cuts to Cecile who has now stumbled onto the nefarious plan to kill her other granddaughter.

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Marie’s half sister Camille’s fiancé, Marcel (Edward Norris), who is on the staff of the Navy is secretly having an affair with Marie. Marie is also toying around with a flirtation but non committal relationship with M. Henri Beauvais (John Litel), Marcel’s boss. Maria Ouspenskaya as the wonderfully crafty Cecile the grandmother overhears Marie’s plan to kill Camille before she turns the age of 21. And so she hires Dupin the grave robbing, brain extracting forensic scientist hero to keep a close eye on Camille when she goes to Marie’s welcome home party.

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Gobelin goes to Dupin’s lab where he has determined that the dead girl is English. “You see we are what we eat” They can consult with Scotland Yard….

He also decides that Gobelin might be right that there is a connection between the dead girl and the Roget case. He decides to work on the case unofficially even if the case has been closed. He’s working on a few angles. Dupin asked Gobelin to arrange for him to meet this Marie Roget. Since there’s a party given in her honor that night he will go. Then a gendarme brings a message for Dupin.

“My dear Dr Dupin it is imperative that you see me immediately. Do not waste time it is a matter of the utmost importance. You’ll come alone and at once”–Signed Madame Cecile Roget…”

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Dupin and Gobelin arrive at Mme. Cecile’s home-Elwood Bredell’s photography create street scenes that are set up like wonderful postcards.

“Exactly what is her relationship to Marie?”The grandmother” Dupin asks him to come along, and jokes that Gobelin is afraid of the pet cat… “I’m very fond of animals really, but it’s not so little really.”

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Madame Cecile tells Dupin that she made it clear she wanted to see him alone. He apologizes but Gobelin is his most trusted friend.

“Trusted friend my foot there’s no such animal” she wanted to avoid police men. She invites them to sit down. There is something she wants him to do. Then she barks at Gobelin. “Well why don’t you sit down” It’s hilarious how she bullies the poor Prefect as if he were a little boy being scolded.

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“And it’s worth fifty thousand francs”  “Well that’s quite a sum of money Madame” Gobelin says. She replies, “You keep out of this!”

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“I don’t believe I’d be interested in that sort of money Madame” but she tells him that’s all anyone is interested in… money. She will give Dupin fifty thousand francs to escort her granddaughter Camille to madame De Luc’s party given for Marie that night.

When dupin asks why she is having her granddaughter escorted in such a curious manner Mme Cecile tells him “I happened to know that she is going to be murdered tonight!… And I want you to prevent it” Gobelin says “Madame… do you know what you’re saying?” “Of course I know you fool and I don’t want any police notoriety about it!… Do you hear.”

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Dupin asks. “Why did you select me Madame?” “For your work on the Murders of the Rue Morgue… my memory’s even sharper than my ears” “Your ears then you heard something?” Gobelin asks. “That’s none of your business. I am speaking to Dr Dupin as a private individual and not as a member of your fine police department” She says sarcastically.

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“Madame… I have the honor of being the Prefect of Police!

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“Go have yourself stuffed!” Cecile says with audacity!

Gobelin asks how dos she know Camille is to be murdered tonight
“ let me remind you that this is no concern of yours” Dupin tells her. “In that case madame I’m afraid I can’t do as you ask.” “You’re not fooling me. You want to know what she is to be murdered? She comes into her grandfather’s fortune tomorrow… it’s better than a million and a half francs. Now do you see.” Gobelin ires her once again by asking who benefits by her death. She reprimands him once again, “Don’t ask me fool questions.” Gobelin finds it hard to believe that if Cecile suspects Camille to be murdered at Madame De Luc’s party why she’d let her go.

“Who cares what you believe. That’s why you’re nothing more than a gendarme” He looks offended again. His facial expressions of stupefied are very effective in the midst of the serious suspense melodrama. He rises to defend himself.

Dupin understands Cecile’s logic. That if an attempt on Camille’s life the party would be the logical time to try and catch the killer, before they try it again …

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Dupin asks. “I trust you don’t allow your little pet to roam the streets at night Madame?” “Certainly not, she’s never out of  my sight”

Gobelin comments that those claws are dangerous. Cecile acts curious as to what he is talking about but changes the subject and asks Dupin, why he’s not interested in earning fifty thousand francs. But then…

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Camille comes into the room. Granny Cecile introduces her to Dr Dupin. “You were saying Dupin?” “I was saying Madame that it would be indeed a pleasure” after he sees the beautiful Camille…

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Madame De Luc (Norma Drury Boleslavsky-Stage Door 1937, That Hamilton Woman 1941) is furious having to give a party for—“Making me the talk of all my friends… giving a party for that notorious creature, bringing her into her own home!” “But it’s business my new show’s a big hit thanks to her… She’s sensational, every man in Paris is interested in her.”  Madame De Luc “That’s just what I’m afraid of…”

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Beauvais meets Marie out on the terrace, longing for her attentions he jokes that he could send Marcel to Indochina for a year. “He’s nothing to me, it’s Camille he’s going to marry… they can have a honeymoon in China for all of me.”

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“Whom do you think you’re fooling… You know you once gave me to understanding… “ she interrupts him… “Oh you take everything so seriously” “And you never do” “I could make you very happy I could give you everything… won’t you reconsider?” She laughs at him… “Henri you’re a dear and I love you but let’s go in before you overwhelm me.”

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Inside Camille shows up with Gobelin and Dupin. Marie reprimands her “Camille what kept you?” The host Madame De Luc introduces Dupin to Marie Roget and Beauvais whom he met at the Prefect’s office earlier.

Then Marcel walks in and apologizes to Camille or being late. Marie says “Have you met the famous Dr. Dupin?” Montez looks exquisite in her Vera West gown and beautiful jewelry. Marcel compliments Dupin on his success with the murders in the rue morgue. Marie shoots a knowing look at Marcel. Then Marcel asks Marie to dance, and Dupin asks Camille. A waltz is playing.

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“What are the police doing here” “I wish I knew” “We can’t go on with our plans it’s too dangerous” “We’ll never get a better chance than this” “We’ll go through with our plans despite this”

Dupin is dancing with Camille there is an obvious chemistry between the two…

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Once they stop waltzing, Marcel takes Camille to get a drink and Marie asks Dupin out onto the terrace. “You know there’s something very mysterious about you. Very becoming too.”

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“Every woman is mysterious until the man marries her” “ It isn’t just any woman who creates a sensation just when she disappears and returns mysteriously as you did” “Is that an official inquiry monsieur?” “Oh no I didn’t mean it that way.” Marie gets angry and turns away from him… “Pleas I don’t wish to discuss it any further”

“She we drink to a mutual understanding and a lasting friendship?” he raise his glass.

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Marie is asked to sing one of her new songs.

As she is escorted off the terrace a phantom hand reaches up and puts something into both glasses, while Dupin has his back turned. But Gobelin rushes out to ask him of his impression of her. He tells him it’s too early to classify her yet. Then he notices that both glasses have been taken away by the same mysterious hand. Dupin asks where Camille is…

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“ There she is. I told you nothing would happen to her. That old lady was talking a lot of nonsense, you know she oughta to be in an asylum where she belongs, I mean it.”

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The orchestra begins to play… Marie is ready to entertain the party… She begins singing (over dubbed by the Dorothy Triden singing ‘Mama Dit Moi’ written by Everett Carter and Milton Rosen)
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Marcel is worried that the old lady found out, he’s concerned about Dupin being there as Camille’s body guard. Marie thinks it’s impossible that the old lady had found out about their plans “Oh you’re just making a mountain out of a mole hill, why don’t you just say you don’t want to go through with it” “ oh don’t be silly” “It would only take a few minutes after you get her out here… delivery is so near, it could look like an accident” “Yes, maybe the police being here is just what we need, we’ll do it under their very noses” “You know Marie, sometimes you’re very clever.”
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A strange set of gripping hands grab Marie’s neck.. she screams

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Dupin is out on the balcony when Gobelin tells him that it’s nearly midnight and they should be taking Camille home. First Dupin wants to smoke a cigar and offers him one… Marie smiles and begins to walk toward Dupin when a pair of hands reaches out of the brush and pulls her in… she screams.

Dupin and Gobelin react instantly! He runs into the house, and sees that Camille is perfectly safe talking with Madame De Luc -Gobelin tells Dupin that the scream came from the garden and points in that direction. It’s a fabulous noir shot. Dupin discovers Marie Roget’s purse. Gobelin goes back into the house looking for Marie and meets Madame De Luc. who tells him that she went into the garden the last time she saw her. “She’s a sort of an illusive sort the men tell me.”

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Dupin continues to search the garden and finds Marie’s scarf…

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Beauvais wants to take charge of the body. But Dupin hasn’t finished his examination.

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A couple int he street are reading the headlines… “Marie Roget is missing for the second time” “What do you suppose she’s up to” “that my lady is what the police would like to know”

Another body is fished out of the Seine. Gobelin exclaims “my goodness Dupin this one doesn’t have a face either!”

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In a twist, Marie not Camille once again disappears during the party and is found as the other body had been, floating in the Seine with her face mutilated. By modern standards of criminal psychology I would say it was not only a case of personal, overkill, it has everything to do with obliterating her identity as a way of demeaning her beauty. But for this 1942 film’s purpose, her face was smashed to a pulp… And I’m not spilling the beans why.

Mme. Ouspenskaya who has the pet leopard in the film had said that she loved all animals. They could see she was not afraid of the big cat. Though she appeared so vulnerable in her wheelchair, it was the rest of the crew who always looked worried.

The wonderful music is composed by Hans J. Salter and the spectacularly mesmerizing allure of Montez adds another layer of flamboyant mystique as she flits around in Vera West gowns…!

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The film is just around an hour long, and the sensual Montez is brought in to give her desirable appearance, though it may not count as a leading role, her presence adds the right seductiveness to the plot.

What we do come to learn is that Marie is considered a wicked woman. Dupin (Knowles) uncovers and becomes the judge of her character. As a forensic scientist he ghoulishly extracts her brain in the morgue to study it at lengths, which invokes the profane ideals of Frankenstein 1931. He announces that the lady had a twisted criminal mind… Dupin has no desire to resurrect the dead woman as did Henry Frankenstein, he merely aspires to understand the workings of the criminal brain. But it’s still a creepy passion…

What ever the truth, The Mystery of Marie Roget is an easy surrender to an hour, a nifty little programmer that uses Maria Montez’s aloof sensuality perfectly in the role of the missing/found/missing/murdered girl.

It would have been my wish to have had time to do a companion post to this one in tribute to the Hispanic Heritage Month Blogathon… by paying tribute to yet another sensually volcanic actress Lupe Vélez who terrorized poor Virginia Bruce in the ‘B’ chiller Kongo 1932!

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It’s no mystery gang, I’ll always be your everlovin’ MonsterGirl

When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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This is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy* Shadows and Satin & *Silver Screenings from April 20th – 26th 2014

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”– T.E. Lawrence

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”- Mark Twain

IT’S ALL IN THE EYES! -THE LEGACY OF GLORIA SWANSON/NORMA DESMOND & GLORIA HOLDEN/COUNTESS ZALESKA

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Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter

Are these wicked women? Do they exemplify the monstrous feminine? I dare say NO! They are sensual yet tragic figures!

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Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska is a victim of her bloodline (literally)–her father Dracula’s legacy, desperately seeking out redemption and’ release’ from the torture of her relentless desires. (lesbianism in the form of blood lust) And Gloria Swanson‘s enduring Norma Desmond an aging silent screen star pushed out by talkies-a victim of a punishing Hollywood institution that forces older women into self-delusion. Though her beauty did not fade, the praise and recognition has.

Both women are-literally immortal!

Ironically without realizing the connection there are two threads of synchronicity that revealed themselves after I decided to pair both Glorias. A) Both women have male servants who show a stoic undying co-dependent worship of their mistress and B) Hedda Hopper appears in both films….

“She gives you that weird feeling!” –tagline from Dracula’s Daughter

Two Glorias, two dynamic forces on screen- Written about endlessly, on the surface spider women, vamps and villainesses perhaps… but to the thoughtful observer and film fanatic like myself… they are sympathetic figures in a cruel world…

“Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.”- subtitle from one of Gloria/Norma’s silent films.

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First let’s begin with our ‘close-up’- on Gloria Swanson as the eternally mesmerizing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece! Norma is in actuality the one trapped in an orbit of ambivalence about her own primacy which ultimately devolves into a vulnerable, needy, discontented and brooding personality whose dependency upon men and (one opportunistic man in particular) is self-destructiveness turned outward.

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Written and directed by auteur Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity 1944, The Lost Weekend 1945, Ace in the Hole 1951, Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Some Like It Hot 1959, The Apartment 1960 which won for BEST PICTURE that year, beating out ELMER GANTRY!).

Considered the last motion picture in the film noir cannon. The first being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944  with his notoriously sexified femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson who’s got a great pair of gams showcasing that diamond ankle bracelet, dark sunglasses and Barbara Stanwyck’s cool exterior. And Wilder’s last noir Sunset Boulevard that unofficially marked the end of classical noir’s heyday. Sunset Boulevard truly pushing the conventions of noir to it’s limits.

Written for the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend ’45, Edge of Doom, ’50, Niagara ’53).

Music by Franz Waxman  (Magnificent Obsession ’35, The Invisible Ray ’36, A Day at the Races ’37, The Man Who Cried Wolf ’37, Gone With the Wind -uncredited, Humoresque ’46 I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Home Before Dark, there’s so much more– see IMDb profile). Waxman’s score is superb, from the exhilarating opening sequence that accompanies the flurry of police and newsreel camera trucks racing to the crime scene, the vibrant strings and strident horns that accentuate modernity to the more subtle poignant moments that underscore Norma’s internal agony.

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John Seitz is responsible for the evocative and quirky noir-esque cinematography (Sullivan’s Travels ‘4I, Double Indemnity ’44 , The Lost Weekend ’45).

The use of light in key frames showcases Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond who exults whenever she is either watching herself or is thrust into sudden illumination renders her as somehow lost. The use of shadows and oddly lit spaces evoke the sense of her tragic misconstruction of reality. 

Bruce Crowther on- Cinematographer Seitz who helped to define some of the memorable images of Sunset Boulevard“Rarely does full light intrude upon this movie… Seitz handles the often cluttered sets using lighting to direct the eye to each scene’s key areas. Even when light is used fully, as when Norma steps into the beam of her home movie projector or when a lighting technician at the studio turns the spotlight on her, it serves a dark purpose… Here it shows with appalling clarity the incipient madness that will eventually destroy Norma.”

Arthur P Schmidt, the film editor, died at age 52 (worked on Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot with Wilder).

Art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, fabulous mise-en-scéne by set designers  Sam Comer Ray Moyer who both worked on (Read Window 1954, Vertigo 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) Which arranges the landscape of Norma’s world with Art Deco style furnishing, elaborate candelabras, wrought iron scrolled staircases, tapestries and ornate lighting fixtures. Norma’s bedroom is something out of a Gothic fairytale with it’s superfluous ruffles and claustrophobic pageantry.

Wilder and his artistic design team create an atmosphere of decadence and decay. Using an ornate baroque visual style that puts emphasis on the surroundings which are careful set pieces of time-worn opulence. The scenes are filled with a cluttered and suffocating mise-en-scéne. Sunset Boulevard reveals the conflict of the old grandeur of the silent era with the hollow clamor of modernity, as a ‘clash of styles and eras.’

Once Joe walks in from the brightly lit Los Angeles hustle and bustle, the tone turns darker, as he steps inside the confines of the mansion crowded with the serpentine wrought iron staircase, large yet dim light fixtures and ancient looking columns that appear to be disintegrating in small scattered parts. Set against the crispness of Max’s white gloves and Norma’s black sateen lounging pajamas, it offsets the sense of a perishing house in an odd and creepy way. Again this is where noir meets horror by the elements combined in the visual style.

Most effectively is the central character of Norma Desmond who’s electrifying intensity and melodramatic flare projects an other-world style in contrast with the biting and cynical, dispassionate humor of the younger screenwriter from the age of talkies.

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According to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair many of the film’s props came from own Swanson’s home and scrapbooks. “One shot pans across the table covered with Swanson’s film stills, the photographs in old frames capturing her young face and heavily painted eyes.”

The portrait in Norma’s living room was painted by Geza Kende. Wilder also borrowed a film clip of “Norma” in her prime from a Swanson film Erich Von Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly 1929.

From Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen- he cites Amir Karimi in Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir as the true period of noir beginning with Wilder’s Double Indemnity and ending with the same directors Sunset Boulevard 1950. He goes on to say that Wilder’s noir drama’s contain “the biting social comment, the stinging disapproval of the American way” Sunset Boulevard “transfers noir psychology to a novel setting, the decaying mansion of a once-grand film star. Wilder’s portrait of the megalomaniacal Norma Desmond is etched in acid; she is the embodiment of Hollywood’s rotting foundations, its terminal narcissism, it’s isolation from reality.”

Norma’s sensational costumes were created by prolific designer Edith Head who resurrected Swanson’s silent era look, the exotic and exaggerated costumes and fashions of an ex-screen Goddess, which point back toward Swanson’s past. She wears a hat, adorned with a peacock feather in the scene where she is reunited with Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visual homage to a headdress she wore in Male and Female 1919 one of the first films he directed her in.

The silent movie queen Norma Talmadge is reportedly “the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen” Dave Kehr,An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents”, New York Times, 11 March 2010.

Sunset Boulevard could not have been cast with anyone better than the dynamic and grande actress who in 1919 was signed to a contract by Cecil B. DeMille. With this, her come-back role Gloria Swanson ignites the screen with her eponymous Norma Desmond -star of the silent screen -Norma Desmond, the tragic central satellite of the story who herself is dreaming of a comeback. Swanson’s performance is as much transfixing as it is exquisite.

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The intoxicating beauty of Gloria Swanson from the silent era

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Swanson herself was a very hard working actress in 1910s and 1920s with Mack Sennett before joining Paramount studios. She started her own production company in the mid ’20s but only made a few talkies in the 1930s. She made six silent films with Cecil B. DeMille.

As Leo Braudy says in his insightful book- The World in a Frame: What We See– Aesthetically, Swanson faces into the film as the fictional character Norma Desmond and faces outward toward us as the star. He calls her role a ‘meditation’ on her screen image and the relationship between the old world of silent films and the new world of 1950s Hollywood. He refers to the other actors who were her contemporaries playing themselves as ’embalmed’ with her in the past, losing their relevance to the audience and ultimately their power.

Billy Wilder’s film is as James Naremore says in his book More Than Night- Film Noir in its Contents- is an “iconoclastic satire” and “a savage critique of modernity.” Much like Aldrich’s The Big Knife it is a condemnation of Hollywood in the cycle of films released in the 1950s, also notable The Bad and The Beautiful 1952. Naremore points out these films coincided with the blacklist, and the decline of studio owned theater chains summoning the end of an era. Norma’s character is a casualty of changing times.

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Co-starring as the ill-fated gutless unemployed screenwriter who becomes Norma’s gigolo, is smooth and sexy William Holden as Joe Gillis. Erich Von Stroheim plays Norma’s devoted butler and ex-hubby Max Von Mayerling. Erich Von Stroheim who had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly ’29 is perfectly suited to play her servant/ex-husband/devotee.

The film also co-stars Nancy Olson (Union Station 1950) as Betty Schaefer, Fred Clark as Sheldrake, Lloyd Gough as Morino, Jack Webb as Artie Green, Franklyn Farnum as the undertaker, and special appearances as themselves, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and composers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.

The film is a Gothic, poetic nightmare in noir that so often evinces a sympathetic lens toward the forgotten characters who engage the audience like apparitions of another time in Hollywood. The unorthodox narrative that embraces a vividly unstable noir identity that dwells within the constructs of an American life, pushing the limits of social and sexual convention to a dark place of obsession and excess. Although Wilder scripted this as a black comedy, the noir stylization that had by now ran through it’s re-occurring patterns still manages to create the incessant mood of bleak cynicism and a distant vulgarity.

Bruce Crowthers Reflections in a Dark Mirror- ”Of the other German emigres who worked in Hollywood the most significant contributor to the film noir is Billy Wilder, whose Ace in the Hole perhaps the most cynical movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Double Indemnity with it’s mesmerizing manipulative spider-woman and Sunset Blvd with it’s atmosphere of brooding baroque insanity are classics of the genre.”

“Wilder introduces a creepy atmosphere of eccentric ruin that’s strange and destroys lives, yet hypnotically alluring and seductive from a lost indulgent age.”Alain Silver & James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir-The Directors

Wilder wanted stark reality and realism to pierce the veil of illusion and fantasy that was the dream factory of Hollywood 1950s. He portrays a corrupt landscape of used-up people, conniving agents, writers hustling to get their scripts sold, and the loneliness and alienation that permeates a world of broken dreams and perpetual struggle. Andrew Dickos in Street With No Name calls Wilder’s noir films “visions are steeped in cruel and corrosive humor, distinctive in its own right and its ability to function apart from the noir universe.”

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In this provocative masterpiece Billy Wilder masterfully evokes a shudder in us, “by emphasizing it’s verisimilitude, though, Wilder reveals the hidden truths of the world’s cruelest company town- from the isolation of forgotten celebrities to the crass efficiency of producers. Not only a thrilling and strange piece of entertainment, the film also is an indictment of Hollywood.” –Kashner & MacNair

Louis B Mayer, at a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, was furious with Wilder for his cruel portrayal of the industry that supported him. At the party before the various celebrities, he reproached him, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Wilder kept the script hush hush using the innocuous code title A Can of BeansWilder and Brackett fearing that Hollywood would respond negatively to their damning portrayal of Hollywood.

He offers us the very typified archetypes of classical noir with his doomed anti-hero, the dangerous femme fatale, and the good girl redeemer. Also present are the familiar themes of entrapment, claustrophobia, instability, corruption, flawed character, psychological crime melodrama and even the police procedural with it’s thrilling opening sequence as the newsreel camera’s and police cars, their sirens blaring, tear up the streets as they speed toward the murder scene.

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The inimitable Mae West turned down the part of Norma Desmond

Originally Billy Wilder wanted the legendary & incomparably sexy and suggestive writer/actress Mae West to play Norma. West declined because she found the story to be ‘too dark’. She also didn’t want a film that portrayed the relationship between an older woman and younger man that reflected itself as hideous. The two approached Greta Garbo who also declined the offer. Wilder also approached Mary Pickford who was appalled by the offer, they had to apologize to her. It was George Cukor who suggested Gloria SwansonWilder asked Gloria Swanson to screen test for the part in 1949 and she almost said no. She had worked with Wilder who had adapted the screenplay for her film Music in the Air 1934. Norma is a larger-than-life film character though an exaggeration of reality considering Swanson wasn’t ancient she was only fifty at the time!

Wilder had contracted Montgomery Clift to play Joe Gillis. Clift left the picture finding it too uncomfortably close to his own life, because of the younger man relationship- he allegedly had an affair with Libby Holman a popular singer of the 20’s whose career was ruined by scandal surrounding the shooting death of her husband. Clift had spent time with Holman who also lived in a sprawling mansion much like Norma’s. Wilder worried that the age difference between Swanson and Holden wasn’t big enough, Swanson was fifty and Holden was thirty one. Wilder hadn’t been impressed with some of Holden’s more mediocre films of the ’40s, even though he had starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) with co-star Barbara Stanwyck. Sunset Boulevard made William Holden’s career. While I find Joe Gillis to be a dismissive smarmy ass who sort of had it coming to him, in this picture, I let it be know that I’m a huge fan of William Holden!- he did a superb job of playing it cagey, opportunistic and sarcastic as hell.

Wilder mirrors Joe Gillis’ from his own start as a shaky Hollywood writer having moved from Germany to America after Hitler’s rise to power, He used to be a ‘taxi dancer’ who would dance with any unattached older women who were willing to pay for his services.

One of the most iconic scenes from Sunset Boulevard, aside from the film’s fever dream climax where Norma descends the grand staircase, plunging into her gathering madness, is the scene that illustrates the withering passage of a lost era. The three fading silent film stars play bridge in the parlor of Norma’s decaying Gothic mausoleum. During the scene with the old stars playing bridge, the collectors come and take Joe’s car away, the only passport to freedom he has.

‘The wax works’ cracks wise, struggling snarky screen writer Joe Gillis, referring to Norma’s bridge party guests. Wilder envisioned this scene as purposefully macabre or as Kashner and MacNair call it “ghastly.” To see figures gathered around the table, as the sequence unfolds, it is revealed that these actors are actually playing themselves. Silent screen actress Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner who had played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 picture The King of Kings. And Legendary actor of silent cinema Buster Keaton is there too. Kashner and MacNair describe “his features ravaged by alcohol abuse.” Even Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in a way is paying tribute to herself recalling the bridge game in the parlor scene- “Came close to giving us all the creeps.”

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Like the bridge guests DeMille plays himself with scenes shot on the real set of his 1949 motion picture Samson and Delilah. Erich Von Stroheim himself a once great director, Wilder uses him poignantly as Max who mourns his former life. Wilder touching on the fact that Stroheim in real life had a rough time with his career often going over budget and ultimately making box office flops.

As I’ve pointed out here in this piece for The Great Villain Blogathon, I am using Norma Desmond to argue that she isn’t the psychotic spider woman or villainess that she’s been referred to, and that the film neither makes fun of her, yet creates a sense of sympathetic apology to this grande dame mostly revealing her as quite a tragic figure. I neither see her as washed up nor grotesque, but a beautifully powerful women possessed of intensity. She is the one who is ‘trapped’ in the web of an unforgiving culture that demonizes women for their sexual primacy. Norma is possessed of desire. The desire to still be adored. The desire to make a ‘return’ to motion pictures. The desire to be loved as a great star. The desire to be loved by Joe.

It’s Joe Gillis that is not a very likable guy, who is uncaring, weak, too shallow and powerless. Let’s face it he’s a self-acknowledged heel. Ironically, sadly it is Norma’s story that is being told through this guys voice and perspective yet another way that her character is silenced, her personae distorted and perverted through the male gaze.

Once again Silver & Ward point out eloquently-

“Norma herself as portrayed by Gloria Swanson is a tragic figure. imbued by Wilder with powerful romantic presence… A woman obsessed, she clings to her vision with a tenacity that must ultimately be granted a grudging admiration and she is the only character in the film with the possible exception of Erich Von Stroheim’s fanatically loyal Max, who inspires genuine sympathy. Watching herself on screen in an old movie, she leaps into the projector’s murderous blast of light and cries, ‘They don’t make faces like that anymore!’ It is difficult for the viewer to favor Joe’s cynicism over her fervor, however misguided or self-centered it may be…”

THERE’S A MONSTROUS FEMALE IN OUR MIDST- SOME CHARACTERIZATIONS OF NORMA:

sunset-boulevard

From The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 1950’s by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair-Chapter- The Waxworks: Mae West, Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard which opens with-
 “Hollywood has never been kind to older actresses…”

Here are just a few of the negative & unwarranted cursory examinations of Norma Desmond’s persona, put here -not because I agree, but to point out how cruel & misguided critics have been.

David Kehr of the New York Times refers to Norma as “predatory and grotesque.”

Alain Silver and James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir- The Directors– refer to Norma as “delusional eccentric, past her prime.” and a “washed up misfit.” “femme fatale who embodies unstable noir psychosis.”

Foster Hirsch spells it out like this,  “Her fate was monstrous” calling her the “ultimate spider woman hibernating behind closed shutters in a swoon of alcohol and self-deception…{…} her loss of fame and fading beauty turn her into a psychopathic recluse.”

Hedda Hopper describes Norma descending the great staircase at the climax of Sunset Boulevard as her being in- “ a state of complete mental shock!”

Bruce Crowther-Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror actually uses the word ‘demonic’ he says “Yet, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), she succeeded in bringing to demonic life Norma Desmond, an old-time movie star who is on the most grotesque of all femme fatales.”

Janet Place chapter The Spider Woman from Women in Film Noir“with her claw-like hands.”

Actress Mae Murray a contemporary of Swanson’s, was offended by the film and commented, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”

Forster Hirsch calls her -“megalomaniacal.”

John McCarthy- Movie Psychos and Madmen calls her “a monster”

Marjorie Rosen (Popcorn Venus 1973) & Molly Haskell ( From Reverence to Rape 1974) –“a despairingly lonely serpent…” whose predicament is “reduced and trivialized because the source of her misery is merely growing old”cited by Brandon French, who feels they miss the point by merely reducing Norma to a victim of Wilder’s satire.

Brandon French -On the Verge of Revolt- “these fictional villainesses unable to discover-or accept-an autonomous creative expression of their power are made monsters by it, to one degree or another…{…} Her ludicrous existence as a middle-aged child.” 

From Chapter –Women in Film Noir– by Janet Place- The Spider Woman

In discussing the powerful returning motifs and patterns in film noir, Place talks about the dangerous power of the sexual woman, and how it is visually expressed. She states,

“Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates him, she is presented as caught by the same false value system. The huge house in which she controls camera movement and is constantly center frame is also a hideous trap which requires from her the maintenance of the myth of stardom;the contradiction between the reality and the myth pull apart and finally drive her mad.”

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A caption that goes with the photo of Norma with head scarf and dark glasses smoking a cigarette “emphasizes the perverse, decaying side of film noir sexuality, with her claw-like hands, dark glasses and bizarre cigarette holder.”

She goes on to add that these ‘visual cues’ are a characteristic iconography of the “dangerously explicitly sexual and often violent noir female.” Using signals like cigarettes and their trails of wispy smoke are linked with immoral feminine sensuality and the forces of darkness. The specific use of heavily defined make-up, eyebrow pencil and full contoured lips, the dark glasses etc. Even the animal print that Norma wears. The power of these particular women is expressed in the visual style by “their dominance in composition, camera movement and how they are lit.”

From Mary Beth Haralovich– Chapter-Movies and Landscapes in-American Cinema of the 1950s Themes and Variations edited by Murray Pomerance“A character’s mental landscape is written on the mise-en-scéne in the film, the bodies of the actors and in their subjective visions, in their responses to settings that give them solace and to settings that they fear.”
As Joe Gillis comments to Betty Schaefer in Sunset Blvd“Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.”

In fact like the silent cinema which was once her world, Norma is a ghost there, an empty shadow of the past. Now Norma is in a lonely place because the industry that once supported her has forgotten her completely.
“Sunset Boulevard is cast with doppelgangers, fictional counterparts of actual Hollywood players, Paramount’s actual silent star Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, “Paramount’s Silent Star” Like Norma, Swanson’s screen career did not transfer over to sound films until her remarkable performance in the Sunset Boulevard.

One issue that is suggestive of lensing Norma as a monstrous female is the prevailing mood of ‘male anxiety.’ Centered around not only her age, (for crying out loud she was only 50), but threatening was also her vivid sexual impulses and desires.

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Mary Beth Haralovich points to critic Sarah Street “Sunset Blvd. describes the overwhelming male anxiety about age, morality and career” -from her Mad About the Boy”; Masculinity and Career in Sunset Boulevard 1995

Haralovich points out that in Sunset Boulevard Joe works well with Betty at the studio -it’s a space where creativity can flourish, after hours and is a collaborative effort with Betty for the screenplay first entitled Dark Windows but the new draft is called Untitled Love Story. It shows that energetic youth is taking over the staid and faded ways of the old world.

I defer to Brandon French once again because of his insight and compassionate stance on the character of Norma Desmond, as I also see her. He writes, “In numerous films of the fifties such as All About Eve (1950) The African Queen (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1956) and Autumn Leaves (1956) middle aged women are shown to be sexually attractive. What renders Norma less than desirable is her neurosis not her age.”

So you could argue that Wilder’s film is not only a condemnation of the failed system of Hollywood but also how it marginalizes it’s older stars, more specifically women. As French puts it, “a protest against Hollywood’s institutional policy of human discard, Wilder put the spotlight on Swanson.”

Gloria Swanson beautiful

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The film showcases society’s anxiety about sexual women especially those who have aged out of their place of ‘desirability.’ It’s this repulsion against older women that turns them into screen ‘monsters.’ It only follows that Norma would fall into an orbit of madness, when she had once flourished in an industry that co-nurtures narcissism, then punishes their women stars when they no longer have the advantage of claiming that egotism as an earned right. These stars are primed to be egotistical and then damned for it once they no longer serve a purpose for the industry cronies who make pictures.

Again, it invokes, Bette Davis’ performance of Baby Jane Hudson and her self-delusion caused by years of growing neglect and the cruel reversal of attentions that were once foisted on her. These accolades taken away, creating  stars that are relics left in a lonely place. Perhaps Wilder’s script did not make his import obvious or more compassionate through the narrative which would more easily coax the audiences sympathies and not necessarily gear them toward repulsion of the central tragic figure that is Norma Desmond. 

Norma Desmond was the prototype for the Grande Dame Guignol films that were to follow… of course the actresses would be faced with the same dilemma– of being given a script that would challenge them not to be type cast or appear monstrous.

It is then up to us to redeem Norma ourselves and see her as the victim and not the ultimate noir spider woman, psychopathic megalomaniac, deranged and deluded horror movie queen.

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The story should work in a way that sheds light on the anxiety surrounding women who aren’t in their twenties or thirties, not framing the narrative or focusing the visual cues on their age as if they are uncanny and dangerous. To tell the story of alienation and madness yes but lens it in a way that doesn’t promote revulsion of the older woman’s sexuality and power. A beauty standard where women can’t grow older and be beautiful at the same time. As people describe Norma as ‘grotesque’ All I see is a very beautiful lonely woman who is yes, filled with a growing delusion. Norma’s misguided fervor is only fueled by her co-dependent side-kick Max as he shelters her from the truth instead of helping her gain awareness through his companionship.

“The attention that Norma Desmond pays to herself, as opposed to the man, is the obvious narrative transgression of Sunset Boulevard.” -Haralovich

Not that Hollywood hasn’t created narcissism in their stars, or that it’s truly a crime for a woman to value herself above all else. Norma gazes at her own reflection in mirrors and in her old motion pictures. As Writer Place points out that the narcissistic independence that the femme fatale seeks is ‘fundamentally and irredeemably sexual’ in noir. Combined with both aggressiveness and sensuality, the dangerous woman becomes the central ‘obsessive’ focus of the narrative. She represents the man’s own sexual freedom, which she must control, repress or ultimately destroy him.

Norma insists on Joe participating in her life rather than being interested in his life. He dreams he is her pet chimp and he actually does become her victim. The victim of Salomé-

From Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt-Women in American Films in the Fifties- Chapter 1 The Scarlet “A” Sunset Boulevard (1950) “Sunset Boulevard is a film about ambition and what it allegedly does to the human spirit…{…} On the other hand we harbor a gloomy suspicion that ambition corrodes the soul. America’s negative attitude toward ambition had a critical influence on the transitional woman of the fifties. An Ambitious woman not merely violated the domestic female image; she became a receptacle for America’s most distorted fantasy projections about ambition; a soulless monster of selfish manipulation without moral restraint.”

This was the type of female who film noir had manifested during the forties and fifties. French so aptly points out that ambition is ‘as deadly as the scarlet “A” that is born of our puritan consciousness’. Sunset Boulevard is a perfect example of how a woman who has more drive and ambition, even more than Joe Gillis, evokes an image of her as a “fallen Eve seducing Adam into sin.”

In Sunset Boulevard French views as do I, Billy Wilder’s depiction of Norma as not a typically “just plain rotten” noir villainess. The film yields a thoughtful perspective on the ambivalence of what French calls ‘the transitional woman in the fifties.” Because Wilder complicates the issue of the typified noir evil predatory woman, misunderstood trapped man, innocent ingenue redeemer. Norma is therefore much more nuanced than a sad tragic figure.

Another sentient point that goes to the entire source of Norma’s ambivalence and state of mind begs the question… who’s responsible for her state? DeMille who doesn’t take any culpability for his own contribution to Norma’s decline-blames the press agents who worked overtime focusing on Norma, creating her goddess like megalomania. Demille does not come to Norma’s rescue and help her ‘return’.

Sunset Boulevard Norma and de Mille

DeMille fondly recalls Norma’s talent in terms of her as “a lovely little girl of seventeen.” But unlike ‘men’ in the film industry who don’t have to qualify themselves by their age and appearance, they don’t have to suffer the effects of a punishing system of skin-deep values. Also it’s this atmosphere that nurtures and places value on youth and the function of beauty that have given rise to a Norma with an arrested development, living in the past obsessed with her ‘self.’

His girlfriend Betty types while he dictates the script they try to write together. Joe loves that Betty smells like a brand new car or freshly laundered handkerchiefs, and not tuberoses. Betty is ambitious too, she dreams of his career and is content to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. “Self-interest, over devotion to a man is the original sin of the film noir woman.”Haralovich

In John McCarthy’s Movie Psychos and Madmen- Chapter- The Female Psycho, McCarthy talks about Gloria Swanson’s faded movie queen in Billy Wilder’s biting attack on Hollywood. He frames Norma as trapped by her delusions-“the delusion that her glamour has not yet faded.”

I disagree. I think that Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond is STILL glamorous. Perhaps led by the majority who have profiled her as a has been beauty queen and here again, the value judgement has been sworn against her, not just as a character trapped by self-delusion and that her career has ended, but that her desirability is an illusion as well…

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Gloria Swanson is beautiful as ever as silent movie queen Norma Desmond

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Given the immense narcissism which goes along with Hollywood, Swanson  in my opinion does not look like a caricature of her former self nor is she Norma Desmond’s doppelganger. To me… she just looks a little older but still quite sensual and beautiful as ever!

I suppose due to the visual cues by director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz Norma is presented or we are made to believe that she is grotesque like Bette Davis’ Baby Jane whose make up, hairstyle and mannerism truly were an exaggeration of a farcical youth that Davis purposefully plays as campy in order to illustrate her detachment from reality and the attachment to a past life that doesn’t translate well in the modernity of Los Angeles in the 60s. Aldrich’s film pushed the boundaries of convention even further by implementing an even more claustrophobic universe in conflict with the outside world, that engenders madness.

It was a combination of fate and opportunity-

Though Norma has been referred to as having snared Joe in her web. She didn’t go out and set a trap for him, he wandered into her world, she didn’t force him to stay, he stayed because he saw ‘a cozy set up’. and money in it for him, he was hiding and was morbidly curious about the ex-screen Goddess as if he saw her as a side show freak… if the house was a web, he put his own foot on the silk chord and set off the tremor that signaled the spider to pounce. Joe even remarks via voice-over while he’s being led up to his room over the garage, “I dropped the bait, and she snapped at it…”

It’s a tragedy of psychological entrapment and neurotic purgatory that she desires to be loved for herself by the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis whom she has turned into her kept man. Tragic that she believes her fans continue to remember and write to her, and finally that the Hollywood she helped build is still anxiously awaiting her return. McCarthy says “unlike the use of her trap of delusion as a vehicle for comedy as in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) about two dotty women… Norma’s psychological entrapment is a tragedy.”

That Norma’s entrapment is as real and not just that of Joe Gillis’ is a tragedy, I would entirely agree. But McCarthy continues by calling her a ‘monster.’ And yes through the lens of Grande Dame Guignol cinema of which Sunset Boulevard appears to be seedling the screen for the sub-genre, with the decaying mansion and dreary atmosphere, and the theme of ‘the monstrous feminine’ Norma has been perceived and written about as having evolving into a monster. Though I’ll never see her that way.

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And I dare say she did not create this transmogrification herself. She was created by Hollywood, the fictionalized concept that Wilder attacks and by the actualization of the character by Wilder who framed her that way. As a result of her delusion, much like Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson– her madness leads to murder. As McCarthy says, “broken dreams leading to a broken mind” He brings up one good point. That Sunset Boulevard could almost be a horror movie/film noir hybrid. Much like Aldrich’s similar rebuke of Hollywood with his seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it is a psycho-sexual thriller that breaks apart conventional narratives. And much like Norma Desmond, I will never see Bette Davis’ role as Jane Hudson through the lens of the monstrous. They will always be sympathetic figures to me.

Plot

“A Hollywood Story… This is it … the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy … love and ambition … told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.”

Told in flashback by a dead man-set against the blaring sirens of racing police cars to the crime scene, the film opens with police cars speeding down Sunset Boulevard. They’ve been called to a mansion where the body of a man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating face down on the surface of the swimming pool with his eyes wide open-(camera used a mirror underneath to catch Holden’s face from underneath). The dead man begins to narrate the story of what led to his death in flashback noir style. This is truly a spin on the term, “ghost-writer.”

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“Yes, this is Sunset Blvd… the homicide squad complete with detectives and newspaper men. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses… You’ll read all about it in the late editions… You’ll get it over your radio, and see it on television because an old-time star is involved, one of the biggest. But before your hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth… If so you’ve come to the right party.”

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Repo Man-“There’s gonna be fireworks” Joe Gillis- “You Say the cutest things!”

It leads us back- Six months earlier. Joe Gillis is an out of work screenwriter with only a few B-movies to his credit. He tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) to buy one of his scripts, but reader Betty Schaefer (Olson) administers a harsh critique not realizing that Joe can hear her. Carrying a folder of papers, she puts them on Sheldrake’s desk not noticing Joe Gillis standing by the door. Referring to Joe’s script Sheldrake-“What’s wrong with it?” Betty- “It’s from hunger… just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Sheldrake-“I’m sure you’ll be glad to met Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.”

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Betty is embarrassed, she would like to ‘crawl into a hole and pull it in after her.’ She says to Joe, “I’m sorry, Mr.Gillis but I just don’t think it’s any good. I find it flat and banal.” He asks “Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoyevsky?” She tells him, “I just think pictures should say a little something.” Gillis“Oh, you’re one of those message kids. Just a story won’t do. You’d have turned down Gone With the Wind.”

First Joe is typing at his apartment when two collectors show up looking to repossess his car. He manages to elude them once but they spot him on the street at a traffic light. Gillis spots the men who are going to repossess his 1946 Plymouth convertible while sitting at an intersection. They begin chasing him and he gets a blow out.

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the car hidden behind Rudy’s Shoeshine Joe comments about Rudy-“he’d just look at your heels and know the score”

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Trying to hide out Joe turns onto a Sunset Boulevard driveway and stumbles onto an old garage crumbling by the side of a gloomy yet grandiose deteriorating, dying mansion with a little formal garden all gone to seed.

“If ever there was a place to stash away a limping car with a hot license plate.”

When Joe starts his monologue describing Norma’s house, it’s as if he is giving us a portent, describing Norma’s state of mind as the mansion is an extension of her projected identity.

Gillis’ voice-over “It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations –that Miss Haversham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go by”

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Suddenly he hears, “You there!… why are you so late!”

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The ever brooding Max

Living in this opulent ruin, is the reclusive and long forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. She alone inhabits this fading estate with her faithful butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who also happens to be her ex-husband, who was once a great director and plays a wheezing organ. Both lost relics of a bygone era. The interior shots of the grand hall, great staircase, Norma’s ‘waxwork’s’ parlor, her bedroom and the Gothic baroque style mansion in general evoke an atmosphere of bleak desolation and mystification.

The great hall is grandiose and grim, described in the script as exhibiting portieres that are drawn before all the windows, and “only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs which are always burning.”

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As Norma Desmond first makes her entrance she stands like a ghostly figure down the corridor in front of a doorway that allows the intrusion of a flickering light. She is small in stature, yet she exudes an electrifying presence, wearing black house pajamas and high heeled pumps. Like many femme fatales she wears dark glasses, a scarf and turban patterned in leopard print.

The undercurrent is gloomy and dust covered. The room is hung with white brocade which is tattered in places and has become mucky from years of neglect. Sam Comer and Ray Moyer’s set design fits the mood perfectly as the scene also showcases a great unmade gilded bed, the gold peeling off as to symbolize Norma’s decomposing love life. The curious set piece is in the shape of a swan.

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The gondola bed in her boudoir is ornately carved with cherubs that Norma sleeps in was actually owned by dancer Gaby Deslys who died in 1920. It had belonged to Universal’s prop department who bought it after Desly’s death. It appears in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Joe in one of his voice-overs describes it as a gilded row boat. “The perfect setting for a silent movie queen. Poor devil still waving proudly to a parade which has long since passed her by.”

All these little details just add to the sense of realism built into the visual narrative with its accoutrements of Hollywood’s “world of illusion.” Clothes and negligees strewn about the room, which is graced with photographs of fading stars of yesterday. There’s a baroque style fireplace book ended by two ornate candelabras. Set out like an Egyptian prince on her massage table is the shrouded monkey in repose under a shawl.

Norma begins to direct Gillis believing him to be the undertaker (Franklin Farnum) from the funeral home. Joe plays along with a morbid fascination. She tells him,  “I’ve made up my mind we’ll bury him in the garden. Any city laws against that?” Joe says, “I wouldn’t know” Norma continues, “I don’t care anyway. I want the coffin to be white. And I want it specially lined with satin. White, or deep pink.”

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When she picks up the shawl, a small stiff arm falls out. Joe is a little stunned by the tiny hairy arm. “Maybe red. Bright flaming red. Gay. Let’s make it gay.”      

When Joe looks closer at the small body under the shawl he sees the very pitiful, bearded face of a dead chimpanzee. It’s a startling scene, odd and curious. Norma seems to have made her little friend almost a surrogate child.

Joe says to her, “I know your face. You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Norma replies with a stately languor, “I am big… it’s the pictures that got small…”

Gillis in his smug manner, “I knew there was something wrong with them.”

Norma begins her brusque tirade “They’re dead. They’re finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Joe Gillis quips, “That’s where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.”

Norma chastising- “Look at them in the front offices — the master minds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbanks and the Chaplins and the Gilberts and the Valentinos. And who have they got now? Some nobodies….”

Joe Gillis- “Don’t get sore at me. I’m not an executive. I’m just a writer.”

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Norma- “You are! Writing words, words! You’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business! But there is a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue!”
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Joe- “Ssh! You’ll wake up that monkey.”

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Norma yells- “Get out!” as Gillis starts down the stairs, he answers her, “Next time I’ll bring my autograph album along or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprints.” Halfway down the stairs she stops him, “Just a minute you!”

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Joe-“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback”
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“I hate that word!” (clenched teeth)
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“A return… to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen”
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“Salomé” (Norma whispers to herself)

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She is drawn to Joe, and offers him a job helping her prepare the script for her ‘return’ (she hates the word ‘comeback’) in the film Salomé.

Norma tells Joe, “It’s the story of Salomé I think I’ll have DeMille direct it” Joe humors her. “We’ve made a lot of pictures together.” Joe asks, “And you’ll play Salomé?” “Who else?” “Only asking, I didn’t know you were planning a comeback” “I hate that word… It is a ‘return.’ A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen!… Salomé, what a woman! What a part! The princess in love with a Holy man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.”

Max wheels in a tea wagon with Champagne and caviar. Norma sits in her chair smoking from her curious cigarette holder that is a gold ring with a clip. She dumps another batch of pages from the script on Joe.

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Joe “It was a cozy set up”
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“That bundle of nerves Max… that dead monkey upstairs and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while”

“Well- I had no pressing engagement and she’d mentioned something to drink… Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be. This promised to go to the limit. I wondered what a handwriting expert would make of that childish scrawl of hers. Max wheeled in some champagne and some caviar. Later I found out that Max was the only other person in that Grim Sunset Castle, and I found out a few other things about him… As for her she sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette clamped in a curious holder… I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me in her own proud way to like it. It meant so much to her.”

Joe admits- “The place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion… I knew there was something wrong… it sure was a cozy set-up.”

He dismissively mocks her when she tells him that she’ll have DeMille direct, and that she will play the part of Salomé.

“Salome… what a woman what a part. The princess in love with a Holy man She dances the dance of the seven veils. He rejects her and she demands his head on a golden tray… Kissing his cold dead lips”

Okay perhaps there’s a hint of Norma having a little pent up rage toward men… Still, she’s adorable!

Seeing that Joe is broke and a bit of a schemer, he accepts the job and moves into the guest room over the garage. Joe is weak-willed, gutless and a cynic who wields mocking witticisms at every turn. And soon he becomes Norma’s lover, a kept man, a gigolo.

The undertaker arrives with the tiny coffin… Max greets him at the door and leads him up the long winding staircase.

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CapturFiles_34 Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own
Joe’s voice over-“Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own”
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Joe tells Norma-“Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue”
CapturFiles_37 Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue what for I can say anything I want with my eyes
“What for I can say anything I want with my eyes!”
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“You know I’m pretty expensive”

Wilder visually suggests how Joe is being drawn into Norma’s world at first when he goes to his room above the garage, the camera focuses on the gnarled dead branches that invade the space as he climbs the dark stairs to his room. Joe is too smug in his new cozy set-up, having no clue of the dangerous path he’s about to embark on.

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“So I let him (Max) unpack my things. I wanted the dough, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I thought if I really got going, I could toss it off in a couple of weeks. But it wasn’t so simple, getting some coherence into that wild, scrambled melodrama she’d concocted. What made it tougher was that she was around all the time–hovering over me, afraid I’d do injury to that precious brain child of hers.”
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Joe-“Say… She’s quite a character that Norma Desmond” Max– fixated on his mistress-“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know… you’re too young… In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. ….there was a maharjas who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings… later he strangled himself with it”
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Joe’s voice over-“Crumbling apart in slow motion -the whole place had a sort of creeping paralysis out of beat with the rest of the world”

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“the last rights of that hairy chimp as if she were laying to rest an only child”
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“it was all very queer…”
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“was her life really as empty as that?”

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While daylight seeps through the blinds, he lies on top of the shabby quilt, the script strewn about him. As he awakens to these strange surroundings he narrates in voice over for us once again-, “That night I had a mixed up dream. In it was an organ grinder. I couldn’t see his face, but the organ was all draped in black and a chimp was dancing for pennies. I opened my eyes the music was still there… Where was I?… Oh yes, that empty room over the garage. (the organ playing beneath his voice-over) Only it wasn’t empty anymore. Somebody had brought in all my belongings. My books, my typewriter, my clothes… What was going on?” He puts his jacket on and heads toward the pipe organ–Max (Von Stroheim, white gloved close up is actually playing) Bach’s widely used baleful Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.

Not too long after he finds that Norma has told Max to move his belongings into the house. Joe is weak and resents having to rely on Norma’s affections to support him. Norma argues with him about him needing her financial support, that he’s a proud boy who is in difficulties.

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Joe dumps a scene ‘cut away from me?’

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Joe’s voice-over-“I didn’t argue with her. You didn’t yell at a sleepwalker–he may fall and break his neck. That’s it, she was sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career– plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self, the great Norma Desmond. How could she breathe in that house, so crowded with Norma Desmonds? More Norma Desmond, and still more Norma Desmond!”

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“How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds”
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Max lifts the painting that reveals the large movie screen

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Norma is entertaining her cynical ‘lover’ who is coasting on ennui. Trusted Max is a constant enigma of stoic devotion, as he watches from the projection booth, the light from the bulb shimmers on his somber face.

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Joe finally begins to accept his role as Norma’s found boy-friend. He spends time with her, working on the script while Norma dressed in one of her lounging pajamas autographs photos of herself. Joe begins to realize just how unaware she is about how much the world has passed her by. Norma isn’t gracious about any criticism, she forces him to watch her old movies. Joe’s smug voice-over-

“She’s sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched, she’d clutch my arm or my hand forgetting she was my employer becoming just a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen… I guess I don’t have to tell you who that actress was. They were always her pictures, that’s all she ever wanted to see.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

Standing in the ghostly beam of projector light Norma avows- “Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!”

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“Norma is caught between challenge and panic. Her neurotic solution is to buy a man, which establishes her power and control, and then make a pretense of a girlish vulnerability. Her suicide attempt is emblematic of her ambivalence since it is both an assertion of power and an act of self-diminution.” -Brandon French-On the Verge of Revolt-Women in Films of the 1950s

Continue reading “When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)”

Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!

As a treat I thought I’d talk about 4 really interesting films that were released amidst the slew of suspense thrillers of the 1940s. Some Gothic melodrama and a few perhaps conveying an almost hybrid sense of noir with their use of flashback, shadow, odd camera angles and elements of transgressive crime. I’ll just be giving a brief overview of the plot, but no worries there are no spoilers!

I recently had the chance to sit with each film and said to myself… Joey, these would make for a nice collection of obscure thrillers so without further adieu, I offer for your enjoyment, The Suspect, Love From A Stranger 1947, Moss Rose & The Sign of the Ram!

THE SUSPECT 1944

The Suspect

Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase 1945, The Killers 1946, Criss Cross 1949, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, The File on Thelma Jordan 1950) and adapted to the screen by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T Horman from the novel This Way Out written by James Ronald. Basing this film very loosely on the Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen murder of his wife that was sensationalized at trial in 1910.

The Suspect stars the inimitable Charles Laughton, (Dr. Moreau – Island of Lost Souls 1932, my favorite Quasimodo in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, the most lovable ghost Sir Simon in The Canterville Ghost 1944, The Paradine Case 1947, The Strange Door 1951, Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Spartacus 1960, Advise and Consent 1962 and notably–director of two films–his masterpiece Night of the Hunter and his uncredited The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1949)

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The film also stars the underrated Ella Raines (Phantom Lady 1944, Impact 1949) Dean Harens, Stanley Ridges, (Possessed 1949, The File on Thelma Jordan and No Way Out 1950) Henry Daniell , Rosalind Ivan and Molly Lamont (The Dark Corner 1946, Devil Bat’s Daughter 1946) Raymond Severn plays the delicious little urchin Merridew who works for Phillip as he tries to keep the little guy on the straight and narrow. Merridew would make the perfect name for a little tabby cat!

Charles Laughton gives one of his most subtle performances as a kindly man trapped by an abusive wife. Siodmak as usual creates a dynamic framework for this psychological thriller that is lensed in shades of darkly ominous spaces that seems to shape itself around Laugton’s comfortable face and Ella Raines intricate beauty.

from IMDb trivia – Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on April 9, 1945 with Charles Laughton, Ella Raines and Rosalind Ivan reprising their film roles.

Music by Frank Skinner (Blond Alibi 1946, Johnny Stool Pigeon, The Brute Man, The Spider Woman Strikes back and way more to his credit see IMDb listing) With cinematography by Paul Ivano. Who did the camera work on director Hugo Haas treasures like Strange Fascination 1952, One Girl’s Confession 1953, Hold Back Tomorrow 1955!

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And marvelous gowns and hats by Vera West. (The Wolf Man 1941, Shadow of a Doubt 1943,Flesh and Fantasy 1943, Son of Dracula & The Mad Ghoul 1943, Phantom Lady 1944,Strange Confession 1944, Murder in the Blue Room ’44, House of Frankenstein ’44, The Woman in Green 1945, Terror by Night 1946, The Cat Creeps, She-Wolf of London, Dressed to Kill, Danger Woman & Slightly Scandalous 1946.)

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In 1902 London, well respected middle class Englishman, but unhappily married shopkeeper Phillip Marshall (Charles Laughton) develops a loving and warm friendship with young and beautiful Mary Gray (Ella Raines) who’s father has recently died, leaving her down on her luck and looking for a job. Phillip Marshall is such a kind and genteel man he stops to say a kind word about his neighbor Mrs Simmon’s garden, loves his son and shows real affection. Is like a father to young Merridew. Is beloved by the community. Even when he approaches Mary, and she hasn’t yet looked up from her tear soaked hanky, thinking she’s being approached by a lecherous man in the park, “I’m not that sort” tells her, only wanting to see if she needs help.

Mary like Phillip is lonely… the first night Phillip begins to walk her home- “A cup of tea, a six penny novel and a good cry.”
Mary- “I’m afraid you’ve been looking in my window.”

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Phillip’s dreadful wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan –perfectly suited to play the emasculating harpy-she had a similar role tormenting Edward G Robinson in Scarlet Street 1945) is a reprehensible shrew who humiliates and demeans both her husband and her son (Dean Harens who had more room to act in Siodmak’s terrific noir Christmas Holiday 1944 starring a very different kind of Gene Kelly and the self-persecuting Deanna Durbin.) John is shown moving out of the house, because his horrible mother has burned some important papers of his. She got into one of her rages and before he could stop her she burned a whole weeks work.

Cora Marshall is vicious and cruel, showing no maternal feeling, caring little that her son is leaving home.

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Cora-“That’s just what young hopeful did, he’s clearing out bag and baggage that selfish ungrateful good for nothing.”
Phillip-“What did you do to him?”
Cora- “What did I do to him… that’s right put the blame on me. All I did was bring him into the world, nurse him, make myself a doormat for him to walk on!… Go on, go to him and tell him from me that when he leaves this house needn’t think he can come crawling back. Deserting his own mother!… And what do you think you’re doing now?”
Phillip- “I’m moving into John’s room.”
Cora- “Of all the indecent…we’re married aren’t we?”
Phillip (deep sigh)- “Oh we’re married all right.”
Cora –“Then how dare you! I forbid it do you hear me. I forbid you to treat me like this.”

Phillip says, “Now Cora that’s all over now that John’s gone. It’s all over and done with, do you understand me?… I’m moving out of here and there’s nothing you can do about it”
Cora- “Oh yes there is. There’s plenty I can do!”

They wrestle with his clean folded white shirts that he’s busying himself moving out of the bedroom. She tries to grab them and he finally loses his composure and yanks them away.

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Cora- “What’s got into you.. I’d like to know what’s going on in your head.”
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Phillip- “It’s much better that you shouldn’t Cora, it might frighten you…”

Saddened by his John’s departure who he loves and will miss, prompts Phillip to move into his son’s room. Cora, so bent on appearances is driven to tirades of abusiveness toward the meek and genteel Phillip. Harassing him at every turn. I might have thrown her down the stairs myself or given her one of those late night glasses of milk!

The scene with Merridew just tickles me and shows how kind, compassionate and caring Phillip is. He calls Merridew over talking to him in a quite earnest and fatherly tone, all the while you can tell he’s quite fond of the little fellow and visa versa.

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Phillip- “Merridew I have to bring a very serious matter to your attention- I regret to say there’s a shortage in your accounts-there’s a penny missing from the stamp box.”
Merridew- “It… it was for a sugar bun this morning but I’ll put it back on pay day honest Mr. Marshall”
Phillip- “And the tuppence the day before yesterday what was that for?”
Merridew- “Acid drops sir.”
Phillip- “Acid drops??? quizzically… that’s very serious. And the hay penny the day before?”
Merridew- “For the monkey with the hurdy gurdy but I’ll put it all back Saturday every last farthing. “
Phillip- “That’s what all embezzlers plan to do.”

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tears in Merridew’s voice make it quiver as the camera shows Mary listening in, she smiles and laughs at this whimsical inquisition.

Merridew- “But I’m not an embezzler.”

Phillip- “Yes, but you can get started that way. It’s the first step that counts… after that it all becomes too easy. Six pence tomorrow, half a crown the day after… then a five pound note… I know you’ll always mean to pay it back, but I’m afraid you’ll finish by paying it back in the Portland quarries”

Merridew- “Don’t send me to no quarries please Mr. Marshall (sniffling)”

Phillip- “Well not this time Merridew. Now stop sniffling and wipe your eyes.” he hands him a hanky.

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Mary has come into the shop looking for employment. When Phillip tells her there isn’t a position available he later finds her on a park bench crying. He takes her to dinner, gets her a job with a colleague and the two begin a very tender friendship.

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Phillip continues his platonic relationship with Mary, but once his wife finds out that he’s been seen supping with the young lady, he breaks it off, as he’s a gentleman who truly thought his wife would want out of a loveless marriage.

Still, Cora threatens him with scandal as well as making trouble for Mary. When Cora refuses to divorce him, worried that gossip will spread that she has failed to hold onto a husband, he is driven to the point of frustration and despair. She tells him the neighbors are all beginning to gossip about him coming in at all hours-

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Phillip- “None of that business Cora.”

Cora- “Ha! Married people’s lives is everyone’s business and I’m not going to be made of object of pity in front of my friends do you hear!I wonder what ever possessed me to tie myself up with a poor stink like you… walked through the forest and picked a crooked tree that’s what I did. A crooked fat ugly tree.”

Even after she’s been so cruel, he tries to reason with her about getting a divorce and face things honestly by admitting that they’ve never been happy together. He asks her to let him go. But she wants to punish him, because she is a bitter and cruel woman calling him immoral and indecent.

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Phillip is very decent in fact, even though there’s only been friendship between he and Mary, he breaks it off with her so as to do what’s expected of him telling Mary that he behaved badly but he was afraid that she wouldn’t want to see him again. He was sure Cora would let him go… Phillip tells Mary , “And I couldn’t let you go once I’d met you.”

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But Cora won’t be happy til she “drives them both ‘into the gutter where you belong!”

Laughton is adorable and wonderfully believable as a romantic figure because of his gentle nature.

His murderous response is more to protect Mary from Cora’s wrath, who tells him with a face like a Victorian harridan spewing a poisonous vitriol-

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“You better be afraid. As sure as the sun rises tomorrow, I’ll give her the Merry Christmas she’ll never forget”
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Paul Ivano’s brilliant camera angle frames Laughton as somewhat diminished, seemingly trapped or rather oppressed by the space around him.

And so, Phillip murders his wife. We see him grab one of his canes and assume though we don’t see him actually bashing her head in with it, that he has in fact brained her. The next morning she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, and it is deemed an accident.

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Added to the plot’s layering of Sturm & Drang is the always wonderful scoundrel in Henry Daniell’s Gilbert Simmons, Phillip’s neighbor a stumbling drunkard who also beats his wife (Molly Lamont) Mrs Simmons and Phillip also have a very sweet relationship, one that ultimately anchors Phillip to his integrity. But I won’t reveal the outcome of the story. The miserable Gilbert Simmons also has the distinction of turning to blackmail adding to his other earthly vices.

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Amidst all these dreary, grim and dark ideas, the film still emerges as a beautiful story, partly due to Siodmak’s ability to guide suspense along it’s way with an appealing cadence. As Foster Hirsch states in his must read Film Noir-The Dark Side of the Screen, “Siodmak films like Christmas Holiday and The Killers have an extremely intricate narrative development…{…} the relative extremeness of Siodmak’s style is reflected in his obsessive characters.”

The Suspect works as a great piece of Melo-Noir mostly due to Laughton’s absolute perfection as the sympathetic, trapped gentle-man. As always he is masterful with his intonations, sharpened wit and ability to induce fellowship with the characters he’s playing… well maybe not so much with Dr. Moreau, Capt. Bligh, Judge Lord Thomas Horfield or Sire Alaine de Maledroit in The Strange Door. But he’s a lovable sort most of the time, one can’t deny.

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Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien in Jules Dassins’ The Canterville Ghost 1944-based on the story by Oscar Wilde

Ella Raines is just delightful as Mary. She’s such a treat to watch as you start to believe that this beautiful young woman genuinely has fallen for this older, portly yet kind hearted misfit. You find yourself hoping that he gets away with his wife’s murder, and that the two find happiness together.

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Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) stalks Phillip Marshall believing he killed his wife

Phillip is staunchly pursued by a Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) who has the tenacity of Columbo. Speaking of which, a poster of The Suspect appears in an episode of Columbo“How to Dial a Murder” in 1978.

LOVE FROM A STRANGER 1947

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On the darker more sinister side of these suspense yarns we find Sylvia Sidney as Cecily Harrington at the mercy of a very deranged bluebeard in John Hodiak as Manuel Cortez.

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the exquisite beauty of Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney Love From a Stranger

Directed by Richard Whorf who became more fluent in directing for television. Written for the screen by Philip MacDonald (Rebecca 1940, The Body Snatcher 1945 for Val Lewton, The Dark Past 1948, Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode The Fingers of Fear 1961, The List of Adrian Messenger 1963) based on Agatha Christie’s short story Philomel Cottage. Hair Stylist Eunice Helene King is responsible for slicking back Hodiak’s swarthy and murderously Lothario hair, he’s almost Draculian. He definitely covets his slickety hair as he shows his first sign of deranged pathology when Cecily tries to stokes his hair and he lashes out at her, telling her not to touch it.

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The marvelous costumes equip with capes, sequins and ostrich feathers are by Michael Woulfe (Blood on the Sun 1945, Macao 1952, Beware, My Lovely 1952)

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson. Anita Sharp-Bolster as Ethel the maid (wonderfully crabby Christine in The Two Mrs Carrolls)

And again a terrific score by Hans J. Salter. This period piece is lavishly framed by Tony Gaudio (The Letter 1940, High Sierra 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942) Once the protagonist and her murderous husband honeymoon at their hideaway cottage, the lens turns the film into an almost chamber piece, becoming more claustrophobic as Manuel and Cecily begin to awaken into the revelation of his dangerous nature.

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Sylvia Sidney  plays Cecily Harrington, an unassuming English girl in Liverpool who has just won £50,000 in the Calcutta Sweepstakes which was a fortune in turn of the century England. Cecily meets Manuel Cortez (John Hodiak) when he sees her name in the newspaper next to the headline of his latest murder. He follows her then arranges to make it appear as if he’s looking to rent her flat. She is taken with this mysterious stranger and suddenly breaks off her engagement to her fiancee Nigel Lawrence (John Howard) rushing into marriage with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a Bluebeard who is after her money.

The swarthy Manuel Cortez has already alluded the police for the murder of three women, believed to have drowned while trying to escape he has changed his appearance, darker hair no beard. Dr Gribble (Philip Tonge) who is a crime connoisseur collects journals and books, one with a drawing of him showing his beard. It also mentions his earlier crime as being in South America and New York (Hodiak’s character is given several Spanish aliases-Pedro Ferrara and Vasco Carrera)

The newlyweds spend the summer at their secret honeymoon cottage where he’s been planning to kill her and bury her body down in the cellar.

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson.
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Manuel Cortez pretends to be looking for a flat to rent, showing up at Cecily’s door he has actually followed her from their ‘accidental’ meeting at the post

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Cortez begins to work his Bluebeard charms on Cecily
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The handsome John Howard as Cecily’s fiancee Nigel Lawrence is crushed to find her love has gone cold, as she is now entranced by the swarthy Manuel Cortez
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Neither Nigel nor Mavis trust this mysterious stranger with the slickety hair and cape
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Everyone around Cecily knows there’s something not quite right

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Auntie Loo Loo is surprised at her nieces impetuous behavior

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Ethel and billings the gardener greet the newlyweds at the cottage they’ve spirited off to.
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There’s a dark cellar with a lock on the door. That never bodes well!

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Digging the hole!
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which poisons to use, decisions decisions
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Manuel warns Cecily to stay away from his experiments in the cellar
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Auntie Loo Loo and Mavis manage to find out where the honeymoon cottage is and pay Cecily a visit to make sure she’s alright
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The couple are going away on a long voyage soon, though Manuel hasn’t shown her the tickets

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Auntie Loo Loo is worried!
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Dr Gribble- Walking over to the book shelf- “Ah criminology are you interested in criminology Mr Cortez?”
Cortez- “Yes, it’s a sort of hobby of mine doctor.”
Dr Gribble- “Well we’re fellow enthusiasts”
Cecily “Yes I think it’s a horrid morbid past time.”
Dr Gribble “But fascinating Mrs Cortez. Here’s a great favorite of mine. Criminals and their mentality. That’s great psychology… Bless my soul the latest journal of Medical Jurisprudence and the Criminal. I should have thought I was the only person within a hundred miles radius who ever so much as heard of this publication.”
Manuel Cortez-“Really I’ve subscribed to it for years”
Dr Gribble “Let’s see did I read this issue? Ah yes this is the one with the account of that South American Carrera. It’s a very interesting case.”
Manuel Cortez- “I don’t believe I’ve read it.”
Dr Gribble- “You should have. This fellow Carrera was a professional wife murderer. They caught him after he completed his third crime. Then he was drowned trying to escape.”
Manuel Cortez- “Oh yes I remember. They never found the body did they?”
Dr Gribble- “No as a matter of fact they didn’t. I don’t think there’s any real doubt he’s dead!”

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Manuel catches Cecily by the cellar door. Look his hair has finally lost control!

Love From A Stranger is perhaps the more melodramatic and Gothic of all these films I’ve talked about in this post, but perhaps the most unrewarding in terms of it’s depth. While there are some truly terrifying scenes, the queer chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak creates a distance from the narrative. It’s still truly worth watching as part of the canon of 40s suspense melodramas.

Sylvia Sidney has a certain edgy sensuality to her, that doesn’t make her performance thoroughly implausible for the story but perhaps a different actress might have brought another style of vulnerability to the role. And Hodiak has an unctuous, gritty sort of sex appeal, that made his part as a psychopath believable. He’s got intensely dark focused eyes, sharply defined features and an iron jawline that slams shut, when he’s internally scheming. Toward the end he brings it a bit over the top, but he’s sort of good at playing a surly mad dog.

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Told to read aloud from the journal of criminology- “There is no doubt at all that Vasco Carrera the last name he was known by is a truly remarkable character. He posed as a great world traveler women even those from a cultured background succumbed very quickly to his perculiar charms
possessed of a remarkable charm of manner Carrera exerted an extraordinary fascination over women”

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YOU AND ME 1938-Sidney, Sylvia and George Raft
YOU AND ME 1938-Sidney, Sylvia and George Raft- Now that’s chemistry!

Perhaps the one issue I have with the casting is the chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak that never truly rings authentic. He’s too internally frenetic to be romantic… mysterious yes, but he’s not convincing in his wooing of Cecily. And the character of Cecily doesn’t seem to have the layers that peel innocence away, unveiling a vulnerable yet eruptive sensuality that would be unconsciously drawn to the scent of a dangerous man. That’s why Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door 1947 work so well.

John Hodiak is a puzzle for me. I’ve been trying to decide whether he’s one of the most intriguingly sexy men I’ve come across in a while or if I find him completely cold and waxen in his delivery as a leading man.

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John Hodiak and Tallulah Bankhead in Alfred Hitchcock’s marvelous floating chamber piece Lifeboat 1944

He had me going in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat 1944. I would have thrown my diamond Cartier bracelet over the bow to tumble under the tarp for a few hours with that sun kissed, salt sprayed crude adonis, sweaty, brash, unshaven -the whole deal. Just watched him in Somewhere in the Night 1946, once again, found Hodiak’s character of George Taylor compelling in his odd way of conveying vulnerable but faithful to the lure of the noir machismo. I felt sorry for a guy who can’t remember who he is or if he should just stay forgetting- in case he was a rotten human being.

But as the cunning and psychopathic lady killer in Love From A Stranger, he sort of makes my skin crawl which I supposed means he did a fabulous job of inhabiting the role of Manuel Cortez right.. Maybe he would have had better chemistry with someone like Alexis Smith or Audrey Dalton.

Now, I haven’t yet seen Basil Rathbone’s version in director Rowland V Lee’s 1937  film also known as A Night of Terror with Ann Harding -still based on the short story by Agatha Christie but set in contemporary England, Rathbone plays the intrepid type of urbane gentleman who sweeps Ann Harding off her feet and plunges her into a sudden and dangerous marriage. Where he then plots to killer her and take her money. In the earlier version, the heroine too gradually realizes that she’s in danger…

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Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding in the 1937 version of Love From a Stranger

Sylvia Sidney looks stunning as the new bride who begins to notice the strange behavior of her husband and realizes once she goes down into the cellar that Manuel is hiding something. He spends hours locked away down there preparing for the moment he will kill Cecily and has forbidden her to go down there, claiming that he’s doing experiments which are dangerous. Well that’s true, since he’s mixing poisons and digging her grave.

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This version places it back in Victorian England, perhaps due to the success of the melodramatic thrillers that were proving to be so successful in the 40s like, Rebecca, Gaslight, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Woman in White, Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1947, The Two Mrs Carrolls 1947.

Continue reading “Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!”