A lonely girl — a man on the run and 72 hours reckless hours that shock you with the impact of unleashed emotions!
Directed by John Berry (Tension 1949), with the screenplay by two victims of HUAC Dalton Trumbo (The Prowler 1951, The Brother’s Rico 1957, Papillon 1973) and Hugo Butler (The Southerner 1945.) Based on a novel by Sam Ross. All three men’s names Berry Trumbo and Butler were struck from the credits due to the blacklist, but have since been restored.
Garfield stars in his final film, as Nick Robey and Shelley Winters as Peg Dobbs. Wallace Ford plays Fred Dobbs, and Selena Royle as Mrs. Dobbs. The incomparable Gladys George is Mrs. Robey. Norman Lloyd as Al Molin. With music by Franz Waxman, it is not overwrought but has a beautiful, restrained melody. The film is shot by prolific cinematographer James Wong Howe ( The Thin Man 1934, They Made Me a Criminal 1939, King’s Row 1942, he shot Garfield in Body and Soul 1947, The Rose Tattoo 1955 Sweet Smell of Success 1957)
While under contract to Warner Bros. John Garfield could have had his pick of any major studio in Hollywood, RKO, 20th Century Fox even MGM wanted him to sign, but being the tough, rebellious everyman, in 1946 he did not renew his contract with Warners, and since none of the other studios would touch He Ran All the Way, Garfield released the film under his own new independent production company with Bob Roberts (Body and Soul 1947, Force of Evil 1948, All Night Long 1962) and Paul Trivers.
In an interview with Look magazine, he said, “I wasn’t carrying a chip on my shoulder at Warners. I appreciated the fact that they made me a star, but they didn’t pick me up from a filling station.”
“When an actor doesn’t face a conflict, he loses confidence in himself. I always want to have a struggle because I believe it will help me accomplish more.” – John Garfield
A kid from the streets of New York, during John Garfield ‘Julie’s career between Body and Soul 1947 and He Ran All the Way 1951, he did not work in Hollywood when HUAC targeted the actor as a communist sympathizer. Garfield suffered at the mercy of the blacklist when he refused to name names. Criminal considering he not only raised money for the war effort during WWII, but also co-founded the Hollywood Canteen. The stress of the constant persecution he endured led to him suffering a massive heart attack leading to his tragic death at only 39, less than a year after He Ran All the Way.
In 1946, John Garfield a naturalistic actor was box-office gold, ( I think he set the stage for Dean and Brando) having a successful run as a superstar in Hollywood with Humoresque, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Nobody Lives Forever. Garfield was able to transform an unsympathetic guy, into a heavy, might-have-been, and deeply humanize him. And though the fatalistic creed of ‘film noir’ is that no flawed anti-hero can escape their dark destiny, we feel for their consequences.
Film historian Eddie Muller calls Garfield the ‘pied piper’ because he led the way for all the actors from New York’s Group Theater and the Broadway scene. Not only a bold actor on screen, but he was also a terrific stage actor as well having used sense memory a lot.
John Garfield was magic because of his authenticity at playing brooding, defiant, working-class guys, his Nick Robey is a lost soul – living in a claustrophobic nightmare that he can’t outrun, that he cannot escape. Even while he’s asleep. The nightmares chase him into a frightened sweat.
Set in Southern California over a 72-hour time frame, under the sweltering summer heat, the film opens A fevered dream, running so hard… “my lungs are burnin‘ up.”
Mrs. Robey –“Nick, Nicky you were hollering in your sleep.” Nick- “Alright Mom so I was hollering in my sleep what’s wrong with that?” Mrs. Robey –“It’s 11 o’clock Mr. Robey you can’t lay there all day.”
Nick –“Beat it, blow.” (She rolls the shades up to let the harsh morning light into the room)
… Hey Cut that out!
Gladys George is an intense searing beam of deplorable as Nick’s mother who swills cheap beer like a well-oiled lush and treats him like she resents having given birth to her loser son. Mrs. Robey persistingly harassing Nick. Later she even tells the cops to “Kill him! Kill him!”
Mrs. Robey –“If you were a man you’d be out looking for a job.”
Nick- “If you were a man I’d kick your teeth in.” Mrs. Robey –“There’s coffee on the stove, Don’t ever talk to me like that Nick.” Nick- “You’ve been talked to worse.”
Mrs. Robey –“Only by you dirty punk.” Nick -“Oh knock it off Mom you just got too big a hangover.” (She slaps him) Mrs. Robey –“I’ll kill ya if you talk like that.” Nick-(Laughs) “You’re losing your punch Mom.”
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy 1950, My Name is Julia Ross 1945 , So Dark the Night 1946) Screenplay by Philip Jordan, Director of photography John Alton who’s haunting chiaroscuro and noir figures in silhouette fill out the landscape of entrapment, corruption and decadence.
From Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror by Bruce Crowthers
In The Big Combo (1955)“Alton’s dazzling black and white photography starkly counterpoints the film’s perverse sexuality which constantly strains against the limitations of the Hollywood code. Whether exploring the sado-masochistic violence of the hoodlums, two of whom, Fante and Mingo are clearly homosexual or the psycho-sexual domination wielded by gang boss, Brown over the young woman from the right side of the tracks, the scripts and the director’s needs are continually and effectively fulfilled by Alton’s camera.”
Stars Cornel Wildeas Leonard Diamond, Jean Wallace(Jigsaw 1949, The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1950, Storm Fear 1955) as Susan Lowell, Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key 1942, Impact 1949, The Quatermass Xperiment 1955, A Cry in the Night 1956) as McClure, Richard Conte (The Blue Gardenia 1943, Cry of the City 1948, Thieves’ Highway 1949, Whirlpool 1949, Oceans 11 (1960), Tony Rome 1967, Lady in Cement 1968) as Mr. Brown, Lee Van Cleef as Fante and Earl Holliman as Mingo, Robert Middleton as Peterson, Helen Walker as Alicia, Jay Adleras Sam Hill, John Hoytas Dreyer, Ted De Corsia as Bettini, Helene Stanton as Rita.
Joseph H. Lewis from Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia by Wheeler Winston Dixon-
Lewis abandoned westerns and began a “frenzied round of freelancing that took him from Poverty Row to the majors, with such films as the disquieting horror Universal film The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and the astonishing Secrets of a Coed aka The Silent Witness 1942 for PRC.”
The Big Combo is considered a ‘syndicate’ film noir, where a mob organization is running the urban landscape, in which the organization is ‘all’ but with a difference. According to writer/historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, director Lewis was an “eccentric and he depicts a universe that is as out of kilter as his often imbalanced camera set-ups; the camera sweeps in on the protagonists in their most intimate moments, frames them as silhouettes in wide shots that effectively use fog and a few shadows to disguise the fact that seem to entrap his characters in even tighter compositions.”
At the police station, booked on a phony charge just to harass Brown. Joe McClure-“Mr. Brown is a very reasonable man. You don’t know him.” Leonard Diamond “Oh, is he? Well I’m not. I intend to make life very difficult for you Mr. Brown.”
Joe McClure-“You shouldn’t talk like that, Lieutenant. You’re overstepping your authority.” Mr. Brown-“Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotel make better money than that. Don’t you see, Joe? He’s a righteous man.”
From FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF THE SCREEN BY FOSTER HIRSCH
“One of the eroding factors in the fifties thrillers surfaced in such films as the Big Combo and The Phenix City Story where crime no longer springs from the aberrant individual but is instead a corporate enterprise, run like a business. (Or like Murder Inc.) This view of crime is widespread, almost communal undertaking, counters the traditional noir interest in the isolated criminal whose actions are controlled not by an impersonal conglomerate but by a complex interweaving of character and fate.” Hirsch also points out that it represents another level of decadence.
From The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller-“This gray area between old-school hoodlum and the new “organization man” was fertile turf for noir fables…)… in The Big Combo the gangster picture is distilled into a sexual battle between the saturnine, sensual Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) and dogged but frustrated flatfoot Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) Both men covet the appetizing Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Diamond has been stalking for months as part of his investigation of Brown’s illegal Combination.”
I have read that Chiaroscuro is director Lewis’ domain and that he also liked to use icy blondes the way Alfred Hitchcock did. In Gun Crazy (1950) Lewis had Peggy Cummins, and in The Big Combo it is Jean Wallace, yet Lewis’ women are more overtly ‘sex-kittenish than high-class blondes.- From Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
Cornel Wilde does a blunt job playing a righteous cop, Leonard Diamond who will do anything to take down Mr. Brown who represents everything he detests in the world.
“I know his name. The name of a man who will pick up a phone and call Chicago and New Orleans and say “Hey Bill, Joe is coming down for the weekend. Advance him fifty thousand,” and he hangs up the phone and the money’s advanced, protection money. A new all-night bar opens, with gambling outside city limits. A bunch of high school kids come in for a good time. They get loaded, they get irresponsible, they lose their shirts. Then they get a gun, cause they’re worried, they want to make up their losses. And a filling station attendant is dead with a bullet in his liver. I have to see four kids on trial for first-degree murder. Look at it. First-degree murder, because a certain Mr. Brown picked up a phone.”
Robert Middleton who happens to be one of my favorite underrated character actors plays Diamond’s boss, Police Lt.Peterson, who’s trying to convince Diamond not to pursue Brown through his girlfriend Susan Lowell and realizes that after tailing her for months, Diamond might have developed feelings for her. “You’re a cop, Leonard. There are 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.”
Richard Conte is particularly more brutal as Mr. Brown than in some of his other portrayals of the embodiment of the crime aesthetic, possessing the essential flair of the well-heeled mobster. The Big Combois one of the most bleak and perverse of all the mid-1950s film noirs. The pace of the film leaves us hanging in a world of perpetual threat and vexation.
Richard Conte infuses the role of Mr. Brown with an unusual intensity even for the enduring tough-guy Conte as he plays a ruthless mob boss who practically holds a society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) hostage by their odd attraction for each other. Susan has left a budding career as a pianist to be a trophy in Brown’s collections, seduced by his control, and the money he lavishes on her, yet ambivalent about her self-loathing and her attraction to his perverse power over her body and their sexual relationship. In a potent scene, he takes Susan to a secret room in her apartment filled with a hidden stash of money and ammunition. Brown to Susan- “This is my bank… we don’t take checks, we deal strictly in cash. There isn’t anybody I’d trust with so much temptation–except myself. Or maybe you.”
Mr. Brown- “Where’d you get that outfit?”Susan Lowell “What’s wrong with it?”Mr. Brown-“I like you better in white. You’ve got a dozen white dresses. Why don’t you wear them? “ Susan Lowell-“White doesn’t please me anymore.” Mr. Brown –“A woman dresses for a man. You dress for me. Go put on something white!”
Brown employs his two exploitable goons Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to stay close to Susan and watch her every move, acting as unwanted bodyguards.
Brown’s far-flung organization is under attack by the overzealous hard-boiled detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is determined to bring Brown to justice. All of Mr. Brown’s associates are figures marginalized by society in some way, all defined by their ‘difference.’ Brown gets his kicks pointing out what everyone else around him lacks while he pats himself on the back like a sadistic narcissist.
The film opens with Susan fleeing a boxing match, pursued by Mr. Brown’s two hired muscle heads, through dark alleys until she is finally caught by Brown, which only symbolizes his sexual dominance over her.
“It was for her I began to work my way up. All I had was guts. I traded them for money and influence. I get respect from everybody but her…”- Mr. Brown
Brown is so fixated on displays of dominance and strength that he fires his boxer after he loses his bout. First, he uses the opportunity to belittle his deputy McClure (Brian Donlevy) in front of the young boxer then he smacks Benny across his swollen bloody face waiting for his retaliation, but when it’s obvious the boy won’t hit him back, he cuts him loose.
Brown talking to Benny after the bout- “So you lost. Next time you’ll win. I’ll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I’m his. What’s the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it!”
[yelling into McClure’s sound magnifier that is in his ear]
“We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon. Look–same manicure, cuff-links. But we don’t get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct. First is first and second is nobody… Now, Benny, who runs the world? Do you have any idea?” Bennie Smith “Not me, Mr. Brown.” Mr. Brown “That’s right, not you, but a funny thing, they’re not so much different from you, but they’ve got something. They’ve got it, and they use it. I’ve got it;[pointing to McClure] he hasn’t. What is it, Benny? What makes the difference…? Hate! Hate is the word, Benny! Hate the man that tries to beat you. Kill ’em, Benny! Kill ’em! Hate him till you see red, and you’ll come out winning the big money, and the girls will come tumblin’ after. You’ll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night’s rest.”
Brown lectures Benny- “You should have hit me back. You haven’t got the hate. Tear up Benny’s contract. He’s no good to me anymore.”
Brown cuts his fighter-Benny loose, telling him he just doesn’t have the killer instinct he needs. Brown is a narcissistic bully whose smooth philosophical meanderings taunt the people who work for him, women, and even the cop who is right on his heels.
Brown’s two brawny side-kicks Fante and Mingo are obviously homosexual lovers, who thrive on violence as an enhancement to their sexual arousal like foreplay. Brown’s former boss, the weakened and inadequate McClure must rely on a clunky portable radio-sized hearing aid in order to keep up with the gang’s activities.
Lt. Diamond goes after the psychotic megalomaniac Mr. Brown trying to shut down his crime organization. There is conflict already within the organization as Brown is demeaning to McClure and verbally bates him constantly with put-downs, to try and get a rise out of him. McClure wants to get rid of Brown all together and take over as head of the mob once again, but in the end, he is too impotent, to smack down Brown’s power.
Brown has a prized possession —his beautiful blonde girlfriend Susan who is watched over every minute of the day by his two thugs Fante and Mingo. When Susan finally has a breakdown and overdoses on sleeping pills as a way out, she finally asks Diamond for help.
First Diamond wants to expose Brown’s criminal organization and secondly, it would give him great satisfaction to take Susan away from Brown, as he also has developed feelings for her.
When Diamond harasses Brown by arresting him on false charges just to bring him into the station –he goes on a mission to persecute Brown, who retaliates as his credo is “First is first and second is nobody” Brown puts a contract out on Diamond, who is then kidnapped by his two vicious flunky’s Fante and Mingo who are in a surreptitious relationship, with each other Mingo showing his sexual attraction and love for Fante in a rather covert yet palpable way. Though toward the end, while they’re hiding out, he does make mention that he’s sick of Salami. A thought, make of it what you will!
In a shocking scene Fante and Mingo torture Diamond, it is particularly brutal and vicious as they use McClure’s hearing aid turned up to full volume amplifying sound to the point it could blow his ear drums out. The pain on Diamond’s face is tangible. Then they begin pouring alcohol down his throat poisoning him, leaving him to appear as if he’s been off on a bender, thank god his boss Peterson (Robert Middleton) is there to help Diamond recover.
Mr. Brown-“I think Mr. Diamond needs a drink. Got any liquor?” Fante-” How about some paint thinner?” Mr. Brown-“No, that’ll kill him. Anything else?” Fante- “Hair tonic, 40% alcohol.” Mr.Brown-“Fine.”
Once he recovers from his torture, Diamond is even more determined to bring Brown down. Diamond starts to put the pieces together and find clues that point to Brown’s involvement in the murder of a racket boss who disappeared a while ago, and whose place he took over in the organization. He discovers some of Brown’s old associates, Dreyer (John Hoyt) an Austrian who runs an antique and import business, and Bettini (Ted De Corsia)a nice Italian man who owned a pizza parlor in the city and is now hiding out, fearing for his life.
Fante and Mingo go to Diamond’s hotel room intending to kill him and wind up murdering his sometime lover night club singer Rita who went there to surprise him with a date but becomes an unfortunate casualty being at the right place at the wrong time she is caught in the fray. Even Rita had laid things out for Diamond about the reasons why Susan would stay with a creep like Brown- “Women don’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love.”
After Diamond finds Rita’s body gunned down in his apartment- “She came to see me in her best shoes!” I treated her like a pair of gloves. I was cold… I called her up.”
Brown tries to school Diamond in the ways of the world, “You’d like to be me… You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You think it’s the money. It’s not–it’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop. Slow. Steady. Intelligent. With a bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl, you can’t have. First is first and second is nobody.
Brown- “You’re a little man with a soft job and good pay. Stop thinking about what might have been and who knows–you may live to die in bed.”
Brown starts to get paranoid and panicky, getting rid of McClure who is a weak link in the mob, and then his two henchmen who know too much about his double dealings and can be linked to McClure’s murder. Adding to Brown’s worries, his ex-wife Alicia (Helen Walker) comes back into the picture after hiding out in a sanitarium aiding Diamond in Brown’s capture. Ultimately leading to a showdown at an airplane hangar where Diamond corners Brown. Alicia “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane… and dead.”
When McClure tries to double-cross Brown by using his own thugs against him, Fante and Mingo pretend to go along and wind up turning their machine guns on him instead, while Brown sardonically watches grinning like the sadist he is. With a flair of evil embellishment, Brown walks over to McClure who has two machine guns trained on him, and takes out his hearing aid. Brown-“I‘m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it, so you don’t hear the bullets.” It is a stunning scene we are watching from McClure’s perspective the flashing lights and smokey tendrils from the gunfire happen at us, but it is all done in eerie quiet and darkness. We are experiencing the frightening moment when he is shot to death. We become McClure at that moment.
Later Brown wants to dispose of his two thugs so there is no evidence of murder, he hands them a package while they are hiding out in an old building in the basement that used to be a speakeasy, They think the package is filled with food, guns and their share of the money they heisted from the bank, but it’s filled with dynamite. As the two men are blown up, leaving Mingo alive for a brief moment just enough to give a deathbed confession to exact revenge for his lover’s death and point the finger at Brown.
Richard Conte is icily ruthless as the film’s antagonist, Mr. Brown who is not known by any other name, signifying an enigmatic symbolism for abject violence and immorality. As Dickos states “his imaginative brutality, Lewis bridges violence to the audience’s darker, vicarious desire to see pain inflicted on the screen”
There is a sense of noir fatalism and an underlying current of deviant and provocative sexual appetite within The Big Combo. Much of the violence is influenced by a strong element of sadism. The relationship between Susan and Brown is structured by fatalism, as she is sullen and submissive to his neurotic controlling fixation, while she wants to escape she shows no strength or determination other than to give in to it. Brown is obsessed with Susan as an object, preoccupied with her body. This is illustrated in one scene where he devours her with studied kisses, worships her , and objectifies her with salacious flattery in a way that perversely brings her to ecstasy. It might be this odd sexual attraction to Brown that keeps her passive to his controlling behavior toward her.
From Film Noir Encyclopedia: Edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward “The Homosexuality of Mingo and Fante is smothered in an atmosphere of murder and sadistic torture , as they refine the conventions of violence into a sexual ritual. Joseph H. Lewis’s direction strongly points to a crude sexual bias throughout the film. Even Diamond appears to be sexually frustrated and compensating for impotence. Much in the same way as Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy, there is an affinity between sex and violence.; and the exploration of futility presents an ambience strangely reminiscent of an earlier period of noir films, such as Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window. These attitude combine with John Alton’s photography to create a wholly defined film noir, as striking contrasts between the black and white photography and Lewis’s sexual overtones isolate The Big Combo’s characters in a dark, insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence.” -Carl Macek
From Street With No Name by Andrew Dickos
“The Homoerotic violence in the Mingo-Fante relationship, unencumbered by misguided sociological sentiments, is still stereotyped psycho-sexuality —offensive enough on another score—but it is raw and consistent with the noir world. The privilege of noir cinema, as distinguished from other genres, lies in the latitude these films were permitted in exploring sexual power and its ambiguity, and the reason is apparent; as the cautionary cinema of the great negation of a “healthy’ puritanical American vision, the film noir almost mandates a depiction, however perverse, of those repressed impulses reigning hand-in hand with the anarchy that drives its protagonists to violence and paranoia. Unrepressed sexuality alongside these characteristics is far too messy to contain, so it must be vanquished. When it is particularly threatening, one may be sure that there is a woman involved.”
Lewis’s The Big Combo- “where it becomes almost pornographic to see Susan Lowell hopelessly submit to what is surely suggested to be an act of oral sex performed by her crime-lord boyfriend, Mr. Brown. But Lewis is no pornographer, he is a sensualist in the most serious way. No other works in American film until the 1960s broached the acknowledgment of these carnal hungers as a life-enhancing dimension of dangerous living—indeed, in living a short, intense life unto quick death.”
Both Lewis’ film noir masterpieces Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are sexually defined by the discursive violence of the external world—so much a corollary for the violence of passion that Lewis and screenwriter Philip Jordan can barely mask the story of The Big Combo as merely another sensational example of the extent to which organized crime corrupted postwar American Life.
Your EverLovin’ Joey saying there’s an underlying current of shadows and light here at The Last Drive In, but no worries, you got what it takes to stick around -no need to turn up the volume for you to hear how much I appreciate you all!
In Nightmare Alley Barbara McLean contributes to creating a landscape of a distorted reality alongside the dark, 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.
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’sNightmare Alley,Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950),Henry King’s The Song ofBernadette (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 an editor on Elia Kazan’sViva Zapata in 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.
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, and collaborators that Zanuck went to for guidance. She was very influential in much of Zanuck’s decision-making process, as she often acted as an 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 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 filmmaker Henry King, a relationship that spanned over 29 films including Twelve O’Clock High 1949.
Her last editing credit was for Henry King’sUntamed (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.
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 filmmaking; “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 writer’s and director’s vision and gives it 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 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 the cinema… a pioneer in the industry not only breaking the glass ceiling but taking all the pieces and putting them back together to make an indelible cinematic mural for ages to come.
And now for the Carnival ‘Geek’ in Nightmare Alley: Tyrone Power’sastonishing 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 sideshow 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.
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.
Either on the fairway or the cutting room floor, I’ll be there! Your ever-faithful -MonsterGirl!
Impact(1949) Directed by Arthur LubinImpact stars Brian Donlevyas Walter Williams a wealthy San Fransisco businessman who thinks his wife Irene played by Helen Walker ( great as the dark dominating force Lilith in Nightmare Alley) is truly the adoring woman she pretends to be. Here’s a great article from Movie Morlocks about the unsung talent of sexy Helen Walker.
Irene Gives her husband monogrammed shirts with his initials and calls him softy. She so adept at delivering the saccharine flattery of a doting wife. Unknown to the misguided Walter, she’s done the same monogram initials bit for her lover Tony Barrett as Jim Torrence a ruthless opportunist who has no hesitation in harming Walter to get what he wants.
Jim utters the iconic words from the film that reverberates in Walter’s head once he awakens from the nightmare, “This is for me and Irene sucker” just before he smashes the tire iron down upon Walter’s head.
Before the married couple are supposed to leave on a trip, Irene sets Walter up by feigning illness therefore not feeling well enough to travel with him. Instead, she sends her lover who is pretending to be her cousin Jim Torrence to meet up with Walter so he can give Jim a lift. Jim plans on bumping Walter off along the roadside and meeting up with Irene later at a Hotel under assumed names.
In a moment of sheer fatalistic retribution while speeding away from the crime scene Jim Torrance dies in a horrible head-on collision with a truck, which burns his body beyond recognition. After hitting Walter on the head with a tire iron he viciously throws him down the side of a cliff and leaves him for dead.
But Walter awakens bloodied and dazed climbs onto the back of a Bekins truck and winds up in Larkspur Idaho where he takes a job as a mechanic working for a war widow, the exquisite Ella Raines as Marsha Peters. Ella is even sylph-like in her greasy mechanic’s jumpsuit and cap.
Walter is hired at the gas station using a fake name, and while Marsha is beloved in the community she is not a very good mechanic so Walter takes over for three months, living as a roomer at Marsha’s kindly mother’s home. Walter becomes part of the community, as a volunteer fireman, and starts to relish leaving the big city life behind and the double-crossing wife Irene for this quaint existence in Larkspur.
Walter is assumed to be dead, which is all over the newsprint and later his wife Irene is sent to jail accused of plotting his murder, being hounded by Lt.Quincy played by Charles Coburn.
Walter reads the news, anticipating his revenge now with Irene sentenced to death, and he and Marsha begin to develop feelings for each other. When Walter tells the truth to Marsha..she insists that he do the right thing and go back to San Fransisco and show that he’s still alive.
Ironically, the police then believe the yarn that Irene spins that it was Walter who murdered her lover and not the other way around. Now Marsha and Lt Quincy must track down Su Lin, the William’s maid played by Anna May Wong who isn’t sure if her testimony would either help or hurt the kindly Walter Williams.
While Impact has some of the essential elements of a noir film, it works really well as a MeloNoir, the merging of melodrama and noir together. Brian Donlevy gives a great performance as the paragon betrayed patsy by his ruthless wife Irene. Helen Walker is icy as ever and Ellen is just gorgeous sitting on the stoop in Larkspur.
The Narrator starts off the tone of the film by saying Impact, the force with which two lives come together. Sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.
Visit this revised piece that covers Impactin more detail.
Directed by Edmund Goulding is one of the more moody, nightmarish and sophisticated Noir films of it’s time. Goulding’s direction works like an expose of the sleazier aspects of carnival life, threaded with romance, both surreal and unseemly. Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s book and scripted by Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep). The film is a grim and somber look inside the lives of carnival folk and the demons who ride their backs with drug and alcohol abuse, which breeds inhumanity and the nadir that people are capable of reaching. This beautiful nightmare is both picturesque and polluted with ugly ideologies.
Cinematography by Lee Garmes, (Morocco 1930, Shanghai Express 1932, Scarface 1932, Duel in the Sun 1946, The Paradine Case 1947, The Captive City 1952, Lady in a Cage 1964) Music by Cyril J. Mockridge, and set direction by Thomas Little (Laura 1944, Day the Earth Stood Still 1951). Edited by Barbara McLean.(All About Eve 1950, No Way Out 1950, Niagara 1953).
The film stars Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle a ruthless con artist with no morals who stumbles onto a traveling carnival. Not only did Powers want to see Nightmare Alley made, but he also wanted the leading role to show 20th Century Fox that he was more than just a pretty face. It also stars Joan Blondell (one of my favorites and known for her wise-cracking sex appeal) as Zeena Krumbein, Colleen Gray (Kay in The Killing 1956) as Molly, Ian Keith in an intense role as alcoholic mentalist Pete Krumbein and Mike Mazurki as the strongman Bruno.
Nightmare Alley is an enthrallingly morbid fable about the rise and fall of a greedy, socio-pathic charlatan Stanton Carlisle (Power) who uses his good looks and skillful deception to work his way from traveling carnival barker to high society mentalist. First, he seduces Zeena (Joan Blondell) a gentle soothsayer, in order to obtain the key to her and her husband Pete’s (Ian Keith) mind-reading code. Stanton accidentally poisons Pete when he gives him a bottle of wood alcohol. He then moves on to romance Molly (Colleen Gray) the beautiful young girlfriend of the strongman Bruno (Mazurki). Stanton winds up marrying Molly, and the two leave the seedy carnival life for better pickings as successful nightclub mentalists, of course using the code he charmed out of Zeena. But even the nightclub act is not enough to satiate his desire for power. He meets Lilith (Helen Walker) an unscrupulous psychologist (the film’s coded lesbian and cunning femme fatale) who has access to her clients and can feed Stanton confidential details from her patients. The pair begin to blackmail their clients out of money. The ‘spook racket’ is an extremely profitable scheme, but his plans to build a spiritualist empire is at risk when Molly’s integrity overshadows Lilith’s avarice.
Stanton Carlisle is the film’s charismatic Anti-Hero, the central character who thrusts the film’s narrative forward though there are three very strong female leads. Stanton is portrayed by Tyrone Power in perhaps one of the most enigmatic performances of his career; an amoral misanthrope whose inherent skill is to prey on the vulnerability of people’s weakness.
The film’s two powerful and kind women have a crucial interdependence on Stanton. They are the ‘caregiver’ archetype of women, who while not in threat of bodily harm, their danger lies more in the betrayal of their trust. However, Helen Walker’s heinous psychiatrist who preys on the weakness of others is aptly named Lilith, the most ‘notorious demon’ in Hebrew mythology. Stanton exploits the opportunity that each woman offers up.
It’s a story of a immoral, ill-fated scoundrel who spirals down even farther, into a remote dark corridor where humanity has no place to radiate its light. It’s a story of devouring power and the leap into the pit of perdition with no sign of redemption. A truly nihilistic vision. Ultimately at the climax of Nightmare Alley, Stanton has fallen into the depths of the self-imposed freak show in purgatory.
Mademoiselle Zeena is portrayed by the earthy, gutsy Joan Blondell who is seduced by Stanton Carlisle, the charming carnival barker, con-man into teaching him the secret of “The Blind Fold Code”. A word code that helps mentalists work a crowd of people who submit questions for the “Mentalist” to answer. This was once a very lucrative stunt that Zeena and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) used, which was worth its weight in gold.
Zeena is the catalyst, the unwitting Prophetess who gives away the word code to Stanton. A Faustian contract that ultimately seals his condemned fate. Stanton will sign his soul away for the secret. For him, it is a one-way ticket to obtaining a dark providence for the sake of a brief dance with power. His appetite is fueled by Protean greed to obtain more and more power and riches. He longs to be a bona fide Mentalist, in high society, not just a two-bit cheater in a fleabag carnival. He wants to tap into the profitable Spook Trade where there is more of a potential for wealth. Stanton sees himself becoming more like an Evangelist, a prophet helping ease people’s crisis of faith as well as their grief while turning a sizable profit.
Zeena is also a Circe or Hecate — a witch, a seer, like a figure seen in her obedience to the art of Tarot. And her visions see very dark forces ahead for Stanton. She is a tragic figure because she has fallen under Stanton’s alluring influence, yet she is a devoted caretaker to her husband Pete whose drinking has cast a shadow over their career and marriage. Zeena is a woman trapped by her superstitions and her reverence for the arcane mysteries of life. She’s also a woman driven by her devotion and desires.
In the opening scene we behold The Miracle Woman Zeena, standing on the platform by her tent, like a Greek goddess, a soothsayer, weary with visions of things that have played out in her life. Circumstances the Tarot Cards have foretold, that she is driven by the past winds of fate to observe. Zeena is at the mercy of her willing subjugation to her plight and the sacrifices she’s made in life as a caretaker and mystic witness.
Molly (played by Coleen Gray) is the sweet young girl in the carny act, billed as the Electro Girl who sports a galvanic bra that can withstand electrical shocks so she doesn’t get fried in her seat. Letting the arc of electricity flow between her hands is a mesmerizing scene. It gives Molly her almost fairy-like quality. The mirror with which to reflect whatever decency might still be inherently shrouded in Stanton’s dark heart. She can only see his beauty and his passion for working the crowd and his gift for showmanship. She doesn’t understand his ruthless nature, or that he is exploiting her affections. Molly is in danger of being manipulated by Stanton who plunges into marrying Molly for the purpose of using her in his new act. Her face is almost lit like an icon of a painted Roman angel, cannot see the wheels turning in Stanton’s eyes when he talks about them being together.
Stanton is fascinated by The Geek in the sideshow. This is the carnival’s biggest draw, but a subversive illegal attraction that even some performers won’t work there if a show carries such a grotesque feature. But Stanton is fixated on him. “How do you get a guy to be a Geek, is he born that way?”It’s an unsettling foreshadowing of events. “I can’t understand how can get so low” We can hear the live chickens squawking as they are being fed to The Geek. It’s a disturbing effective use of background sound.
Stanton thrives on the energy of the carnival “I like it, it gets me to see those yokels out there gives you a superior feeling, as if YOU were in the know and they were on the outside looking in.”We see Stanton as an egoist with a ruthless narcissism to take over, be in control, to be omnipotent.
Stanton first starts working on Zeena’s affections in order to procure the secret code. She doesn’t want to hurt Pete. But she is taken in by Stanton’s seductions. If the new act works, she could make enough money to get Pete “the cure”. “Oh Stan do you think I could make the big time again?” Her arm stretched out leaning on a pole, he kisses the soft insides where her arm bends. She is torn between enabling Pete and being seduced by their lustful manipulations by Stanton.
Stanton shows up later at Zeena’s hotel room where she has laid out the Tarot cards. He asks what she’s doing. “This is the Tarot, the oldest kind of cards in the world … whenever I have something to decide or don’t know which way to turn.”
She tells him to cut the cards 3 times. “Look Stan that’s the Wheel of Fortune, Pete and I never had it this good!”Everything looks good for them in the reading, but there is no sign of Pete dead or alive. Zeena starts to panic. Stanton picks up a card that had fallen on the floor face down. Zeena is shaken, “It couldn’t be like that it’s too awful, it’s too crazy what have I done!”
She tells Stan to take his bags and get out, it’s all off. Stan asks what he’s done, she says “Nothing! but I can’t go against the cards.”
Nightmare Alley’s characters each have their own level of spiritual awareness, an intimate relationship with their own nature of worship. Zeena dabbles in the esoteric mystical aspects of superstitions of luck and curses. The Marshall who comes to shut the carnival down, has a very quiet reverence as a good Christian man, Molly is the embodiment of moral purity, and Stanton sees himself wielding his own religion as a Nietzcsheqsue Uberman.
Zeena shows Stanton Pete’s card. The Hanged Man is the recurring theme of the film. This again is the foreshadowing of what can happen when humanity is sacrificed for power. She tells Stan when a card falls face down on the floor, whatever is going to happen is going to happen fast and it’s never good. Stans says “That’s for the chumps, to fall for one of your own boob catchers”He’s so superior, so ruthless, he cannot even fathom that the warning might be credible. We don’t really see shades of humanity in him but a curiosity, as Stanton asks “I wonder why I’m like that, never thinking about anybody but myself.” Zeena asks if his folks dropped him on his head. “Yeah, they dropped me.” This gives us a little background, he grew up in an orphanage where he became aware of the Gospel that came with black and blue bruises and its useful passages he can avail himself of later. They kiss, and Zeena is once again under his charismatic control.
Molly: You ought to have heard Stan spout the gospel to that old hypocrite. It was like being in Sunday school.
Stanton Carlisle: In the orphanage. That’s what they used to give us on Sunday after beating us black-and-blue all week. Then when I ran away, they threw me in the reform school. But that’s where I got wise to myself. I let the chaplain save me, and got a parole in no time. Boy, how I went for salvation! Comes in kind of handy when you’re in a jam.
On a foggy night, crickets chanting, Zeena’s husband Pete, staggering in between the caravans of the carnival stumbles upon Stanton one night. Zeena has cut him off from his drinking. Pete has the dropsies. In the background, we hear the Geek wailing, screaming, ungodly screams. “He’s got the heebie-jeebies again.”
Throughout the film’s darker scenes the usage of music by Cyril Mockeridge, with orchestral arrangements by Maurice Packh underscores moments with a diabolical motif, again in keeping with the Faustian theme. Several waves of glossolalia especially where the Geek runs amok on the carny grounds are simply mind-altering.
Stanton gives Pete the bottle he’s stashed in the prop trunk and says here you need this more than me. Pete tells him “You’re a good kid Stan, you’re going places, nothing can keep you out of the big time, just like I used to have.” He reminisces about him and Zeena during their big time when they had top billing. The Geek comes stumbling near them singing an incoherent tune, “Poor guy” Stanton says. “If it weren’t for Zeena they’d be saying that about me, Poor Pete, Pete the Geek” He remembered that fellow when he’d first showed up at the carnival. He used to be plenty big-time. “Mental Act?” “what difference does it make, old smoked meat now, just a bottle a day rum dumb and he thinks this job is heaven, as long as there’s a bottle a day and a dry place to sleep it off. There’s only one thing this stuff (bottle) will make you forget how to forget.”
Pete jumps onto the platform, turns the grungy, swinging overhead lamp on, and begins his little soliloquy, his old spiel “Throughout the ages certain men have looked into the polished crystal (holds the bottle of liquor to his breast and gazes) and see, is it something about the quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his own gaze inward” now holding his hands to his temples as if to gleaning visions” in a seriously, sage like tone, as if giving a sermon (again the comparative to religion).
“Who knows, but visions come, slowly shifting their form, visions come, WAIT! the shifting shapes, begin to clear.”
Pete Krumbein: Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal… and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come. Slowly shifting their forms… visions come. Wait. The shifting shapes begin to clear. I see fields of grass… rolling hills… and a boy. A boy is running barefoot through the hills. A dog is with him. A… DOG… is… with… him.
Pete Krumbein: [Choked laughter] Humph. See how easy it is to *hook* ’em!
He begins to describe fields of rollings hills to Stanton, a young barefooted boy, and a dog. Stanton caught up in Pete’s oration begins to tell him, “His name is Jim, go on” Pete breaks from his trance and begins to laugh sardonically, “See how easy it is to hook ’em!” he cackles. “Stock reading fits everybody. Every boy has a dog”, as he laughs. But Pete’s demonstration deepens Stanton’s hunger to obtain the ability to entrance people by elocution and persuasion. To divine people’s souls by reading their body language. To Stanton, this is a form of religion. To be a holy man of the mental act. An art form, a business, and again, a spiritual rescuer to those who are in a crisis of faith — only… for a price.
That night, Stanton unknowingly slips Pete a bottle of wood alcohol that Zeena uses to burn the papers of written questions from the audience. Stanton accidentally reaches into the prop trunk and grabs the wrong bottle. The bottle that Pete had been drinking that night. He dies and leaves Zeena to renew the act with Stanton as her partner working for the crowd. But the guilt that starts to build up in Stanton’s psyche haunts him, and eventually becomes the spiraling down, the turn of his destiny and his ruination. While climbing to the top in society being billed at a Chicago nightclub as a Mentalist he is attracting a lot of attention.
Zeena shows up at Stanton and Molly’s hotel for a surprise visit. Again she lays out the Tarot cards “You’re going to the top, like a skyrocket”The one card face down is The Hanged Man, Pete’s card. This rattles Stanton. Molly believes it and Zeena warns Stanton not to take the act in the direction he is thinking. He calls Zeena and Bruno carnival freaks and tells them to get out. But Zeena comes back having forgotten her Tarot deck. Again, Zeena finds The Hanged Man face down on the floor. We hear the music glossolalia again, the disturbing voices resurrected in the backdrop. Later, Stanton goes to get a massage and when the masseuse puts alcohol on Stan’s skin to close his pores, he thinks of Pete about the night he inadvertently switched the bottles of alcohol that killed Pete. The act he benefited from because it created his opportunity to use “the code” and rise to the top.
At the nightclub in Chicago, in the audience one night, there is a woman, Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) a cunning psychoanalyst, who challenges Stanton. He goes to see her at her office and a new unholy relationship is forged. Not based on sexuality but the mutual bond of greed and opportunistic paranoia. She is the femme fatale of this noir film. She records all her patient’s sessions and Stanton wants to be able to use that information to his advantage, by having inside details of people’s lives that he can use in his Mentalist act. The name Lilith again is an interesting element. Lilith in Hebrew mythology is related to a class of female demons. When Stanton accuses her of secretly recording her patient’s sessions she espouses “Anything my patients reveal is as sacred as if given under the seal of the confessional.” Again references to the religious structure. And the twisted bond they forge from this point on is based on “it takes one, to catch one.”
Ritter gives Stanton secret information about a wealthy patient of hers. Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes). Stan sees it as “An absolute blown in the glass clincher” Stan doesn’t see this skeptic as a challenge because his ego is so poised that he is certain he can con this old man into believing that he can manifest the spirit of his long-dead love Dory. Using his command of the Gospel, Ezra a man who obviously struggles with religion, is told to “prepare himself more with prayer and good works” To Stanton this translates into receiving enough money for his own radio station and tabernacle.
Trying to use Molly as an accomplice to dupe the very wealthy man out of a fortune Molly threatens to leave Stan. He manipulates her love for him by telling her “What should I do, should I let the man’s soul be lost forever, or should I stake my own to save it!”It is this brilliant subterfuge that convinces Molly to stand by him for this ruse. She is so bound by her blindness, that she follows Stanton a bit further. She agrees to play the ghost of Dora.
From here on in, Stanton begins his descent down the darkened pit, where he losses his wicked identity and transforms into a damned, lowly geek.
Stanton Carlisle: Listen to me, I’m no good. I never pretended to be. But, I love you. I’m a hustler. I’ve always been one. But, I love you. I may be the thief of the world, but, with you I’ve always been on the level.
McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: Wait. I just happened to think of something. I might have a job you can take a crack at. Course it isn’t much and I’m not begging you to take it, but it’s a job.
William Lindsay Gresham discusses his creative angst researching Nightmare Alley, as a backdrop to his own movement toward faith. Here it’s cited his discovery of Tarot:
“During my analysis I had a brief period of prosperity: I managed to write a novel, savage, violent, and neurotic, which made money. Yet with a temporary release from financial worries, my own inner nightmare grew worse. It was not true, then, that men live by bread alone?”(Source)