We have seen her in a few movies, so I would be remiss in not wishing Olivia de Havilland a happy 104th Birthday today. May she continue to kick ass.
Here’s where we’ve seen her:
This ultimately was a thought-provoking film, but not because of the plot as such.
The Barefoot Contessa is the story of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), a Spanish dancer and night club entertainer who is “discovered” in Madrid one night by a wealthy producer, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens). Edwards is a thoroughly unpleasant chap, who likes to make his publicist Oscar (Edmond O’Brien) do all the talking for him. Maria’s unimpressed by Edwards and Oscar – but gets starstruck when she hears the director in question is Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a bit of a has-been in Hollywood. But Maria remembers his work, and agrees to a contract with Edwards for Dawes’ sake.
Maria goes on to brilliant success in Hollywood, staying good friends with Dawes throughout – but platonic friends, as Dawes is happily involved with a script supervisor, Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars). Maria is comfortable enough to confide in Dawes about her poor childhood and troubled family, and how jumping from that to Hollywood gives her a bit of impostor syndrome now and then. She wishes she could find the love of her life, like Dawes found Jerry, but she feels like a mismatch for the rich Hollywood elites she rubs shoulders with now. …On the other hand, the life of a star is way better than where she came from. Maria’s professional success continues to be shadowed by a tumultuous love life – Dawes continuing to provide friendship and counsel – until Maria’s eventual marriage comes to a tragic end.
So, the big food for thought about this film are how unique a character Maria Vargas is – and how frustrating that none of the film is from her own perspective. Instead, Maria’s story is told via flashback and reminiscence from Dawes, Oscar, and Maria’s husband Count Vincenzo (Rossano Brazzi). It’s still enough to get a good sense of Maria – Dawes’ visit to her family’s home in Madrid is a study in squalor, and the pair have a couple of heart-to-hearts in which she gives enough of a backstory for us to consider her actions. Edwards is such a sleaze that it’s really satisfying to see her stand up to him, too – and even more satisfying to see her similarly toying with Alberto (Marius Goring), a Latin American dictator who also woos her at one point. Still, while we see a lot of Maria’s life, we see it as a witness – and never from Maria’s perspective herself, which was both fascinating and frustrating.
There’s a scene early on which seems to underscore just how intentional this might be. Maria is ostensibly a dancer when Edwards discovers her; he and his team have heard she’s someone to check out, but they arrive at the club where she performs just minutes after her one flamenco act, and both Oscar and Dawes spend several minutes talking her out of her dressing room and into an initial interview with Edwards (she’s got a thing about not fraternizing with the audience). However, before we arrive, we are treated to a scene from Maria’s performance – except we don’t actually see Maria dance. We only see the reactions on audience faces as we listen to Maria’s tapping feet. It looked awkward as hell when I saw it initially – watching other people watch something we can’t see just feels weird.
Initially I thought this was a cover for Ava Gardner not knowing how to dance. But then we do see her dance later, when Count Vincenzo first sees her cavorting with a troupe of Romani at a camp in Nice. So, then, I thought it may be a cover for Ava Gardner not knowing flamenco specifically. But even here – Mankiewicz could have simply shown Edwards and his party sitting at their table eagerly and asking a bus boy “when does Maria Vargos go on?….Oh, we missed her? Shoot!” or something. But we don’t get that – instead, we get a whole sequence of different people in the club reacting to Maria’s performance, with varying levels of interest and attention. A pair of lovers is so moved by the show that they start making out. A trio of older women are bored enough to pull out some knitting. A bus boy hovers in the wings peering through the curtain. A group of men leer. One couple is in the middle of a fight, and the woman starts crying. It’s little snippets of life presented to us, little windows of people reacting to Maria – much as we hear Dawes’ reaction, and Oscars, and then Count Vincenzo’s.
Perhaps we ultimately were never meant to really know Maria. It’s a shame, because the bits of knowledge I got were tantalizing enough for me to want to know more. But Maria’s ultimate tragedy, as Dawes cautions Vincenzo at one point, is that she has always had a bit of a fantasy about someone sweeping her off her feet like Cinderella and whisking her away to happiness – and that doesn’t happen if you don’t let yourself be known, and she balked at completely giving herself over to the Hollywood lifestyle. So she always felt caught in between worlds, with people only knowing her from a distance – which somehow made her all the more fascinating a character.
It’s fitting that Senso begins with a scene from an opera, with all the main characters watching from their various box seats. The rest of the film quickly shifts into that heightened state of love, betrayal, and intrigue, with tragic consequences.
Things kick off at the Fenice Opera House in Venice, in 1866. Venice was still occupied by the Austrian empire, but nationalist sentiment – and a group of rebels – were working to join Venice with other city-states in creating the nation of Italy. The rebel group smuggles leaflets into the opera with them, and at the climax of a big aria, they stage a dramatic airdrop over the crowd, with most of the leaflets falling onto the Austrian army soldiers in the front row. The opera hastily calls an intermission and the audience fall to gossiping as the chaos is sorted out. Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), an Italian married to a career diplomat, is troubled to discover her cousin Roberto (Massimo Girotti) lead the plot, and even more troubled when Roberto overhears an Austrian soldier talking smack about the Italians and challenges him to a duel. Roberto’s fellow rebels smuggle him out of the opera house, but Livia still hopes to talk the Austrian soldier, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), into dropping the duel.
Mahler actually seems pretty indifferent as to the duel; he tells Livia that the police will doubtless pick Roberto up for disturbing the peace soon anyway. But – say, she’s awfully pretty, can he see her again? Livia resists at first – she’s married, Venetian, and older than this young Austrian. But – he’s pretty cute. So a second chance encounter a couple days later turns into a night-long ramble and chat around Venice, during which Mahler sweeps Livia completely off her feet and they begin a passionate affair, meeting secretly in a rented room far from Mahler’s barracks and Livia’s mansion. But Livia is so smitten she starts getting indiscreet – brazenly turning up at Mahler’s barracks looking for him, sneaking him into her house, even hiding him for a day in the granary in her country villa. She even gives Mahler a big wad of cash that she was supposed to deliver to Roberto and the rebels, so Mahler can bribe a doctor to declare him too ill for combat.
The only trouble is that Roberto was going to use that money to buy arms, and the next battle is a crushing defeat for the Italians. Livia is crushed with guilt from betraying her country, but instead of giving Mahler up she doubles down – sneaking out of her villa one night to join him. In theory, Mahler was laying low in the Austrian-held city of Verona, waiting for the right moment to send for Livia so they could run away together. But when Livia unexpectedly turns up at his apartment, she quickly discovers that she’s been massively played…
So, this film looks beautiful. There are lots of beauty shots of Venice and the Italian countryside, especially when things shift to Livia’s villa; her quarters are lavishly decorated; the opera house is an impressive venue; and even Mahler’s quarters look much more civilized than your average army bunks. And that’s just the sets – shot after shot is also staged beautifully, with characters dramatically posing in front of windows or racing down corridors or pausing to significantly turn heads. The heightened drama didn’t really bother me either; usually that kind of soapy melodrama loses me. But Mahler’s final actions caught me by surprise.
The only complaint is that this film didn’t have quite enough….sex. It’s understandable why it didn’t – this was the 1950s, when sensibilities were a little more prim. But save for a few passionate kisses, and one scene when a sheet-wrapped Livia brushes her hair in Mahler’s room one morning, this story of a passionate affair is weirdly chaste, and I wanted the sex to be as all-out as the rest of it. I found myself comparing this to the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution, which features a similar story of a woman caught up in a passionate affair that leads her to betray her country; the sex in that was so all-in that the film got an NC-17 rating, and I think that helped. (Although, to be fair, I saw it with an ex boyfriend and…er, let’s just say the evening that followed was very pleasant, so I may have a bias.)
Not that I’m saying we also needed full-on full frontal scenes in Senso, mind. But one of the meanings of the Italian word “Senso” is “Lust”, and it is used in this sense to speak of the lust that drives Livia to her actions. But it’s a lust that is quietly hinted at as opposed to presented to us – it’s a strangely quiet note in a full-throated opera, and came through as a bit of a mis-step.
There’s no exact word for my gut reaction to Silver Lode – only a sort of peevish, unimpressed whine sounding something like myyyeaannnhhhh.
It’s not terrible. It’s got a decent script, reminiscent of High Noon in that things kick off when the hero’s wedding in a small town in the old West is interrupted by the bad guys. In this case, our hero Dan Ballard (John Payne) is a rancher who rode into town two years prior with several thousand dollars, used it to buy a ranch, and has been living as an upright citizen since. The “bad guys” in this instance are a scruffy-looking posse, assembled under newly-minted U.S Marshal Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea). McCarty reports that he became a Marshal just so that he could seek out Ballard – for the murder of McCarty’s brother, during a poker game.
Ballard shot in self-defense – and McCarty knows that – but the rest of the town starts considering that they really don’t know much about Ballard, and that was an unusually large nest egg he turned up with…and gradually the whole town joins in against Ballard, with only his fiancee Rose (Lizbeth Scott) and Dolly (Dolores Moran), a saloon girl Ballard used to canoodle with, on his side.
It’s also got some decent action, with one scene mid-film catching my eye in particular. Ballard is trying to sneak across town from Rose’s house to the telegraph office, where he can wire friends to see if McCarty’s Marshalship is legit; but the entire population of Silver Lode is searching for him, with guns and horses at the ready. In one amazing single shot, Ballard manages to safely leapfrog his way through town, taking cover where he can – first in a neighbor’s gazebo, then scurrying along beside a passing stagecoach (out of sight of the driver), then diving under a picnic table, crawling to a second table, ducking behind a podium set up for the town’s July 4th bonanza, then scuttling to the church right as some riders pass, and then….it’s a wonderfully choreographed scene.
So it’s not terrible. But….it’s not great, either. The acting is fairly wooden and one-note, with Rose and Dolly coming across as more like caricatures than characters. Even when they try teaming up to help Ballard at the end, they’re still kind of simplistic performances. But then everyone’s is; Ballard rarely leaves the square-jawed taciturn hero mode, the Ladies’ Temperance Society members who promote the turn on Ballard are prissy shrews, McCarty does everything with a mean leer that all but telegraphs “This Is A Bad Guy”.
And much like that action scene I admired, there’s even an action scene that lost me; much as with Detour, it is an improbable sequence of events that seems expressly designed to set Ballard up in a room with a corpse and a gun, so the rest of the town can catch him fake-red-handed. It also seems like it’s setting Ballard up for some scene-chewing towards the end, where he can snarl at everyone for doubting him. The McCarthy allegory is kind of obvious.
So it’s…serviceable. But it feels way more like the kind of thing that would be on Saturday afternoon “Olde Movie Hour” programming on TV when I was a kid as opposed to being a cinematic classic.
Even if you’ve never seen The Seven Samurai, you kind of have seen The Seven Samurai.
What I mean is – no doubt you’ve seen a movie where a ragtag bunch of tough guys get hired, blackmailed, forced, or otherwise rounded up to protect a group of poor, kindly, and generally weak people from some criminals or thugs. Along the way, the group of tough guys goes from being a random handful of individuals to a collective force to be reckoned with. There’s usually one guy who’s prone to wisecracks, one guy who’s the strong silent type, a hot-shot loose cannon whose lack of discipline and urge to show off puts others at risk, and a younger guy wanting to prove his worthiness. There’s usually a scene where they train the people they’re protecting into being an army themselves. Someone in the gang gets to make out with a pretty girl from the village. By the end of the movie the mercenaries have become a team, someone’s died heroically, and the village is saved.
Yeah, you see what I mean? You’ve definitely seen this movie – even if the actual movie you saw was a Western or an animated film or even a comedy instead of this classic by Akira Kurosawa. And those are only the direct homages – elements of this film arguably have turned up in World War II “forming a platoon” dramas or “assembling a team of misfits” heists. You could even make a plausible case for how this influenced the Avengers films.
And there’s a reason so many elements of this film keep turning up elsewhere – it’s because this movie works. Kurosawa has tapped into some ur-tropes here, so you don’t really need to know anything about the samurai system or medieval Japan to get what’s going on. It’s instantly clear that the hothead Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a decent enough fighter, but he’s also kind of a jerk, and you can predict he’ll be a headache. Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is always cracking jokes, but half of them are self-deprecating, and the others all laugh, so he’s the comic relief. Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) is noticeably younger and prettier than the others, and follows them around like a fanboy, so you don’t need to know he’s of a different societal class to get that he’s inexperienced and untested and is about to do a lot of growing up over the course of the film.
Roommate Russ warned me that this was going to be long – but it’s not that much longer than Avengers: Endgame, and much like Endgame, you don’t really notice a drag. There’s plenty of action throughout – each team member gets into little scuffles early on which draw the attention of leader Kambei (Takashi Shimura) when he’s recruiting his squad, and there’s an early raid on a bandit’s hideout where we learn some tragic news about one of the villagers. Kurosawa balances out the scenes where Kambei is planning strategy with plenty of shots of Heihachi goofing off or Kikuchiyo acting up.
There’s a surprising amount of comedy as well – some of it from Heihachi’s joking, and some of it from Kikuchiyo’s wise-assery. In one scene, Kikuchiyo is trying to prove his horsemanship, and borrows one farmer’s horse and rides full-tilt into a meadow. We follow them as they ride behind a barn – and then the horse comes out from behind the barn alone, followed a few seconds later by Kikuchiyo, on foot and rubbing his backside. Even one of the action scenes is funny – when the crack swordsman Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi) hears that the team needs to try to get some of the enemies’ weapons, he says he’ll do it, and wordlessly walks off into the woods. A short while later, he comes back, arms laden with weapons, wordlessly hands them to Kambei and lies down for a nap.
The villagers also get a little bit of the action as well, of course. Timid Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) is a meek little man scared of his own shadow, but still manages to clobber one of the bandits in the final battle (even if he looks completely freaked out after he does so). Rikichi (Yokio Tsuchiya) seems oddly sensitive when people refer to his marital state, but there’s a sad cause for that. Farmer Manzō (Katamari Fujiwara) is so concerned that the samurai are going to rape his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) that he forces her to dress as a boy – but she’s got other ideas, and seeks out Katsushirō herself anyway.
Manzō’s reaction when he finally discovers Shino and Katsushirō have been canoodling was the only false note for me. He catches them the night before the big final battle and goes on a full-on temper tantrum, ranting that she’s been “ruined” and that she’s “damaged goods”. The samurai finally talk him down from his tantrum, reassuring him that this kind of thing happens everywhere when there’s a battle afoot (“this even happens in castles,” Kambei tells him), but it was still uneasy to hear and went on for slightly too long for my taste.
But that was the only false note in something that was actually really fun. It’s set the pattern for a lot of the elements I’ve liked in action movies, so it was a treat to see who I had to thank.
It’s just occurred to me – Hitchcock films are largely spoiler-proof by design. I knew the general story behind Rear Window going into this – it’s been parodied by other TV shows and stories before this – but still found it just as exciting. Knowing the story didn’t ruin the suspense for me.
But Hitchcock himself said that that’s exactly how suspense is supposed to work. If you’re watching a scene with a couple sitting at a table and talking, and then after a couple minutes a bomb under their table suddenly goes off, that’s a surprise. But if you see there’s a bomb under the table and then you watch the couple sit down for that conversation, the whole time you’re braced for that explosion, whether or not it ever comes. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t – but you’ve spent a couple of minutes on tenterhooks anyway because you saw the bomb and thought it might. This isn’t to say that the entire movie is spoiler-proof, of course; there has to be just enough mystery to get you to care about what might happen, otherwise there’d be no story for you to watch.
In this case, Hitchcock holds back some of the details by confining our view to just one window in an apartment belonging to photographer L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). Jeffries has been stuck in his apartment for a couple months as he recovers from a broken leg, and he has been bored out of his bloody mind. He does have occasional guests – his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) pays occasional visits to cheer him up with catered meals, champagne, and some canoodling, and home-care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) visits for a daily checkup and some sass. But Stella’s visits are brief and Lisa’s are infrequent, so Jeffries has taken to watching his neighbors, peering into the windows he can see from his own flat. It’s mildly naughty, but Jeffries is getting a kick out of it, even nicknaming some – “Miss Torso” is a dancer prone to exercising in her underwear, “Miss Lonelyheart” is a middle-aged spinster who consoles herself by hosting dinners for imaginary boyfriends. He relishes watching their stories unfold – the musician struggling to work on a symphony, the newlywed couple who always roll their blinds down when things are getting good, the salesman with the invalid wife who disappears the same night that the salesman starts cleaning a big knife in his kitchen –
Jeffries stays up all night watching the salesman make a bunch of suspicious trips, suitcase in hand. He can’t be on a sales call, as it’s 3 am. And his wife is missing the next morning. Something’s wrong, he insists to both Lisa and Stella. He even summons a detective friend to share his concerns. But the detective says there’s nowhere near enough evidence, and Stella and Lisa both scold him for having an “active imagination”. But Jeffries keeps watching as the salesman’s actions get more suspicious. He even convinces Lisa to watch with him one day, convincing her at last – and they concoct a plan to get him out of the building so she can sneak down to the salesman’s garden, where it looks like he may have buried something. That mission’s a bust – but Lisa spontaneously decides to climb the fire escape and sneak in the salesman’s window, where she is searching for clues just as Jeffries sees the salesman returning….
I guarantee somewhere in there you not only recognized this plot, but thought of another pop-culture thing that referenced it. (For me, it was a Simpsons episode.) That makes not one bit of difference in the suspense, I am happy to report. You know what is happening – the fun is in watching how things unfold, in watching the story behind what you see. You know that the salesman seems suspicious, but how can Jeffries prove that? You’re pretty sure Hitchcock won’t kill off Lisa when the salesman returns, but how can Jeffries save her? ….Will he save her?
If I have any complaints about Rear Window, in fact, it’s with Lisa herself – and the relationship she has with Jeffries. Early on, she comes across as a bit of a pampered ditz – pretty, but a little spoiled. A number of her earlier scenes with Jeffries are a bit of kitchen-sink drama with her complaining that Jeffries won’t commit, and how he’s taking overly-dangerous news assignments instead of nice safe fashion photo jobs, with Jeffries complaining that she’s far too high-class for the likes of him. Kelly’s performances are similarly a little one-note in these earlier scenes. But when Lisa starts getting into the game, so does Kelly – and Hitchcock shows us with a brief reaction shot that Jeffries starts to really get into Lisa then.
It should also come as no surprise that the closing scene ties everything up nicely – not just for our main characters, but also all of the little dramas that we’ve seen play out in the fringes; we get to learn what happens to Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart and the newlyweds in one last look through all their windows before the curtain comes down. And even those brief glimpses are satisfying, which itself speaks well of Hitchcock’s skill.
So we interrupt the regular Movie Crash Course semester for a special announcement.
It seems that HBO’s streaming service, HBO Max, has made the decision to temporarily pull some films from its library in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The films in question are ones with a…perspective on racial history in America which has as of late become problematic. They plan to re-introduce them later, after adding some title cards or contextualizing discussing the racial attitudes that pose problems.
One of the films that Film Twitter are having a snit about is Gone With The Wind. “It’s an historic film!” they are squealing. “It’s the first African-American Oscar Winner! HBO pulling it is just caving into the libs!” A couple people have pulled up the point that Hattie McDaniel’s birthday is this same day, and are hand-wringing over how she might have felt knowing that the movie where she won her Oscar was being singled out in this way on her birthday.
Here’s the thing, though.
The movie isn’t going away permanently. It’s still available for streaming on many other services – Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play all show it as an option. DVDs of the film also exist – I got a copy on DVD via Netflix’s DVD rental, and early reports show that Amazon is currently making a killing selling copies of the DVD now because of HBO’s ban. This is not the complete and utter Orwellian erasure that the doomsayers are saying it is.
And again, this is a temporary move on HBO Max’s part. They are figuring out how to provide proper context for the film for future viewers – much the same way that Warner Brothers added a statement to its screenings of older cartoons with problematic racial stereotypes. “While not representing the Warner Bros. view of today’s society,” the statement explains, “these [films] are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.” Arguably that doesn’t even go far enough. But it’s something – it’s a reminder, before you watch, that some of this stuff is really, really not cool. (Warner Brothers also is sitting on eleven shorts that it most likely will not show again no matter what because of how racist they are.)
And speaking of Hattie McDaniel – it’s true that she did win the Best Supporting Actress playing Mammy. But the film fans who point to this fact seem to think that the mere token acknowledgement of her performance somehow negates the problems with the film. “You can’t say it’s prejudiced, it’s got a black character!” the argument seems to be. But this is treating Hattie McDaniel’s presence in the film like a shield preventing the film from being criticized on its other qualities – and it is by its other qualities that it is being judged. Consider: if all that mattered when it came to a film’s significance was whether anyone of color won an Oscar in it, we have Lupita N’yongo winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Twelve Years A Slave as well. Heck, she was also playing a house servant on a plantation as Hattie McDaniel did. But no one would equate Twelve Years A Slave with Gone With The Wind simply because they both have Best Supporting Actress award winners who played house servants; that’d be like saying Children Of Paradise is like It because they both have clowns. So falling back on Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar as a way to defend Gone With The Wind smacks of the old “but I can’t be racist if I have a black friend” trope, and is missing the point of HBO’s move.
…There’s also the anecdote that even though Hattie McDaniel won that Oscar, she was not allowed to sit at the same table with her co-stars at the awards ceremony, but was instead relegated to a table in the back all on her own. In fact, if her agent hadn’t cut a deal with the venue – then a whites-only establishment – she might not have even been allowed to attend at all. McDaniel also wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of Gone With The Wind, because its world premiere was in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time when Atlanta had strict segregation laws. Producer David Selznick tried to get her into the theater, but MGM told him to drop it, since even if Selznick had succeeded McDaniel would have had to sit in the “colored” section of the theater anyway.
This is all the kind of information that HBO is considering adding to its future presentations of Gone With The Wind, when it returns that film to its library (and you note that I do say “when”). If I believe anything about the films I’ve been watching, I believe that the context in which they were made and the context in which you watch them can have a huge impact – so much so that the less you know about the history of the film you’re watching, or the time in which it was made, the more likely it is that you’re watching a completely different film than the one that the original creators intended to make. In most cases, that’s perfectly fine, and in many cases that can’t be helped. But I still think it’s important to try to learn about a film’s context and history; the worst thing that happens is that maybe the things you’ve learned change your opinion. But that kind of thing happens to all of us as we change and grow. It’s also possible, too, that maybe you’ll come away from this with a greater respect for Hattie McDaniel than you had before, for keeping to such a standard of professionalism and dignity even when she was being horribly mistreated on what should have been a historic night. Either way you’ll come away as a more educated person – and that should be something we all want.
So, you know this story. Most likely because you saw the recent remake with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Or maybe you saw the 1976 remake with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Or, heck, maybe you saw the 1937 film that preceded them all. But you know the drill – talented young woman who wants to be in show biz meets a washed-up star struggling with addiction, he launches her career, they fall in love, and so they both cope with the strain when his star falls as hers rises.
The 2018 remake was the first I ever saw, and what sucked me in were some smaller moments throughout – little riffs between Lady Gaga and Cooper, a surprise cameo from Dave Chappelle, an adorable moment when Lady Gaga’s “Ally” and her BFF “Ramon” are both on “Jackson Maine”‘s private jet and are completely flipping their lids. Yeah, there’s music, yeah there’s heartfelt speeches and Big Drama and such – I liked the moments where you get a glimpse of the tiny shared stories that these people were creating with the ones they loved, be they the story of Ally and Jackson, the story of Jackson and his older brother, or the story of Ally and Ramon or whoever, and the songs were secondary.
Which is why the most fascinating number in this version of A Star Is Born is when you get one such moment in a song. For many fans of this version, the “big showstopping number” might be when Norman Maine (James Mason) first sees Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) singing “The Man That Got Away” in an after-hours night club, and is sufficiently blown away to the point that he tells her she can be Something Big. Or it might be the “Born In A Trunk” sequence, the 15-minute extravaganza mid-film which serves as Esther’s debut.
For me, though, the highlight came towards the end, where Esther is showing Norman the big number she’s been working on for her latest film while he’s been puttering around the house. He’s been recently sacked by the studio, and has been puttering around in their mansion, grumpy and bored out of his skull, occasionally fielding calls for Esther. But when she comes home he perks up, they bond over show-biz gossip before Esther offers to show him the number she’s been rehearsing. What follows is a solo tongue-in-cheek version of the kind of kooky “production number” common to Hollywood musicals at the time – elaborate choreography, inexplicable tone shifts, lavish costumes – and somehow Judy Garland manages to convey all of that by herself, in a plain shirt and leggings, cavorting through the Maine/Blodgett living room. Even better, she manages to throw in just enough over-the-top camp to suggest that she thinks the whole thing is a little ridiculous. But just a little – it’s not an overly-broad and obvious poking fun, it’s a subtle tease, just enough for someone on her wavelength who shared the same sentiment to pick up. Like Norman would.
And I was fascinated, and learned more about Norman and Esther in those six minutes than I did the whole rest of the show. Every other number was a more obviously staged thing – “Here’s What I’m Here For” was just an excuse to get Judy Garland to sing again, as was “A New World”, which Esther sings to Norman the night they marry. Even the famed “Born In A Trunk” left me cold. But this grabbed me.
I admit that I generally have a bit of an aversion to that kind of over-the-top production number. Not just here – I kind of glossed over the singing in the 2018 A Star Is Born as well, I must admit. I’m also a bit lukewarm on Judy Garland – I respect and acknowledge her expertise, absolutely, but an appreciation for her skill is pretty much all I have. She’s never been someone who grabbed me emotionally, at any point in her career. Which is why that number caught me off guard – she was having fun, with a sincerity and genuineness that surprised me and just for a moment made me wish that Esther and Norman could stay in that little charmed soap bubble moment, and made me all the more sorry for them both when the phone rang again, and it was for Esther and not Norman, and the bubble popped.
So, this review is going to be a bit of a challenge to write. Because right at the end, right before going into the closing credits, a title card begs the audience not to reveal any spoilers; and it really is better if I say nothing about either of the M.-Night-Shyamalan level twists that both happen within about ten seconds of each other. I didn’t see either coming – I had some suspicions something was going wrong, but was surprised – twice over – and enjoyed the surprise.
So this makes the writing of a review a little tricky. What do I say? What do I hide?…
I can say that the ending made up for a beginning that initially left me cold. Our story is set in a Paris suburb, where Christina (Vera Clouzot) is a wealthy woman who’s using her money to operate private boarding school in a drafty mansion. Her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the principal and manager – and a bit of a jerk; he’s a cheapskate who skimps on the food for the kids’ meals, a cruel disciplinarian quick to punish the kids and the teachers, and he recently ended an affair he was openly having with one of the other teachers, Mlle. Nicole (Simone Signoret). Christina would leave him, except she’s always wanted to own a school, and she’s also got a weak heart and doesn’t want to be left alone. But she’s formed an unlikely friendship with Nicole – both of them bonding in what a jerk Michel was – and so she agrees to a plan Nicole comes up with one day to kill Michel and stage it as an accident.
Now, the film is clearly presenting Michel as cruel – almost to the point of parody (we first meet Michel as he returns from a grocery run, and director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Vera’s husband) takes pains to show Michel running over a child’s paper boat in a puddle as he drives), and he’s got a pattern of beating both Christina and Nicole. But everyone comes across as pretty unpleasant at first; the groundskeeper is lazy, Nicole is bitter and sarcastic, Christina is kind of a wimp, the other teachers are either snooty and priggish or scatterbrained. The kids even come across as jerks, pulling pranks on each other or starting food fights. Even the one boy who briefly does something nice for Christina seems more like a suck-up than a genuinely good kid. In short, the first ten minutes of the film introduced me to a bunch of jerks, and even though the worst person of all was facing some justly-deserved punishment, I still cringed at the thought of spending more time with any of them.
But watching the murder plot, and the aftermath, ended up sucking me in. Nicole’s plan is a complicated one, but sound, and the conscientious Christina nearly loses her nerve once or twice; but the pair appear to succeed and get off scott-free. But then the body disappears. And then several students report seeing the “missing” Michel lurking about the school. And then his ghostly face turns up in a class photo. And then Christina hears footsteps in his office at night. And then…
And then that’s where I stop.
Roommate Russ and I discussed how this film seemed like it’d have fit well in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse; and interestingly enough, Hitchcock was one of the directors who requested the film rights after reading the French crime novel that inspired it. But Clouzot beat him to it – legend has it that Clouzot stayed up late one night finishing the novel all in one sitting, and then called the publisher first thing the following morning. There are some shots throughout the murder scene that are Hitchcockian nevertheless, particularly involving a bottle of Scotch that’s been…altered. And yet, there were even more chances Clouzot could have set up a shot in a way that would have upped the tension more and sooner. However, one of Clouzot’s intents with the film was to showcase his wife Vera, so his attentions were a bit distracted. But no matter – the second half of the film really got under my skin, with a final act that reminded me not only of Hitchcock and of Shyamalan, but also had some bits straight out of Kubrik’s Shining.
Friends, I have a sincere question for the movie blogger community.
Is anyone doing a blogathon in support of Black Lives Matter right now? Or any similar “all y’all who want to understand this movement better, here’s a film to watch”?
I want to watch and read about some more films that will help me be a better ally. I’m a supporter, but I’m white – like, I’m so white that I have an inner Karen that I keep under wraps – and that’s why I’m seeing this as an opportunity for me to watch and learn something new.
Let me know. Thanks.