film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Quiet Man (1952)

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My first trip to Ireland was during college, when I stayed with a longtime friend (I swear this story will be relevant). My friend’s family all took turns showing me around; her father and brother Dónal, then aged fifteen, were the ones who brought me to Blarney Castle.  Afterward we were having a browse in the gift shop, and I quickly noticed that the Muzak they had in the shop was an assortment of saccharine-sweet perky choral arrangements of “auld country” Irish songs, like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”; think, like, Lawrence Welk crossed with Burl Ives.  With each new song, I would glance up at the speakers and grimace at the cheese. After several minutes, Dónal noticed my reaction and walked over.  “I just want you to know,” he told me emphatically, “that this is the sort of music that embarrasses us.”

Dónal’s voice was in my head during the early stages of A Quiet Man, unfortunately. The first few scenes cover the arrival of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) to the town of Inisfree, a picturesque little country village.  The locals hear his accent when he asks directions, and fall all over themselves offering their services as tour guides.  Is he hoping to catch trout, perhaps?  Or golf?  What has brought him to Ireland on his vacation?  But Thornton baffles them all with the news that he’s not a tourist – he’s moving there.  Or, rather, he’s moving back there – he was actually born right there in Inisfree, in the little cottage next door to the wealthy Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen).  The family had to emigrate when he was a baby, and he’d heard tales of the place at his mother’s knee as a lad – and had sworn that if he ever made his fortune, he’d move back and buy it. And, well, there he is.

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His purchase attracts the ire of Squire Danaher – who’d planned to buy the spot himself – and the interest of Danaher’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara).  He is similarly smitten, and the pair begin a courtship – a bumpy one, thanks to Thornton’s unfamiliarity with Irish customs.  One particular bone of contention is Squire Danaher’s refusal to give his blessing to the union.  If she and Thornton were to marry, the Squire warns, he will keep all of Mary Kate’s possessions, and pocket her cherished 350-shilling dowry.  Thornton doesn’t care – he’s got all the money he needs and he’s in love – but Mary Kate wants her stuff.  And when Thornton seems strangely unwilling to fight on her behalf, she gets mighty cheesed off.

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Most of this is set against some lush and verdant green fields and in little quaint village streets, with supporting characters straight out of Volume 1 of the Handbook of Irish Stereotypes – the just-folks priest who occasionally takes a wee drop, the proper widow who’s scandalized by others’ misbehavior, the amiable tramp who’s perpetually drinking.  The whole film ends with a ten-minute fistfight which the whole town “comically” turns out to watch, with the amiable town drunk taking bets on the outcome.  It’s just what I was afraid of seeing – drenched in twee and the sort of thing that would embarrass Dónal.

And yet…it wasn’t all.  I was surprised to see that there was actually some depth here (well, not much, but more than I was expecting anyway).  We’re meant to initially think of Mary Kate’s insistence on her dowry as mercenary; but as the film goes on, you realize that she’s kind of got a point. Her stuff is hers, and it is ridiculous that the arcane rules of a patriarchal society are allowing her brother to keep hold of it. There’s also a moment when Mary Kate is consulting with the parish priest about Thornton, and for whatever reason is too embarrassed to speak the details aloud.  I started out sighing at Mary Kate’s modesty – but then the priest asked her if she’d be more comfortable telling him in Irish, and suddenly, Maureen O’Hara was saying several lines in Irish Gaelic, a language I didn’t think that Hollywood even knew about, much less ever used.

Thornton’s very trip, too, is something of a telling exercise in wish fulfillment on a grand scale. The Quiet Man is a passion project of director John Ford’s, who was one such emigrant from Ireland (this is the film for which he had to make Rio Grande first), and no doubt had his own memories of Ireland, as did many emigrants or children of emigrants, most of them now gone rose-colored with time. The image he was presenting of Ireland was an older-fashioned, quainter, idealized one, with lush green fields surrounding picturesquely crumbling cottages and charmingly quaint people.  It’s very likely the same idealism that made “Danny Boy” so popular on this side of the Atlantic.

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….I realize this is coming across as more of a reflection on the origins of Irish-culture stereotypes than it is on the film itself.  I hold Dónal partly responsible.

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Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951)

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So, this time it was Roommate Russ who dozed off in the middle of this film.  When I teased him a bit about that later, he pointed out that “what’s probably telling, is that it happened during a scene where there was a bullfight.” 

This modern spin on the Flying Dutchman legend wasn’t all bad, mind you.  It’s got some gorgeously composed shots, the art direction is really rich, and there’s some visual storytelling that’s pretty clever. Roommate Russ confirmed that’s why he watched; he hadn’t planned on joining me for this one, but the visuals caught his eye from the next room and he wandered in.

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The problem is that those visuals are supporting something of a hokey and pretentious story. The “Pandora” of the title is Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), a pretty, spoiled socialite and former singer living in a Spanish seaside resort in the 1930s.  She’s surrounded by male admirers – a world-class matador, an English race car driver, other singers – but she doesn’t really seem to notice them, much less return any of their affections beyond just toying with them.  During an outing with the race car driver, Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), she even teases him that if he really loved her he’d push his car off a cliff.  When Stephen unexpectedly does exactly that, a bemused Pandora accepts the marriage proposal that comes immediately after.

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But their wedding is far enough in the future that Pandora has a chance to meet an intriguing Dutch stranger who turns up in the harbor one night; or, rather, she forces a meeting by impulsively swimming out to his boat.  It’s an opulent yacht, empty save for its captain, Heinrik van der Zee (James Mason).  Van der Zee is of course the famous Flying Dutchman, who in this story has been cursed to roam the seas because he’d murdered his wife over rumors of her infidelity.  She was innocent, and he is now doomed to roam the seas ever after, coming ashore for six months at a time every so often in search of a woman who would give up her life for him willingly.  Van der Zee perhaps recognizes a kindred spirit in Pandora, and they start keeping more frequent company – and start warming to each other.  But when Pandora comes close to declaring her love – and perhaps freeing Van der Zee from his curse – he realizes that he actually loves her too much to ask for that sacrifice, and pushes her away.  But of course that just makes Pandora all the more determined to win him over – and more in love.

That part’s just the hokey part.  The pretentious part is the dialogue itself – highbrow, self-indulgent analyses of love and poetry and emotion.  And when Van der Zee and Pandora aren’t talking, they’re staring at each other with tortured expressions, or casting their eyes heavenward, seeking supplication.

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Director Albert Lewin – who also wrote and produced the film – has also given his cast occasional “significant” bits of business, like with the local archaeologist who ultimately narrates our story (oh, yeah, there’s a narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to address us).  Early on he speaks of the story of Pandora and the Dutchman coming together in “fragments” – and as he says this, he is contemplating the smashed pieces of an ancient Greek vase.   He’s restoring the vase as he tells us the tale, and the vase is complete at the movie’s end.  It’s doubtless all meant to be super symbolic and deep – but I thought it just looked obvious and exaggerated.

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And yet gorgeous in a way that sometimes edges into the surreal.  Pandora is friendly with our narrator character, to the point that she sometimes hangs around his house in the evenings – which might have just been an excuse to pose Ava Gardener next to giant sculpted figures in moody light.  Ironically, I’d have preferred if they’d leaned even more into that surrealism.  The script that we got instead didn’t feel like it supported it.

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Most audiences apparently felt the same way during the film’s initial release, finding it pretentious as all hell.  The visuals are what have apparently won people’s favor over the years – but I’m afraid I can’t get past the story itself.

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The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Roommate Russ had a good observation about The Day The Earth Stood Still: “It’s definitely a time capsule, but it’s a good time capsule.”

This is one of the classic examples of the sort-of-pulpy films that spring to mind when you think of 50s sci-fi, with humanoid aliens that nevertheless speak English, simplistic special effects, giant robots, and a political message worn not only on its sleeve but also posted on a lapel pin, inscribed on a baseball hat and emblazoned across its butt.  …Mind you, those are the things I like about it; the classic sci-fi stuff may be quaint from a visual perspective, but if you read about the rest of society in the 50s, where conformity was a big deal and any deviation caused your neighbors to suspect you were a Communist, the fact that a film that advocates for collaboration and cooperation was even produced during that era is a tiny miracle.

That’s ultimately the message alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) has come to deliver to our planet.  (And yes, that is “Klaatu” from the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” – we’ll get to that in a bit.)  After circling our planet once – attracting the attention of all the world’s armies along the way – he lands in Washington D.C., stepping out of his flying saucer accompanied by a giant robot. Klaatu claims he’s coming in peace, but a twitchy soldier shoots him in the arm anyway. Klaatu stops his robot “Gort” from retaliating, and lets the military bring him to a hospital. Not because he’s hurt badly – in fact, Klaatu recovers from his gunshot in just a few hours. He’s cooperating to win favor with the president, hoping he can organize a meeting between Klaatu and all of the world’s leaders for an important discussion.

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When everyone refuses Klaatu’s invitation – they’re all too skeptical of Klaatu, you see – he decides to sneak out of the hospital and find someone who can figure out how to get the world to listen to him.  Taking on the alias “John Carpenter”, he rents a room in a boarding house, befriending fellow residents widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray).  Bobby thinks “Mr. Carpenter” is super-cool – he’s real good at helping Bobby with his math homework and he likes going to movies – but he’s got a couple weird habits, like carrying around diamonds to use as currency and exhibiting complete ignorance of Abraham Lincoln.  Helen finds his a bit odd as well; but she’s also impressed by “Mr. Carpenter’s” patience with Bobby, and also by his compassion – of all the residents, “Mr. Carpenter” is the only one who hasn’t automatically jumped to the conclusion that the missing spaceman is dangerous.  Eventually both Bobby and Helen learn Klaatu’s real identity, and what he’s come to Earth for – but the military has been on the hunt for him all along, and may get to Klaatu first before he can fulfill his mission.

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I mean, if you’ve seen a Twilight Zone episode, you can predict what Klaatu wanted to say – that we should all get along, that our fears are dividing us, that we’re heading down the path to self-destruction.  It’s a message that sci-fi returned to a lot during the Cold War.  The film also had a bit of a subtle message about how human nature makes us a little more likely to fear than to trust – there’s a scene where “Mr. Carpenter” and Bobby have joined the curious throng that’s checking out the parked spaceship, and are quizzed by a radio reporter collecting soundbites from the crowd.  After speaking extensively to a couple of other bystanders about how scared they are, the reporter turns to Klaatu for his opinion.  But when Klaatu starts saying that the “spaceman” might not be harmful, the reporter thanks him and walks away.  Not only are we more fearful, the film suggests – we’re being groomed that way.

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And the film may be right.  We come to the famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Klaatu teaches to Helen during a tense moment and orders her to go say those words to Gort if anything should happen to him.  That phrase later went viral – there’s a TV Tropes page devoted just to that phrase alone, laying out some of the ways it’s been re-used.  In some cases it’s used as a recitation meant to bring about some kind of destructive force.  But the original usage is meant to stop a destructive force – it’s a command to Gort to stand down, and to collect Klaatu so they can beat a hasty retreat.  People who’ve seen the film know this, but those who’ve only heard the phrase seem to assume it’s something sinister.

We prefer to fear what we don’t know, and that will be our undoing.  That’s part of what Klaatu is trying to warn us.

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The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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In a way, this came across as a much more genteel cousin to The Producers.

Alec Guinness plays Henry Holland, a meek bank clerk who has been tasked with overseeing the smelting and delivering of gold bullion to London’s various banks for 20-odd years. He’s been praised for his trustworthiness, but his supervisors don’t know that he’s been spending nearly his whole career contemplating just how easy it would be to steal a carload of bullion.  The only thing stopping him is that he hasn’t yet figured out how to smuggle the gold out of London and sell it.

Then one evening, a new lodger moves into the boarding house where Holland lives – Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holland), a frustrated artist who runs a factory making cheap trinkets for foreign souvenir stands – mini Statues of Liberty for New York, model bulls for the Spanish market, and the like. Pendlebury is a gregarious sort who insists on showing Holland his foundry – he’s making a new series of Eiffel-Tower shaped paperweights for the Paris market, and shows off how he molds them out of lead and paints them gold. Holland is intensely interested – because he’s realized that’s the missing piece of his plan.  After some subtle questioning, Holland brings Pendlebury in on the plan – and the plan is afoot.

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The initial theft goes smoothly – Holland’s reputation lets him give police investigating the theft false leads to distract them, so Pendlebury is able to melt down the gold and ship it safely to Paris.  (It helps that Holland has gone to some great lengths to make it look like he was tied up by the robbers.)  All they have to do is follow the shipment there, retrieve the box, and sell the gold.  Pendlebury includes a note to the souvenir shop explaining which box they should leave alone.  But – the clerks at the shop aren’t quite as fluent in English as Pendlebury thought, and when he and Holland get to Paris, they learn that the box of gold Eiffel Towers has been opened, and six of them have been sold – to members of a group of visiting English schoolgirls, who are now on their way back to England.

Uh-oh.

Now, the curmudgeon in me would point out exactly what Pendlebury does at this point – that they could just let those six Towers go.  The balance of what’s left over is enough for both Pendlebury and Holland to retire on. But perhaps Holland is a little too meticulous to let those six Towers go – and besides, this way we get to see the rest of the caper gradually fall apart and Holland and Pendlebury madly try to respond to each new obstacle.  There’s a fantastic five-minute sequence where they’re trying to board the boat set to return the girls to England, but are stopped by the French gendarmes again and again, first directing them to buy tickets….then to pass through passport control….then through customs….then through currency exchange….and then….it’s a nearly wordless sequence, but it still got funnier and funnier with each new hurdle as their frustration mounted. Their next scheme to reclaim the Towers back in England goes similarly pear-shaped, and comes to its own slow-simmer before ultimately boiling over.

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I’ve realized that I’m more used to a chaotic caper film – either things going spectacularly wrong in a violent way, or a farcical way. This is more subtle, more ordinary; and while it isn’t staying with me quite as long as other bolder caper films, it’s still entertaining while I’m watching it.

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The African Queen (1951)

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See, now this is the Katherine Hepburn I know.

I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for this film since seeing it first at the age of about nine in a church basement (the Congregational Church in my hometown decided to do a “Classic Movie Festival” one summer and Mom brought me to see this).  It was the first time I can remember being introduced to a “Hollywood classic” in any kind of capacity, and sparked a curiosity about movies that has never really faded (although I couldn’t really indulge in the classics until much, much later).

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Forty-some years later, I do notice some of the weak points. It’s a pretty simple plot; Hepburn is Rose Sayer, the prim Englishwoman who’s part of a brother-sister pair of missionaries in German East Africa in 1914, and Humphrey Bogart is Charlie Allnut, a Canadian expat who’s turned freelance mechanic and handyman, ferrying himself from gig to gig and running errands on his little steamship The African Queen.  He regularly brings the missionary Sayers their mail, and at the top of the film also brings them the news of the outbreak of the Great War.  This makes them British subjects in German territory, he warns them; they may want to get gone.

The Sayers fervently insist that they can’t abandon their flock.  But soon Allnut hears that the German army is kidnapping indigenous villagers and forcing them into war, burning the villages as they go. He rushes to the Sayers’ village to warn them, but is too late – the village is burned, the locals are gone, and Rose’s brother has died of shock, leaving her all alone – and already packed, having stoically accepted her fate.  After a very brief funeral for Brother Sayer, Rose steps aboard the Queen.  

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Allnut’s initial plan is to ferry them both somewhere out of the way and lay low, but Rose asks some pointed questions about the German army and the contents of Allnut’s boat; a German gunboat holds court over a lake downriver, preventing the English army from coming to their rescue, but conveniently Allnut has some bits and bobs on his boat that could be turned into torpedoes.  She insists that Allnut do his duty for King and Country and take down the German gunboat – singlehandedly.  Allnut points out the myriad problems with her plan, but Rose is very, very insistent, so….

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Now, all that is just the first fifteen minutes or to set things up.  The rest of the film is an odd-couple adventure yarn, thrusting the couple into whitewater rapids, sniper attacks, hippo sightings, spartan bathing facilities, swamps, thunderstorms, leech attacks, busted propeller shafts, and – each other’s arms.  That’s the bit that felt the weakest on a rewatch; the script was clearly trying to suggest that the cloistered Rose was being swept off her feet by the adventure of it all, and by Allnut’s strength and can-do spirit, but Hepburn plays Rose with such spunk and independence herself that her falling for Allnut felt a little forced.

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But you know something? I really didn’t care.  I didn’t care when I was nine (hell, I probably didn’t even notice the love story was rushed), and I don’t care now, because everything else is just a big ol’ hoot.  Hepburn gets some delicious bits of schtick in this – one scene I remembered from before came after a drunken Allnut blows up at Rose, insulting both her plan and her. He wakes up the following morning with a massive hangover – only to find a poker-faced Rose going through all three boxes of gin he has on board, dumping the contents of each and every bottle into the river behind them.

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And then fast-forward about 20 minutes, and Rose gets to laugh herself silly at the sight of Allnut’s hippo imitation.

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And speaking of which, props to Bogart for his performance too; his chemistry with Hepburn is charming, and I’m actually surprised it was their only pairing.  And even more surprised to learn that this was Bogart’s only acting Oscar.  Hepburn was also nominated for her performance, losing out to Vivian Leigh for Streetcar Named Desire.  Still, this film marked a major turning point in her career – letting her transition away from the flighty free spirits she’d been playing before, and take on a wider variety of roles.

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Most critics agreed that the plot was a little thin and straightforward, but it was just such darn fun and the leads were so great to watch that they didn’t care either.  And I’m pleased to find that it still holds up to my nine-year-old memory.

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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I realize, with some embarrassment, that it has been nearly two weeks since I gave you all a review.  There are some good reasons for that – one is that about two weeks ago I was going through a job change, which is an event that brings its own level of personal chaos.  Another reason is that it was two weeks before Christmas and I was deep in the throes of the usual round of gift shopping/meal planning/holiday prep that we all go through, trying to juggle that with wrapping up things at an old job before delving into a new one.  Both perfectly understandable reasons for my putting the blog on pause, I hope you’ll agree.

But there’s another reason – it’s because the film I had next to review was 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and for several reasons I had no idea what I wanted to say.

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I hadn’t seen the whole film before.  But I was absolutely familiar with the story – because of the play, which we all extensively studied in scene classes when I was in college, or dissected in theater history courses or debated in dramaturgy courses or the like.  I have been over and over this play, and even tried playing Blanche once in a scene study course in 1991 sometime (it is a mercy no record of that performance exists because oh my god I was bad), and I even read the original when I was about fifteen and hip-deep in my theater-kid phase.

So you would think that I would have caught on to the instances of sexual assault and misconduct that are throughout this play before now, but somehow most of them completely flew over my head.

In my defense, the stage script plays things pretty coy.  It’s left a little vague as to why aging southern Belle Blanche (Vivian Leigh) has had to flee to New Orleans so suddenly, and what’s happened to the old family home where she grew up with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter). The film downplays things even more, tweaking parts of the ending and toning down some of the sexual tension between Blanche and her brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando). The original censors during its 1951 release made director Elia Kazan tone things down even more still, dialing back some of the more sexually-charged scenes between Hunter and Brando as well; that’s the version I would have seen, before a 1993 re-release put those scenes back.

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And I wasn’t totally clueless either. I know that Blanche is attacked by Stanley towards the end; I knew that it comes to light that Blanche liked the company of barely-legal boys a little bit too much.  I understood that Stella and Stanley have a complicated relationship.  I’d also read all of that when I originally read the script.

And yet – and I’m warning you, I’m going to get into some spoiler territory here – I somehow, after all that, had it in my head that Stella never finds out about Stanley assaulting Blanche.  At the very end, when Blanche is being brought to an asylum, I’d assumed it was because she was keeping Stanley’s assault a secret, and it was driving her mad.  But during this bit of the film, during this rewatch, I nearly dropped my drink when Stella tearfully confesses to a neighbor that “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley!”

…So, instead of Stella being an innocent bystander and Blanche suffering in silence – the film is saying that Blanche had actually told her what happened, and Stella decided not to believe her sister.  

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I mean, the film goes make up for that betrayal a bit; in the original play, Stella is left to cry in Stanley’s arms as Blanche is being carted away, the play implying that they’re going to leave Blanche in the madhouse. The film adds a shot of Stella storming out of the apartment soon after Blanche leaves, running upstairs to her neighbor Eunice’s house as Stanley plaintively calls “Stellaaaaaaaa!” after her and implying that Stella’s finally gotten fed up with him.

I even knew about those scenes.  But somehow – and I can’t tell you why – it is only just now that I noticed that plot point, that Stella had been told of Blanche’s rape and had chosen not to believe it.

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I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple weeks about what has changed to make me finally see that, after years of reading and study of the play.  Maybe it’s that I’m finally coming to see the play as more of an adult; maybe I’ve had more experience with the world, with sex, with betrayal.  Maybe it’s having seen the #MeToo movement start to introduce these discussions into the public commons.  Maybe, in some ways, I’m simply starting to pay more attention.

But the fact that I was that blinkered to that big a plot point for that long has bothered me in ways I can’t articulate well, and will be thinking about for a while.

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In A Lonely Place (1950)

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Partway through watching In A Lonely Place I became convinced of two things – that it would absolutely work well with a remake today, and that it could nevertheless have been much better written.

The premise and plot seem like they could work.  Humphrey Bogart is Dixon Steele, a screenwriter on the road to being a has-been – he’s got a bit of an alcohol problem, and an even bigger anger-management problem.  His agent tries to get him a deal adapting a potboiler book into a movie, but it’s the kind of book Steele hates; so when he sees Mildred (Martha Stewart), the coat check girl at his local bar is reading it, he invites her back to his place to tell him the plot.  ….He has other intentions as well, but she’s pretty prim and insists on just sticking to business.  Besides, his new neighbor across the courtyard – a blonde named Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) – turns his head instead.  So after only a few minutes, Steele gives Mildred cab money and sends her on her way.

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Luckily for Steele, he’s turned Gray’s head as well.  Because when Mildred is discovered dead the following morning, Steele is their main suspect – he was last seen taking her home.  But Gray is able to confirm she saw Steele sending Mildred away at midnight, and that the girl left alone.  A grateful Steele realizes that the reason Gray knew this was because she was peering out her own window to check him out.  …All the more reason for him to get to know her better.

And soon the pair are caught up in a whirlwind romance, with Gray playing secretary as Steele gets to work on his screenplay. She also gives Steele moral support as the police continue their investigation of Mildred’s murder; but as she comes to know Steele, she comes to also see the depth of his temper, and starts to have her own suspicions.

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….So, yeah, you see what I mean?  There’s a lot of different ways that plot could go, and it did end up going to some places I didn’t expect.  It’s a plot that I could also totally see today, with a couple of thriller-movie regulars in the leads, like Keanu Reeves and Jessica Biel or something.  However.  The plot is one thing – the script is another. And in this case, the script was….kinda not good.

It’s not uniformly terrible, mind you – some bits did stand out, like a scene where Steele is having dinner at one of the detective’s houses (they served together in World War II and are on friendly terms), and Steele speculates how Mildred’s murder could have happened.  He has a monologue that suggests he knows a little more about what it’s like to kill someone than your average person would do, but his detective buddy chalks that up to Steele’s “writer’s imagination”; it’s still vivid enough that I wondered about Steele for several scenes after.

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But that’s an exception; most of the rest of the film was uneven in its characters’ motives and clunky in its dialogue. Gray is almost cold towards Steele when they have their first private conversation, but by the next scene they’re all but living together, and for the life of me I could not understand what she saw in him.  Steele’s agent is in turns buffoonish and sympathetic, depending on what the script needed at the time. The film even hints at some skeletons in Gray’s closet – introducing a domineering and protective friend named “Martha” who got her out of an earlier scrape with another dangerous  man – but after we meet Martha, she disappears from the script completely, and we never learn what Gray’s backstory was, really.

Ultimately it feels like the screenwriter Edmund North should have maybe put this through a couple more rewrites before filming.  Bogart does what he can with the material, as do the rest of the cast (with varying success) – but the writing itself seems something of a weak link.