The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


Director: Tony Richardson       Producer: Tony Richardson
Writer: Alan Sillitoe
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Alec McCowen, Topsy Jane
Studio: Woodfall Film Productions (Company) British Lion-Columbia Distributors/Continental Distributing (Distribution)
Year: 1962

Why I DVRed It: This is a film I’ve long wanted to see but never gotten around to it. I first heard of it in 1999 or so, when I was perusing the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century and being intrigued by the title. Years later, I got into running (although I want to make perfectly clear I’m not one of “those runners,” the kind who wear running clothes all the time and only talk about which trails they prefer and that kind of shit) and  became familiar with the sensation of being lonely on long runs. I used to run greater distances than I currently do (a foot injury has sidelined me from runs greater than 3-4 miles for the past two years), and I remember feeling quite lonesome on some of those runs. I’m not the type to feel fueled by the energy of others, and I remember running my first marathon and getting downright depressed when crowds of strangers would cheer for the marathoners like myself. It made me feel that there was something wrong with me, and maybe there is, but at least the title of this film says otherwise!

The film's opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The film’s opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

In actuality, that loneliness is precisely what I’ve loved about running my whole life. It’s also what I love about film. Watching movies is primarily an individual experience, and almost of my TCM movies are watched in isolation. I do, of course, love going to movies and watching movies with my girlfriend, but I don’t need the company to enjoy a film. Solitude and loneliness aren’t always bad words.

Regardless, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is movie that has fluctuated on critics’ lists for decades. Sometimes it’s off the lists altogether. Right now, the greatest movies list at  They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has the film at 995, but it wasn’t on the 2013 list. However, the movie tends to be more popular with English audiences, which makes sense—the film is largely about English working class life, a state most Americans only know of through popular songs such as the Squeeze jam “Up the Junction” or the underrated Kinks classic “Dead End Street.” This movie isn’t near as catchy as those tunes, but what movie is?

Presentation on TCM: Once again, I watched a TCM movie with no introduction or anything like that. It was on at 6:15, before a night of programming centered around B-sci-fi pictures. Obviously, this movie is not that, so I really don’t know why it was on.

Synopsis: An angry young man, Colin (Courtenay), is sentenced to a boys’ reformatory (what people in England call a “borstal”) where his prowess for long-distance running earns him the favor of the school’s governor (Redgrave) who hopes Colin can win a big race against another reformatory school. Colin likes his special status at first but reconsiders it in light of his own recollections of his past that he thinks about on his unescorted long training runs.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Before I get too far into this, I will admit that there were entire stretches of dialogue that went right past me. The cockney accents of some of the characters made it hard for my American ears to decipher meaning. I wish that Tony Richardson had thought about this when making the film; I mean, couldn’t he get his statements about class differences in England across without making use of working class accents? I am the most important viewer of this film.

Kidding aside, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific film. It tells the story of an angry young man, placing it into the “teenage delinquent” genre popular in American cinema in the 195os, a genre that, at least in the US, tended to be pretty lousy. Think of Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Blackboard Jungle. The best of those is probably Rebel, but aside from the iconic aspects of James Dean’s performance in it, it’s a pretty lousy movie. English versions of the genre include Loneliness and later efforts such as A Clockwork Orange (based on a novel published in 1962, the same year as Loneliness was mad) and the delightful If…, about a boarding school that turns violent. (Note, teenage delinquency was considered a crisis in the US in the 1950s (see this (much briefer than anything I have ever written) blog for more information), but the UK did not start to worry about the phenomenon so much until the 1960s, explaining the discrepancy in time periods.) The English versions tend to be better than their American counterparts, and Loneliness is no exception.

Look at how pretty that looks! © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a man, Colin, running alone on a road in England, in a rural area. It looks like a bucolic setting, and one might think this is going to be a nice movie about a nice young man who lives in a rural area and does nice people things (falls in love with the girl next door, goes to sock hops, learns to say “thee,” takes a job as a ‘prentice for his uncle). But then, we cut from him running to him in a prison-type van, going to a juvenile detention center. Immediately, the film disorients the audience, something Richardson will do again and again. Indeed, the structure of the film is itself jarring—the film cuts from the present to the past and back again as Colin recounts his life of petty crime and anguish while solitarily running. We see the violence of the reform school as well as the emotional turmoil of his home life, and the only parts of the film that are remotely peaceful are his runs. But, of course, those runs turn into ruminations on pain shown from Colin’s perspective.

The film is highly subjective and disjointed, then. Loneliness makes frequent use of handheld compositions and occasional use of POV shots; for instance, the first night Colin is at boarding school, we see through the shaky eyes of the guard as he inspects the bunks. This shot gives us a subjectivity that then reverses into the viewpoint of our main subject, Colin; that is, we are looking from a guard’s perspective until we get to our narrator and switch back to his perspective. Occasionally, the film gives us other viewpoints as well, as some of the scenes involving the governor showing off the school to rich donors or talking to his peers do not feature Colin at all. These scenes give us a privileged viewpoint, although they do not complicate our own viewpoint. They simply reinforce that Colin is right to be defiant and angry. It’s not a terribly profound viewpoint, but it is an absolute one.

Richardson seems to have an especial fondness for clever editing. He likes to cut scenes so quickly that the audience is thrown out of the comfort of one scene and back into another, as though letting the audience get adjusted and used to something would be the gravest sin. He makes several uses of contrapuntal sound; that is, the sight of one scene often starts before the previous scene’s audio is finished, breaking rules of the “classical” style as the sound and image do not align. For instance, a destructive food fight’s audio plays as we cut to a calm and sedate board meeting of the school administrators meeting to discuss the fight (providing cause and effect). Then, we see school administrators brutally beating a student while the audio plays the end of the calm meeting (providing judgement and punishment).

Frequent flashbacks to Colin's former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Frequent flashbacks to Colin’s former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Richardson also makes use of other anti-classical techniques. The film features several rapid camera movements and zooms to show us the character’s own focus. For instance, when Colin is doing free association with the psychiatrist, we zoom in on the tape recorder, which obviously has Colin feeling ill at ease. And structurally, the telling of two linear narratives (Colin in the borstal as he prepares for a big race and Colin’s journey from freedom to the borstal) is itself disorienting, even though the flashbacks are largely shown linearly and add up to a cohesive and simple story (boy’s dad dies, boy’s mom moves a bit too quickly on a new guy, boy feels purposeless and then gets into trouble). Thus, the structure of the story and the style of the film are far more interesting than the story itself or the film itself.

These stylistic flourishes seem somewhat antithetical to the gritty realness of the movie and its statement about the stark realities of working-class life in Britain, but they are actually in line with a style of documentary films Richardson and others made in the 1950s. In fact, almost all the stylistic flourishes used in Loneliness are trademarks of the “Free Cinema” movement with which Richardson was associated. Free Cinema was a style employed in a series of highly influential independently produced documentary films showcasing the working class in England. Christophe Dupin, writing at the BFI’s Screenonline website, describes the signatures of the movement as follows: The filmmakers “used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically.” Loneliness makes use of all of these to disrupt the audience’s expectations and to promote a general rebellious spirit throughout.

As a fiction film with a realist bent, Loneliness feels somewhat documentary-like, but Richardson also uses several absurdist elements that further promote an antiauthoritarian and rebellious air. Courtenay’s mouth contorts in comical ways throughout the film, providing an indication that the words he says are not the words he means. Further, the governor’s pompous proclamations (such as his insistence that sports are ultimately what make boys into good honest men) are very clearly satirized, and, indeed, there is something absurd that Colin learned to become a world-class running man (to quote a great Mr. Show sketch) by “running away from the police” as he puts it, but that he is seen by the governor as a great athlete with a chance to reform himself through running. Richardson makes an even clearer absurdist statement in the flashback scene in which Colin and his friend mute the bloated politician on the telly (I felt like employing an English-ism at least once here!) as he rails against the youth of the UK. This makes the politician powerless, as an orator without a voice is a form without a purpose, a series of inscrutable faces and hand gestures, creating a simulacrum, an empty image. The kids laugh at the way it looks, but the audience laughs at the overall rebelliousness of simply cutting down the figure of power by cutting him off.

The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Much of the movie, indeed, is rebellious without being rebellious in any sort of teleologic or hermeneutic sense. That is, the protagonist is an angry young man who does bad things (according to society), but he does not make a grand gesture or provide anything much to examine. He’s not James Dean in Rebel, who acts rebellious because he is stigmatized as a rebel (and has an emasculated dad!), nor is he Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who defiantly implies he’s rebelling just because he can (“What are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?”). Rather, the protagonist here is a kid who never had a chance. Add to that that his dad is dead and his mom doesn’t seem to care and has moved on to a new (in Colin’s words) “fancy man,” and we have Hamlet if he didn’t have the directions from a ghost. And we know Hamlet could barely handle fulfilling his assigned mission—what can the youth of this picture do without a chance or a purpose? He truly is, thus, a rebel without a cause. His only cause is to not be left “scarpering” for favor. As he puts it to another schoolmate (McCowen):

What’s the point of scarpering? The best thing to do is be cunning and stay where you are. You see, I’m gonna let them think they’ve got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they’ll have to stick a rope around my neck.

Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The movie ends with Colin living up to his goals of gaining human freedom and promoting a sense of defiance. Colin chooses to throw the race at the last minute, the film making very clear that he could win if he wanted to. But, like Clint Eastwood walking away from the town he saves in virtually every Eastwood Western, Colin is better off not tied down and beholden to anyone. The film ends with him being another loser kid at the school, stuck making gas masks in the shop. But at least he won’t have to breathe the noxious air of the governor.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I enjoyed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. calls it an “essential,” and I agree. Speaking of which, it will be on TCM again on September 5, and I think it’s worth DVRing again (although I probably won’t, having just watched it!).

Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny_lake_is_missing_(1965) Details:
Director: Otto Preminger         Producer: Otto Preminger
Writers: John Mortimer & Penelope Mortimer
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Martita Hunt, Anna Massey, Noël Coward, the Zombies
Studio: Columbia Pictures      Year: 1965

Why I DVRed It: There were two things that drew me to this movie. First was the Zombies, one of my favorite (that means top 100 or so, not like top five) bands of all time. The group appears on camera and contributed three songs to the film’s soundtrack. The second thing that drew me to the movie was a love of Laurence Olivier. I am especially fond of Olivier in movies that are pretty dumb (like The Boys from Brazil or Marathon Man), and this movie’s premise promised that it would be a fairly dumb movie.

Presentation on TCM: Well, once again, TCM plopped the film down with no introduction. I could not figure out why it was on either, although I know it was on during the late afternoon on a Monday. So far, since starting this website, I am 0 for 5 on movies that have any sort of introduction from a TCM person, and I have to say I’m disappointed and dispirited about it.

Synopsis: A recent emigre to England, Ann Lake (Lynley) goes to retrieve her kid, the titular Bunny Lake, from her fist day of school only to find out that (as might be gleaned from the title) she is missing. But no one at the school seems to remember her at all, and the Scotland Yard investigator called in to investigate, Superintendent Newhouse (Olivier), begins to suspect Bunny may not exist. Ann’s brother, Steven (Dullea), a reporter, tries to prove otherwise.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Bunny Lake is Missing is better titled than most movies (especially if you add an exclamation point when you say it aloud), but the film does not live up to the promise or excitement of the title. In fact, this is the first movie I’ve written about for this site that I just downright didn’t like. The movie is dull and lifeless, the acting mismatched (the heavy actors are great, the actual young stars awful), the plot twist at once obvious and too convoluted to be believed, and the film as a whole just meh, very very meh. But, bad aside, there’s still a little bit interesting in the film… just barely.

For one, the film opens with one of the better credit sequences I remember. A hand rips off pieces of paper to reveal the credits one by one, replacing the pieces again, like a person disassembling and reassembling a puzzle. Finally, the camera cuts away the final paper to reveal an English garden. The sequence (designed by Saul Bass, who also did credit sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, and West Side Story) is fun, and the score that plays over it (which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film) is catchy.

The look of the film as a whole is good too, with Preminger and the cinematographer, Denys Coop, making effective use of the deep focus lens. Everything is wide, bright, and strangely flat.

Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann's conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann’s conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I say “strangely flat” because so many of the shots show corners, and the camera seems to never come on a subject head-on—it’s nearly always askew. Yet the depth of field makes each shot simply look like a 2-d shot cut in half, creating a splintered effect (perhaps to show the splintered personalities of Steven). Preminger also makes use of long tracking shots which provide an almost voyeuristic effect on the audience, as though we are creeping around the edges of the truth. This effect was especially strong on the sequence in which the creepy old man landlord (played wonderfully by Coward) watches Superintendent Newhouse drive away from Ann’s house.

So, the look of the film is good, and the music is also good. The Zombies songs on the soundtrack are all good, though they are not as good as anything from Odyssey & Oracle or some of the awesome singles (like my personal favorite, “She’s Coming Home”), but they contribute nicely to an important aspect of the film: its setting in “Swinging London.” The Zombies are not active characters in the movie by any means—they merely appear on the television twice as the band guest on a variety show—but they remind the audience that the movie is a 60s movie, even if so much of it is more like a traditional thriller of the 40s and 50s.

There are a number of movies set in that London, of course, but, while watching Bunny Lake, I found myself thinking fondly of Blow Up, a movie I have never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to like (because it’s critically acclaimed and super Mod, and people like me always are supposed to be super into Mod culture, and I like British Invasion groups and so on, I feel like I should love Blow Up, but I always just kind of thought it was ok). Blow Up was made just a year after Bunny Lake and has the same setting and similar stylistic elements (and they’re both kinda thrillers), so I don’t think my thought process was that strained; however, the movies are radically different, and, as I said, I found myself liking one in absentia a lot better than the one I was watching, probably because of those radical differences.

Part of the difference seems to stem from the dilettantism Preminger put into Bunny Lake is Missing. It is a movie about a specific time and place (London in the present of 1965), but it barely uses anything unique about London in 1965 as a setting, even though Preminger chose to change the setting of the book from the USA to London. The film references 60s era topics such as protests—Stephen mentions covering a student demonstration at the airport as part of his job as a journalist—and it has some rock and roll in the diegetic soundtrack, but largely the film is out of time. It shows a group of middle class Americans who are new to England but uninterested in exploring the world or really introducing the world to the American film audience. Despite their newness to the nation, Ann and Stephen seem surprisingly adept at navigating London until the unthinkable happens. But even then, they manage. They impress the antiquated detective enough to keep him interested in the case, and he shows Carol (and by extension the audience) a “traditional English pub,” but no one ventures past the superficial elements of England.

The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience.  © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Preminger chose to set the film in England largely so he could make use of some of his favorite London settings—including the creepy as Hell “doll hospital” at which Stephen is revealed as a villain—and these settings definitely contribute to the atmospherics of the film, but they are not places that only exist in 60s London. Rather, they could exist anywhere theoretically. Thrillers like this tend to be set in “no place” because the audience is scared that the plot could happen anywhere—including next door!— but it seems that a movie that uses a weirdly specific setting ought to more fully utilize that setting. The film should more clearly feel like it’s part of London in the 60s. But, of course, that’s not the point of this movie. Instead, it halfheartedly puts elements of the youth culture in it but does not embrace them (hence the Zombies merely being TV noise). The world of Bunny Lake may be transitioning into the 1960s, but the world shown is still pretty much the same it always was and will remain the same for the characters of the movie, aside from Stephen who will presumably be committed, of course. The setting is secondary to the story here, but if the film had embraced the setting a bit more, it all might have left a better finished product.

Blow Up, on the other hand, shows a bizarro world, following a fashion photographer as he shiftlessly investigates a crime through the swingingest parts of London (the plot is weird; I described it to my girlfriend once as an episode of Hart to Hart without Robert Wagner). The scene featuring the Yardbirds (themselves a more aggressive form of the Zombies) is prominent in the film, and the film shows rather than merely talks about protesters. It is an element of the 60s, a film that preserves the time period and serves as an artifact from it. Bunny Lake is simply a movie from the same era and a largely forgettable one at that.

And that’s fine. I’m not trying to suggest that Bunny Lake has the same aim as Blow Up. The former is a mass-market big studio thriller, the latter an art-house picture.

It’s just that both films do largely the same things (thrillers with oddly specific settings featuring rock bands), but Bunny Lake does it so halfheartedly and disinterestedly. I suppose one could say that shows something about how much the world changed between 1965 and 1966, but that seems a bit strained. Really, Blow Up is just a more competent film, and Bunny Lake is kinda shitty.

One lesson to draw from Bunny Lake is how important subtlety is to a good horror movie or thriller. Olivier’s presence reminded me of Rebecca, a film that feels creepy throughout and makes better use of its atmospherics (to see the atmospherics, here’s the opening to that film in Spanish). Bunny Lake makes use of extreme atmospherics and creepiness, but it never gets creepy.

This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The doll hospital is creepy in a carnival-haunted-house-ride way, and the room the founder of Bunny’s school, Ada Ford (Hunt) (who sits in an attic-type room and writes down and listens to audio tapes of children’s nightmares), sits in is frightening too. The atmospherics though don’t contribute anything to the final product besides a general creepiness, because they are so overdone. And, of course, because the plot is just so stupid.

And the stupidest part of the plot is the twist that Ann’s brother is a schizophrenic. This is meant to be as terrifying as the setting (who knows what kind of evil lurks in your loved ones!), but it never gets interesting, nor is it a terrifying twist. The twist in Rebecca, however, is surprising and unsettling, in part because the film as whole is just plain better than Bunny Lake but in part because the atmospherics are more subtle and better done (even in spite of the hammy cousin and some of the more bizarre elements of Manderley). The psychological thriller component of Bunny Lake just ends up being dull and stupid.

Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The result is a tired and uneven movie that has elements that should make it good (60s London, scene-stealing acting from Olivier/Coward/Hunt, a nice look, a fun sequence in a doll shop) but that largely just dress up a tedious swine in some Mod pearls.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: No, probably not. I didn’t like this movie, and it felt like a waste of time. I guess I liked seeing the Zombies in small doses, but I never got that interested in this film. Maybe if I saw it in the theater, it would’ve been better, but it definitely did not play well in my living room, off of DVR.

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…”

Point Blank

Director: John Boorman
Producers: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff, & Irwin Winkler
Writers: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong
Studio: MGM   Year: 1967

Why I DVRed It: I had heard of this movie somewhere at some time, but I honestly don’t remember the context. Apparently (I found out later!), it is something of a cult classic, so my guess is that I heard of it from talking to someone who liked to put on airs by talking about “obscure” films from the past… someone not at all like me, the person writing about films from the past.

Anyway, in truth, I think I DVRed this because I had the Bruce Springsteen song “Point Blank” (from 1980’s underrated album The River) in my head the week I saw this on the schedule, and it seemed like too much of a coincidence to not embrace, especially when I read the description and saw the names Lee Marvin and John Boorman. What the hell, right?

Presentation on TCM: This was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which has turned out to have some real gems on it (spoiler alert: Point Blank isn’t one of these gems). No one introduced the movie, although my DVR did capture the ending of The Third Man, which included some discussion from a host I’ve never seen before. So, it was kind of like getting an introduction…

Synopsis: This is a simple revenge movie. At the Alcatraz drop point for a heist, Reese (Vernon) betrays Walker (Marvin), his partner, shooting him at point blank range (like the title!).

Walker looks on to the mainland after surviving his killing at Alcatraz. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Somehow, Walker lives and decides he wants the money he was owed… as well as blood. The enigmatic Yost (Wynn) gives him directions about how he can get revenge on the people who set him up, including Reese, Walker’s ex-wife (who is sleeping with Reese), and the crime syndicate (the clandestine “Organization”) that is connected to the heist and that refuses to acknowledge that Walker is owed anything, regardless of the relatively meager size of the debt Walker seeks.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Point Blank is a simple movie dressed up in a complicated package. There is nothing in its story that is particularly innovative, but the style is fresh. It’s glossy and makes uses of interesting shots as well as rapid cutaways and flashbacks. These allow the viewer a subjectivity not typically displayed in revenge films, except when those revenge films are crafted for us to empathize with the revenge seeker (because of the tragic death of his family, for instance). Point Blank is not a film that causes subjective empathy though, because very little is really on the line. Walker doesn’t seem particularly upset about his wife leaving him or his being left for dead. He’s a stoic absurdist hero or antihero (like Mersault in The Stranger). Walker is a man who simply “walks” in and out of trouble, and he could just as easily walk away from any of the action at any point in the film. While everything is shown through Walker’s perspective and psyche, Walker himself is hard to care about because he doesn’t seem to care about anything himself.

That is not to say that Walker would not be justified in his anger or any other emotion. He should be pissed off—Reese has taken his wife, his share of the money, and his life. Everyone assumes Walker is dead, and it is hard to see how he survived the assassination attempt, but he does (or does he?— some critics and fans posit that he imagines the whole movie in his last fits of death, a reading that defies textual evidence and logic albeit not as much logic as the fact of Walker’s surviving a shooting at point blank range…Far more likely is that these theories misinterpret a quotation from Boorman in which he states that Walker “could just as easily be a ghost or a shadow” as a real person, because of his ability to survive and infiltrate the Organization). But the phlegmatic Walker does not seem to care about his wife (who commits suicide after he confronts her) nor about his death. Rather, he only cares about the money he is owed, and even that he only seems to care about to a point. He uses it as a justification for his killing spree, but that’s all it is: an excuse.

Walker kills because he can and is blasé about it. But look at how pretty Boorman makes it look! © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Walker kills because he can and is blasé about it. But look at how pretty Boorman makes the violence look! © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Walker is, thus, very much a 60s type character: desultory, detached, disillusioned, and demoralized. The audience of the time is supposed to identify with his countercultural instincts, even while he stands for nothing, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but the film misuses the subjectivity it establishes, because it never makes the audience like Walker the way it likes Bonnie and Clyde, because Walker’s not compelling (though Lee Marvin’s screen charisma is undeniable); he’s just an animal clawing his way through a tough-to-survive world. Walker’s survival depends upon his distrust of others and his unwillingness to compromise on his one demand: the money he is owed and not a penny more. Really, though, it just depends on his expertise at killing and his lack of feeling for others.

The film gives him one character to care about, Chris (Dickinson), the sister of his now deceased wife, who tells him that she always thought he was the best thing that ever happened to her sister (poor girl if the best thing that ever happened to her is a relationship with a terse homicidal maniac lacking a first name). Walker and Chris establish a relationship (despite her not having a known last name and him never having a first name), but it is not a loving one. He uses her sexuality to gain entrance to Reese’s LA penthouse when it’s under lockdown, and later in the movie, while waiting for Brewster in his house somewhere outside of LA, she hits him until he agrees to have sex with her. Thus, Chris is a tough broad who, apparently, needs little from Walker other than to be used sexually, even if it means beating Walker up to get her way.

But even with her pre-and post-coitally, he remains one thing: cool. Yost tells him early on to “take it easy—you’ll last longer.” And Walker embraces the advice. He is always calmer than the world around him, allowing him to control each situation and stay alive. While each of his victims either rushes into confrontation, begs, or barters, Walker is fine with sitting back and waiting. This allows a would-be Walker assassin to kill Carter (Bochner) instead of him, as Walker hides in the shadows watching. This coolness under pressure is reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood characters that would come later, particularly in the Westerns, but Walker seems to stand for even less than Josey Wales (and certainly less than the fascist wetdream Harry Callahan). Again, I think the audience is supposed to just like him because he is “cool,” but so what?

Nothing about Walker as a character is all that interesting. I guess he could be read as a character embodying a dying ideal of manhood and purpose in a changing America. He does not seem to understand, for instance, that the world does not work the way he thinks it does—he can’t, for instance, just get money from the people who owe it to him. As he climbs up the Organization (the nefarious cabal that Reese was attempting to buy into), he learns from Brewster (O’Connor, a highlight of the casting) that money isn’t what it once was. Brewster tells him:

Let me tell you something about corporations. This is a corporation, and I’m an officer in it. We deal in millions, we never see cash. I got about $ 11 in my pocket.

Walker is framed by his last victim, Brewster, and the woman he uses to get his vengeance, Chris. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Walker is framed here by his last victim, Brewster, and the woman he uses to get his vengeance, Chris. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Walker would be better suited getting money from a bank or Western stagecoach, but instead he is attempting to rob a modern business, making him an anachronism, a man out of his element. That’s mildly interesting, I suppose, but the film doesn’t quite sell that point. Instead, Walker is just a man who seems to kill for no other reason than to kill, and he quits and “walks” away (sorry to keep emphasizing the obviousness of his moniker—I just think it’s kind of stupid) when he finds out he’s been a puppet for the shadowy Yost the whole time.

So what makes this movie a cult classic, which it apparently is? The movie (like most cult classics) was a bit ahead of its time. Most historians mark the birth of New Hollywood in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Point Blank, also released in 1967, is right on the cusp then, but it never found the audience of either picture. Part of it is because the movie isn’t quite counterculture enough to really be “New Hollywood.” Lee Marvin insisted that John Boorman, directing his first feature in America, be granted final edit and be in charge of all casting decisions. Boorman made the film look very much like a 1967 production, but the story isn’t that far off a typical Lee Marvin Western. And Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (she of the Rat Pack) weren’t exactly the stars the youth clamored to see. So, Point Blank disappointed at the box office. A lack of financial success is, of course, a prerequisite for cult classic status.

Second, the movie could be seen as an influence for other directors looking to make movies that are overly violent but lack any real causality for the violence. Walker always has a simplistic raison d’être for his killing, but everyone can see through it. Really, he’s like Travis Bickle or Rambo: he’s killing just because he can. The character of Walker is incredibly common in films these days (see John Wick, Taken, or any number of Jason Statham movies), so Point Blank’s influence is easy to see. Cult classic films are usually influential too—that’s how they endure.

Third, the film has some elements that make it more interesting than my analysis would suggest. It contains several elements of the New Wave cinema, including sweeping and long tracking shots, the aforementioned quick cuts, and some interesting cinematographic techniques to distort the audience’s expectations. Chief among these are the focus on bright lights moving in and out of focus when helicopters land and the often disorienting splices into memory. Take the film’s opening sequence. Walker is in a prison cell, mumbling “How did I get here?” We cut to a flashback of a mob of men in suits fighting. One says, “I need your help.” That is a far cry from the beginning of a traditional revenge story. It is more similar to the beginning of Apocalypse Now (which also has some New Wave elements) than it is to, say, The Outlaw Josey Wales (which succinctly provides the reason for Josey’s revenge while also summarizing the Civil War). In Point Blank, the audience is just as confused about Walker’s circumstances as Walker seems to be. The director plays with this through the use of some very clever camera work. Boorman uses a lot of reflection and stacked images throughout the movie to make the audience unsure of exactly what he/she should be looking at in each scene. This keeps one confused throughout and makes the film much more compelling to watch than it has any right to be.

The film contains several “stacked” reflection shots like this one. Such shots allow the viewer to focus on what he/she wants. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

So, all of this combines to make the film popular with a certain audience. I’m not that audience, even while I can find redeeming elements of it (e.g., the subjectivity, the cinematographic tricks, the screen presence of Marvin and O’Connor). As an aside, it was the first film to be shot in Alcatraz. So, we wouldn’t have The Rock (and other films!) without Point Blank I guess.

Should I have DVRed This on TCM: I don’t know. The movie was… fine. It was fine. I didn’t think it was unenjoyable; it just wasn’t anything all that great or informative or profound or anything like that. But that’s a good thing. It’s a simple revenge movie, and it doesn’t try to make any overly profound statements. I usually hate it when movies don’t know their place (that is, when an action movie tries to get “deep” for instance), and this one did know its place. I liked the New Hollywood styling of it—the quick cuts to flashbacks, for instance—and Marvin and O’Connor are enjoyable; I just never felt like I cared about Walker. When Walker “walks” away from Yost, the puppetmaster, at the end of the film, without his money, the audience is supposed to feel vindicated that Walker is his own man, but I just was bored by then.

If I were more inclined to liking action movies, I might say it was fantastic. I just don’t really like the genre, even when the movie is one that is at least somewhat influential on later examples of the genre (I noticed, for instance, similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter—movies lacking clear morals and personal stakes (unlike, say, Death Wish)). And I legitimately thought the movie was rather interesting to look at (like cinematographically). So, yeah, I guess I should’ve DVRed it, but I definitely would not DVR it again.

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.