Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Sigmund Freud

“Ladies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.” — Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster Pussycat
Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965
Cul-de-Sac
Françoise Dorléac and Donald Pleasence in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac 1966
the Naked kiss
Constance Towers kicks the crap out of her pimp for shaving off her hair in Sam Fuller’s provocative The Naked Kiss 1964
Shock Corridor
Peter Breck plays a journalist hungry for a story and gets more than a jolt of reality when he goes undercover in a Mental Institution in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963
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Bobby Darin is a psychotic racist in Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer’s explosive Pressure Point 1962 starring Sidney Poitier and Peter Falk.

THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER  a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!

Constance Towers as Kelly from The Naked Kiss (1964): “I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw.”

Griff (Anthony Eisley) The Naked Kiss (1964): “Your body is your only passport!”

Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (1965): “I must get this crack mended.”

Monty Clift Dr. Cukrowicz Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) : “Nature is not made in the image of man’s compassion.”

Patricia Morán as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”

Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”

The Naked Venus 1959“I repeat she is a gold digger! Europe’s full of them, they’re tramps… they’ll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”

Darren McGavin as Louie–The Man With the Golden Arm (1955): “The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”

Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961) “The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”

Lorna (1964)- “Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”

Peter Fonda as Stephen Evshevsky in Lilith (1964): “How wonderful I feel when I’m happy. Do you think that insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness?”

Glen or Glenda (1953)“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even a lounging outfit and he’s the happiest individual in the world.”

Glen or Glenda
Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda 1953

Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot in Five Minutes to Live (1961):“I like a messy bed.”

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) Island of Lost Souls: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969): “Sex dominates the world! And now, I dominate sex!”

The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham “I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness (1971)“Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”

Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968) -Suzanna York as Alice ‘CHILDIE’: “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know” Beryl Reid as George: “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!”

The Killing of Sister George
Susannah York (right) with Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George Susannah York and Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George 1960

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”

THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”

Peter O’Toole as Sir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”

Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin in Return From The Ashes 1965: “If there is no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.”

Euripides 425 B.C.“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”

Davis & Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring to life two of the most outrageously memorable characters in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?

psychotronic |ˌsīkəˈtränik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia

In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know… “kicks” yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s… I’d like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!

FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…

THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!

I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!

weird-noir
There’s even this dvd that points to the connection between the two genres – Here it’s labeled WEIRD. I like transgressive… They all sort of have a whiff of noir.
Grayson Hall Satan in High Heels
Grayson Hall -Satan in High Heels 1962
mimi3
Gerd Oswald adapts Fredrick Brown’s titillating novel — bringing to the screen the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, Phillip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes in the sensational, obscure and psycho-sexual thriller Screaming Mimi 1958
The Strangler 1964 Victor Buono
Victor Buono is a deranged mama’s boy in Burt Topper’s fabulous The Strangler 1964
Repulsion
Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary as the unhinged nymph in Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual tale of growing madness in Repulsion 1965

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. While Film Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.

Continue reading “Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground”

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

Lancaster The Killers

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

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

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The Dark Pages Giant Killer Issue

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

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

Killers, The (1946)

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

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

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coming from the dark

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

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

The Killers 1946 diner

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

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

the-killers-1946

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the killers

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

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

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

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

lancaster

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

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

This has been a killer post! Your Everlovin’ Joey

Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Robert Ryan’s death July 11, 1973 with a special nod to Karen & The Dark Pages for their spectacular tribute to this incredibly real man!

robert ryan

“Ryan was unfailingly powerful, investing his tormented characters with a brooding intensity that suggests coiled depth. Cut off from the world by the strength of their ‘feelings’ his characters seem to be in the grip of torrential inner forces. They are true loners. Ryan’s work has none of the masked, stylized aura of much noir acting. He performs with emotional fullness that creates substantial, complex characters rather than icons.”Foster Hirsch-FILM NOIR: The Darker Side of the Screen

Clearly Robert Ryan’s infinite presence in film and his numerous complex characters manifest an embracing universal ‘internal conflict’ of masculinity. I tribute certain roles the actor inhabited during his striking career. Though he was cast more often in the part as the imposing heavy, the depth and breadth of Ryan’s skill with his rough-hewn good looks should have landed him more roles as a lead male capable of such penetrating levels of emotion. He had a depth that suggests a scarcely hidden intensity smoldering at the surface.

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Robert Ryan as Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire 1947
Act of Violence Ryan
Robert Ryan in Act of Violence ’48

A critic for the New York Times reviewing Act of Violence (1948) wrote about Robert Ryan’s persona as the madly driven veteran bent on revenge, Joe Parkson calling him “infernally taut.”

Frank Krutnik discusses ‘Masculinity and it’s discontents’ in his book In A Lonely Street, “In order to make the representation of masculinity in the noir thriller, there follows a schematic run-through of Freudian work on the determination of masculine identity.” Claiming Freud’s work can be co-opted into film with an emphasis of it’s relevance to analysis of the cultural machinery of patriarchy.” He discusses patriarchal culture which relies heavily on the maintenance of a gender-structured ‘disequilibrium’ with it’s roots in the myth of the Oedipal Complex. Involving not only the power-based hierarchy of male service to masculine power but the established normative gender values which inform both the male and female figure.

act of violence ryan and leigh
Act of Violence Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson co-starring Janet Leigh

Many of the characters in Ryan’s noir world are informed by a cultural ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness and strips the limits of desire as an obligation to masculine identity. Patriarchal power structure predetermines a fixed and limited role that creates a destiny of submission and impotence in Ryan’s characters. But within the framework of these extreme male figures lies an intricate conflict of varying degrees of vulnerability and fragility.

Ryan manifests this duality within hyper-masculine characters. Outwardly physical, confrontational, and hostile, Ryan is a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth. He was never just a dark noir brute or anti-hero but a complex man actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. His performances suggest a friction of subjugated masculinity bubbling within.

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Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night

The trajectory of the male through the Oedipus Complex encompasses the male subjectivity which is a principle issue in the noir ‘tough-thriller.’ The ‘existential thematic’ link to the Oedipus myth concerns questions of male desire and identity as they relate to the overarching law of existing patriarchal culture substituted for the original fearsome ‘divinity.’ This element is one of the driving psychological themes underlying in any good classic film noir.

In this post I put my focus primarily on Ryan’s characters within the framework of each film and while I discuss the relationship between him and the central players I do not go as in depth as I usually do discussing his co-stars or plot design.

I apply this thematic representation to much of the roles engendered in the films of Robert Ryans‘ that I’ve chosen to discuss here. A patriarchal power structure establishes the tragedy of man’s destiny, a fixed and limited role in the character’s own destiny as there is a predominant power that threatens them into submission and sheds light on their own impotence. So many of the noir characters in a Robert Ryan noir world are shaped by a cultural authority structured through ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness in the male identity that strips away the limits of desire, as an obligation to ‘masculine identity.’

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Ryan’s stoic boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s The Set Up

I’m focusing on particular Ryan’s roles within a noir context that depict archetypal hyper-masculine tropes and the problematic strife within those characters. Whether Ryan is playing the deeply flawed hero or the tormented noir misfit, his characters are afflicted with an inherent duality of virility and vulnerability, an inner turmoil, alienation, persecution and masochism. It’s a territorial burden that Robert Ryan so effortlessly explores.

These films show Ryan’s trajectory through forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Within a noir landscape, the schism of stark virility and tenuous masculinity exposes the complexity of alienation, masochism and frailty. Robert Ryan’s performances are a uniquely fierce and formidable power.

I’m discussing: The Woman On the Beach (1947) haunted & emasculated coastguardsman Lt. Scott Burnett, Caught (1949) neurotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig, The Set- Up (1949) noble over- the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, Born To Be Bad (1950) misanthropic & masochistic novelist Nick Bradley, Clash by Night (1952) cynical misogynist projectionist Earl Pfeiffer, Beware, My Lovely (1952) morose psychotic vagrant handyman Howard Wilton,On Dangerous Ground (1952) unstable, alienated violent cop Jim Wilson, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) racist persecuted ex-con Earle Slater.

Within the framework of these ‘extreme’ male figures lies an intricate conflict with varying degrees of vulnerability & fragility within the male psyche. The narratives don’t necessarily flesh out this conflict plainly, but Ryan’s performances certainly suggest and inform us about the friction of this subjugated theme bubbling to the surface as he manifests the duality within his hyper-masculine characters. Robert Ryan was a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth.

Robert Ryan

Ryan is never just a dark noir ‘brute’ or anti-hero but moreover a complex male who is actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. A complexity of stark virility and ‘tenuous maleness’ as the narrative witnesses Ryan’s trajectory transforming him through various dynamic forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Outwardly physical, confrontational, hostile and ultimately masculine, and the schism that is inwardly emotional, alienated, self deprecating, masochistic and fragile within the film noir landscape. Robert Ryan’s performances still maintain a uniquely fierce and formidable aesthetic of the ‘suffering-marginalized man.’

Continue reading “Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir”

Nightmare Alley (1949) In the cutting room with editor Barbara McLean. See the descent of man, the human condition up close, and throw in a Geek, please.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY 1947Barbara McLean: Groundbreaking Film Editor

Photo from February issue of Vogue 1952 here’s cutter Barbara McLean editing All About Eve

Director William Goulding’s Allegorical Carnival/ Noir masterpiece based on William Lindsay Gresham’s book: an Americana study of the rise and fall of personal morality, that reaches to the lowest depths of show business with sleazy inhabitants and the sinister and shadowy world of  freak- shows, mentalist acts, geeks, alcoholism and the voyeuristic throng that feed off the human suffering of others

Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle and Joan Blondell as Zeena Krumbein
Ian Keith as the alcoholic, mentalist Pete Krumbein

In Nightmare Alley Barbara McLean contributes to creating a landscape of a distorted reality along side the darkly, clandestine and arcane carnival atmosphere. The film is beautifully woven, as the seamless images flow into one another. McLean blends together the invisible strands that only one’s dreams could effectively manifest. McLean’s editing constructs much of the surreal and tormented ‘movement’ of the film. It’s what transports each scene of the film, making it every bit as if WE were inhabiting someone’s nightmare.

Coleen Gray creating a little electrifying entertainment for the crowd

With 62 film credits to her name, half of which were with filmmaker Henry King, Barbara McLean is a master of cutting and shaping. She’s worked on some of my all time favorite films including this film, Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943), Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats (1953), John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941) and again Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). McLean also worked as editor on Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata 1953, and in 1954 with Michael Curtiz’s on The Egyptian. She edited the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, The Robe (1952), directed by Henry Koster.

Bette Davis and Celeste Holm in All About Eve
Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette
Linda Darnell in No Way Out
Gene Tierney in Tobacco Road

Barbara McLean was one of the most recognized editors working during the reign of Darryl F. Zanuck at the 20th Century Fox Studio, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Eventually achieving the honor of division chief of the editing department in 1949. She joined Fox in 1935 as one of only eight female film editors working in Hollywood in the 1930s. McLean was part of a huge team of technicians, writers, directors, collaborators that Zanuck went to for guidance. She was very influential in much of  Zanuck’s decision making process, as she often acted as adviser to the Hollywood movie mogul, helping him coordinate even a single shot.

She won the 1944 Academy Award for Film Editing for her work on Wilson (1944) director Henry King’s biopic film of Woodrow Wilson’s political career. McLean was nominated another 6 times for that award, including her work on All About Eve. I think she should have won the 23rd annual Academy Award for for All About Eve, but she lost to Ralph E Winters and Conrad A Nerig for their work on King Solomon’s Mines. It was a tough year to compete with nominations also going to The Third Man and Sunset Boulevard. McLean’s greatest collaboration was with film maker Henry King, a relationship that spanned over 29 films including Twelve O’Clock High 1949.

Her last editing credit was for Henry King’s Untamed (1955). In later years, McLean acted primarily in a supervisory and administrative capacity, eventually retiring from 20th Century Fox in 1969, due to her husband’s declining health. She received the inaugural American Cinema Editors Career Achievement Award in 1988. McLean died in Newport Beach, California in 1996.

Twelve O’Clock High 1949 with Gregory Peck

Her impact was summarized by Adrian Dannatt in a 1996 obituary in The Independent: McLean was “a revered editor who perhaps single-handedly established women as vital creative figures in an otherwise patriarchal industry.” Writer Tom Stempel, in a piece about Darryl F. Zanuck writes of McLean‘s influence on Zanuck‘s film making; “For all her focus on keeping the narrative moving, McLean’s editing could dazzle if called for. In A Bell for Adano (1945), she took material director Henry King shot on the return of the Italian POWs to their village and put it together with such a pure sense of emotion that when she cut at exactly the right moment to King’s overhead shot of the prisoners and villagers coming together in the square, the cut was more heart-stopping than conventional close-ups would have been.”

McLean brings together the writers and directors vision and gives it a completeness, a cohesion, like alchemy with film footage, she creates cinema gold. According to Bright Lights Film Journal “the basic rules of film editing, first established in the silent era, still govern the industry today: maintain your eye lines, preserve continuity, respect planarity (the rules governing the transposition of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional plane), find a good rhythm, and, most important, always advance the story.” Here is where McLean excels. If you look at the variety of narratives, milieus and landscapes McLean has stitched together in the editing room, you can see how expansive her vision explores the realms of the human condition, moral corruption and redemption weaving together images that shape the story into ‘the big picture’, with all the little pieces of the intricate moments of the framework, revealing an intimate story, a memorable story, a universal notion of people living in a state of transformation.

If I could enter the film industry at this stage of my life, there would be one thing aside from my already being a music composer of course, would be to sit in the editing chair. One of the things I look for in a film, and feel passionately certain about is amongst the cinematography, scoring and casting , if there is one singularly essential component to what makes a film greater…it’s the editing.

We should also celebrate the women working in the very male dominated career of film editing, women like Barbara McLean and even Dorothy Spencer (Lifeboat 1944, Stagecoach 1939 and the film I recently blogged about Valley of The Dolls 1967).

I should also mention, Anne Bauchens, who was Cecil B. DeMille’s editor, cutting nearly all his movies from 1915 until his death in 1959 and Margaret Booth. Two women who haven’t been put in the greatest light in terms of their ‘difficult’ personalities and skill, something I’ll write about in future. But aren’t women always difficult to work with? Geez.

And so let’s raise a toast to Barbara McLean’s contributions to cinema… a pioneer in the industry not only breaking the glass ceiling but taking all the pieces and putting them back together to make a indelible cinematic mural for ages to come.

And now for the Carnival ‘Geek’ in Nightmare Alley: Tyrone Power’s astonishing portrayal of Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle the ambitious carney who rises to evangelistic notoriety as a slick and cunning mentalist, only to descend into the realm of self destruction when power corrupts, consumes and destroys his life, ultimately leading him back to side show freakery becoming the very ‘geek’ he once found repulsive. McLean’s treatment of the film’s climatic excursion into the bowels of the carnival and Stan’s diminution into the shadows is quite viscerally staggering.

Tyrone Power’s nightmarish descent into the world of the ‘geek’

According to the book Carny Sideshows by Tony Gangi, a ‘Geek’ is:

An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This “lowest of the low” member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken, or sit in a bed of snakes. Some historians distinguish between “geeks” who pretend to be wild men, and “glomming geeks” whose act includes eating disgusting things. See the 1949 movie “Nightmare Alley” for a good geek story as well as for an excellent depiction of the mentalist’s technique of “cold reading”. In later years the geek show turned into a “see the pitiful victim of drug abuse” show. “Geek” as a verb (“he geeked”) is one of several terms in use among wrestlers meaning to intentionally cut oneself to draw blood.

A geek who bites the heads off snakes…

Either on the fairway or the cutting room floor, I’ll be there! Your ever faithful -MonsterGirl!