Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, July 10, 2011


(1947) Dir. Douglas Sirk

For some of us, the name Lucille Ball produces shudders. Her long-running TV show was in constant late night reruns, and when nothing else was on TV we'd watch it, and so began to associate it in our minds with a feeling of trapped isolation. That's what's kept me away from LURED (1947), all the while, which is too damned bad, for it's a grand tale of Sherlock Holmes x The Lodger atmosphere and foggy mystery, gamely directed by Douglas Sirk, with Ball as a tough, sassy distinct individual far more resonant than the the proto-Cathy "waaaa" housewife married to some slow burn Cuban bandleader she'd later become. Laden with Hitchcockian drollery and pluck, it's stocked with some of my favorite supporting and leading actors: George Sanders is a semi-cavalier playboy who gets all schoolboy-ish over Ball's moxy and red hair; Boris Karloff mugs deliciously as deranged red herring fashion designer stuck in the 19th century (the DVD cover can make you think the whole film is set in the 19th century but it's just because they use an image from one of Karloff's scenes); Alan Mowbray and Joseph Calea are coded white slavers (the fate of the abducted girls is disguised for the censors ala the "classy dips and burglars" in SHE DONE HIM WRONG). Charles Coburn (Piggy himself) is the head of Scotland Yard who recruits Ball as a deputy to go undercover as a taxi dancer; George Zucco is Ball's cop shadow. His sussing out crossword clues from random things Ball says is the dumbest thing about the film, but it's great to see him playing an easy-going cop under a watchful -list eye like Sirk's, instead of another PRC heavy, not that there's anything wrong with that, either.

As fast moving and fun as a London fog murder movie can get, there's great termite bits like Karloff spying the camera in the mirror and breaking the fourth wall to tell us in the audience "I'll be with you in a moment!" in that full creepy/wink voice of his. Ball's natural gift for working girl 'take no shit' toughness and fearless snooping makes it also very feminist; the way she seems wowed by Mowbray's offer of a trip to South America only to trick him into giving her the name of the boat, or the way she intentionally fools us as well as the suspects into thinking she's dumb, then springing the trap, or growling at Sanders like a hungry dog, ruff!

 Things get suspenseful, and then they get looser in that vein similar to Hitchcock's, where suspense doesn't slacken even as the wit and winks fly. Sanders' presence even makes it connected to REBECCA in its tale of an ordinary girl destined for ritzier things due to her surplus of character, figure and intellect, but best of all she starts out way tougher and more self-confident than Joan Fontaine. Ball can be charming as needed, well who can't? But she can also relax, like a real woman, right there onscreen, smoking and knocking back cakes with her big feet up on her day off. It's such a rare thing to see, a warts-and-all portrayal of a real live woman, unafraid to let it all hang out, that it's priceless to see. Like a whole new version of striptease, Ball's character can shed her fake personae as easily as a nightgown. Yeah, but anyone can take off their clothes! Who can take off their mask all the way, to the hairy human animal beneath, with a whole film crew and blazing hot lights breathing down your neck yet--and still be a knock-out?

I know of a few (Stanwyck, Davis) but never thought Lucy was one, til now...

(1942) Dir. Elliot Nugent

With deep shadows from a roaring bonfire, the camera low, his shadow large and Wellesian sinister, crypto-fascist Eugene Pallette shouts "Fight! Fight!" while humanities prof Henry Fonda and his acolyte look through round Leninish spectacles, aghast at the horror of mob mentality in action. No, it's not TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, it's homecoming week at Beardsley College! The always durable and ready Jack Carson is the All-American football hero who dated English professor Fonda's wife before Fonda, and if you, as a cinema blog-reading smartypants, ever sneered at the sporting events of your college, city, or state, you'll enjoy THE MALE ANIMAL. It has a kind of Capra-ish ending with Fonda reading a letter from anarchist Vinzetti against massive public outcry, but it's hard to take such clear-cut fascism seriously when it comes from Eugene Pallette, the wondrous bullfrog who played Fonda's dad in THE LADY EVE. Here it's dopey Fonda who's the smart one, but Palette get's the film's last and best line as they march in a parade in honor of Fonda and Pallette notices a troublemaking student isn't cheering, "What's the matter with you?" he barks. "You a fascist or something?"

1957 - **1/2

Jean Simmons is a virgin secretary-teacher who helps kids cheat at geometry and sexy bespectacled dancer (Neile Adams) cheat at baking contests. So she must be okay. Wait, what? Well, the nightclub environment they work in is cozy and cute, with everyone more or less nice to each other, a rarity for these types of things, and occasionally the club floor is lit in an almost Sternbergianly chthonic nest of curvy shadows. Tony Franciosa is at his sweaty, grinning best as a taut nightclub manager struggling to stay free in the face of marriage's inescapable vortex (to Simmons). The other reason to see this Nellie Adams, a scrappy brunette-bobbed bombshell who comes across like a curvier, smarter, black-haired Shirley MacLaine, with cute glasses and, shortly after this film was released, the power to lure Steve McQueen into marriage. Hubba Hubba! Alas, she didn't do much other than some TV shows after this, having two kids to keep her busy. Steve McQueen, you dick! You stole a gal who could have won the heart of a heartless, cynical world.

1937 -Dir. William Wellman ****

If you're a screwball fan, or Ben Hecht fan, or both, you probably saw NOTHING SACRED first as a crummy public domain dupe, with its primitive three-strip color washed near to mud. It's still hard to see a good copy today, for this and other reasons. On TCM it looks okay, but the colors still make everything seem kind of muddy/ Plus, I don't think Frederic March is ideal for Ben Hecht's dialogue; he just tosses it off when it could use some John Barrymore-style ballyhoo. All that said, this film only improves on repeat viewings, with great bit players like Max Rosenbloom as a slugger from circulation ("It's me, Moe! Yer brudda!"), Sig Rumann as Dr. Emil Egglehoffer; John Qualen as a Swedish fire chief ("Yumpin' Yimminy..."); the music of Raymond Scott's bouncy quintet; Owlin Howlin (baggage), Margaret Hamilton (matron), and Troy Brown Sr. as a rotund phony maharaja.

Credit William Wellman with his keen eye for earthy detail and Hecht for his flash-frozen cynicism, which stains even the most seemingly mundane of dialogue a frosty black, and Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg, paraded around the city like a Joan of Arc on slow-glam burn, and the way Frederic March falls in love with the sound of his own sorrow. As a kid who often faked illnesses to avoid sports and school, I can relate with the horrible guilt Flagg experiences, writhing in her first class suite as maids fret over her (including Hattie McDaniel, uncredited). Good old Hecht, you come away basking in the warmth of the evening star, the spectre of death--momentary or eventual--still hanging over everything, the lure of fascism, sentimentality, phony morals, sensationalism, and tawdry exploitation dangling like a anglerfish's lantern luring, luring us all into our cold Stygian comfort zone.


  1. Richard Doyle12 July, 2011

    "James Coburn (Piggy!) as the head of Scotland Yard"

    I assume that should read "Charles Coburn".

  2. Yes. Thanks, Richard. God, James Coburn must be rolling around in his grave.


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