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Lake, Ladd and a Lady

Continuing to liberate titles from the Universal library, TCM’s Vault Series this week offers “Dark Crimes,” a three disc set of noir (or at least noir-like) films that, amazingly enough, have never been released on American home video: the two middle entries in the Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd cycle, Stuart Heisler’s “The Glass Key” (1942) and George Marshall’s “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), plus Robert Siodmak’s first American noir, the 1944 “Phantom Lady.”
A review here in the New York Times.

I’ve always found the Siodmak film a little disappointing — despite the striking cinematography by the great Woody Bredell, it turns into a standard whodunit, with the marginal novelty of a female detective (the stunning Ella Raines) and not much of the real noir spirit (it’s a perky, cheerful kind of noir). It seems even more disappointing once you’ve seen “Pieges,” Siodmak’s last French film before his departure for Hollywood, which follows the same basic formula with the added interest of a startling, “Psycho”-style twist that involves one of the stars. “Phantom Lady”‘s most famous sequence — that steamy basement jam session, in which Elisha Cook, Jr. drums himself into an erotic frenzy as Raines, disguised as a hooker, stares him down with those cold, blue eyes — is shot in a stylized, self-conscious fashion that I used to assume was directly inspired by Gjon Mili’s amazing 1944 short “Jammin’ the Blues,” shot by Robert Burks, edited by Norman Granz and featuring Lester Young, Harry Edison, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones and others. But as it turns out, “Jammin’ the Blues” was released on May 5, 1944, while “Phantom Lady” came out on January 28 of that year. Did Siodmak somehow get an early look at it, or did the influence run in the other direction? Or is it all just one of those spooky, film noir coincidences?

135 comments to Lake, Ladd and a Lady

  • Gregg Rickman

    “When CLASH BY NIGHT (the Odets play) was revived in NYC a few years ago, the Times theater critic reviewing it wrote ‘Fritz Lang made a B movie of it.’”

    Ah, New York Times critics! With all due respect to the Sunday home of our host, they’ve been (with few exceptions) consistently condescending over the years to Bs, programmers, and now to what horror/sf/fantasy buffs call “genre movies.” (Unless of course when Quentin Tarantino directs them.) As has already been noticed here, Paul W S Anderson doesn’t get the respect afforded Paul Thomas or Wes.

    And speaking of Andersons… Did anyone notice a couple of weeks ago when Manohla Dargis referred to THE MASTER as P T A’s “latest auteurism”? Since when did “auteurism” become a noun?

  • Working women are everywhere in PHANTOM LADY: the heroine, the psychiatrist, the milliner and her designer, the delicatessen owner, the actress. We repeatedly see women running businesses, and working as skilled professionals.

    By contrast, three sinister organizations, the police, the cab drivers and the musicians, are all-male. They contrast with the far more open and constructive female-run enterprises.

    The heroine is repeatedly shown using the phone. Both the telephone and the Dictaphone seem to be her high tech tools, used for both business and crime detection. They often link her to unresponsive men, however: her boss, the police.

    Similar things are in other Siodmak films:

    Female-run enterprises:
    music store, lunch stand, wine retailer: People on Sunday,
    heroine, psychiatrist, milliner and designer, delicatessen, actress: Phantom Lady,
    Ethel Barrymore’s mansion with cook, nurse, maid: The Spiral Staircase,
    hotel: The Killers,
    hospital: Cry of the City

    Women using telephone as symbol of competence:
    woman sells phone service: People on Sunday,
    heroine as secretary and detective: Phantom Lady,
    heroine tries to speak into phone: The Spiral Staircase,
    insurance investigator’s secretary does research: The Killers

  • Rob Leith

    Has anyone here read or looked through The Noir Forties, just published earlier this week? It appears to examine post-war American culture through film noir and features The Blue Dahlia and Criss Cross, among others. Author Richard Lingeman comes to film from a literary and historical background, but the Amazon write-up makes the book sound interesting:

  • alex

    Gregg Rickman

    Dargis probably was punning in a playful -if pejorative – turn on embolism ( not to say “brain fart” ); and deserves the right of the punster to a little “coining, ” even iF she’s dead wrong belittling the great THE MASTER.

    I look forward to AMOUR and DJANGO, but it’d be a very rich year in which anything surpassed THE MASTER.

  • Robert Garrick

    Mike, as long as we’re mentioning women in Siodmak films, we mustn’t neglect the biggest, scariest, most muscular and intimidating character in “Cry of the City”: Hope Emerson’s masseuse/small-time mobster. The best sequence in that excellent film comes as she enters the scene for the first time, walking down a long hall, turning on lights as she moves forward, while Richard Conte watches through a translucent window from the outside. The second best sequence comes a few moments later, when she gives Conte a neck massage that threatens to turn into something more lethal.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry got it perfectly right when he described B movies enthusiasts as people who “romanticized” B Films “to indicate an underground rebellion against the stodgy middle of the road.” Actually this attitude appeared for the first time (at least in a not too underground fashion)when Godard dedicated A BOUT DE SOUFFLE to Monogram Pictures (knowing perfectly well that not one out of ten thousand spectators (at least in France) whould know or care what Monogram was). It was a “romanticized” approach to B films, except that he probably didn’t really feel romantic about it (he was just announcing that, like Monogram, he worked with very little money available). And to a certain extent the admiration for his film has become a romanticized view of B film-making. Not that I am blaming him for it.

    The worst thing about this B movie problem is that the B concept has always encouraged a belief that the less money is available for making a movie the more likely it is going to be so bad that it doesn’t even deserve being reviewed, or if it is at all, always in a dismissive way. Well, of course, lots of B movies are poor and deserved to be “dismissed” but that could apply to A films too. It would feel so much better if we just completely stopped talking about A, B, or any other alphabetical letters as a way of discussing movies.

  • Robert Garrick

    Jean-Pierre, there’s no B-movie “problem.” B-films were made quickly and inexpensively for the bottom half of a double bill, and they proliferated (and were occasionally of high quality) while the big studios owned the movie theatres. After that, we often apply the “B” label to cheap exploitation films (like the Roger Corman films in the ’50s), but it’s not quite the same thing.

    To call a film a “B” is not a slap nor is it a qualitative or aesthetic judgment. It’s just a business category.

    The interesting thing about B movies is that a frisky, talented, young director or producer could work with a lot less supervision and interference from the studio, and could do extraordinary things. That’s the story of Val Lewton at RKO, and that’s the story of Edgar Ulmer at PRC. A willing B director (like Ulmer) was trading money for freedom. That’s what turned on Godard, and it’s what turns me on about these films too.

    Roger Corman had an engineering degree from Stanford and a degree in literature from Oxford. He was no dope, but he loved the engineering challenge of creating a cheap movie assembly-line, and (later) he loved the aesthetic challenge of using that assembly line to make good films.

    He could have worked for one of the big studios, probably; but why? He made a fortune with his films, and he had a blast. (He also left a legacy of high-quality films and of “students” like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme.)

    No problem. And Corman’s triumph over the studio system and over his financial constraints is a big part of the story.

  • JH

    “The new medium killed off the B studios such as Monogram, Lippert, and eventually Republic. ”

    This is probably true in a broad sense, but it’s not simply because TV series usurped the cultural/industrial role of the sort of Western programmers, serials, and other fare typical of those studios. Both Monogram and Republic began to go upscale in the late 1940s, before the influence of TV was felt. Republic sputtered out about a decade later, but Monogram (as Allied Artists) made a series of lower-budget “A”s (a few quite distinguished) into the 1960s (and beyond, but that was after a number of sales/restructurings).

    You could argue that the threat from TV inspired them to continue this strategy of lifting much of their production above the level it had been in the 1930s-40s, but their eventual failures have to do with their inability to compete at the “A” level in an increasingly tight film market.

    Ironically, although Republic and other smaller studios were among the first to sell their libraries for TV broadcast/syndication, the major studios’ vastly more valuable catalogues are one thing that kept them afloat in the doldrum years. This proved a consistent source of revenue, something that Republic et al arguably lacked once the exhibition market began to collapse and their films had to compete as lower-budget “As” rather than reliable programmers.

    It is funny that you say “B movie” to folks and they picture some AIP chiller from the 1950s or 1960s, when in fact these films were not true “B”s at all, at least not in the sense that obtained during the days of the vertically-integrated studio system. Try teaching this to students; they never seem to get it.

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed JH, one can always expand on an idea. For instance, while Republic and Monogram usually get grouped together as B studios, their circumstances were actually quite different.

    Republic, in fact, had had a strategy of releasing a line of A films amid their more usual fare since 1940 with DARK COMMAND. Through the war years they contined with other John Wayne westerns and World War II films, and after the war mostly moved on to the larger scale westerns of Bill Elliott. If you look at Joseph Kane’s filmography, from 1945 onward, his films are primarily Republic A’s. As such, Republic was actually much closer to Columbia than Monogram in programming strategy and this put them in a better position to stay alive longer into the 50s.

    Monogram was much closer to PRC, Lippert and the other B studios which disappeared at the end of the 40s. They did try something more ambitious on occasion, but their morphing into Allied Artists in 1953 was a much less gradual process. Ironically, Allied managed to stay in business much longer than Republic did, although not with what one could call a full slate of films.

    It should also be noted that the consent decree was taking effect at the same time that television was taking hold and both converged to eliminate the “studio system” as it had been previously known.

    Like everybody else, the students of today find it hard to imagine what the world was like before their own lifetimes. However, if the history is explained in a logical and coherent manner, I would imagine that, like everybody else, they will get it.

  • Barry Lane

    Re Barry Putterman’s Republic Comment; All good thoughts. But in the fities Republic brought an array of big time talent to the studio. Fritz Lang’s House By The River, Nicholas Ray did Johnny Guitar, Frank Lloyd and The Last Command, an array of John Ford films, plus Ray Milland as star and director of Lisbon and Man Alone, both with top supporting talent. Not to mention several Joe Kane specials, Jubilee Trail and Fair Wind To Java. Republic was quite a place.

  • Barry Putterman

    Barry Lane, all true. Republic was certainly trying to get over the same hump that Columbia did in the 50s….Only they didn’t.

  • Robert Garrick

    Don’t forget “Moonrise” (1948), directed by Frank Borzage, when naming Republic’s “A” output. Also “Sands of Iwo Jima” (Dwan, 1949), which got John Wayne an Oscar nomination. Boetticher’s “The Bullfighter and the Lady” (1951 and NOT a B picture) was Republic.

    Most importantly of all, Bob Clampett directed a single cartoon at Republic after his departure from Warner Brothers, under the name “Kilroy.”

  • Alex

    “It is funny that you say “B movie” to folks and they picture some…”

    Not very “funny strange” at all.

    Film scholars, historians and cognescenti at this thread seem to favor definition of “B-movie” as a word that was used by Studios and that connoted attributes — besides the relatively technical matter of mode of theatrical acqusition (rental basis or flat fee) — of relatively small budget and short running times and, as a correlate, scheduling at the bottomn half of double bills.

    Given this, it’s not surprise that film viewers often have held the view captured by this definition of “b-movie” at “a low-budget movie made especially to accompany a major feature film on a double bill”

    Neither is it surprising that have such a view during the 50s –when technically valid Studio dubbed B-movies were no more – continue with such a usage –indeed retain it right through to today in lieu of scholarly correction.

  • Somewhat related to the discussion of B movies and programmers is this new documentary about Andre de Toth:

  • Some visual style aspects of Siodmak:

    Deep focus with characters in foreground and background:

    bartender with heroine: Phantom Lady,
    Nick with killers in diner: The Killers,
    detective at end of tenement hallway, view down rooms of slum apartment, through prison door, from elevator: Cry of the City,
    entrance of hero to office at start, party at start, hero watches Stanwyck leave office: The File on Thelma Jordon

    Angled looks down on ground:

    shots of Berlin: People on Sunday,
    stalking bartender: Phantom Lady,
    above cobra throne room: Cobra Woman,
    heroine runs to house through rain: The Spiral Staircase,
    Nick goes over fences: The Killers,
    start of robbery: Criss Cross

    Path / reverse path camera movement:

    up and down bar: Phantom Lady,
    diner to gas station and back, plant robbery, Gardner leaves and killers enter club: The Killers,
    detective enters, leaves cigar store: Cry of the City,
    Carlo fetches Lancaster across dance floor: Criss Cross

  • Alex

    Reasonable a breakthrough in noir style as “Phantom Lady” may be, if style’s all that’s at issue and the breakthiugh need not arrive in the form of a film that is noir in theme and in narrative content and form as well as in style, mightn’t the big breakthough be simply “Citizen Kane”? (Or does “Kane” –with it masculine anxiety and fatalism/pessimism, as well as expressinist camera– perhaps qualify as noir?)

  • Barry Lane

    As much as I admire the efficiency and energy of Republic’s product and management it should be no surprise that Columibia came out ahead. At no point in their respective histories was it any different. If Columbia in the thirties was the smallest of the majors, Republic was smaller still. If we use the top men, Herb Yates and Harry Cohn as representative of their respective studios, Cohn matches well with Mayer, Thalberg and the Warners. Yates was a micro-manager type who got lucky, first with Gene Autry and later with John Wayne. That he ultimately lost both men speaks to the point. Surely there is more to be said and written but as a capsule the individual vision of the two men clarify the success and ultimate failure of their enterprise.

  • Brian Dauth

    Gregg: An “auteurism” may be a new moniker that can be added to “B film” and “art house film” to describe a certain type of movie. An “auteurism” might be a film where a viewer gets a strong sense of a director guiding the mise en scene and sound design with what is experienced as great deliberation, craft and intent (a definition which would be applicable to THE MASTER as well as many other films released this year – COSMOPOLIS; HOLY MOTORS; MOONRISE KINGDOM among them).

    And speaking of notable auteurisms, the print of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s MEDEA at MoMA Thursday evening was superb, only outshone by the brilliance of the film itself. I think that over the next three weeks MoMA will be providing many examples of great auteurisms.

  • alex

    I think Dargis simply coined Auteurism as a term to refer to a sort of film that lots of viewers will dislike and avoid as arty, pretentous, and/or obscure

    Not sure whether Dargis would count herself among such viewers

  • alex

    I see from Dargis top 10 list that she’s a huge fan of the MASTER and one who frets over its very poor commercial showing. I’d say her”Auteurism” ironically signals both her joy at PTA’s auteurist brilliance and her sense of its commercial costliness.

  • Brian Dauth

    Alex: you may be right that an auteurism is a film conceived with the understanding that it will not draw huge audiences.

  • Alex

    Use of auteurism to refer to “a film conceived with the understanding that it will not draw huge audiences, or even, more simply, “a film that it will not draw huge audiences” is neglectful of the genre-centered, as opposed to art-film-centered, tradition of auteurism — the Hawks and Tarantinos as opposed to the Godards and PTLs.

    But I don’t think Dargis’s usage involved use of a stock term –merely use of a termed coined for some recent NYTimes discussions of quality andcommercial success this past film year

  • Barry Putterman

    For the attention of Rob Leith: there is a double review of “The Noir Forties” with the Lyle Talbot biography by his daughter (alas, for us Rowan & Martin fans, no accompanying volume on Jack Hoxie) by none other than Molly Haskell in the Sunday Times Book Review.

    However, this being the Book Review, Haskell’s space on the front page is shared by an assessment of the latest David Thomson epic written by some guy from “Vogue.” As he writes it, the book tells a pretty standard history of movies and television, but it all seems astonishingly new to the reviewer.

  • alex

    Not much on the noir book, which Haskell nevertheless makes sound pretty humdrum.

  • Peter Hogue

    “As he writes it, the book tells a pretty standard history of movies and television, but it all seems astonishingly new to the reviewer.”

    Barry, I think you’ve misread the review of Thomson. The “Vogue guy” sees the “pretty standard” aspect for what it is, and if there’s any astonishment, it’s over the continuing brilliance of the idiosyncratic, non-standard illuminations that emerge from Thomson’s digressive ruminations.

  • Nothing against Dargis here, I’m just amused that “auteurism” has become a noun. It sounds too close to “aneurysm” for my comfort.

    Re David Thomson, I’ve gathered from various comments over many years that, Peter Hogue aside, not too many people on this board are fans of his. I have three theories about why this might be: 1) jealousy at his enormous success, much more than any of us will ever experience as writers; 2) irritation at his opinions, which indeed are irritating at times; 3) the Pierre Rissient reason for rejecting someone who is after all an avowed and widely read auteurist, if not an auteurism. (He’s an advocate of Hawks! Of Hitchcock!). In Rissient’s famous mot, however, it’s not enough to like the right movies, you have to like them for the right reason.

    Re 1) this is also a curse. I read Thomson’s paragraphs on Keaton from his new book in a bookstore the other day, and I felt sorry for someone who has to keep writing and rewriting the same paragraphs (and extrapolating from this, the same book) over and over again. Wearily returning over and over again to the same basic take on artist after artist (which in his take on Keaton and on many others is not at all a “wrong” take). So much better to be a Manny Farber, who gave up writing his brilliant, even more idiosyncratic criticism in favor of painting. Or a Rudi Blesh, expert in two very different fields (Keaton and trad jazz) or Jay Leyda (Soviet cinema and Herman Melville). Our host, and several others who post here, are ALSO filmmakers. But Thomson? He’s a film critic, always already a film critic.

    Re 2) I hadn’t read him for awhile, but I got his latest “Dictionary” for Christmas a couple of years ago, and read a fair amount of it over several weeks earlier this year. It really wasn’t bad. Many of his new entries were provocative and/or thoughtful. It’s OK to have blind spots, we all do. But I truly wish he would rewrite all his ongoing entries from scratch – every single time. The reading through of a series of comments first written in 1995, contradicted in the next edition’s new paragraphs, and then contradicted again in the latest tranche stuck onto the end of the preceding paragraphs, is really hard to take.

    Re 3) I don’t agree at all with Pierre Rissient. If a critic and I both like McCarey, but for very different reasons, I still might learn something from the other opinion. I have gathered over the years, however, that many critics don’t feel that way but instead practice a politique for (oddly enough) political reasons. It’s a way of helping solidify an embattled opinion. The kids at Cahiers did it. So did Postif and the MacMahonists (from whence Rissient rose). Our host has written that in Chicago in the 1970s there were conflicting groups of auteurists, Kaelites, and old fashioned “literary” critics (who liked Bergman and Fellini), all dueling with passion. Screen was losing half of its editorial board at the same time over similar fights. I have seen similar cabals in the academy having as much to do, I think, with tenure and status than a common pursuit of true judgment.

  • Vivian

    I know this isn’t the main point, but what is “auteurism” if not a noun?

    I think it’s possible to be unimpressed with a writer’s opinions and ways of expressing them, even though he might share some of your own likes and dislikes. Sometimes, of course, you might learn from them, but sometimes they might not offer much for you to learn. This might be the case for some who aren’t fans of Thomson. (Too bad I don’t get paid for every time I use “some” or “sometimes.”)

  • Barry Putterman

    I don’t know Peter, I really don’t care much one way or another about Thomson. However, the “Vogue guy” seemed to be genuinely amazed to find that there were noir elements in BRIEF ENCOUNTER and that Desi Arnaz was a major force in television history. Stop the presses!!

  • Gregg, I also find that Rissient quote about “the right reasons” creepy and vaguely Stalinist, but known Pierre since the mid 70s, I know it doesn’t really reflect his personality or the depth of his thinking. I’ve disagreed with him on many, many occasions (most recently about “Pursued,” which strikes me more and more as an outlier in Walsh’s work) and I’ve never found him to be intolerant of other opinions. I think that quote got into circulation when Todd McCarthy appropriated it for the desktop documentary he made on Rissient for screening at a few film festivals — Telluride, in its endless smugness, reportedly issued t-shirts with that line printed on them in connection with a Rissient event a few years ago.

    Thomson’s prose style is often too glib and self-consciously poetic for me (of course, I have similar problems with Manny Farber!), but he is one major critic who has actually done his homework and bothered to see a lot of movies over a lot of years — unlike quite a few other nationally known writers we could all name here (but graciously won’t). What’s bothersome about the “Biographical Dictionary” is that Thomson hasn’t seriously expanded his field of interest over the course of the book’s many editions — he’s still missing a lot of major figures from classical Hollywood as well as contemporary world cinema — and how it has become the go-to reference book for a lot of newspaper and magazine arts editors who aren’t aware of its glaring eccentricities, and take Thomson’s sometimes bizarre (though usefully provocative) assessments for the gospel truth. I wish someone would translate Tavernier and Coursodon’s “50 ans de cinema americain” and Lourcelles’ “Dictionnaire du cinema” as counterweights to Thomson (why not Jean-Pierre lui-meme?), but for the moment he has the field to himself.

  • David Thomson’s dictionary is my favourite point of provocation when I need to write a piece on a well-known film-maker. I love to disagree with him, and while doing that I seem to find something new to say.

    There is also the bright homme du cinéma David M. Thompson, distinguished film producer, writer, historian and documentary film director. These two must have heard the reference to Thomson and Thompson (Dupond and Dupond in Hergé’s Tintin adventures) once too often.

  • Vivian, wouldn’t it be more fun if auteurism became an action verb? As in, “Let’s hire Terry Malick to auteur up this Pocahontas story.” There’s a legend that a producer or screenwriter fond of Slavko Vorkapich’s montages once wrote in his 1930s scenario, “The camera Vorkapiches around the room.”

    Dave, I agree with your strictures about Thomson’s limited frame of reference; despite ample opportunities he still hasn’t substantially addressed Naruse’s work, for example. Yes, I am so looking forward to Tavernier and Coursodon in English.

  • Mark Gross

    Barry, it was a rainy day yesterday, so I also stayed home and read the Sunday Times. What particularly attracted me to Nathan Heller’s (that guy from “Vogue”)review was a stunning photo of Ceila Johnson from BRIEF ENCOUNTER. In movement, she is so suburban conventional and unremarkable in her performance that one forgets how utterly beautiful she was. That visage, perfectly molded both in lighting and bone structure, could have come from a Classical sculpture of Athena.

    Anyway, I too, as a long time film enthusiast, found the review remarkably silly in places. Still, I think most readers of the Sunday Times probably aren’t aware that BRIEF ENCOUNTER is a “noir”, but but does the light, as Mr. Heller insists, really “spills across Hilter’s limp palm in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL”? I recall the light not spilling but blinding the viewer in a mythic glow across Hilter’s head and shoulders, and his wrist being anything but limp.

    In a more serious vein, Mr. Heller also seems to think that “the seeds of today’s anodyne blockbusters took root” (to compress a very long paragraph) in the cinematic allusions of the 60’s films of Jean Luc Godard, or as Mr. Heller puts it, “a vocabulary tinged with allusion and anxious self-awareness”, which ultimately finds its fruition in the old movie quotations (such as from THE SEARCHERS)in Lucas’ STAR WARS.

    Mr. Heller quotes Mr Thompson as writing: “The critic in Godard was battling the storyteller”, which I find completely beside the point, as the allusion in Godard’s films is the basis of the storytelling, if you want to call it storytelling, although I think that confuses the issue. Call it filmmaking, if you like, or, as Godard has Fritz Lang say in CONTEMPT, “pictures that move.” The allusion in Godard just isn’t quotes from a bunch of old movies, it’s the sounds of the wheels running in the Paris Metro which remind him of a phrase from a Beethoven string quartet, the steam from a cup of coffee which reminds him simultaneously of infinity and also of the woman he loves, as she drinks the same coffee every morning; in a word, all of the things that go on in our heads every minute of the day, which is both life and the “movie we would like to see.” To my mind, that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the cinematic quotation in the films of Lucas and Speilberg.

    I received the DARK CRIMES set the other day, and while I found the transfer of PHANTOM LADY quite beautiful (except for some print damage which mars one of my favorite shots in the prison, a still of which was reproduced in Dave K’s Sunday Times article of last week)the other two films are older transfers that I find difficult to watch.

    So many insightful things were written about PHANTOM LADY on this site that I felt everything had been said, but now having seen the film again, I would say that it worked beautifully for me all the way through this time around. On my last viewing, I felt the same as Robert, that the first 45 minutes were great and then, upon the introduction of Franchot Tone, the film falls apart. This time through, I thought Tone’s performance was perceptive and of a piece with the tone of the film. I also thought that the film was anything but “an exercise in style” but I don’t really have any more time to write about it now. I will say, however, that Mike’s comment about PHANTOM LADY focusing on working women very perceptive, and perhaps also an aspect of Joan Harrison’s influence, both on PHANTOM LADY as well as UNCLE HARRY.

  • Vivian

    That’s true, Antti. Figuring out and articulating why you disagree with someone is valuable.

    “Auteurism” as an action verb….The possibilities are endless.

  • Barry Putterman

    Mark, it is likely true that most readers of The Sunday Times aren’t aware of noir elements in BRIEF ENCOUNTER and that is probably one of the reasons why none of them were asked to write a review of the Thomson book. The fact that the reviewer and his publication thought it was something of a revelation is another matter.

    Vivian, how about “auteuism” as an action hero? They’ve got to be running out of these Marvel and Tolkien characters by now. Just designing the costume could fill up all of the rainy hours we are supposed to get in New York this week.

  • I hope Mark Gross finds the time to share his insights into “Phantom Lady” with us. In any case, the fact that “Phantom Lady” is focused on a working woman has little to do with Siodmak — Joan Harrison’s mandate when she became a producer at Universal was to provide thrillers to be marketed to the wartime audience of women who found themselves alone on the home front. A New York Times piece from June 27, 1944 describes her as “the only woman producer in Hollywood . . . and the only one, anywhere, with dimples and a 24 inch waistline. She’s going to specialize in mystery films — “from the woman’s angle,” she adds. “Women must have something to pull for, you know, whether it’s a dog, a horse, an old beggar — or even another woman!” When the interviewer asks her who she has in mind to direct “The Phantom Lady,” she replies, “Of course I’d love to have Hitch, or I wish I could do it myself.”

  • At 11:43 am: should read: Dupont and Dupond.

    PHANTOM LADY, which I had the privilege to see in a 35 mm print from Universal Studios last spring in our Robert Siodmak retrospective, is a remarkable movie for many reasons. It opened the marvellous series of 13 films that Siodmak directed in six years. Joan Harrison, whom Hervé Dumont calls “la bonne fée de Siodmak” in his great book Robert Siodmak – le maître du film noir, was certainly instrumental. As was Elwood Bredell and his reinvention of the Rembrandt lighting (“les personnages de Rembrandt surgissent de l’ombre, éclairés par une unique et mystérieuse source de lumière”). The despair was as infinite as in Siodmak’s crime stories in Germany and France; the male protagonist has given up all hope. But in PHANTOM LADY the female protagonist never gives up, and Siodmak was obviously electrified by the Hawksian discovery Ella Raines, who acted in four of his films. Passive male protagonists kept returning in Siodmak’s films to be revitalized by Ella Raines or to be seduced by femmes fatales from Ava Gardner to Barbara Stanwyck. The frisson of Burt Lancaster was discovered in the films of Robert Siodmak – the incredibly powerful man reduced so vulnerable.

    I like the “phantom” theme. There is the original “phantom lady” whose tracks the sleuthing Kansas must follow. The trial where we only see the reactions of the audience. The subway station where we don’t see the train. The final prison meeting where the characters are reduced to shadows.

  • Alex

    Gregg Rickman,

    When you first wrote with surprise that Manohla Dargis had “referred to THE MASTER as P T A’s “latest auteurism,” adding “Since when did “auteurism” become a noun?”, I assumed that you were surprised by Dargis’s apparent use of “auteurism” as a concrete rather than abstract noun, as a noun that could be used in the phrase “latest auteurism” as if there were such a thing as “an auteurims” (like an “aneurysm” ). Abstract nouns refer to concepts that we objectify in thought and speech but have no material form.

    (I discounted the possibility that a multiplicity of types of abstract auteurisms –like a mutiplicity of “liberalisms– was at issue.)

    But now I see that you may have been surprised by the use of “auteurism” simply as a noun, any noun.

    I think it’s long been used as a noun,

    The OED defines this:
    auteurism, n. = auteur theory n. at auteur n. and adj. Compounds; (also) the position, character, or actions of an auteur.

    When I Google the word, I get 36,500 hits.

    On the other hand “auteurism” as an action verb utterly defies my powers of comprehension.


    (Fear of an “aneurysm”…)

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I thank Dave and Gregg for their kind words — it’s flattering to think of oneself as a counterweight to Thomson — but I’m afraid a translation of 50 ANS has always been a dream that just couldn’t come true. Blame the authors as much as the publishers — we’ve always been hopelessly clumsy at selling our stuff. AMERICAN DIRECTORS did start as an English version of
    30 ANS, but then morfed into a somewhat different animal. 50 ANS was translated in spanish but neither Bertrand nor I had anything to do with the transactions that made it possible. Anyway 50 ANS is 20 year old by now and needs to be dusted off. Actually that’s what we started doing in early spring, bolding calling the new version 100 ANS DE CINEMA AMERICAIN. Yes! NEW! iMPROVED!1912-2012 (A hundred years!Count’em!)and If everything goes well this monster of a book might be published sometime in 2014.

    I have mixed feelings about Thomson (the critic, not the man)who has followed a course somewhat similar to ours with his Dictionary of film. We published 30 ANS in 1970, he his first version of the Dictionary in 1975. A third version appeared in 1994, sandwiched between our first version of 50 ANS (1991) and the “revised and updated” version of 1995. Finally Thomson is ahead again with his fifth version (2010) as we hope to have our own fifth version with 100 ANS (I include 20 ANS DE CINEMA AMERICIAN that I published in 1960).

    Thomson is aware of our efforts and has a few things, both witty and nice, to say about them in his Tavernier entry : “50 ANS is a work of love and scholarship worthy of two eighty-year-olds, yet written with the essential arrogance that peaks in the years seventeen to twenty-three.” By now of course we’re getting much closer to 80 that to twenty-three, but I guess the arrogance (I’d prefer “enthusiasm”) is still there.

    Some time in the eighties I bought Thomson’s wonderful novel “Suspects” in a used-books shop in San Francisco (just a few feet away from the site Hitchcock used for the bird shop in the opening of “The Birds, where of course there was no bird shop). Later I lost the book and wrote to Thomson asking if he might have an extra copy to send me as the novel was out of print. He sent me the book with a very friendly letter.

  • Jean-Pierre, looking forward to your fifth edition with both enthusiasm and arrogance.

    Barry, “the Phantom Auteurist” sounds like a website just like this one, only run with everyone posting under assumed names. But how ’bout a Superhero with the monniker Phantom Auteurism? He (or she, can’t tell, ’cause of the Phantom part) is both concrete AND abstract. And has long known the difference.

  • Peter Henne

    I disagree with the idea proposed that BRIEF ENCOUNTER is a noir or has those traits. There are no killers or brutal criminals here, and the trap of urban life is that it is mundane, not menacing. Even the railway station in the climactic scene is treated as an ordinary, well-known setting for city life, and Lean makes sure of this familiarity by having several scenes beside and within trains. This setting is not humanly alienating or a slice of a sinister urban system, as it would be depicted in a noir. We see so many people routinely come and go, the leads no more exceptional than they, and Lean does not express disapproval or fear of transit stations for the human condition. BRIEF ENCOUNTER expresses romantic disatisfaction with romantic love, a swooning disenchantment in passion making a lasting payoff. The impulses of Celia Johnson’s character best explain the contrasts of lighting, especially the gathered banks of brightness in frames, like her sharp longings for her lover returning to her. To a high degree, her character manages the narrative, and the visual style follows suit. Both voiceover and camerawork describe her pensive and romantically anguished mood. Noir is not defined by chiaroscoro alone, but a particular expression for it, one that BRIEF ENCOUNTER doesn’t share.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, with his or her two sidekicks, Rigorous and Austere. I smell franchise here!

  • Barry Lane

    Noir is not about criminal or underworld life, it is about hopeless and desperate failure. On that level, Brief Encounter qualifies as “noir.”

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Antii Alanen, to your fine inventory of things phantom in Phantom Lady I would add the corpse of the murdered wife — its removal being filmed from the POV of the deceased, tracking past the shocked husband and the police detectives — and also the vividly empty hole of the window shattered when the murderer leapt to his death.

  • Richard T. Jameson, and I forgot to emphasize that Kansas becomes a phantom of the original phantom lady.

    Jean-Pierre Coursodon: looking forward to your new edition! Your work belongs to my short list of the best ever written on the cinema. Passion puts perspective on things, and your work is never indifferent.

  • Peter Henne

    “about hopeless and desperate failure” I think that is entirely too broad, Barry Lane. This way, you end up widely incorporating melodramas, some of the starker war movies, and who knows what else. Why should so much fall into the noir bin? Why should dramas outside of noir be robbed of the capacity to peer into a sense of futility and the darkest emotional corners of characters’ lives? Are we going to start calling THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES a noir? Noir is indeed rather concentrated on criminality and the seedy side of society. For instance, all of the 13 films handed detailed treatment in “The Book of Film Noir” edited by Ian Cameron pass this test. As has been remarked here before, noirs generally portray worlds laced with corruption, very often with the suggestion of a rank metaphysical underpinning. Neither Lean’s nor Wyler’s film does that. Lean’s people need sensible moderation, and Wyler’s people need a level playing field upon re-entering civilian life. Their respective worlds are unfair, or at least they may seem that way to the characters, but they are not decrepit.

  • Barry Lane

    I will narrow my comment. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is neither melodrama nor noir. It is a dramatic epic of hope, the American spirit and and a salute to resilience. Quite the opposite of noir.

  • patrick henry

    Not to take anything away from Siodmak or Bredell but an insufficiently remarked on aspect of PHANTOM LADY is Fay Helm’s performance as the enigmatic, obviously disturbed Woman with the Hat. One of the coffee table Hitchcock books prints his memo to Selznick with his comments about various candidates for the female lead in REBECCA. IIRC, he said of Fay Helm, “Gave a very good reading, but not attractive enough.” Maybe so, but she sure was interesting.

  • Mark Gross

    Dave K, thanks for your invitation to express my thoughts about PHANTOM LADY. As I think I mentioned before, I’m still recovering from brain surgery, which entails a lot of head pain. So I’m not always able to write as much as I would like. My thoughts and feelings about PHANTOM LADY are quite complex and still in process. As I stated before, I used to feel that the film falls apart at the 45 minute mark (after the jam session) and now I feel the film gets better. I haven’t seen PIEGES, so I can’t compare the two. I used to find Franchot Tone’s performance mannered and extremely irritating. In particular, I didn’t like the way Siodmak & Bredell lit his hands, in particular, contrasting those white, extended hands with the sculpture of upraised hands in the bedroom which seem to haunt Ella Raines as she is attempting to call the police. Well, that scene works beautifully for me now, because this time through the characters came across as three dimensional, and the use of matching patterns in the clothes of Tone & Raines, as well as the use of symmetry in the frame through shadows and objects (such as the hands) reinforced that feeling of tension, as opposed to simply being “window dressing” as I felt the first time through.

    Anyway, before all of you start to disagree, I think I need to explain how the film works for me from the very beginning, how it differs from the book, and how both Sidomak & Joan Harrison’s artistic personalities combine together in a way that I found extremely compelling and satisfying.

    I will begin this process in my next post.

  • “you end up widely incorporating melodramas, some of the starker war movies, and who knows what else. Why should so much fall into the noir bin?”

    Although it’s apparently a minority position, Janey Place treats film noir as a style rather than as a genre or sub-genre or as a set of thematic motifs. I don’t have her 1970s article at hand (“Visual Motifs in Film Noir” if I remember correctly)but she provides a catalog of the elements that go into creating film noir mise-en-secne supported with frame enlargements.

  • “I also find that Rissient quote about “the right reasons” creepy and vaguely Stalinist”

    Sounds more Jansenist than Stalinist to me.