Susan and God (1940)

31 03 2014

This film came in-between two of Joan Crawford and George Cukor’s more celebrated collaborations, The Women in 1939 and A Woman’s Face in 1941. I can’t speak on behalf of the former, but in comparison to the latter, it falls quite short of that film’s promise. What we have here is something of a failed comedy, an attempt at “religious satire” and whether it succeeds or fails is beyond me because the idea of a religious satire just seems so stale and uninteresting to me. The limitation of such a commentary makes the humor all a bit simplistic and if satire is meant to provide a larger critique of social life, then that is missing here. Despite this being a laborious viewing and one of Cukor’s more boring efforts, it actually is interesting, albeit in a way that is unintentional. The film glosses over an interesting dynamic involving self-image and public perception. It doesn’t save the film, but it does suggest that even when he was boring, Cukor was still interesting.

1

Wealthy socialite Susan Trexel returns home from her European vacation with a surprising announcement for all of her friends: she’s found God. Although they all act supportive of her new lifestyle, many of them are skeptical of it as nothing more than another mask for her to try on, a personal trend that will soon fade into obscurity. The most skeptical is Susan’s husband, Barry, who she seeks a separation from. Using their daughter Blossom as motivation, Barry coerces Susan to spend the summer together with her husband and daughter. Barry’s intentions are to make Susan see the error of her ways, and realize that she needs to keep the family together. At the same time, Barry himself begins to find himself increasingly interested in Charlotte.

2

All of the relationships emphasized here are remarkably dull. Susan’s relationship with Barry goes so in tune with typical drama that one feels the sensation of it working too perfectly, even as the setup itself is completely nonsensical. The entire film goes a great length to show Susan’s own unrest with Barry. This is something that is reinforced up until the final minute when the two inexplicably reunite. Everything gets tied up nicely because this is a Hollywood film, but it’s so jarring that it seems conscious of the unreal way the couple’s feelings manifest. The screenplay is based on a play byRachel Crothers, which was reworked by Anita Loos. Despite the presence of women in the film’s writing, the discourse suggests something remarkably misogynist. Susan’s spirituality is just an act, and she just needs to be won over by Barry. She finally submits to his constant pressure, which seems heartbreaking enough, but maybe it is even more so when the film treats their relationship working out as a happy ending. All of her complaints about Barry are thrown out the window. Susan is constantly framed as a superficial individual so we’re led to expect any reservations she had about reuniting with Barry were trivial and silly.

3

It’s important to distinguish that the film does position its perspective with Barry. We’re told to sympathize with him, feel his hurt and anguish by the flaky Susan breaking his heart. The fact that he never bothers to listen to Susan is also a fault of the film. I could here say then that it is sort of brilliant in that a woman’s voice being muffled by a man’s own heartbreak is something that happens so frequently that the film manages to capture this phenomenon. I think, instead, that this is the film’s biggest fault. It allows Susan no room to breathe, or even wear a face of concern. Her only problems that the film bothers to articulate to us are immediate and none of them are crucial. In reality, her disappointment in her marriage might have been the very thing that motivated her to become religious, or even pretend to be religious. This is where Cukor actually stumbles upon something kind of brilliant: the film unintentionally illustrates the problems that come when self-image doesn’t match perception.

4

To use a modern example, think of Susan’s spirituality along the lines of modern Hollywood stars and their philanthropy. I find nothing especially wrong with someone using their fame to call attention to certain issues, but often this is only done in service of an image. Modern celebrities, particularly white and male ones, have control over their self-image. This is why Bono’s name evokes images of starving third-world children just as much as it reminds of us his actual music. I suspect that Susan here is actually attempting something similar. She might really be religious and Bono might really have concerns for every starving child alive, but the broadcasting of this personality implies that it is somewhat performed. Bono, as white and male, does gain control of his image but Susan has no such luck. Her spirituality is her trying to take control of how she’s perceived, but it is ultimately undone by Barry’s control. The film attempts to mock her at every turn for her vanity, but there is something tragic about her destination. She never changes how people see her, and more importantly, she’s forced back into marriage that despite the swooning Hollywood love music, she is actually against. In the middle of this forgettable “religious satire” there’s an engrossing and devastating portrait of someone whose voice can’t be heard.

5

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A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

27 03 2014

I was going to start this review by saying that this effort is more of the same from Cukor, as if I had plummeted back down to earth with him after the high of seeing A Woman’s Face but the negative connotation would be far too dramatic. This a wonderful film, tight and theatrical like Dinner at Eight yes, but one that works better because the drama is confined to three characters and about the same number of rooms in a single house. Yes, Barrymore and Hepburn play things broadly, but I don’t think that immediately makes their performances silly nor does it make their characters simplistic and dull. They’re quite the opposite, the film is a tragic portrait of a family experiencing an extreme failure to communicate. They’ve pushed their emotions to the ground, and the resurfacing of their patriarch, who they never expected to see again, brings all these things to the foreground.

1

Margaret and her daughter Sidney seem to have finally found a moment of happiness and peace. Margaret herself is finally ready to remarry and she’s found a quality suitor. Sidney might have a long future with her boyfriend, Kit, but she’s not particularly concerned with their relationship. She’s fine tagging along with him back to Canada, but doesn’t show much interest in showing commitment to him. The two seem to have escaped a dark shadow obscuring their lives for years, that of their family’s patriarch, Hilary. He’s been kept away from the family, dealing with PTSD following the war. However, he’s been let out, and he’s come back to resume life with his family, who has already moved on.

2

It would be a glaring problem for a film that is about mental illness to, you know, fuck up dealing with mental illness. One could give the film a benefit of the doubt and just say it hasn’t aged well, but the dialogue about mental illness might be unintentionally effective. The insensitive nature much of the public talks about it is not that different from how the characters here try to accurately describe it. The film’s central conceit is that that maybe Sidney has inherited Hilary’s illness because maybe it’s not just PTSD from the war. This is awkward because mental illness is not something you “have” in a way that is immediately identifiable. It doesn’t hep that Hilary’s illness is never described beyond being “crazy” which obviously isn’t the most medically accurate term. The film weirdly frame’s Sidney’s possibility of inheriting this disease as something of a mysterious twist. There’s hints dropped, but there’s no implication that it will be a problem to her.

3

So Cukor doesn’t exactly win me over with this kind of hokey handling of mental illness. Hilary’s relationships are the main thing at risk here, and Cukor actually offers something interesting here: he tries to situate Hilary himself outside of the center. As opposed to being “insane” as the film insensitively puts it, he does show a chronic inability to comprehend the struggles that face both Margaret and Sidney. He’s been locked away for fifteen years, but he sees Margaret trying to start a relationship with another man as betrayal. The film frames his reasoning as one to sympathize with: he’s been struggling to handle his disease and she’s basically abandoned him. She hasn’t been there for him “in sickness or in health” but the dedication of the wedding vows are only seen from Hilary’s expectation of Margaret. She’s had no obligation to sit idly and alone by the window until he’s finally cleared to return to the outside world. An audience in 1932 might have sympathized with Hilary’s situation, but the film goes the extra mile by presenting his argument as the correct one, but instead shows that Margaret herself has shared his suffering. Her loving another man has not weakened her feelings for Hilary, but his expectation for her complete romantic dedication is simply too unrealistic.

4

This is all actually really complex and difficult to process, which seems like an odd thing to say about a film that runs barely over one hour and whose filmmaker frequently paints with broad strokes. While the characters that inhabit the film may not be that complicated themselves, Cukor’s positioning of them is interesting. They may be “flat” or whatever, but that doesn’t mean inherently less interesting. In my review of Hong Sang-Soo’s Our Sunhi I discuss the way he de-centers heterosexual relationships from the men. In love stories, they are almost always the ones who endure pain and heartache and the women are merely the agents that bring on that heartache. Here, the opposite is the case. Romantic love is not the context here, but here’s a rare moment where a male figure, one who is suppose to represent protection and care, is the agent of emotional distress for two women. Weirdly, Hilary himself never learns this. He can only accept Margaret’s decision to move on when he sees her new boyfriend declaring his passion for her. He can only let go when he sees the situation through the eyes of another man.

5

Hong seems like a distant connection for some, probably. Maybe Yasujiro Ozu is an easier connection to understand. The failure of a patriarchal figure echoes his The End of Summer. Upon first encountering his daughter, Sidney, Hilary mistakes her for his wife. “My wife’s not my wife, she’s my daughter” is almost too on the nose for Freudian psychoanalysis, but people speak about Late Spring offering a similar relationship. I don’t buy it in that film, personally, though Cukor’s film ends with the type of father-daughter moment that is rare in all of films but makes up a great part of Ozu’s classic. Here, Hilary and Sidney quietly accept their fate together: they’re to spend the rest of their life ostracized from the rest of the world for reasons they can’t control. Their companionship can’t save them from this fact and I won’t suggest something trite like they can “work through it together” but a community of those suffering is a important thing. It can help make you feel a lot less alone.

6





A Woman’s Face (1941)

24 03 2014

As much as I’ve enjoyed the Cukor films I’ve watched in the past week, they’ve been a little light on personality. Again, they’ve all been good but seem to be missing something that could be classified as uniquely Cukor’s. A Woman’s Face, on the other hand, is the first film of his that I’ve seen that seems especially unique, a film that one probably couldn’t find in the career of any other classic Hollywood director. The film, dripping with melodramatic flourishes, might not seem the most natural or easiest effort of Cukor’s to digest, but it is absolutely one of the richest, most complex films I’ve seen from the era. It’s not quite an out right masterpiece, but it is one of those films that is so singular and unique that it should be (re)considered.

1

Anna Holm storms into the court as the public loudly chatters. The charge is never read to the audience, but we can deduce that she is the one on trial. A group of witnesses explain how they met Holm, but their stories never seem to reach a climax, instead they just seem to be establishing context. Then, it is revealed that Holm is a blackmailer, and she runs a rural bar as a cover. Also, she has a very distinctive scar on the right side of her face, one she conscientiously tries to hide from the rest of the world. Her employees all know her truth, though, and they all gossip about her perceived ugliness. Holm sees herself as a monster as well, and when one Torsten Barring attempts to seduce her, she can’t help but falling helplessly in love with him. His affection comes at a price, though, as he expects Holm to kill off Lars-Erik Barring, his nephew who is the one obstacle to him receiving a large inheritance.

2

While the setup here is melodrama, I feel the need to clarify that I don’t think this is something inherently negative. Additionally, I don’t think Cukor plays things in the manner that an accusation of melodrama would be read as a negative. This is a melodramatic film, and by that I mean that the flow of the narrative is one that, taken out of context, would seem pretty ridiculous. Again, though this doesn’t make a film “bad” and Cukor thankfully handles the frequent emotional turns with a deft touch. The film’s wordless opening is particularly powerful, and it has the type of coldblooded austerity of a Bresson or Haneke. In fact, the visuals of the opening seem like they could easily be mistaken for Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, perhaps a fitting comparison considering that the protagonist here is thrown into fire by a society already set against her.

3

Joan Crawford is important in selling Anna Holm’s “me vs the rest of the world” mentality. I guess conventional wisdom associates her with a type of heightened performance (see Mildred Pierce) but her ferocity here perfectly underscores the tragedy of her predicament. A woman who has never known love or affection, is suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of positive reinforcement, but her love can only validated if she murders a child. Holm has essentially been trapped in a box, indeed one that a patriarchal society fits for most women. Her appearance further ostracized her, which leads to her violence. “The world was against me so I was against it” she poignantly states during the trial. The use of the past tense suggests that her medical procedure has saved her from this scrutiny but it only leads to another set of issues. Sure, in a society that relates a woman’s worth with her beauty she does have an advantage after her surgery. However, her beauty makes her relationship with Torsten Barring more high-stakes and eventually, tragic.

4

Holm’s doctor, Gustaf Segert, laments pre-surgery that he may invent a monster if the procedure is successful. It’s him posturing as a philosopher when he suggests that a beautiful woman with no heart is a monster. The film doesn’t support his view, but it provides it to illustrate an important point. It’s Holm’s oppression, the disgust everyone greeted her with that made her cold and bitter. This might be the most crucial element of Cukor’s film. His queer identity was something I assumed would be mostly veiled from his actually work with maybe some moments of homoerotic subtext. Instead, here is he making a concise and important point: the need for such an identity and community is necessary because of the oppression. Now, this sounds kind of bad, as if I’m arguing that bigotry brought people closer. I mean that it created a vital resistance, because there had to be one. Holm is not to blame for being a heartless woman, but instead it’s a society that has done everything to point out her perceived flaws and distance itself from her. That’s why when she’s tormented by her acceptance as a beautiful woman, because it almost validates the ill treatment she received when she was (supposedly) hideous.

5

All of this seems like the heaviest political aspect of what is already a heavy emotional film, but Cukor’s own playfulness works to his advantage while it manages to reinforce the above argument. The relationship of Torsten and Holm is one that develops from him seducing her, the first ever femme fatale that identifies as a man. Quietly, Torsten follows the same trajectory of this stock female character. His evilness is meant to be Holm’s downfall, her punishment for not quietly accepting the way society has rejected her entire existence. Instead, the film concludes on a rather happy note. But still, Cukor’s gender reversal is not only sneaky and clever, but illustrates a more realistic point about power dynamics. The conventional femme fatale is an independent woman whose independence is associated with evil, and her modernity is the downfall of the typical, helpless male. This dynamic had such novelty because of its erotic potential, sure, but also because it actually reaffirms a very conservative set of beliefs. Cukor manages to tear all of this down, and the destruction is as captivating as the film’s superficial narrative.

6





Dinner at Eight (1933)

23 03 2014

One could accuse this Cukor effort, based on a stage play penned by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, of being too theatrical. However accurate the accusation may be, it seems to miss the point: this is a film whose stylistic proximity to its stage origins help create the sort of nervous tension that such a narrative requires. Cukor himself isn’t trying to salvage something “cinematic” (which is more commonly  and erroneously used to describe a camera moving) but instead reveling in the theatrical nature of the work. He’s not the only director to make a “theatrical” film, nor is he the only one to make a film with a lot of talking and little camera movement. It might not explode out onto the screen, and the character might not be particularly complex and rich, but that doesn’t mean Cukor hasn’t sculpted a dense and worthy drama. Maybe it’s not his film, but it’s still a good film.

1

With the economy collapsing, the wealthy Jordans want to ensure their stockholders that everything is perfectly fine. Millicent plans a dinner party, while Oliver desperately tries to hide both the poor health of himself and his shipping company from his acquaintances. An old flame and former movie star, Carlotta, stops by to mention that she’s considering selling her stock. Oliver, recalling their romance of the past, persuades her to hold off for the time being and suggests she comes to dinner. Meanwhile, businessman Dan Packard is struggling to deal with his much younger wife, Kitty, who refuses to show him affection or any interest in his budding career as a politician in Washington. Olivier convinces Millicent to invite them, and washed up movie star, Larry Renault to the dinner as well. Renault, desperate for parts has been secretly seeing Millicent and Oliver’s daughter, Paula. Paula herself is expected to marry Ernest, who is much closer to her age, but her feelings for Renault begin to grow deeper. At the same time, all the preparations for the dinner itself seem to fall apart.

2

The issue with a script with as many characters as this is that they’re never really given the substantial amount of time needed to be fleshed out. Weirdly, the film feels like a looser, less dense warmup for Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game. It’s hardly a criticism of Cukor to say that his characters feel a little flat next to one of the most celebrated films of all-time. Still, the issue remains and if there’s anything particularly “off” about Cukor’s film it’s that he seems more deeply invested in some characters, while only having a passing interest in others. In keeping with the “theatrical” style, the performances tend to be broad to begin with, which does suggest the film might just be a wild miscalculation. On the surface, it’s probably too simplistic, both in pen and performance, to really work as a human drama.

3

There are some sincerely tender moments in the film, though. The most fascinating character in the film might be Larry Renault, a washed up actor played by John Barrymore. By 1933, Barrymore himself would have been able to relate to his character. Even if the script itself calls for him to chew the scenery, he does so gracefully. A bitter old man fueled by alcohol and disappointment might seem like its courting something schmaltzy, but Barrymore’s performance stings in its similarity to the actor’s own life. Sunset Boulevard is a fair comparison, but where as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond fall from stardom is contextualized in an exciting mystery, the audience here must sit in Barrymore’s hotel room, one that is expansive but appears increasingly crowded with his dirty clothes and empty bottles of whiskey. His romance with Paula suggests something that would give him energy and motivate him to continue on with whatever is left of his career, but he essentially says that their love does the opposite. It drains him, and his low point might be a hokey, maudlin mess in an other director’s hands but it plays beautifully and tragically with Cukor’s touch.

4

Barrymore’s Renault character is an anomaly, though. Interestingly, Cukor revisits the “gold-digger” discourse of Girls About Town but he has far less interesting things to say here. Instead, Jean Harlow’s Kitty is lazy and needy. To be fair, one should acknowledge that the film wisely views the doctor she has an affair with more harshly. After all, his marriage is one that seems completely fair and loving. The film might sympathize with Kitty’s infidelity by showing her marriage as not just loveless and unfair, but one that anticipates violence. Of course, the pathos of that never appears in Cukor’s frame because the explanation is that both parties in the Packard marriage are pathetic. This is a little unsettling, but the film at least gives Kitty the last laugh, quite literally.

5





Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

19 03 2014

I come to Manhattan Melodrama as a continuing effort to familiarize myself with director George Cukor. His work on this film is apparently minor, he was called in to shot some scenes after the film’s original director, W.S. Van Dyke, had already moved on to work on The Thin Man. This puts me in a tough position because anything I want to extrapolate here as an overall part of Cukor’s cinematic vision is compromised as I don’t know what is his exactly. If there’s something to continue from Girls About Town (1931, and just reviewed yesterday) it’s that Cukor’s character find themselves in unique relationships. One might argue that such novelty is necessary and not particularly remarkable for a dramatic film, but once again, I find something negotiating the expectations of heterosexual relationships. It’s far more subtle (and probably unintentional) in comparison to the aforementioned Girls About Town but it fascinates me just as much.

1

Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell)  are friends who lose their parents in the PS General Slucum disaster. Orphaned, the two are taken in by Father Joe who raises them until they are adults. Years later, Blackie is an infamous New York City gangster and Jim is now the district attorney.  Blackie suggests Eleanor (Myrna Loy), his girlfriend, go out with Wade for an evening. When she returns, she begs Blackie for a more secure life, one that isn’t dependent on his risky lifestyle. He declines, and she leaves. Months later, she’s now involved with Wade, who is running for governor of the state of New York. The two plan to wed, but Blackie’s presence in both of their lives makes things complicated. The public begins to grow suspicious of Wade’s relationship with a noted gangster.

2

I’m usually not good for addressing why certain actors are so impressive to me, and I’m not about to have a moment of clarity in describing what makes Myrna Loy so wonderful in this film. Despite my description of the plot above, she actually is a huge part of the story yet a quick synopsis makes her seem like a background character. She leaves Blackie, sure, but this dramatic turn does not feel unearned or sappy. She still loves him, sure and she always will, but she leaves him to pursue her own interests. It’s a hard dynamic to explain but even with Wade and Blackie as intentionally opposing representations of law, one doesn’t get the impression that a binary is in play. I think this is because Loy plays things so casually, I mean she has her teary-eyed moments but there is something in her that grounds the drama. For a film that actually is about life or death, it tries everything in its power to recreate a feeling that is the opposite and for the most part, it is remarkably successful.

3

Loy’s casual performance also brings the film’s most intriguing element: its love triangle. Sure, the love triangle has become a trite angle for dozens of forgettable art films, but Cukor (and Van Dyke) almost benefit from the fact that their trio’s sexuality can’t be too pronounced. It’s not that some bisexual subtext can be read from the three’s relationship (though it’s completely possible) it’s instead that despite the narrative’s dramatic pull, there is something amiable in the way all three communicate to each other. Even in the film’s final twenty minutes, which includes Wade arguing to a jury to put Black to death, there is something remarkably pleasant going on. It seems that the film intends for something dramatic to be happening, but not that the audience feel that typical tension. A perfect encapsulation of this is the film’s final scene, which poignantly reunites Wade and Blackie with Father Joe. Blackie is to be put to death, which is obviously terrible and sad but Gable, as Blackie, temporarily deflects these feelings. He makes jokes about his upcoming demise. Wade offers him a way out, but he explains that he’d rather die when he wants to then not live the way he wants to. The ending is sad, but not tragic. As the title suggests, yes, something of a melodrama but it is never close to schmaltzy.

4





Girls About Town (1931)

18 03 2014

Unlike your typical classic Hollywood fan, I’m a little less accepting of some of sexual politics we’re expected from the era. This seems like a generalization, but there is a impulse in some cinephiles to accept certain elements of a film as a sign of the times. To use an example from this film, a 1931 effort from George Cukor, the presence of black maids. The “backwardness” of certain classic films does risk, at least to me, their potential to be enjoyed or even to be watched by me. However, my larger point is that this backwardness sometimes comes in something superficial yet still serious. Cukor’s handling of sexual politics is actually ahead of his time, especially when one considers the heteronormative moralizing that still saturates the multiplex to this day.

1

Wanda Howard (Kay Francis) and Marie Bailey (Lilyan Tashman) are both regarded as professional gold-diggers, though both would reject such categorization. Still, their nights in Manhattan are financed by a revolving door of boring yet wealthy men from the Midwest. After the night of big spending, the two are able to dismiss their respective suitors before anything more serious starts. Wanda is growing weary of the lifestyle, perhaps craving something more authentic, but Marie thrives off of it and suggests the two go on a cruise where they’re sure to stumble upon more men. Wanda begrudgingly agrees, but on the cruise, she meets Jim Baker (Joel McCrea), a man whose face is as attractive as his wallet.

2

I guess I think it’s important to clarify that I think the constructed “gold-digger” identity is not only an unfair, but a blatantly misogynist one. There are women who might get romantically involved with a man with only financially stability in mind, but I don’t find anything disgusting or gross about this. I, like Cukor, instead see this as a resourceful, perhaps even reasonable route for a group who is told upward mobility is possible but is never given a chance to figure this out. One scene artfully illustrates the situation for a young woman in 1931, and it resonates now. Supposed millionaire Benjamin Thomas announced he’ll pay upwards of a thousand dollars to any young women who can dive into the ocean and retrieve a golf ball. Of course, the balls immediately sink to the ocean and no is able to retrieve them. Marie actually succeeds but then discovers that Thomas isn’t all that rich. He can’t pay her.

3

The Thomas character in particular, played by Eugene Pallette who frequently played rude ogres, does much to shift the focus of the gold-digger dynamic from blaming the women who are trying to survive to the men who are not only easily manipulative but totally aware of what they’re about to get involved in. The term itself “gold-digger” never focuses on the men who are equally complicit, instead casts them as the victims to the cold women. The patriarchy shames the women that have managed to find a cheat in a system, one which allows them to use their own sexuality for capital gain. Pallette’s performance as Thomas is one of a stumbling and stubborn man, the goofy type to be the “victim” in this situation. He becomes the subject to criticize, not just because he’s unfaithful but he’s even more of a liar than either so-called “gold-digger.”

4

Cukor’s meditation on sexual politics doesn’t end on a well articulated hypocrisy involved in crying about women interested in money. In their first scene together, Jim and Wanda agree to “pretend” that they really like each other. After the agreement, the camera cuts to some hijinx involving Thomas and Marie, but then it comes back. Jim and Wanda seem to be deeply in love in that sort of stupid, yet kind of perfect way people fall in love in Hollywood movies. They express an ache in their hearts for each other, but Jim breaks character. He laughs as Wanda proclaims that she’ll cook breakfast for him every morning. The charade was just that, but of course the two told us that ahead of time. Wanda is still hurt, but their beautiful Hollywood meeting was all fake. Maybe it’s cynical and bitter to suggest that all of love and romance is performative, but Cukor includes this tidbit to suggest that some performance and some dishonesty is involved in love. It’s not just Wanda and Marie pretending to love rich men, but instead a man like Jim hiding behind insecurities, ultimately a fear of being hurt because he’s opened himself up. It’s why people are told to play it cool and often, the failure to do so results in the potential romance dissolving.

5

Now, this all seems like a lot to take from a 70 minute, pre-code film that can be described tonally as light-hearted. Cukor doesn’t present his musings on relationships as the heavy, “important” ideas that they could be, which is what makes them all the more staggering. All of what I describe above is enclosed in a short film that moves quickly and shows few signs of being schmaltzy or sentimental. Maybe as it loses something as it stops to flesh out Wanda’s ex-husband as suffering from poverty, but it’s a quick and smooth visualization of the life pushed upon her if she couldn’t find a stable and wealthy man. Even when the film tries to morally cry out against “loose” or “manipulative” women it manages to craft an imbalance world that leads to these unfair categorizations and shows the men as not exactly faultless and innocent.

6





Knock on Any Door (1949)

17 03 2014

Nicholas Ray’s interest in wayward youth tends to yield some of his best efforts, most notably Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night. This early effort, coming after They Live By Night, speaks to this interest and its central argument is an admirable one. Ray could be chastised for his bluntness, but the film’s discourse, the idea that the impoverished are unfairly criminalized is sort of stunning and remarkable, especially considering the era in which it is argued. I do not fault Ray for his bluntness, as I don’t think “subtle politics” is inherently smoother to digest, but this film ultimately pulls up short because it betrays the central argument. It ends up eating away at his own idea. He himself indulges into criminalizing poverty, but the fact that the film manages to illustrate this argument in an artful enough way (yes, parts are indeed hammy) means it is absolutely worthy of attention.

1

Nick Romano has a criminal past, which doesn’t make it difficult for the police to pin the murder of an officer on his hands.However, he swear he didn’t do it. He calls his lawyer, Andrew Morton, but he’s fed up with Romano constantly getting in trouble. Some silent stares from his social worker wife, Adele, convinces him to go to bat for Romano for one more time. The trial begins and Morton uses his opening statement to describe his relationship with Romano, how they met, and just what exactly the two went through in the past six years. The idea is that Nick Romano can’t be seen as innocent unless the proper context is established, because all signs already point to his guilt.

2

From a pure storytelling perspective, there is something I admire about how Ray structures his film. The opening hour is basically an extended flashback of Romano’s difficult adolescence as told by Morton to the jury. Then, the film immediately switches gears to a tense and sweaty court case. Traditionally, this could be viewed as sloppy filmmaking, but to me it shows Ray’s own youthfulness. It’s jarring, but the sloppiness is endearing to me. The film seems to work on its own level, one that is indeed forceful with social commentary, but at least doesn’t mask its discourse in a film that is typical and orthodox. On the contrary, Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is spectacular. The film frequently positions its subjects in the corner of the frame, almost as though they are spectators in a showing of the film itself, reinforcing the idea that crimes are not something performed in a blender. Instead, there are an influx of factors. It sounds like an attempt to dissolve responsibility, but he wants to re-center things on the individuals who are never criminals, but are deeply complicit in criminalizing certain groups.

3

I think what Ray is ultimately arguing here is not only insightful, but kind of ahead of his time. Morton’s closing remark is one of Bogart’s most dominant yet engaging moments as a performer. Many might see his argument as either far too eloquent or a boring tirade too simplistic in grouping his critique against “society.” Instead, there is something banal about saying society is the real criminal, but the film’s text extends its critique to something deeper. Perhaps, Bogart’s passionate final defense shows hints of an acknowledgement of hegemony, though that word obviously never reaches his lips. Ray using Bogart as a mouthpiece might seem like an error, one that wouldn’t be expected in a filmmaker that was championed by Manny Farber.

4

Ray’s biggest mistake is not being on the nose with his politics. Sure, it does bring the film to a halt at times but it doesn’t feel unnatural. Instead, Ray betrays his own politics. The film’s most crucial mistake comes twenty minutes in where we learn that the Romano family, reeling from the death of their patriarchal figure, has moved to the “worst neighborhood in town, arguably in the entire country” to quote Morton. The film wants to suggest that the poor are unfairly criminalized, but this very scene does the exact same thing. Instead, it seems to suggest that it is only interest in arguing the innocence of Nick Romano, not that of the other criminalized bodies entrenched in poverty. He’s just misunderstood and is unfairly thrown into a dog eat dog environment, but the rest of inhabitants are just pawns in reinforcing the discourse of an evil society. Of course, the film’s titular plea, to “knock on any door” suggests some sympathy for all, but Ray’s less pointed political moments reveal the holes in his argument. Later in the film, Kid Fingers, a well-known homeless man is mocked by Morton on the stand for the delight of the jury. Ray seems to forget his own point when its convenient in forming the idea of Romano’s innocence. He doesn’t apply this revolutionary thought to all of his subjects, instead reveling in the same unfair criminalization that he seems interested in rallying against.

5

Through all of this, I do find Ray’s idea to be one that is at best, admirable and worst, just woefully executed. This is an efficient film, with wonderful photography and a nice performance from Bogart but neither of those two elements are missing from his masterpiece two years later, In a Lonely Place. The unique quality here, the thing that would be the pull is Ray’s attempt at a socially-conscious film. Where he does succeed in some places, he ultimately winds up being something of a hypocrite. Sure, this doesn’t look particularly good with the film’s already forceful politics. The latter bothers me less, because I instead see it as eagerness on the part of a young filmmaker. Some of the film’s “flaws” in a sense are more beneficial (at least to me) than others, but I can’t forgive some of Ray’s more hypocritical moments.

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