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

Thursday, August 23, 2018


During a recent TCM  random catch of the last hour of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE for the first time in a few years (I'd been turned off last time around by Leigh's mannered hamminess), I was thrown by the power of one performance I'd never really appreciated in full before, Kim Hunter's Stella. Namely it was the scene after the famous "Stella!" moment. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) finds her sister in bed the next morning after Stanley's slunk off to work; playing down her morning post-coital afterglow in ways Leigh's own similarly-Rhett-ravished Scarlett would have overdone with kittenish sighs and dreamy girly smiles. Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven him his brutal outburst and radio smashing of the night before, but for Stella it's just another well-laid morning. Sex with an abusive husband when he's feeling deeply ashamed after an outburst is--according to Camille Paglia's research--why so many battered wives stick it out. High on endorphins from the sting of punches and slaps, they're deeply receptive--nerves enflamed and sensitive--to the chemicals of desire. It's just biology, and nature is an abusive thug.

Next time you see this scene, note the kittenish way Blanche says she was "sort of thrilled" by the way Stanley broke all the lightbulbs on their honeymoon, or the sly fallopian resonance she brings to the line: "only one tube was smashed." Counterbalancing Leigh's southern faded-belle histrionics, Hunter doesn't miss any of the little resonant mythic notes in Williams' dialogue, but--in courtesy to Leigh's strident yammering as befits an indulgent sister--lets it seem on the surface as if she's missed them all. Leigh's Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven Stanley, and that his savage rage has been so completely absorbed into Stella's sexual body. Yet we never feel--as we sometimes do when we hear of women going back to their abusive husbands--that Hunter is weak or not in full control.
The big "Stella!" scene is remembered for Brando, but Hunter is the one who makes it ring, when she walks down the stairs in a kind of voodoo trance - possessed by some pagan fertility goddess, so turned on by Stanley's bestial excess energy her conscious self all but blacks out. She's even able to call Blanche gently to heel reminding her who pays the bills: "Don't you think your superior attitude's a little out of place?"

Sure, I knew she'd won an Oscar for it, but Hunter's performance so ingeniously under-the-radar- so truly "supporting"  it may take--as it did for me-- a dozen viewings to see how it's really her film more than Leigh's or Brando's. As a kid, seeing it I was usually busy rolling my eyes at Leigh's drag queen Scarlett O'Hara impersonator histrionics (Blanche is really Scarlett after she becomes a full blown alcoholic, which she was on her way to being anyway in Gone with the Wind), or drooling in awe at the rippling back muscles of Brando's Kowalski under Harry Stradling's glistening cinematography (now perfectly transferred into the digital age so every sweaty sinew shines like a limestone stalactite under centuries of constant slow cavern drip).

This last viewing, as I watched her straddle between Stanley's savage magnetism and Blanche's Gothic hypocrisy, I found myself thinking back to her in other roles, and realized, suddenly, that through sheer repetition of viewings she'd become a kind of positive ideal for me --not the elusive anima but the obtainable heart's desire, the sort who plays the courtship game very badly, to show their cards right away and tell us they like us far too soon, so that dating them becomes stress-free; we can skip all the tedious date small talk, not even bother pretending we enjoy rock climbing or bungee jumping --go right to the colored lights portion, sex and laying around in a post-coital cocoon all day, drinking whiskey and ginger ale on the rocks, watching the James Bond marathon on TNT or listening to Columbia era Sinatra until the wee wee hours. Now I'm talking about someone else, but she too was one of these gifts from god to men (whereas hotter girls can be gifts from Satan all too often).

There were only ever a few such actresses who could convey all that with the shy open courage of Kim Hunter --nowadays there are none. Heather Graham had it for awhile and wound up subjected to the casting equivalent of Dogville.  Now there are are only hotties who lazy directors think can pass as 'plain' by putting them in a pair of glasses and a nerdy sweater, and girls who are strictly comic relief. In the forties we had Frances Dee in I Walk with a Zombie (watch it sometime and note the way she unreservedly invades Tom Conway's personal space, or blurts out "I love Fort Holland" yet never talks above a low purr). And we have Kim Hunter in everything - women who--in keeping with the tenor of wartime and, later, noir, talked softly, so as not to arouse some sleeping Axis neighbor. These girls wore their hair in smart naturally-colored curls so as not to get tangled in whatever factory, nursing or WAC job they were doing. Their beauty was subservient --not to men, some hissy stylists' trends, or childbirth--but to their own desires and smarts; they didn't work inordinately towards looking good (1) but always did enough to look pleasant. A man could fall in love with such a girl easily, but he'd had have to be looking carefully to find her even in plain sight. She wasn't out there turning heads and exploding milk bottles as she passed by on the street, so a man in love with her wouldn't have to be jealous every time she went out, like he would with, say, Marilyn Monroe. Girls like Kim Hunter felt no need to stand out from the shadows and so, in their way, provided the right shoulder to lean on. Sympathetic to a man's woes but not dumb enough to fall for a hustler's sweet talk nor maudlin enough to indulge any wussy tantrum of despair, WW2 soldiers saw the type all the time in field hospitals, opiates giving their nurse--all in white--a special halo-like glow. Against the darkening mist of their frail mortality these were angels, but on another level down to earth enough you weren't even embarrassed during your sponge bath.

Hunter, in short, is that rarest of actresses, playing a persona of a cool girl, the sort minted by the Second World War, projecting an ineffable decency (a whispering, sophisticated decency, not a square Tom Hanks-style 'plain folk' decency) that made her a fixed point of gravity, anchoring all the rotations in a film's constellation like a combination planet Earth and warm-handed amateur juggler. Thus we believe in A Matter of Life and Death that Peter could fall in love with her over the radio, simply because she's 'life' and he's 'leaving her' but also --on our end--because of the rosy colors of her radio room that mirror the plane's orange flames. She's so touching you believe that love would stick automatically and help Peter transcend death; and you believe the local doctor with a mild crush on her wouldn't bat an eye in transferring his affection purely to being just a friend and medical advisor when she brings home this new fallen poet. In 7th Victim, she can even gently spurn the pathetic advances of another frail tumbling 'poet', refuse the smugly proffered milk at a diner, and impress a Mephistophelean ladykiller shrink while refusing his advances all in the same hour of running time.

Hunter as Zora
And you believe too that, even as an ape, she can call Charlton Heston ugly to his face and not have him take offense.

In short, she's Kim Hunter: electric, but grounded; nurturing yet alluring; homey but not homely; normal yet cool, and as intimate as a whispered conversation in the ER at six AM between a nurse and a terminal patient sailing to death on a pillow of pain medication. She's a prime example of the center of the Goldilocks zone of hotness. She's life and we're leaving her, but that doesn't mean we want to, suddenly. Though we've badmouthed life all our... life -- with her, we want to take it all back. Don't patronize her like a child, tell her to drink her milk or try and make any practiced romantic overtures and you'll get along fine. She'll let you know she's interested - you won't be able to miss it- so if not, just be her friend and be grateful.

Face 1-  Stella Dubois-Kowalski's love for the wild animal Stanley
(1951) Dir Elia Kazan / W- Tennessee Williams

Maybe it's really a film about old school Southern gothic raging against the dying of the light as Kazan's Actor's Studio kitchen sink Freudian realism jackboots over Oscar Jaffe's overly mannered style of Southern Gothic theater. The exhilarating immediacy of Brando's Stanley, who comes home from his long factory shift, still loud and coiled with energy vs. the fading southern belle airs of Vivien Leigh. Though some lewd understanding seems to exist between them, Brando and Leigh grind up against each other like opposing centuries of drama classes. Brando's terrifying working class sanity is the new way forward in American kitchen sink acting, riding the same electric ripple that Clark Gable rode in RED DUST in 1932, blowing all the soft-handed 'juvenile' leads (like Gene Raymond) clear back into the category of easily out-gunned naive rivals, the type who bring their hot wives down to savage countries where native drums and monsoons enflame the blood to the point their husband's run away to their separate room in fear of combustion, leaving the way open for men already burning.

Brando's Stanley, susceptible to violent outbursts, never pretends to be better than he is and has a steady job. He might occasionally get drunk and smash a radio and maybe sexually assault a crazy woman if he thinks he can get away with it, and feels like he's owed something for all his own booze he hasn't drunk, but he'll probably be a fun, fiercely loving father, provided it's not poker night and he's losing. One can say his hunting down the 'truth' about Blanche's past is mean-spirited, but who can blame him, getting high-hatted in his own kingdom by some penniless hypocrite who alienates his own wife against him while drinking his booze, trying to turn his kingdom of boorishness into a the sort of southern mansion he'd never be welcome at.

Kim Hunter's Stella can thrive in either version. She can have a blast at the bowling alley on Tuesdays and make it to the hoity toity jubilee on Saturday. More earthy than Blanche, more mannered than Stanley, her synchronicity with Stanley's animal magnetism reflects the same synchronicity she once had for older sister Blanche's gentility. Stella used to helping Blanche get tarted up for her ballroom coming-out parties, a kind of divine inheritance that changing circumstances or attractiveness levels, kept Stella from living with the same airy entitlement --except vicariously. Stella has married the king of Hell rather than meekly serving Blanche in some heaven where she'd still be stuck at the kids' table

Everyone notes the "Stella! Stella!" scene when doing their Brando imitations, but it's really Kim's scene at least as much as Brando's if not more. Lit unflatteringly but sensually from below (left) as she descends the stairs, she makes no bones about hiding her vaguely plump mammalian herd animal features, the glow from sweat and awry hair radiating a halfway reversion to heat-induced savagery, she still radiates such a scornful godlike power, it's as if under voodoo possession by some magisterial fertility goddess; the hungry way her hands explore his Adonis like muscular ripped back is so vivid we can feel his muscles through the screen.

This latest viewing I noticed other interesting termite touches, like the way Brando's "Stella!" shout becomes a musical refrain carried in the far-off music, some singer practicing out his window or selling flores por los muertos. Clearly Stella is right, considering she's a guest in a place paid for by the husband's job, it is out of place, and for all her airs, her snobbery betrays Blanche's provincialism, her lack of nobless oblige. For, as rich snob puts it at the local cantina in Mesa of Lost Women, "the ability to adapt oneself to any situation is the mark of the true sophisticate."

Not living on the 'realistic level' is a common theme in Williams' work. As in Night of the Iguana, the fantasy life cannot survive the real world without creating a kind of insane destructive frisson. Consider Blanche in comparison with the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon in Night of the Iguana
At the end of Iguana, Shannon winds up in the arms of the female Stanley equivalent (Maxine - the rough earth mother) rather than taking the long swim (the only way left for remaining in the fantastic level aside from a lobotomy, like Mrs. Venable wants to give Katherine in Suddenly Last Summer). Eventually your dependence on the kindness of strangers will leave you fluttering in the wind once you no longer have access to a single new face.

That's why Hunter's Stella is such a reassuring character, contextualizing the monstrousness of Stanley into something human (she's the cub lolling in the arms of the king of beasts), and grounding her schizo sister as best she can. She's who ideally Shannon will be like in a few days once he adjusts to the rhythms of hammock living and being shacked up with a horny Mexican broad pushing forty. Hunter's resilience as Stella is Streetcar's moral, especially if you ignore the tacked-on ending when she runs upstairs vowing to leave Stanley forever (at least she doesn't think twice about leaving the baby in the carriage unattended outside in the street / courtyard before then - so all who pass may gaze upon it, confident that it won't be swiped - the whole of the neighborhood now the loving tarantula arms of the king of beasts).

Face 2: June for the Plummeting Poet Peter D. Carter
(1946) Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

If the love between Stella and Stanley is earthy and even lower than earth (the fiery furnace), the WW2 love between Hunter's June--a Bomber Command radio operator-- and RAF bombardier Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is literally airborne, high up in clouds, and fog so thick one might fall to the sea and not even get hurt, merely bounce to shore right into June's bike path, their magnetism drawing them towards each other across dimensions. When love fills them, radio waves are as strong as any ocean's, they'll carry a falling squadron leader right on home.

Their chemistry in that opening scene is terrific we believe this long distance/right before dying love is possible. They aren't really in the same scene at all, or even the same altitude, but they convincingly fall in love just the same and we fall in love with them too. We're for them 100% right from the get-go - almost desperate for them to be together, certain it can't be possibly happen and in that certainty, perhaps, enables us to cherish their spark as much as they do. His poetry-even-in-the-face-of-certain-death gallant sweetness (he dictates a cable to his mother) tied to the way his British stiff upper lip doesn't crack even in the face of certain death makes him strike some gong inside us. When he asks if she's in love with anybody and she notes "I could love a man like you, David," she has tears in her eyes, we don't blame her. "I love you, June," he says. "You're life, and I'm leaving you." - And just like 'that' -even though calling her 'life' is a kind of a back-pedal, we get it. We see her choking up with tears even while--though we don't see them--we're sure there's dozens of other people in the room around her, dealing with the same issues with other pilots. "I was lucky to get you," he notes. He could have received any other operator monitoring the flight, or none of them. As it is, now they're both in love with a voice, each bathed in Cardiff's Technicolor fire - she in pink-lit womanly underground bunker Bomber Command light and he in the fires going on all around him in the Lancaster bomber- and together theirs is a love which they have only a minute to agree has been struck, and there's nothing to do but for him to say 'see you in a minute' to his dead 'sparks' and jump out of the side without a working parachute.

Well, through some miracle not easily explained, he lives, and they wind up in each other's arms, on that beach. And they both know better than to abandon that love--made when just voices under heavy duress-- to the elements, to throw it back, as it were, into the sea. They both know it's what saved him, even if they don't know why or how. This isn't one of those films, thank god, where things get awkward in person. It's not Catfish and Kim Hunter isn't some aloof anima figure like Dietrich nor some soapy martyr like Joan Crawford ready to die rather than embarrass his aristocratic parents. June is real solid 'girlfriend' material, the sort who won't throw love away on some silly point of honor, like their life/death status or their separate classes or nationalities, or that they barely know each other. She just met him but she's willing to die for him - and it seems perfectly natural. As I wrote in Men Who Are Frozen, in wartime, love's victims don't wait to know anything about each other confessing their love in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity. What could be more intimate that total commitment, intensified by the thought of impending immolation? There may not be a second date--for anyone, anywhere, ever--so there is no time for taking it slow. And parents are whole continents away so no one asks permission. If you happen to stumble on a still walking preacher in a still-standing church, you take it as a sign to get married. Your regiment leaves at dawn, so you better not hesitate when you get your handful of hours in the honeymoon suite.

There's only one thing Carter needs to know on that night on the radio: "are you pretty?"

"Not bad" - she answers, with a kind of shrug. If she was prettier she might be offended, less pretty she might feel bad about lying. But she's Kim Hunter, and she's the working definition of 'the Goldilocks zone' (2), i.e. she's "not bad." You can introduce her to the family and the guys round the pub and they'll all like her, without either trying to hit on her, or wincing and looking at you funny. She's a keeper. Just hanging out with her and Roger Livesy for tea time - while some other girls rehearse a Midsummer Night's Dream amateur production behind them, all bathed in that delicious Technicolor - is a kind of perfect paradise, one everyone is able to appreciate, since they can feel its impermanence.

Strange Love 3 - Mary Gibson for her sister's husband
(1943) Dir Mark Robson, Producer - Val Lewton

Hunter in one of her first featured roles is orphan Mary Gibson, searching for her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in the empty-ish wartime lonely noir New York City after spending most of her childhood at an upstate girl's boarding school, her tuition paid for by her sister, who owns a cosmetics company and now vanished. Mary winds up at Missing Persons Office, one of the most desolate and quietly wrenchingly sad wartime moments in B-films, carrying a sadness extra intense for being so subtle, so hard to place- just a long pan across a row of office windows, each occupied by someone reporting a missing loved one. The burly (coded lesbian?) figure who now owns Jacqueline's cosmetics company seems to have gotten Jacquieline involved with Satanists who now expect her to kill herself because she gave away her secret away to her psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), though how they found out she told him no one knows, unless Judd violated yet another writ of ethics (this is the same Louis Judd who 'treats' Irina in Cat People.) It's all very jumbled up, probably from censorship and rewrites. It matters but not too much. Though, without Tourneur directing, the mood is less cohesive in its poetry, it's still brilliant, moody but also terribly sad in ways the first Lewton films somehow avoided. It's a creeping ennui that will only get worse as the series progresses.

oooh! scary
Rooming above called Dante's (an example of the literary references that would become more and more overt in Lewton's oeuvre), Mary meets an enervated poet named Jason (Erford Gage) who falls in love with her, rather pathetically. She meanwhile falls for her sister's concerned husband, a lawyer named Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), sort of. It's hard to figure out why or how any of these people fall in love with each other, as we all we really get out of the film is the chill of autumn turning into winter. There's no real connection, just respect, and a mutual willingness to try for one.

Gregory is clearly more worldly than Jason, and this is the big city yet all these people already know each other, including Dr. Judd, Gregory, Jason - all of them used to cluster around Jacqueline, though we can't really imagine why. Maybe it's because she used to offer a kind of light in this glum melancholy dark of the city and because the best masculinity America had to offer was all overseas. Only the tenderfoots remain, those whose life is so sad they think Jacqueline is vivacious, but she's a dying star. She's imploding and the best they can do is gravitate over to Mary. Maybe to exhibit any decisive power of their own orbit would mean a draft notice in their mailbox, as if the war, some giant Molloch industrial god of death, could sense their readiness to enter maturity.

It doesn't matter, let the men be how they are. After all, we're watching the movies and not out playing softball like our mom keeps nagging us to. We, the asthmatic hay fever suffering indoor viewers, love Mary, too. She might get scared there on the elevated platform, but she doesn't panic; she doesn't cry, give up, or lose hope or faith in humanity. Even with no life experience beyond an all-girls' school, she can easily, but calmly tell Gregory off when he condescendingly tries to get her to drink milk (the ultimate echo of Victorian condescension in cinematic parlance - feel my and Anna Christie's rage here).

But the same problem Mary has with milk is what I have with the "poet" who feels it's his duty to somehow shepherd these people towards his lame insights about Cyrano's sword or whatever. Dude, poets have day jobs. Peter Carter in the last film worked in another field as well being a poet, he didn't mope around a restaurant all day looking thoughtful. I also have a problem with buying Jean Brooks as the 'stunning and vivacious' Jacqueline. She's far too glum looking for any of the Rebecca-Laura-style hype that precedes her character's sudden entrance. Sweeping around the stairwells in a black fur coat (Irina's?) and Cleopatra wig, she strikes me more like a middle-aged secretary turned cranky from waiting too long in the car. If she was even half as beautiful as the hype, it wouldn't matter if she was so dour, and vice versa. We can imagine the role really belonging to cat-eyed ("sister!") Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell, an actress who could be dour as you like but was still classically gorgeous. Was Russell's part stolen by the "this is the girl" machinations of some Illuminati old power broker with a yen for Brooks?

At any rate, like Blanche, she is Mary's allegedly charming older sister, after all, and has the same older sister authority to take over the narrative that Blanche did once she's finally found (hiding out at Judd's). Suddenly Victim shifts focus from Mary and her nocturnal search and the friends she accrues, to Jacqueline grouchy in her easy chair with the poison and the cult. "No!" she keeps saying - they won't let her sleep.  "No!" They keep trying to drive her to drink; for killing her is against their religion - it has to be her own hand. Like the roulette in Deer Hunter, it's a rather impractical metaphor for suicidal ideation (if you've ever been in the subway and just imagined putting a gun to your head, over and over, as if hitting the button on your opiate drip in post-op, then you know what Lewton's getting at.) On the other hand, it is a perfect analogy for the early days of sobriety, before you learn how to stay away for 'triggers' (i.e. "people, places and things").

7th Victim - this is what
what being a white knuckle alcoholic is like
The other riveting scene--one of the big moments--the equivalent of the blood under the door in Leopard Man--is poor Jacqueline trying to seek help from a group of theatrical performers streaming out the back door of a theater, so ready for celebration and alcohol they're still in costume. Rather than take her seriously, one whisks her up in his arms to come along for a steak and a tall drink. But she's already said no to a drink once too often. "No! No!" Incidentally, the poison scene (above) is not unlike how I used to spend my Monday mornings, trying to not to take that first morning hangover cure hair of the dog, just one to take the edge off, man; or trying to show I could be my old self in a bar with friends during the first few months of sobriety (and even now). That she makes it home and then hangs herself anyway fits the bill too, the equivalent of making it all through the morning without drinking and then, finally, you get home from work and --you EARNED it - you made it to cocktail hour!

Poor Elisabeth Russell shows up at the very end, going out on the town for the last time, even if it kills her, and we want to go with her, away from Brooks and her dour sleepless despair. Both run to death and death meets them as fast, but one is running to the pleasures that are like yesterday, and one is running neither forward, no back, but up, onto the chair above the rope.

But we needn't despair when there's still Kim Hunter's Mary, ready to step in and pick up the pieces left by her crazy older sister. Mary lives on, presumably, to teach kindergarten and marry that nice lawyer and bank her steady fire against the ever-rushing darkness of the Lewton-verse.

Though she's always willing to let some other actor else have the spotlight, would any of these three films be the cherished classics they are without her quiet anchoring grace? We can see why these men in all three films, from rising beasts to falling poets (literally in Peter D. Carter's case, figuratively in Jason's) curve their erratic journey through empty, frozen space and begin to orbit in the force of her gravity. She's a warm star in the night, a campfire in the empty desert visible from space, curbing our lost soul drifts.

Me, I curve towards Death the most of these three films, classics as they all are, because of Cardiff's blazing Technicolor. That haunting orange light is like cool hand hand on my fevered tombstone brow. When I'm wigging out on a panic attack, Hunter's voice in Death meets me as fast as the flush of whiskey used to meet my dusty stomach. In our modern age, where we fall in love with voices and words before we meet the object of our night's affections, there, in that Technicolor Cardiff-crafted warmth of her cheeks, I truly find a home,

even if--in the end--it's all just them colored lights.

1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller

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