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Archive for the '1940s Hollywood' Category

Grand motel

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One Crowded Night (1940).

DB here:

If this blog got into the business of recommending movies to watch on TCM, I’d never get any sleep. TCM, an American treasure, runs so much classic cinema of great value that I can’t keep up.

Today, though, as we’re about to depart for Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato, I’m pausing to knock out a brief entry urging your attention to a minor release that exemplifies some of the trends I try to track in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. The film is no masterpiece, but it’s better than most of the stuff pumped into our ‘plexes, and it can teach us a lot about continuity and change in the studio years.

 

A few hours in Autopia

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In trying to map out the storytelling options developed in the 1940s, I ran into one trend that looked forward to today’s network narratives. I use that term to pick out films that build their stories around the interaction of several protagonists connected by social ties (love, friendship, work, kinship) or accident. Nashville, Pulp Fiction, and Magnolia are some vivid prototypes. The most common form of network narrative back then was based on the Grand Hotel idea, where a batch of very different characters interact in one place for a short stretch of time.

The form comes into its own in the 1930s, as I’ve indicated in a blog on Grand Hotel (1932). That novel/ play/ film popularized the concept, and MGM ran with it under the banner of the “all-star movie.” It was picked up in other 30s films of interest, like Skyscraper Souls (1932, often run on TCM) and International House (1933). But whereas Grand Hotel was a big A picture, most of its successors were B’s—perhaps because such a plot offered an efficient way to use contract players in a short-term project.

I suspect that’s what happened with One Crowded Night (1940), to play on TCM this Thursday, 22 June (7:30 EST). Dumped in the summer doldrums (back then, summer wasn’t a big moviegoing season), it garnered pretty unfavorable reviews. The big complaints were about the coincidences that get piled on. Wrote Bosley Crowther:

The long arm of coincidences does some powerful stretching for the convenience of film stories, but seldom has it been compelled so such laborious exercise as it is in RKO’s “One Crowded Night,” which opened yesterday at the Rialto. In a manner truly phenomenal, it drags together the assorted characters implicated in a multitude of small plots and dumps them, of all places, in a cheap tourist camp on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

It is pretty far-fetched. The Autopia Court, a speck on the flat, hot expanse, is run by a family whose main breadwinner, Jim, has gone to jail. He’s innocent, framed by Lefty and Mat—who show up by chance at Autopia. Meanwhile, a pregnant Ruth Matson gets off a cross-country bus to recover from heat stroke; she’s on her way to San Diego to meet her husband, a sailor.

Things get complicated fast. A trucker who comes through regularly wants to marry an Autopia waitress with a shady past. One of the thugs makes a play for the naïve waitress who’s fed up with this flea-bitten joint. But she’s worshipped by the gas jockey, who’s no match for the city hood.

The interweaving of lives is very dense. Guess who shows up, recently escaped from prison up north? When two detectives come through guarding an AWOL sailor, imagine who he turns out to be? And what if Doc Joseph, an amiable old fraud peddling a potion that cures everything, turns out to lend a helping hand?

No coincidence, no story. And especially in Grand Hotel plots, when people keep running into each other at just the right moment. Films aren’t about reality; one of the damn things is enough. Films are about giving us experiences, and this B picture seems to me quite satisfying—not least because it shows a relaxed but smooth pace almost completely unknown to modern cinema. It’s no small thing to tell so many stories in 66 minutes.

 

How work looks

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Budget-challenged RKO makes a virtue of its limits. The film has a bleached, suffocating squalor. Dust and glare rise up. The dusty outdoor set makes the motel complex look plausibly cheap. The diner is knotty-pine, and as dingy as you could ask. The countertop yields a solid thump when a plate of comfort food hits, and it’s easy to imagine it being gaumy to the touch. Greasy smoke sizzles up from a grill, blurring a poster advertising the good life and a cola that promises “Keep Cool.” And the shot of the disgruntled fry cook Annie owes nothing to pin-up standards.

burgers 300     Smoke 300     Gale 300

The film has that easy familiarity with the routines of working life celebrated by Otis Ferguson, who praised another film for its “reduction of the rambling facts of living and working to their most immediate denominator, to the shortest and finest line between the two points of a start and a finish.” We watch the Autopia staff briskly feed a busload of people during a ten-minute layover, fix up guest rooms, pour beers, wash dishes, scrub countertops, and pump gas—all the while an enigmatic sundial insists “It’s later than you think.”

With over twenty speaking parts, the film relies on swift, sharp characterizations. It’s lifted above the ordinary by the presence of the splendid Anne Revere, Hollywood’s embodiment of plain-speaking dignity, and the reliable Harry Shannon (aka father to Charles Foster Kane). Beloved blowhard J. M. Kerrigan plays the mountebank. Even a sweat-glistened Gale Storm (older boomers will remember her as TV’s My Little Margie) doesn’t do badly. The presence of so many character actors and bit players gives these people a worn solidity far removed from A-picture glamour. Everybody, young and old, looks fairly ill-used.

Irving Reis joined RKO after a brief but distinguished career in radio, where he created the much-lauded Columbia Workshop. One Crowded Night was his first screen credit there. Renoir gets, deserved, credit for using deep-space compositions to suggest life lived in the background and on the edges of the shot’s main action. Reis, like many unheralded American directors, does the same thing. Network narratives encourage these juxtapositions, as story lines crisscross and characters react accordingly.

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Reis went on to do more B pictures, as well as The Big Street (1942) and Hitler’s Children (1943). His later work includes Crack-Up (1946), All My Sons (1948), and Enchantment (1948; discussed hereabouts). He died young, in 1953. One Crowded Night shows him an efficient craftsman; Variety praised him for “development of the story’s many characters and juggling them through the many-sided yarn without confusion.”

 

The Grand Hotel formula would continue through the 1940s in Club Havana (1945), Breakfast in Hollywood (1946), and other low-end items It would also yield a few A pictures, like Week-End at the Waldorf (1945, an explicit redo of Grand Hotel), Hotel Berlin (1945), and the hostage thriller Dial 1119 (1950). The format would go on to have a long life, right up to The Second-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015).

One Crowded Night, apart from its quiet virtues, served my book as a good example of just how pervasive certain models of storytelling became in the 1940s. Alongside the classic plot patterns of the single protagonist and the dual protagonist (often a romantic couple) other possibilities got explored. Some, like the Grand Hotel model, had been floated in the 30s and got revised in the 40s. Others took off on their own. All left a legacy—let’s call it a tradition—for the filmmakers who followed.


Thanks to TCM and its programmers for making this and thousands of other films available. But why not a version on Warner Archive DVDs? The Spanish DVD is pricy.

My quotations from Bosley Crowther come from “The Screen: At the Rialto,” The New York Times (27 August 1940), 17. The Daily Variety review appeared on 29 July, 1940, 3. Ferguson’s remark, on Joris Ivens’ New Earth, comes from “Guest Artist,” in The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Temple University Press, 1971), 126. For more on Ferguson, see my book The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture.

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Paul Guilfoyle and Anne Revere in One Crowded Night.

Thrill me!

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Based on a True Story (Polanski, 2017).

DB here:

Three examples, journalists say, and you’ve got a trend. Well, I have more than three, and probably the trend has been evident to you for some time. Still, I want to analyze it a bit more than I’ve seen done elsewhere.

That trend is the high-end thriller movie. This genre, or mega-genre, seems to have been all over Cannes this year.

A great many deals were announced for thrillers starting, shooting, or completed. Coming up is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, “centering on members of a church who are troubled by the loss of their loved ones.” There’s Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante, with Olivia Wilde as a woman avenging victims of domestic abuse. There’s Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III. There’s Lars von Trier’s serial-killer exercise The House that Jack Built. There’s as well 24 Hours to Live, Escape from Praetoria, Close, In Love and Hate, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, featuring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. Claire Denis, who has made two thrillers, is planning another. Not of all these may see completion, but there’s a trend here.

Then there were the movies actually screened: Based on a True Story (Assayas/ Polanski), Good Time (the Safdie brothers), L’Amant Double (Ozon), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Lanthimos), The Merciless (Byun), You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay), and Wind River (Sheridan), among others. There was an alien-invasion thriller (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish), a political thriller (The Summit), and even an “agricultural thriller” (Bloody Milk). The creative writing class assembled in Cantet’s The Workshop is evidently defined through diversity debates, but what is the group collectively writing? A thriller.

Thrillers seldom come up high in any year’s global box-office grosses. Yet they’re a central part of international film culture and the business it’s attached to. Few other genres are as pervasive and prestigious. What’s going on here?

 

A prestigious mega-genre

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Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958).

Thriller has been an ambiguous term throughout the twentieth century. For British readers and writers around World War I, the label covered both detective stories and stories of action and adventure, usually centered on spies and criminal masterminds.

By the mid-1930s the term became even more expansive, coming to include as well stories of crime or impending menace centered on home life (the “domestic thriller”) or a maladjusted loner (the “psychological thriller”). The prototypes were the British novel Before the Fact (1932) and the play Gas Light (aka Gaslight and Angel Street, 1938).

While the detective story organizes its plot around an investigation, and aims to whet the reader’s curiosity about a solution to the puzzle, in the domestic or psychological thriller, suspense outranks curiosity. We’re no longer wondering whodunit; often, we know. We ask: Who will escape, and how will the menace be stopped? Accordingly, unlike the detective story or the tale of the lone adventurer, the thriller might put us in the mind of the miscreant or the potential victim.

In the 1940s, the prototypical film thrillers were directed by Hitchcock. I’ve argued elsewhere that he mapped out several possibilities with Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur (spy thrillers) Rebecca and Suspicion (domestic suspense), and Shadow of a Doubt (domestic suspense plus psychological probing). Today, I suppose core-candidates of this strain of thrillers, on both page and screen, would be The Ghost Writer, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train.

In the 1940s, as psychological and domestic thrillers became more common, critics and practitioners started to distinguish detective stories from thrillers. In thinking about suspense, people noticed that the distinctive emotional responses depend on different ranges of knowledge about the narrative factors at play. With the classic detective story, Holmesian or hard-boiled, we’re limited to what the detective and sidekicks know. By contrast, a classic thriller may limit us to the threatened characters or to the perpetrator. If a thriller plot does emphasize the investigation we’re likely to get an alternating attachment to cop and crook, as in M, Silence of the Lambs, and Heat.

Today, I think, most people have reverted to a catchall conception of the thriller, including detective stories in the mix. That’s partly because pure detective plotting, fictional or factual, remains surprisingly popular in books, TV, and podcasts like S-Town. The police procedural, fitted out with cops who have their own problems, is virtually the default for many mysteries. So when Cannes coverage refers to thrillers, investigation tales like Campion’s Top of the Lake are included.

In addition, “impure” detective plotting can exploit thriller values. Films primarily focused on an investigation, but emphasizing suspense and danger, can achieve the ominous tension of thrillers, as Se7en and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo do. More generally, any film involving crime, such as a heist or a political cover-up, could, if it’s structured for suspense and plot twists, be counted as part of the genre.Reinventing-cover-250

Yet tales of police detection aren’t currently very central to film, I think. Their role, Jeff Smith suggests, has been somewhat filled by the reporter-as-detective, in Spotlight, Kill the Messenger, and others. Straight-up suspense plots are even more common, as in the classic victim-in-danger plots of The Shallows, Don’t Breathe, and Get Out. Tales of psychological and domestic suspense coalesced as a major trend in Hollywood during the 1940s. It became so important that I devoted a chapter to it in my upcoming book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. (You can get an earlier version of that argument here.)

By referring to “high-tone” thrillers, I simply want to indicate that major directors, writers, and stars have long worked in this broad genre. In the old days we had Lang, Preminger, Siodmak, Minnelli, Cukor, John Sturges, Delmer Daves, Cavalcanti, and many others. Today, as then, there are plenty of mid-range or low-end thrillers (though not as many as there are horror films), but a great many prestigious filmmakers have tried their hand: Soderbergh (Haywire, Side Effects), Scorsese (Cape Fear, Shutter Island), Ridley Scott (Hannibal), Tony Scott (Enemy of the State, Déja vu), Coppola (The Conversation), Bigelow (Blue Steel, Strange Days), Singer (The Usual Suspects), the Coen brothers (Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men et al.), Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Split), Nolan (Memento et al.), Lee (Son of Sam, Clockers, Inside Man), Spielberg (Jaws, Minority Report), Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), and even Woody Allen (Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors). Brian De Palma and David Fincher work almost exclusively in the genre.

And that list is just American. You can add Almodóvar, Assayas, Besson, Denis, Polanski, Figgis, Frears, Mendes, Refn, Villeneuve, Cuarón, Haneke, Cantet, Tarr, Gareth Jones, and a host of Asians like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Johnnie To. I can’t think of another genre that has attracted more excellent directors. The more high-end talents who tackle the genre, the more attractive it becomes to other filmmakers.

 

Signing on to a tradition

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Creepy (Kurosawa, 2016).

If you’re a writer or a director, and you’re not making a superhero film or a franchise entry, you really have only a few choices nowadays: drama, comedy, thriller. The thriller is a tempting option on several grounds.

For one thing, there’s what Patrick Anderson’s book title announces: The Triumph of the Thriller. Anderson’s book is problematic in some of its historical claims, but there’s no denying the great presence of crime, mystery, and suspense fiction on bestseller lists since the 1970s. Anderson points out that the fat bestsellers of the 1950s, the Michener and Alan Drury sagas, were replaced by bulky crime novels like Gorky Park and Red Dragon. As I write this, nine of the top fifteen books on the Times hardcover-fiction list are either detective stories or suspense stories. A thriller movie has a decent chance to be popular.

This process really started in the Forties. Then there emerged bestselling works laying out the options still dominant today. Erle Stanley Gardner provided the legal mystery before Grisham; Ellery Queen gave us the classic puzzle; Mickey Spillane provided hard-boiled investigation; and Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon G. Eberhart, and Daphne du Maurier ruled over the woman-in-peril thriller. Alongside them, there flourished psychological and domestic thrillers—not as hugely popular but strong and critically favored. Much suspense writing was by women, notably Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, and Patricia Highsmith, but Cornell Woolrich and John Franklin Bardin contributed too.

I’d argue that mystery-mongering won further prestige in the Forties thanks to Hollywood films. Detective movies gained respectability with The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Crossfire, and other films. Well-made items like Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Ministry of Fear, The Stranger, The Spiral Staircase, The Window, The Reckless Moment, The Asphalt Jungle, and the work of Hitchcock showed still wider possibilities. Many of these films helped make people think better of the literary genre too. Since then, the suspense thriller has never left Hollywood, with outstanding examples being Hitchcock’s 1950s-1970s films, as well as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seconds (1966), Wait Until Dark (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Parallax View (1974), Chinatown (1974), and Three Days of the Condor (1975), and onward.

Which is to say there’s an impressive tradition. That’s a second factor pushing current directors to thrillers. It does no harm to have your film compared to the biggest name of all. Google the phrase “this Hitchcockian thriller” and you’ll get over three thousand results. Science fiction and fantasy don’t yet, I think, have quite this level of prestige, though those genres’ premises can be deployed in thriller plotting, as in Source Code, Inception, and Ex Machina.

Since psychological thrillers in particular depend on intricate plotting and moderately complex characters, those elements can infuse the project with a sense of classical gravitas. Side Effects allowed Soderbergh to display a crisp economy that had been kept out of both gonzo projects like Schizopolis and slicker ones like Erin Brockovich.

Ben Hecht noted that mystery stories are ingenious because they have to be. You get points for cleverness in a way other genres don’t permit. Because the thriller is all about misdirection, the filmmaker can explore unusual stratagems of narration that might be out of keeping in other genres. In the Forties, mystery-driven plots encouraged writers to try replay flashbacks that clarified obscure situations. Mildred Pierce is probably the most elaborate example. Up to the present, a thriller lets filmmakers test their skill handling twists and reveals. Since most such films are a kind of game with the viewer, the audience becomes aware of the filmmakers’ skill to an unusual degree.

Thrillers also tend to be stylistic exercises to a greater extent than other genres do. You can display restraint, as Kurosawa Kiyoshi does with his fastidious long-take long shots, or you can go wild., as with De Palma’s split-screens and diopter compositions. Hitchcock was, again, a model with his high-impact montage sequences and florid moments like the retreating shot down the staircase during one murder in Frenzy.

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Would any other genre tolerate the showoffish track through a coffeepot’s handle that Fincher throws in our face in Panic Room? It would be distracting in a drama and wouldn’t be goofy enough for a comedy.

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Yet in a thriller, the shot not only goes Hitchcock one better but becomes a flamboyant riff in a movie about punishing the rich with a dose of forced confinement. More recently, the German one-take film Victoria exemplifies the look-ma-no-hands treatment of thriller conventions. Would that movie be as buzzworthy if it had been shot and cut in the orthodox way?

 

Fairly cheap thrills

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Non-Stop (Collet-Serra, 2014). Production budget: $50 million. Worldwide gross: $222 million.

The triumph of the movie thriller benefits from an enormous amount of good source material. The Europeans have long recognized the enduring appeal of English and American novels; recall that Visconti turned a James M. Cain novel into Ossessione. After the 40s rise of the thriller, Highsmith became a particular favorite (Clément, Chabrol, Wenders). Ruth Rendell has been mined too, by Chabrol (two times), Ozon, Almodóvar, and Claude Miller. Chabrol, who grew up reading série noire novels, adapted 40s works by Ellery Queen and Charlotte Armstrong, as well as books by Ed McBain and Stanley Ellin. Truffaut tried Woolrich twice and Charles Williams once. Costa-Gavras offered his version of Westlake’s The Ax, while Tavernier and Corneau picked up Jim Thompson. At Cannes, Ozon’s L’Amant double derives from a Joyce Carol Oates thriller the author calls “a prose movie.”

Of course the French have looked closer to home as well, with many versions of Simenon novels by Renoir, Duvivier, Carné, Chabrol (inevitably), Leconte, and others. The trend continues with this year’s Assayas/Polanski adaptation of the French psychological thriller Based on a True Story.

In all such cases, writers and directors get a twofer: a well-crafted plot from a master or mistress of the genre, and praise for having the good taste to disseminate the downmarket genre most favored by intellectuals.

Another advantage of the thriller is economy. There are big-budget thrillers like Inception, Spectre, and the Mission: Impossible franchise. But the thriller can also flourish in the realm of the American mid-budget picture. Recently The Accountant, The Girl on the Train, and The Maze Runner all had budgets under $50 million. Putting aside marketing costs, which are seldom divulged, consider estimated production costs versus worldwide grosses of these top-20 thrillers of the last seven years. The figures come from Box Office Mojo.

Taken 2                                               $45 million                  $376 million

Gone Girl                                            $61 million                  $369 million

Now You See Me                               $75 million                  $351 million

Lucy                                                    $40 million                  $463 million

Kingsman: The Secret Service       $81 million                  $414 million

Then there are the low-budget bonanzas.

The Shallows                                     $17 million                  $119 million

Don’t Breathe                                    $9.9 million                 $157 million

The Purge: Election Year                $10 million                  $118 million

Split                                                     $9 million                    $276 million

Get Out                                               $4.5 million                 $241 million

Of course budgets of foreign thrillers are more constrained, and I don’t have figures for typical examples. Still, overseas filmmakers tackling the genre have an advantage over their peers in other genres. Thrillers are exportable to the lucrative American market, twice over.

First, a thriller can be an art-house breakout. Volver, The Lives of Others, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) all scored over $10 million at the US box office, a very high number for a foreign-language film. Asian titles that get into the market have done reasonably well, and enjoy long lives on video and streaming. The Handmaiden and Train to Busan, both from South Korea, doubled the theatrical take of non-thrillers Toni Erdmann and Julieta, as well as that of American indies like Certain Women and The Hollers. Elsewhere, thrillers comprised two of the three big arthouse hits in the UK during the first four months of this year: The Handmaiden, a con-artist movie in its essence, and Elle, a lacquered woman-in-peril shocker.

Second, a solid import can be remade with prominent actors, as Wages of Fear and The Secret in Their Eyes were. Probably the most high-profile recent example was The Departed, a redo of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs. Sometimes the director of the original is allowed to shoot the remake, as happened with The Vanishing, Loft, and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Even if the remake doesn’t get produced, just the purchase of remake rights is a big plus. I remember one European writer-director telling me that he earned more from selling the remake rights to his breakout film than he did from the original. He was also offered to direct the remake, but he declined, explaining: “If someone else does it, and it’s good, that’s good for the original. If it’s bad, people will praise the original as better.” And by making a specialty hit, the screenwriter or director gets on the Hollywood radar. If you can direct an effective thriller, American opportunities can open up, as Asian directors have discovered.

Thrillers attract performers. Actors want to do offbeat things, and between their big-paycheck parts they may find the conflicted, often duplicitous characters of psychological thrillers challenging roles. For Side Effects Soderbergh rounded up name performers Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum. The Coens are skillful at working with stars like Brad Pitt (Burn after Reading) and George Clooney (Suburbicon, which they’re writing). The rise of the thriller has given actors good Academy Award chances too. Here are some I noticed:

Jane Fonda (Klute), Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs), Frances McDormand (Fargo), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Brie Larson (Room), Anjelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor), Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential), Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune), Denzel Washington (Training Day), Sean Penn (Mystic River), Sean Connery (The Untouchables), Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects), Benicio Del Toro (Traffic), Tim Robbins (Mystic River), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies).

Finally, there’s deniability. Because of the genre’s literary prestige, because of the tony talent behind and before the camera, and because of the genre’s ability to cross cultures, the thriller can be….more than a thriller. Just as critics hail every good mystery or spy novel as not just a thriller but literature, so we cinephiles have no problem considering Hitchcock films and Coen films and their ilk as potential masterpieces. On the most influential list of the fifty best films we find The Godfather and Godfather II, Mulholland Dr., Taxi Driver, and Psycho. At the very top is Vertigo, not only a superb thriller but purportedly the greatest film ever made.

 

I worried that perhaps this whole argument was an exercise in confirmation bias–finding what favors your hunch and ignoring counterexamples. Looking through lists of top releases, I was obliged to recognize that thrillers aren’t as highly rewarded in film culture as serious dramas (Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Paterson, Jackie, The Fits). But I also kept finding recent films I’d forgotten to mention (Hell or High Water, The Green Room) or didn’t know of (Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Mike Flanigan’s Hush). They supported the minimal intuition that thrillers play an important role in both independent and mainstream moviemaking.

And not just on the fringes or the second tier. Perhaps because film is such an accessible art, all movies are fair game for the canon. As a fan of thrillers in all variants, from genteel cozies and had-I-but-known tales to hard-boiled noir and warped psychodramas, I’m glad that we cinephiles have no problem ranking members of this mega-genre up there with the official classics of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni (who built three movies around thriller premises). Of course other genres yield outstanding films as well. But we should be proud that cinema can offer works that aren’t merely “good of their kind” but good of any kind. For that reason alone, ambitious filmmakers are likely to persist in thrill-seeking.


Thanks to Kristin, Jeff Smith, and David Koepp for comments that helped me in this entry. Ben Hecht’s remark comes from Philip K. Scheuer, “A Town Called Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times (30 June 1940), C3.

You can get a fair sense of what the Brits thought a thriller was from a book by Basil Hogarth (great name), Writing Thrillers for Profit: A Practical Guide (London: Black, 1936). A very good survey of the mega-genre is Martin Rubin’s Thrillers (Cambridge University Press, 1999). David Koepp, screenwriter of Panic Room, has thoughts on the thriller film elsewhere on this blog.

Having just finished Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, I can see what attracted Assayas and Polanski. The film (which I haven’t yet seen) could be a nifty intersection of thriller conventions and the art-cinema aesthetic. As a gynocentric suspenser, though, the book doesn’t seem to me up to, say, Laura Lippman’s Life Sentences, a more densely constructed tale of a memoirist’s mind. And de Vigan’s central gimmick goes back quite a ways; to mention its predecessors would constitute a spoiler. For more on women’s suspense fiction, see “Deadlier than the male (novelist).” For more on Truffaut’s debt to the Hitchcock thriller, try this.

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The Workshop (Cantet, 2017).

Film noir, a hundred years ago

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A Romance of the Air (1918).

DB here:

One of the most persistent conventions in American cinema associates dark images with dangerous doings—crime, mystery, violence, espionage, sexual depredations, visits from beyond the grave. The strategy is most apparent in what critics eventually called film noir. Those 1940s “films of darkness” are sometimes said to derive from German Expressionist cinema, but the look was already a Hollywood tradition. Filmmakers had long treated scenes of mystery and suspense with hard, low-key lighting that yielded rich chiaroscuro.

When does it start? You can find very early examples, but it seems to have crystallized during the 1910s. Kristin has talked about this as a period when filmmakers were collectively struggling to tell somewhat lengthy stories in a clear fashion. Along with clarity, she argues, came efforts to add emotional impact to a scene. Those included dynamic staging, fast cutting, close-up framings, subtle but arresting performance styles, ambitious camera movements, and lighting that enhanced the mood of the action. She points to many European and American films of the years 1912-1916 that flaunt silhouettes and selective lighting.

I found a lot of prototypes of noirish images during my recent trawling through Library of Congress films from 1914-1918. In this era, it seems, filmmakers competed to create striking, even shocking, lighting effects. Later directors and cinematographers would adopt many of them as proven tools for boosting their scenes’ emotional power.

So today’s entry is mostly just some pictures that try to convince you, once more, that the 1910s laid down a great deal of what we take for granted in films ever since. You may want to turn up your display. We’re going dark.

 

No sunshine here

Start with the shot up top, from the independent production A Romance of the Air (1918). Produced by and starring Bert Hall, flyboy and author of the source book, it traces how German spies posing as French refugees win his confidence and try to steal secrets about troop movements. It was released in the month of the Armistice, and it got what appears to be a welcome reaction from audiences.

A Romance of the Air, nearly amateurish in its opening stretches, gets more competent as it goes along. But there’s only one real uptick from a pictorial viewpoint. Two spies have attempted to gas Edith, Bert’s sweetheart, but fortunately their incompetence leads them to the wrong room. They meet outside the house, and suddenly we get a shot that had me hollering.

As the man lights a cigarette, a low-slung angle shows the flare of the match illuminating his hatbrim and the countess beside him. In the upper left Edith peers down from a window. We might be in Hollywood, 1945, perhaps in the hands of production designer William Cameron Menzies or ace DP John Alton.

It’s interesting that a title pops in here, coaxing the audience to notice the face at the window.

Romance 2 400

The mistaken placement of “From up above” tells you something of the clumsiness of this whole production. Yet bad grammar is redeemed when we return to the framing as the spies twist around in surprise and the man clutches the countess.

ROMANCE 3 400

Other filmmakers of the period would have trusted the audience to spot Edith, but nonetheless an undistinguished, forgotten film bequeathes us one bold moment.

We can see a more conventional look emerging when characters get sent to jail. By the end of the 1920s, filmmakers had found a way to crosslight cell bars to make them stand out crisply, as here in von Sternberg’s Thunderbolt (1929).

Thunderbolt 400

A jail scene in The Unknown (1915) isn’t so flashy, but the concept of edge-lighting the bars is there. If all you wanted was clarity, the naked cell door suffices, but the sidelight makes the barrier more vivid.

Unknown 300

At this point, some directors were willing to leave large patches of the image in darkness, even at the risk of off-balance compositions. This is not only expressive; it saves money on set construction. So trust Maurice Tourneur to go further. In Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915), one of the most accomplished films of the era, we get cons as patient silhouettes.

Alias Jimmy jail 400

No need to see their expressions; the outlines of their poses express their resignation.

Speaking of prisoners, consider the plight of Ivanoff, the revolutionary who has been sentenced to Siberia in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Man from Home (1914). He has escaped from the mines and taken refuge in a stable. Filing off his chains, he crouches as guards pass by outside. First, he’s in a glare, but when he hears them….

Man from Home 1 400     Man from 2 400

… he shifts into semi-shadow.

Man from 3 400

The guards’ approach is measured by a barely noticeable change: the gleaming surface on the far left is briefly darkened.

This is a bold instance of “Lasky lighting,” the brilliant effects which DeMille worked up with Wilfred Buckland, Belasco’s stage designer. Several films in my sample exemplify this style, which became part of Jesse Lasky’s Paramount brand. Examples are comparatively abundant because many Paramount films have survived from the silent era.

 

Camera obscura

In A Romance of the Air, the darkness is motivated as a night scene, and naturally prisons and hiding places are associated with danger. Another option is to stage scenes in darkened rooms, populated by sneaking and skulking characters. Again, the association with criminality is evident. In Alias Jimmy Valentine, hoods hide from cops and are visible thanks to diagonal edge lighting.

Alias Jimmy doorway 400

More dynamic are two suspense scenes in Madam Who (1918), the story of a plucky Southern belle who goes undercover for the Confederate cause. In the first, disguised as a man, she peers down from a hayloft to watch the meeting of the Sons of the North gang. We get an optical POV shot straight down, and then a close reaction shot, with a fish-hook of light snagging her face as she glances at us.

Madam Who POV 400     Madam Who reaction 400

Reginald Barker, one of the most resourceful directors of the era, didn’t let up in a later scene of Madam Who. Jeanne and the secret agent Henry Morgan get the drop on the Sons’ leader Kennedy. The action plays out in layers of darkness, with her poking a pistol through the doorway right of center, and it’s capped by a stark close-up.

Madam Who 3 400     Madam Who 4 400

In the late 1910s, several directors use such darkened interiors for fight scenes. In De Luxe Annie (1918), the heroine’s husband takes a brutal beating from the criminal he’s trapped. The accomplice runs to administer a hypodermic.

Deluxe annie fight 400

Something similar happens in The Family Skeleton (1918), when dissolute Billy (Charles Ray) battles the bully who has tormented him throughout the movie.

Family Skeleton 1 400      Family Skeleton 2 400

Shadow-filled rooms help amp up suspense during fistfights. We can’t be sure who’s winning, and the enveloping darkness can also suggest more savage violence than could be shown in normal light.

Or you can stage a fight or a chase in a darkened area outdoors. The Sign of the Spade (1918) sets its climactic abduction and rescue under a seaside pier, and the silhouettes that result would not have shamed Panic in the Streets (1950).

Spade 1 400     Spade 2 400

As with the jail in Jimmy Valentine, we have to read the characters’ emotions–chiefly, the desperation of the fleeing woman–from their body language. And as often happens, the more we have to strain to see the action, the more gripping it becomes.

 

Billy and two Annies

DE LUXE ANNIE safe 450

De Luxe Annie (1918).

Of course what we call film noir includes more than visual style. Like many terms in the arts, film noir picks out a cluster concept. It links together distinctive subjects (urban life, abnormal mental states, misogyny), attitudes (alienation, nihilism, malaise, mistrust of authority and the upper class), themes (official corruption, revenge, male friendship and betrayal), plots (investigation, pursuit, deception), narrational devices (flashbacks, voice-over commentary, dreams and hallucinations), and visual techniques. Because noir is a cluster concept, eager acolytes can choose some noir-ish qualities of Film A and declare it a more or less plausible instance, while with Film B a quite different set of features might help it qualify too.

For example, in visual technique, only a few shots of Laura carry traces of the lighting style we think characteristic of noir. But the film does present a decadent, treacherous milieu harboring a mysterious, perhaps dangerous woman who may be feeding a man’s delusions and obsessions. Laura, I’d suggest, counts as a noir on thematic and narrative grounds more than on stylistic ones.

So do we find non-stylistic features of noir in the 1910s? Sometimes, yes. I’ll save my prime example, an intricate and beautiful thing, for an entry of its own. But here are two nifty cases where the visual pyrotechnics spring from noirish narrative and thematic pressures.

Billy Bates is warned that alcoholism runs in his family, but on getting his inheritance he holds a party and learns that he likes the stuff. Not needing to work, he keeps drinking. He falls in love with chorus girl Poppy Drayton, but when she’s insulted in a saloon he’s too crocked to defend her from the hulking Spider, who beats and shames him. Billy learns that Spider is planning to abduct Poppy and so lays a trap. He waits in Polly’s parlor, resolving to stay sober long enough to defend her. Unfortunately, there’s a decanter of scotch within easy reach….

The Family Skeleton (1918) was touted as a “semi-farcical production” but the semi- parts took alcohol addiction fairly seriously. The popular Ray often played the country-boy underdog, so audiences were probably unprepared to see him as a millionaire twitching from the D.T.’s. The scenes of his drunkenness are truly unnerving, even when the plot is lightened by the revelation that Spider is a detective hired by Poppy to force Billy to man up. Billy does, in the nocturnal fistfight illustrated above. There darkness makes Billy’s ultimate victory more plausible; we can’t really see his winning punches.

In the buildup to the fight, however, we get Billy’s growing anxiety over the scotch across the room. He stares at the decanter.

Fam Skel 1 400     Fam Skel 2 400

A cut shows us a condensed  mental image: what would happen if he drank the contents. In this hypothetical future, the decanter is empty, and in it we see Spider breaking in and carrying off Polly while drunken Billy lolls helplessly.

Fam Skel 3 400     Fam Skel 4 400

As in the hallucinations of The Lost Weekend (1945), the filmmaker has taken us inside the addict’s fantasy.

Other subjective effects, like memories and dreams, were common in silent cinema too, though usually not plunged so deeply in darkness. In De Luxe Annie, Julie Kendall is worried that her husband is taking a risk by setting a trap for two dangerous swindlers. He will pose as an innocent mark and then arrest them when they try to con him. Julie’s concern emerges in a virtuoso split-screen dream sequence in which her husband is shot by the crook.

De Luxe annie 1 400     De Luxe annie 2 400

Later in the film, Julie will lose her memory and become the con man’s confederate, the new De Luxe Annie. The screenwriter’s old friend amnesia transforms an upper-class wife into down-at-heel swindler.

What triggers the amnesia? The most remarkable scene in the film. It’s either a brilliant coup or a happy accident, but either way it can stand as proof of the boiling energies of this era.

Worried about her husband, Julie follows him to the site of his trap. She goes in through the basement kitchen and enters almost total blackness. She stands in a tiny pool of light before a big double door, and it opens a crack.

Annie door 1 400     De Luxe annie door 2

Suddenly, and I mean instantly, the doors are wide open and we get a burst of light.

De Luxe annie door 3 400

A jump cut has eliminated the movement of the doors swinging open. (You can see the splice at the bottom of the second frame and the top of the third.) This is a very bold stylistic flourish.

Kristin suggests that it’s something of an accident. The overhead kitchen light is now lit up, and it was common at the time to cut out some frames when a light source is snapped on. That may be what led to this jump cut, though it’s not clear how anyone in the scene could have hit the power switch. In any event, the force of the cut is amplified by the ellipsis; the doors simply pop open.

Another pictorial surprise emerges when Julie moves a bit and it’s revealed that her figure has blocked De Luxe Annie, who’s facing her over the threshold. They start to grapple with one another and move into darkness on the right.

De Luxe annie door 4 400

Annie runs off, but Jimmy the con man is fleeing too, and he shows up to wrestle with Julie. A slamming axial cut shows him punching her fiercely in the head. The edge lighting here is remarkable.

Jimmy 1 400     Jimmy 2 400

Jimmy gets away, leaving Julie to stagger out and into the fog. She’s contracted amnesia. Later she’ll meet Jimmy again and become his new partner in crime.

This scene is even replayed as a brief flashback, when the original Annie recounts to Jennie’s husband the clash that led to Julie’s disappearance.

Door 3a     De Luxe annie door 4a

This is presented in a more unsurprising way, since there’s nothing new to be learned about the fight. The shot shows the full swinging open of the doors and a clearer revelation of Annie’s presence.

 

All this won’t be news to aficionados of silent film, who are well aware that the 1910s, and then the 1920s, burst with ingenious creativity. But everybody needs reminding, and the rare films I was lucky enough to study are just part of a huge corpus. The official classics by Chaplin and Griffith and others can be restored and reissued again and again, and we’re grateful. Yet if they’re the peaks of a landscape, there are plenty of luscious valleys that remain unexplored.

Problem is, most of the films from which my scenes come are incomplete, often missing entire reels. So they’ll probably never be screened much, or made available on DVD or streaming services. This is why archives remain indispensable to keeping the entirety of our film heritage, fragments and all, available to researchers. It’s also why I wrote this entry, to share with you my enjoyment of films you may never have a chance to see.

More broadly, scenes like these help us nuance our thinking about those films we do know well. For one thing, they indicate just how rich the creative energies of the 1910s were, and how many options were not embraced by…oh, let’s say for example D. W. Griffith.

For another thing, if these neglected works throw up willy-nilly an alcoholic’s hallucinations, an anxious wife’s dream, a plot based on amnesia, and a strategic replay of a crucial scene, we ought to think twice about claiming that such storytelling strategies are somehow unique to film noir, or the zeitgeist of the 1940s–or our movies today, which continue to use them.

American commercial cinema has drawn on particular themes, plot structures, formal designs, and narrational strategies again and again throughout the decades. My book Reinventing Hollywood floats the claim that silent-cinema narrative devices like flashbacks and subjective sequences went somewhat quiet during the 1930s but were brought back fortissimo in the 1940s, when sound techniques could raise them to a new level of intensity. And I’ve been at pains to argue over the years that we still encounter them.

Again, no surprise once we think about it. This is just history at work: the continuity of a powerful, proven storytelling tradition. Once we’ve learned to love darkness, we can’t give it up.


Again I must give my thanks to the John W. Kluge Center for providing me a long stay at the Library of Congress. The Moving Image Research Center was my host, and so I’m grateful to Mike Mashon, Greg Lukow, Karen Fishman, Dorinda Hartmann, Josie Walters-Johnston, Zoran Sinobad, and Rosemary Hanes. They’re doing their utmost to preserve our film heritage.

For information on the survival of US silent films, download David Pierce’s indispensable study, done for the Library of Congress. The information on Paramount is on p. 41.

Kristin’s article is “The International Exploration of Cinematic Expressivity,” in Film and the First World War, ed. Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkamp (Amsterdam University Press, 1995), 65-85. She discusses American lighting practices of the period in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (Columbia University Press, 1985), 223-227. In the same volume in discussing film noir I consider the established practice of chiaroscuro for scenes involving crime and mystery (p. 77).

The most in-depth account of Paramount’s lighting styles is Lea Jacobs’ article “Belasco, DeMille and the Development of Lasky Lighting,” Film History 5, 4 (December 1993), 405-418. This is a good place to record my deep debt to Kristin, Lea, and Ben Brewster, for years of tutelage in what makes the 1910s so important.

There are many good books on film noir, but the most comprehensive reflection on the category’s many implications is James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts, 2d ed. (University of California Press, 2008).

For more on 1910s film style, see this video lecture and this category of blog entries. I talk about other forays into the LoC collections here and here.

Lately, two video distributors have brought out less-known films from the period. There’s DeMille’s The Captive (1915) from Olive, and Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door (1919). The somewhat noirish frame below is from the latter. Flicker Alley, whose commitment to silent cinema from all countries has been extraordinary, deserves our thanks for making the San Francisco Silent Film Society’s restoration of this sensational, and sensationalistic, film available. For more on this restoration, visit the Flicker Alley site.

Beh Door 500

Behind the Door (1919).

My cover is blown

Reinventing cover 600

DB here:

The University of Chicago Press has come up with a cover for my new book, due in September. It’s a bit in-your-face, but I guess that suits the subject. I just hope it doesn’t predict readers’ reactions to the text.

Here’s a version of the jacket copy.

Early in the 1940s American movies changed. Flashbacks began to be used in outrageous, unpredictable ways. Soundtracks flaunted voice-over commentary, and characters might pivot from a scene to address the viewer. Incidents were replayed from different characters’ viewpoints, and sometimes those versions proved to be false.

Films now plunged viewers into characters’ memories, dreams, and hallucinations. Some films didn’t have protagonists, while others centered on anti-heroes or psychopaths. Women might be on the verge of madness, and neurotic heroes lurched into violent confrontations. Combining many of these ingredients, a new genre emerged—the psychological thriller, populated by women in peril and innocent bystanders targeted for death.

If this sounds like today’s cinema, that’s because it is. In Reinventing Hollywood, David Bordwell examines for the first time the full range and depth of trends that crystallized into traditions. He shows how the Christopher Nolans and Quentin Tarantinos of today owe an immense debt to the dynamic, occasionally delirious narrative experiments of the Forties.

Bordwell examines how a booming movie market during World War II allowed ambitious writers and directors to push narrative boundaries. Those experiments are usually credited to the influence of Citizen Kane, but Bordwell shows that the experimental impulse had begun much earlier.

Many of the general strategies had been explored in the silent era, but they had gone into eclipse with the coming of sound. Meanwhile, similar techniques were surfacing in radio, fiction, and theatre and soon migrated to cinema. It was during the 1940s that filmmakers had the opportunity to consolidate these storytelling ideas and press them to new limits.

Despite the postwar recession in the industry, the momentum for innovation didn’t slacken. Some of the boldest films of the era came in the late forties and early fifties, as filmmakers sought to outdo their peers.

Through in-depth analyses of films both famous and virtually unknown, from Our Town and All About Eve to Swell Guy and The Guilt of Janet Ames, from film noirs to Disney animation, Bordwell assesses the era’s unique achievements and its legacy for future filmmakers. The result is an in-depth study of how Hollywood storytelling became a more complex art.

I was lucky in my outside readers, who offered me many good suggestions for improving the book. They were also kind enough to say nice things about it. Here’s Malcolm Turvey, a major scholar of the history of experimental film:

In addition to the almost unparalleled breadth and depth of his research, Bordwell’s love of and admiration for the period’s formal experimentation and risk-taking comes through on every page. His exuberance is infectious…. Just as importantly, I know of no other work like this in my field due to its strikingly novel view of creation in popular culture.

Similarly, James Naremore, distinguished critic-historian of Hollywood, gave me confidence in what I was doing with comments like this:

[This is] a remarkable book that I recommend unreservedly for publication. The manuscript was a special pleasure to read because, like Bordwell, I’m a great fan of the studio pictures of the 1940s, which in my opinion are the beating heart of American cinema. No other critic or historian has come close to the sort of comprehensive discussion Bordwell gives of the period. . . . Despite all this, there isn’t a whiff of academic or belles-lettrist pretention in his writing. Like The Rhapsodes, his recent Chicago book about film criticism in the 1940s, this manuscript is not only lucid but also witty and engaging, written with flair. 

Jim cover 250Speaking of covers, check out the one adorning Jim’s forthcoming book on Charles Burnett.

In a future entry I’ll post the table of contents, but if you want to get the flavor of what I’m doing, you could look at these blog entries: “Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, and Hollywood movies”“They see dead people”; “Dead man talking”; “Innovation by accident”; and of course the entries on The Chase starting here. For arguments about the continuity of Forties strategies in current film, there’s “The 1940s are over, and Tarantino’s still playing with blocks,” as well as this recent entry. For a complete inventory, check the category “1940s Hollywood.”

Reinventing Hollywood will be published in hardcover first, paperback later. As a reader, I usually don’t favor this policy, but in this case the price is decent ($40) for a book of 160,000 words, 550 pages not counting the index, and many pictures. It can be preordered here.

And yes, there will be a website with clips, so you can follow along with the book’s discussions.


Note to fussbudgets (like me): The cover photo is from Sudden Fear from 1952, but it’s okay because the period the book covers runs from 1939 to 1952 (The Long Forties, I guess.) I talk about the film in this entry.

Letter 600

A Letter to Three Wives (1948).

David Bordwell
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