The Third Man


Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Studio: London Film Productions
Year: 1949

Why I DVRed This: So The Third Man is pretty much the definition of a classic movie. I’ve seen it probably five times and always try to come back to it every few years. Interestingly, I actually had it DVRed the last time TCM put it on, but my DVR erased it. Luckily, TCM seems to agree with me that it is a classic film and re-shows The Third Man nearly as regularly as HBO plays The Devil Wears Prada. While I might have chosen to DVR the film in any case, I was especially drawn to it recently because I have been talking about going to Vienna just because there’s a really cool-looking hotel and a great opera hall there (and I am one of those people… those people who like opera). Also, in Vienna, you can visit a museum dedicated to the film (and post-war Vienna as a whole)! That sounds fun.

Presentation on TCM: The Third Man was shown as part of TCM’s annual 31 Days of Oscar. The films shown the same night as The Third Man were connected like a before-and-after puzzle. Love Letters was shown before The Third Man and was connected by Joseph Cotten starring in both films, while The Fallen Idol was shown after The Third Man and was connected by sharing the same writer and director. Ben Mankiewicz introduced The Third Man as the film in which Cotten “gives perhaps his finest performance” before he discussed the director Carol Reed getting an Oscar nomination for his “stylish and inventive shot selections.” Though Reed did not win an award for best director that year, Robert Krasker received the Oscar for black and white cinematography for his work on the film.

After the film, Ben Mankiewicz came out again and discussed the film’s ending. He said, interestingly enough, that Graham Greene wanted the film to end with a happy ending, but that the executive producer (David O. Selznick) wanted a more “nuanced” ending. Mankiewicz also added the interesting tidbit that, at the last minute, Orson Welles refused to go through an actual Viennese sewer, so the film’s climax had to be filmed on a soundstage in London. I was delighted to get not one but two appearances from a TCM host, a rarity for the films I tend to DVR.

Zither Credits
The film opens with a close-up of a zither, the instrument that plays the catchy and unforgettable score. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Synopsis: Holly Martins (Cotten), a broke Western writer, arrives in postwar Vienna as a guest of his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, when he arrives, Lime is dead! Martin begins to investigate the death and discovers that there was a “third man” (LIKE THE TITLE) present at the death. He runs into trouble from the investigating British officer, Major Calloway (Howard) and begins a love affair with Lime’s lover, Anna (Valli).

Analysis (contains spoilers): So longtime readers of this blog (all—maybe—three of you?) may recognize that I have a bit of an obsession with filmic subjectivity. I like when we see things from perspectives in which it’s clear there is a narrator even though the film itself is not “narrated.” Well, readers rejoice! The Third Man has both a narrator AND extreme subjectivity.

But then again, the narrator isn’t really a narrator. Rather, it’s merely a voice at the beginning of the film who frames the story and explains the rules of the diegetic world—how Vienna is divided into four zones, how the black market dictates all, and how, all that being said, Vienna doesn’t look much worse than any other postwar European city. The narrator never returns to the film after he introduces it, but he does make it clear that it is from his vantage point that we will see the story. Indeed, the narrator’s voice is that of Carol Reed, the film’s director, so the film truly is from his perspective. He announces to us that he “was going to tell [the audience] about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime.” Reed announces that he is in control and has chosen the story he wants to tell, and his narration further makes it clear that we will only see things from his perspective. Thus, we will not see “the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamor and easy charm” because he never knew it, as “Constantinople suited [him] better.” This is a bit of an in joke, as the story he tells us is certainly Byzantine, but it also reminds us that the world of the film is one based purely on how Vienna is now, not how it was. And as much as we may want to explore the old Vienna, we can’t, for Reed wants us hear the story of Harry Lime. While all films present the stories their directors wish to tell, few overtly announce their directors’ control in the opening montage, but of course few movies are as clearly framed by their directors as The Third Man is. Luckily, Reed was at his peak as a director when he made it (he even sacrificed his health for the film, forgoing sleep with the help of stimulants to catch even the best b-roll footage), so his subjectivity makes for a terrific film-viewing experience.

The Third Man is meticulously crafted, and every aspect of it is crafted toward the vantage point of Reed. The zither score kicks in whenever Reed wants us to recognize something or have connections (between scenes, between ideas) made. And the cinematography is diegetic as well, as we do not see imitations of life in any way but instead shot structure that shows us how Reed wants us to see the film. Thus, so much of the film is shot with these fun, tilted camera angles. They help remind us that everything we see in the film is itself slanted and abnormal, showing us how Reed wants us to see the story while also offering his point of view that all the world is atilt after being destabilized by World War II.

Indeed much of the film is “about” the condition of the postwar world. The story was conceived by Graham Greene, who wrote a book called The Third Man alongside the screenplay (the novella was written as a treatment for the screenplay, but it was released alongside the movie, like a high literary equivalent of Burger King selling a Jurassic Park comic book). In Greene’s original story, Martins and Lime are British instead of American, but the story works better with Americans (especially when those Americans are played by two great actors with a rich history together, not unlike that of Martins and Lime). After all, with Americans, The Third Man seems more prescient. In the decades after the war, Vienna became something like a microcosmic America through the accident of American mass culture which impacted Austrian culture way more than any direct American foreign policy did (what the Austrian historian Reinhold Wagnleiter calls the switch from “the Monroe Doctrine to the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine”). Austrian youth ended up obsessed with jazz and—later—rock and roll records, American books, and especially American movies. The result was that Austria as a whole became essentially an American mall for a few decades. Thus, for The Third Man, it only makes sense that it would be an American dictating the terms of the marketplace in Vienna!

This is a typical shot from the film. Nothing is centered, everything looks as crooked as the broken stairwell. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

More than all that, though, the film shows that the postwar world lacks moral clarity. And this is the struggle for Martins. He sees Lime as a childhood hero and friend, but the postwar Lime is a snake, selling often fatal, diluted black market penicillin to the needy of Vienna. Martins cannot believe it, in part because he and Lime are living in totally different worlds. Martins is a Western writer, and he seems to want to believe in the ideals of that genre: that there is an ordered world that can conquer and tame a rugged frontier as long as one man is brave enough, strong enough, and convicted enough to do so. Lime, on the other hand, sees the world as a warzone and recognizes that the entities in charge do no think in terms of right and wrong, of life and death. He tells Martins:

“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs — it’s the same thing.”

Martins counters that Lime used to believe in God, and he challenges Lime to confront the reality of the victims his drug-stretching scheme has made. Martins is still thinking in simplistic terms of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and justice. Lime is beyond that. He is a man of shadows and deceit, trying to take advantage of a destroyed world. And he occupies a (to Martins) foreign new vantage point in which he distances himself from his deed and sees his victims as merely dots seen from above the world.

Here we see Martins both navigating a spiral-like staircase and being preceded by the weight of his enormous shadow. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Of course, the way Martins sees the victims is from his own vantage point, one rooted in outmoded ideals. Reed masterfully captures these separate vantage points filmically. When we see Martins, his shadow often precedes him and, as in most film noirs, towers over him. It is as though Martins’ rigid belief system and mythic understanding of the world are a burden on him and weigh down every aspect of his being. He cannot possibly understand the truth about his friend because he cannot possibly see past his own shadow, his own beliefs. Lime, on the other hand, successfully navigates the crevices. When we first see Lime, Martins is drunk and unable to see into the shadows. Lime, however, is watching a cat do just as he does—walk between worlds of light and dark with complete immunity. When Welles’s face ends up perfectly lit, he looks natural and comfortable as Reed’s own vantage point—the camera—zooms in. We see instantly how charming Lime can be if forced into the light (in part because he’s played by an iconic and charismatic star), but we also see how successful this character is at hiding in the darkness on the edges of the world. Lime lives and flourishes in the liminal spaces created by the destabilization of Vienna, a city that itself has four internal borders now due to the occupation zones, and Lime works them all, using the underground sewer system as his own highway.

Ferris Wheel
Only Lime can navigate both the surface and the shadows of Vienna. Here, Martins stands confused, the world spinning out of control behind him. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

In addition to the cracks between worlds, The Third Man shows the main world as a dizzying place. We see, for instance, Martins and others navigate a series of spiral staircases, and Martins literally spins around when he first sees Lime. But only Lime seems able to navigate these spinning realities. He is, of course, the only one truly 100% aware that he faked his own death, so the reveal that he is alive is not a reveal to him. But he also physically controls the world by being able to make a path in the shadows and the circles. It’s no wonder he makes his big speech and first face-to-face conversation with Martins aboard a Ferris Wheel, a contraption that both towers over the world and spins. Totally comfortable in the rotating amusement park attraction, he points down to the tiny people below, dots at that vantage point, and asks if anyone could care about a dot disappearing. Martins is sickened by it because of the romance he writes about and believes in, and he is naturally sickened by Lime’s request that Martins see the world his way and be cut in on the scheme. But really he just can’t see how Limes can view the dots as anything other than humans just as he cannot understand how anyone can manage the dizzying realities of Vienna. In another way, though, he cannot understand how someone can be so good in some ways (Lime is charming even while discussing dead children) and so bad in others.

The world of Vienna is also shadowy, and Martins cannot figure out how to navigate the world that exists off screen, such as the world creating this shadow. He can see the shadow but cannot understand the reality of what created it. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

This is an American conflict. It is the battle between what is right and what is real, but it is also a battle between the lies Americans believe about their country and the realities Americans refuse to recognize. Martins believes in the legends and the myths, but Lime is a new type of American who recognizes what America is to become—a nation on the rise because of an ability to dominate a world off center through tricks, capitalism, and ruthlessness. Lime tells Martins that “the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories,” and that’s ultimately Martins’ problem: He doesn’t recognize that the world is not what it is in his Westerns. While that world might never have existed, it certainly doesn’t exist now, not in Vienna.

Interestingly, though, Martins clings to that certainty of the old ways, especially when he is in the center of the world and not in those liminal crevices on the outskirts of the frames. It is interesting that Martins (and the audience) gets his facts about Lime in a montage. He learns a ton, but we learn nothing but the basic fact—that Lime is running black market drugs. We accept the truth because Martins does after getting hard evidence (photos, fingerprints, drug samples) that we only see in passing. Thus, Martins gets some tangible evidence and hard facts, where we only get subjective realities. But for Martins, everything he knows about Lime is now up in the air, as he cannot rectify the Lime he remembers from youth with the Lime he know has hard facts about in Vienna. Anna, who I have failed to mention up to now, although she is a fascinating character worthy of much analysis, tells Martins that “a person doesn’t change because you find out more,” but for Martins, everything has changed. He realizes he needs to help put a stop to Lime’s scheme and that do so he’ll have to enter the shadows to ultimately kill Lime.

And that death is a remarkable scene. Lime is chased through the sewers of Vienna and shot at from a distance by the British. He fires back into darkness, shooting a man cowardly rather than heroically. Martins is the final pursuer, and he would likely prefer to either not kill Lime at all or to at least kill him in a dignified way like would be done in a Western. Instead, he shoots Lime in the back while Lime dangles from a ladder. The look in Lime’s eyes when Martins is about to shoot him is incredible. It’s a look of sadness and shame but also a smirk. In a sense, it gives satisfaction that his attempts to bargain with his moral ambiguity are ultimately failures—he knows he’s a coward who shoots at enemies in the dark and gets shot in the back. But in another sense, the scene seems to show Lime smiling because Martins has finally gotten his hands dirty and entered the modern world.

Regardless, the world of The Third Man is a dizzying world of liminal spaces in which certainties are proven to not exist and in which bad things happen. Writing at the LA Review of Books, Martin Zirulnik refers to two Viennas, one that is comically ironic, and “one that exists in the margins of what’s presented on-screen, the one that only just eludes viewing… [and is] a truly miserable and humorless place.” This humor idea brings up the final thing I found particularly interesting on this latest viewing of The Third Man. For a dark dark dark movie, it really is a ton of fun. There’s a delightful mirrored structure (the film starts with Lime’s death and ends with it), a hauntingly upbeat zither score, some of the best lines ever in cinema (including the famed cuckoo clock speech that Welles claims to have written, although he also claims to have written all his dialogue in the film), a fascinating mystery, surprising twists, comic scenes, suspense, great acting, great shots, and really great pacing.

And finally, I love the shot at the end. Martins gets out of the car and stands cool, like a cowboy hero, to wait for Anna. She walks and walks and walks, and then walks right past him. Interestingly, the shot is long and stable—it is one of the only long shots in the film that is focused and centered and not askew—and suggests that the world is once again stable for Martins. He no longer will have moral dilemmas such as recognizing his friend as a killer, but he still has to face the consequences of killing Lime and ruining Anna’s life. She could run away with Martins and save herself, but she has avoided facing the reality of Lime’s evil, so why should she start dealing with his or Martin’s evil after Lime’s death? The touch of evil is now on Martin, and so there are consequences for his dabbling in the corners and the sewers.

So Lime was right after all—there are no heroes in the real world.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Um, obviously. I think I could watch this film a thousand more times and notice a thousand more interesting details or topics of analysis. It’s truly a classic.




HANTISE - French Poster by Boris Grinsson

Director: George Cukor
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Writer: John Van Druten & Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston
Cast: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury
Studio: MGM
Year: 1944

Why I DVRed This: For personal reasons, I have been very interested in the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and in my research, I came across a behavior pattern known as gaslighting. The term refers to a mental abuse perpetrated by a narcissist (or actually any abuser) in which the abuser twists, spins, selectively omits, or outright makes up information to make the victim mistrust his/her own memory or sanity. So, for example, if you remember a narcissist berating you, the narcissist might tell you that you have an active imagination and remind you that you actually started the fight. Anyway, so I read about this behavior and found out the term originated from the play Gas Light, the source material for this film (and a British film called, like this one, Gaslight). Then I saw that the film was playing on TCM, and it seemed like kismet.

Oh, there’s also this great song called “Gaslight” that I’ve liked for a long time, so I suppose I would’ve been inclined to find out about the film Gaslight even without caring about narcissists.

Presentation on TCM: I don’t know why this was on, but it was on at 10 in the morning a few months ago. I waited to watch it because my wife wanted to see it too, so we needed a night in which we were both home and both in the mood to watch a film. We ended up doing a “woman-being-made-crazy-or-crazier-by-male-abuse” film festival, following it with a presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire also from TCM (but from a different date). But neither film actually featured any special presentation or announcement from the network.

Boyer Strangles Light
In an act of foreshadowing, we see Anton strangling the light out of the titular gaslight. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: As a young girl, Paula Alquist (Bergman) witnesses the murder of her opera-singing aunt. Years later, she meets and marries the dashing Gregory Anton (Boyer) in Italy, and the two move back into her aunt’s house in Victorian London. There, he changes her environment in subtle ways to convince her that she is going insane, all while he works on a scheme to abscond with precious jewels, unless the intrepid Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Cotten) can figure out the con in time!

Analysis (contains spoilers): This film is really over the top, but damn if it doesn’t work. The acting seemed completely overdone, but since everyone overacted in the movie, it works to great effect. Indeed, Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, and Ingrid Bergman were all nominated for Oscars for their acting (with Bergman winning), and though I usually prefer more subtle performances, I have to say I found everyone believable in the context of a plot that is completely unbelievable (I mean, Anton has a plan over a decade in the making to steal fucking jewels from a house he seems to know how to break into easily?). To be fair, Bergman has some nuance in her performance, but it’s very theatrical nuance. Regardless, I found the theatrical acting largely complemented the equally theatrical sets and atmospherics.

And those elements are indeed fun! There is a classic Victorian London square with a classic house, but the film also shows a fancy parlor concert, a Scotland Yard office, and a lavish house on Lake Como. Everything in the scenes is put together well and contributes to the overall mise en scène. The film has a feel of gothic horror (especially in the fog-drenched London night scenes), so that even when nothing sinister is actually happening on the screen, the audience never quite feels safe. And the sets in the house are so tightly packed that we feel trapped and claustrophobic even before any gaslighting starts to happen. Everything in Italy in the film seems light and airy, while London feels dark and drab, even though the house is gaudy and resplendent. Thus, everything that happens in London seems sinister and ominous.

Happy Claustrophobia
Even in happier times, the film foreshadows Paula’s being trapped by Anton. Note the light being shut out from behind her by his presence and—of course—the cell-like feel to the whole scene. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The framing of individual shots contributes to this effect too. For instance, we see Anton and Paula framed by bars and shadows often, implying that she is or will soon be trapped. And we see Anton nefariously and surreptitiously pocket the letter that will be the most damning proof of his guilt and her sanity. Again, there is no subtlety in this movie or in its foreshadowing. Even the film’s big reveal about Anton being the strangler of the aunt is foreshadowed by the inordinate number of shots we see of his hands either caressing Paula’s neck or eerily disembodied from the rest of him. When he surprises Paula at the train station in Italy, for instance, we see his arms reaching out to embrace her before we see that they are his arms. Instead, they are just arms floating in from stage left. Gee, I wonder if he’s ever strangled anyone!

Still, the over-the-top aspects of the film are all in good fun and are indeed reminiscent of so many of the old Hollywood productions. The film might be more interesting as a film noir or something like that, but there’s nothing wrong with a well-crafted mystery film. I had three complaints about the film. One, I found the movement of the camera very very distracting, and I didn’t find it added anything to the film. Two, the classical lighting (which I know is a near-must for a movie of the time period) sometimes offset the effect of the dimming of the gas lights that Paula experiences. That is, she comments on (and the camera shows us) the lights growing dim, but the scene itself is still lit offstage, meaning we as an audience don’t see anything get darker. For a film that has a central tenet of lights growing dim (I mean, the title is Gaslight!), I feel like there ought to be more darkness and shadows in the diegetic world. Three, and this is a result of the first two—I think the film could’ve worked better if the direction were closer to Paula, if there were more subjectivity so that the audience got into her head a little bit more. It would help us see if she actually is growing insane or just getting pissed off that she’s being treated like she’s insane. But then again, those changes would make for a very different movie and maybe not as enjoyable a film. While I might prefer a noir, the director, George Cukor, chose to adhere more closely to Gothic conventions. Of course as the great David Bordwell reminds us in his article about the rise of suspenseful murder plots in 1940s movies, “We need to remember that female Gothics and films noirs are really ex post facto categories, constructed by later critics to point out affinities and differences among groups of films. These categories didn’t exist for contemporaries, and filmmakers and writers of the time carved things up rather differently.” Thus, let’s just appreciate Gaslight for what it is, not what it might’ve been.

Lansbury Side Eye
Pretty much every scene with Angela Lansbury has her looking quizzically at Ingrid Bergman or asking questions of Charles Boyer or the other maid in a judgmental way that implies she thinks the rich are fucking weird. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

With that in mind, overall, I can’t complain too much about Gaslight. It’s a fun picture that is totally engrossing, even with its ridiculousness. I loved Angela Lansbury’s cockney accent and the fact that her entire role seemed to consist of her giving side eye (as my wife put it) to all the principals. And Joseph Cotton’s detective work is fun, especially because literally every mystery of the film gets explained and connected, as it should in any mystery film. We are left with answers to everything, and it all adds up to a satisfying conclusion. Finally, I love the scene in which Bergman has Boyer tied up and calls him out on his bullshit. I won’t go so far as to say it’s empowering for all women, but it’s certainly more empowering than the rest of the film (in which she is made to feel insane by one man until another man saves her because her aunt gave him a glove once). And, if nothing else, it’s good acting from Bergman! (Also, interestingly, MGM insisted on Cotton’s character being rewritten as a suitable love interest for Bergman, so some of the weirder aspects of the film’s plot might just derive from the fact censors couldn’t simply have the implication that poor Paula would end up a divorcee because she married a killer.)

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes. I had fun watching this film, and that’s worth something. I’d recommend this film to anyone in the mood for an escapist suspense film. Or anyone who wants to hear a variety of weird accents and see a variety of dramatic atmospherics. Or anyone who likes movies about creepy husbands menacingly taking advantage of newlyweds (Rebecca, the more recent and underrated Crimson Peak). Or really just about anyone.

December 7th


Directors: John Ford, Gregg Toland
Producer: John Ford
Writer: Budd Schulberg (uncredited)
Cast: Walter Huston, Harry Davenport, Dana Andrews, James K. McGuinness
Studio: Navy Department, U.S. War Department
Year: 1943

Why I DVRed This: When I was in college, I took a class about postwar politics and culture, but the class started by looking at American culture before and during World War II. As part of that, the professor showed scenes from a number of John Ford movies, including December 7th. His thesis was that John Ford’s politics changed from fairly liberal to fairly conservative as a result of the war (I would argue that even Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is far less liberal than the source material was, but there is no denying that Ford’s postwar Westerns certainly feel conservative). For December 7th, the class watched part of the movie in which Uncle Sam sleeps while America gets sneak attacked. I found it funny then, because it’s such a stupid plot. When I saw it on the TCM schedule, I figured I would want to get the context for all that. Spoiler alert: It was still funny (No, I’m not laughing at Pearl Harbor but, rather, the premise of the film).

Presentation on TCM: TCM made no special announcements about this film. However, it is worth noting that TCM aired the uncensored version of the film (mostly created by Gregg Toland), rather than the half-hour long, censored version (mostly created by Ford) that was released in the 1940s. And, believe it or not, TCM aired the film on December 7, 2015, the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks.

The Conversation
U.S. and Mr. C. discuss the dangers of the “hyphenated” Japanese-Americans lurking outside Uncle Sam’s Hawaiian home. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: The film has three sections. The first section takes place on December 6, 1941. Uncle Sam, “U.S.” (Huston), is relaxing in Hawaii, without a care in the world. His friend, Mr. C., his conscience (Davenport), warns him about the nefarious and perfidious Japanese who inhabit Hawaii while U.S. assures him there is nothing to worry about. In the second section, Pearl Harbor is bombed, and the film recreates very realistic visuals of the attack. Finally, in the third section, America meets the ghosts of those killed at Pearl Harbor and their parents, and the nation is assured that America is on the path to victory in World War II.

Analysis (contains spoilers): So, this movie is downright offensive. Yes, it’s a propaganda film, so there is a clear bias partially forgiven by historical context. But even in that context, this movie is hard to watch (indeed, this is more offensive than any of the other American propaganda films I’ve seen and is much closer to the propaganda of the Nazi regime). It all but endorses something even worse than the internment policies of Roosevelt during World War II and seems to encourage hatred and fear of a racialized enemy. The halfhearted attempts at the end of the film to imply that not all the Japanese are that bad (we see, for instance, Nisei and immigrant shop owners changing their signs from kanji to English) fall short after an hour spent riling up the audience with footage of Japanese laborers eavesdropping on American servicemen so they can report intelligence back to Emperor Hirohito, who Mr. C. reminds us, is worshipped by Shintoists.

All that being said, this film is fascinating as a historical document. Ford, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, spent part of 1940 recruiting fellow filmmakers to join what would become the OSS Field Photographic Branch, a group tasked with documenting the coming war and creating propaganda and training films. One of the first wartime projects commissioned for the group was a documentary about the Pearl Harbor attack that would also serve as propaganda to reassure the American people that the US would come back stronger than ever. The Navy told Ford to create a short documentary with a very rapid turnaround time, and Ford commissioned Toland to direct. Toland, best known today as the innovative cinematographer of Citizen Kane, had long dreamed of directing (he was the photographer of several Ford movies before the war and had won an Academy Award for Wuthering Heights) and jumped at the opportunity. In January of 1942, he went to Honolulu to begin filming. The project was to take a month or so.

The film’s best sections are the combat footage. Toland combined archival footage with recreations of the attack staged at Fox Studios. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.

Instead, Toland spent nearly a year flying between Honolulu and Los Angeles and recreating battle footage in the special effects studios on the Fox lot. And instead of a simple film about the heroism of American servicemen, he created an 85-minute film that spent significant amounts of time delving into the lives of the Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii and reminding everyone that hundreds of thousands of such Japanese-Americans were responsible for the attack. Admiral Harold Stark hated the film, writing that “This picture leaves the distinct impression that the Navy was not on the job, and this is not true.” To appease the Navy, Ford re-edited the film to avoid inflaming small-town Americans into acts of violence on the Japanese-Americans interned in their towns and to, of course, make the Navy look better. Even after Ford’s edits, the film was pretty much un-releasable (and by 1943, a documentary about Pearl Harbor didn’t really need to be released), but it still won Ford an Academy Award for short documentary. Toland never directed again, though he continued to work as a cinematographer until his death in 1948.

All of this makes clear that the film’s authorship is not totally clear. It officially is credited to Ford (with Toland credited for cinematography), even though the version TCM showed was Toland’s. Thus, while I would love to compare December 7th to the myth-versus-fact themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Fort Apache, I will refrain. Instead, I feel like the film is principally Toland’s, and indeed the only parts of the film that aren’t outright offensive are those that reflect Toland’s talents as a cinematographer. The action scenes are impressive, and the whole film is shot well.

The politics of the film are, however, another story. The entirety of the first section of the film exists as a debate between a relaxed Uncle Sam—called “U.S.” throughout the picture as if to cement what is already obvious, namely that he here represents America at large—and Mr. C., the conscience of Uncle Sam and, by extension, all of America. While U.S. relaxes, Mr. C. rails against the “hyphenated” American identity of the Japanese in Honolulu. He reminds U.S. that they print newspapers in Japanese, practice a Japanese religion, and eat Japanese food. U.S. counters that they also work in America, speak English, and support American life. But Mr. C. persists—that is not good enough. Mr. C. reminds all of America to be suspicious of cultural pluralism and “hyphenated” Americanism. As the voice of our conscience, he’s telling us what we deep down inside are supposed to already know. The message is reminiscent of the Barry Goldwater ad from 1964—“in your heart, you know he’s right.” Mr. C. confirms that our conscience is right too, as he shows the Japanese gardeners, dancers, barbers, cab drivers, etc. eavesdropping on conversations and reporting what they hear back to Japan. Any one of them could be a spy, and apparently anyone who retains aspects of their native culture is not to be trusted.

The second section of the film shows us why—it’s basically a half hour of recreated footage of the attack. This section is technically impressive. Indeed, I actually could not tell that it was all recreated, as it looked very real. Of course, the fact that it’s not archival footage poses a problem for a project that was supposed to be a documentary, but that did not seem to be a concern for the filmmakers.

Dead Soldier
A dead American (emphasis on American) speaks from beyond the grave. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.
Family of Dead
We also meet the families of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. The families chosen show the diversity that makes up true “Americans” as opposed to the “perfidious” Japanese-Americans. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.

In the third section, the film cements its vision of the “true” American identity. We are introduced to the ghosts of soldiers killed at Pearl Harbor and their families. Toland shows a diverse array of people—a Jew, an Italian, an Irishman, a Latino, even a Black—from a wide array of places—New Mexico, Brooklyn, a farm in Ohio. The narrator asks them why they all sound the same, given they’re backgrounds. One of the ghosts says it’s because they’re “all Americans.” The film makes it clear, thus, that a true American is one who gives up the hyphenated identity and assimilates entirely into a classless, raceless American identity (obviously this is a thing that has never existed in America, but neither Mr. C. or U.S. are particularly interested in the truth).

This message was embraced by the liberal consensus of the early Cold War years, and World War II certainly helped to create it. But it’s very tough to watch a film that outright promotes xenophobia and hatred of an entire group of people. And again, I have to emphasize that this film is even more offensive than most propaganda films.  It’s very strange that Toland went from Citizen Kane to December 7th in a matter of months.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: I mean, I’m happy I saw it. But I wouldn’t watch it again. I did not like this movie, in case that wasn’t clear.


Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis movie poster. Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.
Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.

Director: Vincente Minnelli        Producer: Arthur Freed
Writers: Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoffe
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake
Studio: MGM   Year: 1944

Why I DVRed It: A lifetime ago, I won a part in a staged production of Meet Me in St. Louis. After a grueling audition process, I won the highly coveted roles of both a nameless chorus member and an anonymous square dancer in a junior high production of the musicial in suburban Minneapolis. It was my first and last foray into the world of the theater, musical or otherwise. In fact, the experience was so unpleasant (believe it or not, middle school students are not nice to each other) that I was forever turned off by musicals (which I also wasn’t enamored of before learning all the words to “The Trolley Song”). Since then, of course, I’ve halfway come around to them. That is, I don’t seek them out typically, but I’ll go to a live one if someone else wants to go, or I’ll watch a movie musical if it’s supposed to be really good or at least doesn’t look awful. That has led me to see some good and some not so good films. Singing in the Rain was, of course, a delight, but even a fascination in all things Elvis could not make me stomach Bye Bye BirdieMeet Me in St. Louis is generally lumped (along with Singing in the Rain) into that category of “critically acclaimed musicals,” so I figured it couldn’t be terrible.

Additionally, I was looking to watch something that didn’t seem too intense. I’ve been watching and reading too many crime stories lately, and I wanted something saccharine—this movie seemed about as sappy as I could get.

Presentation on TCM: This was on at 4 in the morning, a time when TCM does not seem to bring out the big guns (Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz). I have no idea why it was on at 4 in the morning, either—that is, there was no theme I could discern from that evening/morning’s lineup. I guess the mindset was that the type of people up at 4 in the morning (the elderly, laborers, insomniacs, hard partiers, and lunatics) would be the type most likely to watch a Minnelli musical in Technicolor.

Louisiana purchase centennial, World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).
Louisiana Purchase Centennial, World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).

Synopsis: This is a musical in which the plot seems secondary in import to having ample opportunity for song and dance numbers. The year is 1903, and everyone in St. Louis is ridiculously excited for the World’s Fair the city will host the following year, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In the Smith household, Esther (Garland) has a crush on the next-door neighbor, John Truett (Drake), and Rose (Bremer) pines for her boyfriend in New York to propose. Meanwhile, the youngest child, the doted-upon Tootie (O’Brien) has a morbid sense of humor, and the father, Alonso (Ames), decides to uproot everyone to New York—even though St. Louis is where the World’s Fair is going to be!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Meet Me in St. Louis is often regarded as one of the best of the big Hollywood musicals. In 1944, it was an instant hit and further cemented Judy Garland’s star. It was the first collaboration between her and director Vincente Minneli, her eventual husband. Garland was originally very uninterested in the film, both because it exacerbated her already overstrained schedule and because the film did not appear to have much potential. Indeed, the film was known around MGM as “Freed’s Folly” while it was being filmed. The choice of an unproven Minnelli did not help, and filming was difficult for all on the set. (For a great breakdown of the creation of the film, please visit The Judy Room.) Nevertheless, all were happy with the finished product, which raked in millions nationwide and had a profound impact on the morale of American theatergoers during the third year of World War II. Indeed, the film became something of a national treasure.

And it’s easy to see why: It shows America as the audience wants it to be, not as it is. I can’t say I particularly liked the film, but I didn’t not like it either. I just couldn’t get past a lot of the problems I have with musicals in general. The plot is quite thin (as was probably gleaned from my synopsis), and the music here pretty much never furthers the plot. All of the songs are performance pieces for characters in the movie (i.e., the characters sing standalone songs for each other’s amusement, rather than for the purpose of plot), and they could just as easily be cut for one to follow the story, not unlike the sex scenes in a porno. But, of course, the audience of St. Louis is primarily watching the movie to see Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, et al, sing, so cutting the songs would make as much sense as cutting the sex from a porno. If I were more inclined to liking musicals, I might think better of the film, but I’m not, and I don’t.

The song numbers, true, are very good. I’m far from the first person in the history of the world to note this, but Judy Garland’s got quite the voice on her. And her acting (along with that of O’Brien and Astor) makes up for rather mediocre acting from most others in the cast. I did rather like the look of the film: Set designers clearly played up and utilized all that Technicolor offered. The house, for instance, which is basically the only set for the entire movie, is quite richly decorated with lush tapestries and colorful furniture, and all of the characters wear beautiful costumes that create a variegated look to each scene.

Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

MGM spared no expense on this movie (remember, film stock—especially color film stock—and lighting were extremely expensive in the war years), and audiences certainly appreciated it. In truth, the look of the film makes up for a lot of its problems. The songs are all well sung but sparsely choreographed, leaving very little to focus on if not the colors. And Minnelli’s framing device, opening each season with a color postcard that turns into a live-action shot of the house, is clever for setting up the plot. I just couldn’t get past the thinness of said plot and the fact that I never really cared about the Smith family or their exploits.

What little plot there is centers around 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a world’s fair that is today as forgotten as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 is celebrated. It was a big deal in 1904, of course, but today it is known only for its controversial displays of newly conquered “primitive Americans” (from Guam and the Philippines) and for being the place that popularized cotton candy, waffle cones, peanut butter, and other foods. In fact, the 1904 World’s Fair is probably best remembered today as the setting for Meet Me in St. Louis (even though the film only has one scene actually at the fair…). It is, however, the lack of historical import of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that makes the fair such a perfect setting for a film that celebrates an idealized portrayal of American life; after all, few could challenge the veracity of the film’s portrayal of a fair about which few had much knowledge. The fair’s themes also underscore the idealized patriotic themes of the film. A decade after the “closing of the frontier,” the fair celebrated American expansionism (quite literally, it celebrated the centennial of the doubling of America), and, in 1944, the height of World War II, the setting of a fair celebrating world peace clearly harkens to an era of innocence. And this innocence appears permanent in the diegetic St. Louis of the film, rather than (as in the case of soooooooo many films about the 1960s for instance) as something just on the cusp of passing. If the film were set during the Chicago World’s Fair, for instance, world peace would still be on display, but so too would change—in the form of electricity. The St. Louis World’s Fair, though, just celebrated “nice things” and optimism about the future.

Of course, such innocence never truly existed, but that is exactly the point of the film. Meet Me in St. Louis showcased the idealized American life later (and concurrently) embodied by Norman Rockwell paintings, It’s a Wonderful Life (two years later), and Walt Disney. In fact, Disney’s theme parks much resemble the look and feel of the film, with the parks’ Main Street, USA showcasing the same Midwest of the early 20th century of Meet Me in St. Louis. Disney World’s Carousel of Progress, especially, bares striking resemblance to the film. In that attraction, the audience watches an animatronic old man describe all the great things technology has wrought and describes the story of America in the 20th century teleologically. The audience learns that technology is improving the quality of life for everyone while the narrator omits some of the events that actually brought about those changes (e.g., the Great Depression, World War II, the 60s). But, of course, no one wants to go to an amusement park and be bummed out about war and stuff. And that’s exactly the purpose Meet Me in St. Louis served. It offered an escape (it still offers an escape) from what was really going on in the world. The America of the film was simply a nice place in which everyone had enough of everything, including money, opportunity, love, family, and optimism.

Even the Smith's house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized
Even the Smith’s house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized “typical American” house. In reality, it is clearly the house of a wealthy family, but the world of Meet Me in St. Louis is classless, in that we never see anyone of another class (other than the family maid, but she’s sassy and a member of the family). © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The film almost overtly projects certain ideals of American life. For one, it offers a very mawkish and romantic vision of American family life. The Smiths are meant to be an every family (even the name Smith is as generic as can be), and their middle class Victorianism is meant to look appealing to the audience. Indeed, the family is loving and affectionate to each other. Even after the father decides completely by himself and out of nowhere to uproot the family to New York (as is his right as the male in a Victorian family) and tears are shed, the family reunites over the piano to join in a popular song. Love unites the family, and music is the language of love (at least according to Shakespeare).

The film also offers the idea that the true center of American family life is out there, away from the corrupt cities of the East. St. Louis is where it’s at, and it’s where true families want to live. Tootie, a child strangely obsessed with death and disease (for more on that subject, read See St. Louis and Die) is particularly upset about the move to New York, and Esther tries to calm her by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (yes, Meet Me in St. Louis is the source of that cherished holiday classic), but Tootie runs out to destroy the snowmen she and the rest of the family created in a schmaltzy sequence earlier in the film. In typical 40s movie fashion, Alonso watches from a window as Esther tries to stop Tootie from destroying the snow family:

Tootie: Nobody’s going to have [the snowmen], not if we can’t take them to New York! I’d rather kill them if we can’t take them with us!
Esther: Oh, Tootie, don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s all right. You can build other snow people in New York.
Tootie: No, you can’t! You can’t do any of the things that I can do in St. Louis!
Esther: No, no, Tootie, you’re wrong. New York is a wonderful town. Everybody dreams about going there, but we’re luckier than lots of families because we’re really going… Thats’s what really counts. We could be happy anywhere as long as we’re together. 

Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavyhanded representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can. . © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavy-handed representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can.  © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

After watching this, Alonso reverses course and decides to stay in St. Louis. Interestingly, New York is the “desired place” but not the place the family is supposed to end up. The film makes a startling cry for suburban/rural domesticity and middle class values. (As someone who has been in New York too long, I guess I can agree with that sentiment—New York in July is a garbage city that smells like garbage, the same garbage that lines the garbage streets I have to walk to get to the subway overcrowded with assholes and maniacs, but I digress.) St. Louis has enough, apparently, for Tootie, whose happiness is utmost. Children were, of course, the most important aspect of any Victorian family, and Alonso knows better than to want more than what he needs: Though New York probably would allow him to get richer, he is rich enough with his gigantic house, servant, and loving children (plus, logically, the St. Louis hosting both the World’s Fair and the Olympics would probably have some ways for him to get more money if he really wanted it).

Morals do not come up in this film because no one is immoral, but they just as easily could. St. Louis is pure (note that the scene described above takes place in the driven snow), and Tootie implies that family itself will die once the family is away from America’s heartland. She will kill them all (as she kills the snowmen) if New York doesn’t kill the family first.  Finally, though, it is not the ills of New York that prevent him from moving the family; rather, it’s the joys of St. Louis. Alonso states that “New York hasn’t got opportunity copyrighted. St. Louis is headed for a boom.”

Indeed, the film ends on an even stronger pronouncement of that sentiment. As the newly engaged Esther and John gaze at the Grand Lagoon at the center of the World’s Fair, she looks right at the camera and says, of the fair, “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live, right here in St. Louis.” The film ends implying that the world is now coming to the United States, making the United States the center of the world. As World War II came to and end, this would be true, and the middle class values of Meet Me in St. Louis demonstrated just what the world should look like at war’s end (should, not would).

The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

It doesn’t matter that such innocence and optimism lack verisimilitude. Minnelli, in fact, makes it clear throughout that the film is a fiction and not realistic (for example, the framing device of announcing the seasons seems to suggest that the film shows an imagined story about what could happen in a picture postcard world). Instead, Meet Me in St. Louis provides exactly what musicals espouse: a world for us to aspire to and dream about, something, as Esther puts it of her first encounter with John, “strange and romantic.”

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t particularly like the film, but that’s just because I’m a misanthrope and cynic. It was well done, and it certainly provided me with something to think about (even if I only thought about it misanthropically and cynically). I think it’s important to at least occasionally watch movies that I might not normally pick (and to try new foods and listen to new bands, and all that “variety is the spice of life” shit), and I’m glad I made myself watch this one. I probably won’t watch it again, of course, but I might occasionally accidentally hum “meet me in St. Louis, Louis” or “clang clang clang went the trolley…”

Mildred Pierce


Director: Michael Curtiz Producer: Jerry Wald
Writers: Ranald MacDougall from a novel by James M. Cain
Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett
Studio: Warner Bros. Year: 1945

Why I DVRed It: I’d love to say that I DVRed it because of a love of film noir—and yes, I, like pretty much everyone else, love film noir—or because of an interest in seeing a Michael Curtiz film other than Casablanca or White Christmas or because of an interest in James Cain adaptations or literally dozens of other reasons. But really, I just DVRed this for Joan Crawford. And specifically for my memory of Mommie Dearest, especially for the scene in which Joan receives the Oscar for Mildred Pierce while faking pneumonia. In Mommie Dearest, she puts on makeup and invites reporters to see her on her front steps, saying, “I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world. You, all of you here and everywhere, gave me this award tonight. And I accept it from you and only you. I love all of you. Now please forgive me, good night.” It is a high point of Faye Dunaway hamming up her Joan Crawford accent, though it is not the best part of the film (I like the sequence with the uneaten steak best).

Mommie Dearest is heavily fictionalized, of course. In reality, she accepted the award in bed (playing up the illness angle, after all) and opined, “Whether the Academy voters were giving the Oscar to me, sentimentally, for Mildred or for 200 years of effort, the hell with it — I deserved it.” Crazily, that’s not even the best Joan Crawford Academy Awards story (no, the best is the spillover from her feud with Bette Davis on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, itself a great film)! With that background, though, I was eager to see the real Joan doing what she did best—acting, not abusing her children.

Presentation on TCM: Mildred Pierce was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which airs film noir movies on Fridays throughout June and July. As Mildred Pierce was shown in the afternoon, there was no introduction from anyone at the network.

Synopsis: In true noir fashion, Mildred Pierce opens with a murder: Monte Beragon (Scott) is shot, crying “Mildred.” Mildred Pierce (Crawford) contemplates suicide by the docks then eventually is brought in for questioning about the death of Monte, her second (and current) husband. The rest of the story is told in flashback as she tells the police of her past. She was married to Bert Pierce (Bennett) but divorced him when he proved to not be successful enough to support Mildred and her two daughters, particularly the eldest, Veda (Blyth), who aspires to be wealthy. Mildred goes on her own and becomes wealthy by starting a restaurant chain, but it is still not enough for Veda, who runs away and becomes a singer in a sleazy club until Mildred marries Monte, of whom Veda is quite fond. But, of course, he ends up murdered… but by whom?!?

Veda and Monte. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Veda and Monte. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Mildred Pierce was the first hit Joan Crawford vehicle in years, and she had to fight to get the part. Warner Brothers executives liked the idea of her in the lead, but the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, had little desire of working with the notoriously difficult star. He considered her a has-been and insisted she screen test for the part, likely as a way of deterring her from taking the role. But she swallowed her pride, took the test, and won the part, which allowed her to show off some of the finest acting of her career.

The film is very much a product of its time, combining two staple box office formulas of the 1940s: the film noir and the domestic melodrama. The setup is pure noir: a murder at the beginning leads to a flashback and ultimately a confession. In the end, domesticity is restored, and the wrongdoers are punished. The film uses expressionistic lighting, cigarette smoke throughout (Mildred is even told by the detective that it is ok if she smokes through her narrative, as if it would not be okay in a noir…), subjective narration, the Anywhere, USA setting (although most of the action centers around Glendale, California and the area immediately surrounding Los Angeles, it could be anywhere—the interiors of Mildred’s restaurants even look a lot like the roadside diners in The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a work by James Cain) and The Killers), and all the classic clothing of the genre (floppy hats and low necklines for Mildred, baggy suits and fedoras for some of the men). Curtiz seems especially interested in using lighting to define the moral viewpoints of the film. Crawford is lit in shadow throughout her deposition to the police. However, once cleared of blame and suspicion, the police open the blinds in the detective’s office, lighting her brilliantly in white—her innocence, honor, and even beauty restored.

Mildred is questioned in shadow. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Mildred is questioned in shadow. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
But she is lit once she's cleared of suspicion. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
But she is lit once she’s cleared of suspicion. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Throughout the main story, too, Joan Crawford is generally seen in daylight (or, if it is night, she’s indoors and well lit in the classical style), though the movie opens on her at night, and it is night throughout her police interview.

Thus, the use of shadow indicates our own suspicions of her and her motives (she could be just as quick to love someone unconditionally or to kill). When she is trustworthy (as a loving mother or domestic worker), she is well lit, but when she is under suspicion, she is a creature of the night. This is, of course, the norm in noir, but the film is just as much a melodrama as it is a noir. Unlike in typical noir, Mildred Pierce exists largely in a sphere of heightened emotion and depthless characters. The characters (other than Mildred) are stock characters: the loving good husband, the horny chauvinist, the effete rich man, the old maid, and the disgraceful daughter. The audience is meant to feel bad for Mildred when her daughter, flush with cash after conning a wealthy youth that she was pregnant, decries Mildred’s efforts to give Veda the lifestyle she wants:

With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.

The audience feels pangs at every one of those words—poor Millie! But more, the film is melodramatic in its treatment of class and love. This is not a film about upward mobility and happiness; it is a film about being stuck where one is and the tragedy of being stuck. As Veda tells Mildred, she’ll always just be “a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.” And as Veda herself learns, men like Monte will never want to marry commoners like her, girls whose mothers and fathers labored to make the American Dream a reality. And isn’t that just awful? None of this is to say the film is a Douglas Sirk-style tearjerker, but neither is it a hardnosed detective feature. Rather, it’s just a film made in the classical style prevalent of 1945, only with some noir underpinnings.

But as much as the film was so very 1945, it was also somewhat forward thinking, showing an independent woman surviving in the harshness of a male world. Mildred asks for and is granted a divorce early in the picture and largely denies male subjection until she sees it as a tool for restoring domestic harmony with her class-obsessed daughter. Her divorce is predicated on two principles: 1) that she loves her children more than she loves Bert, and 2) that she wants a better consumerist life than Bert can provide. Such divorces were increasingly common prior to the 1930s, as historians such as Elaine Tyler May have pointed out. May writes, for instance, of an increase in the number of divorces that cited “neglect to provide” as the grounds for divorce. In these cases, it was not uncommon for the husband and wife to simply have disagreed about how much the man was supposed to “provide” for the wife, and that seems to be the case for Mildred and Bert. They had a nice life, even though Bert was out of work, but it wasn’t enough for Veda, which meant it was not enough for Mildred.

Divorce allows Mildred to navigate an independent sphere, but to do so, she has to avoid subjugation to the men around her. Before her divorce is even formalized, she denies a very strong sexual advance from her realtor friend Wally (Carson), and, after making a business plan with Wally and Monte, she dates Monte for a bit before leaving him due to his unwonted relationship with Veda. Mildred thus becomes mostly independent, though she is, of course, subservient always to the ambitions of Veda.

During the film, Mildred seems to navigate independence and even—by 1940s standards at least—maleness. It’s easy to argue that Mildred projects femininity and masculinity in different contexts, as several analyses have done, and certainly that reading holds up:

Mildred wears a mixture of masculine and feminine clothing while getting her restaurant ready. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Mildred wears a mixture of masculine and feminine clothing while getting her restaurant ready. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

We see Mildred wearing men’s clothes and her hair up when she is in business settings (notably the flannel shirt she wears before her restaurant opens) and looking feminine—either domesticated or sexualized, depending on the setting—when at home or on a date. But let us not say the movie is outright feminist. After all, the film is quick to make sure we realize Mildred and Veda are still women. Mildred is only really ever domestic. As she puts it at the beginning of the flashback, “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” She has multiple lives in the movie, but she’s never out of the kitchen in any of them. We first see her in the kitchen in her first life, with Bert. Then, in her second life, she takes a job baking pies and working as a waitress. In her third life, she is a restauranteur, as often in the kitchen as in the fur coats she can now afford. The movie seems to imply that the only acceptable paths for women are at least tangentially related to the domestic sphere. And, of course, the movie ends with domesticity firmly reinforced, as Mildred and Bert reunite, the evil between them (i.e. their own daughter, Veda) now destroyed.

The film ends with Mildred and Bert walking through an archway at dawn, as though they are remarried and starting anew, free of Veda and her evil. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
The film ends with Mildred and Bert walking through an archway at dawn, as though they are remarried and starting anew, free of Veda and her evil. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

The alternative path for feminine independence is taken by Veda, who navigates independence by conning men sexually and then singing for them in sleazy nightclubs. And, of course, she acts like a typical hysterical girl when she murders Monte simply because he will never love her the way she loves him. This act is ultimately what restores Mildred to the domestic comfort of Bert, and the murder thus allows for Mildred to be the kind of women the 1940s male audience wants her to be, while also destroying the elitist sexual deviant (cheating on Mildred with her own daughter) and reinforcing the dream of a classless America. But I digress.

For other “feminist” characters, the movie provides the audience with Ida (Arden), Veda’s business associate. She is the stereotypical old maid, and she seems to exist mainly to say lines like “When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding wings.” Wally describes Ida as not a woman, and Ida says she’s seen more as the “big sister type.” As for men, Ida wishes she could “get along without them,” too. Obviously, Ida would be a lesbian in a different version of this film,  but, of course, in a 1945 picture, her sort of talk is meant for comic relief more than an actual path for feminine independence. The joke is that she needs men, but the film never really presents a decent male for anyone to want.

Mildred Pierce offers three male “types.” First is Bert. He is the requisite “good guy,” the loving husband, strong provider, and caring father, except that he never proves to be strong or particularly caring. We see him mourn for the death of one daughter (Kay) and help Mildred find and prevent the death of the other (Veda), but he seems unable to “be a man” and take care of his business—he needs Mildred to wear the pants, even though in the household they set up in the beginning, Mildred is very much reduced to domestic servitude. Mildred says she made a mistake in leaving Bert, and the audience would agree but only because he is the least bad option presented. The second male “type” shown is Wally, a chauvinistic sack of shit who talks about Mildred’s “gams” and makes an immediate move on her after finding out she’s single. He is loud and brash but ultimately supportive of Mildred. Of course, he also helps Veda in her con of that poor nice young rich boy. Wally is the heteronormative alpha male, but the film makes it clear he is not the type of man Mildred needs, nor does it imply that anyone should be like Wally. (As an aside, I love the acting done by Jack Carson in the role—he hams up all the chauvinistic behavior but plays subtle in scenes of drama with Mildred.) And the third man offered is Monte, who is basically a fancily dressed, manicured, accented, elitist prick. He seems okay at times, but of course he turns out to be a mega pervert, preying on both Mildred and Veda, and he ultimately costs Mildred her namesake restaurants and her wealth. I love the presentation of him—he looks and acts like Clark Gable if he were asked to portray Tennessee Williams—but everyone knows he’s trouble. In having Mildred return to the least bad kind of male, the film seems to suggest not that Mildred was better off going on her own but that everything would’ve been fine if she’d just stuck by the nice guy. But alas!

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, despite my criticisms of the film’s handling of gender, I thoroughly enjoyed Mildred Pierce (and, to be fair, the movie is pretty progressive in terms of gender for 1945, and it could be argued that Mildred and Bert will return home but with Mildred now in a position of power…). The acting is superb, and the story provides such a weird mix of banal and bizarre that it keeps a first-time viewer fully surprised. I love the amalgamation of melodrama and noir the film makes. I am tempted to make fun of any melodrama, typically, but damn if Curtiz didn’t pull it off.

As an aside, a friend of mine remarked recently that spending a lot of time in Glendale, California makes Veda seem less insane. Something to consider.

Monsieur Verdoux

Director: Charles Chaplin Producer: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin & Orson Welles (Original Idea)
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash, Charles Evans, Ada May
Studio: Charles Chaplin Productions & United Artists  Year: 1947

Why I DVRed It: I have been making a concerted effort to watch as many Chaplin films as I can, and so I DVR any that come on. Despite my lifelong love of film, I am embarrassed to say I had never seen a Chaplin film all the way through until I watched Modern Times on TCM a few years back, and I’ve liked each one I’ve watched since then. Monsieur Verdoux is a black comedy and Chaplin plays essentially a bad guy who has bad things happen to him rather than his usual shtick of a good guy who has bad things happen to him. I like black comedies, and I like Chaplin, and I like TCM… so, given the opportunity to combine them, I scheduled the film to record on my DVR.

Presentation on TCM: The film was not introduced, though it was on as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar in February, and it happens to be one of the (supposedly) better Chaplin films that I had yet to see. Unlike many of the other Days of Oscar films, Monsieur Verdoux was not all that well-received in its initial run in the United States (making it strange that it received any Academy Awards nominations, but it did: for Best Original Screenplay). Since then, however, Monsieur Verdoux has grown in popularity, though it is still nowhere near as well known as Modern Times, City Lights, The Gold Rush, or The Great Dictator. Unlike those movies, Monsieur Verdoux does not star Chaplin’s Tramp character (or a Tramp-like character as in the case of The Great Dictator), making it the least typical of the other beloved Chaplins (in plot at least).

Synopsis: The movie follows the murder spree of Parisian gentleman Monsieur Henri Verdoux (Chaplin), who marries rich women, gets them to close out their bank accounts, and then murders them. He does all of this ostensibly to support his invalid wife and his son, whom he would be unable to provide for otherwise after being released from his bank clerk position during the Depression. An investigation brought on by the family of Verdoux’s thirteenth victim combined with his inability to kill the loud, obnoxious nouveau riche Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) hound Verdoux throughout the film. Verdoux invests all of his “inheritances” in various stocks under various identities, and he makes friends with a prostitute (played by Marilyn Nash and known in typical Chaplin fashion only as “the Girl”) while also trying to woo the very rich widow, Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom). Hilarity and tragedy ensue.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Chaplin made Monsieur Verdoux with less freedom than he typically enjoyed. The post-war economy limited his budget, and the war rationing of film stock made film hard to come by. Thus, Chaplin was forced to film with a completed script, a strictly regimented shooting schedule, details of individual shots and framings, and with a well-rehearsed cast rather than a cast largely improvising while cameras rolled as he usually preferred (so, he was basically forced to make the movie the way most directors make their movies…). The film also had to gain approval from the Breen Office, which required Chaplin to censor out hints that Verdoux was sharing beds with his multiple wives or that the Girl was a prostitute. In other words, Chaplin was not afforded the luxuries usually given to a filmmaker of his stature. Still, despite the limitations, Chaplin would often remark that Monsieur Verdoux was the best film of his career (he would occasionally hedge this opinion, but still…).

American audiences would not agree, however. It was seen as subversive, anti-capitalist, anti-American, and anti-the present, even though the film takes place in France in the decade before it was released. Still, it shocked American audiences who protested the film, even though its politics are pretty much the same as those of the much beloved classic Chaplins. What had changed between the 1930s and 1947 was not Chaplin but America. The nation no longer was politically left and trying to work to get past the Depression—instead, America was in the midst of a consumerist boom, and the mass culture coalesced around what historian T. Jackson Lears has referred to as a “new class.” This class of white and blue collar workers created, supported, and reinforced the liberal belief in something called the American Way of Life, which combined an optimism about the future with a pragmatism about the dangers lurking to threaten that optimism (i.e., Communists). Thus, the films manufactured by Hollywood and that Americans consumed throughout the late 1940s tended to reinforce consumerism, capitalism, and optimism (the notable exception of course being the film noir genre, but even those films tended to reinforce American values through the punishment of the protagonist and/or his/her pursuit of money or sex). Monsieur Verdoux takes a stance against fascism, capitalism, and military expansionism. The protagonist buys a nice house for his wife and child and spends the rest of the film buying material goods to impress women and investing in the stock market. Neither of these work for him.

Throughout the film, Chaplin seems to even suggest that capitalism has ruined nature and the beautiful. In the first disguise we see, Monsieur Verdoux is an eccentric widower who impresses a prospective homebuyer with his beautiful garden. Throughout the film, he attempts to woo the same homebuyer, Marie Grosnay, with lavish flower arrangements he spends a small fortune to procure. This natural beauty is, thus, a prop in his ruses to win murder victims’ love. Any true beauty that exists in the film is as artificial as Verdoux’s various aliases. The sets are clearly staged backdrops, and Verdoux’s expositions about the beauty of the French countryside only underscore the false beauty of the world and the frauds Verdoux himself is committing.

Monsieur Verdoux uses purchased beauty (flowers) to lure his victims.
Monsieur Verdoux uses purchased beauty (flowers) to lure his victims. © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

All of this ties into the politics of the film, as well. The authentic backdrop of Verdoux’s world is the Great Depression and the rise of fascism throughout Europe. There is real beauty in the world (the flowers, for instance), but the world has hardened Verdoux into only seeing money and violence. Thus, the only beauty in the world of Verdoux is the beauty that can be purchased, even if purchasing it means committing murder. But, as Verdoux himself puts it, “This is a ruthless world, and one must be ruthless to cope with it.” And coping with it means begetting beauty to beget violence and vice versa in a vicious cycle.

The film, though set before World War II, is most seriously about the repercussions of the conflict. It seems to suggest that after witnessing such carnage, the citizens of the world would have no choice but to retreat into the sort of cynicism Verdoux himself suffers. As he told one interviewer during his promotional press conferences for the film, “Von Clausewitz said that war is the logical extension of diplomacy; Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business.” For Chaplin, the post-war American retreat into business and consumerism was not worth celebrating and was actually quite dangerous. This did not win him many fans.

Chaplin himself was already unpopular with the American public even before the release of the seemingly anti-American film. He was accused (somewhat accurately at least) of being a philanderer and pervert after Joan Barry’s very public paternity lawsuit against him, charges of violating the Mann Act, and his decision to marry the 18-year-old Oona O’Neill (he was 54 at the time). During the war, he had campaigned vocally for the creation of a second front to help the Soviet Union against Germany, and his friendships with Communist entertainers and artists as well as his overt leftist politics now won him the dreaded label of Communist. Monsieur Verdoux was met with protests, negative press, and bad reviews (with some exceptions of course, notably from Bosley Crowther and James Agee), and it did not do well at the box office, especially compared to his previous film, The Great Dictator.

In watching the film, I understand the interpretation at the time as anti-American. However, the film really seems to be more of a statement against the senseless violence of the war years and the selfish capitalistic impulses in the world (which, yeah, I guess is kind of anti-American…). Verdoux is a murder, but as he reminds the audience from the stands of his trial:

After being sentenced to death, Verdoux decries a society that rewards genocide but punishes homicide.
After being sentenced to death, Verdoux decries a society that rewards genocide but punishes homicide. As he states elsewhere, “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow! © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. 

“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head.”

Verdoux is right, but of course, he’s also a murderer. And the film makes it clear that he murders for sport and money while convincing himself that he is doing it for his wife and child. In the one scene in which he visits them, his wife remarks that she likes the house he has purchased her but would rather be able to see her husband more. But the hardened and cynical Verdoux cannot appreciate the simple love offered him by his family, even while he uses his wife and child as his raison d’être for murdering and investing. It is implied that he murders them sometime after he loses his fortune (during the recession of 1937) and before he finally surrenders to the police, finally eradicating the last connection to the world Verdoux sought to make for himself before the misery of the Depression.

Ultimately, then, the film does not take Verdoux’s side: Chaplin seems to encourage the audience to see Verdoux as a cautionary tale. Yes, Verdoux is right, of course, but Chaplin hopes the world will see that there is time to prevent Verdoux from being right. He gets this across through the character of the Girl, who is eternally optimistic, especially when Verdoux first encounters her. Looking to test a new poison on her, Verdoux invites her up to his apartment where they start to discuss their world views. They discuss Schopenhauer and his essay “On Suicide,” discussing the terrors of life and death. Verdoux posits that it “is the approach of death that terrifies.” The Girl counters that, “If the unborn knew of the approach of life, they’d be just as terrified.”

Verdoux decides to spare the Girl's life after discussing Schopenhauer and their shared cynicism. © 1947 - Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Verdoux decides to spare the Girl’s life after discussing suicide. © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Both are hardened cynics who have chosen life over death, even though both understand that death is probably better than life (even though it’s scary, of course). To the Girl, “life is wonderful”; she lists seemingly trite but simple pleasures as evidence: “a spring morning, a summer’s night, music, art, love.” Verdoux seems to agree and gives her money to help her out. He must see in her a similar soul or at least what his soul once was: cynical but able to appreciate the experience of life, an existential viewpoint challenged by the evils of the world around him. Later in the film, she is a success story. She is being chauffered around and has apparently taken advantage of the hostilities of the world—just like Verdoux had. This is finally too much for him, for she is his mirror. She shares his cynicism but only uses it to create her own gain, again, just as he had. His initial act of kindness has only made the world worse, or so he seems to think. She offers a sense of optimism still, telling him that the world is “very sad,” though “kindness can make it beautiful.” However, after they share a nice night out, he turns himself in, to face his critics. The terror of death has finally become smaller than the terror of living in the world he has helped to make worse.

All of this sounds so bleak,  but the film still left me feeling optimistic and happy. Where does this come from? Aside from the underlying humor, it mostly comes from the ending.  At the end of the film, awaiting death, Verdoux is as unfeeling as he is throughout the film, much like Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, who hopes only to be greeted by a crowd of haters on the morning of execution. In his cell, Verdoux waxes about good and evil, telling a reporter that “too much of either will destroy us all.” On his way out of his cell, he is offered rum, which he first declines, then accepts because he’s “never tasted rum” before that moment. It will be his last new experience in the world (aside from death, of course), and he indulges, perhaps remembering the Girl’s views of what life can be: an experience made easy by acts of kindness (such as help from a stranger, or a new sensation). Thus, even at his most cynical, Verdoux is still celebrating life. That’s how I like to read it at least.

Compare it to another film that ends with a protagonist’s execution: A Place in the Sun. The films share thematic and compositional similarities, though they are entirely different tonally (black comedy versus the most melodramatic of melodramas). In A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift’s character must kill his would-be bride (and a would-be mother) to gain entry into the land of the wealthy, and he even kills her on a rowboat. (In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s character attempts to kill Bonheur on a rowboat to comic effect.) Both films end with the convicted murderer being led to meet the executioner.

Verdoux is led to his death in what seems triumphant. We do not cry for Verdoux in his final moments. © 1947 - Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Verdoux’s final moments do not induce tears but feelings of triumph, for he is the good guy (in white, no less), dying for the world. © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

But while the camera in A Place in the Sun zooms in on Clift’s face as he is led to his death and encourages tears at the tragedy of poor George Eastman (Clift), in Verdoux the camera stays wide, and we see Chaplin led out heroically under an archway, dying a hero’s death for the sins of our society. Chaplin even walks in a little shuffle step similar to that employed by the Tramp, perhaps to suggest that the logical end of the Tramp is the cynicism of Henri Verdoux, unless the world can change. And the tone of the film suggests that Chaplin at least kind of sort of believes it can… Or at least, it suggests that the world can be pleasurable even if it can’t improve.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I absolutely should have, and it is absolutely worth DVRing next time it’s on TCM! This is Chaplin at his best, still using the physical gifts that made him such a wonderful comedic actor but using his oft silent voice to great comedic and dramatic effect. And the rest of the cast is superb. I did not address the acting in my analysis, but the cast perfectly plays off of Chaplin, especially Martha Raye and William Frawley (FRED MERTZ!) in his brief scene. And though I always prefer Paulette Goddard as Chaplin’s “girl,” Marilyn Nash plays the role with aplomb. My analysis probably made this film sound like a real bummer, but it’s actually quite a delightful and entertaining film, even though it has the heaviest of themes.

Still, I was left wondering what this film would’ve looked like as an Orson Welles movie. It probably would’ve been great, but it’s hard to imagine it being much greater than the film Chaplin created—a rich masterpiece of comic drama and social criticism.