Sunday, March 28, 2021

Joan Bennett and the Post-Sexual Femme Fatale: HIGHWAY DRAGNET (1954)

 


The main reason to see HIGHWAY DRAGNET is to get a glimpse of something you don’t see in a lot of classic Hollywood cinema, a great female movie star in her middle age. Many of the great male stars of the golden age were allowed to age onscreen. People like Bogart, Gable, Cooper, and Stewart did some of their best work in their forties and fifties. John Wayne didn’t really become John Wayne until he’d shed his youthful beauty and became an autocratic authority figure.

Actresses, however, had a tougher go of it. Even more than their male counterparts, they were valued for their youth and beauty. They were symbols, above all else, of vitality. Middle-aged actresses, on the other hand, were usually accorded no sexual identity. As they entered their forties and fifties, they were often turned into mothers or maids, even while their old costars like Bogart and Cooper were paired with younger and younger women. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford delayed this demotion longer than most, but even those two titans finally made some kind of peace with the grim reality that they’d lost their prized commodity—their youth—and became grotesqueries for hire in horror movies like WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Joan Bennett had a tougher time than most. She’d been a huge star in the early forties—and was particularly adept at playing bad girls in films like SCARLETT STREET—but when an adulterous affair ended with her husband shooting her lover, Bennett’s career came crashing down. A sex scandal and middle age were a bad combination at the box office. Bennett’s days as a star were over. She didn’t find steady work again until the late sixties when she nabbed a supporting role on the hit show DARK SHADOWS. (Later, she would take her own BABY JANE-like turn toward the grotesque in 1977’s SUSPIRIRA).

In 1954, however, Bennett appeared in an interesting little sunbaked noir called HIGHWAY DRAGNET. The film stars Richard Conte as Jim Henry, a Korean war vet who gets into an argument with a blond barfly (played by Mary Beth Hughes) in a Vegas casino. The next morning, the girl turns up dead. Implicated in the murder, Henry escapes the cops and hitches a ride with two women, a pretty young model named Susan (Wanda Hendrix) and a surly photographer named Mrs. Cummings (Bennett).

Movie logic dictates that one of these three people is the killer. Since we know it’s not Conte, and since Wanda Hendrix exudes a purity as fresh as newly fallen snow, that pretty much leaves us to watch Bennett. The plot twists in the final act of the film are outlandish, but Bennett remains as fascinating a presence as ever. What’s most striking about her here is how she operates outside of the sexual arena she used to dominate. Writing for the journal NOIR CITY, the scholar Foster Hirsch pointed out that she “is cast here as a post-sexual character, a woman pushed to crime because she has been romantically ostracized.” What Bennett brings to the role is the cumulative weight of her screen persona—the danger she embodied in her Fritz Lang films, the world-weariness she exuded in HOLLOW TRIUMPH when she told Paul Henreid “It’s a bitter little world.” In HIGHWAY DRAGNET we get to see that persona further down the road, the post-sexual femme fatale, a little worse for wear but still pissed off and still defiant.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Movies Before 1975


 

Poor Rick Rojas. A couple of weeks ago he was just a reporter for the New York Times. Then he made the mistake of going on Twitter to trash CITIZEN KANE. By itself, taking a shot at the Orson Welles classic isn't really such a big deal, of course. Ever since it was enshrined as "The Greatest Movie of All Time" by cinephiles back in the 60s and 70s, it's been fair game for iconoclasts and contrarians. But Rojas went on to say that he had a policy of not watching any movie made before 1975. Reaction, as it often is on Twitter, was swift, fierce, and completely out of proportion. Even TCM dunked on this guy. And keep in mind, Rojas isn't even a film critic. He's just a dude who tweeted out something goofy.

What do I think about the goofy thing he tweeted? Well, I have a few thoughts.

1. Old movies are my life. I mean, they really, really are. I honestly can't imagine life without Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Olivia de Havilland, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Lizabeth Scott, Robert Mitchum, Jean Arthur... I could keep listing famous names, but you get the point. 

2. But no one is obligated to like anything. You're not obligated to like an Orson Welles movie. And I'm obsessed with Orson Welles. Orson Welles isn't just my favorite filmmaker, I think he's my favorite subject. But because of that, because of the twenty-something books I've read about Orson Welles, and the thousands of words I've written about Orson Welles, I can tell you that he would have been horrified by the idea that one of his films had become so calcified in consensus that it become above rebuke. No one is obligated to like anything. 

3. Why 1975? I'm a big fan of 1975 because I was born that year. Big fan. But even if you're the kind of person who thinks you don't like movies from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, why dismiss the first half of the 70s? I mean, THE GODFATHER was released in 1972, and GODFATHER II was released in 74. Those are pretty good flicks... You know what was released in 1990? GODFATHER III.

4. But I'm assuming 1975 was an arbitrary date. Again, we're talking about a random tweet by a guy who probably didn't anticipate the shitstorm of movie geek outrage he was unleashing with his hot take. So why does it matter? Well, it doesn't actually matter, of course. But...

5. This IS part of a larger discussion about movies. No one knows what the future of movies looks like. Even pre-Covid the movie business was experiencing massive shifts and facing major challenges. But the history of film is there for all of us. Human beings have been making movies all over the world for well over a hundred years. There is so much to experience. Which isn't to say that it's for everyone. Again, no one is obligated to like anything. But watching an old movie can be a fascinating experience precisely because they're made in a style that isn't the current vogue. They contain different ways of telling stories, featuring different acting styles, and are photographed in ways that simply don't exist anymore, even when modern day filmmakers do their best to imitate the old studio look. Nothing looks like CASABLANCA. It's a foreign object. (And this is to say nothing of silent movies, which play like artifacts from another planet.)

I think of classic movies like classical music. Not everyone likes Beethoven. And, hey, you don't have to. No one's obligated to like anything. But, man, Beethoven was pretty amazing. 

And so, by the way, was Orson Welles. 

P.S. It's worth adding that when we have these kinds of discussions in the West we tend to have a Hollywood-centric view of things. Thus, the failures and sins of classic American films in terms of representation (both in the general omission of people of color both in front of and behind the camera much of the time, and in the commission of racist, sexist, homophobic stereotypes) tend to overshadow an important point: "classic cinema" is world cinema. So when we talk about movies made before 1975, we're also talking about the work of African and Asian filmmakers, we're talking about the work of women around the world, and we're talking about the history of queer cinema, a legacy that extends back to the silent era. The world of pre-75 cinema is a world that is rich and large and virtually inexhaustible. Go get you some.  


Friday, January 1, 2021

Favorite Silent Films


Above: Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), could there be a more appropriate film for 2020?

 In the unrelenting hellscape that was 2020, we all had to seek our comfort where we could find it. One place I've been very happy lately is in the world of silent film. I've always liked the silents, but over the last year or so I've been watching more and more artifacts from the strange and mysterious world of the pre-sound era. Sadly, most movies from the silent era are lost (anywhere from 80% to 85% most estimates say), yet what remains is a rich treasure trove and much of it is available online. YouTube in particular is a good source of silent film, oftentimes with new kinds of musical accompaniment.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. 7TH HEAVEN (1927)- Director Frank Borzage's masterpiece is, simply put, one of the most beautiful movies ever made, a sweet and touching romance with Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. This one always makes me cry. 

2. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)- They call Victor Sjostrom the father of Swedish cinema. Watch this moving epic of sin and redemption and see what that means. The films of Ingmar Bergman are unthinkable without something like THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE paving the way.

3. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)- Movies don't get much more intense than this harrowing recreation of the trial and execution of Jeanne D'Arc. One of Dreyer's signature films and certainly one of the most fascinating films about religion ever made. (Is it a testament of faith? A condemnation of fanaticism? Both?) The central performance by Renee Falconetti is as unsettling as any ever put on film. 

4. HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)- How odd that one of the darkest Hollywood movies of the silent era (maybe THE darkest, come to think of it) was made at MGM. But then again it was directed by Victor Sjostrom during his brief time working in the US. The story of a heartbroken man (Lon Chaney) who takes a job as a circus clown whose masochistic gimmick is that he gets repeatedly and viscously slapped and heckled by the audience, it is as strange and disturbing as it sounds.

5. GREED (1924)-Fun fact, Frank Norris's 1899 MCTEAGE is the novel that I've read the most times. Erich von Stroheim famously tried to put all of the book on screen, resulting in a 10 hour epic called GREED. Chopped down to a more manageable running time by MGM (MGM again!), it's the story of money and murder, and, of course, greed. The climax in Death Valley is an unforgettable vision of hell on earth, a damnation sought and earned by simpleminded dentist turned killer McTeague (Gibson Gowland).

6. INTOLERANCE (1916)- DW Griffith's epic ain't for everyone, but I genuinely love this film. It's 3 1/2 hours long with four intercut storylines told across different time periods, all on the theme of "love's struggle throughout the ages." It is entirely possible that this 104-year old film might be the most artistically ambitious movie you've ever seen.

7. SUNRISE (1927)- A film as beautiful as 7TH HEAVEN and, in its way, as daring as GREED or INTOLERANCE, this is FW Murnau's grand tale of love and temptation. George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor (who ran back and forth between this and 7TH HEAVEN) and Margaret Livingston comprise the greatest love triangle in silent film.

8. THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI (1920)- I mean, what can you say about Robert Wiene's horror classic? It didn't singlehandedly invent German Expressionism, but it is undeniably the consummate example of it. The sets--twisted, slanted, angular, unreal yet real--are as important as the story of insanity and murder itself.

9. STEAMBOAT BILL JR (1928)- There aren't a lot of comedies on this list, in part because I tend to think that comedy is over represented in considerations of silent film. (There are a lot of reasons for that, chief among them being the relative ease with which slapstick translates across cultures and time periods. A man falling on his ass is pretty much funny to everyone.) Here's my favorite silent comedy. There are other Buster Keaton films that get more attention, but this one makes me laugh the most and also contains his greatest death-defying gag, wherein he drops the front of house on himself.

10. IN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928)- To sort of borrow what I said above about CALIGARI, this film didn't invent Surrealism but remains its primary cinematic artifact. The work of filmmaker Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali is a 21-minute drug trip of arresting imagery. Nearly a hundred years later, its impact has been somewhat dulled as Surrealism has been absorbed by more of the mainstream, but the film itself remains fascinating. As with CALIGARI, part of the appeal is the fact that it's both physically palpable and wholly unhinged from our waking world. 

There are a lot of big classics and important figures I've left off this list (no PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or NOSFERATU? no Charlie Chaplin or Fritz Lang?), but the list isn't intended to be either definitive or objective. This is just what rocks my boat the most.

One film I'd like to mention is one I'm still watching. LES VAMPIRES (1915-1916) is a ten-episode French crime serial about a gang of outlaws led by a sexy femme fatale named Irma Vep (played by the actress Musidora). I'm on episode seven, and I'm having a blast. It's funny to see how this serial influenced, oh just about every crime movie you've ever seen. It's got it all: severed heads stashed in boxes, rooftop escapes by costumed figures, poisoned rings, poisoned pens, faked deaths, real deaths, evil hypnotists, chloroform, gun fights, swapped identities, and a sequence where thieves pump gas into a ritzy meeting of swells that reminded me of similar scenes in both Tim Burton's BATMAN and Christopher Nolan's TENET. Filmmaker Louis Feuillade made LES VAMPIRES as the central film in a trilogy of crime epics, between FANTOMAS (1913-1914) and JUDEX (1916). I haven't seen those yet, so I guess I know what I'll be doing as I'm heading into 2021.