996 (128). White Shadows in the South Seas (1928, W.S. Van Dyke)

Screened Wednesday December 23 2009 on 35mm at the MoMA Study Center, New York NY TSPDT rank #986    IMDb Wiki

A white man on a trade expedition in an exotic tropical locale abandons his greedy merchant colonial companions to shack up with a native girl. He learns her people's ways and warns them of the encroaching enemy that threatens to wipe out their culture. All of this is presented in a groundbreaking cinematic format that will redefine the standard of motion pictures to come. Sound familiar?


This 1928 Tahitian excursion was the first MGM sound film (as well as the first to feature the famous MGM lion in the credit roll). Swap 3-D for sound innovation and you pretty much have a Tahitian template for Avatar.  Not saying that James Cameron knowingly ripped off the plot; it's pretty much self-flagellating post-Colonialist drivel, the Eurocentric bullshit that even Terrence Malick isn't immune to. But at least instead of James Horner muzak, we get William Axt and David Mendoza's sub-equatorial symphonic jazz score (listening to it, you can practically see the palm trees swinging languidly in the breeze - trimmed with Art Deco tinsel):

This production was set to be Robert Flaherty's first feature for a Hollywood studio, but (as notes following the break detail) his ethnographic philosophy and methods clashed with his professional crew, led by assistant director W.S. "One Take" Van Dyke (The Thin Man). Flaherty eventually left the shoot (later to return to the Polynesians with F.W. Murnau to shoot Tabu) and Van Dyke took over, completing the shoot in swift succession and delivering what in many ways is a quintessential Hollywood entertainment: exotic adventure, love, gunfights, technical innovation,  spectacle linked to pseudo-liberal social consciousness. Plus giant killer clams and a the unforgettable sight of a body washed ashore covered in horseshoe crabs.  The film also skirts the issue of language barrier that forced Cameron to invent a whole new language, as White and Tahitian silent dialogues are translated into the universal language of English subtitles. Only in the movies, indeed.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of White Shadows in the South Seas among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean Gehret, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Jean-Paul Le Chanois, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Luis Bunuel, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)


Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who pioneered the documentary form, and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as "One Take Woody" because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty's filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary (BothNanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete) and yet these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).

Rumor has it that Thalberg bought Frederick O'Brien's book because he found the title intriguing and not because of its powerful story which was a bitter denunciation of white civilization and its destructive effects on the lifestyles and cultural traditions of a Polynesian paradise. The central focus ofWhite Shadows in the South Seas is Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue), an alcoholic doctor who is shanghaied by an unscrupulous pearl trader and winds up being marooned on a Pacific island where the natives have never seen a white man before. As time passes, Lloyd is revered as a god but eventually his corrupt nature and inherent greed brings about the destruction of the island community through alcohol, lust, and disease.

Flaherty agreed to direct White Shadows in the South Seas because he was friends with the author Frederick O'Brien and was recognized as an expert on Pacific Island culture (He had spend over 20 months on the island of Savai'i in the Somoas filming Moana). Van Dyke was brought on board to head up the technical unit and the entire crew traveled to the island of Papeete in Tahiti for filming. Right from the beginning, things began to go wrong. The unit's interpreter was arrested a day after the crew arrived due to a past run-in with the local authorities. That situation immediately made the islanders suspicious of the movie people. Complicating the situation were tropical downpours that delayed filming, a climate that quickly spoiled food and basic edibles, and the unavailability of portable lights and generators for location shooting. And Flaherty's slow, meticulous method of filmmaking was trying the patience of the entire crew. In W. S. Van Dyke's Journal, the assistant director wrote, "Everyone hates everyone else's guts. They are fighting like mad. Flaherty doesn't know a thing....I have never seen a troop in a more deplorable condition. I am spending my days running around trying to pat them on the back and telling them to carry on as we will get home all the quicker. They are not sore at me, and when I am shooting they behave alright, but the minute Flaherty starts in, they start."

- Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies

[W.S. Van Dyke's] writing expresses a desire to sever any links to Tahitians, "half-castes," Chinese - that is, those who cannot be assimilated into a self-reflecting sense of unified American and masculine selfhood. He writes to Chippo, "This place is sure a degenerate's paradise. Some of our gang are wallowing in it... These natives represent a very little different strata to me than the negro. And they smell about as bad except when they are all daubed with perfume."

For Van Dyke, shooting his film far from home, the islands refused to provide any object that he could seize upon, identify with, or offer up as an example that embodied the preconceived illusion of tropical paradise that continued to dominate in the US at the time. In his journals, Tahiti appears as a depressed and fallen place that encompasses the extremes of Dante's vision: paradise is called a "hell hole." Soon the metaphorical relationship between sexual and cultural alienation becomes even more closely interwoven, and the blurring of vice and disease is made explicit, perhaps thinly veiling a reference to Van Dyke's own strict sexual abstinence and the disappointed myth of potent primitive sexuality: "The men have the right idea down here. Everything droops. Even the foliage... Everything is tired. There doesn't seem to be a semblance of a native life left on the island. Everything is of the bastardized variety. The natives are not altogether French and the French are only partly native."

This bastardized offspring of colonial mixing seems somehow the fault of Tahiti itself. It is this impure, sexually fallen and literally infertile - "drooping - reality that the director finds himself constantly in need of disguising, making up, smoothing over and revitalizing in his film. White Shadows in the South Seas ultimately highlights the ways that film images can encode the relationship between desire and representation: appearing to penetrate the truth of the "passive" peoples and landscape of the South Pacific, it succeeds not so much in capturing others as in representing the idea of otherness in the US imagination.

Jeffrey Geiger, Facing the Pacifc: Polynesia and the US Imperial Imagination. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Opening credits, found on YouTube. "First time we heard the [MGM] Lion roar."

HISTORICAL REVIEWS (Courtesy of Silents are Golden)


A picture ravishing to the eye and appealing to the heart has been made in the South Seas. The theme is the destructive civilization that white men bring into the lives of the natives - destructive to happiness, and even to life. Almost all the actors are natives, with the exception of Monte Blue and Raquel Torres who have the leading roles. Monte is excellent as the vagabond doctor who tries to save one tribe of natives from the white shadows. And Raquel Torres, as the island girl, is so good and so sincere that I couldn't believe she was an actress. See this by all means. It's an absorbing story played against beautiful backgrounds. And it starts off with some pearl-diving scenes you can't afford to miss.

PHOTOPLAY, August, 1928:

If this opera has not gone to sleep under a cocoanut tree, it would have been the greatest South Sea drama ever filmed. This is the film that was started by Robert Flaherty. And the cameraman has caught rare beauty with his lens. Pearl diving and its perils are shown in wonderful under-sea shots and, although drama dies with the sinking of a plague ship in a thrilling typhoon, interest is sustained by a gorgeous travelogue.

THE FILM SPECTATOR, June 23, 1928:

Nothing finer than "White Shadows in the South Seas" ever has come to the screen. It is a Metro picture, directed by W.S. Van Dyke and featuring Monte Blue. Frederick O'Brien's charming book of the same name was the inspiration for the screen story. All the charm of the book is put on the screen. It is a soothing picture that makes one lazy, and instills a desire to dwell on a South Seas island and pick a living off a tree. We see stately palms waving their branches, languidly yielding to a lazy breeze; crescent beaches turning back rolls of foam which the sea sends to them; quiet pools which reflect the riot of foiliage that droops over their rims; brown gods of grace who glide through crystal-clear water in search of pearl oysters. We go into the homes of the nativees and see how they live, how they eat and work and play -- all things that we visualized when we read O'Brien, but which now come to us to alter our imaginings to square with facts. It is a photographic idyll of surpassing beauty, a poem which nature wrote and which the camera caught. And with it all we have a story, gripping, dramatic, that saddens us, for it shows how white men -- the White Shadoews -- grasping, debasing, went down there, destroyed the poetry in the name of commerce, and for a life gay, sweet, and innocent, traded a "civilization" that was sodden, immoral and corrupt. It was a splendid thing for Metro to do - the making of this picture - and splendidly has it done it. In it cinematic art touches one of its greatest heights. It was a big thing to do to send a company all the way to the South Seas, a venture in screen commercialism to make a great example of screen art, and so magnificently has the venture succeeded in its artistic quest that it will prove to be a commercial triumph. "White Shadows in the South Seas" willl be one of the outstanding financial successes of film hisitory, and as such should encourage Mr. Mayer to send forth more expeditions of the sort, and other producers to consider the advisability of emulating him. The picture will be a success, not because of its scenic beauty, not as a lesson in geography, not by virtue of its sociological value, but because it is a regular motion picture that makes us interested in people who move through it. It was wise of Metro to stress the story. Reduced to its essentials, it is nothing but story, the embellishments being things it picks up as it goes along. The viewer who is not intrugued by its pictorial splendor will follow with interest its romance and its drama. The viewer who can see nothing interesting in the life of the natives, will see much to interest him in the acting of Monte Blue. Monte gives a superb performance, one othat is sincere and powerful. It is a characterization of many different phases, and he is brilliant in all of them. I have seen nothing finer on the scren in a long time. This picture will bring to the front a young woman who is destined to become a great favorite. She is Raquel Torres, a Mexican, I believe, whom Hunt Stromberg discovered somewhere and gave her her opportunity. She is splendid. She has a spiritual quality that makes her screen personality charming. It is the same quality that Janet Gaynor has in such abundance, and Loretta Young, and a few others, the quality that suggests sweetness and goodness, and instills in the viewer confidence in a girl's intergrity and intelligence. Robert Anderson very capably plays the part of heavy, and there are many satisfactory performances given by natives. Van Dyke's direction is masterly. The story, splendidly written, brings out graphcially the misfortune that befell the South Sea Islanders when they were "civilized" by traders. I wish it had gone farther and shown the evil done by meddling missionaries, the unconscious accomplices of greed and alcohol in destroying a life a thousand times purer than the one that set forth to purify it.

991 (123). Lost Horizon (1937, Frank Capra)

Screened December 11 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT Rank # 962 IMDb Wiki

Frank Capra abandoned the vibrant American melee upon which he built his reputation to issue this queasy utopian treatise dressed as an exotic adventure fantasy. Shangri-la makes for both a visually and dramatically banal paradise. Proto-Bob Ross matte landscapes and manufactured nature sets alternate with knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright architecture cluttered with curios. It could be fun in a camp/surreal way if Capra wasn't so insistent that this Neverland was what Depression-era American needed, where fun times involve listening to Sam Jaffee's wrinkled Lama make longwinded pseudo-Buddhist platitudes bemoaning man's fate (I'll take spitfire banter with Claudette Colbert or Jean Arthur anyday). Jane Wyatt is easy on the eyes and Ronald Colman, that paradigm of 30s benevolent colonialism, somehow bestows dignity on his environs through his benevolent colonialist gaze. Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bring some down-to-earth Capra back to the proceedings by virtue of their charming petty-mindedness, casting the warm glow of genuine human behavior amidst the lofty artifice.

The restored version of Lost Horizon can be viewed online on Google Reader (see after the break)


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Lost Horizon among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell's Film Guide (1985) Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, Balaio (1996) Alain Resnais, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993) Leslie Halliwell, A Nostalgic Choice of 100 Films from the Golden Age (1982) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004) New York Times, 100 Recommended Children's Movies (2002) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) Various Critics, Book - 501 Must-See Movies (2004)


Tim Dirks offers one of his patented enhanced summaries on Lost Horizon, in the Greatest Films section of his website FilmSite.org

Lost Horizon.org: "NonProfit Fan Club of James Hilton's Book and Inspired Arts"


Convinced that Hilton's novel had all the makings of a great film - fantasy, adventure, spectacle - director Frank Capra convinced Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, to advance him $2,000,000 for the production. Together with scenarist Robert Riskin, Capra researched everything from Tibetan culture, to language, to architecture, to clothing. Ten property men created over 700 props used in Tibetan daily life while droves of crewmen built 65 sets, raising Shangri-La over Columbia's Burbank ranch. When attention turned to casting, however, things would not move along so well. Putting Ronald Colman in the role of the elder Conway was easy enough. But casting the High Lama role would prove much more difficult. They first considered stage actor A. E. Anson, who was declared perfect after a screen test. Sadly, he died just after receiving news he got the part. Then Henry B. Walthall was chosen, but the Grim Reaper stepped in once again, before he could even be tested. After an exhaustive search, and numerous additional screen tests, Capra remembered 38 year old Shakespearean actor Sam Jaffe, who eventually got the role.

Shooting Lost Horizon took rather longer than expected. So long in fact, that the crew shot an entire film, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), during one of the breaks in the Lost Horizon schedule, and yet another picture, When You're In Love (1937), while Lost Horizon was being edited. Most of the production time was eaten up with the special requirements for re-creating the Himalayas in Los Angeles. For example, Capra shot snow scenes and airplane interiors inside a Cold Storage Warehouse, creating real snow and ice. A great move for credibility, but not so great for the equipment, which routinely froze up, cracked, split, stiffened, or shattered due to the cold temperatures of the set. Capra's shooting style also added to the delays. His habit for shooting multiple takes and angles led him to use over a million feet of film, causing constant confrontations with Harry Cohn. Though Cohn was willing to leave Capra alone to make his film, he frequently groused about the escalating costs, and at one point pleaded with the crew not to cash their checks for a week because Capra had used up all the money. The ending of Capra's Lost Horizon is one of the only glaring deviations from the novel. In Hilton's book, we are left to imagine for ourselves Conway's success or failure. In the film, Capra "relents to hope" and we are shown Conway struggling through the snow, finding the pass that will lead him back to paradise.

After a bad first screening, Capra cut the first two reels of the film completely, which made the audience more receptive. Still, at more than three hours, Cohn knew it wouldn't work, and he took control of the editing away from Capra completely. Though Capra never admitted that Cohn re-cut the film, Variety reported that it was one of the main reasons Capra later brought suit against Columbia as part of a grievance over his pay. When all was said and done, however, Lost Horizon was named one of the 10 best films of 1937 by The New York Times and later won two Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. But much like Conway's struggle to return to Shangri-La, Capra found out that sometimes you have to make great sacrifices in your search for paradise.

Turner Classic Movies

From Harrison Forman's photographs it was simple to design Tibetan costumes. But where would we find the people to wear them? Tibetans are Orientals, but taller, rangier than Chinese or Japanese. Again we had recourse to our non-Chinese but Oriental stand-bys - Pala Indians from the San Diego mountains.

Then, too, we would have to show some yaks. What the burro was to American sourdoughs of the West, the yak is to Tibetans. To badly simulate yaks, we covered yearling steers with long-haired, hoof-length blankets. To better simulate small Tibetan horses, we "haired up" the legs and chests of Shetland ponies.

- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1997. Page 192-193

Screenwriter Richard Raskin discusses the three endings of Lost Horizon

Frank Capra talks to Dick Cavett (January 21 1972) about the Santa Barbara preview of Lost Horizon which led to the first two reels being cut from the film (on YouTube):

If you saw Lost Horizon alone or in a small group - this is philosophically very important for you to hear - a small group loved the picture the way it was. We had an example of that in the projection room. One individual would be entranced by the picture. We showed it to five hundred or a thousand people; no good. The third dimension of a film is a thousand people, a thousand pairs of ears and eyes looking at it, not one pair. There is something about a thousand people that is more acute, more sensitive, more reactive that one person or two persons or three persons.

You must never judge a picture in the projection room with one or two people. The line between the ridiculous and the sublime is very wide to an individual. The more people you get the finer the line becomes between the ridiculous and the sublime.

- Capra to James R. Silke and Bruce Henstell, 1971. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Edited by Leland A. Pogue, University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Page 78.

I was a little disappointed in Lost Horizon myself. It was my idea entirely to do it, but I was disappointed in the way it came out, because I'd hoped for more. Although it's been said that it's one of my best pictures (and perhaps I'd have to agree with them), I thought that the main part of the film - I should have done better, somehow. I got lost in architecture, in utopia, in the never-never-land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on track with human beings and individuals, where I began to feel that the story dealt with human beings again. This is common, for one who wants to exploit a theme, and gives the theme too much of the story.

- Capra to Arthur B. Friedman, 1957. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Page 55.


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has no corner on the large-scale production market as Columbia Pictures proved last night when it presented its film of James Hilton's Lost Horizon at the Globe. There, and for the balance of its two-a-day run, is a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played. It is the second outstanding picture of the season—the first, of course, being The Good Earth—and, unless the Ides of March are particularly portentous this year, it need have no fear of being omitted from the golden brackets of anyone's "best ten" list.

Columbia is supposed to have spent $2,000,000 on the picture. That may or may not be true, $2,000,000 being a round and round-eyed sum even in Hollywood. But there is no denying the opulence of the production, the impressiveness of the sets, the richness of the costuming, the satisfying attention to large and small detail which makes Hollywood at its best such a generous entertainer. We can deride the screen in its lesser moods, but when the West Coast impresarios decide to shoot the works the resulting pyrotechnics bathe us in a warm and cheerful glow.

Speaking belatedly of the cast, there is nothing but unqualified endorsement here of Mr. Colman's Conway, of Mr. Horton's Lovett, ofThomas Mitchell's grand performance as the fugitive from the police, of Isabel Jewell's Gloria, H. B. Warner's moderately philosophic Chang, Jane Wyatt's attractive Sondra, and Margo's Maria. That leaves Sam Jaffe's portrayal of the High Lama, and that leaves me of a mixed opinion. Mr. Jaffe's makeup is grotesque and horrible and solid; the High Lama of Mr. Hilton's novel was mystic, ethereal, almost Christlike. Yet the High Lama must be weird to make credible Conway's suspicion that he might be mad. Mr. Jaffe certainly is weird enough. I really don't know. Maybe he should have used less makeup.

- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, March 4 1937

To those honestly concerned with the development of the motion picture as an art, Frank Capra has endeared himself above most producers of films. One after another, his pictures have appealed both to the exacting few who have demanded that the screen be bright with truth as well as vivid motion, and to the many whose demands at the box office have made the whole art of the screen possible. But in Hollywood's mushroom growth there has always been the unfortunate obstacle of a tendency to run (as in the copying of ideas, forms, effects) before one could walk, and many of the most arty attempts have tripped over this obstacle. Frank Capra never tripped because he never came anywhere near such an obstacle.

But after getting himself a name for being a sort of magician in the movies, he apparently began to take seriously a lot of things the movies (as he knew them) had never heard of. In Lost Horizon he seemed to see both a smashing adventure story and an excursion into philosophy that would stun everybody. So he and his right-hand script writer (Robert Riskin) went to work on what is all too obviously an epic.

It is mounted with elaborate heaviness, but on tissue paper. It abandons action for thought, and then spreads the thought so cosmic and wide that it cannot be any deeper than half-way tide over mud flats. The sets constructed (to life size) for the strange region of Shangri-La are alone worthy of Ahs and Ohs: the evident care in casting and acting stands our above the average run of most productions; but then there comes all this serious statement of the improbable that could be set forth effectively only in burlesque, and these random light-comedy effects that become burlesque against such a background-and in the end a person doesn't know where he is, except that he is nowhere as far as pictures are concerned. This film was made with obvious care and expense; but it will be notable in the future only as the first wrong step in a career that till now has been a denial of the very tendencies in pictures which this film represents.

- Otis Ferguson, National Board of Review Magazine, 1937. Posted on eeweems.com


Lost Horizon opened in March of 1937, the year after Mussolini annexed Ethiopia, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and the Spanish Civil War started. It was a bad time for those who believed in the egalitarianism of a pluralist society of equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Capra was among the first of the big Hollywood directors to publicly denounce fascism and its persecution of minorities. For this reason, Lost Horizon is an important film, regardless of its clunky narrative and stagey situations (some of which can be blamed on the usual studio politics which led to editing compromises), as it clearly defines the gospel of social moderation that most Americans believed in.

There are a number of curious aspects to this film that Time has brought into focus. For example, the utopia is elitist despite its best intentions. It exists as an example of passive colonialism, complete with a class structure. While the term "native" is just the de facto terminology of the era, it nonetheless reinforces the Eurocentric aspect of the fantasy. Is the story racist? No, although the weary sentimentality of "the white man's burden" is clearly evident. The Lamasery has servants, and they're all Asian. Yet while the High Lama's No. 2 man is called Chang, he neither looks nor sounds Asian (in Hilton's novel, he is Chinese). In fact, he looks and sounds like a head butler imported from the Embassy Club to complete the colonial circle.

Modernism is really built on the principle of the straight line... and when applied to thinking, can easily become fascism. Direct action appeals to an intellectual elite just as much as an escapist community such as Shangri La. Just how far is the High Lama's art community of white Europeans and their docile Asian servants removed from the penthouse of the Berlin Chancellory where Hitler and Albert Speer discussed Art and developed The Theory of Ruin Value? The Art Deco isometrics are almost identical when drained of sentiment. As the main players enact their fantasy, the rank and file become ephemeral, mere markers of geometric space.

As a drama, Lost Horizon relies on many of the conventions and cliches of the period: a man of action (Conway), a fugitive swindler (Barnard), a terminal cynic (Gloria), a buffoon (Lovett), an impulsive young man (George), a femme fatale (Sondra)... all the essential personalities for creating or continuing a castaway society. The main difference between the screenplay and the novel is that the characters are Americanized to suit the target audience. Hilton has four castaways, Capra has five... and the absconding aircraft becomes a DC-2 rather than a small "high-altitude" plane belonging to an Indian Raj. Rooted in the romantic action novel of the late nineteenth century, Hilton's story raids the supernatural elements of Rider-Haggard's She, or even H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

- Lawrence RussellCulture Court


With two sentimentalists as crafty as director Frank Capra and novelist James Hilton collaborating on a project, the results could hardly be anything less than effective, yet this 1937 film has a swollen self-seriousness that drains most of my sympathy for it. Shangri-La, seductive but stifling, plays much too close for comfort to American anti-intellectualism; more than any other of his 30s classics, Lost Horizon gives credence to reports that Capra kept a bust of Mussolini in his office through the decade. Still, Ronald Colman's grace and charm excuse a lot of directorial heaviness.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Capra was at the height of his game as a director with Lost Horizon. The film took more than two years to complete, and used what was (at the time) the largest set ever constructed in Hollywood. Lost Horizon moves at a swift pace thanks to clever editing, and features inventive cinematography and a terrific score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Coleman is perfect as the world-worn English diplomat on a fast-track political career. Jane Wyatt is charming as his love interest and one of the caretakers of the valley. And there are a couple of other familiar faces as well - or should I say, a familiar face and a familiar voice. That's Thomas Mitchell as the swindling Henry Barnard. Mitchell was a Capra favorite, appearing also in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. And you might recognize the voice of Edward Everett Horton. He plays Lovett here, but he's better known for narrating the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of TV's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Bill HuntThe Digital Bits

When director Frank Capra read James Hilton's best-selling fantasy adventure novel Lost Horizon, about a Utopian valley high in the Himalayas, he took it to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as a potential vehicle for the studio. On Cohn's approval production began and the roles started to be cast. Capra wanted sophisticated and urbane actor Ronald Colman to play the lead role. From the beginning, the director felt Colman was born to play the intelligent and deep thinking Robert Conway. Indeed, just as many felt Clark Gable was the perfect fit for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Colman wore the role of Conway like a glove.

As Robert Conway, Colman gives an elegant and poetic portrayal, one of the many highlights of his career. Young actress Jane Wyatt, best known for her role as Margaret Anderson in the popular TV series Father Knows Best (sadly, fewer and fewer know her from this show as more years go by) is cast as the enlightened young woman who is the impetus for Conway's presence in Shangri-La and his love interest once he arrives there. As one of the film's (and book's) more compelling though lesser characters is Mexican actress Margo (Mrs. Eddie Albert). She plays Maria, who by all outward appearances is a young Russian woman, no more than 20 years old, who falls for the younger Conway, George. Hers is a pivotal role in the history of the Utopian community and she does well with her part.

Lost Horizon was one of the most expensive films "poverty row" Columbia Studios had produced up to that time. But along with other Frank Capra/Columbia collaborations, it would help that organization rise above its lowly status. Alot was riding on its success, including Capra's reputation. Its anti-war sentiment got some flack by certain political view points and some of its footage hit the editing room floor upon its re-release but after all was said and done and a semi-complete restoration in more recent years, Lost Horizon has stood the test of time to become a bonafide classic in Hollywood annals.

- Classic Movie Digest

The movies have always been an escapist recreation. In 1937 when Frank Capra's Lost Horizon hit theatres, the same year the United States' economy took a nosedive in the heart of the Great Depression, the need for this escape had never been greater. Taking a cue from James Hilton's novel, Capra translates the notion of Hilton's Tibetan Shangri-la into one accessible and palatable to the Western spectator's contemporary dream, that of a return to the pre-Depression prosperity of the Twenties. Symbolic and discreet mise-en-scène allow for an easy transition from screen to mind as Capra delivers, not the Shangri-La of Tibet, but that of an idyllic Western society.

With its modern, streamlined buildings filled to the brim with material possessions of diverse Western cultural importance, Capra's Shangri-La takes the best of Western civilization and attempts to shield it from corruption by its own creators. An impressive cache of worldly goods stands in opposition to the fact that the inhabitants of the city's access to the outside world lies with unscrupulous traders who visit only rarely.

Frank Capra's delight of a film Lost Horizon, in conclusion, is clearly not a viable representation of Tibet. However, as the film is not a documentary but a fictionalized adaptation, the intent was to inspire and uplift the downtrodden American masses, not to provide accurate details of life in a faraway land. Only by using Tibet, a land shrouded in mystery and virtually unknown to the average man, as a backdrop for the film, is Capra able to give rise to the notion that a Shangri-La may indeed still be waiting somewhere to be found.

- Zelda Zador, Associated Content

The movie changes many things about the book, and some of the most significant changes take place in the role and relationship of the various characters. The book had a decent female character, the even-keeled Miss Brinklow; her substitute character here is a hysterical woman, who shrieks and acts "irrationally." Her only function in the movie is to be healed by the stay at Shangri-La. The native woman Lo-Tsen gets split into two characters -- one becomes a white woman, who flirts with Conway (the ostensible main character) but stays at Shangri-La and waits for his return. The other woman tricks the two men into leaving with her, and she ages into a horrible old hag as her reward. The annoying Mallinson becomes Conway's brother, but remains as annoying. And in a significant change for the ending, Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, where his pet woman is patiently waiting for him. The movie adds some humour between the two characters created for comic relief; one of these is still named Barnard and the other is now a paleontologist. I got a few laughs from an unintentionally hilarious scene with some Sherpas who seemed not to understand the relationship between avalanches and loud noises, which would seem to be a survival trait for mountain inhabitants. Capra's Lost Horizon also changes the structure of the frame story. The movie begins with a bang, a revolution in which our man Conway acts heroically. Later, the British authorities get updates on Conway occasionally, and then a group of men discussing his life show up to give us a new bit of his story: Conway apparently steals, lies, and acts immorally in order to get back to his utopia and his girl. The Himalayan natives call Conway "the man who is not human" but this part is totally skipped over.

Some parts of the movie work well, such as Capra's emphasis on the apocalyptic vision of the High Lama, the leader of Shangri-La. The High Lama's lesson about the dangers of militarism is not one that the world took, but it's there on celluloid, pre-Atomic Era. I also liked the idea that our Western societies are too hasty, too busy -- the High Lama calls it indirect suicide. Another lesson that could be well taken by any of us, myself included. Unfortunately, most of this sharp insight is drowned in sexism and stereotyping, as well as the contrast between the lords of lamasery, who know they are "civilized" and living in utopia, and the people living in the valley. This difference between the lamasery and the valley is much more marked in the movie than in the book, and this further undercuts whatever positive message the viewer may have gained. On the whole, Capra's Lost Horizon is more of an artifact of a certain era of film than a work of art that has worth of its own; recommended for fans of Hilton's book or Capra's career but not a wider audience.

James SchellenbergChallenging Destiny

I am currently reading Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, "The Catastrophe of Success". I'm not sure how I will be reacting when I see, or more precisely re-see, Capra's films. It is sad to read the portrait of the aging artist as a racist and anti-Semite. The split between an artist's works and the personal life of an artist has always been problematic. For myself, my favorite Capra films will probably remain from the early Thirties when the there was less of a schism between art and life for Capra. Specifically, my favorite titles are It Happened One Night and Bitter Tea of General Yen.

What prompted my writing about Capra now was reading about Lost Horizon. I don't know how the conservative Republican Capra would have reacted to the government fingerpointing, or if he would have, privately more likely than publicly, joined the ranks of several Republicans in their criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown, if not George W. Bush. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who identified as a New Deal Democrat would clearly have been critical of what occurred in New Orleans, most likely laying the blame on an administration that failed to protect its citizens. The idealist in me is longing for a real life Jefferson Smith to put things right.

What I want to share is this amazing quote from Lost Horizon. Although it refers to a fictional riot in a non-existent country, and is a criticism of British imperialism, I found this passage from the screenplay to be very appropriate at this time:

"Did you make that report out yet? Did you say we saved the lives of ninety white people? Good. Hooray for us! Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No. No, you wouldn't say that. They don't count."

Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee


As a DVD, Lost Horizon is outstanding. The commentary track with film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt is easily as entertaining as the film itself, as the two discuss the fine details and anecdotes of the restoration. Gitt also narrates a short documentary on the restoration process, which includes several deleted scenes that were recovered by the American Film Institute but not incorporated in the 138-minute cut, along with an alternate ending. An insightful behind-the-scenes photo-essay is narrated by film historian Kendall Miller, and even the original teaser trailer for Lost Horizon is included. If you're an admirer of this neglected classic, this DVD will probably be one of your favorites. And if (like me) you're not as fond of it and are more interested in film preservation, you will still find the supplements on Lost Horizon to be an illuminating experience.

J. Jordan Burke, DVD Journal

One of the most difficult tasks in screening Lost Horizon is to come up with the technical rating for the picture. I have a very deep conflict in grading the picture quality as a "D", and a very lenient grade at that. This conflict arises from the fact that the film was almost lost due to deterioration and it took many years of exhuastive efforts to restore this classic that we can now experience. Robert Gitt, the UCLA film restoration expert, spent 25 years in researching, recovering, and restoring the film to its original running time. It would seem to be rather trivial, if not disrespectful, for me to slap a "D" rating on the restored picture. What is the next best alternative when the glory of the original print is forever lost? The next best thing is the newly restored and digitally remastered picture on DVD. In short, this is one circumstance where my low technical rating should not dissuade you one bit from watching the film.

The film is presented in its original full-screen ratio and running time. Before the film begins, there is a brief insert explaining the restoration process. Apparently, the film premiered with a running time of 132 minute. However, as the film went through subsequent re-releases and showings, it was trimmed and cut to various lengths. For instance, during the re-release in World War II, 24 minutes were cut with different opening sequences and scenes to tone down from the pacifist message. By 1967, the original nitrate camera negative had deteriorated and the trimmed footages were destroyed. For the restoration, the best available 35mm and 16mm prints were combined to the original running time, all but seven minutes of the picture. To replace the missing scenes, photograph stills are used with the original soundtrack.

Despite the best available prints, the quality ranges from very acceptable to poor. For the most part, the picture is a patchwork of fuzzy images, poor shadow details, terrible exposures, and noticeable grains. However, the restoration is a huge improvement over the theatrical prints. This example is clearly illustrated in the bonus material "Restoration: Before and After Comparison," where a split screen shows how the tears and instability of the original prints have been digitally restored. It really was an eye opener.

- Van T. Tran, DVD Magazine


IMDb Wiki

There are several Ronald Colman tribute sites - by far the most impressive is the Ronald Colman Pages, which has extensive synopses of each Ronald Colman film (including multimedia clips), a lengthy biography, photo galleries and more.

Another fascinating site is the Ronald Colman Saga, in which the proprietor impersonates Colman in first person anecdotes from the actor's glory days.

Other tribute sites:

Ronald Colman.com

The Man With a Golden Voice

Suave, debonair, a gentleman hero with dashing good looks, Ronald Colman is the quintessential Hollywood-Englishman. One of the few stars of the silent era to maintain and even increase their popularity after the transition to sound, Colman was a leading man for more than 20 years, for in addition to his handsome grace, Colman possessed a beautifully cultured and modulated voice. Colman is known for roles where he is above all polite and well-mannered, but the source of his success may lie beyond his ability to portray characters who are refined but sentimental, mysterious but thoughtful. As Sheridan Morley points out, Colman's sense of humor made him stand out from other good-looking Englishmen. Moreover, Colman was a consummate craftsman; director George Cukor explains that Colman knew more about acting for the camera than any actor he had worked with.

- Charles Affron, Film Reference.com


A writer of sophisticated stage plays in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Riskin had over 20 screen credits in a career which lasted two-and-a-half decades. More than half of his work was with Frank Capra—a creative union which culminated in some of Riskin's best screenplays. Among these works are American MadnesLady for a Day ,It Happened One Night Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Lost Horizon , and Meet John Doe . Of these only Lost Horizon is an adaptation—and it is a solid translation of the novel that became a successful film that won popular and critical acclaim.

The collaboration of Capra and Riskin evidently became a vital force in creating a body of some of the best Capra films. While it is difficult to judge how much Riskin added to a Capra film, a close reading of the director's work indicates that his favorite writer probably influenced some of the satirical and sophisticated tone of the films—not necessarily changing Capra's overall vision, but polishing many of the aspects of his creation.

Some of the Riskin touch is evident in even his most atypical work, the adaptation of Lost Horizon. Two characters, played by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, were given comic characteristics that did not exist in the novel. In the 1940s Riskin became a producer-writer on his own and created the fifth in the series of "thin man" pictures, The Thin Man Goes Home , plus a film called Magic Town, a work that had many of the characteristics of a Capra picture. But the magic in Riskin's dialogue began to fade and he would never equal his best work of the past, when he had a marvelous symbiotic relationship with Frank Capra.

- Donald W. McCaffrey, Film Reference.com


IMDb Wiki




The following quotations are found on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? profile page for Frank Capra:

"Like Chaplin, Frank Capra began his film career as a simple, effective comic talent and progressed to 'message movies'. And, as with Chaplin, the populism of his later films demonstrated both a decline in humour and disturbing political ambiguities." - Geoff Andrew(The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success - his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film." - (Charles Affron(International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Nowadays, the mere mention of Capra's name is enough to make literate and learned film-writers dip their pens in bile. But when, between director and actor, you actually pump the breath of life into impossibly idealized Everymen, as Gary Cooper, James Stewart, or Barbara Stanwyck did, a powerful emotional current is given out from the screen. The fact that they have nothing to do with the real world has absolutely no bearing on that." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)

"Capra is a master of the socially significant film. His work is full of optimism, humor, love, patriotism, and respect for traditional values." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I think of the medium as a people-to-people medium, not cameraman-to-people, not direction-to-people, not writers-to-people, but people-to-people...You can only involve an audience with people. You can't involve them with gimmicks, with sunsets, with hand-held cameras, zoom shots, or anything else. They couldn't care less about those things. But you give them something to worry about, some person they can worry about, and care about, and you've got them, you've got them involved." - Frank Capra (Directing the Film, 1976)

Selected quotes from Frank Capra:

A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.

I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

During the dark decade of the 1930s, Frank Capra became America's preeminent filmmaker, leavening Depression-era despair with the laughter of his irrepressible optimism. Packaging hope for the hopeless, his "fantasies of goodwill" were as important to national morale as FDR's "fireside chats" and well-deserving of the three Best Director Oscars they brought him. Twenty years later when the CAHIERS DU CINEMA critics launched an auteurist reassessment of American films, his reputation suffered, despite the unarguable fact that his "name above the title" signified his absolute artistic control of the project, a rarity in the studio-dominated Hollywood culture of his heyday. Subsequent voices followed suit, taking great delight in decrying his work as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism and its celebration of all-American values, but the content of his films should not be judged too harshly out of the context of their time, the pulse of which Capra accurately measured. Fortunately, most contemporary critics look past the ideology to his undeniable strengths as a filmmaker.

Turner Classic Movies

The critical stock of Frank Capra has fluctuated perhaps more wildly than that of any other major director. During his peak years, the 1930s, he was adored by the press, by the industry and, of course, by audiences. In 1934 It Happened One Night won nearly all the Oscars, and through the rest of the decade a film of Frank Capra was either the winner or the strong contender for that honor. Long before the formulation of the auteur theory, the Capra signature on a film was recognized. But after World War II his career went into serious decline. His first post-war film,It's a Wonderful Life , was not received with the enthusiasm he thought it deserved (although it has gone on to become one of his most-revered films). Of his last five films, two are remakes of material he treated in the thirties. Many contemporary critics are repelled by what they deem indigestible "Capracorn" and have even less tolerance for an ideology characterized as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism, its celebration of all-American values.

Indeed, many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success—his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film. Capra captured the American voice in cinematic space. The words often serve the cause of apple pie, mom, the little man and other greeting card clichés (indeed, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes to Townwrites verse for greeting cards). But often in the sound of the voice we hear uncertainties about those very clichés.

The sounds and sights of Capra's films bear the authority of a director whose autobiography is called The Name above the Title. With that authority comes an unsettling belief in authorial power, the power dramatized in his major films, the persuasiveness exercised in political and social contexts. That persuasion reflects back on the director's own power to engage the viewer in his fiction, to call upon a degree of belief in the fiction—even when we reject the meaning of the fable.

Charles AffronFilm Reference.com

Frank Capra's career best illustrated the rising power of the producer-director that pushed the limitations of the studio system in the 1930s. Capra rose to prominence as a contract director at Columbia Pictures with his successful mixture of populist drama and sentimental comedy that defined depression-era attitudes and elevated Harry Cohn's studio from Poverty Row status to one of the Big Eight majors. Capra was suitably rewarded with his own production unit and an unusually high level of creative freedom. Producing about one picture a year, the Capra unit made quality, event pictures, not unlike the prestige films of Capra's independent producing counterparts. After the success of It Happened One Night (1934), his new five-picture contract with Columbia gave him 25 percent of the net profits, and even contained an anti-block booking provision that required all Capra films to be sold individually, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935).

Capra had adopted a "one man, one film" mantra which later generations would dub the auteur theory, which claimed that a film, like any other important work of art, should be largely the product of a single creative vision and not the offspring of a studio committee. He believed producer-director setups to be the answer to the generic, manufactured Hollywood film. He blamed the complacency of the well-paid contract directors for selling out their artistic responsibility to the studios. Ultimately, Capra concluded, the ideal position for ambitious, creative filmmakers was in independent production.

J.A. AberdeenHollywood Renegades

The rise of Frank Capra from sickly, abused, impoverished Sicilian immigrant to what one of his sons calls "a shaper of how we view America" is the subject of Kenneth Bowser’s Frank Capra’s American Dream. This biography, produced by Tom and Frank Capra, Jr., attempts to replace the simplistic image of Capra as a sort of undiscriminating, sentimental populist with a more complex reality.

What emerges from these interviews and film clips is an illuminating, if mostly uncritical, portrait of a tragically conflicted personality whose work, more than that of many directors, is barely veiled autobiography. The Capra seen here joins his fictional counterparts — Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe — as an Everyman whose sudden wealth and fame, those driving myths of the "American Dream" that was Capra’s eternal subject, nearly destroy him.

Gary Morrisreviewing Frank Capra's American Dream by Kenneth Bowser, Bright Lights Film Journal, December 1998

On January 9, 1999, during the annual American Historical Association (AHA) meeting in Washington DC, The Popular Culture Association, Film & History, and the AHA co-sponsored a conference session on the films and legacy of Frank Capra. The session was titled "Frank Capra's Populism: Timebound or Timeless?" Capra's films have made an indelible impact on 20th-century America, serving as both commentaries on and artifacts of American culture. Few historians are more able and competent to analyze them than Robert Brent Toplin, Lawrence Levine, and Dan T. Carter.:

Robert Brent Toplin: We remember Frank Capra for his fundamental optimism reflected in his movies. He expressed a faith in democracy, a confidence that good people could reform their society and their government, and make things work. He expressed a faith in the common man, the common woman—expressed in the movies often with the term "the little guy." These little guys and gals often came from small-town America, and they went up against the metropolis, usually represented by New York City. He seemed to suggest that these little people could succeed, to a degree, that they could make a difference; that they were not helpless as pessimists tend to conclude.

I asked the young men and women in my university classroom, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to discuss the relevance of Capra's perspectives for the nineties and I actually taught a class there with Frank Capra Jr. who runs the movie studio in the town. So we are asking about the relevance of Capra's perspective to the late nineties.. One student wrote the following – "Is this thought still relevant today? I argue, no. As a member of my generation, we know that the American Dream is dead. Another wrote, "I think that this populist vision is irrelevant today because people have lost faith in themselves, lost faith in the idea that they can make a change. People see themselves as helpless against the major issues that plague our country." So it should be evident that there's plenty of room for discussion about the relevance of Capra's vision, for the thirties and forties and for today.

Lawrence Levine: Capra, whose populism was always more cultural than political, was always one of those forces—and I use this term advisedly—forces that help to fix this image of the idyllic small town indelibly in our collective fields of vision. And he did it, interestingly, he did it while hardly ever actually depicting this cultural epicenter in his films. This immigrant from Italy attempted to explain America by portraying another series of immigrants, not from abroad, but from America’s small towns and villages, trooping into the great cities and immediately undergoing a cultural trial by fire. Thus, in Capra’s films we learn about the virtues of small-town life—and I think this is significant—we learn about the virtues of small-town America secondhand, not by actually seeing them and experiencing them, but much as Capra himself did in his own life, we learn about them by hearing about them. A salient paradox of Capra’s career was that he became one of the nation's most effective champions for small-town American way of life he himself never directly experienced.

Capra has frequently been accused of anti-intellectualism—a term that we often employ loosely and extend to cover struggles over intellectual legitimacy which is not quite the same thing as anti-intellectualism. There have been struggles throughout our history over intellectual legitimacy. Capra clearly felt that he was engaged in just such a struggle, "I’ve never had a very good standing

Crowd scene in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. 28.8K56K

among American intellectuals with my films. Certainly sentiment is an almost verboten emotion with the intellectuals. . . . It’s perhaps too common, too ordinary . . . . Perhaps it’s too simple." The cultural significance of Frank Capra is that throughout the crisis of the 1930s he reiterated the virtues of traditional American values, not in the defensive tones of many of the old stock Americans but with an aggressiveness borne of his own newness and his own marginality, and initially born of his deep optimism. "I fell in love with Americans, just fell in love with them. These goddamned Americans I thought, they were so free on their own, individuals, not taking their hats off to anyone. If somebody got sick they’d do something about it, I thought Americans were the gods of the world." [Walter Karp, "The Patriotism of Frank Capra," Esquire 95 (February, 1981), 34.]

Capra had grave doubts about, and criticisms of, large-scale corporate enterprise. In most of his Depression films, he found ways to reproach powerful capitalists for their values and their actions. Nevertheless, Capra’s films seem to imply that the problems Americans faced were due less to imperfections in the system than to human fallibility: to madness, irrationality, selfishness, greed. The crisis of the Great Depression challenged the soundness of the system and Capra responded, not as the Populists of the late 19th century had, by demanding changes in the political and economic system, but rather by reasserting his faith in the traditional verities and demanding changes in the individual. In his defense of traditional values and lifestyles, in his fear of the dangers of large institutions, in his preoccupation with old-fashioned individualism, in his search for community, in his concentration on the themes of regeneration and redemption, and indeed in many of his contradictions and confusions, Frank Capra was representative of many aspects of his time and his culture and, for better or worse, of ours as well.

Dan T. Carter: In a way, Capra film critics from the opposite side, far opposite side of the ideological picket fence, beginning with the leftists of the thirties through hardball skeptics like Richard Griffith and Andrew Sarris—they see Capra

Anti-materialism in It's A Wonderful Life 28.8K56K

through much the same lens as modern cultural conservatives. For that very reason, they criticize Capra’s films for what they saw as their sentimentality, their optimism, and their worship of middle-class bourgeois values. Above all, they recoil from, again this is what they saw in Capra’s film, his naive faith that the brave and courageous individual would lead ordinary people to respond to crises with affection, kindliness and trust. As James Agee put it in a review in 1947, "Capra’s chief mistake or sin," and he called it that, "was his refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual and that no man may deliver his brother or make an agreement unto God for him."

Still, we live in a world separated by a great divide from that of Frank Capra and his contemporaries. In part, it is that great divide between the optimism and hopefulness of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the fifties and sixties and the cynicism of today's students, as Bob Toplin hasdescribed. But even the questions asked by a newer generation of scholars of film, and I'm certainly no expert on them, seem to be changing. One has only to read the critics, pro and con, of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, and compare them with more recent works like Raymond Carney's, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra[Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996], to see the contours of these different worlds. Critics who were unhappy with Capra’s films, critics like James Agee, took them seriously as sociological documents, as representations of a world of power or as evasions of a world of power, politics, and economics. It’s not just that we live in a different time in which the issues of feminism and questions of race make these films somewhat outdated. It seems to me that under the corrosive gaze of post-modernism, these very realities have dissolved into discourses. Films which were once considered representations of reality have become representations of representations—gestures, visions which reflect the imagination of the observer, the one who is seeing the film. And so for Carney, and I suspect for the rising generation of film historians, Freud, Derrida, and Foucault are far more interesting guides to this filmic terrain than Thorstein Veblen. The personal has not become the political, it has often replaced it.

- The Journal of Multimedia History, 1999.

990 (122). A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk)

Screened December 7 2009 on Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD (thanks Gina) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #994  IMDb Wiki

Douglas Sirk's penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief.  This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn't be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it's a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it's a miracle.

This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it's luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer's club, in a scene that defies gravity. What's even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters' myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It's against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn't quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates - it's easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).

What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing.  What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn't tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there's a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it's ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance - these moments of transcendent beauty - and it's the ground that smothers them out.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Time to Love and a Time to Die among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Antonio Jose Navarro, El Mundo (1995) Enrique Alberich, Dirigido Por (1992) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) Jose Maria Prado, Nickel Odeon (1994) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: War (1993)


For more than two hours, this somber drama, taken from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and put on display at the Mayfair and Little Carnegie yesterday, goes through a labored explanation of how a young Nazi soldier, home on leave, makes love to and marries a nubile maiden amid the exploding clutter of a German city in 1944. Then, after getting the new wife settled with a nice old lady and also with child, it takes the young husband back to the front in Russia. And there it gets him ironically killed.

That's all there is in this long picture—just an account of how two youngsters fall in love, despite air raids, food rationing, gauleiters and the fact that they don't know where or how their parents are. No theme is solidly stated, no philosophical comment is implied—other than the obvious one of General Sherman, and that's what nice Germans went through in World War II.

This again is a fault of this picture—it simply does not ring true. It has an air of studied contrivance and artificiality. Lilo Pulver, for instance, is winsome as the German girl, but she acts, under Douglas Sirk's direction, with the airs and manners of a well-fed ingénue. Except for a trace of German-accent, you'd never dream she's been near a bombed German city in World War II.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 10, 1958

...Next to Le Plaisir [Pleasure, Max Ophuls, 195s], this is the greatest title in all cinema, sound or silent, and also to say that I heartily congratulate Universal-International on having changed the title of Erich Maria Remarque's novel, which was called A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, 1954]. In so doing, those dear old universal and international bandits have in effect set Douglas down in a circus which Boris Barnet would have been prodigiously happy to film, because it is ten times more battle-scarred and beautiful than Brooks's: in other words, by replacing the world 'live' by 'love', they implicitly posed their director the question - an admirable starting point for the script - 'Should one live to love, or love to live?'...

Before talking of form, let us speakof Liselotte Pulver's. Everyone scorns it. But I like it. You think she's skinny; but after all it is wartime, and the subject of the film is not: 'Off with your pullover, Lise.' For my part I have never found a German girl in the crumbling Third Reich so credible as I did in watching this young Swiss start nervously at each camera movement. I will go further. I have never found wartime Germany so credible as in watching this American film made in peacetime. Even more than Aldrick in Attack [1956], Sirk can make things seem so close that we can touch them, that we can smell them. The face of a corpse frozen in the rime on the Russian front, bottles of wine, a brand-new apartment in a ruined city: one believes in them as though they had been filmed by a newsreel Camelflex instead of with a huge CinemaScope apparatus controlled by what one must call the hand of a master.

It is fashionable today to say that the wide screen is all window-dressing. Personally, my answer to all those Rene's who haven't got idees claires is a polite: 'My eye!'. One need only have seen the last two Sirk films to be finally convinced that CinemaScope adds as much again to the normal format. One should add here that our old filmmaker has regained his young legs and beats the young at their own game, panning happily all round, tracking back or forwards likewise. And the astonishingly beautiful thing about these camera movements, which tear away like racing-cars and where the blurring is masked by the speed with which they are executed, is that they give the impression of having been done by hand instead of with a crane, rather as if the mercurial brushwork of a Fragonard were the work of a complex machine. Conclusion: those who have not seen or loved Liselotte Pulver running along the bank of the Rhine or Danube or something, suddenly bending to pass under a barrier, then straightening up hop! with a thrust of the haunches - those who have not seen Douglas Sirk's big Mitchell camera bend at the same moment, then hop! straighten up with the same supple movement of the thighs, well, they haven't seen anything, or else they don't know beauty when they see it.

- Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959. Translated by Tom Milne and Craig Keller. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.


[W]e slightly changed [the original title of Remarque's source novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die] for the non-German distribution into A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I was so insistent on this, for I felt it had to be a love story, mainly. The denunciation of Nazidom would have to take second place to the love story. You see, this picture was made in 1957. Hitler's empire of a thousand years was history. Furthermore, I thought 'die' balanced 'love' very well. And going back to my idea of a title being a kind of prologue, it announces the theme of the picture. The terrible incongruity of killing and young love. I was enchanted to see that in Cahiers Godard did get the point, and made the title almost the base for his excellent and unusual review [...] What was interesting to me was a landscape of ruins and the two lovers. But again, a strange kind of love story, a love conditioned. Two people are not allowed to have their love. The murderous breath of circumstances prevents them. They are hounded from ruin to ruin. The lovers have nowhere to go for their love. Do you remember the scene in the hold restaurant? The lovers are imitating the joyful life of a lost past. There is a moment of happiness. Seemingly. There is food. There are friendly lamps. There is light. Their love has restored the world. Bang! It is destroyed. I was striving for this relationship between their love and the ruins. I hope it came off: the portrayal of this young and desperate love. Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances."

- Douglas Sirk, in Jon Halliday's Sirk on Sirk, pp. 141, 144. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet

"Life is the most melodramatic story of all," said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical - about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after a daring act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?

- Tag Gallagher, in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.

Sirk's motives for returning to Berlin seem as scrambled as those for his flight 21 years earlier. The Russian Front setting of Remarque's source novel clearly had a personal significance, as Klaus Detlef Sierck (the son who had acted in several pro-Party pictures) had been killed in the Ukraine in 1944. However, it was never entirely certain whether Orin Jannings's screenplay was a plea for the victors to understand the suffering endured by the vanquished during the last days of the conflict or whether the killing of the Good German by a vengeful Communist guerilla was intended to be Cold War propaganda.

Regardless of its objectives, this touching study of the brevity of happiness was hailed as a masterpiece by Jean-Luc Godard in an effusive Cahiers du Cinéma review that launched the Sirkian cult that still attracts copious devotees. However, German audiences deeply resented a fugitive recreating their misery, while the film was banned in both Israel and the Soviet Union. It was somewhat fitting, therefore, that when Sirk quit the States in 1959, he settled in Switzerland - which had, of course, remained neutral during the war.

- David Parkinson, Film in Focus


A masterpiece of mise-en-scene (1958) by Douglas Sirk, transforming an Erich Maria Remarque melodrama into a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world. John Gavin and Lilo Pulver are lovers who meet among the ruins of a bombed-out German town during World War II. Despite their efforts to make contact, happiness hovers just beyond their reach in Sirk's metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form, of the sort possible only in Hollywood. 132 min.

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

Under the opening credits of Sirk's penultimate masterpiece, set during World War II and filmed on location in Germany, the camera rests on the branches of a tree, its blossom forced early by the heat of a nearby bomb blast. It is the perfect symbol for the love between John Gavin's German soldier on leave and a barely remembered childhood friend, Lilo Pulver: a love forced by the everyday facts of war. This superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel rests on a painful symmetry between the scenes at the Russian front and the central section in the half-ruined home town, and on a typically tough-minded acknowledgment of the irony that the doomed romance exists not in spite of the war, but because of it.

Time Out

In a way, the lack of a well-structured plot is a minor quibble, as the attraction of A Time to Love isn't in its story, it's in the fusion of the melodramatic with the nihilistic. The film is full of grimly beautiful imagery. Early on in the film Ernst's regiment makes its way through a frozen village, and discover a withered hand reaching out from beneath the snow. An argument occurs about whether or not the dead soldier the hand belongs to is a casualty of the November or January campaign that is almost blackly humorous. As the soldiers dig him out, a young private remarks that the corpse appears to be crying, to which Ernest responds 'His eyeballs were frozen. They're thawing now.' This kind of darkness pervades the film, particularly in these early moments with the frontline troops, who are represented as wearily cynical of the ongoing campaign…

The visual layout of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is much like Sirk's previous melodramas. Shards of light slice through frames, wrenching the characters away from each other; scenes are colour-coded to the emotions of the characters and tone of the world (here, mainly dull grey, brown and white); small camera movements track and nag the characters. Its emotive, heightened, passionate – the score swells and climaxes, the cinemascope photography is brilliantly vivid; the frames are filled with material detail. Its part of what makes Sirk's films so seductive – they are beautiful to look at, almost distractingly so. What is particularly interesting – and impressive – about this film is the way this aesthetic plan is mapped onto wartime Germany. Costumes and props look authentically worn, the characters are all suitably bedraggled (with the exception of the star couple). There is a lot of location shooting, amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble and muddy battlefields, but Sirk still manages to maintain his highly composed, painterly look. The emotional desolation of the characters bleeds into the landscape, and vice versa: the realism of those bombsites is harnessed into the melodramatic project.

Adam WilsonDVD Outsider

Remarque was a solid but second-rate writer who tended to recycle his own material; he turns up in Sirk’s movie as a forbidding-looking Professor who does a bit of preaching about God and responsibility in one heavy-handed scene toward the end. There are lots of sand traps like that in this script, but Sirk is a past master of handling the most dubious writing and acting and still somehow making it conform to his overall vision (surely he was made to handle the heavily seasoned works of a major writer like Thomas Mann, but Remarque will do in a pinch). There are echoes of Frank Borzage’s Remarque-inspired Three Comrades (1938) in the enclosing love story between Gavin and Pulver, but Sirk replaces Borzage’s warmth with his own stern detachment. He draws a charming performance from the German-born Pulver, and he tries his best with the pretty but very remote Gavin; these lovers are always ducking into cellars during air raids and either losing or stealing bottles of liquor, leaping from ruin to ruin until time, if not love, runs out.

Sirk said he liked the irony of the ending, but it comes across as a cheap attempt to copy the famous last shot of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with a love letter substituted for a butterfly. Miklós Rózsca provides a stormy score that fits the forties time period, and the film has some amusing casting: A young Klaus Kinski has a film-halting bit as a Gestapo agent, and Dorothea Wieck, who played the sensual lesbian schoolteacher in the Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931) turns up briefly. The scenes depicting Gavin’s despicable Nazi school-hood friend are strangely handled, mainly because Sirk seems more interested in ridiculing the vulgarity of fascist cultural taste than in any more sweeping moral denunciation. This isn’t one of Sirk’s best films, but it is most likely one of his most personal. He was separated from his son by his first wife, who had wholeheartedly joined the Nazi party, and this lost son later died on the Russian front. In the last scenes of the movie, Sirk shows us several blond-haired boys ready to go off to war, and you don’t have to know his history to be moved by their forgone fate, or the artist who could use a small part of his own personal pain as a fully justified grace note in this, his penultimate Hollywood production.

Dan CallahanThe House Next Door

Like the rough trilogy of films based on James Hilton's novels (Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest), A Time To Love And A Time To Die is suffused with the inter-war desire to escape time - an escape that Sirk equates with his own characteristically intoxicating cinematography, with the result that Sgt Ernest Graeber's (John Gavin) search for his parents during the two-week long furlough that relieves him from the black-and-white monotony of the Russian Front is effectively the search for Technicolour; or, alternatively, the desire to immerse himself in a fantastic distance from the ravages of war that becomes continuous with cinema itself, as evinced in one of its surrogates - a wedding night in which his new wife, Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) throws glasses against a wall because she "saw it done in a movie once", as well as the final, glassy screen, which beautifully combines his reflection with a confirmation that this intoxication is still just out of reach. As a result, all its surrogates - 'no such places', culminating with a suburban kitchen that has miraculously escaped desecration - fall short of the lurid aestheticism expected of Sirk by this stage - with the possible exception of the violent, periodic incursions of fire, whether literally or as an object of conversation, which tend to suggest that Technicolor can now only exist as an index of sheer horror - as if his irrealistic proclivities were so strong as to only admit of being indefinitely and tortuously postponed, rather than categorically excised.

Billy StevensonA Film Canon


Maybe it's the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love... seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That's not to say it doesn't avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn't preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. That's also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times

After making a series of vibrant melodramas in the United States (such as “All That Heaven Allows”), Douglas Sirk returned to his native Germany to shoot the bitter Second World War story “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. A Wehrmacht private (John Gavin)—a good German, disgusted by Nazi atrocities—returns from the Russian front to his bombed-out town, falls in love with the daughter (Lilo Pulver) of a German dissident, and mixes with both committed Nazis and resisters. The romance has its longueurs, but both the battle and the home-front scenes, in which traces of beauty and friendship struggle against an overpowering sense of loss, are unusually well sustained and bitterly intelligent. Remarque himself appears as an anti-Nazi teacher who tells the hero that if he doesn’t return to the front his family will be threatened. Remarque knew what he was talking about: his sister was executed by the Nazis in 1943 as revenge against the writer, who was living in the United States.

- David Denby, The New Yorker

It was the penultimate Hollywood movie of the great German stylist Douglas Sirk and, like all his American films, the reputation of this quietly authoritative, initially undervalued picture has steadily grown since the 1960s. John Gavin plays the central character, Remarque himself has a small role as a liberal schoolteacher and the unforgettable ending echoes All Quiet. The movie has a poignant subtext. Sirk's son, a beautiful child star raised as a Nazi by his first wife, died fighting on the Russian front. The film is accompanied by a booklet and three worthwhile documentaries.

- Philip French, The Guardian

Adapted from a novel by EM Remarque (who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), this is perhaps the bravest and most beautiful of war films. There are many movies that remind us War Is Hell but few with the courage to humanise the losing side. Sirk was always a more restrained director than his reputation as master of melodrama suggests; here he eschews easy sentiment and emotional bombast and his film is all the more heartbreaking for it. He does more than show the horror of war; he evokes its anguish.

- Movie Mail

On one hand A Time to Love and a Time to Die is a great film, gorgeously photographed and really well written but, on the other, it fails to convince because of the cast. John Gavin is about as American as you can get so doesn’t really pass as a German soldier and there are so many Americans in the cast (including Keenan Wynn – Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove) that they look like Americans in German uniforms, not German soldiers. Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver is a different matter, sounding German and putting in a fine performance.

- David Beckett, My Reviewer.com

The film's urgent anti-war message is best captured in the premature bloom of tree blossoms in the hometown, caused not by nature but by the bombings. As for the film's belief in humanity overcoming evil, the answer it comes up with is taken from the lips of Erich Maria Remarque: "Without doubt, there would be no need for faith." There is a strange universal beauty found in the unlikely Hollywood film about a WW11 German soldier as the hero. The beauty is in the empirical images of the fearful symmetry between the horrors at the Russian front and the hometown in partial ruins, and in the doomed romantics trying to overcome the world gone crazy around them.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

An ordinary love and unexceptional people for the first time in Douglas Sirk. They watch what's happening around them with wide startled eyes. Everything is incomprehensible to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the lunacy. In a situation like that love is the least complicated thing of all, the only thing you can understand. And you cling to it. But I wouldn't like to think about what would have happened to them if John had survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the décor. No one can make a film about war, as such. About how wars come about, what they do to people, what they leave behind, could well be important. The film is not pacifist, as there is not a second which lets us think: if it were not for this lousy war everything would be so wonderful or something. Remarque's novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die is pacifist. Remarque is saying that if it weren't for the war this would be eternal love. Sirk is saying if it weren't for the war this would not be love at all.

Bruno AndradeSigno do dragao

988 (120). The Bells of St. Mary's (1945, Leo McCarey)

Screened November 28, 2009 on Artisan Entertainment/ Republic Pictures VHS borrowed from the New York Public Library TSPDT rank #978 IMDb Wiki

Leo McCarey's sequel to Going My Way ruled the 1945 holiday season, outgrossing every film up to that time save Gone With the Wind.  Mixing gentle convent comedy, spiritual melodrama, and hints of romance between its megastar leads Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, it was primed to be The All-Time Christmas classic movie. It's a Wonderful Life has since taken that title, while Bells has receded into pop culture obscurity, considered too square for contemporary tastes. Time Magazine's Richard Corliss even denounced it as the worst Christmas movie ever, for what he saw as the film's sanctimonious tone and shamelessly manipulative plot twists.

And yet there are those who consider it one of McCarey's finest among a body of work that boasts an unparalleled handling of both interpersonal ethics and the blossoming of romantic feelings. The two themes are more deeply interwoven here than perhaps any of his other films: Crosby's priest and Bergman's nun develop complex feelings as they shepherd their students, regarding each other with jealousy that shifts imperceptibly into admiration, and possibly more.  McCarey's achievements are  especially exquisite given that a) he's dealing with taboo feelings between a priest and a nun with the utmost below-the-surface delicacy; b) he had to mold emotional subtext into Crosby's monotonously smug countenance.

The film ambles at an incredibly relaxed pace, resting comfortably in its spaces almost to the point of stasis. I haven't come across any comparisons between postwar McCarey (An Affair to Remember) and Carl Dreyer (Ordet; Gertrud), but the two seem to have much in common in terms of how they allow complex feelings to unfold over gentle, drawn out dialogues in flat interiors, where space collapses and it's just people in communion, breathing the same air. Likewise, this is a film that invites you to breathe with it. It benefits greatly from having one of the most open actors in film history embodying its philosophy onscreen. Bergman's like a child in this film, her presence so organic and unmannered, eyes watching, reacting to lines of dialogue as if hearing them for the first time. The sequence where she teaches a student to defend himself while simultaneously figuring it out herself with a boxing manual is one of the most joyously playful pieces of acting on celluloid. It's her attentiveness and conviction, not just to who her character is, but to the moment she inhabits - a moment handled like a divine gift in which she can learn, love and grow - that combines the best of what Bergman and McCarey stood for.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Bells of St. Mary's on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997) Luis Maria Delgado, Nickel Odeon (1997) Manuel Summers, Nickel Odeon (1994) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)


The Bells of St. Mary's (RKO-Radio) is Author-Director-Producer Leo McCarey's Ave-singing sequel to his highly successful and heavily Oscared Going My Way. Bells doesn't ring with quite as true a pitch. Even with Bing Crosby's lackadaisical agility, Bells somehow lacks its predecessor's style and grace. Most important missing ingredient: Barry Fitzgerald. Most important compensations: Ingrid Bergman and a five-year-old friend of McCarey's named Bobby Dolan.

None of the good things in the picture has much to do with the story. The best of them is the children's Nativity play, in which Bobby Dolan, son of the picture's musical director, doubles in the roles of St. Joseph and narrator. Bobby, catching his breath with a long wheezing intake, says, "Oh—this is Mary and I'm Joseph. And we came to Bethlehem to see if we can have some place—find some place to stay. And that's all you have to know really." In the stable, an angel sits on a ladder and wise men and shepherds stand by and wonder as the Christ Child—an 18-month-old— stands up and waves to the audience from a clothesbasket. The play's "dialogue" was made up by a group of kindergartners after Director McCarey gave them the rough idea. McCarey claims "it was one of the most difficult sequences" he ever directed. But it was worth the trouble.

Good shots: Bergman teaching a small boy to box; Crosby adding to his singing repertory of Latin with O Sanctissima, and embellishing the nuns' dingdong chorus of The Bells of St. Mary's with a low-down "Ring dem bells!"

- Time Magazine, December 10, 1945


Since I'm playing Scrooge with this list, I'd better begin with a declaration: I love Christmas, the idea of it, and Christmas movies too — the good ones. But some holiday-themed films take advantage of our better nature, and one is director Leo McCarey's officially-loved sequel to his Oscar-winning Going My Way. This time easy-going Father O'Malley is assigned to a school run by severe, skeptical Sister Mary Benedict, and they clash over the priest's liberal handling of the students. It's basically the current movie Doubt, but with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep roles, and without the accusations of pedophilia. Bells escalates from religious sanctimoniousness to emotional blackmail — a climax at least one notable reviewer finds a litmus test for critics' humanity. "If you don't cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis," Joseph McBride wrote in 1973, "I never want to meet you, and that's that." I've met Joe McBride, and I respect the heck out of him; but nothing in this treacle pudding of a film makes me cry, except in despair, and that's that.

- Richard Corliss, "Top 10 Worst Christmas Movies", Time Magazine, December 23 2008

Going My Way is probably the worst of McCarey's major films—obvious, coy, fearsomely sentimental—but Bells is one of his finest, a film so subtle in its romantic exposition that it's halfway over before you realize what it's about: a priest in love with a nun. Seldom has a sequel so completely transcended its predecessor: McCarey's invisible hand, nudging the narrative more than directing it, turns looming cliches into the most refined, elusive feeling.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

The Bells of St. Mary's works much better for its battle of wills between a parish priest and a head nun than the dopey musical interludes that pepper it, but Bells is still a winning, emotionally satisfying film. This sequel to Going My Way has Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) taking over the St. Mary's parochial school and finding himself at loggerheads with Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman, looking gorgeous even in a habit). There's a wonderful balance to all of this: O'Malley takes a more worldly approach to administration and is wrong just as many times as the nun is when she insists on a more biblical approach. About four subplots suffuse the film, including the story of a young charge from the wrong side of the tracks, and the deteriorating state of St. Mary's in the shadow of a brand-new building (the owner is played by the avuncular Henry Travers). A dear film.

--Keith Simanton, Amazon.com

Does The Bells of St. Mary’s still work?: Not really. Watching the film again, the two words that kept springing to mind were “quaint” and “cornball.” The Bells of St. Mary’s is so committed to making the audience feel good- whether it’s through gentle laughter or easy tears- that the film never has any edge to it. At the beginning of the film, O’Malley is warned about the strong-willed nuns, but aside from a few heated discussions over how the school is run, little becomes of this. Likewise, the episodic nature of the story isn’t a problem, except that all of the subplots are resolved in the easiest and most predictable way possible.

Consider the story of Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers), the rich man and city bigwig who is erecting an office building next to St. Mary’s. Bogardus, like so many other rich men in movies, only seems to think about money, while the nuns pray in the hope that he’ll turn over the building to them to use as their new school. So O’Malley does a little scheming, and after Bogardus falls ill, the nuns’ prayers are answered, with Bogardus requiring surprisingly little convincing to make a gift of his not-inexpensive new property. This wouldn’t be so bad except that every subplot in the film is resolved in much the same way.

In addition, the film’s characterizations are almost distractingly thin. O’Malley doesn’t play any notes that he hadn’t already played in Going My Way, and none of the supporting characters show any real depth. Most disappointing is Sister Benedict- the film sets her up as a formidable rival to O’Malley, but none of this pans out. Instead, she becomes practically saintly, as she sticks to her principles, has Job-like patience with her students, and prays for Mr. Bogardus. Even when she does something questionable, such as teaching a picked-on boy how to box, she does so for all of the right reasons. It’s a shame, since as Bergman plays the character it’s easy to imagine how, with only a few script changes, Sister Benedict might have been interesting and multi-dimensional, rather than the sanctimonious cipher we see in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

- Paul Clark, Nerve

It should come as no surprise that McCarey, the man who first teamed Laurel with Hardy, is able to find delicate humor in the most unlikely of places. O'Malley's arrival at St. Mary's is shown as a calamitous series of sight gags capped off by the original, and funniest, cat-in-the-hat. Other laughs come from a yawning dog in church and a performance of the nativity story by an all-toddler cast.

In "Going My Way", Bing is up to his big ears in a vat of sentimental goop almost on par with either visit to "Boys Town". "The Bell's of St. Mary's" is anything but cloying. It's insightful, heartfelt and in many ways more uplifting than "It's a Wonderful Life". It even features Henry Travers one film before gaining winged immortality as Capra's Clarence.

Finally, this from imdb.com to further underscore the director's intention of making his film a romantic love story. "The production was overseen by a Catholic priest who served as an advisor during the shooting. While the final farewell sequence was being filmed, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman decided to play a prank on him. They asked director Leo McCarey to allow one more take, and, as 'Father O'Malley' and 'Sister Benedict' said their last goodbyes, they embraced in a passionate kiss, while the offscreen priest-advisor jumped up roaring in protest."

- Scott Marks, A Christmas Yuleblog

It's sentimental hokum shrewdly put together where songs are sung, heartstrings are tugged and everyone walks away feeling good about these caring church people. Crosby croons "Adeste Fidelis," "In the Land of Beginning Again," and the uplifting "Aren't You Glad You're You." The performances by the two stars are seamless.

Leo McCarey's aunt was the nun who was the inspiration for Sister Benedict, and the one that inspired Bergman when she met with her to research her role.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews


IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are found on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They director page for Leo McCarey:

"Blending an explosive sense of humor with unabashed sentimentality, McCarey came up with such comedy gems as Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth and such maudlin pearls as Make Way for Tomorrow and Going My Way." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"Leo McCarey represents a principle of improvisation in the history of the American film. Noted less for his rigorous direction than for his relaxed digressions, McCarey has distilled a unique blend of farce and sentimentality in his best efforts...McCarey's moments may outlive his movies...After enough great moments are assembled, however, a personal style must be assumed even though it is difficult to describe." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

"Jean Renoir once said that McCarey understood people better than anyone else in Hollywood. That facility enabled him to create warm, witty, sometimes zany comedies and gentle dramas." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I'm there behind the camera lens, I'll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world." - Leo McCarey

Leo McCarey has always presented auteur criticism with one of its greatest challenges and one that has never been convincingly met. The failure to do so should be seen as casting doubt on the validity of auteurism (in its cruder and simpler forms) rather than on the value of the McCarey oeuvre. He worked consistently (and apparently quite uncomplainingly) within the dominant codes of shooting and editing that comprise the anonymous "classical Hollywood" style; the films that bear his name as director, ranging from Duck Soup to The Bells of St. Mary's , from Laurel and Hardy shorts to My Son John , from The Awful Truth to Make Way for Tomorrow (made the same year!), resist reduction to a coherent thematic interpretation. Yet his name is on some of the best—and best-loved—Hollywood films (as well as on some that embarrass many of even his most fervent defenders).

In fact, it might be argued that McCarey's work validates a more sophisticated and circumspect auteur approach: not the author as divinely inspired individual creative genius, but the author as the animating presence in a project within which multiple determinants—collaborative, generic, ideological—complexly interact. The only adequate approach to a McCarey film would involve the systematic analysis of that interaction. A few notes can be offered, however, towards defining the "animating presence."

McCarey's formative years as an artist were spent working with the great clowns of the late silent/early sound period: Harold Lloyd, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and (especially) Laurel and Hardy, for whom he was "supervising manager" for many years, personally directing two of their greatest shorts ( Liberty and Wrong Again ). His subsequent career spans (with equal success) the entire range of American comedy from screwball ( The Awful Truth ) to romantic ( An Affair to Remember ). The director's congenial characteristic seems to have been a commitment to a spontaneous, individualist anarchy which he never entirely abandoned, accompanied by a consistent skepticism about institutions and restrictive forms of social organization, a skepticism which produces friction and contradiction even within the most seemingly innocuous, conservative projects. Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's are usually rejected outright by the intelligentsia as merely pious and sentimental, but their presentation of Catholicism is neither simple, straightforward, nor uncritical, and it is easy to mistake for sentimentality, in contexts where you expect to find it anyway (such as Hollywood movies about singing priests), qualities such as tenderness and generosity. The celebration of individualism is of course a mainspring of American ideology, yet, pushed far enough in certain directions, it can expose contradictions within that ideology: its oppressive response to many forms of individuality, for example.

Robin WoodFilm Reference.com

"I was a problem child, and problem children do the seemingly insane because they are trying to find out how to fit into the scheme of things," Leo McCarey once said.

The legacy of Leo McCarey has divided critics, many of whom seem to concur that he was better at creating isolated moments than crafting great movies. Still, he made important contributions to comedy and a handful of his films have retained their capacity to touch the viewer's emotions.

- Turner Classic Movies


His films were financial and critical successes; many—like An Affair to Remember and The Bells of St. Mary's—have remained household names. McCarey worked on nearly 200 movies across 40 years, primarily comedies. He was the first director (and is one of only seven) to have won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in the same year. Jean Renoir said McCarey "understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood."

As to his approach, McCarey told an interviewer, "I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in."

On his success: "I don't know what my formula is. I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds. I like a little bit of the fairy tale. Let others photograph the ugliness of the world. I don't want to distress people." Many of his films center on teaching scenes—one person teaches another to sing, to box, to drum, to speak on the radio—but they always feature a teacher with compassion, who forgives his student for their gaffes, forgives them their sins, as McCarey's had been for his own many failures before learning where his place in this world was to be.

He also valued quiet moments in his films, especially at the end—such as The Awful Truth or Going My Way, comedies that end peacefully, with a still, small silence. Instead of ending with a bang, McCarey's comedies end with a whisper … and we remember them. The use of silence in his endings has been compared to that of Robert Bresson. McCarey is not in the same league, but has a similar effect on his viewers in the contrast, the chiaroscuro, between the active, sometimes raucous, musical numbers and the quiet, contemplative endings.

- Eric David, Christianity Today

For a director who made a film (The Bells of St. Mary's [1945]) seen, at one time, by more moviegoers in the USA than any other to that point in history, McCarey has, oddly enough, become something of a cult figure. Among his most perceptive and vocal supporters are David Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum and, especially, Robin Wood. Though Wood's essays and Kehr and Rosenbaum's reviews have championed him on multiple occasions, virtually every extended biographical or critical essay about Leo McCarey written since the advent of auteurism either questions whether he was more than a serviceable metteur-en-scène or, alternatively, discusses his neglect and defends his career as an auteur. This essay very much follows the latter approach.

One factor that has made it difficult to champion McCarey as an auteur is that he lacks a “visual style” that is as identifiable as, say, a Hitchcock, Welles, or Sirk. Some critics, like George Morris, have argued that McCarey does have one, but to my mind the case can only be made in a limited fashion. For the most part McCarey's visual style is one that is barely distinguishable from numerous other Hollywood filmmakers of the same era, especially those directors that started at the bottom of the Hollywood ladder (in McCarey's case, as a script supervisor) and apprenticed in silent shorts and early sound features. To his credit, his mise-en-scène shows sensitivity to the meaning of objects (the graduation dresses in The Bells of St. Mary's, for instance). His cinematography is restrained, and he clearly has a fondness for using off-screen space. (Sometimes McCarey places the most important moments of his films just beyond the frame – the killing of the Nazi husband in Once Upon a Honeymoon, for example, or perhaps best of all, the lovers' first kiss in An Affair to Remember.) Beyond that, I believe the questions of McCarey's visual style – whether he has one, and if so, what it is – are not easily answerable, and this is one reason why McCarey's status as an auteur is insecure. But, more to the point, why must a director have a visual style to be an auteur? Cinema is more than a visual medium, it's a medium that exists in time, and few Hollywood filmmakers had more command over rhythm and structure than Leo McCarey.

Even McCarey's most ardent supporters would have a hard time making the case that his films can be encapsulated in the way that makes defining Ford's or Hitchcock's status as an auteur a comparatively more straightforward enterprise. McCarey's career has eras defined by substantially different concerns. His career, which began in silent slapstick and ended with works that bend genres and blend spiritual and political commentary, cannot be reduced to any one genre or theme. Furthermore, his style is one that is more sonic and rhythmic than picturesque, which makes the work more difficult to identify immediately and discuss in print. (Try selecting a still image that communicates rhythm!) And, like many great directors, he made some films that are, at first (or second) glance, bad or even embarrassing. These are mere complications, however, and a sensitive approach to McCarey's career reveals a career of tremendous growth. The recurring themes and formal motifs of his mature period are largely unique in the American cinema, and the fact that he developed them over the course of his career in interesting ways makes him undeniably an auteur. The fact that many of these works are truly great ranks him, ultimately, as a great film artist.

- Paul Harrill, Senses of Cinema Great Director biography



IMDb Wiki

Official Ingrid Bergman Website

Ingrid Bergman.org

(Both of these websites are run by Ingrid Bergman's family. The former seems to be a news and shopping site with more updates, while the latter features some multimedia.)

In temperament, Miss Bergman was different from most Hollywood superstars. She did not indulge in tantrums or engage in harangues with directors. If she had a question about a script, she asked it without fuss. She could be counted on to be letter perfect in her lines before she faced the camera. And during the intervals between scenes, her relaxing smile and hearty laugh were as unaffected as her low-heeled shoes, long walking stride and minimal makeup.

Yet this even-tempered and successful actress, who was apparently happily married, became involved in a scandal that rocked the movie industry, forced her to stay out of the United States for seven years and made her life as tempestuous as many of her roles. In a sense, she became a barometer of changing moral values in the United States.

In 1949 she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian film director, and had a child by him before she could obtain a divorce from her husband, Dr. Peter Lindstrom, and marry the director.

Before the scandal, millions of Americans had been moved by her performances in such box-office successes as ''Intermezzo,'' ''For Whom the Bell Tolls,'' ''Gaslight,'' ''Spellbound,'' ''The Bells of St. Mary's,'' ''Notorious'' and ''Casablanca,'' roles that had made her, somewhat to her annoyance, a symbol of moral perfection.

''I cannot understand,'' she said, long before the scandal, ''why people think I'm pure and full of nobleness. Every human being has shades of bad and good.''

- Murray Schumach, The New York Times obituary, August 31, 1982

The complexity of Ingrid Bergman's career (with its notorious vicissitudes), and of the image that is its product, raises a number of important issues about stars: the perennial one (but here in a peculiarly acute form) of the tensions between acting and presence; the efforts of Hollywood to construct a star according to a specific prescription and the actress's rebellion against that construction; the diverse and sometimes contradictory ways in which a "star image," once constructed, can be inflected in the work of different directors.

Bergman's partial rebellion against this image-construction was motivated by a desire to prove that she could act , and was not merely a star. When in the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde MGM cast her as Jekyll's high society fiancée and Lana Turner as Hyde's low-life mistress and victim, it was Bergman who took the initiative (enlisting Turner's cooperation) in demanding that they exchange roles. A somewhat curious accent aside, her promiscuous cockney barmaid was extremely successful (though the critics, predictably, said she was miscast).

Two of Bergman's finest performances in two of her finest films draw directly upon the natural/lady opposition: the persecuted wife of Cukor's Gaslight and the energetic and forthright nun of McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's . The latter, too easily dismissed by embarrassed sophisticates for its alleged sentimentality, is among other things, a complex and delicate study of gender roles, allowing Bergman a wide range of expression within the apparent confines of her nun's habit. Bergman's notions of being an actress (centered on a striving after obviously big acting roles such as Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls and, above all, Joan of Arc in the disastrous Fleming film of that name) were always somewhat naive; her richest and most complex performances arose not out of "big" roles but out of collaborations with directors such as Cukor and McCarey who were particularly sensitive and sympathetic to performers , collapsing the usual distinction between presence and acting ability. One may also note that, for all her efforts to establish a wider range, Bergman was quite incapable of playing a bad woman convincingly; the irreducible beauty of her character partly undermines the dismally reactionary project of Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata , the chastisement of a great pianist for failing to be a great mother.

- Robin Wood, Film Reference.com

Ingrid remembered a really good thing about playing a nun. She could eat all the ice cream she wanted. Nobody worried about her gaining weight because nobody knew if she gained any. All that showed of her, wearing the nun's habit, was her face.

"I was like a child with money, and in the country of the greatest ice cream. Later I was to live in the land of gelati, which could be very good, but somehow Italian ice cream never caught my fancy the way the American did.

"I even dreamed about ice cream. Those were good dreams, those ice cream dreams, but they were not as enjoyable as the real thing."

Ingrid not only discovered American ice cream, but she came "to know intimately sundaes and banana splits. A hot fudge sundae was an unbelieveable delight, and you could add banana and more ice cream and hot chocolate by ordering a banana split. In New York City, where I liked ice cream the best, I could eat four ice creams in a day." She frequently ordered a second dish. Then she said she had to leave and go to another place because she was too embarrassed to order a third and even a fourth portion.

- Charlotte Chandler, Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, a personal biography. Simon and Schuster, 2007. Pages 113-114

The Making of Ingrid Bergman: Some CGI Creepiness

987 (119). Strangers When We Meet (1960, Richard Quine)

Screened August 2009 on Columbia DVD in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #974  IMDb Wiki

As a card-carrying fan of Mad Men, at times I have to check my enthusiasm against the complaints of its detractors. One consistent criticism is that the series operates too much from the vantage of winking, condescending hindsight. I'll have to save the full length of my counterargument for another time, but for now,  the skinny: this critique is based on a presumption that such a thing as an authentic historical viewpoint is fully possible, much less preferable to one whose subjective filters are made plain. For me, Mad Men is less about achieving verisimilitude than it is about the making and misleading of desire, and not just the desire among the show's characters, but the desire of its audience for an idealized past. There's a fascinating dynamic between the show and its audience as they collectively explore the nature of nostalgia. Our longing for a romanticized history runs parallel to the characters' Pyrrhic pursuits of happiness.

Strangers When We Meet illuminates some of these issues concerning Mad Men.  Unlike Mad Men, it's absent of any mention of historical events or other markers, other than what's simply on screen: outfits, the make of cars, the products in supermarket aisles. The film boasts a wonderful realism that gives authenticity to its essentially sudsy suburban adultery plot. But that's not a knock on Mad Men per se - again, the historical references in the show have everything to do with modulating its contemporary audience's desire for the past as a function with our dissatisfaction with the present.  That fundamental discontent with what one has is also at the core of  Strangers When We Meet. What I find shocking about the film - and what has me wanting to board a time capsule to check my own take on period sensibilities - is that there's no moral virtue to the affair between Kirk Douglas' architect and Kim Novak's housewife.  They're basically horny and bored.  The electricity between them is not based not on mutual understanding but lust and desperation. The feeling of tragedy and loss that cascades over the ending isn't over the failure of a true romance, but of a life built upon shifting values and ethereal desires, doomed never to be fulfilled.

Who knows how audiences at the time reacted to this (maybe after Picnic and Peyton Place the door to illicit suburbia had already been flung open?). But what elevates this film beyond potboiler status into the realm of cinema is Richard Quine's attentiveness to these hollow, well-groomed spaces of affluence (it may be too easy to namecheck Antonioni's L'Avventura, made the same year, and yet there it is... there's a party sequence in this film that anticipates the one in Antonioni's La Notte, made one year later).  They're breeding grounds for bad behavior among a class that's grown accustomed and entitled to getting what they want. They're also the sites for some remarkable acting, each character treated with sensitivity to a shared plight, even as they become adversaries. Kirk Douglas gets to smash Walter Matthau's jaw after catching him trying to cheat on his wife (Barbara Rush), but the horny neighbor is really the philosophical standard-bearer of the whole block. The only thing really separating the two are degrees of tact and consent with their targets.

They both come away relatively unscathed compared to the women; both Novak and Rush have devastating onscreen breakdowns inside their domestic prisons. Novak's performance here is revelatory: whether it's great acting, or the wear of her off-screen breakup with Quine seeping on screen, there's a genuine tiredness in her eyes and shoulders that accentuates the tight-mouthed neuroses already familiar to Vertigo fans. One can almost be certain that Quine saw Novak through a Vertigo-shaped frame - he's constantly boxing her profile in doorways and other suburban outlines like a magazine ad. She's an image of perfection, searching for substance beneath a world of surfaces, including her own (notice how she scowls in true Betty Draper fashion when her lover's young son calls her "pretty").

In the end, the film maintains the same kind of ambivalence towards the objects of desire it holds up for audience consumption as Mad Men. Whether this amounts to perverse have-your-cake-and-eat-it indulgence-cum-social critique is up for argument. But I'll take self-reflexive consumerism over the blind variety any day.


The following ballots were counted towards the placement of Strangers When We Meet among the 1,000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Eduardo Torres-Dulce, Nickel Odeon (1997) Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif (1991) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Drama (1993)


There had always been speculation about the love life of the notoriously press-shy Novak with rumors of past affairs with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ram Trujillo. The romance with Quine, however, was now public knowledge but on the set it had different ramifications. In her earlier years in Hollywood Novak had been a reclusive, passive presence on movie sets such as Pal Joey (1957) but now she had gained more self-confidence and was flexing her power as one of Columbia's biggest stars. According to biographer Peter Harry Brown in Kim Novak: Reluctant Goddess, "Her experience on Middle of the Night [1959] convinced her that she was an actress to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong director (Quine) and the wrong star (Kirk Douglas) upon whom to vent her spleen. Technicians laughed behind their hands one afternoon when Kim seriously tried to give acting instructions to Douglas, who listened with a deadpan face. Off camera, he referred to her as the 'broad Harry Cohn built.' Within days, relations between the two stars became frosty and threatened to divide the company into armed camps. Kirk, usually a model of patience, began complaining about the time it took to photograph Novak from just the right angle, in just the proper light, and during just the right mood. The inference was that Quine was tilting the production heavily in favor of Kim."

In his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, Douglas recalled some of the difficulties in making Strangers When We Meet: "One morning, we were shooting a scene down at the beach. Obviously, Kim and Dick had been discussing the scene, and she was excited about a wonderful idea she had come up with. Apparently, Dick had agreed with her wholeheartedly. I listened to her argument, told her exactly why it was impossible to do the scene that way. She looked at Dick. He looked at me and said, 'You know, Kim, he's right.' Kim went berserk. She ripped up the pages, started to make incoherent sounds, screamed, went nuts. It was impossible to shoot with her for the rest of the day. The next day we shot the scene the way it was written. We got through the picture, and I enjoyed working with her, although I do think that she convinced Richard to give the picture the wrong ending. The original ending in the book, very powerful, was that after our love affair had ended, Walter Matthau, who was playing a heavy, comes to pick her up in a car, and she decides what the hell, and goes off with him. Life goes on. Instead, she preferred to spurn him, pull her trench coat up around her neck, and walk off like Charlie Chaplin. I didn't think that was the right ending, but those are the hazards of working with someone who's romantically involved with the director."

Douglas's recollection of the original ending isn't entirely accurate because HIS character is the one that calls off the affair and tries to make a go of it with his wife and family in Hawaii where an ambitious five-year project awaits him. The ending from Evan Hunter's novel (he also wrote the screenplay) wouldn't make much sense either since the Walter Matthau character was a boring lecher and completely inconceivable as the sort of man Maggie would gravitate toward to fulfill her emotional and sexual needs. The present ending of Strangers When We Meet actually rings true since none of the characters are able to escape their own private hells. So, Novak was right to sway Quine's opinion on the film's conclusion. Novak "would always refer to Strangers When We Meet as 'that great lost weekend.' (Several years later Kim reaped revenge on the actor in Boys' Night Out [1962] by having James Garner chastise a smiling friend with the lines: 'Stop showing off your teeth. Who do you think you are? Kirk Douglas?')."

- Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies

Quine had many dalliances with his actresses (including Judy Hollidayand Natalie Wood) before and after, but the affectionate way he still spoke about [Kim] Novak three decades later suggests she meant a bit more. In 1959, when they were shooting Strangers When We Meet around Bel Air and Malibu, their romance was so public that the brass at Columbia took the unusual decision to build a real house instead of a set. They bought — not leased — the plot in Bel Air where Kirk Douglas’ architect is building client Ernie Kovacs’ house in the movie. The studio planned to give the house to Quine and Novak as a wedding present, as Quine was to marry his star right after the shoot — the wrap party to end all wrap parties. But Novak panicked, bolted and left him at the altar, with only the key to happiness (he got the house).

Strangers, on the surface a mediocre potboiler by Evan Hunter about suburban life (with leering Walter Matthau as a neighbor and panicky wife Barbara Rush, we’re just a few blocks away from Peyton Place), is really about professional ambitions: The subplot involves Douglas pushing Kovacs — a best-selling author — to go for an unconventional house that would best suit who he is, just as he talks him into writing a “real novel” instead of his usual crowd-pleasing mush. Quine, a serious man mostly known as a maker of commercial pap, clearly identifies with both characters, and their scenes together are by far the best in the picture. Douglas kept seething throughout the production, feeling that Quine was keeping him at arm’s length, not only due to his infatuation with Novak, but also because of the clear complicity between Quine and Kovacs, who had worked together before. But Douglas’ frustration works for the picture and its sense of a man torn between love and responsibility, not only with regard to his family, but also his work.

There is a great scene in a Malibu restaurant, when Novak has to come up with lame excuses as to why she let herself be screwed by the supermarket bag boy (or the milkman — it’s that kind of film). You barely hear the bad lines; you just see the panic in her eyes, looking not at a furious and unforgiving Douglas sitting across from her, but beyond the camera at Quine — searching, maybe, for excuses to leave him. When she did leave, not quite at the end of the film, Quine was publicly humiliated. Some wag, in spite of the news, ordered champagne delivered to the set, which had to be returned. But the two former lovers remained friends, and even made one more film together, The Notorious Landlady, two years later.

“Kim knew she’d just lucked into stardom and was not well equipped for it,” Quine told me that day in 1987. “She knew she’d have to work at it, and she did. She was a bright and intelligent woman. She knew that for most people, she was still the gal who posed for those Thor-refrigerator ads.”

- Philippe Garnier, LA Weekly

Dear Old Hollywood has a wonderful tour of the Los Angeles locations for the film, revsited today, with photo comparisons:

To figure out this location the only thing I could match was the white pillars next to the stairs in the center of the photo. If you look in the below photo you can see the same white pillars and the stairs going up the building. If it wasn't for that detail I don't think I would have ever found this location!


Strangers When We Meet (Bryna-Quine; Columbia) discusses adultery, but instead of probing to the heart of the matter, it settles for pure tripe. Its outlook is expressed in the observation: "Anyplace you've got a housewife, you've got a potential mistress. We're slobs in our pajamas—shaving at home—but next door we're heroes."

Inevitably, Douglas' wife finds out about his infidelity, and he has to end his affair with Kim. That is all. No one is very much upset, Hollywood's point being, it seems, that if you can't take it with you, you can at least get away with it.

- Time, July 4 1960


Richard Quine's Strangers When We Meet is another distinguished moment for the melodrama as it reaches a major key. An undervalued film, Strangers differs from the major accomplishments in the genre of Minnelli, Max Ophuls, and Douglas Sirk, all of whom brought to their work some degree of distanciation, either through elaborate camera technique or exaggerated mise-en-scene. Their point was usually to give the viewer some place from which to critically analyze a film without becoming removed entirely from emotional involvement. Quine's film allows no such position, but instead uses a realist dramatic mode that, heightened in the manner of the then-popular expose - Confidential magazine is a representative if degraded example - is astonishing in its candid portrayal of the emptiness of marriage and postwar suburban life. The empathy allowed the spectator is disconcerting as the breadth of the film's condemnation becomes clear.

- Barry Keith Grant, American Cinema of the 1960s. Rutgers University Press, 2008. Page 32

Made at a time when Eisenhowerian America was on the cusp of a major shift in social mores Richard Quine’s wonderful Cinemascope melodrama tells story of an adulterous relationship in the heartland of middle class suburbia as architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) and housewife Maggie Gault (Kim Novak, who made 4 films with Quine), give way to their desire for each other. The carnality is alluded to with finesse, the main issue being, of course, the threat to their safe, apparently ideal lives and their resulting re-evaluation of their commitment/sense of obligation to it. With a strong script by Evan Hunter from his own novel, fine performances from Douglas and Novak and excellent direction from Quine who gives the characters' moral quandaries great visual resonance this remains a compelling and affecting film. Although dramatically the film is weighted a little too much on Douglas’ struggle with himself with Novak’s character being largely assumed to have surrendered body and soul to the call of love, this is, nevertheless, a treat for lovers of 50s melodrama.

- Cinephilia

The sympathetic treatment of the lead characters is enhanced by director Richard Quine's judicious use of the widescreen frame, setting most shots at a comfortable distance from the characters and cutting to close-ups only at key moments in the plot. Such remove creates the impression that Larry and Maggie are only barely comfortable in their environment, forever tempted by dissatisfaction. It also reinforces a mood of melancholy, a rueful conviction that fine belongings and lavish residences cannot compensate for emotional malnourishment.

- David Sanjek, PopMatters

I had heard from several smart critics that not only was this Quine's best work, but also a great L.A. film. Both claims are true, and anyone fascinated by the way the real city has been used in movies will be endlessly absorbed in trying to identify the many locations captured by the great Charles B. Lang's perceptive color and widescreen camerawork.

The neighborhood where the central characters live -- where Douglas and Novak first see each other, dropping off their kids at a school bus stop -- is unidentified, but would seem to be in the northeast section of Santa Monica or Brentwood. One sequence takes place in and outside the legendary Romanoff's restaurant, and for those whose memories predate the Beverly Center, the lovers and their children have an encounter at the pony ride lot that long occupied the property.

Douglas' character is an architect designing a modernist dwelling for Ernie Kovacs' neurotic, womanizing author, and one watches the house go up in the mountains above Malibu as the film progresses. And then there is Malibu itself, where Douglas and Novak commence their tryst at the now-gone Albatross Hotel Restaurant with the assurance they'll run into none of their friends way out there.

But the real issue here is the perception of a disconnect between the film's familiar melodramatic format, which is what made sophisticates condescend to it half a century ago, and the absolute emotional and dramatic truth of every scene in the movie, which render it virtually undated after all the years (it's also a pleasure to note that the film's leads are still with us).

The operative cliche is that two attractive neighbors, both a bit itchy after some years of marriage, won't be able to resist lighting a fire in their lives; the truth lies in the details of how the characters deal with their desires in a realistic context, and it's here that a one-time alleged potboiler like "Strangers When We Meet" seems more credible and mature than a committed truth-teller such as "Revolutionary Road" or, for that matter, Mendes' earlier "American Beauty."

- Todd McCarthy, Variety

Like some of the heavier suburban melodramas of the 1950s (Peyton PlaceSome Came Running, anything directed by Douglas Sirk), director Richard Quine's entry in the genre stands in stark contrast to the bedroom farces of the same period. Hollywood seemed to be walking a tightrope in the pre-sexual revolution America. Suburbia was either a repressed zone where the lid was about to be blown off middle-class hypocrisy, or it was an upwardly mobile, modern-day arcadia in which martini-fueled executive satyrs pursued nymphet housewives (not their own) for trysts at the supermarket, on the patio, or at the school bus stop. Actually, thanks to the novel and screenplay by Evan Hunter (The Birds), Quine finds some middle ground. This picture, shot in Panavision at a leisurely pace to fully capture the sunny bliss of the Los Angeles suburbs, makes the case that an extramarital affair might not be such a lark—yet it's also not the end of the world. When episodes of "Mad Men" turn from Madison Avenue to the faraway suburbs, the series taps into a rich vein of human drama that this nearly forgotten film mined long ago.

- David Pelfrey, Black and White


In the late 1950s unfaithful spouses were still classified as adulterers – of the “Thou Shall Not” kind. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s and 70s that the wanderers  could see themselves as “swingers” or “wife-swappers/husband hoppers.” The dominant look of Mid-Century modernist architecture -- with all its open spaces and transparent glass walls – lent itself to this much more open kind of marriage and relationships. Thus, it’s quite fitting that the house designed by Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) in STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET has an open-space interior but lots of Japanese-style wooden walls indoors and outdoors, which clearly keep the indoor sexual trysts with Maggie Gault (Kim Novak) hidden from view. The adulterous couple may be on a hillside out of reach of their neighbors, but they need to keep the relationship also out of sight. A decade later the window/walls of glass in MCM homes would serve as picture frames or even proscenium arches containing often very visible trysts or orgies. By the 1970s exhibitionism and voyeurism hooked up quite easily in the hills surrounding the Hollywood film industry. The dominance of Mid-Century modern architectural styles made it all the easier. Larry Coe's home design in the film combined elements of East and West (Japan and California) in a way that ensured privacy while providing great views of the hillsides and valleys of Bel-Air. Throughout the film the house, actually being built during the film's production, would become an important co-star to Douglas and Novak.

- Chale Nafus, The Austin Film Society

Richard Quine’s masterpiece Strangers When We Meet is the story of an adulterous relationship. Kirk Douglas is architect Larry Coe. Kim Novak is housewife Maggie Gault. The two are neighbors with children who attend school together. Early on, Quine films several scenes from Larry’s point-of-view, indicating the attraction he feels for Maggie. (This is particularly evident in the film’s very first scene, but it’s obvious also in a later scene where the two interact in a grocery store and, in a great tracking shot, the beautiful Maggie is revealed to the audience just as she is revealed to Larry.)

Later, Larry invites Maggie to come with him to survey a lot where he is about to build a house for a new client. Larry is standing next to his parked car as he speaks to Maggie opposite him. When Quine cuts to reverse shots of Maggie towards the end of the scene, it’s again obvious that we are seeing her as Larry perceives her; Novak is beautifully backlit in these shots. Maggie initially declines to join Larry, but eventually he is able to persuade her. “Change your mind,” he insists. In the shot in which he is seen saying that key line, Quine frames Larry with an intersection clearly visible behind him; despite the entire exchange taking place in the same location, this is the first time Quine has shot Larry in this way. Therefore, it is undeniably tempting to see the image of the road in metaphorical terms; depending upon Maggie’s answer, the two could be going down a path which will alter the courses of their lives greatly. Maggie agrees to go with Larry.

Another wonderful moment of visual metaphor comes when they meet at a seaside restaurant. It is storming outside and violent waves can be seen outside. Fittingly, Larry and Maggie acknowledge that they feel guilty about their adultery. And while neither one of them decides to end the relationship, the audience remains ill at ease with the morality of what they are doing. I believe this to be Quine’s intention. Think, for instance, of the moment when Maggie is thinking of Larry as she is doing the dishes. But her son yells, “Mom,” off-screen, asking for more milk. As Quine pulls back from a close-up of Maggie to a wide shot as she walks to the refrigerator, the audience is reminded palpably of her dual life.

Maggie’s deception of her husband is portrayed in hard-edged terms by Quine’s mise-en-scene. At one point, Maggie receives a call from Larry. She goes to answer it in the kitchen. The wide shot Quine selects for this moment includes both the kitchen to the right, the living room to the left in which Maggie’s husband can be seen sitting in an easy chair, and the wall which separates the two rooms—and, hence, Maggie from her husband. When the call is over, she says she was speaking to one of her girlfriends. (This shot, incidentally, brought to mind a similar one in Robert Mulligan’sClara’s Heart, a film which also features an unhappy married couple; the shot in Mulligan’s film has long been championed by critic and Mulligan scholar Fred Camper. The two shots are so similar that it’s hard for me to imagine that Mulligan was unaware of Quine’s film.) The conclusion of Strangers When We Meet, set partly in the fully constructed house which Larry has been building over the course of the film, ends not on a note of romance, but with two long shots: one of Larry standing atop the hill on which his grand house has been built; the other of Maggie driving away from the house.

- Peter Tonguette, The Film Journal


A shade hazy, but colors seem only slightly paled. I wish it was sharper, but I think it is acceptable. Novak seems to look great in every scene she is in, so it makes it all the harder to be critical. Black levels are very good, and as customary by Columbia now, minimal menus which I don't mind. No extras excepting the "previews" (yet again). Overall no effort seems to have gone in but the stock from the vault is reasonably healthy.

- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver


IMDb Wiki

A prolific director of over thirty Hollywood features made between 1948 and 1979, Richard Quine’s (1920-1989) career achieved a sustained peak during the 1950s and 1960s while working at Columbia Pictures. A specialist in comedy who was instrumental in launching the careers of Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon and Blake Edwards, Quine has long been overshadowed by the other great directors of late studio era comedy: Billy Wilder, Frank Tashlin and Edwards himself. Only recently has Quine been rediscovered as a filmmaker of equal rank, an artist able to infuse studio comedy and melodrama with unexpected warmth and melancholy.

Born in Detroit in 1920, Quine was already acting in Hollywood and on Broadway by the mid-1930s. After serving in the Coast Guard during World War Two, he turned to directing and quickly secured a contract at Columbia, where he began by filming a string of comedy shorts before turning to a series of musicals. During the 1950s, Quine hit his stride with such hit comedies as The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Bell, Book and Candle (1959), commercial success that continued well into the 1960s, after Quine had left Columbia.

Quine is perhaps best understood placed between two other celebrated directors of 1950s comedy: Billy Wilder and Frank Tashlin. More understated than Tashlin, Quine replaces Tashlin’s manic energy with understated charm. Although Quine shares a number of Wilder’s favorite actors, most notably Jack Lemmon, and often echoes Wilder’s striking visual realism, Quine’s films are less sour than Wilder’s. Where Wilder’s films deliver a jaundiced, biting critique of postwar America, Quine’s work thoughtfully examines the melancholy underside of American life, the drifting world of the so-called “lonely crowd.”

This unique combination of charm and melancholy, with an emphasis on the lonely heart of American society, reaches a poignant apex with Strangers When We Meet (1960), a melodrama of suburban adultery that is remarkably restrained for late Hollywood. While Quine’s later comedies grow more manic and cynical, his greatest work from the 1950s and 1960s—the focus of this series—reveal the talent of a consummate storyteller and restrained stylist.

- The Harvard Film Archive



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Kirk Douglas tribute and links page on ClassicMovies.org

The archetypal Hollywood movie star of the postwar era, Kirk Douglas built a career with he-man roles as soldiers, cowboys and assorted tough guys in over 80 films. His restless, raging creations earned him three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and one Golden Globe win for his portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in "Lust for Life" (1956). But besides his lasting mark as a seething strong man with a superhero-like head of hair and the most famous dimpled chin this side of Shirley Temple, Douglas was a Tinseltown innovator and rebel. As one of the first A-listers to wrest further control of their career by founding an independent production company, Douglas also effectively ended the 1950s practice of blacklisting Hollywood talent suspected of communist ties when he insisted on crediting famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his script adaptation of "Spartacus" (1960). Douglas maintained his position as a perennial favorite - often opposite fellow tough guy Burt Lancaster - in Westerns and World War II films until the early 1970s, when changing tastes edged the timeworn genres into the wings. He began a second career as a writer and focused on the philanthropic efforts of The Douglas Foundation, occasionally surfacing throughout the 1980s and 1990s to portray irrepressible old firecrackers in made-for-TV movies and the occasional feature.

- Turner Classic Movies

His screen persona has been characterized by resoluteness and ferocity, the typical ingredients of his steadfast, driven heroes, and occasionally the psychological foundation for his formidable and relentless villains. These variations on a theme of perseverance have pleased audiences who have come to know the Douglas face as a movie icon—eyes blazing with anger or resistance, teeth clenched in determination, a distinctive cleft in his firmly planted chin.

Bill Wine, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg, Film Reference.com


All my life, I have taken inventory at intervals. For example, when I became a movie actor and suddenly I had to deal with fame, money and playing so many roles, I lost myself. I said, "Who am I?" And I wrote my first book to deal with that, "The Ragman's Son."

Then the next thing that happened: I was in a helicopter crash. We crashed into a small plane with two young people who were killed instantly. I fell to the ground, and I said, "Why?" I tried to find God, so I wrote a book, "Climbing the Mountain." Then the worst accident in my life happened with a tingling across my cheek, and then it developed into a stroke, and I couldn't talk, and an actor who can't talk is a big problem. But then I wrote the book "My Stroke of Luck" that helped me and helped a lot of other people. That was gratifying.

After that, here I was, 92 years old, impediment in my speech, and was reflecting on my life, and people thought I would write another book, and I said no, I'm going to do a one-man show. My friends laughed; they thought it was a joke, but I did it.

- Kirk Douglas, interviewed by Matthew Carey, CNN, April 9 2009


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KimNovak.org - Tribute site

Biographical Timeline by Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen

Kim Novak has often been disparaged as the last star manufactured by the studio system. In 1953, when Harry Cohn realized that Columbia's reigning sex goddess, Rita Hayworth, was becoming too rebellious, he supposedly decided to "create" a replacement. He selected Novak and, having her groomed and promoted through a huge publicity campaign, cast her in several films meant to display her sex appeal. Cohn's investment actually offered Novak an opportunity: she achieved stardom by developing an individualistic screen persona, and through her own accomplishments as an actress.

- Richard Lippe, Film Reference.com

It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures—- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Timemagazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act–just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think.

But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak–a major star if not a major actress–had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!). In point of fact, Novak was more beautiful than either actress, yet paradoxically she was also less of a fantasy. Marilyn Monroe was plainly a comic-strip figure and a fantasy wish-fulfillment that simultaneously converted all the men in her orbit into both fathers and infants, whereas Hayworth apparently lived up to her own self-characterization: “Men go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me.” But Novak was real from the get-go, and it’s tempting to think that her humble Midwestern origins had something to do with her reality.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum

986 (118). California Split (1974, Robert Altman)

Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD TSPDT rank #968 IMDb Wiki

This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it's a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers' lifestyle.  It's a world that Altman knows well and it's what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)

Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed.  What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It's a soundtrack that's as consuming as a gambler's weekend casino binge - and that's exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it's like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It's a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.

There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script's imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They're matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould's hooker roommates; Altman's camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It's small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of California Split among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

David Ansen, Steadycam (2007) Doris Kuhn, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007) Alain Resnais, Most Important American Films (1977) Peter von Bagh, Most Important American Films (1977) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films


The movie will be compared with "M*A*S*H," the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles "M*A*S*H" in several big ways: It's funny, it's hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it's a better movie than "M*A*S*H" because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since "M*A*S*H," he's been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath...

At the end of "California Split" we realize that Altman has made a lot more than a comedy about gambling; he's taken us into an American nightmare, and all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real. This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it's always five in the morning in a second-rate casino...

What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of "California Split" we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn't know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there's an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it's an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we're moving through these people -- instead of that they're lined up talking to us. "California Split" is a great movie and it's a great experience, too; we've been there with Bill and Charlie.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, January 1 1974

Robert Altman's "California Split," which opened yesterday at the Cinema I, is a fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of. Nor is it easily categorized.

Mr. Altman has been quoted as saying that "California Split" is "a celebration of gambling," which is, I think, to underrate it, at least so it seems to someone who is not a gambling nut. The director, his screenwriter Joseph Walsh and the actors have created a movie of so many associations that it's impossible not to see "California Split" as something much more complex and disturbing.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 8 1974

One of Altman's surest talents is the creation of a whole world, slightly antic and off-center, so that his movies (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us) have a look of surprise, of the familiar transposed in some evasive but still palpable way. Once again he enjoys the collaboration of his excellent art director, Leon Ericksen, who has constructed an entire casino, brightly seedy and lit like a yellow-fever ward, which Altman populates with 24-hour night people. Their faces are ridden with worry, briefly flush with success. Their babble, their half-heard hopes framed in gambler's jargon, are like the running response of some lost congregation. They are Altman's chorus.

Like all his work, California Split (slang for high-low-split poker) has its own bent rhythm. It gives the feeling of having been made with a stoned offhandedness. In fact, there is a relaxed precision governing everything, even Elliott Gould's mumbled throwaways.

California Split is a rejoinder to the terse, glamorously tense world of The Cincinnati Kid, where the green felt is turned into a field of honor. It may be the first movie about gamblers that does not require any knowledge of the rules of a game. California Split is about compulsion, not betting, so the conventions are disregarded. There are no looming closeups of nervously shifting eyes, sweaty foreheads and shaky hands. Altman's premise is that getting hooked on gambling is the kind of emotional brinkmanship that is suicide by inches. This knowledge runs through California Split like a cold current and is the source of the movie's stubborn power. "J.C.

- J.C., Time Magazine, September 2, 1974


Fed up with the unrealistic dialogue he and other actors were forced to say on a regular basis, struggling actor Joseph Walsh wrote a screenplay about his own gambling addiction in 1971. Steven Spielberg, fresh from directing the made-for-TV film Duel (1971), was originally supposed to direct. He and Walsh worked on the script every day for nine months. The director was fascinated by the characters and would react to Walsh’s script, offering suggestions. At the time, the screenplay was called Slide and the two men had a deal to make it at MGM with Walsh as producer and Steve McQueen in the starring role. The whole story was going to be set at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because the studio owned the casino.

A month before filming started, the studio experienced a shake-up at the executive level and with it came a new set of changes. MGM wanted the story to be a Mafia-related “sting” concept with Dean Martinas one of the two main characters. Walsh would no longer be the producer. He and Spielberg left MGM because he realized that they did not understand the point of the film: “I wanted the picture to be almost a celebration of the gambling, the joy of it, going along with it, and then, at the end, you could see where the trap comes in.” Spielberg and Walsh took the script to Universal Pictures where they had an agreement with executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown. However, Spielberg decided to work on another project called Lucky Lady (1975) leaving Walsh and his film stranded.

The writer’s agent, Guy McElwaine, contacted Altman’s agent George Lito, and the director was given the script, read it and loved it. For years, he had wanted to do a gambling film with “the ambience of gambling, and then point out it had nothing to do with money.” He was drawn to Walsh’s script because he liked to gamble himself, his father was a gambler, and the director knew a lot of gamblers. David Begelman, the new studio chief of Columbia Pictures, was a former agent who knew Altman’s agent and greenlighted the screenplay to be made into a film. Walsh was a novice and unaware of Altman’s reputation for taking liberties with the scripts of for his films. However, Walsh was very protective of his script and argued with Altman numerous times over certain details. The only serious revisions to the script that the director made before filming were to background scenes. The writer had seen other Altman films and wasn’t always satisfied with how these scenes played out. He told the director that they could be changed but that he would rewrite them. Walsh wrote a full script for the background scenes, three to four page scenes for good actors to play.

George Segal was cast early on and Altman mentioned Gould but Walsh, even though he was childhood friends with the actor, held back. Altman and Walsh saw other actors, like Peter Falk and Robert De Niro, but kept coming back to Gould. Finally, the actor called Walsh and convinced him that he was right for the role. According to Walsh, on the set, Gould was full of confidence while Segal was insecure. The writer remembers that on the first day of shooting Gould “was there as that character . . . After seven days, George Segal came to me and said, ‘This guy’s [Gould] unbelievable. He’s an octopus. He is absolutely strangling me to death. I don’t even know what to do.’” Walsh told Segal Gould had lived the life of his character and said, “don’t try to act with him, don’t try to outdeal him . . . be off-base – just what you’re feeling – and it’s all working.”

Altman employed members of Synanon, the rehab organization of former convicts and addicts, as extras. The organization received a flat sum and delivered as many as needed each day. California Splitmarked the first time Altman experimented with the use of the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded and helped develop Altman’s trademark of overlapping dialogue. To this end, he gave the supporting actors and extras significant emphasis on the soundtrack. On the first day of shooting, the effort to keep eight separate channels clean and distinct made everyone very anxious. Haskell Wexler had originally been approached to shoot the film but Altman opted to go with relative newcomer Paul Lohmann who would go on to shoot Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

- J.D., Radiator Heaven

Screenwriter JOSEPH WALSH discusses his original ending of the script - and how it was altered - in Stop Smiling Magazine

"I would say if you are a writer and you could produce a picture with Bob, it would be a very good [situation if] you could be right there," says Walsh, "because Altman would come in and say, 'Oh, I would like for this scene, twenty-two clowns, three hookers, nine dwarfs, and whatever.' And this [scene] is supposed to be about a lonely man and one person in the bar. So I would say, 'Well, why would you do that, Bob? Because I don't see it? Why would you come up with that? That feels like off the top of your head. Let's go into it a little more because, let me tell you, it took me about two and a half months to construct this scene, it all ties together into the thing, and...'

"I don't know, maybe it was a plainness, a bluntness of honesty of how I would ask questions, but Bob would - pout would be a good word. I guess that he would pout a little bit on me. You know he actually stormed out of the room many times on me during the picture, during these conversations, but he would always come back and listen as I got to know him more...

"Bob is really a guy who can't take restrictions. Restrictions of any kind. Just feels hemmed in by them. He's wonderful when he gets enthusiastic. So if he's enthusiastic, if you question that, right away it's a damper to him. Some part of him doesn't want to listen to questions. Eventually, if you say somethign clearly and you're not fighting him - at any level - because I really wasn't fighting him - he listens..."

"Remember, this was going to be Spielberg's picture, THE picture. This was a time when he wasn't making much in pictures. This is the one that really got to him. Steven said to me, 'It is good, but I would have made twenty-five, fifty million dollars with the picture.' Later on, after he had seen it three or four times, Steven said to me, 'The picture is much better than I thought it was. I had to see it again and again and again.'

"Steven would have built that last scene, that gambling scene, into one gigantic orgasm, climaxing the last forty pages of the script until you were on the edge of your seat. He would never have filmed it as loose [as Altman].

"He's a master at building it up, Steven is, whereas Altman comes from a whole different world. More of a European style. Steven could have manipulated that film into fifty million dollars at the box office, and that would have been exciting. But Steven knows it is a really special film. Yes, he might have made more money, but he didn't know if he could have made a better film."

- Walsh, quoted in Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff.  Macmillan, 1989. Pages 375-376, 381.


Robert Altman's masterful 1974 study of the psychology of the compulsive gambler. Elliott Gould, loose, jocular, and playful, and George Segal, neurotic, driven, and desperate, are really two halves of the same personality as they move from bet to bet, game to game, until they arrive for the big showdown in Reno. As in all Altman films, winning is losing; and the more Altman reveals, in his oblique, seemingly casual yet brilliantly controlled way, the more we realize that to love characters the way Altman loves his, you have to see them turned completely inside out.

- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

Gould and Segal on some wild casino sprees in Los Angeles and Reno, speeding through a compulsive night world of frenzied overlapping chatter. Like Hawks, Altman feels rather than thinks his way into a subject, with a special interest in how people relate to one another in moments of crisis. In the process he shows more of what's happening in America than most newsreels, coaxes jazzy and inventive performances out of his actors (Prentiss and Welles are particular treats), and asks for a comparable amount of creative improvisation from his audience while busily hopping from one distraction to the next.

- Time Out

California Split begins with Altmanesque babble, which is always in the background. We’re used to gambling movies made in a style as feverish as their protagonists. But Altman sits back and watches the ebb and flow—the traffic of lost souls.

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine

Bob (Altman) le Flambeur. The contrast is between the "daylight gambler and the player at night" (Balzac), the numb drifting of George Segal versus the nonstop vaudevillianisms that Elliott Gould breezes through to cloud his desperation. The two meet among the rummies, bond over bar counter improv: "Twenty bucks says you can’t name the seven dwarfs." "Dumbo... Dumbo flew." In their shadow world, everything is makeshift: Shaving cream is applied to welts, cereal and beer constitute a meal in a stranger’s home. Everything is performance: Segal and Gould pretend to be cops to scare off a jumpy john in matronly drag (Bert Remsen), Gould seduces Segal back into the game with his "one-armed piccolo player" bit. And everything is a bet, from playing basketball with a bunch of teens to slapping half of a night’s winnings on the hood of a car in an attempt to get a mugger’s gun away from your face. Play or get killed, play and get killed. "Don’t think about it, take the money and go!" Nothing enhances Altman’s visual-aural density like the bustle of poker circles, race tracks, boxing rings. The hooker-roommates (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) consoling each other in bed, the barfly yammering about her pooch, the casino janitor surreptitiously slipping a coin into a slot machine -- every character seems to carry an entire comedy of desolation inside.

Fernando CroceCinePassion

This is a film about gambling, a metaphor-for-life which seems to have a particularly compelling pull for Altman. Altman, a self-confessed recovering gambler, returned to the theme with Quintet – a sci-fi picture which stands as one of his strangest and most gripping films – and increased the stakes: play the game or face death. Quintet was set during a future Ice Age in a world with dwindling resources; who lived and who died depended on participation in the game of the title. There's nothing so novel going on inCalifornia Split – a wholly naturalistic picture set in the 1970s – and yet its characters feel just as lonely and pathetic (and lovable) and the outcome of the games they play just as live-or-die important.

The director who pursued California Split most aggressively before Altman became attached was Steven Spielberg. While I don't want to make a snap judgment about what kind of film Spielberg would have made – indeed, his early work (eg Duel [1971], The Sugarland Express [1974]) showed just as much willingness to portray desperation and unhappiness as his most recent work does; it's only mid-period Spielberg which seems to me sappy or unambiguously sentimental – I think it's safe to say that it would have been a considerably different film from what Altman made. The very fact that an atmosphere existed in Hollywood where Altman could have access to properties being pursued by Spielberg – a player and company man even before Jaws (1975) validated him as a money-making player in the eyes of the studios – is astonishing.

But it's some measure of the greatness of this film that this fact is perhaps the least of the astonishing things going on in California Split: Altman's astonishing mise en scène – contemplative of every level of interaction within a room, a bar, a place – has rarely been put to more revelatory or personal ends. It's a masterpiece.

Peter TonguetteSenses of Cinema


California Split (1974) can be taken on one level as another entry into the buddy film cycle, though it manages to escape some of the more uncomfortable sexual evasions and misogynistic attitudes of these films by keeping its emotional level low, by allowing, as few American films do, emotions and emotional relationships to be chancy, fleeting, nondestructive, unscarring. Unlike other buddy films, it gives its women characters equal status and equal strength. Though the Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss characters are whores, they do not suffer and are not condescended to, nor are they any more oppressed by their situation than their male counterparts are by gambling. George Segal's Bill is sad a good deal of the time, but mostly because he does not experience eitehr the thrills or the agonies in gambling that so many other films on the subject have insisted one must feel.

In California Split, Altman substitutes melodrama a sort of emotional laissez-faire and does so mainly by organizing not only the subject but also the narrative form of the film around gambling. The film's structure is that of a game of chance, a playful, random, offhanded series of events full of accident, coincidence, and peripheral action brought to the center in a more extreme way than in the previous films. But the adjective is misleading, for the film is not "extreme" in any way. If anything, it is extremely gentle and undemanding, requiring only a pleasure in its playfulness and its improvisational effect. The film is carefully crafted to be open not to various interpretations but to various reactions to its juxtapositions and anomalies; it is made to be analogous to the wheel of fortune that closes the film, spinning and stopping where it will.

This is, of course, not improvisation in the usual sense. Though much of the dialogue may have been made up in rehearsal and in preparation for shooting, the structure of chance and coincidence, the joking interplay of events in the film and the expectations of the viewer would have to have been carefully planned. California Split holds an important place in Altman's work: experiement, joke, a game about gaming, it also moves him a bit beyond the generic revisionism of McCabe and The Long Goodbye into a greater revision of narrative structure in general, of the ways movies tell their stories and can be made to tell them differently.

- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford University Press US, 2000. Pages 384-385.

In California Split... the supplementary sound material has an inventive, dynamic function in relation to the action, serving more as a lively contrapuntal counterline than as a static one-to-one gloss. In the second scene at the local poker parlor, one of Shotlwell's songs begins loudly over a long shot of the card players, becomes faint and is overtaken by these players' dialogue in medium shot, and then resumes loudness over a close-up of Bill - delineating a dodgy kind of fan-dance in relation to a spectator's diverse routes into the scene. And when Charlie and Bill arrive in Reno, Shotwell's jazzy recitative-with-piano and Charlie's independent free-form rap suddenly (and gratuitously) converge on the phrase "nobody there" - a striking demonstration of the blind vicissitudes of chance (such as the curious proliferation of elephants and Barbaras), which operate throughout the film on multiple levels.

In all Altman's best films, the emotional center gravitates around a pronounced feeling of absence - a sense of opportunities lost, connections missed, kindred spirits divided and scattered - and in many respects the independent sound material serves to embody some form of this failed utopia: a "commentary" of lyrical idealism abstractly bridging discontinuous characters.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema. JHU Press, 2004. Page 84-85

What’s an 8-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system developed by Jim Webb known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location — in this case, eight — and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion. In other words, assuming that you had a certain amount of scripted dialogue and a certain amount of “background” improvs being delivered at the same time — the modus operandi of many Altman movies, especially this one — trusting to luck was a matter of recording all this dialogue on eight separate tracks. And listening to voices was what you did afterward — shoot first and ask questions later, working out a hierarchy of what should have the most clarity after the fact. If an improv was funnier or more relevant than a scripted line delivered at the same moment, allow the former to overtake the latter.

Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia Pictures logo, California Split has already started to chatter. A steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely audible — spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change from a slot machine, meeting or eluding our grasp in imitation of a strictly chance operation. Admittedly, the overall odds of the game are somewhat fixed because the movie has a script (by Joseph Walsh, a gambler himself), two box-office favorites and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib in order to keep up, compelled to shift its attention as often as the characters.

So using Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks was putting into practice a certain dialectic of chance and control, one of the cornerstones of Altman’s filmmaking style. And this would become even more systematic in the movie Altman made next, Nashville, where instead of having just two main characters, Altman opted, at least in theory, to feature two dozen. (Some of them proved to be much more prominent than others.) And when he made A Wedding in 1978, he arbitrarily decided to double that number to 48.

A compulsive casino gambler, Altman once boasted, “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days.” And he inherited “by chance” a film project scripted by another compulsive gambler, Joseph Walsh, who had been developing his script with Steven Spielberg, of all people, during his pre-Jawsphase. (Walsh was a child actor in the Fifties and Sixties, prominently featured as Joey Walsh in such films as Hans Christian Andersen and The Juggler and countless TV shows; in California Split he plays Sparkie, a bookie owed a fortune by Bill.)

Of course Walsh was taking a gamble himself by trusting his script to a master doodler like Altman who favored improvs. Nevertheless, figuring out what’s prearranged or not in this movie isn’t always a simple matter, and it’s often the spirit and climate of improvisation that counts more here than anything else. The opening sequence, where Charlie and Bill first encounter one another at a poker table in a gambling hall, certainly looks and sounds authentic, but it was shot on a set designed by Altman regular Leon Ericksen, who redressed a dance hall. Most of the extras were hired from the drug rehabilitation center Synanon, although a few real gamblers were included as well, and some of the background dialogue was loosely plotted if not precisely scripted by Walsh (whose own brother Edward plays a pivotal role as another poker player — a sore loser who accuses Charlie of cheating, and later beats him up). So the mix between real and semi-real, simulated and actual, is pretty intricate, and it’s only because of the DVD commentary by Altman, Walsh, Gould and Segal that we know that Charlie and Bill’s drunken efforts to reel off the names of all the seven dwarfs were invented by the two actors.

Jonathan RosenbaumStop Smiling

Robert Altman's disgruntled comedy California Split, aside from its typically busy soundtrack (it was the first movie Altman used eight-channel audio to capture all the dialogue), seems a relatively straightforward buddy film... But it's also an anti-buddy parable in which George Segal and Elliott Gould's homosocial behavior is equated unflatteringly against their obsessive gambling addictions... Adding emphasis on the homo-ness of their lucrative bond are the repeated instances where the interference of women breaks both their concentration and their hot streaks. (At the climax of the film, a naïve PYT cuts $82,000 worth of momentum by placing a single chip on a game of craps, giggling, "It's my birthday.") At the film's open, Segal's character is separated from his wife and, thus, finds himself wandering amid the dozens of unattractive, pasty women who populate the low-stakes, rec center poker tables. It's almost as though he's predetermined to make another go at his marriage by surrounding himself by two types he's not attracted to: on one hand, chain-smoking, fat-jiggling, muumuu-wearing, cranky old housewives, and on the other, men. But Gould's rapacious mockery of the first category seems, at times, to give Segal pause over testing the viability of the second. Not necessarily because Gould rubs shaving cream into the bar-fight wounds all over their torsos, or because he's at least a more reasonable fuck buddy than Bert Remsen in drag. There's something in Gould, among the few scattered catcalls of "fag" from various bottomless dancers in various seedy floating casinos, that Segal gets. What exactly it is he gets is as mysterious to me as many of the half-caught conversations in Altman's films, but, then again, I am an actual fag with a predictable lack of interest in that definingly macho sport of throwing away my earnings on rounds of wallet-wrestling. People like me, I guess, are too busy spending their copious disposable income on end tables and as many subscriptions to GenreVice, and maybe Adbusters as it takes to cover them. Oh, and reading gay subtext into movies likeCalifornia Split.

- Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

From Rhett Miller


Altman excels at the sound design of his films. It is commonplace to rely on sound to amp up action and horror films, but as far as drama and comedy go, there are few soundtracks as layered and complex as those found in Altman films. Splitis one of his finest examples of sound gradation, as each location surrounds itself from sounds from all directions. In the masterful opening poker sequence, you get the clanging of poker chips, conversation by the leads, the flutter of cards, people in the background talking about how much they are going to bet, and then finally narration from a television explaining the intricacies of the game. In one sequence Altman is able to convey so much audible information, and he does it with such a complexity that would make multiple viewings even richer, allowing you to focus your ears on different planes of conversation. Altman’s tracks mimic life, in that he gives you the ability to choose a conversation like you would at a party, but those lines of dialogue are there if ever you choose to go back and listen in. Like cinema verité aimed to capture visuals with an unbroken wholeness, Altman’s audio tracks capture locations above your standard boom mic. Sounds come from all depths and amplitudes, and don’t seem confined by the motivations of a script or story. Everything rings with messy authenticity, of an ambience taken right out of the streets and not the back lots of Hollywood. The sound design is paramount in establishing that Altman’s real characters inhabit a real world. Imagining an Altman film without sound would be like imagining a Lucas film without CGI, it couldn’t be.

From Shawn McLoughlin:

dvd_video-9These two prostitutes that play the “heroes” lovers are an absolute joy if only because they also seem real. They aren’t typical downtrodden and drugged up whores. Nor are they of the highest-class call girl stock. But they relate well to each other, and throughout their scenes we get a sense of who they are and what they could be, even though it is never really mentioned. The last time we see them one is holding the other in bed, consoling her after the gambler she had a crush on leaves her. For a good minute this consolation goes on, and there is an importance to the consoler discussing the future even though the characters do not return. It further defines them as people and by this point in the movie it is easy to admire them as such. Without this scene, the film would be at a loss, because the audience would be without knowing their story. They parallel the gamblers and are just as important. It is almost too perfect a match play.

dvd_video-5From Adam Lippe:

Luckily, California Split was made before Altman developed this hatred for his casts, when his focus was more on developing his style. Here his methods are the long, slow zoom-ins, his cross cutting of sound – forcing the viewer to pay close attention if they’d want to catch everything (packing in as much information audibly as De Palma does visually, check out the side conversation in an early scene at a bar, where a mother begs her half-naked stripper daughter to spot her $30 so she can gamble) – and an ear for casual dialogue, which appears rambling at first, but is clearly carefully chosen. It falls in line with the way that he seems to be learning about his settings and locations as we do. Like Gould’s house in The Long Goodbye and the whorehouses in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he hasn’t made up his mind about how he feels in advance. Altman’s lighter touch, allowing the movie to build around the actors, means that Elliot Gould and George Segal have no fear about making fools of themselves, yammering nonsense and even singing and dancing – badly – to old minstrel songs. Just one year later, Altman would use poor singing against his characters, in Nashville, by having a female disrobe and embarrass herself on stage, (probably the first instance in which his cruelty was so exposed.) This style of mocking is never evident in California Split. Altman easily could have made the part time hookers the butt of the joke and the cross dresser would have been just as easy bait, but he avoids the nastiness to his own credit.

- Adam Lippe, Shawn McLoughlin and Rhett Miller, posted on A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity


Film Misery ranks California Split as the 10th best Altman movie of all time.

As one of the most deliriously entertaining movies ever made about the sport of gambling (and it is a sport, given the mental and physical punishment these men endure), California Split is Robert Altman at his best, complete with all of the standard features — overlapping dialogue, casual asides, random noises, and effortless, seemingly unscripted banter. Elliott Gould and George Segal star as, yes, “loveable losers,” but they never resort to manipulation in order to secure our empathy. If truth is to be told, they couldn’t care less what we or anyone else might think, as they’re fevered engines of compulsion — always pushing forward in search of that next fix. From poker parlors to the gaming tables of Reno, these two men always seem to be chasing the big score, yet even when they realize their dream, it never seems to be enough. After Segal’s big poker win against the likes of Amarillo Slim (who makes a brief appearance), Gould says, “It doesn’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” Of course it doesn’t. And why would it? Gambling, at least in terms of an obsession, has little to do with money and everything to do with feeling alive for yet another day. Why else engage in deliberate recklessness?

The wide-screen compositions are typically lush and buzzing with activity, and despite the lack of plot, we accept Altman’s vision because we’re having too much fun to care. And let it be said: Elliott Gould, now an all-but-forgotten entity, was, for a brief time, a genuine screen presence. In back-to-back Altman features (this film and 1973’s The Long Goodbye), Gould was so engaging as to be the perfect representation of the Everyman, although an Everyman who was smarter, sharper, and more appealing than anyone else. He could size up the competition (in a great sequence at the backroom poker game), beg for credit from the cashier, attempt to use a Milky Way as an ante, and play nickel slots with all the gusto and seriousness of a master gambler, all without seeming forced or obvious. Segal is more desperate, while Gould is the sort of man who would (and does) laugh in the face of an ass-kicking, and argues — persuasively, I might add — with a gunman in a casino parking lot. Now this is a man I’d like to have at my craps table.

- Matt Cale, Ruthless Reviews

Bill and Charlie are the heroes of California Split, if such a term can be applied. The performances by Elliot Gould and George Segal are perfect; there is a naturalism here that makes the whole thing feel so off the cuff, improvised. The interplay between the two of them is endlessly fun to watch. Both actors are very engaging, and they do well with the hilarious script by Joseph Walsh. This film came on the heels of MASHMcCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and was made a year before Nashville, but California Split seems not to be mentioned as often. The film could most closely be compared to MASH, as both films are funny, cynical, gritty, and feature two frazzled main characters. Despite the similarities, California Split is the better film. Altman was obviously trying the same thing, but here he nails it, perfects every theme he hits on.

The acting in the film is terrific, but the direction is masterful. There are more audio and visual layers in this film than there are in any ten films. The way Altman weaves in and out of comedy and tragedy is assured, and we follow along willingly. We do not have to know anything about gambling to enjoy this film, and in the end we know something that we did not know before.

California Split has an almost documentary feel to it, both in the improvisational way the actors perform, and in the style in which the film is shot. We are there with Bill and Charlie, from top to bottom, in every bar and track, at every mugging. We feel for these guys, and Altman creates a palpable world for them to exist within. The script is solid, and the supporting roles are fully realized.

- Dylan Grant, Movie Freak.com

As always in Altman’s films, the roster of supporting performances add indelibly to the movie’s richness and charm. In this case, Ann Prentiss (Paula Prentiss’s sister — their resemblance is uncanny) and Gwen Welles shine as a pair of “happy hookers” who take on decidedly unusual jobs — including, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, spending “quality time” with an “elegant” transvestite (Bert Remsen). Welles’ romantic interest in Segal — and the ultimate outcome of their potential tryst — is handled especially well. Equally impressive is Altman’s ability to evoke the various milieus of the gambling world — poker halls, race tracks, boxing rings, casinos — with characteristic attention to detail; throughout the film, we genuinely believe we’re “there”, wherever we are.

Towards the end, California Split becomes somewhat challenging to sit through, simply because we feel such anxiety about Segal’s situation (he owes a loan shark, played by screenwriter Walsh, $2200 — but instead of paying him off once he secures the funds by selling his car, he goes to Reno to gamble instead). Ultimately, however, this simply demonstrates how well Altman has done his job: we really get itthat gambling is an addiction like any other, one that has the potential to ruin lives within just a few short hours. It’s a good thing Altman made this one a comedy rather than a tragedy, or we’d really be clenching our teeth.

- Film Fanatic.org

There are a few things in the film that stand out for me as being especially well done. At the beginning, we see Gould watching an instructional film in the casino and a voiceover explains not only the rules of poker, but also much of what the audience is seeing on the screen. This brilliant stroke is reminiscent of the final intercom narration at the end of Altman’s M*A*S*H. The two men’s continued insistence on turning everything into a wager is also a nice touch, most notably when Bill bets Charlie he cannot come up with the names of the Seven Dwarfs. The humor in Charlie’s struggle to name them is matched by the seriousness in which he approaches the task.

- Clydefro Jones

The film does have a truly terrible strained scene, that seems dropped into the film from some other universe. It involves the sudden introduction of a pair of transvestite `dates' of the girls Charlie lives with(for one 5 minute too long scene). Actor Bert Remsen humiliates himself with full commitment playing an old nervous transvestite (he does a great job). It's a mis-fired comedic bit that calls too much attention to itself. It feels completely artificial in a movie that had seemed utterly real previously. Thankfully the scene is not very long and the movie goes right back to being as honest and authentic as it had been before.

Interesting Trivia

It turns out this is one of Altman's most personal films.  He had a gambling addiction, he identified completely with these characters which is why he wrestled the project away from up and coming Steven Speilberg (who had t.v.'s Duel and the feature Sugarland Express under his belt at this point). That left Speilberg free to do JAWS!!!

- Chris Jarmick, Viewpoints.com

The screenplay's masterstroke—seemingly improvised through Gould and Segal's rapid and relaxed deliveries and Altman's trademark overlapping style, but which is credited to Joseph Walsh (his only writing credit)—is that it never places judgments on its characters or subject matter. This is not a film designed to condemn gambling or gamblers. It's like a film about alcoholism that admits that sometimes, drinking can be fun—when you're gambling, it's possible to win as much as lose. That this idea comes across more here than in other films about gambling addiction (James Toback's The GamblerOwning Mahowny) may be because it often has the look and feel of a comedy, albeit a hard and cynical one. The film manages to find humor in its own desperation, with scenes that are often as funny as they are sad—both the sequence in which Charlie and Bill bet on who can name all Seven Dwarfs, and the one in which Charlie risks his life at gunpoint to talk down a mugger's asking price, come to mind.

- Patrick Bromley, DVD Verdict

“California Split” is an unbelievably entertaining movie. Altman’s choices are so surehanded. I was stunned anew at his unself-conscious genius when I saw the tracking shots that follow Bill and Charlie through the streets of Reno, on the way to the casino: Bill walks as fast as he can, and Charlie buzzes along by his side, making small talk and idle suggestions. I get the feeling little of this was scripted, that Altman just told Segal to walk with singleminded determination and advised Gould to riff on that. In these few breezy shots, which cover less than a minute, Altman establishes the physical and emotional milieu for the thrilling climax. Moviemaking — the alchemy between actors and director, between form and content — doesn’t get any better.

- Ben, Ill-Informed Gadfly

It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.

- Oggz Cruise, Ogg's Movie Thoughts

That there's no palpable despair or discernable anger in Altman's realization of this is why California Split remains one of the filmmaker's finest accomplishments. As rambling and anarchic a comedy as M*A*S*H, but devoid of that film's gag-writer broadness, this sober but kind-hearted paean to the dignity of losing winds up feeling awfully precise in its seeming looseness.

Clarence Beaks, DVD Journal

Working from a script by Joseph Walsh but appearing to be almost totally improvised, this was director Robert Altman's tribute to gamblers and gambling, turning out what was really a film for insiders rather than casually interested parties who had never so much as dabbled in the pasttime. The whole film has the ring of authenticity when it comes down to the performances and Segal and Gould were rarely better as the shady friends whose easygoing nature - Gould in particular - masks a desperation to win, a need to succeed as far as the next race or poker game.

- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image


NOTE: Gregory tells us (August 2009): I just been informed re: my California Split review that currently streaming version of this film on Netflix is in complete form without music edits that are on DVD. The DVD rented from them most likely will have the same edited version currently available, so it's strictly on-line version. ***

NOTE (as sent to us in email): Unfortunately, music rights problems have obliged Columbia to remove almost three minutes of footage and make several soundtrack alterations. Their end product is perhaps the most extreme home viewing travesty since those notorious early video transfers of The President's Analyst. The cut/rescored scenes are as follows:

1- 11m 42s. A 32-second shot has been cut during Bill and Charlie's initial conversation. This showed Bill scat singing while Charlie informed him that "I love to play poker with those redneck fish. Y'now, who think they're Nick the Greek. Love to get 'em steamed. Easy to beat. Suckers".

2- 31m 50s. A scene showing Bill and Charlie at the racetrack ends as Charlie says "Let's go see a man about a horse". This scene originally continued for an additional 8 seconds as the men walked off singing together.

3- 35m 30s. After Barbara (Ann Prentis) opens the door of her house, Bill and Charlie enter. Charlie then turns to a man standing in the doorway, gives him a coin, and says "Here you are, Mr Tenor". This will make no sense to anyone who has not seen the original version, which contained an additional 24 seconds of footage showing Barbara opening the door and finding 'Mr Tenor' singing 'Happy Birthday To You'. Bill and Charlie then appeared and joined him in the song (while Barbara insisted "It's not my birthday").

4- 52m 32s. As Bill enters the strip club where a poker game is taking place, we see a basketball-themed cartoon playing on a television. In the original version, we also heard the song ('Basketball Joe') that accompanied this cartoon. (Incidentally, this animated clip can also be seen - and heard - in Hal Ashby's Being There.)

5- 77m 20s to 79m 16s. The two Phyllis Shotwell songs - 'Goin' to Kansas City' and 'Me and My Shadow' - heard during Bill and Charlie's journey to Reno have been replaced with an instrumental piece. 'Me and My Shadow' provided one of the film's most striking moments. As Shotwell arrived at the line "We never knock, 'cause there's nobody there", Charlie gestured at a passing car and shouted "there ain't nobody there". Although this scene is visually unchanged on the DVD, Charlie's line has been removed from the soundtrack (at 79m 2s). Incredibly, Joseph Walsh can be heard describing this moment (which he refers to as "a miracle") on the commentary track!

6- 86m 46s to 88m 4s. As Charlie walks away from the poker table, the sound of Phyllis Shotwell singing 'You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You' has been replaced with Shotwell's rendition of 'The Lonesome Road' - a reprise of the song we'd already heard her singing a mere 85 seconds ago!

7- 90m 12s to 90m 53s. A shot of Bill playing poker no longer includes that Shotwell song heard dimly in the original.

8- 92m 9s. After Charlie leaves Bill at the blackjack table, a 1m 40s scene has been cut. This showed Phyllis Shotwell behind a piano singing 'Georgia On My Mind'. While Charlie struck up a conversation with a fellow gambler sitting near Shotwell's piano, Bill continued playing blackjack, and we saw that the woman dealing him cards was wearing a badge revealing her name to be Barbara (making her the last of this film's many Barbaras). Columbia's editing has Charlie return to the blackjack table only a few seconds after he left. **** Here's what Altman said about the cuts (from an interview in StopSmiling magazine):

"And a lot of them weren't [released] because of music clearances, or certain copyright problems. We had to make adjustments. The cost of the music track on California Split was so high that Columbia just couldn't put it into video or DVD. That kept it out of circulation for years. Finally, Elliot Gould went in to find out why they weren't releasing it. When they told him it was because of music, he said "Isn't there something we can do about that?" So I made some cuts and took a couple of songs out. We got it into what they considered a reasonable budget. The picture wasn't hurt by it. And that's out now. It doesn't make any difference, the quality of these things. It's as good as anyone sees them..."

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

In the commentary, Altman says that California Split is his least plot-driven film, and while that may be debatable, this is a great example of how concentration on two protagonists can result in a fascinating character study. Screenwriter Joseph Walsh is responsible for many of the highlights of the film, including a scene where Charlie refuses to give a robber all of his winnings and offers him half instead, but filming in sequence allowed Altman to take advantage of the many improvisational scenes, and it's through these scenes that we gain most of our insights into the personality of both of the leads. Segal and Gould's quick wit are responsible for the amusing conversation where they both try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves (surely an influence on Quentin Tarantino's extensive pop-culture name-dropping in Pulp Fiction and beyond), but it's the continuity filming that allowed Altman to take advantage of this spontaneous creativity.

Image Transfer

The slightly inaccurate colors are typical of films of the '70s, but skin tones are good. There's a fair bit of grain, but black levels are good, and there are no distracting compression artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

Altman's multi-tracked audio comes through clearly despite the limited fidelity. There are a few scenes where it's difficult to make out the dialogue, but this is clearly intentional and not a limitation of the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

Disc Extras

Altman is joined by scriptwriter Joseph "Joey" Walsh and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal for a commentary track that is continuous, except for brief interludes where they pause to appreciate a few select scenes. From their occasional attempts to recall details, it's obvious that they haven't seen the film for a while, but this is a relaxed and amiable chat. Altman gives us details of location shooting versus constructed sets, and claims that this is his first film to use the Lions Gate 8-Track Sound System (which seems at odds with the multi-tracked soundtrack from M*A*S*H). Walsh explains how many of the scenes in the film were based on his own experiences, as well as those of his relatives, and explains some of the character motivation. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as how they forced newbie George Segal to spend a night gambling his own money, which to their dismay unravelled when he won. While not the most enlightening of commentaries, it's enjoyable and reasonably informative.

Trailers for Easy Rider and Big Night are presented full frame, and Altman's latest movie, The Company, is shown in an anamorphic 2.35 transfer.

Extras Grade: C

- Robert Edwards, Digitally Obsessed


IMDb Wiki

The Elliott Gould Zone - with bio, filmography, articles, interviews, trivia, etc.

Elvis Presley never made it. Bob Dylan did but he was more than three decades into his career at the time and the Al Hirschfeld illustration pictured him serenading Lucille Ball. Clint Eastwood, perhaps the most durable film star of the past 30 years, made it but had to share the honor with fellow superstar Burt Reynolds.

The "it" to which I refer is the cover of Time magazine, once considered the ultimate sign that one had arrived at the pinnacle of fame and cultural significance. After all, Time is not Photoplay or People but a newsmagazine whose pages chronicle world leaders and world events that impact the lives of people around the globe. It’s one thing for FDR or Adolf Hitler to be designated the week’s top story, but for a performer it is heady stuff indeed.

Presley, perhaps the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most influential, was never favored by this prestigious publication, the editors having found his swiveling hips distasteful and his singing "awful" (their description of his performance on a 1960 Frank Sinatra TV special). Dylan was condescending to the media, aggressively challenging a Time reporter’s values in a memorable scene in Don’t Look Back. Before his double Oscar victory for Unforgiven, Eastwood made genre movies mercifully free of pretention and, therefore, he made the grade only in tandem with the even less pretentious good ole boy Reynolds.

Ah, but Elliott Gould, with only six movies in release, made the cut, hogging one of Time’s 52 covers for the year 1970. "He embodies an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly, the struggle not to give in to the indignity and/or insanity of contemporary life," Time wrote, calling the shaggy haired actor a "star for an uptight age."

- Brian Fairbanks

To grow up Jewish in the 1970s was to be in the thrall of Elliott Gould.

Sure, the suburban teenage Semite had his Woody Allen for comic relief and his Paul Newman for confirmation that he was, indeed, a member of a Chosen People, but the sight of the mangy, Jew-fro-covered head of Gould on the big screen during that long-forgotten decade got more than a few movie geeks through adolescence.

“I was such a scared kid,” he said.

So, naturally, Gould went into acting.

“No, I went into song and dance, because I was shy, repressed, inhibited — but I found that if I learned routines and memorized them, I could communicate.”

The result, of course, was an actor who did more than communicate. He created an entirely new Jewish cinematic archetype.

“He was a superstar,” said Jake Perlin, programming associate for BAMcinematek.

Perlin said that most filmgoers would focus on the three Robert Altman films in the series — “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split” — but the real gems are Peter Hyams’s “Busting” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch.”

“In both movies, he’s incredibly brave,” Perlin said. “He puts it all on the line. Actors today are so unwilling to play a conflicted or negative character. And when they do, it’s still so neutered. Elliott Gould in ‘The Touch’ is anything but neutered.”

Gould offered his take on working with Bergman, plus his thoughts about the other films in the fortnight-and-a-half of fun:


“It was so fabulous for me to be so free [in creating the role of Trapper John]. That performance was more spontaneous and freer than anything I could do in real life. Altman originally offered me Tom Skerritt’s role. I never question an auteur, but I told him I’d drive myself crazy playing a southerner, so he gave me Trapper John. Good thing, too, because Trapper John gave me the juice and the spirit.”

The Long Goodbye

“That movie was my favorite, because it came out when I could not get myself arrested. I was out of work for a year and a half. I thought the script was a little old-fashioned, but I was looking for a job. Peter Bogdanovich [the original director] didn’t want to use me, because he thought I was too young. But then Altman directed, and he called me.”

California Split

“That was semi-autobiographical — though I am the character that George Segal played. I only got the role because Steve McQueen dropped out. On this film, I finally learned how to work with Altman. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ he thought I was my enemy. I said, ‘Don’t look at me — I’m always in character.’ But on this movie, he finally got me.”

The Touch

“Working with Bergman, I learned that I couldn’t fully accept all the privileges I was given, because I was given them too soon. Bergman said to me, ‘You’ve gone beyond your limits, and you’ll have to live more to understand what you’ve done.’ The great privilege is to be conceived, born and know yourself and everything else follows.”

- Gersh Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Rail, July 24 2008

982 (114). One, Two, Three (1961, Billy Wilder)

Screened August 14 2009 on MGM DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank # IMDb Wiki

One: Is it backhanded praise to say that One, Two, Three is a movie you don't even have to look at to enjoy? For the first half hour I just wanted to close my eyes and let the non-stop flow of dialogue carry me along. While Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond are known for their wit ("You will send papers to East Berlin with blond lady in triplicate." "You want the papers in triplicate, or the blond in triplicate?" "See what you can do.") it's the musicality of the banter that captivates me: the compulsive clicking of a subordinate's heels, Cagney's numerical method of dictating agendas to associates, and countless little moments where the words turned against their speakers, batted around like a beach ball.

That's not to say the film lacks for visual interest. Cagney's office is an expansive executive space over which looms a global map of Coca Cola conquest; it's stately and big enough to contain Cagney's booming voice, and eventually becomes a staging ground for one of the most breathless one-set slapstick routines of post-30s Hollywood.

Two: Somewhere around the half hour mark, the non-stop stridency of Cagney's delivery starts to wear on the ears; and when it's doubled by Horst Buchholz' angry young Communist, it's like listening to two bugles blasting at each other over the Berlin Wall. Arlene Francis plays it a little too straight as the hapless wife. The whole middle section feels like an extended set-up for the next set piece, a late night negotation between East and West set over heavy cigar smoke, dishes of caviar and a table-dancing barefoot blonde in a form-fitting polka dot dress. The whole bar starts shaking to their gyrations, ideology coming undone under pure sexual lust.

Three: Back to that finale, a bravado sequence that moves at the speed of thought, as Cagney's McNamara improvises his way to transform Horst Buchholz from a wet-behind-the-ears Communist to a spit-polish Capitalist in under 40 minutes. Well, at least it's supposed to be improvised, but it doesn't quite feel that way - it sounds and looks thoroughly written every step of the way. All the same, it's a jaw-dropper, the way it summons every plot and subplot laid throughout what preceded it and weaves it into a three ring circus with Cagney the ringmaster-standin for Wilder. It's an awesome, relentless juggernaut of a sequence that, allegorically speaking, combines Soviet unilateralism, American showmanship and German efficiency. Looking at it meta, it also evokes the Hollywood studio system at the peak of its creative and collaborative energies; as such, timed at the demise of that same system, it makes for a fitting swan song.

Below: Poster mural inside the Delphi Filmpalast in the former West Berlin, taken during the 2009 Berlinale



The following citations were counted towards the placement of One, Two, Three among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They: Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994) Helmut Fiebig, Steadycam (2007) Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007) Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007) Rob Blackwelder, BobSassone.com (2003) Bertrand Tavernier, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)


IT is too bad the present Berlin crisis isn't so funny and harmless as the one Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond have whipped up in their new movie, "One, Two, Three." And it is too bad it can't be settled so briskly and pro-Americanly as James Cagney settles the one in this picture, which came to the Astor and the Fine Arts yesterday.

But the sharpness of wit and satire is less conspicuous than the magnitude and speed of the obvious jokes and comic action as they pour through the film like a cascade. There is nothing subtle about it, least of all about Mr. Cagney's role, which is that of the deus ex machina (or "mein fuehrer," as his wife refers to him). It is simply a matter of moving very fast and getting lots of things done, from sales pitching for Coca-Cola to an automobile chase through East Berlin.

With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good—Pamela Tiffin, a new young beauty, as Scarlett; Horst Buchholz as the East Berlin boy, Lilo Pulver as a German secretary, Leon Askin as a Communist stooge and several more—the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney, who is a good 50 per cent of the show. He has seldom worked so hard in any picture or had such a browbeating ball.

His fellow is a free-wheeling rascal. His wife (Arlene Francis) hates his guts. He knows all the ways of beating the rackets and has no compunctions about their use. He is brutishly bold and brassy, wildly ingenious and glib. Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him—but he sure makes you laugh with him.

And that's about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh—with its own impudence toward foreign crises—while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, December 22, 1961

WEST BERLIN -- Billy Wilder, producer-director, strode out of his Hilton headquarters here the other day, took a quick look up at the clearing skies and said, in his nervous, impatient way: "Okay. Get your steel helmets, everybody. We're going back to the Gate." And with that he jumped into a waiting car and sped to a location site on the Strasse des 17 Juni, near the Brandenburg Gate, followed by the cast and crew of his new comedy, "One, Two, Three," which he is making here for United Artists release late this year.

While the armament was strictly a figure of speech, it did fit the situation. Ever since Wilder placed the picture before the cameras in early June, he has been engaged in a private war with the East Berlin authorities over permission to shoot a sequence through the gate, which lies entirely within the Soviet sector of "Splitsville," as the divided city is known to the company...

The project represents the Viennese-born director's return to his old home grounds. In 1934, carrying a half-filled suitcase, he fled Berlin one step ahead of the Gestapo. Eleven years later, he was back as film chief of the American Information Control Division in Germany. Those experiences inspired the memorable comedy "A Foreign Affair," with Marlene Dietrich as postwar Berlin's most attractive commodity.

In many respects, Wilder is a bigger star on his own pictures than any of his actors. Something of an aggressive imp, he achieves his results with a steady barrage of bubbling comments, most of them derogatory, many of them unprintable, but all of them highly quotable. Speaking of one of his associates of some twenty years, for example, he said, "Obviously the man has no talent but I'm used to him." Another time, after one of the rebuffs at the gate, he commented, "I wonder if they'll let us shoot there if I have the musical score written by Irving East Berlin."

Though some of the action of the story, which is an outrageous attempt of American big business to penetrate the Iron Curtain market, takes place in East Berlin, none of the film will be shot there. Thanks to Berlin's sense of history, there are many places here that have been left just as they were when the Third Reich fell. Some of these areas, particularly those centering on Margareten and Victoria Strassen and the Anhalter railway station, are dotted with gutted buildings and piles of debris and look for all the world like most of the Soviet sector.

- Thomas Wood, The New York Times, July 19, 1961

Playboy: Though it certainly didn't dwell on the subject of human meanness, One, Two, Three was an incisive satire of both sides involved in the Cold War. Were you concerned, while filming in Berlin, that the authorities on one side or the other might cause trouble?

Wilder: We got to Berlin the day they sealed off the Eastern sector and wouldn't let people come across the border. It was like making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down. Khrushchev was even faster than me and Diamond. We had to make continuous revisions to keep up with the headlines. It seemed to me that the whole thing could have been straightened out if Oleg Cassini had sent Mrs. Khrushchev a new dress. But we weren't afraid of creating an incident like Mr. Paar. We minded our manners and were good boys. When they told us we couldn't use the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, we went to Munich and built our own.

Playboy: Was there any negative reaction to the picture as a flip treatment of a serious subject?

Wilder: Of course. There is a little group of people who always say I'm not Spinoza. The thinner the magazine, the fatter the heads of the reviewers. They were shocked because we made fun of the Cold War. Others objected because it was very quick-paced and they could not catch everything. People either loved it or hated it.

- Interviewed by Richard GermanPlayboy, June 1 1963

Wilder's constant obsession with pace in screen comedy found its own answer in ONE, TWO, THREE - a rapid, brutal and over-wrought comic statement on the Cold War. How fast is fast in comedy, Wilder asked himself. Can you machine-gun audiences with sound track satire? Do audiences have the stamina to pay close attention continuously, or must they come up for breath now and then? In London for the British premiere of ONE, TWO, THREE, he remarked that the tendency in contemporary films is length and slowness: 'I think because the critics think highly of European directors like Antonioni who have gotten away with it - the idea that slowness and solemnity are the same thing as profundity.' But he wondered if in ONE, TWO, THREE he hadn't gone too far with his 'experiment in keeping up the tempo the whole time.'

The plot of ONE, TWO, THREE is borrowed from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, who would be astonished to think that any hero of his could turn up as the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Yet that is what the picture's hero is. 'It is a farce that intentionally mocks and reverses every conventional attitude we have, or think we ought to have; virtue is punished, corruption and stupidity are rewarded and the whole German people, as if in a trifling aside, are indicted as lickspittles or martinets, and we sit watching and roaring with delight,' is the way Brendan Gill described the film. 'For this tour de force of fratricidal subversion, we have to thank not only Mr Cagney who makes it shamefully attractive, but, again, Mr Wilder, who produced and directed the picture and who could, no doubt, wring a hearty yock from bubonic plague.' (New Yorker, 6 January 1962) Reflecting on Wilder's ability to make bubonic plague into comedy, Pauline Kael felt that, execept perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, Wilder had 'never before exhibited such a brazen contempt for people.' (I Lost it at the Movies,1965)

Wilder's direction is sharp and so furious that the Variety reviewer wondered if even the cream of an audience would catch more than seventy-five per cent of the significance of the dialogue at first hearing. (Variety, 29 November 1961) Cagney, who suffered from acute homesickness during the shooting in Germany, proves himself a good, snappy farceur with a glib, full-throttled characterisation. The staccato delivery wasn't always easy to film, and one speech during a shoe-shine session required fifty-two takes - only seven short of the all-time record with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot. While Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin fail to register much, Arlene Francis is just right as Mrs MacNamara, and some of the supporting roles are brutally in focus - Howard St John as the tycoon of Coca Colonisation, and Hanns Lothar as a heel-clicking right-hand man. Trauner's art direction contributes importantly to the comedy, notably in a scene set in a smoky East Berlin nightspot, and Andr? Previn incorporates period pop themes like 'Yes, We Have no Bananas' with incongruous effect into his score.

ONE, TWO, THREE was shot in Berlin during the autumn of 1961 at a time when the East-West climate deriorated daily, and before Wilder could yell 'Cut!' the last time, the Berlin Wall was under construction. Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.

Wilder managed one little revenge. He made a dry run of a shot up to the boundary-line, and then sent word to the heavily armed East German police that they were in the picture, and while it was all right with him, he was afraid it would give audiences the impression that East Berlin was a Police State. That cleared the gate for several hours.

Axel MadsenBilly Wilder, Cinema One, Secker and Warburg, 1968.

One, Two, Three is the smoking gun that proves Diamond did it. That is, ruined Wilder by downgrading his work to processed shtick. Today, One, Two, Three is as dated as a rerun of Pete and Gladys. It was just as dated when it came out, at least according to Pauline Kael. Reviewing it in 1961. she wrote, "It was shot in Berlin and Munich, but the real location is the locker room where tired salesmen swap the latest variants of stale old jokes. " A typical howler: The Russians reject a shipment of Swiss cheese because it's full of holes.

- Sam Staggs, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. Macmillan, 2003. Page 368

The reason why One, Two, Three, set as the Berlin Wall was going up, seemed crass to Pauline Kael in 1962 is that its manic scenario exploited a situation which had complex political dimensions. With distance, Sinyard and Turner in 1979 read the film as mirroring America's evolution from Virgin Land to Superpower. With greater hindsight, this dynamic screenplay not only simplifies the ragged conflicts of German and American history, but recalls the most manic of '30s Hollywood screwball comedies. As is usual with Wilder, no distracting camerawork or cutting is allowed to stand in the way of dialogue, which cuts its cloth to fit MacNamara's (and Wilder's) myopic odysseys.

- Richard Armstrong, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist. Macfarland, 2005, Page 5.

Though it was rumored that Wilder and his "One, Two, Three" star James Cagney didn't get along, [Charlotte] Chandler [author of Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography] says they liked each other, though the veteran actor didn't like the rapid-fire dialogue he had to deliver. "I remember when I spoke with [the film's costar] Horst Buchholz, he said he found James Cagney dancing one morning as fast as you can imagine. Cagney said he was dancing that fast because it helped him get up to speed verbally."

Susan KingLos Angeles Times

>An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director's family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin's volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country's post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process...

As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to "all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn't, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass — which at several points I would have been very happy to do."

- Dawn Taylor<, The DVD Journal


Revisited today, Billy Wilder's 1961 farce One, Two, Three is a Cold War poltergeist, rattling chains in the vanished spook house that was West Berlin. Indeed, this artifact from the era of geopolitical competition and nuclear crisis, sufficiently prescient to conjure the idea of Soviet missiles in Cuba, was actually in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and ringed Berlin's western zone with a double-tiered wall... Wilder never made a movie with more one-liners, and Cagney never had to talk faster ("put your pants on, Spartacus," he snarls at Buchholz during a marathon fitting session). But while the jokes are largely verbal, One, Two, Three is not without its visual treats. A onetime Berliner, Wilder makes better use of the dead zone around derelict Potsdamer Platz than any director before Wim Wenders. The entropic mise-en-scéne of East Berlin's imagined Grand Hotel Potemkin suggests a red Sunset Boulevard: An ancient dance band plays a German version of "Yes We Have No Bananas" while a couple of Rosa Klebb clones crowd the floor and a few bewhiskered comrades contemplate their chess games.

Not so far from the contemporary worldview of Mad magazine, One, Two, Three was essentially good-natured. By the time it opened in late '61, however, the nation was gripped by war panic. The New Yorker nervously suggested the filmmakers had pitched their "circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery," and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the season's other cine-statement on postwar Germany), deemed Wilder's jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Such publicity notwithstanding, One, Two, Three proved a financial disappointment.

The movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce. Still, One, Two, Three looks forward to the 1960s' two great black comedies, anticipating Dr. Strangelove in its cynical realpolitik and The Producers in its relentless Nazi baiting. Adapted for the stage in West Berlin and re-released in West Germany during the mid '80s, it even became a cult film—something to hang on the still-extant wall.

- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

Certainly there are other films that Billy Wilder made that I love more than One, Two, Three (Sunset Blvd. is in my all-time Top 10), but the more I see it, the more I realize that Wilder may never have made a movie that's as much fun. James Cagney may have achieved stardom in gangster films, but if you put all those together, I doubt the machine gun fire contained within would come close to equaling the speed of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that he fires in this Cold War (and cola war) comedy. No wonder Cagney decided to quit movies for 20 years after this — he must have been exhausted and needed that long to catch his breath...

No Wilder film moves like One, Two, Three does with pacing that is downright remarkable. On top of that, there are subtle messages about capitalism, communism and just about everything in between. When a jaded Otto realizes that one of his communist comrades is ready to leap to the west side of Berlin, he asks, "Is everyone in the world corrupt?" to which the defector replies, "I don't know everybody." With One, Two Three, Wilder bottled a concoction with more fizz than any bottle of Coke. Really, it was Wilder's last truly great film, yet many people haven't seen it. They don't know what they're missing. One, Two Three is the real thing.

- Edward Copeland

James Cagney is the whole dynamic show in this hilarious Billy Wilder satire (1961) on Coca-Cola diplomacy in divided Berlin. The plot is something about a Coke executive (Cagney) who has to chaperone the boss's daughter (Pamela Tiffin), who is infatuated with one of Berlin's ever-present communist students (Horst Buchholz), who is in turn dedicated to destroying everything symbolized by Coca-Cola, etc, etc. The pace is blistering, and Wilder's deep-seated hatred of Germans has never been put to more comic use.

- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin's ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.

- Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee

This is the featherweight comedy film on the Cold War that James Cagney decided to end his illusturious film career on, only to come back twenty years later to make in 1981 Ragtime. Billy Wilder ("Avanti!"/"Buddy Buddy"/"Irma La Douce") directs this zany but heavy-handed sitcomlike comedy that's based on an obscure play by Ferenc Molna. It's cowritten by Wilder and regular writer I.A.L. Diamond. Despite being fast-paced, hard-hitting, and filled with topical gags, it's creaky as the targets of Wilder's satire--a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture--are too obvious to be that funny. It's a futile attempt at farce to return to Ninotchka territory, that drags its heels through an overlong hardly funny middle-part and a crudeness that is hard to overcome. Cagney as the harried but crafty executive is splendid, delivering one-liners with machine-gun rapidity and being the entire force of the film.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews

One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder’s most consistently hilarious and most gorgeous comedy... The breakneck pace conforms to the instruction that heads the script: “This piece must be played molto furioso.” The underpinning delight, on the mark (a double-meaning there), is how Otto’s ideological resistance flows into complicity with the effort to turn him into a rich capitalist. Horst Buchholz is spectacularly funny as Otto.

Dennis Grunes

You really can’t say enough about James Cagney’s performance here. While he will always be remembered for the gangster films, where he was usually riveting and added a dimension to the characters that other actors almost never could, Cagney was an extremely versatile performer who was adept in musical and comedic roles as well as drama. In One, Two, Three, he really excels and is able to give full justice to the madcap lunacy found in the screenplay written by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor who could pull off this role half as well as Cagney. On the surface, MacNamara is not a likeable character, but Cagney manages to make him simply gruff and grumpy in a way that the viewer can’t help but like the guy regardless of whether you like what’s he doing, reminiscent of the persona Walter Matthau later would adopt in many films. The rapid-fire delivery Cagney uses to such good effect here is a logical continuation of the style he developed in his gangster roles.

- Clydefro Jones

The set piece of the film is an eight-minute stretch where MacNamara does a high-toned makeover on the beatnik Piffle, bringing in a parade of tailors, barbers, haberdashers, etc., and rattling off pages of exacting dialogue with perfect articulation and precision - precisely as Wilder wrote it (it reportedly took many takes and some strained tempers). This dovetails into a mad car chase to the airport and a sharp finish. Audiences laugh - and then quiet themselves to not miss out on the next joke - Wilder's pace leaves little room for reaction time, just a raised eyebrow or a quick breath.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant


The best-looking disc in MGM's "Billy Wilder DVD Collection" and the second-most handsome of the Wilder titles available on the format thus far (edged-out by Sunset Blvd.), One, Two, Threepreserves Daniel L. Fapp's Oscar-nominated cinematography with tremendous clarity of detail and contrast. (Sadly, Fapp received the film's only Academy nod.) Ignore the pan-and-scan side of the disc in favour of the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; I just wish I knew why MGM keeps replacing original logos with the '90s-era growling Leo: it makes no sense to introduce a b&w movie with a splash of colour, for starters. Source material is in excellent condition with the exception of irregular blotches that could be water damage. (It's doubtful the immersed viewer will notice them, anyhow.) The 2.0 mono soundtrack potently reproduces Wilder's sixties composer André Previn's riffs on Richard Wagner and Aram Khachaturyan, and Cagney's voice lacks the shrill quality one anticipates from previous viewings. One, Two, Three's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.

- Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central


The writer-director Billy Wilder, impressed by the skits Diamond wrote for a Writers Guild dinner, asked him to cowrite a screenplay. Wilder had worked with several writers since his breakup with the writer-producer Charles Brackett, but had failed to find the ideal collaborator. Though their personalities were dramatically different, Diamond's withdrawn, introverted qualities proved to be the perfect balance for Wilder's extrovert nature. They not only shared a common European immigrant background, but the same dry sense of humor.

Beginning with Love in the Afternoon, their partnership spanned 25 years and a dozen films. While popular and critical reception of the pictures varied, their combined talents created some of the best and most enduring comedy/dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Witty dialogue and sophisticated sexual situations marked their stories. They openly challenged the long-standing assumption that allHollywood productions should be family oriented, and provided moviegoers with tasteful, adult entertainment. Their most satisfying pictures combined cynicism with sentiment, playing the two extremes against each other until the softer side of human nature won out. Frequently focused on illicit sex, their scenarios were also about love and the emotional vicissitudes of intimate relationships.

For Diamond and Wilder cynicism knew neither sexual nor age boundaries; it belonged to the middle-aged male (Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment), to the youthful bachelor (Curtis and Lemmon in Some Like It Hot), and to the simple working girl (Shirley MacLaine in The Apartmentand Irma La Douce). They poked fun at modern mores (Avanti!), at the American Dream (One, Two, Three), at ambition (Kiss Me, Stupid), and at greed (The Fortune Cookie). Their repeated casting of stars such as Lemmon, MacLaine, and Walter Matthau gave an additional continuity to their work. Particularly effective was the teaming of Lemmon and Matthau in a series of films (The Fortune CookieThe Front Page, and Buddy Buddy) focusing on male relationships.

Joanne L. YeckFilm Reference.com

981 (113). The Ladies' Man (1961, Jerry Lewis)

Screened August 7 2009 on Paramount DVD in New York , NY IMDb Wiki


Maybe it's only in America where a man can act like an unrepentant juvenile and become a multimillionaire megastar... and a master filmmaker. Moreso than Spielberg, Lucas or early Judd Apatow, Jerry Lewis takes the boy-in-a-man's-world ethos to heart, and it powers his moviemaking at every level: not just in his performance, but in the very way his films are constructed. Here his trademark nebbish cowers in a boarding house full of women; it's less a coherent story than a series of one-offs riffing on Lewis' klutzy gynophobia. While the results range from flat misfires to riotous genius, the relentless repetition of these set-ups amount to as much of a compulsive ritual as Wile E. Coyote's pursuit of the Road Runner, and just as captivating in its flurried variations.

But unlike the Coyote's Sisyphean purgatory of ambition-cum-self-torment, what gets Lewis enacts again and again is a spasmodic rebelliousness that champions the eternal wellspring of boy-like wonder. It's a world where adult concerns for structure and story give way to childlike free play with objects in a seemingly elastic space. Something as rudimentary as narrative is regarded like a rigid schoolmarm that both threatens and gives form to Lewis' playtime. And for all his undeniably male preoccupations with the terrifying spectre known as woman (in this instance, an entire house full of them), the fact that Lewis' legendary million-dollar set amounts to a super-sized dollhouse suggests a boy who likes to play with dolls. The libido on display isn't hurtling towards manhood; it's actively resisting the obligation to fall into the pigeonhole of masculinity.

That said, there's plenty of male scopophilia on display, with the two knockout musical numbers near the beginning and end expressing breathless pleasure at watching how women move, set to vivacious jazz. It surprises me that in all the articles I've dug up about Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man, not once do I find a reference about Lewis possibly being the most jazz-informed filmmaker of his time. Again, it's the sense of taking a bare-bones theme and freestyling it to the rafters, unafraid of hitting false notes (and there are not a few in this film) for the sake of striking golden ones (and there are not a few in this film). When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis "never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out," he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn't entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.

Now, four decades later, Lewis' filmmaking feels even more apropo to the digital age, when classical storytelling, both in Hollywood and the arthouse, is yielding to the impulse for immediacy that rules the day, for better (e.g. Public Enemies) or worse (e.g. Transformers). But championing The Ladies Man as a template for a Cinema of Our Time doesn't mean we write a blank check to slack, formless filmmaking trying to catch cinematic moments with a torn butterfly net. Ultimately, The Ladies Man does have a profound reverence for form - though it's not classical story form, but the form of the two-dimensional movie screen. Like a pre-Columbian cartographer, Lewis accepts that the world is flat, but he takes that and goes the distance with it, with brilliant gags that open up new pockets of space within the frame (i.e. falling through his "bunk" bed; the play with non-existent mirrors in the girl-crazed morning number; encased butterflies that come to life). Working within limitations, his revelations hint at limitless discoveries, as well as a few paradoxes. His megalomanical control of spatial and character interactions explodes into a comic free-for all. Likewise, he validates his auteur status, a self-proclaimed "total filmmaker," by regressing wholeheartedly into a terminally narcissistic childhood.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Ladies' Man among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007) Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007) Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007) Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI list) (1998) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993) Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007) Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films


"THE LADIES MAN," with Jerry Lewis, needs more than just an apostrophe. As Mr. Lewis howls at one point during this color comedy from Paramount, "Boy, what a little imagination can do!" Boy! He can say that again.

Now, in all fairness to a frankly light-headed vehicle that dies on its feet, Mr. Lewis' latest gets off to a fresh and really funny beginning. And offhand, especially after those early bright moments, it would certainly sound as promising as any Lewis package in a long time...

But after half an hour it all folds like a tent. The remainder of the picture, with everyone else firmly relegated to the background, has Mr. Lewis shuffling and stumbling in full view, as if he and the movie were merely improvising.

- Howard Thompson, The New York Times, July 13 1961


The film's greatest fame rests not in the slim script nor in the inventive set-pieces, but in the set itself: a massive construct that swallowed up two soundstages at the Paramount lot. Lewis the director shows remarkable patience as he slowly reveals the magnificent construction to the audience over the morning routine of the household. The camera glides from room to room and cranes down the staircase as the girls rise and make their way down to breakfast, the trickle of individuals gathering into a herd of females. Finally Herbert awakens, gawking at the magnificent mansion on his way downstairs while the camera (mounted on a camera crane so big it took up another soundstage) slowly pulls back to fill the screen with the sprawling four story set, a life-size dollhouse with cutaway walls revealing a warren of bedrooms and hallways.

More than merely a visual inspiration, it was an engineering marvel: 60 rooms, each wired for sound with built-in mikes and individually illuminated with hidden lights, on the largest indoor set built up to that time. It gave Lewis the freedom to choreograph action through multiple rooms and follow it with fluid, unbroken camerawork, or to pull back to show the hive of activity in the honeycomb of a house.

Lewis was so proud of his accomplishment that he posted a sign outside the stage door: "This is NOT a closed set." He even erected bleachers for visitors to watch the shooting. "This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola visited," remembers Lewis (Coppola was an intern at Paramount at the time). "He was on the set almost every day of the shoot. He loved the set, he loved the girls, he loved the idea, and he was enamored with what I did with the video assist and the shoot." The video assist was a pioneering idea and Lewis was the first to make use of the technology on the film set. (Coppola took the video assist into the next generation when he brought video technology into his fledgling Zoetrope Studios decades later.) There was no videotape in 1961 but through the placement of monitors around the set, Lewis could see the camera eye while performing.

The ensemble scenes are choreographed (with the help of Bobby Van) as much as they are directed, with numerous scenes playing out wordlessly to the brassy swing soundtrack. Like much of the crew, composer Walter Scharf was a longtime Lewis collaborator and his energetic score helps set the pace and tone of the film. In one stand-out scene, a forbidden door opens into the all-white room of a seductive dancer who descends from the ceiling and as the walls expand and Harry James and his Orchestra perform on a balcony that doesn't exist anywhere but in Lewis' imagination. In another hilarious sequence, Herbert drives tough guy Buddy Lester into a quivering mass of jelly, creating a classic twist on the slow burn. Lester was subsequently cast as the bartender in the unforgettable Alaskan Polar Bear sequence of The Nutty Professor (1963).

Lewis bragged about the savings that his technological innovations brought to the ambitious production, but the film still finished over schedule and over budget, costing over $3 million. The set itself cost $1 million, according to Lewis. It was money well spent. American critics were (for the most part) impressed and the French were ecstatic. Yes, the cliché about the French proclaiming Lewis a genius was born here, but there is justification for the claim. While some may cringe at his spastic performance and baby-talk dialogue, it's hard not to be awed by the technological leaps of this production, and at their best his gags delve in to the realm of the surreal last visited by the Marx Brothers.

- Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies

It's widely known Jerry Lewis hates to do multiple takes in his movies; if for no other reason, he feels it impedes the spontaneity of the work. This approach is very evident in The Ladies' Man.

  • There are frequent camera bobbles and hesitations as the operator fights to anticipate and follow the hyper comic.
  • At the tail of a ballroom dance number, strangely coupling Herbert and dapper screen legend George Raft (as himself), Jerry takes off goofily around the set, leaving an unprepared spotlight technician with the actor in the dark.
  • In the movie's running gags involving a ferocious pet named Baby, Herbert drags a whole side of beef from the kitchen to the animal's quarters. In the close-up, H. H. H. struggles to push the carcass through the doorway to the waiting beast, although we see Lewis is only pretending to hold the meat. His hands are empty, inadvertently caught in the picture.
  • In a balletHerbert dances the ballet sequence, clumsy, energetic Herbert prances with several ballerinas. He slips and takes a comedic pratfall. We see (but not hear) Jerry the director switch gears to yell "Cut!" to his crew at the same time a ballerina also falls down; his head jerks around to her in complete surprise. It's obviously a blooper, but the ballerina's stumble helps the scene, nonetheless.

I enjoy this looseness. What's important to me, first and foremost, are the laughs. Everything else is secondary. Besides if Lewis had deleted all the blemishes, we might not have the funniest sequence in the movie.

Hard-faced character actor Buddy Lester appears as tough guy Willard C. Gainsborough (the "C" is for "Killer"). Willard intimidates Herbert, until our hero accidentally sits on the man's hat. Herbert tries to repair the damage and reshape the brim after he places the hat on Willard's head. Lester's blank, exasperated facial expressions and delivery are hysterical as Jerry manipulates the hat and restyles the gangster's hair into as many unflattering positions as possible.

The camera is shooting over Lewis' shoulder, so we see most of this footage from the back of his head. The amazing thing to note is Lewis breaks character, cracking up at Lester's performance. We see and hear Jerry snort as he struggles to continue with the scene. Then, regaining his composure, Herbert plucks a thread dangling on Willard's forehead. He tells the man he's removing the thread. Willard deadpans, "That's my eyebrow." Jerry goes off again, expels air through his nose in burps and blatantly turns his face further away from the camera in a desperate attempt to save the shot.

All of this action is quite hilarious -- but, hey, we're looking at an A-list major motion picture. What other director would be so bold as to include a crack-up outtake? And get away with it!

With Jerry, these blemishes are business as usual. One of his strongest lures as an entertainer is danger, not playing by the rules. His meteoric, literally overnight, rise to stardom and cultural sensation with former partner Dean Martin was heavily indebted to frequent breaking of the "fourth wall" between the performers and their audiences, wherein lurked the tantalizing promise and fulfillment of uproarious ad-libs and asides. This device alone made him a household name and put untold millions into his pocket.

- Mike Durrett, About.com


The Ladies' ManLet us look briefly at that extraordinary tour de force of mise en scene, The Ladies' Man. Here, Jerry Lewis — Herbert Heebert — is kept prisoner in a spectacular set of his own making. He has built his maze, even employed video cameras behind the scenes (a Jerry Lewis invention) to spy on his every move. As in The Bellboy, he is here too a victim. But rather than being set in the swanky resort location of the Fontainebleau — the stomping grounds of Jerry Lewis the star — The Ladies' Man occurs clearly on a Hollywood set. Were this a populist film, we would expect to find in the cross-sectioned set a representative sample of humanity. But this cross-section is uniquely "Lewisian" in being a glossy, plastic house full of aspiring performers (into which walks George Raft, as he does also in The Patsy, a film directly about Hollywood). Herbert Heebert compulsively remains on this set with these Hollywood people. He is even drawn to the lair of the ultimately dehumanized performer — the woman in black. He is, in short, a prisoner of his own fascination with this extraordinary make-believe world.

The Ladies' Man shows Hollywood the trap once removed in the fictional context of Helen Welenmelon's house/set. It is a gigantic distortion of reality, threatening to consume and destroy the mild-mannered guy who cannot leave it.

Michael SternBright Lights Film Journal

Anyone wondering why Lewis is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker's dexterity with a dolly. Lewis's lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale quality. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value.

Combined with the massive amount of narrative and visual invention is that same old Lewis desire to entertain and enliven. There is very little dead space in The Ladies Man, as if the filmmaker was trying to cram as much craziness into the story as he could. From the hilarious joke names given to the cast (Herbert Heebert, Helen Wellenmellon) to the reliance on cameos (by the likes of George Raft, oddly enough) and that comedy mainstay, drag (Jerry is one fugly female as Herbert's beloved "MA!"), this is a master class in old fashioned Hollywood hijinks. Add in the brilliant supporting performances (opera diva Helen Traubel is just terrific, as is Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) and Jerry's own unique brand on brainless mugging, and you've got a sight gag filled frenzy that barely lets us rest.

There will be some who point out that Lewis never gives us a clear set of characters here. Performances are driven by personality quirks (the quiet girl, the lazy girl, the eccentric girl, the musical girl) and that the comic's typical overt sentimentalism is surprisingly kept in check. But the reality is that these are elements that actually make The Ladies Man a better movie. As long as we are centered on Herbert and his quest for perpetual bachelorhood, this film is a bright breeze of buffoonery. But the minute we drift off into to heart-tugging territory (for a couple of brief minutes at the end), the movie seems to go sour, if only for a second. It is this last-second dash for the melodramatic that keeps The Ladies Man from launching into a stratosphere of pure comic bliss. Unlike The Nutty Professor, which gave us a romance to root for in Professor Kelp and Ms. Purdy, Herbert has no such honey to hope for. Instead, he wants to avoid all the women in the hostel. So when Pat Stanley's Fay finally makes her play, it's far too little, way too late. Thankfully, Lewis avoids the obvious love affair to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something both sincere and very silly. Right up there with his best, more beloved works, The Ladies Man is pure, potent Jerry Lewis.

Bill GibronDVD Verdict

It opens in a studio re-creation of tenuous order ("a very nervous little community") razed by a daisy-chain of comic catastrophes -- Jerry Lewis's forthright declaration of modernism is further elucidated at the graduation-day assembly, a composition unsettled by the spazzing Jerry. As Herbert H. Heebert, he declares everlasting bachelorhood after seeing his beloved with another; Lewis on a red bus-stop bench wearing a gray suit that shows a good few inches of socks and cuffs is a grand sight, thrown into the world after a Freudian embrace from his mother (played by the total filmmaker himself). As if in danger of focusing exclusively on performance, Lewis rolls out his technical marvels: A jerky zoom that steers the protagonist towards the boarding house evolves into the tilt up Mona Freeman at the door and, finally, into the quicksilver floating crane that surveys the vast edifice as an ocean of femininity fills it. Herbert gazes at the 30 shapely occupants in horror, but the tears of the trilling owner (Helen Traubel) convince him to stay, next he's being spoonfed porridge in a high chair. Buddy Lester supplies a fearsome deadpan under a crushed hat and George Raft flubs his coin-flip yet aces his tango, but the majority of the gags are aimed at the estrogen overflowing in every room, and only Fellini and Peckinpah can rival Lewis as artists working through their misogyny via their art. Even after its transparency as a movie set is foregrounded when the TV crew crashes its atrium, the boarding home remains a dollhouse of the mind, its screens-within-screens hiding audacious sexual routines -- the offscreen, roaring pussy(cat) that splashes Herbert with milk and chews his offer of meat till there is only bone left, as well as the forbidden chamber where bat-laaaaaady Sylvia Lewis welcomes him with Gothic slinkiness and Harry James's orchestra. Pat Stanley spells out the treacly moral ("how nice to be really needed"), but this masterwork of demasculinization hinges much more trenchantly on the subversive despair of the Lewis schnook, always "alone with noise."

Fernando F. CroceCinepassion

In a career with its fair share of public relations blunders, probably the most notorious faux pas made by Jerry Lewis was his 2000 proclamation that he has never liked any female comedians and that he considers women's function in the general scheme of things "as a producing machine that brings babies in the world," either the woeful words of a severely disillusioned man battling various physical and mental ailments or a misguided, Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at performance art stand-up. At any rate, the comment isn't so radically out of step from the Jerry Lewis who made the masterpiece The Ladies' Man, which even though it could undoubtedly be taken as a manifesto on machismo, also happens to be a bizarre, sexually ambiguous, cantankerously skeptical burlesque on the ascent of feminine independence and the resulting commodification of masculinity, especially of the domesticated variety.

Lewis stars as a disconnected graduate from Milltown ("a very nervous little community") magnificently named Herbert H. Heebert (more than once, the shrill manner in which some of the female characters yell out his name ends up more closely resembling the epithet "pervert"). After discovering his girlfriend making out with a letterman, Lewis seems to regress on the spot into a total presexuality, an adolescent form of misogyny that dictates that he can't be around women, period. (Ten minutes in, Lewis is already wallowing in a Freudian quagmire of repressed homosexuality, amplified by Lewis's one-shot cameo in drag as his own mother.)

So where does he find his first job? In a women's boarding house, naturally. Lewis (the director) effectively validates Herbert's mistrust of women by having the boarding house's owner, the regal Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), and maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman), go out of their way to obfuscate the nature of their establishment during Herbert's "job interview," which consists mainly of an impromptu psychoanalytical session wherein Herbert gets his disappointment in women off his chest. (It's worth noting that both women are portrayed as being emphatically past their sexual prime, so Herbert isn't threatened.) They hire him and sneak him up to his room through the back hallways. It isn't until the next morning that Lewis reveals not only the throng of 30 gorgeous women with whom Herbert will be sharing living space (the film's on-screen universe), but also the mind-bogglingly immense dimensions of the ant-farm set that is meant to represent Wellenmellon's mansion.

Lewis pulls the camera out as far as it will go while keeping the strutting lines of women in perspective, but he also cannily reveals the edges of the set to accentuate its artificiality, in effect showing the audience that the on-screen space isn't meant to be taken concretely, but also as an extension of Herbert's entrapped psychological state. There are basically two rooms that are emphatically privileged as "off-screen space," the room in which Wellenmellon and her girls keep "Baby," a roaring, unidentified creature (which almost surely represents its namesake: the consequences of heterosexual discovery), and a mysterious room belonging to a "Miss Cartilage" that Freeman nebbishly demands Herbert never enter.

- Eric Henderson, Slant

From its very first scene, depicting a mechanistic causality in which everyday life is figured as a linkage of moments of chaos and catastrophe, The Ladies Man signals its status as a calculated and rationally built object. Quickly, this depiction of the constructed nature of the narrative universe becomes a full-fledged self-reflexivity in the famous shot where, to a musical fanfare, the camera pulls back and reveals the ladies' boarding house as a large-scale cutaway. The set manifests itself explicitly as a set: lateral to the camera, the rooms of the boardinghouse are sliced open so that we can see into each and every one of them at the same time. This set, legendary in its status in film history, speaks of the act of creation in several ways. First, obviously, its artificiality and unreality signal the constructed nature of this narrative universe: this is decidedly, emphatically, a set. Secondly, the resemblance of the set to a dollhouse resonates with the thematics of the latter: the dollhouse is a form of creativity in which its owner manipulates reality as a godly figure lording over a controlled universe. The dollhouse set of The Ladies Man speaks not only of the creation of its narrative world but of the omnipresence and even omnipotence of its creator, the auteur who generated this fictional universe.

In keeping with these larger functions of the cutaway set, the division of the boardinghouse into a series of individual rooms allows for a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of narrative. As Herbert enters each room, a new story, a new sketch, can begin and signal the constructed nature of all such scenes, the way they are called into being by a narrational agent. (The set here bears obvious comparison to one used by another famous director whose films are often also about the director as a veritable authoring god: the courtyard of Hitchcock's Rear Window, where what Jeffries peers into is the world of narrativity itself, each window that is facing him a mini-story of life, love, or death.) Additionally, the multiplicity of rooms goes beyond narratological function to enable formal experimentation: each room has its own look, its own design, and its own coloration arranged according to unique and irreducible palettes. At the same time, it is important to note that each of the bedrooms reveals not any-story-whatsoever but stories or scenes specifically connected to a world of spectacle and showmanship, thereby signaling self-reflexively the film's emphasis on a world of performance: for example, in one room a woman auditions for the theater, while in the strangest of rooms, Herbert dances with a batlike woman while a band plays hip music, all of this in a decor that is highly stylized, offering hyperaware commentary on its own constructedness. When, toward the end of the film, a TV crew comes to the boardinghouse to film a documentary, the self-reflexive function of the set comes full circle and we participate in a film filming a filming (with Herbert Heebert then mimicking Jerry Lewis when he looks through the viewfinder and plays with the sound-recording technology).

- Dana Polan, "Working Hard Hardly Working." From Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Provenance. NYU Press, 2002. Pages 219-220.

Two moments of fantasy in The Ladies Man are prime Lewis. In one scene, Herbert, dusting a living room, opens a case displaying a group of exotic butterflies, which take wing and vanish past the camera. Conscious of having done a bad thing, he whistles them back; miraculously they return to their places, and he shuts them back in their display case. This scene is a great metaphor both for the story of The Ladies Man and for Lewis' own activity as a director: a discoverer of beauty, he animates beauty by beholding it, but this animation is loss, so he summons the beautiful objects back to their place and resolves to keep them there.

Later in The Ladies Man, Herbert enters the forbidden room of the mysterious Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis). Within the artificial universe of the boarding house, this room is a universe unto itself, with its own all-white decor; it also has its own spatial laws, since it proves to contain not just Miss Cartilage's bedroom but a vast ballroom with a bandstand, on which Harry James and his big band are gathered to give a private concert. Lewis reveals the ballroom to us by a cut that transforms not only space but costume: Herbert leaves one shot wearing his usual casual attire, to emerge in the next shot wearing a snazzy suit. The Miss Cartilage sequence encapsulates the whole film: a private episode for Herbert, self-contained and without antecedents or consequences in the narrative; a dangerous encounter with the figure of Sexual Woman, from which he has been in flight since his sweetheart's traumatizing betrayal; and a fantasy in which he momentarily asserts a mastery of performance (and a slick wardrobe) not revealed in the rest of the film.

This fantasy reveals Lewis' cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, decor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing (which features in many Lewis films, notably Cinderfella[1960, produced by Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin], The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor). In Lewis' work in general, all these elements are linked to the free exercise of the imagination, and they point to a conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry – a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy, to his last feature to date, Cracking Up.

The characters of The Ladies Man have no exit from the film's world, and yet the exit is available at all times to the audience, who are granted the privilege of perceiving the constructedness of this world: it's a stage set, a doll's house, a charged space of libidinal drives surrounded by an emptiness that Lewis sometimes pulls his camera back far enough to let us see (as he nearly does again in the astonishing overhead crane shot in Kelp's laboratory in The Nutty Professor – in which the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the supposed real dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of transformation).

Chris FujiwaraSenses of Cinema

In the films of Lewis, the carefully delineated narrative situations and conflicts that constitute the logic of the syntagmatic chain inevitably fall victim to a degeneration into a series of isolated sketches unrelated to the main narrative. The discursive operations of these films are dominated by digression and repetition, rather than by causal logic and narrative closure, and are thus more easily linked to the associational language of the patient than to the telos of the narrator. This tendency is most emergent in Lewis' most "total" productions: the carefully prepared scenario of The Ladies Man, with gradually introduced characters, settings, and conflicts, disintegrates into a series of blackout sketches unrelated either through chains of causality or the impetus of narrative functions. In The Ladies Man, architectural structure replaces narrative structure, as the massive cutaway house (which is simultaneously open and closed) operates as the merest gesture of containment toward the multitude of frenetic actions taking place within.

- Andrew HortonComedy/Cinema/Theory. University of California Press, 1991. Pages 202-203


Jerry Lewis' second film as director is one of his greatest, with its star almost overwhelmed by his one major set, the split-level interior of a Hollywood boarding hotel for aspiring actresses, where one Herbert Heebert, practising misogynist, has been taken on in all innocence as a houseboy. Lewis' camera performs some virtuoso movement around the rooms (Jean-Luc Godard and Julien Temple were to borrow this device), and the ultra-loose plotline allows for some hilarious sequences, and even a touch of surrealism in one entirely white interior. Highlights include Lewis breaking up a television show and dancing a tango with George Raft.

- David ThomsonTime Out Film Guide

Jerry Lewis conjured up one of his simplest concepts for this 1961 hit, but it required a lot of scaffolding. The Ladies Man puts love-scarred Jerry (who has sworn off women) in an all-girl boarding house, infuriated by the constant temptation. Except for the opening sequences, the film is entirely shot in the four-story-high, cut-away set of the boarding house, one of the most elaborate indoor sets ever made in Hollywood up to that time. Lewis, as director, finds dozens of angles to shoot within the set; this movie is one of the reasons the French are always talking about his directorial genius. (Jean-Luc Godard, who once called Lewis "the only one in Hollywood who's doing something different, the only one who isn't falling in with the established categories," borrowed the cut-away building idea for his film Tout va bien.) There's some great physical stuff, such as Lewis trying desperately to save the crushed hat of visiting tough guy Buddy Lester, plus a lot of Lewis vocal whining, especially concerning his name: Herbert Heebert, not Herby Heebert. The film has its share of gags falling flat, but for Lewis fans it's prime stuff, not far from the high-water mark of The Nutty Professor.

--Robert Horton, Amazon.com

Never mind that The Ladies Man isn't all that funny. (And to be fair, it's much funnier than anything else so far in the Paramount collection.) A gag involving Herbert destroying a visiting boyfriend's hat goes on so long and is so demeaning that your eyes pop out of your head, while a sequence involving a black-clad resident and her all-white apartment (with accompaniment by Harry James) is so deeply strange that you can't believe it's from the same guy who does that telethon every Labor Day. Colour is used sparingly but shockingly, and I swear that the wide shots of the cross-sectioned house were the inspiration for the opening of Tout va bien. For once, Lewis himself is calling attention to the jokes instead of himself, making even the de rigueur saccharine interludes inoffensive. Weirdo cineastes, your ship has come in; see this one twice for sure.

-Travis Mackenzie Hoover, Film Freak Central

Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (1961) is yet another work of genius, featuring Lewis as a girl-hating bachelor who winds up working in a boarding house packed with sexy, available young women. Most of this virtually plotless film is set in the astonishing three-story set with open walls and winding staircases and Lewis' camera glides freely up and down, in and out all the rooms. Some of the gags go on too long, notably one in which Lewis deals with a tough guy gangster waiting for his girlfriend in the lobby, but others are pure delight. Lewis even plays a touching scene in which he cheers up one of the girls, depressed after a failed audition. As with The Nutty Professor, the richness of color makes this a visual feast.

- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

The film ran out of gas well before the finish line, ending in Jerry's usual sentimentality--this time he must get confirmed that all the gals really needed the nebbish around because he's such a nice feller and not just to run errands. The episodic film had much energy early on and scored well, even though the gags were uneven, which showed me if you can reign Jerry in he could be funny without being too annoying. But for me, too much of Jerry is not a good thing; he does wear out his welcome, even in this above average Jerry film.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's Movie World

In Lewis's work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present. In The Ladies Man, Herbert refuses to believe guest star George Raft's claim of who he is and demands that Raft prove his identity by, in effect, playing Raft. Lewis uses Raft as an ideal masculine image in order to show that the image is not just "only" an image but first and foremost an image, one that not only the Lewis character, but George Raft himself, has trouble living up to. Lewis's direction of actors insists on an exaggeration that implies the awareness of an audience, suggesting that his characters (like those of John Cassavetes) are constantly involved in performances of themselves.



Video & Audio

Originally printed by (though not filmed in) Technicolor, Paramount's DVD of The Ladies Man looks very good, well above average, with great color and a sharp 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image. The Dolby Digital mono sound is likewise very strong; English and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as an alternate French audio track.

- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk

Something of a disappointment on this disc is the remarkably dull commentary track from Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence. Lots of silent gaps (I think at one point they may have left), and the conversational tone is very, very low key, with Lewis interjecting very little of substance. A few bits of salient insight on the large supporting female cast, but overall a snoozer.

Under the heading of Archival Materials Paramount has gathered up a curious mix of old promotional and studio footage that while low on content is at least interesting to look at. Included is a pair of deleted scenes, including a nearly nine-minute opera selection from Helen Traubel that is played completely and utterly serious. There is also a shorter scene entitled "Jerry Rains Confetti on Girls" (01m:27s), in which the female cast gets a mountain of torn paper poured on them by a very spastic Lewis. Outtakes has a couple of pure space fillers in the form "Jerry Asks Helen About Opera" (01m:44s) and Jerry Demonstrates the High Chair (:53s), two bits of behind-the-scenes clips that are essentially pointless aside from getting a quick glimpse at Lewis the director. A fast-motion Construction of The Ladies Man Set (:54s) shows the creation of the memorable dollhouse set, and an MDA Public Service Announcement (01m:52s) that features the same locale with Lewis using a stopwatch to make a genuinely heartfelt 60-second plea. Dance Rehearsal (:37s) shows Lewis hoofing it with one his co-stars, while the Auditions segment has the on-set tests for Pat Stanley (01m:03s) and Sylvia Lewis (03m:28s).

- Rich Rosell, Digitally Obsessed


IMDb Wiki

Jerry Lewis Comedy Museum and Store

Jerry Lewis' favorite films, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:

The Adventures of Robin Hood

An Affair to Remember

All About Eve

Breakfast at Tiffany's


Citizen Kane

The Fountainhead

On the Waterfront

Shadow of a Doubt

Was there ever a man or movie star less ordinary than Jerry Lewis? Even among screen comics, he would win few votes if we were electing that personality who best incarnated the common man. His public image is that of a gargantuan mutant outgrowth of the hot-house borscht-belt world of stand-up comedy. Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius — or both — Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboythrough The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world — more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.

Dean and JerryBecause he did learn so much during the 1950s, it is worth a brief examination of Lewis' most fortuitous apprenticeship with Frank Tashlin. It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Tashlin, that the dominant Jerry Lewis myth begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy of films like Scared Stiff orJumping Jacks starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is — if only in his dreams — a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin's duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin's hat. It is a sign (albeit still submerged) of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin's surreal universe, where everything is a caricature of itself, Jerry's increased consciousness serves to reveal the world's (Dean Martin's) hypocrisy.

It is as commentaries on psychological dementia in the 1950s (bosom fixation, infantilism, obsession, regression, popular culture) that Tashlin's films succeed where Jerry Lewis' personal directorial efforts only tangentially venture. Although a wide range of socially determined targets is set up and blasted in Jerry Lewis' movies, it is Jerry who becomes the center of interest and the raison d'etre of his own films.

The central, developing issue in the self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, and even to Which Way to the Front?, is the main character's attempted "normalization." Each film is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of Jerry's uncertain relationship to the world around him. It is revelatory to see this man's grappling with his own being in each film in terms of the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy — or extraordinary genius — in a Hollywood world of complete insincerity — or of noble aspiration. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when, in order to deal with the extremes of self-awe (for his genius) and self-hate (for his insincerity), as well as sanctimonious self-love (for his ordinary humanity), Jerry Lewis begins to spin off personalities — up to seven in The Family Jewels — each of which forms one perspective on the central structure of his films — the dilemma of a life-sized man trapped on the larger-than-life Hollywood movie screen.

Michael SternBright Lights Film Journal

In American Cinema, in a section titled "Make Way for the Clowns," Sarris compared Lewis unfavorably to Blake Edwards, whose "The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy are funnier than all the Lewis-Tashlin movies." Among the twelve reasons for his skepticism about Lewis' "talent as a creator" Sarris listed that Lewis' "aspirations exceed his ability;" that his work reveals a disjunction between a "verbal sophistication in nightclubs and sometimes on television and... [a] simpering simplemindedness on screen;" and that his comedy lacks "verbal wit" and appeals mainy to "audiences in the sticks and to ungenteel audiences in the verbal slums." Sarris faulted Lewis for his weaknesses of narration and found "the feature length film an appropriate vehicle for farce," also commenting that in Lewis' remakes he has played "the innocent" with themes of "effeminacy and transvestitism." Critical as well of Lewis' "conformist, sentimental, and banal dialogue," he suggested that "he has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade in to fade out."

Gerald Mast wrote in The Comic Mind, "Jerry Lewis' primary failure is that he never discovered who he was." His gags "do not flow from any human or personal center" and he "cannot manage a plot." In one sense Mast's comments, and Sarris' even more, are neither wrong nor arbitrary. Rather, they are indicative of the substitution of judgment for analysis. They stop at evaluation where they should begin with examination. As John Russell Taylor summed up "Anglo-Saxon" critics in the 1950s, "When they were not moralizing about the overstressed sexuality of Elvis Presley and the dangers of his effect on the young, [they] were likey to be tut-tutting about Jerry Lewis' spastic humour and claiming that his moronic screen persona made cruel fun of the afflicted."

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze has written eloquently on Lewis' ingenious and unique contributions to the cinematic image, particularly pointing to the ways in which the comedian's films can be seen to belong to the post-World War II regime of the "time-image." Here, "the image no longer refers to a situation that is globalising and synthetic, but rather to one that is dispersive. The characters are multiple, with weak interferences and become principal or revert to being secondary." This cinema of the time-image no longer expresses the character to determine and overcome situations. Instead, character and situations constantly splinter (as in a dream) and metamorphose into different perspectives and mlieux. Deleuze also sees Lewis taking up "the classic figure of American cinema, that of the Loser, of the born loser, whose definition is 'he goes too far.' But it is precisely in the burlesque dimension that this 'too far' becomes movement of a world which saves him and will make him a winner." The new burlesque with which Deleuze associates Lewis belongs not to the Bergsonian comedy of the mechanical but to the electronic world: it "arises from the fact that the character places himself (involuntarily) on an energy band that carries him along... The comic is no longer something mechanical." Lewis is situated not as a star, personality, or individual but as a process. In comparing Lewis' films to those of Tati, Deleuze - like Bergson - seeks to identify the character of this new automatism that seems to transcend a national context. For him, Lewis becomes post-modern; his work precludes certain kinds of analysis (e.g., psychoanalysis) where unconscious motivation continues to play a role and reveals a dream world where boundaries between the real and imaginary dissolve. This regime of the time-image is symptomatic of a different form of cinema that exposes, if not undermines, the classical cinema of action and character of the pre-World War II era.

- Marcia Landy, "Jerry Agonistes." From Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Provenance. NYU Press, 2002. Pages 64, 64.

What is it, then, that Jerry Lewis contributed to show business? I wouldn't deny that his ability to cause irritation is part of what he is doing as a comedian. Even back when I was a kid, Jerry's funny voices and facial contortions had the rare power to drive my parents out of the room. What grated on them, as it still does on viewers today, was the relentless infantilism of Jerry's act. Think of a small child's short attention span, its underdeveloped motor skills, its manic hyperactivity, its lack of inner restraint, its inability to acknowledge the needs of others or to resign itself to deferred gratification. These are the very elements that make up Lewis's comic persona. His slapstick routines have none of the grace and elegance that we find in the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or for that matter Jackie Chan. Instead, Lewis wallows in klutziness. He has a very strange relation to machines and other physical objects. The slightest touch is enough to make everything go awry. The effect is always wildly disproportionate to the cause. Jerry pushes a button, and triggers an alarm clock that won't stop ringing. He pulls at a loose thread, and an entire fabric unravels. He sings a wrong note, and glass shatters everywhere. He takes a photo with a flashbulb, and night is suddenly transformed into day. I find these routines funny, but I suspect that they are also the very thing that many people find excruciating. Because they depend on a set-up in which everything is ever-so-slightly off. Lewis is a master of doing things just precisely at the wrong time. His body seems to flail about at random, triggering chain reactions of chaos in his surroundings. His personality, just like his body, has no center. Jerry is always teetering on the brink of complete disorganization.

All this is to say that Lewis's humor has a high discomfort factor. Often I laugh, but just as often it makes me nervous. That Jerry is infantile also means that he's excessive. Anything goes, without regard for norms of intelligence or taste. Even when Lewis has a good comic idea, you get the feeling he doesn't know when to stop. He pushes everything just a little too far. This excess is not an artistic mistake; it's the very point of Lewis's act. Most comedians create a sort of magical world, in which their particular brand of insanity rules. Such is the case for film comedy on nearly every level, all the way from the Three Stooges to Woody Allen. Lewis is nearly alone as an exception to this rule. His persona is never able to rearrange the world to his own liking. As a result, you don't get a sense of freedom from his films, the way you do, for instance, with the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. You never escape from that voice in the back of your mind that keeps on telling you how stupid this all is. There's always an air of shame and embarrassment to Lewis's films. The nerdy, wimpy Julius Kelp of The Nutty Professor can only escape his sense of inferiority by turning into something yet more obnoxious: the conceited bully Buddy Love. In Smorgasbord, Jerry's character is so messed up and so incompetent that he cannot even kill himself successfully. The film's a series of gags built around the fears and humiliations of an unsuccessful psychoanalytic treatment. But it is precisely this sense of discomfort, of being a square peg in a round hole, that Lewis' comedy captures so successfully.

Steven Shaviro

To note that the films of Jerry Lewis are a rich, pleasurable and endlessly fascinating meditation on their medium is to say little. With Lewis, it's necessary to specify which medium. Film, of course; but this is a medium that Lewis' work has changed and redefined – through such inventions as the video assist, which he introduced in 1960, and through the inventions of sound, image and performance that proliferate in his films. Then there's the medium of selfhood; and as Lewis' selfhood is public, intensely so, as well as private, his films meditate deeply on (and through) celebrity. He himself is a medium, a total one, to borrow the adjective he placed so significantly in the title of his book The Total Film-Maker, and no director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of that medium.

Isolating for commentary Lewis' work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis' multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task. Merely establishing the corpus of Lewis' directorial work is difficult. If we see (as much urges us to) the Martin and Lewis films, though signed Marshall, Walker, Taurog, Pevney or even Tashlin, as having been co-directed by Lewis, we can't exclude the probability that Lewis also co-directed Martin and Lewis' many appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour. If we hear “direction” as synonymous with “authorship”, then Lewis is, by his own completely credible claim, the director of the duo, having come up with its formative conception (“a handsome man and a monkey”) and guided its development. Moreover, after the break-up of the team, Lewis exercised creative control over his innumerable film, television and stage projects at a level evidently deserving the name “directorial”, even though frequently the credit, and many of the functions, of director were delegated to others. Who will deny that Lewis is the creator of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon which, despite advanced age and a raft of health problems, he continues to host every Labor Day? Is not then each Telethon part of Lewis' directorial work?

Chris FujiwaraSenses of Cinema

Jerry Lewis was born into a world of cinema, of images that fascinated him. Brought as a performer and star to the place where films are made, he learned film as a child learns the ways of the world. Like a child, obsessed with finding out things, he took apart the toys he was given, trying to see what was inside them and how they worked. When he won the chance to direct his own films, he used the opportunity to launch a relentless examination of his own relationship with filmic and verbal language.

Taking his curtain call (in character as goofy Professor Kelp) in The Nutty Professor(1963), Lewis stumbles and falls into the camera lens. Lewis's understanding of film is such that the lens is never merely a point in space, an abstract function that organizes images, or a metaphor for consciousness grasping the world. The lens is a physical thing, part of the great big mess of material existence. In The Family Jewels (1965), the photographer Julius (Lewis) repeatedly presses his finger onto the lens of his camera, to show his niece (Donna Butterworth) where she should look ("You'll have a face full of fingers," he even remarks). In The Bellboy (1960), Stanley (Lewis), realizing on entering a room that he is surrounded with female models in negligees, crosses to the foreground and prudishly covers the camera lens with the palm of his hand. In the ball sequence in One More Time (1970), the eruption of a long-suppressed sneeze causes Charlie (Sammy Davis Jr.) to lurch forward, Kelp-like, into the camera lens. The cut shows a reverse field where already—in the instant of the cut—the exaggerated force of Charlie's sneeze has toppled a group of party guests, who slowly start picking themselves up from the floor, like the animated suits of armor in a magnificent gag in The Errand Boy (1961).

In all these scenes, Lewis is concerned with two fundamental questions of cinema: How to see? and What should be seen? He uncovers the logic that makes seeing aggression, the logic of the look that topples the object (like Kelp's out-of-focus look in the bowling alley inThe Nutty Professor, when he mistakes a group of people for bowling pins) or of the object that topples the look (Herbert [Lewis] witnessing the infidelity of his beloved Fay in the graduation-day sequence of 1961's The Ladies Man). The look confronting its object (taking or mistaking it, or being taken by it) is one of the basic structures of Lewis's work, from which he forms spiraling long-term patterns of conflict, avoidance, and reversal, welcoming or ignoring contradiction, violating the premises of a scene or even a whole film in search of new experimental truths (as in the classic hat scene in The Ladies Man, the nightmarish Copa scene in 1964's The Patsy, or throughout the breathtaking entirety of 1970's Which Way to the Front?).

Chris FujiwaraThe Moving Image Source

Lionized by the French critics as a comic auteur equal to Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis has seldom found much favor with critics in his own country. While other comedians such as Abbott & Costello (even The Three Stooges) who were similarly dismissed by contemporary reviewers but have since achieved a degree of artistic respectability—in some quarters, more than that—with the passage of time, Lewis has yet to experience such reappraisal. He remains more honored in Europe—especially France, although Germany and Spain have showered him with honors, too—than at home despite a career as prolific in its output as those of his more esteemed comic colleagues.

The reason for this may be that Lewis's style of comedy—which, in its post-Dean Martin period, focused almost exclusively on Lewis himself, almost never the characters or events surrounding him—strikes people as self-indulgent, self-centered, even egotistical; this is a major turnoff, particularly to critics. Also, the screen character he created and lavished so much attention on—the child who never grew up, a mugging simpleton Lewis dubbed "the Kid"—is very much an acquired taste. Children, especially young tots, find the character amusingly simpatico. But many older viewers, from age 20 on, find it forced, grating, shallow, stupid, and excruciatingly witless.

John McCartyFilm Reference.com

In 2003, in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, there is a discussion on films between the French and American boys. At one point, the Frenchman says, "You Americans don't understand your own culture. No wonder you never got the point of Jerry Lewis." The American replies, "Don't even get me started on Jerry Lewis." This exchange crystallises the dichotomy that is supposed to exist between the attitudes of anglophones and francophones towards Jerry Lewis: American no-bullshit pragmatism v pretentious French theorising, or American philistinism v French enlightenment.

In fact, it was the critics of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema who first directed Americans' attention to Lewis as an auteur. It was also this same magazine that alerted Americans to the value of their own directors such as Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray. Plus, it must be remembered that when Francois Truffaut's extended interview of Alfred Hitchcock was published in 1967, the director, with his best work behind him, was greatly underrated especially by American critics. Gradually, perceptive American and English critics have begun belatedly to reassess and credit Lewis's work.

As Gilbert Adair, who wrote the screenplay for The Dreamers, argued in his book Flickers, "For heaven's sake, how can Jerry Lewis be Art? And yet exactly as if a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell were to be exhibited in the Prado, where its usurped prominence would take some getting used to, but once you have got used to it, why yes, yes! It didn't seem at all incongruous beside the El Grecos and the Goyas and the Velasquezes."

In 2006, Lewis was presented with the Legion d'Honneur in France on his 80h birthday. But, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: "Lewis's popularity in America is far greater than any French love of Lewis ... American denial of the American love of Jerry Lewis is pathological." In a way, Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars could be seen as a back-handed compliment rather than an honour.

It suggests that Lewis, who has never been even nominated for an Academy Award, is being recognised for his annual telethons rather than for the films that made him famous enough to do them in the first place.

- Ronald Bergan, The Guardian

Beneath the struggle to control body, speech, and desire, there exists in Lewis' work an ongoing but finally failing struggle to control identity itself. Here lies the interest of the career of Jerry Lewis, in both its successes and failures. If the characteristic banality of Lewis' rhetoric on "love" and "being a somebody" suggests the presence of a recuperative function (which perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Lewis' role as a healing and uniting force on his annual telethon broadcast along the Love Network), a positivistic attempt to contain and define the subject then the maze of internal contradictions, displacements, and transformations that crosses these texts continually subverts such a function in a deeply and successfully ambivalent manner...

It is now a staple of cinematic theorization that the movie screen serves as a Lacanian mirror, providing the spectator with an ego-ideal. Our experience before this mirror reassures and resituates us at the perfect center of a stable world. The Lewis film, it should now be clear, often presents something quite different, and perhaps it is here that the American resistance to Lewis (text and figure) has its genesis. Jerry, far from the idealized and coherent self we are encouraged to see, is instead more closely aligned with the image of the infant, as Lacan put it, "still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence." An image of motor incapacity, sexual ambiguity, and unfixed identity: surely these are the precise phenomena that must be denied by the ego craving reinforcement. And so the spectators are palced in the radical position of searching into the mirror's depths, only to find reflected back the incoherent and fragmented, multiplied yet elusive image of Jerry Lewis.

- Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory. University of California Press, 1991. Pages 202-203

Through the years
1926: Born Joseph Levitch on March 26 in Newark, the only child of vaudevillian Danny and wife Rea.

1946: Teams with singer Dean Martin for the first time on July 25 at Atlantic City's 500 Club, becoming an overnight sensation in the second show after bombing in the first.

1949: Martin and Lewis become contract players at Paramount Pictures, leading to 16 phenomenally successful movies.

1950: On TV specials with Martin, Lewis begins his crusade on behalf of the recently formed Muscular Dystrophy Association.

1956: Wacky road pic Hollywood or Bust released, but partnership with Martin dissolves during final week of July, nearly 10 years after their teaming.

1960: Lewis' first directorial effort, The Bellboy, premieres in July, earning him previously eluded international acclaim.

1963: Jekyll-and-Hyde high jinks in The Nutty Professor, universally regarded as Lewis' best movie, which opens in June.

1965: Falls during a performance in March, injuring his spinal cord and leading to "37 years of pain."

1970: Appears in his last movie for 11 years, the poorly received Which Way to the Front?

1976: In a surprise arranged by Frank Sinatra, middle, Lewis is reunited with Dean Martin on live TV.

1977: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with muscular dystrophy.

1983: Receives critical acclaim for his dark role as TV talk-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy.

1995: Premieres on Broadway in a revival of Damn Yankees, leading to a nationwide tour.

2002: Credits a surgical implant and its hand-held controlling device with making him pain-free for the first time since 1965.

Though he has long been chided for being abrasive and egomaniacal, Lewis can be uncommonly gracious and outgoing. He has finally reached that stage in his career when he can reflect and inspire others to do the same.

"From 1936 on," he explains, "I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I've taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you're gonna have problems. I had pain during the last eight films; I've had pain in 37 straight telethons. I've never had a day without pain since March 20, 1965."

That's when he took a professional fall that chipped a piece of his spine "that would have paralyzed me if it had been another 15th or 16th of an inch." As it was, the chip led to a much-publicized Percodan addiction at its worst in the early '70s — and more recently a domino effect of afflictions, including nerve damage and the pulmonary fibrosis that has mandated his taking of the steroid prednisone. The drug contributed to his 45-pound weight gain. Lewis says his longtime friend, famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, calls prednisone the "greatest worst drug in America." This is all atop past double-bypass surgery, prostate cancer, spinal meningitis and pneumonia.something like a TV remote. Manufactured by Minneapolis-based Medtronic, it's the controlling component of a surgically inserted battery pack that one can see vaguely outlined in his left side when he lifts up his shirt. ("I hate to show you this because I'm so fat," he says, "but look — see it?")

Doctors cut bone out of his spine and replaced it with two large electrodes. From the battery pack, he says, "the two electrical leads lock in and are naturally covered with scar tissue. I'm sitting here in pain, but in a minute, I'm not going to have it. When I turn it on like that (beep), I'm vibrating like a vibrator within my skin. I raise the level if it's not working totally. ... I've had no pain since April 20.

"It also opens my garage," he deadpans.

Earlier in the conversation, Lewis has been asked to name the biggest misconception people have of him. The question throws him, but later he returns to it. He doesn't quite answer it head-on, but what he says reveals something about the struggle to be a professional child but also an adult.

"My misconception," he explains, "is that I want you to remember I'm a monkey and that Martin and Lewis were 'sex and slapstick' unequivocally. That's my title, I wrote it. But Jesus, both men can have sensitivity, a brain, a point of view and certainly a component that made them say, 'I am here and pay attention.' All that is gone if you're a monkey with a banana on a chandelier. That's the misconception that bothers me. I'll be the monkey if you want. But you asked to meet the man, so I'll give you what you want."

Did this confuse the public for a while?

"Of course. Terrible confusion. Because when I would be myself, I was being big-headed. I was being egotistical. I was a megalomaniac, when it really was just having not to be a monkey for a few hours a day. And fulfilling the need to be a man."

- Mike Clark, USA Today

Jerry Lewis on Charlie Rose, March 17, 1995

A few years ago, I thought I might open a chain of eulogy stores where you could go in off the street and, for twenty bucks, they'll tell you all the nice things they're going to say about you after you croak.But I don't want people to say wonderful things about me when I can't hear them. Tell me now, while I'm still here.

- Lewis, Interviewed by Amy Wallace, Esquire, December 31, 2005

979 (111). Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron)

Screened July TSPDT rank #965  IMDb Wiki

An early landmark in New York City's storied history of low-budget indie filmmaking, Blast of Silence may be most famous for its wall-to-wall second person voiceover narration ("You can depend on yourself, no one else. You learned the hard way... When people look at you, Baby Boy Frankie Bono, they see death." ). It's a neat trick that sets an otherwise mundane hitman plot over a dense interior landscape of self-loathing, paranoia and motivational self-talk. But it barely makes the top five things I love most about this film.

For one thing, Meyer Kupferman's multifaceted jazz score, moving deftly from vibraphone cool to trumpeting distress, does as much to express Frankie Bono's inner state. Mixing hard bop discord with symphonic lyricism, it foretells what Bernard Herrmann would do in Taxi Driver. The numerous authentic locations, from the storefronts on Fifth Avenue to the beatnik streets of the West Village, set the voiceover's raging sociopathy against a documentary sense of the real world, making its unease all the more pervasive (yet another of several cues Scorsese took from this film).

All of these elements come together less than 20 minutes into the film, in a stunning five minute sequence that has the anti-hero simply walking through an iconic Christmas-in-Rockefeller Center setting. The voiceover gets softer and more taciturn; the music settles into a Christmas choir followed by a pensive flute melody. Shadows grow long as day turns to night; the warm glow of toy store windows ironically cast him into a stark silhouette as he walks past, trying to recapture the seminal sensations of his childhood. The real-but-unreal storefront utopia of Fifth Avenue is transformed into a dreamscape of lostness. It's nothing less than the ultimate cinematic depiction of the Christmas blues.

Another innovative sequence follows: the hitman accidentally runs into childhood friend who invites him to a Christmas party that eventually has him pushing a peanut with his nose across the floor as a roomful of strangers laugh and cheer. It's a stunning moment of debasement for such an iconic figure, at once mocking the lone gunman myth while also unmasking him to be a lonely, desperate figure terminally unable to relate to others. This leads to another genre stunner, when he manages to take a girl home, only for his awkwardness to lead to an attempted rape.

Having done so much to overturn the criminal anti-hero's swagger in its first half hour, it's a shame that the film doesn't know quite where to go from there. Like its character, it reels from having gone so far into the uncomfortableness of the real world, and withdraws into its hired killer plot for the rest of its fairly predictable arc. But these breakthroughs are more than enough to seal the film's status as an ur-text of urban alienation cinema.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Blast of Silence among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Christoph Huber, Senses of Cinema (2000) Norbert Jochum, Steadycam (2007) Robert Fischer, Steadycam (2007) Wilfried Reichart, Steadycam (2007) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films


AN ambitious young writer-director-actor named Allen Baron has given himself a large but unpleasant role in his first film effort, "Blast of Silence." In the low-budget melodrama, which arrived yesterday at neighborhood theatres, Mr. Baron enacts a lonely professional killer, bothered by the festive Christmas crowds that jostle him as he ruthlessly stalks his prey.

Much of the confusion in this curious little film seems implicit in the mixed intentions of its stubbornly independent creators, Mr. Baron and his Brooklyn-born producer, Merrill Brody. Operating on a minute budget with unknown actors, a hand-held camera and a minimum of technicians, this do-it-yourself team obviously wanted to be offbeat and "arty" while still conforming to Hollywood's tested commercial formulas.

The result is simultaneously awkward and pretentious.

Even so, Mr. Baron has some interesting ideas about New York locations, and aided by the expert photography of Erich Kollmar he has made effective use of such settings as the Staten Island ferry, Rockefeller Plaza and the Village Barn night club. The outdoor scenes have a spontaneous vigor that augurs well for the director's future.

- Eugene Archer, The New York Times, December 30, 1961

Blast of Silence 3


Allen Baron's Blast of Silence was dumped like a corpse into a handful of theaters by Universal-International in April 1961 and rapidly vanished without a trace, only to be revived with no real frequency over the ensuing decades. Looking at it from the studio's point of view, it's not difficult to see why the film was barely a priority at the time of its release, being a cheap distribution pick-up from a couple of executive producers in New York (one of whom, Dan Enright, had distinguished himself as an especially mendacious figure in the Quiz Show scandals that consumed America for several months in 1958). In fact,Blast of Silence must have seemed downright perverse to executives at U-I, given that its protagonist wasn't played by a Star, or anyone well-known to the public from either film or television, but by its writer/director; a pudgy, 26 year old non-actor whose prior directing credits had been a couple of Hawaiian Eye episodes and an assistant director gig on that piece of dreck, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959) — a picture that, had it not been for the allure of seeing Errol Flynn hitting the skids on celluloid, probably wouldn't have been screened anywhere outside a couple of mangy drive-ins in Alabama and Kentucky. But Blast of Silence was a fast, cheap thriller with the requisite amounts of violence and gunplay, and those things could always make a couple of bucks for a studio in the end if the deal was right.

Of course, nobody was thinking in terms of "film noir," certainly nobody in Hollywood in 1961. By the time cinephiles were busily compiling the noir canon like a pack of faith-crazed monks later in that decade, Baron's film had already disappeared into the ether without them noticing; a film born obscure that soon passed into the endless night of a still greater obscurity. Which is as unfortunate as it is typical of the mass-market cinephile's perpetually distracted mindset, for Blast of Silence is possibly the great lost masterpiece of film noir; a twilit, deathward emanation of everything that had underlain the form from its beginnings. No American film before it, made in Hollywood or anywhere else, had trafficked so promiscuously in unadulterated nihilism, or so used the condition of Hate — constant, irritated Hate, with no coherent Other to direct it toward — as its emotional motif. The loneliness and doom and spiritual unease that operated at noir's core and became more pronounced as the form slowly began shedding its visual trappings in the 1950s, here became its dominant emotional surface, infecting everything, consuming every character in the film rather than simply its protagonist.

In earlier, more celebrated noirs, for instance, no matter how twisted the nominal hero or his adversaries might have been from within, screenwriters always managed to balance out their human landscape with so-called "normal" people, usually in the form of cops, sweethearts, and other assorted bystanders to the gathering darkness of these scenarios. That these characters were usually the least believable of all made them no less necessary to a Hollywood storytelling model that had long ago steadfastly rejected nuance. But in Blast of Silence, Allen Baron ignored the rules and brought forth a dissociated, ugly vision of his fellow man that, unlike its closest spiritual predecessors in noir, Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Irving Lerner's Murder By Contract (1958), never resorts to either grotesquerie or easy symbology.

Blast of Silence goes further than any previous noir in eschewing a lumbering chiaroscuro in favor of a naturalism closer to something like Cassavetes' Shadows, further than even a later, comparatively sun-drenched noir such as Gerd Oswald's Crime of Passion (1957). Having to work within the thinnest of shoestring budgets, Baron elected to use, as few filmmakers had before, the expressive potential of New York City; bringing his camera into the streets of midtown Manhattan at Christmastime, to Rockefeller Center, Harlem, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Whether it was a conscious strategy or the result of having no resources to create a setting for his tale from scratch, this unglamorous, rather desolate photography of the city by Merrill S. Brody (who also acted as the film's producer) worked immeasurably to Baron's advantage. Indeed, as a directorial debut, Blast of Silence is an altogether prodigious achievement. A model thriller and character study, it takes us step by step through Frankie Bono's process in setting up his prey for the eventual kill. And at every turn, Baron's control of his mise-en-scene remains assured and proficient, with few if any missteps. If the film can be said to have a diminishing flaw, it's that the wall-to-wall narration at times goes beyond underscoring the action on-screen and becomes simply redundant. There are moments when it tells us nothing that the film's bleakest images could not have handled on their own. But where one might expect a certain amount of clumsiness in a no-budget film from a first-time film director, Blast of Silence is an unusually expert piece of film craftsmanship, coming as it did from a filmmaker who had no track record at all and, as the years passed, would never really succeed in making a name for himself in his chosen field.

- Tom Sutpen, Bright Lights Film Journal

Blast of Silence 1


Blast of Silence, despite its graphic vigor and its documentary-like immediacy, shares some of its hero’s radical isolation from his surroundings: a stubborn neither-here-nor-thereness and—especially now, nearly half a century later—a haunting sense of being somehow suspended in time. When the picture was released, film noir was effectively over, and the era of hit-man chic ushered in by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was still more than three decades in the future. It’s commercially dangerous for any work of popular art to be either behind the times or too far ahead of them. Blast of Silence—yet another strange distinction—is both.

- Terrence Rafferty, from essay for The Criterion DVD

Mr. Baron’s stripped-down visuals are complemented by an almost continuous voice-over narration, composed under a pseudonym (“Mel Davenport”) by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt (“Midnight Cowboy”) and read (with no credit at all) by the blacklisted actor Lionel Stander: “You were born with hate, and anger built it. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive.”

This curious mode of address — the second person accusative? — places the viewer in Frankie’s uncomfortable skin, cornering us into taking the side of this faceless, largely passive psychopath as he drifts along to his noir-mandated doom.

But for all of its pulp poetry — the picture begins in a railroad tunnel, transformed by the narration into a birth canal that will blast the silently screaming Frankie into the harsh reality of Penn Station — the film retains a down-and-dirty, documentary aspect. The studiously gray, unglamorous views of 1961 Manhattan — St. Marks Place, where Frankie takes a room at the Valencia Hotel; the blanked-out East 30s, where Frankie’s mark has a girlfriend stashed in a walk-up apartment — are worth the price of admission alone. Here’s what was being left out of those Madison Avenue melodramas and Park Avenue romances of the period.

- Dave Kehr, The New York Times review of Criterion DVD

Baron’s crumpled, shoestring noir boasts the authentic seediness and soul-sickness of a Weegee photograph, with vérité views of Harlem pinpointed next to a storefront Santa’s inane ho-ho-hoing and the drum-smacking and smoke of a squalid nightclub. Others in the urban nocturne include a rotund underworld hanger-on (Larry Tucker) with soft voice, fungus-like beard and caged pet rats, and a targeted mobster (Peter H. Clune) who brings his mistress a huge panda plush doll. If rejection from an old friend’s sister (Molly McCarthy) doesn’t seal the protagonist’s loneliness, then the Lionel Stander voiceover rasping in his ears surely does: "You don’t have to know a man to live with him, but you have to know a man like a brother to kill him." Or: "He thinks he looks like a gentleman if his shoes are shinned. You could kill him right now with pleasure." Paddy Chayefsky, Cassavetes’s Shadows (and Johnny Staccato), Melville. Baron's New York finds its completion in Taxi Driver: if the city is a dusky valley, then the man is a speck trying to grow larger by ambling down the sidewalk toward the stationary camera. The assassin labors to see himself as the hand of fate but is shown up as a greasy hood in fedora and trench coat, alone with delusions -- you’d have to wait until The Killing of a Chinese Bookie for a deeper autopsy of the gangland macho ethos. With Danny Meehan, Dean Sheldon, and Charles Creasap.

- Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

Either the last film noir or the bridge between the genre and the American independent movement to follow, Allen Baron’s megalomaniacal 1961 low-budget hitman saga is a fine member of any of its multiple categorizations. Baron wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, which relates a gutter-noir tale of an assassin whiling away time in New York City over X-Mas as he plans a hit. Its influence on everything from young Scorsese to, in one subplot, Grosse Pointe Blank is undeniable. And if Baron’s a bit of an inexpressive lump on-screen he was at least smart enough to cast Shock Corridor’s Larry Tucker (see picture) as a terminally distracted gunsalesman. But what really sets it apart from the pack – along with its amazing location photography, often shot with natural lighting – is what’s on the soundtrack. Let’s not mince words: Blast of Silence features the greatest voiceover in film history. This isn’t the first-person confessional of Double Indemnity, or even the third-person of Band of Outsiders. It’s second-person - a perspective I don’t think any other film has ever adopted. Written by Waldo Salt and delivered with great relish by Lionel Stander (neither of whom were credited), it alternates between offering a snarling evocation of his nihilistic thoughts (“You’re feeling better now that you’ve got that Christmas out of your system”) and mocking his self-enforced isolation from the world. Oddly, the very rottenness of the narration gives the film a poignancy, particularly when this miserable bastard makes a fumbling attempt at relating to some old friends.

- Matt Prigge, Fest Phanatic

By the time of Blast of Silence, Walter Benjamin, if not Edgar Allan Poe himself, had long ago laid the connection between detective fiction and flâneurs, and a new type of consciousness (emblematized specially by the modern phenomenon of movie-going), in which the crux of identity lies in nothing innate and little lasting, but in the act of perceiving, and, perceiving, in particular, the city: detective’s work. Yet neorealism would seem to be a necessary condition for flâneur movies, which, despite Night and the City’s influence, may be why relatively few major noirs followed in Benjamin’s tradition, devoted entirely to cutting through swaths of city spaces and social milieus, to exploring parties and restaurants and businesses around town in an ostensible search for clues, and to depicting a man as he finds or loses himself—perhaps the same thing—in urban phantasmagoria.

Filming perceptions, Resnais and Antonioni pose the old phenomenological quandary of what’s subjective and what’s objective; so too Baron, if a bit more crudely. Stander, the soundtrack, is subjectivity, and the images, straight-up documentary footage straight from the streets, are objectivity. Yet Blast suggests the Dostoevskian possibility—or rather, preaches it—that all civilization’s pretty Christmas lights are glitzy decorations over the truth of one man’s private hell (all men, perhaps, but loneliness is essential to Baron’s neorealist conception of hell). For most of the film, the bright lights of consumer culture seem to be about all that emerge from the dark.

This is more or less the sentimental romance of Raymond Chandler; it is Baron’s contribution to blame the doomed love not on a flea-bitten idealist run out of dreams, but (as Robert Altman would later do with his The Long Goodbye) on a swinging culture that will make you push peanuts on the floor with your chin for the entertainment of the crowd. There are loners and there are the masses, as there are in La Notte and L’Eclisse, and both are guarantees of anonymity; there are also, in Silence, the dead, the most anonymous of all. And for Bono, trying hard to keep quiet and repress his worst instincts and get a job done, anonymity is always the goal.

- David Phelps, The Auteurs Notebook


"You were born in pain," a voiceover announces over the black screen that opens writer-director-star Allen Baron's 1961 film Blast Of Silence. "You were born with hate and anger built in," it continues as it becomes clear that this ugly telling of the film's protagonist's birth accompanies a point-of-view shot of a train emerging from a tunnel. "Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream and then you knew you were alive." That won't be the last time Blast Of Silence draws symbolic power from images shot on the fly, or finds violence embedded in everyday life.

Working with a miniscule budget, Baron creates charged compositions out of found locations and makes a virtue out of the film's cheapness. The soot and litter almost seem summoned by his character's mental state. Established admirer Martin Scorsese could easily have had it in mind when he made Taxi Driver; Blast Of Silence shares that film's tortured philosophizing. Working under a pseudonym, blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt provides the beautifully purple second-person narration that puts viewers in the position of the film's protagonist as he makes his way through a city where death waits at the first sign of weakness. Or tenderness.

- Keith Phipps, The Onion A/V Club

Indeed, the cinematography of Blast of Silence is so outstanding that it turns New York City into a character rather than a mere location. Even though Blast of Silence was Baron’s first movie, his professional background as a comic book illustrator gave him a firm understanding of visual concepts such as framing and composition. The result was a series of truly breathtaking shots. Consider, for instance, the long shot of Frankie walking down the street towards the camera with the skyline of the buildings off to the sides, which feels as menacing as it does inspiring.

- Marco Lanzagorta, Pop Matters

With one foot planted firmly on the Kiss Me Deadly era of film noir and the other closer to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Blast of Silence begins with a brutal, uncompromising invocation of birth and ends with an almost mystically sensitive death. The story of socially isolated hit man Frankie (Allen Baron) who comes to terms with his deferred need for human connection just in time for a) Christmas, and b) a job that will require him to be especially cold-hearted, Blast of Silence is less a manifestation of the labrynthine plot trajectories of great noir than a early harbinger to the DIY moxie of the American independent movement.

Shot on a shoestring, director/writer/lead actor Baron's blunt, almost perfunctory story doesn't reveal much about the inner workings of its central character but instead takes advantage of the downright dull aspects of New York City, a city films (especially films noir) often depict with mythic reverence as a succession of places you'd want to visit but aren't even sure you could live therein. So far as the movies are concerned, New York is as artificially engineered an environment as Disneyland or Stepford, Connecticut (or Hollywood). What Blast of Silence gets and gets right is the sense that New York, for all its "top of the world" potential, is also a working metropolis with accompanying concessions, mediocrities, and isolations.

For all the narrator's insistence on stressing the dangers around every corner, the film's bland images suggest the world truly couldn't care less about Frankie's dogged pursuit of a gun with a silencer; at one point a headline screams one of his crimes, but he's the only character shown actually reading the article. Haunting, remote, and workmanlike, Blast of Silence may be the only film I've ever seen with a trip on the Station Island Ferry in which I expected a tumbleweed to flit across the deck.

- Eric Henderson, Slant

Although done on the hustle — Brody also produced and edited; Carol, his wife, was assistant director; Kollmar plays a bit part as the Bellhop; part of the picture was shot using free test stock from Kodak, etc — Blast of Silence is a first-rate technical achievement. Meyer Kupferman’s modern jazz and classical score deserves special mention. While a soundtrack album was never released — not a huge surprise, as the film itself was given zero promotion by Universal, who picked it up for distribution as a second feature — one would be welcome even today as the perfect entree to Kuperfman’s vast and original sound world.

- Brian Berger, Stop Smiling

There's a kind of existential dread at the heart of every film noir—they all take place in that dark and brooding world in which no good deed goes unpunished, and you're thankful that there's style to burn, because it and everything else are going to go up in flames by the time we get to the final fadeout. But Allen Baron's Blast of Silence may be the most self-conscious of the sort, playing out almost like a mob version of Camus's The Stranger. It's a strange and energetic movie that runs like the wind, and you just wish that it would trust itself a little bit more.

What gets rather too distracting is that the movie is wallpapered with voice-over, either Frankie's interior monologue or the dime-store novel that the character imagines himself starring in. It's delivered by Lionel Stander, whose gravelly voice matches the hardened exterior of the protagonist—but it's just so relentless and overwrought, tarting up just about every scene ("The conga drum beating your head until you taste the hate on your tongue," and so on), that it starts to leech the drama out of Frankie's story. You can understand the inclination—the lead character is so fierce about keeping his own counsel, and you almost sense that Baron trusts himself more behind the camera than in front of it. But at some point you want to holler back—enough already! Baron actually figures that out by the end of the run of the picture, which is a blessing, even if a bit too late.

- Jon Danziger, Digitally Obsessed

Arriving three years after Orson Welles´ "Touch of Evil," Baron´s film is either a straggler at the end of the classic film noir period, or one of the earlier neo-noirs. Film noir was a term applied many years after the noir cycle began, so it´s unsurprising that critics can´t agree on the precise timing of each of the noir cycles or even how to define the genre. Many films have noir qualities but aren´t really film noirs. That´s not the case with "Blast of Silence," a noir by any definition. Like most noirs, the film´s universe is one that is severed from any sense of a higher being, a world covered by only a thin veneer of civilization where even the slightest mistake, a stumble or a wrong turn, leads inevitably to tragedy. Frankie was "born in pain," and he lives in pain, always trying to drown out the scream that heralded his entry into this cruel world.

- Christopher Long, DVD Town

The film plays like an unholy marriage between the realist films noir of the '40s like "The Naked City" and the early independent dramas of John Cassavetes, with a narrator (uncredited Lional Stander) speaking in second person like the twisted inner voice of a soul that has been basting in antipathy and spite for years. The hard-boiled riffs play like pulp beat poetry distilled into pure misanthropic cynicism.

- Sean Axmaker, MSN Movies

The story is standard issue, but what Baron does with it is amazing; his graphic sense is on view from the first image, a cosmic abstraction that bursts stunningly into grim reality, and his conception of the character, blending the heat of hatred and the chill of method, is unusual and fascinating.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

You know you're a part of something when it feels like both the last "real" noir, a kiss of death to that movement as we knew it, while also one of the first true neo-realist American independents.

- Craig Phillips, GreenCine

I can't think about Allan Baron's 1961 Blast of Silence without thinking of Cleveland, even though not a frame of the film takes place or was shot there. But the film's hitman anti-hero, "Baby Boy" Frankie Bono (played with note-perfect inarticulate inexpressiveness by Baron himself), is, as Lionel Stander's narrator notes, "out of Cleveland," and this bit of info was sufficient to compel a small coterie of film freaks from that burg to even-more-fanatically embrace a film they would have loved anyway.

- Glenn Kenny

If one looks at Blast of Silence as a straightforward film noir, it can come across as a little irritating and repetitive. The narration, an old noir standby, is virtually omnipresent, to the point that it almost feels overdone and way too intrusive at times. But it's important to realize that the narration (written by Waldo Salt, under the pseudonym "Mel Davenport") isn't just there because other movies of its kind have included it too; rather, you can almost see it as a way to poke fun at such genre conventions.

- A. J. Hakari, Classic Movie Guide

You know the movie’s not perfect. The plot gets a little convenient, and if he can’t see the ending coming you figure Baby Boy Frankie Bono may not be the sharpest cannon in the shed.

But you’re not watching this one for the story. No. You’re watching it for the mood. The feeling. The energy that Baron finds on the streets of your hometown and channels into every frame. In Harlem. In Greenwich Village, beatniks pounding their drums and their libidos ‘til everything’s raw.

- Vince Keenan

Blast of Silence feels like a French New Wave film, coming out in 1961 on the heels Godard’s Breathless [1959], and foreshadowingAlphaville [1965]. Blast of Silence is a must see for movie fans. A beautifully crafted film. The simplicity of its narrative, its character, images and theme, cuts like a switchblade but with the precision of a surgeon using a scalpel. Fallen out of love with movies? Watch Blast of Silence and rediscover why you fell in love in the first place.

- Grumpy Guy Cinema

The second-person narration not only helps fill in for professional assassin Frankie Bono’s trademark taciturnity, but it forces us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a methodical killer. The film may have influenced the silent-cool antiheroes of Jean-Pierre Melville’s later noirs (like “Le Samurai”), but while Melville’s reserve promoted existential alienation, Baron’s narration asks us to empathize with a monster on the brink of reform.

- Film Walrus Reviews

Bono’s odyssey is one of methodical purpose. Baron exerts great care in documenting his preparatory activities without clouding them in concessions to morality. There’s an extended sequence where Bono cleans and readies his gun, set to the strains of a solo jazz trumpet, which is particularly effective in this regard. Elsewhere, the vibraphone-dominant soundtrack, feels somewhat dated and intrusive. A Bohemian party where Bono attempts to connect with old friends is similarly time-locked, couples waltzing and carousing politely while in another corner of the room a hipster palms and awkward bongo beat. A comical peanut-pushing race serves as quixotic culmination.

- Derek Taylor, Bagatellen

While Baron has no clue how to stage or direct people talking, walking, driving, fighting, kissing or smoking in dingy hotel rooms, two or three grand visual metaphors demonstrate what he might have achieved if only he’d had more dough. The picture opens with the camera moving at great speed through blackness towards a distant tiny dot of light. As the light grows and grows, Stander recites in second person a litany of the reasons ‘you’ wished you’d never been born. But too late, Stander says, as the light blossoms, you were hurled against your will into this awful world! Boom—the light becomes the end of a subway tunnel and New York City, in all its cloudy-day glory looms, promising only futility.

- David N. Meyer, The Brooklyn Rail


- Sean Howe, Entertainment Weekly

- Todd Konrad, Independent Film Quarterly

- Mike White, Noir of the Week

- Don Wilmott, Film Critic.com

- Jeff Duncanson, Film Screed

- Lawrence Helm

- Brian Tallerico, The Dead Bolt

- Conrad Rothbaum, Film School Rejects

- Steve Puchalski, Shock Cinema


This Criterion is touted as a 'DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION' although the most appealing aspect for many Criterion fans will be that the 4:3 ratio film is NOT pictureboxed (see our description of 'pictureboxing' in our Kind Hearts and Coronets review). The Criterion is progressive and dual-layered, and hence the image quality towers above the frugal Alive Film single-layered edition from Germany. The Criterion still shows some infrequent noise but it is easy to state that this is the best digital image of the film to date... and possibly ever. As usual the Criterion has clear mono audio (weak in spots) and optional English subtitles.
Criterion offer some supplements: Requiem for a Killer: The Making of “Blast of Silence” is almost an hour long and humorously starts with Baron admitting that he didn't even know what 'Cannes' was when the film was attempted to enter but fell short of the deadline. The featurette has some interesting and amusing production anecdotes but I found it a bit long. There are two gallery sections of static photography: Rare on-set Polaroids are somewhat worn but add to the pragmatic creation of the film. There is also Locations revisited in 2008 which shows some past shots compared to modern ones often with Baron in the present image. A theatrical trailer is included and a 12-page liner notes booklet featuring an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty and a four-page graphic-novel adaptation of the film by acclaimed artist Sean Phillips.
So nice to have this Noir gem in a competent, complete package and it is wonderful news indeed that Criterion appears to have abandoned pictureboxing.

This Criterion is touted as a 'DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION' although the most appealing aspect for many Criterion fans will be that the 4:3 ratio film is NOT pictureboxed (see our description of 'pictureboxing' in our Kind Hearts and Coronets review). The Criterion is progressive and dual-layered, and hence the image quality towers above the frugal Alive Film single-layered edition from Germany. The Criterion still shows some infrequent noise but it is easy to state that this is the best digital image of the film to date... and possibly ever. As usual the Criterion has clear mono audio (weak in spots) and optional English subtitles.

So nice to have this Noir gem in a competent, complete package and it is wonderful news indeed that Criterion appears to have abandoned pictureboxing.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver


Blast of Silence is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layered disc. The image has thankfully not been picture-boxed. Criterion presents a very strong digital transfer, though the source material has a few issues here and there. The film's sharpness varies throughout, looking sharp and crisp most of the time but murky and soft at others. There's no consistency to it so my guess is it just has to do with the source. The film is in black and white and during the film's sharper, cleaner moments the blacks are very deep and dark. It also presents strong whites and grays with excellent contrast. During the murkier moments the blacks come off more on the grayish side. Considering the film's very indy roots I'm not too shocked at the inconsistencies presented throughout, but I am quite surprised by how clean the image looks in terms of dirt and debris. While there is the occasional mark (the opening has a vertical line somewhat noticeable to the right) the print used has been cleaned up substantially. Despite its few issues, this is still a very solid transfer.


The film is presented in a Dolby Digital 1.0 track, audio coming out of the center. This is actually a surprisingly strong track, though not without its own flaws. The opening bit presents very harsh sound effects and some of the music can sound like it's been cranked a little too much, almost distorting. But it's still very clean. I didn't notice any hiss or any background noise. Dialogue is also very strong. The film has a voice over narration by Lionel Stander, whose voice is deep and gravely, and there's no issue whatsoever in understanding anything said. Despite some moments where I felt the music, sound effects, and/or background noise were probably a little too loud, it’s an nicely cleaned up track.

- Chris Galloway, The Criterion Forum


Blast of Silence - Criterion Collection is packaged in a clear plastic case with printing on all sides of the cover. The front image, menu design, and all of the interior images were done by comics artist Sean Phillips, whose own Criminal series with Ed Brubaker tells tough-minded crime tales in the tradition of Blast of Silence. Having Phillips' art throughout gives the packaging a wonderful design unity. In addition to the regular Criterion booklet, which has an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an extra four-page insert by Phillips adapts some of the Waldo Salt voiceover from the film into a brand-new promotional comic. It's a very cool extra.

Beyond the packaging bonuses, there are four features on the DVD itself. Two are photo galleries, including one of Polaroids from Allen Baron's set and a new collection showing the Blast of Silencelocations today. The new photos are juxtaposed with images from the movie, and some of the new ones even feature Baron. There are title cards in between explaining what you are seeing.

The original theatrical trailer is like a mini film unto itself, lurid and intriguing all on its own. It makes the audience's pact with the killer implicit. "You will walk side-by-side with Frankie Bono!"

The final extra is a brand-new, hour-long documentary called Requiem for a Killer: The Making ofBlast of Silence. It's both a biography of the film and of Allen Baron, of his love affair with the city he grew up in, how he got into cinema, and how he made this impressive debut. Culled from an older German TV program, it's built around Baron taking us on a walking tour of Manhattan, telling us a ton of great stories of the time when Blast of Silence was made. The revelation that he had been a cartoonist makes the comic book stuff even more apropos.

- Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk


- Eric Somer, Matchflick

- Clark Douglas, DVD Verdict

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk


Born in 1935 (and currently still living), Allen Baron had a steady, relatively prosaic career after writing and directing Blast of Silence. He followed it up in 1964 with Terror in the City, another thriller of his own script that also went nowhere, only this time for Allied Artists. In 1972 he co-directed (with actor G. D. Spradlin) a draft-dodger melodrama, Outside In; and ten years later directed his fourth and final feature, a species of Ozark romance entitled Foxfire Light (these films remain, like their predecessor, trapped in the cinema rabbit hole). During this period Baron directed episodic television. A lot of it. Throughout the 1970s and '80s his name could be found on everything from The Night Stalker and Barnaby Jones, to The Love Boat and the show he directed more episodes of than all others, Charlie's Angels. If he was known for anything, it was television. And he stopped directing it for good in 1986.

- Tom Sutpen, Bright Lights Film Journal

At the time Blast of Silence was shot (in 1959 and 1960), Baron was an occasional actor and a former comic-book illustrator who thought he could make a movie and had managed to raise the twenty grand or so he needed to turn out something that would look reasonably professional. Although Baron was a native New Yorker, Brooklyn bred, he chose to film a story about a man who is not: a tense, wary out-of-towner who, like so many who come to Manhattan from smaller, less daunting places, responds to the perceived hostility of the city with some pretty serious hostility of his own. In those days, of course, making a movie in New York—three thousand miles from Hollywood and on a budget even a studio B movie would be ashamed of—was an uncommon and risky venture, and at least a trace of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is discernible in every Gotham indie of that era: a sense of alienation was, as this movie’s narrator might say, built in.

And Baron has the wit (or the instinct) to turn that uncomfortable feeling to the movie’s advantage. Maybe the most impressive thing about this debut feature is how rigorously its inexperienced director sustains a mood of endemic existential anxiety, of a pervasive wrongness in the world. In a way, it’s fortunate that Peter Falk, whom Baron had cast as Frankie Bono, was unable to play the part. (Falk opted to take the role of a different hit man, in Burt Balaban’s 1960 Murder, Inc.) Baron’s a lesser actor, obviously, but his relative lack of ease before the camera lends a little extra edge of tension to this already tightly wound character. There’s a weird poignancy in his stiffness. As Baron plays the character, Frankie looks like a man who’d be an out-of-towner anywhere on earth. He’s a stranger in his own skin.

But Allen Baron, unlike his luckless hero, has survived. He hasn’t directed a TV show in better than twenty years. He has begun painting again, and is preparing a series of abstract canvases for a gallery show, his first, in Los Angeles. He still sounds like a New Yorker. New Yorkers feel noirish a lot of the time, but not always. Sometimes they even manage to remember the truth uttered by one of the city’s great sages, a contemporary of Baron’s named Lawrence Peter Berra. It ain’t over till it’s over, he said, and New Yorkers never argue with Yogi.

- Terrence Rafferty, from essay for The Criterion DVD

977 (109). A Letter to Three Wives (1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Screened July 11 2009 on 20th Century Fox DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #957 IMDb Wiki


Joseph Mankiewicz' wittily scripted, innovatively structured survey of distaff marital life at the brink of the Eisenhower era pits three middle class wives against an impossible feminine ideal. Addie Ross, the omniscient, goddess-like narrator who opens the film with withering remarks about the lives of the desperate housewives she calls friends, is as much of a structuring absence as Citizen Kane's Rosebud. She's never seen, only talked about as some otherworldly feminine ideal who inspires men and terrorizes women. It's her letter to the three wives, announcing that she's run off with one of their husbands, that sets off a  chain of collective flashback introspection; the wives are so awestruck that their response is to ruminate in their domestic failures rather than kick some adulterous ass. She's a gimmick, but one that aptly grounds Mankiewicz's suburban landscape as a projection screen of insecurities. Even domestic sounds like a ferry horn or a dripping faucet set loose vexing thoughts about infidelity and emptiness among the three wives.

Though they share the same anxiety of being unfit to hold a good man, the three wives each represent a different slice of the upwardly mobile post-WWII woman. Jeanne Crain is a pretty, stay-at-home type of modest background, grateful and anxious about landing the picket fence package. Ann Sothern is the career girl both proud and worried that she makes more than her man, while on the brink of compromising her values for a paycheck. Linda Darnell is the unrepentant maneater who plays the sexist cards she's dealt with masterfully, but can't get over the golddigger persona she feels saddled with.

Mankiewicz delights in poking and celebrating the pride and pretensions of each type, succeeding especially with Sothern and Darnell. Some may see their outcomes as regressing into conservative notions of marital subservience, irreconcilable with the self-sufficient superfigure of Addie Ross. But it's worth putting it out there that feminist ideals can bully women as much as galvanize them. The film, which neither completely skewers nor validates the domestic American dream, hit a nerve with viewers back in 1949; 60 years later, its visually expressive, vocally incisive inquiry into a woman's place in this world isn't as obsolete as one might think.




The entirety of A Letter to Three Wives is available on YouTube. Part 1 here



The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Letter to Three Wives among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Adeline Weckmans, ymdb.com (2002) Albert Valentin, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) David Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994) Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991) Michael Henry Wilson, Positif (1991) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films


Within the absorbing contents of "A Letter to Three Wives," Joseph L Mankiewicz is peddling some pretty good wisdom and advice. The wisdom, tucked off in corners of this tri-paneled comedy-romance, is that love is a volatile something which can quickly evaporate unless it is constantly guarded with understanding and care. And the advice, angled mainly to the ladies, is never to speak harsh words (or such) to their true-loving husbands who may leave them and never return.

Thus, in the reflections of these ladies, Mr. Mankiewicz cleverly evolves an interesting cross-sectioned picture of the small-town younger-married set. And as writer as well as director, he has capably brought forth a film which has humor, scepticism, satire and gratifying romance.

The fact that so many paces are put on display in this film forewarns that a certain unevenness is likely to occur. And it must be admitted frankly that the whole thing is not in perfect time. The earlier phases are draggy and just a bit obvious. And because this is so, the episodes involving Jeanne Crain as the ex-Wave and Ann Sothern as the radio-writer do less to enhance those stars.

But the final romantic remembrance—that of the hard-boiled wife—is a taut and explosive piece of satire, as funny and as poignant as it is shrewd. And it is played with coruscating vigor by Linda Darnell in the gold-digger role and by Paul Douglas as the rough-cut big-shot whom she tangles with frank and ancient wiles. Indeed, this one rough-and-tumble between Mr. Douglas and Miss Darnell is deliciously rugged entertainment, the real salvation of the film.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 21 1949


Joseph L. Mankiewicz first made waves with this 1949 trilogy film, about three vacationing women who receive a letter from a mutual friend, announcing that she has run away with one of their husbands--but which? Mankiewicz's writing is bright and hard--he's sharpening his teeth for All About Eve, made the next year--but his acid wit is almost too much for his fragile characters to bear. His bile seems excessive applied to this satire on suburban mores, in a way it would not when Eve poured it on backstage Broadway, where there were some genuine pretensions to puncture.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader


The film could have been called “Scenes from Three Marriages.” It presents, in flashbacks, each wife’s tremulous view of her domestic discord, and the crises are worthy of Bergman: there is the resentful silence of good cheer, the cultural combat of money versus art, and overtly sexual class warfare. Mankiewicz’s writing is florid and expressive, but his daring direction makes it burst into life. When Jeanne Crain, as one of the wives, utters the film’s most anguished line, she gives a defiant, dramatically unmotivated look into the camera, four years before Bergman had Harriet Andersson do the same in “Monika.” This gesture of existential complicity would become a cornerstone of the French New Wave. Despite its emotional intensity, the film is comic, buoyantly so, and the magical ending raises wit to a metaphysical dimension.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker


In the late 1940's and early 1950's, the American cinematic comedy of manners saw a brief Indian summer. Made possible by the studio system operating at high tide and with writers and directors nurtured in the theater and now, after decades in the sound cinema, experienced enough in the ways of film to craft a truly mature genre, directors like George Cukor, working with gifted writers like Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed his own scripts, the American cinema wryly commented on postwar American prosperity, the returning veteran, and the shifting landscapes of gender roles. With their ensemble casts frequently playing comic encounters in long takes and in medium shots, films like Cukor's Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, and It Should Happen to You were "theatrical," in the very best sense, finding both joy and social criticism in the ways men and women played roles with one another, and even with themselves, in their everyday lives. Other films, such as H.C. Potter's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and Walter Lang's Sitting Pretty, satirized suburbanization and "progressive" child-rearing; in their own way, the postwar comedy of manners constitutes a generous but insistent critique of the American dream, circa 1949.

A Letter to Three Wives began life as a property to be made by the master of the comedy of manners, Ernst Lubitsch, but Lubitsch's death in 1947, and problems with engineering the three stories into a coherent whole shelved the project; the story on which the film was based had five wives. (Indeed, the film's photo-finish conclusion is still confusing enough that one of the film's viewers, General Douglas MacArthur, then in Tokyo in charge of the Occupation of Japan, had an aide write to Mankiewicz asking who Addie Ross had actually run off with.) A Letter to Three Wives is unjustly known today as Mankiewicz's rehearsal for the now more well-known All About Eve the following year. In fact, A Letter to Three Wives was a surprise hit, and won for Mankiewicz his first two Oscars, for directing and writing. It is a hearty and intelligent comedy, tweaking hypocrisy at the same moment that it clearly yearns for reconciliation within and between its three couples. A Letter to Three Wives has a marvelous added attraction: this was bristly comedienne Thelma Ritter's first major film, and she runs all the way to Flatbush with every scene she's in. And for all the talk, so beloved of the urbane Mankiewicz, there is the unforced laughter of the film's several moments of physical comedy; if there's a funnier quick visual gag than the train bit in the American cinema, then I'm going looking for it.

- Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University, via the New York State Writers Institute


Though Miss Crain received top billing (and this blogger is personally crazy about her), her segment is by far the weakest of the three. Still engaging in the way it captures its characterizations through scintillating dialogue and great performances, the Crain segment doesn't have the spark that the other wives' slice of celluloid provide. Jeffrey Lynn as Brad Bishop is neither here nor there.

As Rita Phipps, Ann Sothern is as charming and fun to watch as ever. Her delectable voice and confident character can deliver a line of dialogue like a fast ball over home plate. While at a country club dinner dance, the three husbands are glowingly listing the many attributes of the absentee Addie when Rita pipes in, "also fog lights, white sidewalls and a heater?" Classic Sothern. Kirk Douglas, who plays husband George Phipps, was on the brink of stardom when cast in this role. Champion, released the same year as Wives, would put him there.

As screen time goes, Linda Darnell comes out on top, appearing in all three of the wives individual segments. Her Lora Mae shows a determined calculation in order to get everything she wants, including and especially marriage from her wealthy department store tycoon boss. In order to get the disdainful look he wanted out of Darnell, when she's looking at a framed portrait of Addie ( the front of which the audience can't see), Mankiewicz put a photo of director Otto Preminger in the frame during the scene. Preminger had given Darnell a tough time during the filming of Forever Amber(1947), which they made together, and their was no love lost on him by the beauty.

- Rupert Alistair, Classic Movies Digest

Citizen Kane exeplifies a structure which does not layer the narrative but actually obscures its meaning. Joseph Mankiewicz' A Letter to Three Wives (1949) uses a similar structure. One morning, three suburban wives receive a letter from their best friend. She tells them she is going to run away with one of their husbands today. Who will it be? The structure of the film allows us to hear each of the women explore their marriage. We do see the other characters. A chronology of sorts is created. Mankiewicz uses the structure to create a meditation on suburban marriages, the roles of men and women, the roles of class, of money, and of sex. The structure of A Letter to Three Wives facilitates an ironic exploration of modern marriage without being prescriptive. In this sense this structure clarifies at least the editorial voice of the writer, more than can be said of Welles and his writer, Herman Mankiewicz, in Citizen Kane.

- Ken Dancyger, The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory, and Practice. Focal Press, 2002. Pages 216-217


Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917-60, screenwriters' manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manuals put it, “Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progr3ession’’ – a remark that reflects Hollywood’s past story events. Of the one hundred UnS films, only twenty use any flashbacks at all, and fifteen of those occur in silent films. Most of these are brief, expository flashbacks filling in information about a character’s background; this device was obviously replaced by expository dialogue in the sound cinema. In the early years of sound, when plays about trials were common film sources, flashbacks offered a way to ‘open up’ stagy trial scenes (e.g.,The Trial of Mary Dugan, Madame X, all 1929). Another vogue for flashbacks ran from the late 1930s into the 1950s. Between 1939 and 1953, four UnS films begin with a frame story and flashback to recount the bulk of the main action before returning to the frame. Yet those four flashback films still comprise less than 10 per cent of the US films of the period. What probably makes the period seem dominated by flashbacks is not the numerical frequency of the device but the intricate ways it was used: contradictory flashbacks in Crossfire (1947), parallel flashbacks in Letter to Three Wives (1948), open-ended flashbacks in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and I walked With a Zombie (1943), flashbacks within flashbacks with flashbacks in Passage to Marseille (1944) and The Locket (1946), and a flashback narrated by a dead man in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

- David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Columbia University Press, 1985. Page 42.


Mankiewicz is undoubtedly the greatest flashback author. But the use he makes of it is so special that it may be contrasted with that of Carne, as two extreme poles of the recollection-image. There is no longer any question of an explanation, a causality or a linearity which ought to go beyond themselves in destiny. On the contrary it is a matter of an inexplicable secret, a fragmentation of all linearity, perpetual forks like so many breaks in causality. Time in Mankiewicz is exactly as Borges describes it in “The Garden of Forking Paths’: it is not space but time which forks, ‘ web of time which approaches, forks, is cut off or unacknowledged for centuries, embracing every possibility’. It is here that the flashback finds its justification: at each point where time forks. The multiplicity of circuits thus finds a new meaning. It is not simply several people each having a flashback, it is the flashback belonging to several people (three in The Barefoot Contessa, three in A Letter to Three Wives, two in All About Eve). And it is not just the circuits forking between themselves, it is each circuit forking within itself, like a split hair. In the three circuits in A Letter to Three Wives, each of the women wonders in her own way when and how her marriage began to go adrift, to take a forking route.

Time’s forks thus provide flashback with a necessity, and recollection-images with an authenticity, a weight of past without which they would remain conventional. But why, and how? The answer is simple: the forking points are very often so imperceptible that they cannot be revealed until after their occurrence, to an attentive memory. It is a story that can be told only in the past. This was already the constant question for Fitzgerald, to whom Mankiewicz is very close: what happened? How have we arrived at this point? This is what governs the three flashbacks of women in A Letter to Three Wives and Harry’s recollections in The Barefoot Contessa. It is perhaps the question of all questions.

The theatrical character of Mankewicz’s work has often been pointed out, but there is also a ‘novelistic’ element (or more precisely ‘a short story’ element, for it is the short story that asks: what happened?) What has not been sufficiently analysed, however, is the relation between the two, their original fusion which means that Mankiewicz re-created a complete cinematographic specificity. On one hand, the novelistic element, the story, appears in the memory. The memory in fact, following a formula of Janet’s, is story behavior. In its very essence, memory is voice, which speaks, talks to itself, or whispers, and recounts what happened. Hence the voice-off which accompanies the flashback. In Mankiewicz this spiritual role of memory often gives way to a creature more or less connected with the beyond: the phantom in Mrs Muir’s Advenure, the ghost in Whispers in the City, the automata in Bloodhound. In A Letter to Three Wives, there is the fourth girlfriend, the one that will never be seen, that is once barely glimpsed, and who has made it known to the three others that she is going off with one of their husbands (but which one?): it is her voice-off which looms over the other three flashbacks. In any event, the voice as memory frames the flashback. But, in another sense, what the latter ‘shows’, and what the former reports, are more voices: characters and decors which are of course meant to be seen, but are in essence speaking and of sound. This is the theatrical element: the dialogue between the characters who appear, and sometimes even the appearance of the character himself, produces a story (All About Eve). In one of the flashbacks in A Letter to Three Wives there is the dinner scene where the teacher-husband and the wife in advertising entertain the latter’s female boss: all the movements of characters and camera are determinded by the mounting violence of their dialogue, and the distribution of two opposed sound-sources, that of the radio programme, and that of the classical music with which the teacher challenges it. The essential point, then, is the intimacy of the relation between the novelistic element in memory as story behavior, and the theatrical element of the dialogues, words and sounds as conducts of the characters.

- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pages 47, 48,49


Through the three segments, the audience experiences both the specificity and commonality of these marriages. Up to this point, A Letter to Three Wives suggests that, for a wife in any relationship from the strongest (the Phipps) to the weakest (the Hollingsways), suspicion and ultimate distrust of one’s husband is possible.

The three women differ sharply, of course. Deborah is a true believer in the feminine mystique, wondering only if she is inadequate. Rita, however, is a rebel, and does not want to abandon writing for full-time domesticity. Lora on the other hand, is an opportunist, pragmatic exploiter of the feminine mystique. Marriage can provide a lifestyle she is unlikely to achieve herself. Though these women differ in character, they are united by both friendship and the spectre of Addie. No woman is exempt from the power of mythic femininity that Addie represents.

The conclusion of A Letter to Three Wives, however, like that of most women’s films, softens and compromises its critical character. After a more intense build-up of suspicion through some suspenseful twists and turns of the narrative, Porter reveals that he planned to elope with Addie. He considered Lora a fortunehunter who had had no longer loved him. Yet, after consideration, he realized how much he really loved his wife, and decided to stay. In a very confusing and unexpected ending, the Hollingsways “kiss and make up.”

Each woman, howver, sobered by her Saturday of suspicion, becomes determined to “work at” her marriage. A Letter to Three Wives concludes on a fairly conservative note. As the film came close to affirming fully their (or even one of their) sense of distrust, it backs off. It cannot carry through with the critique of femininity in initiates. Yet neither is the surprise ending completely reassuring. After all, the letter had not been simply a cruel joke; it did reflect reality. If it had not “touched home,” the women would have ignored it, laughed, and regarded it was a prank. Likewise, the emotions evoked throughout the film do not simply vanish in a sigh of relief. The power of the letter (and the film) lies in the fear and suspicion it evokes.

A Letter to Three Wives hit home for postwar female viewers. Infidelity was a sore subject for waiting women, so sore that Hollywood dared not portray it until peacetime (Klempner’s original story was set in a war-effort club). Joseph Goulden described a pervasive female jealousy: ”an immeasurable factor in the bring-our-boys-home sentiment was traditional feminine jealousy … the woman at home heard enough dire warnings to stimulate any imagination.” In sarcastic comedy, A Letter to Three Wives revealed gnawing doubts and long-held insecurities. In its comically chilling portrait of suburban strife, A Letter to Three Wives is ahead of its time, prefiguring the writing of authors like John Cheever and Betty Friedan.  Perhaps, from its inception, the postwar suburban dream, built on forced female demobilization and domestic isolation, was riddled with fear and contradiction. If one were simply to analyze this film as counseling feminine adjustment, she or he would ignore both the deep distrust expressed toward men and the anger and envy acknowledged toward the unattainable Addie. No woman is exempt from the power of Addie, not the conformist (Deborah), the rebel (Rita), or the opportunist (Lora Mae). For Addie is both the price of the feminine mystique and a potential source of its rejection. A Letter to Three Wives prefigures the feminist critique by portraying the impact of idealized femininity on real women. This film foreshadows the words of de Beauvior written 4 years later:

"The myth of woman … substitutes a transcendental Idea, timeless, unchangeable … endowed with absolute truth. Thus, as against the dispersed, contingent and multiple experiences of actual women, mythical thought opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and changeless."

Addie Ross is the filmic symbol of the Eternal Feminine, personification of male fantasy and female oppression.

- Andrea S. Walsh, Women's film and female experience, 1940-1950 Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984. Pages 189, 190


The film's narrational perspective is extremely confused. Addie is the narrator, and she seems a very powerful one, as well as a figure of intended audience engagement. Her introductory voice-over commentary, in fact, immediately sets up a connection between her perspective and the viewer's: "To begin with, all the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious, and any resemblance to you or me might be purely coincidental." Addie is also seemingly omniscient, omnipresent vocal presence throughout the film. She seems so far above her surroundings that she is contemptuous of them, and the spectator might be inclined at first to identify with her contempt for the wives, their small-town lives, and their unfulfilling marriages. Addie ridicules not only the provincial environment she has rejected but also the silliness of the women she feels she has defeated.

In spite of this initial attempt to cultivate audience attachment to Addie, the film moves quickly away from her perspective, encouraging instead strong spectatorial engagement with the plights of the three wives. In fact, the film's ideological project appears to be a validation of the three wives' decisions to dedicate themselves more fully to their husbands and a condemnation of Addie as a contemptible woman who not only ridicules her friends behind their backs but even tries to ruin their marriages. Yet Addie's narration casts an ironic light on the wives' renewed dedication to their men that cannot be entirely dismissed. Addie is portrayed as an independent and powerful female figure, an object of male admiration and female jealousy. The men see her as a woman of taste, class, and beauty, and the women ask themselves, "Why is it that whatever we talk about we always end up talking about Addie Ross?" Addie comments sarcastically in voice-ver, "Maybe it's because if you girls didn't talk about me, you wouldn't talk at all."

In portraying group female friendship, A Letter to Three Wives utilizes a number of negative cultural stereotypes that characterize women's relationships as involving envy, gossip, duplicity, betrayal, and deadly competition for men. The independent nonconformity of Addie's character does leave an opening for a resisting reading that sympathizes with her rejection of the devoted wives' boring provincial lifestyle, but this reading is not supported by the film's structure of spectatorial engagement as a whole. Instead, the film seems to employ possible female fascination with Addie's character as a "fantasy bribe" of sorts, to use Frederic Jameson's terminology, to draw the female spectator into the text, only to turn this fascination against her. In this way, the effect of Addie's final condemnation as an evil, manipulative woman who will stop at nothing to get a man is heightened.

- Karen Hollinger, In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. U of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pages 37, 38, 39.



A Letter to Three Wives works on several levels simultaneously. On the surface, it belongs to that genre called (sometimes contemptuously) the woman's film, placing women at the fore and focusing on the problems characteristic of women's lives—which are, as here, often romantic and domestic. Just beneath that seemingly conventional surface, however, is some often astringent commentary about middle-class America, its social snobbery, pretension, and materialism. The three wives of the title are friends who belong to the same social set, but each possesses a slightly different economic and social status—something that Addie's voiceover narration points out with quiet pleasure—and this manifests itself in some charged undercurrents in their friendship. There's also a sense in which the film seems to be satirizing the American Dream, distaff version: All three of these women have a lifestyle to which other women aspire, whether by achieving wealth or social status through marriage, like Lora Mae and Deborah, or by having a career as well as marriage and motherhood, like Rita. Yet over the course of the movie all three have to question the value of what they have and confront how easily they could lose it. That uneasy awareness of the ephemeral nature of what they have aspired to forces the women to examine the values at the core of their comparatively frivolous lives.

Mankiewicz keeps his treatment of these issues entertaining by virtue of the snappy dialogue, a compelling narrative drive, and some unusual and distinctive directorial decisions. One of these is the way Addie Ross is invisibly present right from the start of the film. Her narration gives a cynical view of her supposed friends and shows amusement at the panic she has created in them, which starts the movie off with a sense of ironic detachment—and tells us a great deal about Addie herself. One of the many clever decisions Mankiewicz makes is never to show this character who catalyzes the action. This allows us to accept that she can represent an ideal for three quite different men—and it creates a mystique that underscores the almost supernatural dread and envy she inspires in the three wives. To all three women, she is an unseen presence in their marriage, a rival they are being compared to (even if only in their own minds). Like the unseen title character in Hitchcock's Rebecca, she gains power in the audience's mind through her physical absence.

Another standout character—a visible one, this time—is George. The young Kirk Douglas brings energy, quick intelligence, and a bracing edge to this character, and the writing endows him with surprising complexity. George is much more than what we at first expect him to be: an old-fashioned husband who resents his wife's superior earning power. He is defensive about being a schoolteacher—he carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being an intellectual, since he assumes that makes him less of a man in the world's eyes—yet he feels a passionate sense of vocation and defends his work movingly to his wife. He admits that his "male ego" is put out of joint by the fact that his wife pays many of the bills, but he admires her independence. It's not the existence of her job that he resents so much as her slavish obedience to her boss—and the fact that he has no respect for the medium for which she writes. One of the most exhilarating parts of the film is George's blistering denouncement of radio theater as mindless pabulum. (As a friend of mine commented, just imagine what he would have thought of television.) The issues that complicate his and Rita's marriage are thus drawn not in black and white but in shades of grey, giving their conflict a more adult and realistic quality than those of most film couples whose marriage is threatened by the wife's career.

- Amanda DeWees, DVD Verdict

‘A Letter to Three Wives’ works on many levels, few of which have anything to do with what is in essence a flimsy melodramatic plot. Most obviously it’s a very funny social satire, but there’s also acute observations about marriage, class, and the dumbing down effect of advertising on entertainment – in the film it’s radio but the criticism can be applied equally to TV today. The upper-middle class ‘society’ setting, well-drawn characters, flashbacks, vitriolic exchanges, a breathily confessional voice-over and the odd but successful combination of high and low-brow wit mark it out as a Mankiewicz film, and ‘Three Wives’ is indeed one of his best writer-director comedy efforts, for many a close second to ‘All About Eve’.

It’s not quite in that class. ‘Eve’ is a film that still makes one want to applaud spontaneously every few minutes whilst one watches it, so immaculate are its script and performances. The wit in ‘Three Wives’ doesn’t sparkle so frequently and its barbs don’t go as deep (it was the movie that Mankiewicz made before ‘Eve’ so could be seen as a warm-up, rather than a companion piece), but it does possess those qualities of intelligence, elegance and sophistication (as opposed to pretense) that one treasures in the best movies of this period, before the process of movie-making became subject to the vagaries of the focus group and the demands of pathologically conservative media colossi desperate to recoup their investment.

- Nat Tunbridge, DVD Times



20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made A LETTER TO THREE WIVES available on DVD in a marvelous looking black and white transfer that frames the film in its proper 1.37:1 full screen aspect ratio. This film is another fine example of Hollywood glamour cinematography- beautifully lit, fairly crisp, glossy and with a silky smooth appearance. Not surprisingly, the actresses’ close-ups have a slightly diffuse appearance, which only serves to enhance their beauty. Blacks appear velvety, whites are clean, plus the picture boasts fine contrast. The film elements have been given a digital cleanup, which is free from most signs of age and wear. A grain structure is noticeable in place, but it gives the DVD a nice film like quality. Digital compression artifacts are always nicely contained.

-Derek M. Germano, The Cinema Laser


This image is a shade soft, but is filled with film grain and has muted grays and fine shadow detail. I saw a bit of brightness flickering in the opening 10 minutes. I dislike the yellow subtitles. Overall this is another exceptional DVD package from Fox - with commentary and a decent inclusion of extra features. Original mono audio is offered as well as a stereo bump. Damn good job Fox !

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver


Like most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, A Letter to Three Wives came with a remixed stereo soundtrack. Unlike most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, this one’s remix sounded fine. Perhaps that’s because it was virtually identical to the original monaural audio, which also appeared on the DVD. If the mix ever spread to the side channels, I didn’t hear it.

And that was fine with me. The vast majority of the stereo remixes often suffered from awkward delineation and excessive reverb, but those concerns never cropped up here. Speech showed the moderate tinniness that one expects of a movie from the Forties, but the lines stayed easily intelligible and lacked any defects. Effects played a minor role in this chatty flick, as they stayed in the background. Those elements were acceptably defined and clean; I noticed nothing special about them, but they lacked distortion or problems.

Music was also subdued. Only sporadic examples of score or source music popped up, and those pieces sounded reasonably clear and distinctive. They lacked much breadth, though, and didn’t add much. A little background popping appeared at times, but otherwise the movie didn’t suffer from any source defects. I wouldn’t call this an impressive soundtrack, but given the constraints of the era and the genre, it worked fine.

- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide


Fox has provided a very nice array of extras for this release. The feature commentary is a standout and represents one of the best commentaries I've heard from the Studio Classics series. Christopher Mankiewicz, the director's son, is joined by Cheryl Lower and Kenneth Geist, both of whom have written about Joseph Mankiewicz's life and films. Although Geist appears to be reading his comments, he makes up for a lack of apparent spontaneity with enthusiasm and vivid language. The combined comments of these three speakers produce a commentary that is filled with perceptive analysis of the film, tasty morsels about its making, and welcome background on the major players. I learned a lot from this commentary; I was particularly interested to learn about Mankiewicz's trouble with the censors and the way his screenplay mines both contemporary issues and his personal convictions (like his respect for teachers). It was also illuminating to learn more about the distinctive Mankiewicz touches in A Letter to Three Wives that make it "the first quintessential Mankiewicz film," in Lower's estimation. The commentators also discuss the ending to the film, which some have found ambiguous, and resolve this ambiguity. This is both an entertaining and informative commentary, definitely one of the highlights of the extras on this release.

The inclusion of the Biography episode on Linda Darnell is also a definite plus. Until watching this program I knew very little about this tragic beauty (and how sad it is that those two words so often appear together in the annals of Hollywood), and I found her story fascinating, if often saddening. It's particularly appropriate for her biography to accompany this particular film since (as we learn from watching it) she and Mankiewicz had a special relationship—and also since her performance here is one of her best (of the Darnell films that I've seen, I think her work in this film is equaled only by her performance in the Preston Sturges black comedy Unfaithfully Yours).

The restoration comparison is one of the most helpful I've seen in the Studio Classics line, since it is accompanied by text that describes the elements used in the transfer and points out what each state of the restoration achieves. Thanks to the text, we know fully what we're looking at in each split-screen demonstration. On the topic of restoration, it's a pity that the sound for the film's theatrical trailer doesn't seem to have received one; although the trailer is in good shape visually, the audio is poor. This is a particular shame since the trailer cleverly uses voiceovers by Addie, just as does the film. The Movietone News footage of the Oscar ceremony that honored Mankiewicz's writing and directing is of much better quality and boasts very clean picture and audio.

- Amanda DeWees, DVD Verdict

Also see Ed Nguyen, DVD Movie Central and Betsy Bozdech, DVD Journal



IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT Director Profile page for Mankiewicz:

"People Will Talk (1951) is one of the most appropriate titles in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's filmography. The screen was mostly a vehicle for his literate, witty, and satirical screenplays. Although Mankiewicz's films are dialogue-driven, they are not filmed plays. They have an elegant visual style, and many experiment with narrative form, being told from different points of view with an effective use of flashbacks." -  Ronald Bergan (Film - Eyewitness Companions, 2006)

"The cinema of Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a cinema of intelligence without inspiration. His best films - All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa - bear the signature of a genuine auteur...Mankiewicz's cranky liberalism sometimes gets the better of him, particularly when he wrenches scenes out of their context to inveigh against the evils of farm subsidies (People Will Talk) and oil-depletion allowances (The Barefoot Contessa)." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

"Conflicts between the psychologically strong and powerful interest Mankiewicz. The inevitable downfall of at least one of those is usually caused by an ironic flaw in that individual's makeup or strategy." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't." - Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The recent release in Paris of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, A Letter to Three Wives and House of Strangers suffices to to establish Joseph Mankiewicz as one of the most brilliant of American directors. I have no hesitation in placing him on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature.

- Jean-Luc Godard, from his first published review, on Mankiewicz's Dragonwyck, in the June 1950 Gazette du Cinema published by Eric Rohmer

Few of Joseph Mankiewicz's contemporaries experimented so radically with narrative form. In The Barefoot Contessa, Mankiewicz (who wrote most of the films he directed) let a half-dozen voice-over narrators tell the Contessa's story, included flashbacks within flashbacks, and even showed one event twice (the slapping scene in the restaurant) from two different points of view. Multiple narrators tell the story in All about Eve, too, and in the non-narrated framing story for that film, Mankiewicz uses slow motion to make it seem as if the elapsed time between the beginning of the film and the end is only a few seconds. For much of the film, The Quiet American also has a narrator, and he seems almost totally omniscient. Apparently, he looks back at events with a firm understanding of their development and of the motivation of the people involved. But in the end, we find out that the narrator was wrong about practically everything, and so gave us an inaccurate account of things. A Letter to Three Wives is made up, primarily, of several lengthy flashbacks, and hallucinogenic flashback sequences provide the payoff to the story in Mankiewicz's adaption of the Tennessee Williams play Suddenly Last Summer. Mankiewicz's films, then, stand out in part because of the way they tell their stories.

Perhaps because he began as a screenwriter, Mankiewicz has often been thought of as a scenarist first and a director only second. But not only was he an eloquent scriptwriter, he was also an elegant visual stylist whose talents as a director far exceeded his reputation. He is one of the few major American directors who was more appreciated during the early years of his career than during the later stages. He won consecutive Best Director Academy Awards in 1949 and 1950 (for A Letter to Three Wives and All about Eve), but after the 1963 disaster Cleopatra, Mankiewicz's standing as a filmmaker declined rapidly.

Eric Smoodin, Film Reference.com

Théatre du filmé was the genre he created and perfected in order to “approach human beings analytically…in depth.” This genre pays equal attention to the verbal, the visual, and the human, carefully crafting and interweaving all three elements in order to achieve maximum effect – both expressively and analytically. Most importantly, théatre du filmé is a self-conscious genre populated by self-conscious characters. Mankiewicz overlaid this personal genre on top of conventional genres popular at the time of filming. In this fashion, he arrived at his unique style of filmmaking: Mankiewicz movies do not look, sound, or speak like those of any other director.

Mankiewicz's invention of this new genre has not always met with critical approval. In an article in Senses of Cinema in 2003, Tag Gallagher wrote:

Mankiewicz's ideal film, whether as director or producer, was something I shall call a “photoplay” – a type of cinema that was less a “movie” than a filmed play, less a storyworld with characters than a document of actors acting the sort of acting for which self-conscious dialogue…and self-conscious mime are inevitable and endless. (2)

Mistaking Mankiewicz's théatre du filmé movies for filmed plays is the most common error critics make. Mankiewicz needed to invent the genre of théatre du filmé in order for his type of storytelling to work. Movies emphasising characters' autonomy require reflexive, self-aware performances from actors. Mankiewicz wants the audience to focus on the choices his characters make, and how these decisions determine everything that follows.

This concept of pivot moments underlies the structure of all Mankiewicz films. He builds his movies out of scenes that foreground characters making those decisions that will determine the actions that follow, where more choices will be presented and new decisions made. Autonomy is a paramount virtue in Mankiewicz's world, and he investigates both its possibilities and its limitations. As a result, his films contain an abundance of dialogue as characters face up to, wrestle with, and finally choose among the options confronting them.

Since the first movies were made, filmmakers have taken advantage of the medium's ability to capture the beauty of landscapes, and used the outdoors as both backdrop and character in their work. Mankiewicz with his théatre du filmé style, however, approaches film differently. While he may not have been interested in composing lyrical landscape shots, Mankiewicz did create sharply delineated, multilayered interior shots. It was serendipitous that he began his directing career at Twentieth Century-Fox where the house style – crisp, hard-edged photography – was well suited to his approach and intentions.

- Brian Dauth, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography



IMDb Wiki

Linda Darnell.com

Linda Darnell Forever

975 (107). The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann)

screeened June 28 2009 on Universal DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #958 IMDb Wiki

Among the many things that distinguish Anthony Mann's collaborations with Jimmy Stewart are their thorough revisioning of the rugged individualist ideal. The Far Country suffers for being a bit transparent and moralistic in this mission, especially compared to Mann-Stewart masterpieces like The Naked Spur or Bend of the River, where the critique of Western self-reliance is done more through actions than words.  The soundtrack is a thicket of toughtalk among a roughewn ensemble of pioneers negotiating civilization out of a bloodsoaked, greed-infested frontier.

Their chatter ironically surrounds Stewart's antisocial cattleherder who's looking to get as far away from people as soon as he cashes in on his cattle driving and prospecting.  In Mann's Western's, Stewart discovered dark anti-hero dimensions to his aw-shucks persona, and in The Far Country he pushes deep into the realm of assholery, taking sadistic delight when others are trapped in an avalanche after disobeying his directions. Try as he may to break free from people, the expansive Alaskan wilderness proves to be a closed space that brings him to a full reckoning with his civic duty, defending a helpless town against a capitalist developer wielding thug power.

The film isn't terribly sophisticated in depicting the dynamic between exploiters and exploited, pitting Stewart as the inevitable superman who alone has the power to galvanize an uprising. Stewart finally comes around when he is assaulted not once but twice, which makes his path to moral redemption feel overextended. But for a good stretch, the film thrives in a wilderness of moral ambiguity reflected in both Stewart's callous actions and his unforgiving surroundings.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Far Country among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures Dont' They?:

Chris Fujiwara, Steadycam (2007) Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007) Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991) All-Time Movie Favourites (Book), Independents and Others: Later Westerns (1975) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) John Kobal, Poll, John Kobal Presents The Top 100 Movies (1988) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Western (1993) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

COUNT on James Stewart and a passel of tough types to lend conviction to a fairly standard adventure of man against ill-natured men and raw nature. For in "The Far Country," which was unveiled at the Globe on Saturday, our hero, who has ridden the range for Universal-International before, again is tall in the saddle and quick on the draw if not as laconic as of yore. And, if the idea of our rawhide wrangler waging battle against the lawless who robbed and cowed the Yukon sourdoughs of 1896, is faintly familiar, then it must be stressed that Mr. Stewart and company gave it a rough but adult going-over not common to such muscular affairs.

As the indestructible and dedicated cowhand, James Stewart fits into the athletic-proceedings to the manner born. Astride an arch-necked, majestic stallion, which he sits and rides well, he is an impressive figure. Although he is suspicious of his fellow men, his actions, when put to the test, are logical and brave and a tribute to the sensible script turned in by Borden Chase.

Above all, however, it should be noted that this outdoor drama is unfolded in Technicolor against some truly spectacular backdrops of the Rockies, the Columbia ice fields and Jasper National Park, panchromatic and icy vistas that often make the action and talk mighty small.

- A.W., The New York Times, February 14, 1955

Not the equal of Bend of the River or The Naked Spur, but still up there with the most quirkily personal westerns ever made. Mann's psychodramas are played out against Jungian landscapes of hills and valleys; the use of the Alaskan background here is nothing less than metaphysical.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

With Stewart, Mann was able to explore a new type of psychological Western initiated with Winchester '73 and the explosive Oedipal conflict between rancher Walter Huston and rebellious daughter Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies(1950). In The Far Country, antisocial Jeff Webster (Stewart) sets his sights on getting enough money to buy a ranch, and damn anyone who gets in his way. He encounters corrupt Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire), a man so charming and easygoing it's hard to spot him as the "bad guy," especially in contrast to Stewart's sullen, cynical "hero" (a reversal of type characteristic of Mann's stories). Although all he wants to do is take the money and run, Webster is constantly forced to confront the harsh realities of every-man-for-himself lawlessness, whether it's the need to avenge the death of his only friend (perennial sidekick Walter Brennan) or to choose between a shady tough gal of the frontier (Ruth Roman) or the homespun charms of a decent French Canadian woman (Corinne Calvet).

- Rob Nixon, Turner Classic Movies

What makes The Far Country entertaining are the folksy relationships among the characters. Walter Brennan's ditzy sidekick Ben provides Webster's only source of sentimentality, lighting his pipe, etc.. But he has weaknesses that Jeff doesn't count on. The rest of the 'good' citizenry are a lumpen bunch of hicks easy to discount, and their social solidarity is a bit on the flat side. Jay C. Flippen's character, who goes on and off the bottle, is alogether too obvious and mechanical in conception. But there are other fun bits, like the New York-accented Connie Gilchrist, and the wonderful Kathleen Freeman with her broad smile.

Among the baddies is the toothily sinister Robert J. Wilke, of Night Passage. He also plays James Mason's loyal first officer in the upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jack Elam is Gannon's number one deputy/enforcer. Stuntman turned actor Chuck Roberson wears a nasty makeup scar as Latigo. Like all the rest, he also gets shot down in feature after feature, most notably by Robert Mitchum in the superlative The Wonderful Country. This time around, John Doucette is a friendly miner, and Royal Dano is again under-utilized in a bit as a meek prospector.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk

Anthony Mann's full-color Westerns with Jimmy Stewart lacked the formalistic rigor of their first collaborationWinchester '73 but drilled deeper into the psychology of action. The Far Country teams Stewart with the great Walter Brennan. They play a pair of ramblers who try their hands at cattle driving and gold mining before corrupt forces take everything away from them, raising Stewart's anger enough to take a stand. The final shootout probably inspired Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, taking place in the dark, on the ground and crawling in the mud -- purposely clumsy and unheroic.

- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

The Far Country is largely shot on studio sets and pulls out familiar Western tropes not usually seen in his films, but Mann brings an edge to the drama with explosions of cold-blooded violence and a brilliant final shootout that plays out on a split-level plain.

-Sean Axmaker, Amazon.com

An odd psychological revenge Western from the story and script by Borden Chase. It's directed with all the clichés intact but freshened up with a vigorous intensity by Anthony Mann ("Winchester '73"/"Bend of the River"/"The Naked Spur"); it stars Mann's favorite Western leading man James Stewart in an anti-hero role. The misanthropic sullen loner role Stewart plays has him saying such things as "I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me." Its photography is visually spectacular, especially those stunning backdrops of the Rockies, the Columbia ice fields and the Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Though not as powerful as the "Bend of the River," a film it's closest to in theme, it nevertheless is gripping and filled with rugged action sequences.

Mann transfers his dark sided film noir characters from such films as "Desperate," "Raw Deal" and "The Border Incident" to the Western genre, and tackles through these more shadowy visions such themes as the mythic conflict between the individual and society, between free will and anarchy, and the coming to terms of the man with a painful past with his renewed life spirit. The good versus evil theme of most Westerns at that time is thankfully given a more realistic and nuanced look. This was Mann's last collaboration with Chase, which has a reluctant Stewart be heroic at the last second to save the town from the tyrannical doings of McIntire.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews
I'm interested in the often uncanny ways in which one film's diegesis trespasses onto another's.

Here's an example: There's a scene early in Anthony Mann's The Far Country in which James Stewart, running from the law for having allegedly killed two men, is invited to hide in the steamboat stateroom of Ruth Roman. The crew comes in looking for him. "There's a killer on board, miss." "And you think he'd be in here?!" That sort of thing. When I watched the film with my senior seminar last term, I thought of how closely this scene resembles the one in North by Northwest in which Eva Marie Saint hides Cary Grant (another killer on the loose) in her train compartment. There, too, the authorities come in and question her and she plays dumb. In both scenes, the man hides in the woman's bed. This similarity can of course be explained by the simple fact that Hollywood routinely recycled scenes and situations, and not just in B grade features.

But watching it a second time I noticed two more similarities -- the first a coincidence, the second wildly uncanny. After the steamboat crew leaves, Ruth Roman pulls back the blanket and Stewart sits up. She remarks, "I imagine you look better with a shave." He replies, "My razor is in my saddlebag ... unless you've got one I can borrow." Of course, that's exactly what happens in N by NW -- Cary Grant borrows Eva Marie Saint's tiny razor, which leads to a comic scene in the Chicago train station men's room.

Here's the uncanny part. In The Far Country, just before the authorities begin to chase James Stewart, the steamboat captain calls out to the pilot, "Full ahead. Pull her north by northwest." Most curious here is the fact that there is no "north by northwest" on the compass: it's a cartographic impossibility (see Donald Spoto's book on Hitchcock, but others have commented on this as well).

So, are there other such moments? More importantly, what can we do with moments in which two films' diegeses suddenly and unexpectedly overlap like this?

- Girish Shambu


Stewart plays the weary but buoyant sharp-shooting cowpoke Jeff Webster, who arrives in Seattle on the verge of a dream - being a rich 'free man'. He and his 'partner' of sorts Ben Tatem (Walter Brennan), plan to forge on ahead to the goldfields of the American-Canadian frontier where the lack of grazing land has made beef a scarce commodity. Upon his arrival in Skagway, the last American town before the Canadian border, he is caught up in the quagmire of frontier law. Driving his cattle through the township he unwittingly "busts up a hangin'" and finds himself at the mercy of the tyrannical sheriff Mr. Gannon (John McIntyre). Webster's spell in Skagway serves to render the amoral side of his character. Secretly longing to be free of the kind of the emotional baggage that human relationships bring, Webster catapults himself into a series of Herculean tests against which his masculinity is measured.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the playing out of the Brennan-Stewart relationship, which from its outset problematises Webster's sexuality. Despite Ben's protestations to Webster about "gettin' to be the chief cook, the biscuit baker and everything", he often publicises the 'familiar' nature of their relationship, telling the residents of Seattle, Skagway and Dawson about their plans to buy a ranch in Utah and "settle down". Webster's promise to Ben is symbolised by the silver bell on his saddle - a gift bought by Ben for the door of their future house, and whose incessant jangling constantly serves to remind Webster and others (including us) of this promise. Indeed, the bell is a constant source of irritation, inciting action from characters of both sexes throughout the film. It also comes to symbolise Webster's boldness and his aloofness. The sound of the bell acts as an aural invitation to some to capture this unattainable side, often driving Mr. Gannon and his cronies to fever pitch. As one of them mutters under his breath at Gannon, utterly frustrated, "I'm gunna get me that bell!" Even in the closing scene of the film, despite having chalked up a few macho points by avenging Ben and the townsfolk, Webster's sexual bent continues to be problematised. Injured and alone (due to the death of possible sexual partners Ben and Ronda (Ruth Roman)), Webster finds himself in an ambiguously intimate embrace with the tom-boy Renee (Corinne Clavert) while the whole township of Dawson looks on expectantly. Until this point Renee is always dismissed as merely well-meaning, but just as the film fades to black and Webster appears to be preparing for a kiss (thereby cementing their union), he reaches for Ben's bell and begins to fondle it longingly.

For a few seconds, that image allows Stewart to simultaneously collapse the divide between past, present and future. For all at once he represents a hero unmarked by history and the mind's eye. He is a "a microcosm of community, where ideals, reason and humanity are always prominent but below which lie self-interest, passion and violence."

- Karli Lukas, Senses of Cinema

PP: Manny taught The Far Country recently, with Ulzana's Raid. He kept talking about it having a richer sense of space than Ulzana's Raid. I kept seeing these odd scenes with Jimmy Stewart throwing guns to two guys, then the steamboat being right behind him, space being extremely artificial. So there's no real, natural sense of space, just odd juxtapositions.

Remarkable how often in that film Anthony Mann goes for a formal two-dimensionality, whereas in most of his films he's interested in opening the frame successively into the center of the screen. Also the way he uses so many enclosures.

PP: There's funny dialogue in The Far Country, pointed writing from which you pick outlines. Stewart is always saying, "Why should I? Why should I go back and help them?" And the little French girl will say, "If you don't know, I can't tell you." And the lines her father is always saying out of nowhere: "Did you know a cow had four stomachs?" We were trying to think of five lines from the films during the course that would be knockout lines for the final exam. The one we thought f from this films is the little French girl's: "Don't call me freckle-face, I'm a woman!" A lot of lines like that. Walter Brennan talking about getting a little house in the country and settling down with Stewart. And the "Bear Stew" sign. Gannon's lines: "I'm gonna like you. I'm gonna hang you, but I'm gonna like you."

MF: The move seems so cunning and likable; it's interesting because it looks so phony. And it reminds me of Yojimbo and One-Eyed Jacks - the destroyed hero having to hole up and regain his physical skills over the months. And the fighting underneath the floor; do you think Kurosawa got it off The Far Country?

Why did you choose to teach The Far Country?

MF: I always saw it in pieces on TV. I wanted to see it in continuum. Once I got it, it interested me how Mann was making his points or effects. I never could figure it out. There are so many matte shots and so much off-location stuff, and yet it's a very lyrical film.

He even gets poetic effects from bad back projection and bad day-for-night by darkening and thickening them.

MF: What motivated him to do it that way? It seems almost psychotic to do that. Except it also seems enchanting to do an Alaska movie inside a studio, and then to have critics write about it as if it's a masterpiece of location work.

Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, interviewed by . Negative Space. Published by Da Capo Press, 1998.

Where Winchester '73 explored and defined the traditional western, The Far Country explores and defines the Anthony Mann western. Although it follows the pattern of the three other core films, it has s self-conscious, artificial quality. It is as if Mann, understanding his own game, decided to abstract it, treat it almost as a joke - while still preserving its broad outlines. His respect for the basic narrative makes The Far Country function at the entertainment level, yet the film has an odd quality that leaves a viewer slightly bemused. It is best understood in relations to the other Mann westerns.

It is in the use of space that The Far Country differs from Bend in the River, The Naked Spur, and The Man from Laramie. The frame is treated as a two-dimensional area, whereas Mann's tendency in his other westerns (and in most of his other films) was to provide an enormous depth of field, so much so that the frame seemed to be opening and receding in the center of the screen. There is no such sense of space in The Far Country.

Instead of natural settings, The Far Country presents a viewer with a great deal of artificial space mixed with outdoor locations. In its elimination of some of the location work associated with westerns, The Far Country ranks with Lang's Rancho Notorious and Ray's Johnny Guitar as a directorial exercise in abstraction of his own familiar territory. Just as Hitchcock elected to use painted backdrops and rear projection in Marnie, Mann elected to use similar devices here. The mining town of Skagway looks like a representational "western town" set. The shack in which Stewart and Brennan live, the porch of Ruth Roman's saloon (which seems too big for the rest of the building), the bar which is turned into a courtroom, are all designed with a look that says, "I am a western set - do you know which one I am?" The interior spaces of these settings are false and often not matched to their exteriors. A steamboat tied up to a dock presents such an alienating sense of space and dimension that it would be laughable were it not so skillfully, deliberately used by Mann. As the steamboat pulls away from the dock, Stewart is seen to be escaping. The area that is supposed to be the boat deck is arbitrarily shortened and narrowed to accommodate the narrative needs as Stewart flees in the restricted space from the steamboat officers. The deliberate use of a falsified reality in films that present themselves s real is a justifiable artistic decision, but one that Mann seldom opted for in westerns. In The Far Country, he not only proves that he could do it, but by doing it, offers proof that he thoroughly understood his own work, that it was not intuitive.

Seen alone without an understanding of the rest of Mann's work, The Far Country functions well as a piece of western entertainment. However, viewers often remark on how odd it is, pointing out its backdrops and weird dialogue. Although it tells a clear story, its meaning is best understood by thinking of it as an abstraction of the basic Mann pattern. The audience is never given the whole story, just pieces of it. Similarly, they are never given the entire realistic picture of the settings, just strangely shaped, artificial pieces of them. The film refers. Its sets refer directly to other western film sets and thus indirectly to reality. Its characters and their dilemmas refer to other western characters (particularly other Mann western characters). Walter Brennan plays Walter Brennan, and James Stewart plays James Stewart in the iconographic sense, and Stewart's secret remains his secret. The Far Country appears to be a step forward for Mann in which, having established once and for all his themes and methods, he experimented with them. If his hero must be allied with the landscape, could the film still work if he presented only part of the total landscape - or a false, two-dimensional landscape?

- Jeanine Basinger. Anthony Mann. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Pages 95-97, 100-101


I don't like to think of myself as a widescreen fetishist. Meaning that many 'open matte' films for me are not totally discounted especially when they contain significantly more information, as this NTSC issue does here. This is dissimilar to bastardization through 'pan and scan'. Now my optimum choice would be the widescreen version that was shown in the theater - every time. The composition is lost in the vast open spaces on the top of the frame. Anthony Mann would not compose this way. There is a small amount of information also lost on the sides of the NTSC in comparison to the widescreen. The trouble with the PAL edition is it is very hazy and slightly inferior to the Region 1 in image sharpness. I'd love to see this marvelous film widescreen, but I would also like to as sharp (or sharper) than the current unremarkable Region 1 DVD. Universal NTSC also did this with another Stewart/Mann western (name eludes me - was it 'Bend of the River'?- no the box claims it was cropped - but was shot in 1.33) and it is very discouraging. Regardless, I enjoyed my Region 1 viewing being oblivious at the time there was a widescreen edition floating around. I wouldn't buy the PAL edition though. I would sooner put tape on top and bottom of my TV screen - but that is just me. The beauty of the comparison gives you your own choice. I enjoyed my Region 1 viewing immensely. Colors are good on both and as an extra they both include the theatrical trailer (4:3 - by the way).

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

Universal's DVD of The Far Country looks all right, but unexceptional. The nice color is supported by an adequate bit rate most of the time. The clear sound does justice to the Universal music department's patchwork job of cues (see the list of composers whose work was sampled, above).

Oddly, the 1952 Bend of the River, a flat academy film, carries a disclaimer saying it is altered from its original version to fit our televisions. It isn't, butThe Far Country is, and it doesn't have a disclaimer. By 1955, practically all Hollywood features were formatted to be cropped to a wider screen of 1:85, and were projected anywhere between 1:66 and 2:1, depending on the theater. I always look at the blocks of text in the titles and credits to see if a film is meant to be cropped; The Far Country has a narrow, wide rectangle of credits that matte perfectly on a 16:9 television. Crop off the earlier Westerns, and the titles get chopped off too. The Far Country looks fine shown full frame at 1:37, although it's compositionally more focused at 1:78, and would have looked better with 16:9 enhancement.


IMDb Wiki

Anthony Mann (not to be confused with dreary Daniel and Delbert) directed action movies with a kind of tough-guy authority that never found favor among the more cultivated critics of the medium...His Westerns are distinguished by some of the most brilliant photography of exteriors in the history of the American cinema, and yet it is impossible to detect a consistent thematic pattern in his work... Curiously, Mann's visual style is the American style which most closely resembles that of Antonioni in th eliteral progression through landscapes from the vegetable to the mineral world as in Man of the West and Il Grido down to the ultimate decadence of El Cid and L'Eclisse.

The eight films Mann made with James Stewart are especially interesting today for their insights into the uneasy relationships between men and women in a world of violence and action. Stewart, the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema, is particularly gifted in expressing the emotional ambivalence of the action hero. Unfortunately, Universal pictures were seldom taken seriously during this period by anyone except Manny Farber and the French critics, and Mann, like Sirk, was overlooked by the American critical establishment until it was too late for his career to find a firmer footing than obscure cult interest.

- Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

In Mann, the function of landscape is primarily dramatic, and nature is felt as inhospitable, indifferent, or hostile. If there is a mountain, it will have to be climbed, arduously and painfully; barren rocks provide a favourite location for a shoot-out, offering partial cover but also the continued danger of the ricochet. The preferred narrative structure of the films is the journey, and its stages are often marked by a symbolic progression in landscape, from fertile valley to bare rock or snow-covered peak, corresponding to a stripping-away of the trappings of civilization and civilized behavior.

Robin Wood, Film Reference.com

"After making a number of tense, claustrophobic noir thrillers in the 40s, Mann embarked on a series of Westerns notable for their symbolic, expressive use of the rugged American landscape and their psychological complexity...Built around honour, betrayal and vengeance, Mann's films (notably The Man from Laramie and Man of the West) often featured oppressive father-figures; scenes of violence might resonate with Freudian overtones of patricide, castration and humiliation. " - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"Primarily known for his Westerns, Mann portrayed a world of violence against some of the most striking natural vistas in cinema history. His crime films are gritty and real, and all his work reflects an exploration of the complex psychology of the human soul." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

In essence, Mann personified Hollywood's own history from the 1940s to the 1970s, as it uneasily transitioned from the steady supply of product, before 1948 and the end of monopoly control over distribution, made on studio soundstages, to bigger-budget location shoots, to grandiose post-studio multinational epics that frequently got mired in their own excess. But Mann's critical reputation since his death has blossomed with the rediscovery (or “invention”) of film noir and its ripple effects on other genres in the 1940s and '50s, most significantly, the Western. The French New Wave critics, especially Jean-Luc Godard, greeted Mann's work rapturously at a time when Mann had little critical reputation beyond one as a routine “tough guy” director. Mann's consistently dark vision has only grown in stature as his most characteristic works strike a chord in an era when optimism seems less sustainable than pessimism. Mann's camera eye conjured some of the most astonishingly original imagery in American film. And the best Mann films contain an abundance of thematic material appealing to critics interested in race, class, and gender politics. Moreover, Mann's films probe the human psyche's obsessions and latent desires in startlingly adventurous, and even disturbing, ways. It is not for nothing that Martin Scorsese has singled out Mann as a primary influence on his own cinematic worldview and stylistics.

- David Boxwell, Senses of Cinema

Mann is, in fact, one of those Hollywood directors who, when he's really humming, is so good that he tempts critics and scholars to endow him with more thematic consistency than his movies can bear. You look at one of the terrific westerns he made with James Stewart -- ''Bend of the River'' (1952), say, or ''The Naked Spur'' (1953) -- or the blistering noirs ''T-Men'' (1947) and ''Raw Deal'' (1948), or the tense, sweaty ''Men in War'' (1957), or the haunted, near-Gothic Gary Cooper vehicle ''Man of the West'' (1958), and you think, who is this guy? And if you're inclined (as critics and film buffs manifestly are) to ennoble your enthusiasms with sweeping assertions of the artist's profundity, you take your guns to town to try to bring in that Big Idea, dead or alive.

That's not so easy with Anthony Mann, who, because he was not a brand-name director like Ford or Hitchcock, didn't have the luxury of staying in one place for too long, of putting down roots in a genre or a style (much less a theme). He'd work a piece of land until it was used up, then move on -- from noir to western, from western to epic, with side trips in between. He died in the saddle, in yet another unfamiliar landscape; at the time of his sudden death in 1967 at the age of 60, he was trying his hand at a cold war spy thriller, which was, like the film noir, the western and the epic before it, the boomtown genre of its moment.

The rolling-stone quality of Mann's temperament was a very useful thing for a studio filmmaker to have in the late 40's, the 50's and the 60's, when Hollywood, facing the challenge of television, was more than a little uncertain about the kinds of pictures audiences wanted to see. Noir, the great style of the late 40's, was already starting to fade by the beginning of the next decade, and dark-streets specialists like Mann had to find new territory for themselves, quickly. Mann was smarter, or luckier, than most. He turned to the western -- a genre ideally suited to his restless nature -- right away, and he didn't make the mistake of trying to follow John Ford into the high country of western myth; he stuck to the low road, where ordinary human beings scratched and clawed to survive, and often acted in ways they would come to regret.

You could say that Mann extended the film noir sensibility into the western, as if the mean streets had led directly into those wide-open spaces. The westerners played by Stewart in ''Winchester '73'' (1950), ''Bend of the River,'' ''The Naked Spur,'' ''The Far Country'' (1955) and ''The Man From Laramie'' (1955), and by Cooper in ''Man of the West,'' are, like noir heroes, mighty ambiguous characters, motivated either by ignoble emotions like the desire for revenge or by the urge to distance themselves from an unsavory, violent past. And like the protagonists of ''T-Men'' and ''Raw Deal,'' the men of Mann's West always have to endure longish stretches of pure powerlessness, periods in which fate seems to be toying with them just because it can.

- Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times

His background is sketchy but he is believed to have been born in San Diego on June 30, 1906 to Emil and Bertha Bundsmann. He developed a love of theater after the family moved to New York City when he was ten, so his decision to drop out of high school to earn a living in the theater when his father died should not come as a surprise. After trying every possible position, including stage manager, production designer and production manager, he quickly realized that he preferred directing. A number of successful productions during the early thirties won Mann a job as a talent scout with David O. Selznick, a leading Hollywood producer, in 1938. Apparently tiring of the position, he joined Paramount as an assistant director in 1939, and he directed his first film in 1942.

It seems likely that he was given the opportunity to direct because so many established directors had enlisted after Pearl Harbor. In fact, almost all able-bodied males under fifty disappeared within a few months. Even those who were too old to fight, like William Wyler and John Ford, served by producing propaganda films. Since Hollywood needed to continue churning out films to keep people on the home front entertained, many people were given opportunities they might not have had otherwise. Those with talent were able to keep working after the war ended, while the rest ended up in B movies if they were lucky. Mann was obviously one of the talented ones.

Little is known about his private life. His first marriage produced two children but ended in divorce in 1956 after twenty-five years and a second marriage to a Mexican actress lasted from 1957 to 1963. He was married to a former ballerina when he died in 1967.

- Andrew Allen, History on Film


IMDb Wiki

The Jimmy Stewart Museum

Centennial Tribute to Jimmy Stewart at Classic Movies

Jimmy Stewart page at Reel Classics

James Stewart has come a long way since his boyhood days in Pennsylvania. Starting out as an amateur magician and accordionist, he made his acting debut in a Boy Scout play and later performed in shows for the Princeton Triangle Club. He was graduated from Princeton in 1932 with a degree in architecture, but eventually joined the University Players at Falmouth, Massachusetts. It was here he befriended future stars Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Years later Sullavan would prove to be instrumental to Stewart's career by insisting that he be given parts in her films. In the years since his motion picture debut, James Stewart has earned a place in the hearts of moviegoing audiences as one of Hollywood's best-loved actors. His laconic style and boyish manner seem the embodiment of an uncomplicated honesty that also marked the career of his longtime friend, Henry Fonda (Stewart and Fonda were roommates in New York while working in the theater and also when they first arrived in Hollywood in 1935). Both men came to exemplify a uniquely American style of acting that takes simplicity and directness as its foundation.

Stewart's work in a number of Westerns, including several with director Anthony Mann, drew on his image as a man of honor and with an unswerving sense of duty. Again, Stewart's deliberate manner and tall, lean form made him an effective presence in this uniquely American film genre. John Ford used Stewart's image to examine the truth behind the Western myth in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Stewart's character wins fame for an act that his friend, John Wayne, has performed.

Stewart's long career was certainly one of Hollywood's most rewarding, and the actor's occasional interviews and television appearances only strengthed the warm regard in which he was held. With the continuing popularity of many of his best films, he remains a much-loved and much-admired figure in American cinema.

972 (114). Heaven Can Wait (1943, Ernst Lubitsch)

Screened June 4 2009 on Criterion DVD in New York, NY TSPDT rank #944 IMDb Wiki

This autobiographically intoned life account of America's most genteel philanderer amounts to a series of paradoxes: a World War II production touting an unheroic, passive cad; the director who practically invented Hollywood urbane sophistication and suavity applying his trade on quaintly mannered, occasionally rustic Americana; and the famous "Lubitsch Touch" applied so gently here as to be almost touchless. The three paradoxes are linked by Lubitsch's desire to make a film both celebrating and sending up the moral absurdities of his beloved adopted country while having to toe the puritanical line of the Hays Code.  It amounts to a celebration of obliqueness, where the offscreen shenanigans of Don Ameche are perpetually alluded to but never shown, leaving the portrait of this Gilded Age Casanova vaguely sketched. We can't tell to what degree he's successful at his romantic pursuits, or how much of it is a vain attempt to inflate his ego. Of course Lubitsch is all about reading between the lines, but almost too much here needs to be inferred by verbal references and the reactions of characters to unseen events.  In other words, it's the first Hong Sang-soo movie ever made.

All the same, there's plenty of fun to be hand in the innuendo of Samson Raphaelson's screenplay ("Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once"). And they find a priceless visual counterpart in two moments where Lubitsch lets his actors' eyes do the describing of what they're seeing, and the spectator watches through them with heightened emotion. There's also a pleasant musical incorporation of sneezes, coughs and hiccups that convey the inner states of characters where words can't. Generally Lubitsch moves the proceedings in an ambling, almost plodding style that saps the film of forward momentum; on the other hand seems to anticipate the static, almost non-narrative tableaux of late Carl Dreyer and some Terence Davies. It's a rhythm that seems to resist moving forward, which fits a film that's about a man gently coming to terms with his advancing age, the futility of his sexual exploits, and the eternal embrace of family love.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Heaven Can Wait among The Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Guillermo Altares, Nickel Odeon (1994) Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991) ? Bertrand Tavernier, Most Important American Films (1977) ? Cahiers du Cinema, Best American Films of the Sound Era (1963) ? Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987) ? Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) ? Francois Truffaut, Most Important American Films (1977) ? Gavin Lambert, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) ? Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) ? Jonathan Rosenbaum, 100 Favourite Films (2004) ? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) ? Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993) ? Leslie Halliwell, A Further Choice of Entertainment Movies From the Golden Age (1986) ? Luc Moullet, Most Important American Films (1977) ? Marcel Ophuls, Most Important American Films (1977) ? Peter Bogdanovich, 52 Classic Films for One Full Year (1999) ? Taschen, Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) ?? They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films


It is an amusing anomaly that Twentieth Century-Fox displays a particular fondness for the nineteenth century and wolves. Never is the studio quite so profligate as when it has a film in which the background is fin-de-siècle and the hero is a lady-killing blade. The settings then ooze a horse-hair flavor and Technicolor rainbows the screen. And the hero has a patent-leather polish that would have dazzled Delmonico's.

No wonder, then, that the studio has been chortling with so much advance glee over its latest package of entertainment, "Heaven Can Wait," which came to the Roxy yesterday. For here is a shined and scented chromo which Ernst Lubitsch has produced for it with all the ornamental excess of the period so dear to the heart of the studio. Here is a nostalgic nosegay in which the hero is quite a wolf, indeed. And here is a comedy of manners, edged with satire, in the slickest Lubitsch style. The Twentieth Century-Fox has got a picture about fin-de-siècle conduct which rings a bell.

For this time Mr. Lubitsch (and his playwright, Sam Raphaelson) is not concerned with the present, as he was so embarrasingly in "To Be or Not To Be," but is poking very sly and sentimental fun at Eighteen Nineties naughtiness. He—and Mr. Raphaelson, who based the script on a Lazlo Bus-Fekete play—are laughing with gentle affection at the pruderies of yesterday. Their picture has utterly no significance. Indeed, it has very little point, except to afford entertainment. And that it does quite well

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, August 12, 1943

Heaven Can Wait was praised by a large cross-section of critics, but the most sensitive notice was from James Agee, who wrote that, while it was not up to Lubitsch's best (he preferred the silent Lubitsch, "It has a good deal of the dry sparkle, the shrewd business, and the exquisite timing... It brought back a time when people really made good movies... the sets, costumes and props are something for history... [and] the period work, in these respects -as in Lubitsch's modulations in styles ofposture and movement - was about the prettiest and most quietly witty I had ever seen." Even D.W. Griffith put aside his old jealousy to pay tribute when he told Ezra Goodman that "I liked the way Lubitsch used color in Heaven Can Wait. And the way he used sound, too."

As Andrew Sarris has observed of Heaven Can Wait, "the timing of every shot, every gesture, every movement was so impeccably precise and economically expressive that an entire classical tradition unfolded... Contemporary sloppiness of construction brought on by the blind worship of 'energy' as an end to itself make it almost too easy to appreciate Lubitsch's uncanny sense of the stylized limits of a civilized taste. Almost any old movie looks classical today: Lubitsch's movies are nothing short of sublime."

- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.



Ernst Lubitsch's only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies' man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it's about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson's script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast--Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington--is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch's testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Centered in a Fifth Avenue mansion left over from 19th-century New York, the film is Lubitsch and writing partner Samson Raphaelson's valentine to "an age that has vanished, when it was possible to live for the charm of living." Spanning more than half a century, it chronicles the high points of Henry's life so delicately that--in a variation on the strategies of Lubitsch-Raphaelson's risque '30s classics--it leaves some of them entirely offscreen, their emotional impact measured by what the characters feel and say about them afterward. We'll leave it to you to find out what they are. Suffice it to say that Ameche and Gene Tierney--as Martha, the love of Henry's life--give performances far subtler than anything else in their Fox contract-player careers, and there are sublime opportunities for those peerless character actors Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and Marjorie Main.

-Richard T. Jameson, Amazon.com

For once, it seems that Lubitsch - who prided himself on never having vulgar run-ins with the censors and on outsmarting them more consistently than almost anyone else - had outsmarted himself. He set out to make a case for a kind of life that everything in the climate of American piety around him seemed to be discounting. But Heaven Can Wait is the story of a philanderer in which no philandering ever occurs, at least so far as we can tell. If it had, the hero would have been required to be punished in some way (the Production Code) - which was not the kind of movie or moral that Lubitsch had in mind. Since he means to forgive, even to eulogize, this amiably lecherous hero, he has to seem at least to deny the lechery. And so a pattern is set up. From the French maid to the Follies girl, Henry always turns out to be innocent, in spite of initial appearances. The only one he seems to make any real headway with is his wife. And he seems indeed a very contented sort of husband. And yet the implication of adultery - of even a habit of adultery - is clear, if carefully handled. Martha discovers a bill for a diamond bracelet and leaves him. And we discover in the scene that follows that there have been many such quarrels before this. But when? And over what exactly? We know even less about Henry's infidenlities than he contrives to let his wife know. But since this is a problem the film is importantly about, the effect is of a peculiar smarminess: as if there were things you never discussed, no matter how insistent or obtrusive they became. Lubitsch and Raphaelson undoubtedly felt that their techniques of eloquent reticence would carry the day. But never before had these techniques been required to carry so much - so much necessary meaning and information left out. The film gives less a feeling of double entendre than of massive denial.

- James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges. Published by Da Capo Press, 1998

Amazing what Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Trouble in Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche's great love, still manages to show her character's gathering strength.

There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren's host asked, "is that Anton Walbrook?" Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco's Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn't want the place getting all touristy. "Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell," he laments.

Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson's peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, in looks and demeanor rather reminiscent of Ralph Reed. Excellent exchange, mid-movie:

Albert: The family understands your humor, but it's a typical kind of New York humor. Hugo: In other words, it's not for yokels.

We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney's Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor's any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren's favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no "humorous" dialect tics or cutesy gestures.

- Campaspe Smith, The Self-Styled Siren

Films like Heaven Can Wait make us think about our own lives and legacies. The introspective viewer sees the life of Henry Van Cleve and starts to wonder how his own would measure up if such a devilish meeting ever took place. Van Cleve’s ultimate fate in Heaven Can Wait makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives. If you believe in an afterlife as a reward for the life lived on Earth, it’s nice to have movies such as this one to reassure us that no one’s perfect and we’re not expected to be either.

- Clydefro Jones

Lubitsch manages to wedge in a few funny scenes among the supporting players, including one about Eugene Pallette and the Sunday funnies. But his famous "touch" seems to have dulled here while dealing with the stagy material, and while patiently filming Ameche in various layers of makeup representing the passing years. As beautiful and colorful as it is, Heaven Can Wait has an overwhelming despondency, dealing as directly as it does with old age and death. Those things, it seems to me, would make a crackerjack comedy, but this time Lubitsch merely wallows in them.

Jeffrey M. AndersonCombustible Celluloid

Don Ameche is nothing short of wonderful, and it's a shame that postwar fashion would push him aside in favor of a diet of he-man types and younger blood. That makes his late-career return almost forty years later all the more pleasing. Gene Tierney is appropriately ravishing and handles her comedy well. Her incredible looks got her through a few ordinary pix until a couple of positive hits like this one led to Laura and mainstream stardom. Coburn is a hit as the randy granddad and Spring Byington cute as Henry's mom. Allyn Joslyn makes a perfect dullsville cousin, the kind who can be cruelly cheated and we don't care a bit. He has a nice scene where he re-proposes to Martha by describing himself as an old suit of clothes. Martha smiles, but cousin hasn't a prayer.

Glenn EricksonDVD Savant

The film itself is nimble, spry, and as effervescent as an Alka Seltzer thrown into a champagne cocktail. But I don't want to mislead you into thinking it doesn't pack some powerful emotional punches. Henry Van Cleve is a man who is railing against time, and trying hard to bury his pain inside the women he comes across in his time. The love affair between him and Martha is compelling, probably because the Gene Tierney character is allowed to see her husband's faults. She knows exactly what he is, and loves him regardless of it. If the movie were made today it would probably fall apart, because it would show sordid details of an over-sexed man cheating on his beautiful wife. Luckily, because of the extreme censors of the '40s, the story is made more palatable. We never get the impression that anything sordid is happening—but here's where Lubitsch is sly and crafty. He insinuates more with a look or a closed door than most modern filmmakers can with an outright fleshy orgy of sweaty close-ups made up of select body parts. It's a thinking man's comedy; an exemplary personification of the "Lubitsch touch." He finds a way for us to root for the callow man, and even root for Martha and him to find happiness any way they can. He's tricking America into opening its peculiar Midwestern morality and trading it for a more permissive European sensibility. It's a deep, beautiful film masked in a light, airy comedy, and it's wonderfully subversive.

Brett CullumDVD Verdict

Ernst Lubitsch's comic fantasy begins with a cheery conceit, but underneath lingers a fear of loss. Guilt-ridden Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), newly deceased, bypasses heaven for hell, where he finds a skeptical Satan. In lusciously restored Technicolor, Henry recounts his mottled life from the 1870s to the 1940s, as he woos and betrays his wife, Martha (a radiant Gene Tierney), and wins her again. Lubitsch nimbly conveys the passage of time (whiskers change; elderly characters disappear and children arrive), but the chuckling humor is sometimes too genteel for its own good. Although Henry is referred to as a ''Casanova,'' the light ''Lubitsch touch'' and period censorship never let his lechery register as a serious blot on his character.

- Edward KaramEntertainment Weekly

Being made in 1943, Heaven Can Wait lacks some of the naughty innuendo of Lubitsch's pre-Code films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), but it moves far beyond that Art Deco fantasy world to sketch out a gently mocking, yet complex character portrait. In its warmth and humaneness it recalls The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is to say it's one of Lubitsch's richest and most moving films. I would argue that these two films, together with To Be Or Not To Be (1942), represent the true peak of Lubitsch's career, as much as I love his films from the silent era up to the early Thirties.

- James Steffen, Turner Classic Movies

Putting his lead foot first, director Ernst Lubitsch saddles his story with a script that never properly uses its complete potential. Henry feels that as part of his interview process, he must go through the story of his life, which would have generally been a decent idea, except that he led a pretty uninspiring one.

- Chris Barsanti, FilmCritic.com

This 1943 production from director Ernst Lubitsch's long partnership with playwright Samson Raphaelson has accrued fame for being one of the pair's most enduring collaborations, even though the "Lubitsch touch" is more subdued here than in the pair's Trouble in Paradise and Shop Around the Corner, and barely recognizable from the director's silent works. From the opening scene, where Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in Satan's executive suite in Hell, this is a decidedly restrained picture for the duo. Besides providing film history with one of its most memorable interpretations of Hell, the scene sets the bar for the movie: witty dialogue is exchanged for witty circumstances; the overt Lubitsch opulence, for discrete indicators of social class; biting sexual humor is given over to a decidedly chaste rendering of pleasure; and homespun Americana, instead of Continental sophistication.
Even the movie's structure is more drawn out and nuanced than the partners' previous pictures. Assuming his wandering eye and lies has warranted eternal suffering, Henry insists to a confused and comically conversational Lucifer he deserves a spot in Hell. He relays his life's story and all its damning events, which provides a fairly original narrative framework. Of course, in each segment he, instead, displays a good-natured and earnest quality that shows why he belongs in Heaven, providing Lubitsch and Raphaelson with a platform to discuss sexuality and morality in subtle and subversive detail.

- Zachary JonesFilm-Forward

Much has been written over the years about the "Lubitsch Touch." For a solid example of that touch, look no further than the setup. By beginning his story in Hell, Lubitsch is both endorsing and mocking the idea of Henry's paying for his sins. Then, for the next hour and a half, Lubitsch sets out to prove that no sin was really committed. In Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson's eyes, Henry brought no shame to others while also providing a lot of good clean fun to the many women in his life. In examining this point, the writer and director play with the notion held in society at the time that women may have needed to be chaste within the confines of a relationship but that philandering was merely a part of man's nature. In Heaven Can Wait, such an idea is reduced to what it really is: An excuse for men who've never grown up to do whatever they want and with whomever they please. Here, women represent the maturity of fidelity while men, though charming, wouldn't know maturity if it kicked them out of bed.

Donald FalzoneStatic Multimedia

On the surface, everything sparkles: Heaven was the first film Lubitsch shot in Technicolor, and cleaned up for DVD, its rich colors and ornate backdrops shimmer like Champagne in crystal; set in the upper class fin de siècle milieu of ball gowns and cocktail parties, the film is beautifully shot and elegantly designed. But, buried somewhere underneath all those portieres and chandeliers a spirited idea was suffocated, and what could have been one of the era's great black comedies, with a premise begging for the acid tongue of a George S. Kaufman or Billy Wilder, settles instead for being a parlor jaunt: badinage in topcoats and tails, jokes about yokels and showgirls. Potentially one of the cinema's immortal comic creations, Henry Van Cleve – a philandering post-mortem playboy so enamored of his own dissipation and amorality he angles to convince the devil to let him into Hell – is reduced to a low-grade rake by the somnolent Don Ameche and the sentimental dialogue of writer Samson Raphaelson.

- Josh Rosenblatt, The Austin Chronicle

On an extra feature on the DVD, critic Andrew Sarris notes that light comedies such as "Heaven Can Wait" tend to be underrated. I have to agree with him, but I also must plead guilty as charged. I admire the extraordinary craft involved in making such a film: it requires a lot of hard work to make comedy seem so easy. Raphaelson´s script is tightly structured, snappy and clever; admirable craft, but also part of the problem for me. As in many modern sitcoms, the characters always seem to know how a scene is going to end before it begins, and mug their way through it as they lead up to that oh-so-meticulously timed punch line. There is little attempt to create plausible characters here: it is never Henry or Martha speaking, but always Don Ameche or Gene Tierney winking at the camera as they deliver perfectly written, perfectly-rehearsed lines. I can´t help but see the whole affair as pleasant but rather slight entertainment; in Douglas Adams´ words, the movie is "mostly harmless."

Christopher LongDVD Town


Few of us get to write our own epitaph. HEAVEN CAN WAIT masquerades lightly as the beyond-the-grave recollections of the aged roué Henry Van Cleve, but the film is in fact Ernst Lubitsch's own death foretold, his own life summed up.

It was wartime, and Lubitsch despaired over a Europe in flames. His heart was failing, partially the fault of the gigantic cigars he chain-smoked, partially (his friends believed) the result of his long good fight against studio tyranny and hypocrisy. He realized, he told Samson Raphaelson, his friend and collaborator on nine films including HEAVEN CAN WAIT, that he had made many films about Americans, but none about America, a place he loved even more dearly for all its peccadilloes and false prudery. As the two set about to make Lubitsch's first film in color, Lubitsch suffered a series of heart attacks. Raphaelson was told that Lubitsch could not survive, and so began composing a eulogy. As he dictated, his hardboiled secretary wept. As Raphaelson contemplated the homely German in the ill-fitting clothes whose lacework wit had transformed Hollywood from a provincial town on the edge of a desert into a (at least occasionally) civilized and creative place, the phrases poured like Rhine wine:

"I never saw, even in this territory of egotists, anyone who didn't light up with pleasure in Lubitsch's company. We got that pleasure, not from his brilliancy or his rightness. . . but from the purity and childlike delight of his lifelong love affair with ideas. . . He had no time for manners, but the grace within him was unmistakable, and everyone kindled to it, errand boy and mogul, mechanic and artist. Garbo smiled, indeed, in his presence, and so did Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. He was born with the happy gift of revealing himself instantly to all."

But Lubitsch survived to shoot HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and Raphaelson happily put away his tribute, swearing his secretary to secrecy about his flood of sentiment. For Lubitsch, the film that resulted from this dire period is surely one of his most lovely, an unassuming, casual announcement that death held no fear for him. The amiable, emphatically American Don Ameche as Henry van Cleve stands in for Lubitsch quite nicely, and the ridiculous world over which he presides is a fantasy of provincialism outraged (the preposterous Mr. and Mrs. Strabel, nouveauboors just in from, hopelessly, Kansas), and European sexual matter-of-factness (the worldly Mademoiselle, every adolescent boy's French maid). In Lubitsch's version of the afterlife, everyone is as civilized and expansive as he is; even the devil (His Excellency), as played by Laird Cregar, is a patient sophisticate. The screen directions tell us that Henry van Cleve speaks of death "as if talking about a charming social affair," a typical Lubitsch combination of naiveté and élan.

In the end, heaven could not wait, and the death forestalled during the making of the film arrived to claim Lubitsch in 1947, after his sixth heart attack. Sadly, Raphaelson had reason to bring his eulogy for Lubitsch out of his file cabinet. Only then did he discover that his secretary had broken her vow of secrecy; Lubitsch had read the loving obituary when he had recovered from those first heart attacks, and had been deeply touched. By then he must have known that Raphaelson's feelings for him had already found a lighter but equally powerful voice in the screenplay for HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

- Anonymous, New York State Writers Institute

To Ameche he was "dedicated"; to Tierney he was "a tyrant." Tierney was seraphically beautiful but deeply closeted emotionally, and invariably seemed to be acting in a glazed trance. Around the Fox lot, she had a reputation for responding to any emotional scenes by going slightly over the top in a cloying, sentimental way. In trying to spark some emotional immediacy out of her, Lubitsch had terrified the actress. The day after their contretemps, Tierney sought him out and explained that "I'm willing to do my best, but I can't go on working on this picture if you're going to keep shouting at me."

"I'm paid to shout at you," he retorted.

"Yes, and I'm paid to take it - but not enough." They laughed and Lubitsch modulated his approach for the rest of the shooting.

Scott EymanErnst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.


Lubitsch’s comedy had been sufficiently idiosyncratic for him to become a model for other directors, such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Nevertheless, he was not immune to stylistic currents, clearly responding to the ascendancy of screwball comedy with two works that appeared toward the end of that subgenre’s efflorescence: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) andThat Uncertain Feeling (1941). But screwball was not an agreeable style for Lubitsch, whose work was becoming more contemplative, quieter. It is that thoughtful quality that pervades HeavenCan Wait, inscribed in the flashback structure of its narrative. And this shift was in keeping with other changes in Hollywood movies of the time: with the Depression and the impending political catastrophe in Europe, American high comedy was becoming more realistic in manner, more middle-class in milieu, and more political in its concerns. Lubitsch was deeply affected by these changes.

In this light, then, Lubitsch’s move to Twentieth Century Fox—a studio specializing in historical films and nostalgic evocations of small-town America—is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Lubitsch could never embrace the small town, but he could reasonably make New York the focus of his venture into Americana. And with his very American ordinariness, Don Ameche, then one of Fox’s leading male stars, could help move Lubitsch in this direction.

While eschewing specific historical events, the film finds its own distinctive way of defining how the outside world is developing and how characters are developing in relation to it. Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait uses color to record historical change: color grows increasingly muted in the ever-transforming settings and costumes as the film progresses up to the present day of its audience, with bright reds and deep blues, both fairly saturated and vibrant in their contrast of hot and cold tones, yielding to ivories and finally pale whites. The elliptical structure of the film’s narrative never permits us to see characters effecting these changes, and the characters themselves never remark on them. As a consequence, every change seems to happen mysteriously, as if of its own accord. Just as a child may view changes in his universe as miraculously self-generating because he does not have the knowledge or experience to know how they come about, change is presented in this film as self-generating because it is a view that belongs to the narrator, Henry himself.

Like the unacknowledged changes in set design and fashions, the ellipse in Heaven Can Wait take on a mysterious quality, mysterious in the profoundest sense of something great and unknowable. Where the ultrasophisticated characters in Lubitsch’s earlier films have a firm grasp on the world, in the elusive world of Heaven Can Wait, a world beyond absolute understanding, Henry is most blessed by his innocence. Because the individual exists within this larger, impenetrable order, the examination of any individual life, however restricted in focus—and Heaven Can Wait’s is very restricted—must also be an examination of the world in which the individual lives. Henry might be an innocent, but he tells his story to an urbane devil who would be right at home in the world of Lubitsch’s thirties comedies, and, from his knowing perspective, the devil can finally make something different of Henry’s life story than Henry himself. Henry’s innocence, then, is cast within a sophisticated worldview that both echoes and enriches Lubitsch’s earlier work. While the individual life of Henry is unimportant to the course of history, by the simple act of living he takes in the whole world and the history in which he lives. Heaven Can Wait might be nothing more than the life story of a man who did not amount to much, as Lubitsch claimed, but it is also nothing less. Heaven Can Wait brilliantly maintains the exquisite balance between tragic and comic impulses, between shifting views of man as an individual and man as an element of society, that marks Lubitsch’s best work.


Video *** ½ Heaven Can Wait is presented in its original full-frame, color format. The transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and encoded on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc. The video bit transfer rate averages 6 Mbps. As with all Technicolor films, the visuals are bright, with vibrant hues that almost leap from the screen. There are some minor emulsion fluctuations and a slight softness of the picture quality, but otherwise, there is nary a dust speck in sight and this film looks quite good for its age.

Audio ***

Heaven Can Wait is presented in English monaural. Dialogue is clear and never muddled without intrusive background noise. The score is by noted composer Alfred Newman and utilizes a plethora of old-time tunes.

- Ed Nguyen, DVD Movie Central

Extras Review: A surprising amount of supplemental material rounds out this release. In typical Criterion fashion, an insert containing information about the DVD's transfers and credits starts things off. Featuring an essay by William Paul, the insert is a welcomed addition as the essay gives a good introduction to the film for those who may not be familiar with Ernst Lubitsch's work. On the disc itself, there are a variety of features showcasing 20th Century Fox's publicity campaign for the movie. The theatrical trailer is presented with its original narration by Robert Benchley, who delivers some very clever taglines for the film. Additionally, the Press Book and a Publicity Gallery are included, with still images that are selected via remote control. Neither gallery is particularly engaging, but both are fairly brief and easy enough to navigate through.

A much better supplemental feature is the conversation, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (24m:41s). Videotaped for this DVD, the two critics offer many insights into the film and Lubitsch's entire career. Sarris is particularly interesting to listen to, since he attended a screening of Heaven Can Wait during its original release. Practically every element of the film is touched upon here, from Raphaelson's script to censorship to its themes, and both people are very articulate. Following that is a presentation of the PBS broadcast Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29m:07s). Featuring an interview with Raphaelson, as well as clips of him teaching scriptwriting, this is a brief but informative look into the man's life. It chronicles his major career achievements and offers many of his ideas about how to write a script. If you are interesting in screenwriting, make sure to take a look at this feature.

Continuing with Raphaelson, the audio recordings of him and Richard Corliss at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 are included as well. Corliss gives an introductory lecture (07m:44s) prior to the screening of Heaven Can Wait, but it is the conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson after the screening that is so interesting. Running just over 26 minutes, the conversation covers lots of new information on the script not repeated elsewhere. Raphaelson is full of humor as he recalls his experience with Hitchcock and others. There is also a question and answer session with the audience (18m:12s) that gives more information, although it is difficult to hear what the audience member is asking.

Rounding out the supplemental features is a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch's musical skills. Ernst Lubitsch: A Musical Collage (04m:31s) contains pictures of the man from the set and in his office as a recording of him playing different piano tunes occupies the front sound stage. It's nothing extraordinary, but the introduction to it by his daughter, Nicola, (03m:57s) is a touching addition worthy of a listen.

- Nate Meyers, Digitally Obsessed


IMDb Wiki

The following quotes were found on the They Shoot Pictures profile page for Ernst Lubitsch:

"As Hollywood recedes, Lubitsch's role as a creative entrepreneur and as the germ of European sophistication becomes more fascinating. Considering the way he was rebuffed by Mary Pickford on his first American film, Rosita, and so wittily mocked for his Teutonic stubbornness, it is remarkable that he achieved such eminence in Hollywood and that his reputation rested on the supposed delicacy of "touch"." -  David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"After joining Warner Brothers, he directed five films that firmly established his thematic interests. The films were small in scale, dealt openly with sexual and psychological relationships in and out of marriage, refrained from offering conventional moral judgments, and demystified women. As Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen point out, Lubitsch created complex female characters who were aggressive, unsentimental, and able to express their sexual desires without suffering the usual pains of banishment or death." - Greg S. Faller (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"Lubitsch was always the least Germanic of German directors, as Lang was the most Germanic. The critics were always so obsessed with what Lubitsch naughtily left off the screen that they never fully evaluated what was left on... Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died - even before he did - everywhere except in his own memory." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

"The man with the cynical, delightful touch created an aristocratic world of yesteryear, then poked fun at it. Lubitsch could say volumes by implication and innuendo." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I sometimes make pictures which are not up to my standard, but then it can only be said of a mediocrity that all his work is up to his standard." - Ernst Lubitsch

"I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?" - Ernst Lubitsch

The most widely imitated comic filmmaker of the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch perfected an urbane, graceful directorial style so original and so distinctive that the phrase "Lubitsch Touch" was coined simply to describe it. Combining elegance and wit to bring a tremendous warmth and humanity to even the thinnest of screenplays, he set a new standard of achievement for the light romantic comedy, largely defining the genre while also helping to revolutionize the movie musical as well as various recording techniques.

- Jason Ankeny, All Movie Guide

In Hollywood’s “golden era,” most directors were considered mere worker bees, not artistes. It was the producer who took primary attribution for a movie, impresarios like Thomas Ince and Adolf Zukor, and of course the stars who claimed primary fan-mag space. Nobody went to a movie because it was directed by so-and-so … because they would be hard-pressed to name one more specifically than, er, “so-and-so.”Ernst Lubitsch was a shining early exception, and stayed one to the end of his career. The famed “Lubitsch Touch” was a catchphrase filmgoers came to associate with “Continental” wit, sophistication and sauciness unique to the director himself. He was imitated but never matched.

- Dennis HarveySF360

In 1932 Lubitsch directed his first non-musical sound comedy, Trouble in Paradise. Most critics consider this film to be, if not his best, then at least the complete embodiment of everything that has been associated with Lubitsch: sparkling dialogue, interesting plots, witty and sophisticated characters, and an air of urbanity—all part of the well-known "Lubitsch Touch." What constitutes the "Lubitsch Touch" is open to continual debate, the majority of the definitions being couched in poetic terms of idolization. Andrew Sarris comments that the "Lubitsch Touch" is a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments. Leland A. Poague sees Lubitsch's style as being gracefully charming and fluid, with an "ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed. . . ." Observations like this last one earned Lubitsch the unfortunate moniker of "director of doors," since a number of his jokes relied on what unseen activity was being implied behind a closed door.

Regardless of which romantic description one chooses, the "Lubitsch Touch" can be most concretely seen as deriving from a standard narrative device of the silent film: interrupting the dramatic interchange by focusing on objects or small details that make a witty comment on or surprising revelation about the main action. Whatever the explanation, Lubitsch's style was exceptionally popular with critics and audiences alike. Ten years after arriving in the United States he had directed eighteen features, parts of two anthologies, and was recognized as one of Hollywood's top directors.

Greg S. FallerFilm Reference.com

"The Lubitsch Touch" – it was as famous a monicker as Hitchcock's "Master of Suspense" – but perhaps not as super­ficial. The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch films – more than in almost any other director's work – one can feel this spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also – and particularly – ­in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role. Jack Benny told me that Lubitsch would act out in detail exactly how he wanted something done – often broadly but always succinctly – knowing, the comedian said, that he would translate the direction into his own manner and make it work. Clearly, this must have been Lubitsch's method with all his actors because everyone in a Lubitsch movie – whether it's Benny or Gary Cooper, Lombard or Kay Francis, Maurice Chevalier or Don Ameche, Jeanette MacDonald or Claudette Colbert – performs in the same un­mistakable style. Despite their individual personalities – and Lubitsch never stifled these – they are imbued with the di­rector's private view of the world, which made them behave very differently than they did in other films.

This was, in its own way, inimitable – though Lubitsch has had many imitators through the years – yet none has succeeded in capturing the soul of that attitude, which is as difficult to describe as only the best styles are, because they come from some fine inner workings of the heart and mind and not from something as apparent as, for instance, a tendency to dwell on inanimate objects as counterpoint to his characters' machinations. Certainly Lubitsch was famous for holding on a closed door while some silent or barely overheard crisis played out within, or for observing his people in dumb show through closed windows. This was surely as much a part of his style as it was an indication of his sense of delicacy and good taste, the boundless affection and re­spect he had for the often flighty and frivolous men and women who played out their charades for us in his glorious comedies and musicals.

Lubitsch had a terrific impact on American movies. Jean Renoir was exaggerating only slightly when he told me recently, "Lubitsch invented the modern Hollywood," for his influence was felt, and continues to be, in the work of many of even the most individualistic directors. Hitchcock has admitted as much to me and a look at Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief (both plots deal with jewel thieves so the comparisons are easy) will re­veal how well he learned, though each is distinctly the work of the man who signed it. Billy Wilder, who was a writer on a couple of Lubitsch films – including the marvel­ous Ninotchka – has madeseveral respectful forays into the world of Lubitsch, as have many others with less noteworthy results. Even two such distinctive film makers as Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger, directing pictures which Lu­bitsch only produced – Desire (Borzage), A Royal Scandal and That Lady in Ermine (Preminger) – found themselves almost entirely in the service of his unique attitudes, and these movies are certainly far more memorable for those qualities than for ones usually associated with their credited di­rectors. (Actually, Lubitsch is credited for That Lady in Ermine, but this was a sentimental gesture since he suffered a fatal heart attack and only shot eight days of it before Preminger took over.)

Lubitsch brought a maturity to the handling of sex in pictures that was not dimmed by the dimness of the censors that took over in the early Thirties, because his method was so circuitous and light that he could get away with almost anything. And that was true in everything he did. No other director, for example, has managed to let a char­acter talk directly to the audience (as Chevalier did in The Love Parade and One Hour with You) and pull it off. There is always something coy and studied in it, but Lubitsch managed just the right balance between reality and theatri­cality – making the most outrageous device seem natural and easy; his movies flowed effortlessly and though his hand was felt, even seen, it was never intrusive.

After Lubitsch's funeral in 1947, his friends Billy Wilder and William Wyler were walking sadly to their car. Finally, to break the silence, Wilder said, "No more Lubitsch," and Wyler answered, "Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films." The following year, the French director?critic, Jean-­Georges Auriol, wrote a loving tribute that made the same point; titled "Chez Ernst," it can be found in Herman Wein­berg's affectionate collection, The Lubitsch Touch (Dutton). After comparing the director's world to an especially fine restaurant where the food was perfect and the service meticu­lous, the piece ends this way: "How can a child who cries at the end of the summer holidays be comforted? He can be told that another summer will come, which will be equally wonderful. But he cries even more at this, not knowing how to explain that he won't be the same child again. Certainly Lubitsch's public is as sentimental as this child; and it knows quite well that 'Ernst's' is closed on account of death. This particular restaurant will never be open again."

- Peter Bogdanovich, November 1972, printed at CliveJames.com

Even on brief acquaintance with Ernst Lubitsch’s films, one observes that his actors come to a dead stop after every line, and that a beat of silence separates each bit of dialogue from the next.  The actors further emphasize the artifice by using a rise-and-fall delivery that makes every line a set-up or a summation, stylizing any hints of psychology into elements of rhythm.  By contrast, directors like McCarey, LaCava or Capra try to preserve psychology, and create rhythm more between lines than within them.  Compare, say, the scene in LaCava’s Bed ofRoses (1933) in which Constance Bennett impersonates a journalist in order to seduce wealthy John Halliday, and the scene in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which Miriam Hopkins impersonates a secretary to gain access to the house of wealthy Kay Francis.  In addition to the startling resemblance of Bennett and Hopkins in their mousy working-girl disguises--was LaCava “quoting” the Lubitsch film?--the dialogue in both scenes snaps back and forth in similar ping-pong style.  But the scenes play quite differently: Bennett embroiders her charade with little bits of characterization that take her speech patterns in many directions, whereas Hopkins’ moments of concealment and unwitting revelation are confined within a narrow tonal range that emphasizes the musical aspect of the repartee.

This acting style, which occurs throughout Lubitsch’s sound films (and, in spirit at least, in the silent films as well, where actions and gestures are similarly discrete), reminds us that Lubitsch had his start in the theater. Though Lubitsch the actor eventually ascended to Max Reinhardt's theater company, the acting in his films evokes “lower” forms of comic theater: operetta of course, but also farce and vaudeville skit humor.  The resemblance between the measured, often exaggerated acting style found in these comic traditions and in Lubitsch’s films points to a more interesting correspondence: Lubitsch's actors, like their theatrical counterparts, tend to establish a direct relationship with the audience, an understanding based on a shared knowing perspective on the fiction.  In the most pronounced instances (such as Maurice Chevalier's characters in the thirties musicals), Lubitsch characters feel free to address the audience directly, and walk through the plot with the smiling detachment of vaudeville entertainers; they are as much narrators of as participants in the drama.  One can see the same tendency, in a more restrained form, in other Lubitsch characters--like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise or Charles Boyer in Cluny Brown (1946)--who remain more or less within the boundaries of the fiction but express the same amused overview on the action that Lubitsch encourages in the audience.

Another example, from a later period of Lubitsch's career: in Heaven Can Wait (1943), Gene Tierney breaks down crying over her imminent marriage to Allyn Joslyn, and tells Don Ameche the story of her engagement.  Though she goes out of her way to express her affection for her parents and her home state in the course of this story, she lets slip one phrase after another that shows her true dislike of each.

Tierney: Well, you see, I always wanted to live in New York.  I don’t want to say anything against Kansas, but--life on my father’s estate...Don’t misunderstand me, we have all the modern conveniences and luxuries, but...oh, and you don’t know Father and Mother.
Ameche: Well, I’ve only just met them.
Tierney: Don’t you think they’re sweet?
Ameche: Well, yes, very sweet.
Tierney: Yes, they are.  But it’s not very easy to live with them.  You see, most of the time they don’t talk to one another.  And whenever a young man--and there were some very nice ones...
Ameche: Oh, I’m sure of it.
Tierney: ...if one of them asked for my hand, and my mother said yes, my father said no.  And when my father said yes, my mother said no.  But Albert came at one of those rare moments when they were both on speaking terms.  And if I hadn’t said yes, who knows when my parents might have been talking to each other again.  I might have spent the rest of my life in Kansas.  Don’t misunderstand me--I love Kansas.  It’s just that I don’t feel like living there.  Besides, I don’t want to be an old maid.  Not in Kansas!

As with the scene from The Smiling Lieutenant, there are two usual approaches to such material: Tierney's hostile feelings toward family and home could slip out without her meaning to reveal them; or she could show an awareness of her emotional contradictions by acknowledging them.  Instead of either approach, Tierney delivers both positive and negative feelings in identical tones of tearful confiding; she is completely untroubled at moving from one extreme to the other without transition.  Tierney the actor realizes the contradictions of which Tierney's character is plainly unaware, demonstrating this by leveling her affect to heighten the contrast between content and delivery. If we look at the scenes discussed above and the three alternative acting approaches that I've suggested--the poles of unawareness and awareness, and Lubitsch's actor-aware/character-unaware strategy--it's interesting to note that, in the context of the scriptwriting, only Lubitsch's approach is obviously comic.  Both the other approaches tend to illuminate the character's psychology; if we try to apply them to the scenes in question, the tone moves a notch toward drama, mitigating against big laughs.  This is not to say that psychologically oriented acting can't be funny--there are almost as many counterexamples as there are comic directors--but it does suggest that Lubitsch's comic style is built into his material, and that his acting strategies work only because they are set up at the writing stage.

Perhaps Lubitsch’s only reason for drawing on the conventions of theater is the opportunity they provide him to insert his overseeing viewpoint into the fiction.  His actors acquire an all-knowing aura which is nonetheless curiously life-sized: they sit in the privileged seat of the film spectator.

Samson Raphaelson's great talent was in making true love seem so much more than a boy-meets-girl plot device, while at the same time cherishing the delicate patterns and structures of that device. Music and camerawork celebrate the artifice in One Hour with You and are elaborate in design; the revelation of an affair is given in soliloquy.

They worked most often with a Hungarian play as a springboard and finished with something entirely different, save for the bare bones of the original plot. Raphaelson himself tended to dismiss "writing in the Lubitsch vein," as his theatrical and literary concerns were most important to him, but the two of them (and let us not exclude Ernest Vajda) inspired one another "past all sanity."

Rob Pinsel, FILM REFERENCE.com


IMDb Wiki

Gene Tierney Website

The Mave's Tribute to Gene Tierney


Exotically beautiful debutante whose Broadway and then film career was fueled and promoted through a company owned by her insurance-broker father. (He sued his daughter for breach of the family corporation in the early 1940s.) Tierney's best roles include the hauntingly beautiful faux-murder victim in the noir classic "Laura" (1944); the neurotically possessive bride in John M. Stahl's 1945 melodrama "Leave Her to Heaven" (for which she received her only Oscar nomination); Vincent Price's young bride in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's period thriller "Dragonwyck" (1946), and the serene widow in Mankiewicz's lovely romantic fantasy "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947).

Divorced from designer Oleg Cassini in 1952, Tierney fell in love with Aly Khan but suffered a nervous breakdown when he left her during the filming of "The Left Hand of God" (1955). She was promptly suspended by Fox and did not return to acting until "Advise and Consent" in 1962. In 1960 Tierney had married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, former husband of Hedy Lamarr. She penned a candid autobiography, "Self Portrait", in 1979.

- Turner Classic Movies

964 (106). Female Trouble (1974, John Waters)

Screened Sunday April 12 2009 on New Line DVD in Watertown, MA TSPDT rank #925  IMDb Wiki

Pink Flamingos may remain the purest, rawest manifestation of John Waters' inimitable worldview, but Female Trouble is his masterpiece, taking that film's libidinal anarchy and slipping it like a series of time bombs inside something resembling a classical narrative.  Having a story provides a steady target against which Waters' tastelessness  (never as extreme as it was in these two films) tirelessly hurls itself; it's the same approach taken by Mel Brooks, whose more mainstream brand of subversion feels rather artless compared to what Waters and his game cast and crew accomplish here.

Superwigged juggernaut Divine rumbles like a rhinoceros through a bad-girl-gone-abominable melodrama that takes her from teen rape to robbery to married life (involving sex with carrots and pliers) to unspeakable disfiguration to mass murder.  Divine devours each debased woman scenario with full-throated gusto, defecating a performance that surpasses camp reduction, reaching deep into a kind of pathological, gleefully sado-masochistic apotheosis of female suffering and ambition.  It's a dervish dance of garishness whose strident bellows betray unexpected small revelations: giving birth in a hotel hallway, she pulls the rape-seed infant from her womb, tears into the umbilical cord with her teeth and spits it against the green upholstery.  That piece of afterbirth stuck on the couch is one of the most mind-blowingly defiant gestures I've seen in a long time.

While Waters can't resist the gimmicky shock value of having Divine clobber her parents with a Christmas tree or get raped by a male hick played by himself, or close ups of grime-covered penises, it's the little unexpected gestures that elevate this film to sublime trash: robbery masks that fit over beehive hairdos; a 300 pound transvestite attempting somersaults on a trampoline in reckless abandon; a bowlful of spaghetti slithering down a wall. At one point Divine, ascending a staircase, casts his eyes downward and delivers a broken marriage, woe-is-me monologue with a black beehive and limpid eyes worthy of Liz Taylor, he looks downright beautiful, and more convincing as a downtrodden woman than his Hollywood counterpart's Oscar performance in Butterfield 8. It's a moment that becomes especially poignant given what's to follow, his character's dream of stardom succumbing to physical and psychic mutilation. The film's second half pushes hard into the monster-freak aspect of Divine's persona, reducing her character to a single-minded aspiring tabloid icon.  It's a risky move that threatens to bury the film in nihilism, its heroine terminally blinded by ambition. But Divine's hearty embrace of whatever the script demands of her preserves the film's humanity, and even offers the last word to the film's cynical view towards celebrity culture: in the end, she is a star.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Female Trouble among They Shoot Pictures' 1000 Greatest Films:

Jeff Krulik, Facets (2003) Jennie Livingston, PopcornQ (1997) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987) Pop Matters, The 50 DVD's Every Film Fan Should Own: The Stellar 70's (2007) San Francisco Chronicle, Vintage Video - A Hot 100 From Out of the Past (1997)

Screenplays for Female Trouble, Hairspray and Multiple Maniacs viewable online at Google Books

Lyrics to the title song and other songs from John Waters movies at Two Jealous Perverts

This 1975 feature is the best of John Waters's movies prior to Hairspray and his ultimate concerto for the 300-pound transvestite Divine, whose character will do literally anything--including commit mass murder--to become famous. As in all of Waters's early outrages, the technique is cheerfully ramshackle, but Divine's rage and energy make it vibrate like a sustained aria, with a few metaphors about the beauty of crime borrowed from Jean Genet. With Edith Massey and Mink Stole, as well as some doubling on the part of Divine that allows the star to have sexual congress with himself, giving birth to . . . guess who?

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

I HAD just moved to Florida against my will. It was summer. I was 15. Lonely, alienated, and above all, well, above all, horny.

After much degradation and humiliation and rejection, I met a girl. Let's call her Stacey, because, after all, that was her name. She was sweet and beautiful. I immediately had a mad crush.

In an unusual burst of ambition, I invited her to a movie. The movie I chose would change my life in many ways. It was ''Female Trouble'' by John Waters, starring Divine as Dawn Davenport.

- Larry Charles, director of Borat and Religulous. New York Times, May 4 2008. Read the rest of the story

If asked, most people would probably be able to identify a moment in their own personal history when a film has changed their lives. Film can affect change in so many ways, and perhaps some of the most dynamic and powerful ways this can occur is in the way the projected image can manage to bypass the screen and become imprinted on our psyches, attached to the skin. This is the viral nature of film, its ability to spread a kind of 'dis-ease' within our body and mind. The one film that changes our lives becomes a breathing part of the self that alters the way we relate to the apparatus of film and our forever unstable conception of self.

The film that did this for me was John Waters' Female Trouble (1974). Made a year before I was born, I didn't actually see Female Trouble until 1988. I was 13-years-old. Browsing the shelves of the local video store, I was drawn to the video because its cover art announced “Warning: This movie is gross”. Accompanying this “warning” on the video box was a caricatured drawing of Female Trouble's two stars, Divine and Edith Massey. While watching the film later that day, I discovered that both Divine and Edith Massey were every bit the grotesque caricature suggested by the video's cover design.

How I managed to sneak the R-rated film out of the video store, I'll never comprehend. More importantly, the impact the film had on me during this very pubescent time in my life is even harder to comprehend, because it changed the way I consumed film from that moment on. I remember watching the film with a mixture of horror and morbid fascination: never before had I encountered such a freakishly queer ensemble of characters and situations on screen. Upon viewing Female Trouble at such a young age, I could sense some weird awakening where all of a sudden it felt as if someone had flicked the queer switch in my head. Thus began my life-long journey of hunting out films that warned of potential grossness. This cinematic road trip led me to suss out other offerings from the 'great director' John Waters.

- Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Senses of Cinema

John Waters expands the definition of female trouble in this mutant tribute to good-girl-gone-bad drive-in melodramas. The girl is, of course, cross-dressing cult icon Divine, Waters's plus-sized muse. Divine is at her most gleefully outrageous as teenage brat Dawn Davenport, who runs away from home and into a life of wanton hedonism all because she didn't get cha-cha heels for Christmas. Almost immediately she's molested by a sleazy motorcycle thug (also played by Divine--is this Waters's idea of "love thyself"?), but she doesn't let motherhood interfere with her plans of stardom and turns herself into an unlikely fashion statement in an apocalyptic fashion show. Waters's fourth feature, a follow-up to the midnight movie hit Pink Flamingos, is just as cinematically primitive and even more gleefully vulgar, right down to the electric climax of Dawn's road to everlasting fame.

-Sean Axmaker, Amazon

Topping Pink Flamingos is a tall order, but puke poet laureate John Waters and scarlet diva Divine are more than game for the challenge in their riotous follow-up...Though the perversions are more seamlessly integrated into the narrative than in the earlier movies, Waters still grubbily zooms in on a particularly screechy line ("I wouldn't suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!") or someone's skid mark-happy underwear, not to mention the money shots -- acid-corroded Divine feverishly modeling while bleeding from a "liquid eyeliner" shot, Bad Seed brat Mink Stole gorily reenacting car accidents in the living room, Edith Massey's indescribably lumpy figure squeezed into a vinyl dominatrix getup. Yet Waters' subversion runs deeper, with his fame-obsessed heroine's transgression mirroring Warhol's credo about celebrity and, in the end, melting into ecstasy -- unlike the perfidious Dashers, whose dedication to filth is desexualized, antiseptic and ultimately false, Dawn dives into it face first, pushes it to its extremes and emerges exalted, a sort of perv Joan of Arc.

- Fernando Croce, Cinepassion

Female Trouble was the last of the movies Waters made with this circle of intimates before burnout, drug overdoses, and the sad fact of growing up began to take their tolls, and it makes for a fitting end to this era. And as a small indicator of the kind of antisocial lunacy we’re dealing with here, consider that Female Trouble is prominently dedicated to Manson family murderer Charles “Tex” Watson. Tell me truthfully— do you think the John Waters of today would dedicate a movie to Jeffrey Dahmer? No, I don’t think so either.

Female Trouble makes for an excellent introduction to the young John Waters, in that it isn’t so stunningly and unrelentingly grotesque as, say, Pink Flamingos, but is still confrontationally disgusting in a way that nothing the director has made in the past 20 years even approaches. It also comes as close as the irony-obsessed Waters ever will to offering an explicit manifesto for his twisted artistic vision. The Dashers’ “Crime is Beauty” formula could easily be made to stand in for the “Squalor is Beauty” esthetic that informs all of Waters’s work to a greater or lesser degree. The exaltation of the ugly and the wretched can still be seen in his movies today, even if it isn’t treated with the same kind of obsessive stridency as it is in Female Trouble and its predecessors. This movie also features a much higher quota of the sort of random craziness for which Waters is justly renowned, but which only occasionally surfaces in his more recent films. Not only are such major plot developments as Dawn’s marriage to Gator exploited for their potential shock value (get a load of Dawn’s wedding dress), there are any number of digressions from the main story that are included solely because of the opportunities they introduce for further wallowing in squalor and bad taste. There’s no real reason why Taffy should become a Hare Krishna in the final act, nor is any narrative purpose served by the subplot in which Taffy tracks down her father and finds him to be just as much of a pig as Dawn always said he was. But the Krishna twist lets Waters echo and one-up a scene from early in the film in which Taffy’s jump-rope chants drive Dawn to tie the girl to her bed, and Earl Peterson’s reappearance provides an excuse for a Herschel Gordon Lewis-style gore scene. And for what it’s worth, Female Trouble is also almost certainly the all-time cinematic champion when it comes to putting the morbidly obese into preposterously revealing outfits— Aunt Ida’s leather catsuit in particular is going to give a lot of people nightmares.

- Scott Ashlin, 1000 Misspent Hours

Every "don't" from years of school indoctrination is thwarted with hysterical abandon in Female Trouble, from the importance of safety in shop class (Dawn's husband Gator (Michael Potter) uses his favorite tools during sex) to the perils of drug addiction (Dawn is lured into her life of crime when she starts mainlining liquid eyeliner).

The result is a hilarious send-up of codes of behavior in America, a critique of our cultural obsession with beauty and fame that rivals Citizen Kane for its timeliness and perceptiveness.

No, I'm not kidding.

Both Female Trouble and Citizen Kane chronicle the rise and fall of a quintessentially American figure. Dawn Davenport is a typical lower middle-class Baltimore kid, frustrated by school, misunderstood by her parents, but with the desire to becomes something greater. Granted, her only outlet for greatness is through crime and exhibitionism, as she spends the 1960s stripping, hooking, and rolling drunks, she and her comrades wearing nets over their hairdos instead of stockings over their faces. The great breakthrough comes when Dawn is taken in by the pretentious Dashers (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), who want to channel her aggression into "an experiment in beauty and crime."

This fusion of beauty and crime smacks of Jean Genet, although I doubt Waters meant such an "artsy" interpretation (although he admits on the commentary track to reading Genet). But just like Genet, Waters relishes the rebelliousness of trash, the underground of cultural counterfeits—the Dashers as would-be Warhols, Dawn herself as a drag-queen Liz Taylor—that feel more real than the commercialized and glossy surface of "proper" society. Dawn's entire world seems fake in so many ways, from her delusions of grandeur to the low-budget acid burn makeup Divine has to sport through the film's second half. When Dawn chops off the villainous Aunt Ida's hand with an axe, the cheap effect makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a PBS surgery documentary. But underneath the shoddy production values and stiff acting lies a deeper truth: this is America from the inside.

Both Waters' film and Kane are joyously experimental, created by artists who seem complete unaware of what they cannot do on film, and so they try everything. For Orson Welles, this means appropriating all the tools of stagecraft and European film technique and challenging the rules of traditional filmmaking. Of course, Kane is such an over-the-top display of technique that is smacks of an artistic immaturity Welles would later overcome. Oddly, Waters comes to Female Trouble already having pushed the limits of his trademark style at the expense of storytelling. Female Trouble then becomes his first completely successful film: it constantly surprises with lurid invention while actually having a story that comments on American society itself.

And like Citizen Kane, Waters' film was reviled by the mainstream in its own time, but can now be understood against the backdrop of the social forces that produced it: the pressures of middle class life, the cult of beauty, and the allure of the fashionable outlaw—all hallmarks of the media-saturated, war-traumatized, post-conformist 1960s.

But Orson Welles never would have had the balls to put Divine in a see-through wedding dress with fake female genitalia. Or a corpulent Edith Massey in a leather S&M outfit, pleading with her hairdresser nephew to turn gay. Or Divine molesting fish.

And Orson Welles, as brilliant as he was, never seemed to enjoy filmmaking as much as John Waters. The commentary track for Female Trouble is filled with funny stories and reminiscences. This film is understandably Waters' favorite, and he relishes telling tales of his Baltimore childhood and remembering the contributions of friends who participated in the film. Influenced by Buñuel and the Warhol Factory, he admits that his artistic techniques in those days consisted of capturing "ultimate reality." And like his idols, Waters portrays reality through a funhouse mirror: a reflection of the soul of America, if not its surface appearance. What makes a film like Female Trouble work so well, and certainly what makes me laugh, is the sense that everyone involved in the film is having so much fun making it. There is an infectious sense of joy to Waters' subversive agenda—he works hard to create a trashy, shocking effect, but it is never mean-spirited. The lurid underbelly of society (listen for his stories on the commentary track of attending the Manson trial) seems to amuse Waters. He still laughs at his own movies. Watching a John Waters film is like attending a party with your wackiest friends, the ones who always defy convention and yet are always eager to buy you a beer and joke about it later.

- Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict

Female Trouble was John Waters’ follow-up film to Pink Flamingos, and he employs largely the same cast in similar roles. What differentiates the two films are their focus: Pink Flamingos is clearly about the lows of society and the limitations of cinema and decency, whereas Female Trouble is a feminist film, crassly defending the struggle of women through over-the-top scenarios. It’s comical, but the notion is out there that views of women are somewhat tainted by societal norms rather than the content of women’s character.

Divine & Divine


Waters holds the female condition near to his heart in this film. At the start, audiences will identify with Dawn as she sasses back to her teacher, smokes in the bathroom, and throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get cha-cha heels for Christmas. As she struggles to make ends meet doing a variety of odd (and odder) jobs, the audience may feel sympathy for her. Only when the typical vulgarity of Divine’s persona starts to shine through do audiences realize that this has all been a ruse to conjure up some feelings for Dawn Davenport before exploiting her before wealthy opportunists and the media circus. Were it not for Divine’s extra-cinematic fame, the audience might have fully invested in the well-being of this girl, but because it is also a cynical romp, we are one step removed.

Divine shakes her stuff. If only I had a dollar bill!

As this removed audience, even though we feel for Dawn, we still want to know what kind of hijinks she gets into, and we hope to be wowed, grossed out, and offended. Dawn will always remain more an object than a true female heroine, a vehicle for humiliation more than a figure living the American dream. But while audiences of the 1970s could detach from this film as fiction, it was a time when women were still seen as objects for men’s amusement, and didn’t garner the same respect as men in social issues and the workplace. Feminism had taken huge strides since the early 1960s, but there was still domestic inequity and, to this day, women get paid less than men for comparable jobs.

Perhaps Waters’ message was intentional, perhaps not. I have heard him speak, however, and he is quite an intelligent person, so I would not deny him that insight. He is cited as having his finger on the pulse of contemporary society, and of understanding the basest aspects of human nature better than most. Female Trouble might seem like an ironic title at first, but it is very particularly selected. The troubles don’t necessarily belong to the main female in the film, rather, it is about the trouble people have with reconciling females as equal citizens, and the disconnect between realizing that the objectification of a film character may not be so different from someone’s home situation.

The Dashers stop by for dinner at the Davenports.

As this removed audience, even though we feel for Dawn, we still want to know what kind of hijinks she gets into, and we hope to be wowed, grossed out, and offended. Dawn will always remain more an object than a true female heroine, a vehicle for humiliation more than a figure living the American dream. But while audiences of the 1970s could detach from this film as fiction, it was a time when women were still seen as objects for men’s amusement, and didn’t garner the same respect as men in social issues and the workplace. Feminism had taken huge strides since the early 1960s, but there was still domestic inequity and, to this day, women get paid less than men for comparable jobs.

- Mea Patafria, Kalamazoo Gazette

John Waters's Female Trouble is an outrageously trashy, wonderfully campy, and grotesquely funny film. There is no point in the movie that is not alive with inept overacting, exaggerated misdeeds, and general strangeness. It is a genuinely fun work to watch.

For one thing, the story the director tells is both overwrought and complicated. It begins with a depiction of Dawn's days as an obnoxious and rebellious teenaged delinquent, goes on to show her life as a runaway, her wildly unsuccessful marriage, and her rise to fame, and it ends by revealing her incarceration, trial, and execution. The whole thing is a lurid melodrama that races along so fast the moviegoer is always caught up in the whirlwind that is is composed of the protagonist's nasty existence, vile behaviors, weird acquaintances, and tumultuous rise to fame as a mass murderer.

Like many of Waters' movies, Female Trouble explores popular perceptions of celebrity. Happily, the director is adept at revealing the connection of fame with criminality. He is especially so here. At various points, Waters reminds the viewer of Dawn's desire to be famous and then shows how she gains notoriety as a result of the murders she commits. During her trail, Dawn even notes that she is the most famous person the jurors will know and that she is in all the papers. By making just this point, Waters reminds the viewer that many actual mass murderers could make exactly the same claim. Such elements are not, however, presented in a heavy-handed or didactic way, but, instead, give the film a real humorousness. Waters revels in human failings and provides the moviegoer with the chance to laugh and cringe at our less admirable traits.

Lastly, I should mention that while Divine may not be an accomplished performer in any conventional sense, she does acquit herself well in the film. Not only is she a joy to watch as the selfish, vile, foul, and murderous Dawn, but she is also equally repulsively entertaining as Earl Peterson, the filthy, lecherous father of Dawn's daughter Taffy. In fact, a large part of Female Trouble's appeal comes from the lead's weirdly charismatic presence. Divine is a pleasure to watch.

- Keith Allen, Movie Rapture

The radical politics in Female Trouble (as well as Pink Flamingos and Waters' other early films) speaks very much to the times in which they were made. Between Vietnam, the Manson killings (which Waters was obsessed with), and the constant political assassinations and riots, the turbulent times spawned an anger that set the stage for films like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What set Waters' films apart from those is that there is a joy in the violence and mayhem that makes them nearly impossible to categorize. A cannibal with a chainsaw is obviously a bad guy, but how do you deal with Divine in a leopard print one piece chopping off Edith Massey's hand while the older woman sits locked in a bird cage wearing a ruffley white gown? There is no way to contextualize these images and so they end up creating their own genre.

- Gil Jawetz, DVD Talk

This humor also comes from a pure, raw filmmaking energy that we simply don't see these days. Normal people should probably stay away, but twisted people and young filmmakers will find laughter, inspiration and joy here.

- Jeffrey A. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

So what is Female Trouble? For those not yet Waters aficionados it can most fittingly be described as the result of shock over story, offensive images over coherent actions, obsession over technique, littered with profanity laden diatribes shouted as loudly as possible, and male nudity and raunch that resembles almost nothing else you will ever see, save another John Waters movie. Yes, there is a story here, something about a girl (played by Divine) who doesn’t get what she wants for Christmas, gets in with the “wrong crowd” (and “wrong” is about the biggest understatement in eternity), and flaunts herself to anyone and everyone under the mantra, “crime is beauty!” But really, this is all stark window dressing compared to the wacky characters, their outlandish images, and Waters’ absurdist worldview that leaves no holy cow untipped. And as a Waters aficionado, myself, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The first half of the film is exceptional. The sight gags are hilarious (Divine in two roles, one male and one female, is brilliant), the sets inspired and fascinating (the apartment where most of the action takes place was Waters’ own real pad in the ‘70s), the dialogue highly quotable (“I'm getting a hard-on! Beauty always gives me a hard-on!”), and the ideas about the sensationalism of criminals way ahead of its time. The supporting cast of Waters regulars are all here and in ripe form, from Edith Massey as the promoter of the homosexual lifestyle to the hairdressing impresarios David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce, from Divine’s retarded “child” played by Mink Stole to is he or isn’t he stoned (I think we all know the answer to that one) Danny Mills as Divine’s short lived, gap-toothed lover, and a gaggle of other misfits and cretins that are as vibrant and outlandish as the hairdos and wallpaper that battle it out with each other for center stage.

The second half of the movie, however, slips drastically in quality. Where the first half was fresh and fast paced, the second is tedious and degenerates from degradation to repetition. The screaming characters eventually grate rather than amuse and an awkward court scene drags much more than any other part of the film. The finale couldn’t come soon enough but once it does, it provides a few more yucks before Waters wraps things up with a closing shot you’re not soon to forget.

It is in this final image that we see Waters transforming before our eyes from mere shockmeister to purveyor of filth philosophy. Unlike Flamingos, where Waters tacks on one additional gross out just to be sure his audience walks out repulsed, in Female Trouble shock gives way to message as Waters’ final statement about criminal celebrity trumps any bodily fluid joke that might stand in its way. Therein lies the first inkling that Waters would indeed one day abandon his all out assault on supposed good taste and “go PG”, a move that was both inevitable and well done eventually culminating in Hairspray, the most mainstream effort of his career. Sure, he would eventually return to the obscenely perverse with, A Dirty Shame, but never again would he be as unconventionally shocking as Female Trouble.

I believe John Waters is a special kind of genius. He is a man of innovation and far sighted ideas that push through a world that has little desire for such a thing. He creates works that have meaning and challenge our ideas of morality and normalcy. The cult of John Waters continues to thrive because he has stayed loyal to his vision for well over thirty years while somehow managing to get his ideas out of his head and to the masses when such a thing seems impossible for anyone who isn’t willing to sell his soul to do so. Most important to Waters’ legacy is the gentle hand he uses with his entourage of nonconformists, never once putting them down but rather, showing a sweet sentimentality for their earnest plight to be recognized and accepted as something other than merely misunderstood and expendable. Sure, the kooks and crackpots he employs in his films are acting, so to speak, but they are also people cut of a similar cloth to the characters they portray. Not nearly as vicious, profane, or demented as their characters, there remains much truth between actor and character that only a man such as John Waters could make work as perfectly as he does.

To sum up, Female Trouble may not be a “good movie” by normal standards, but it is undeniably bizarre and engrossing and an essential part of the John Waters’ canon and modus operandi. If you only see one early period John Waters movie in your lifetime, see Pink Flamingos. It best represents Waters’ twisted mind yet somehow also shows his sentimentality for geeks and miscreants the world over. But if Pink Flamingos touches your disturbed side, then definitely see Female Trouble. It is the height of Waters’ perversity and yet another jaw dropping exhibition that will pave your way to John Waters aficionado status.

- Scott Muoio, Underpendent Media

Report of what sounds like a typical John Waters theatrical screening with director appearance, this time a screening of the restored Female Trouble at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, reported by Daniel Hirshleifer for Digitally Obsessed

Review of the 2005 John Waters Collection DVD Boxset by Bill Gibron at DVD Verdict


IMDb Wiki

John Waters began making films in 1964, the same year that Susan Sontag penned her landmark essay “Notes on 'Camp'”. This is a notable cultural moment because, while Sontag's ideas have been refuted or extended by many cultural critics, there was a general consensus that a camp sensibility was alive and well in the arts. Of course, this camp sensibility could be interpreted in any number of ways, but Sontag claimed that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration…” (3). I have isolated this one sentence because it is a definition that can be applied to John Waters' films.

Perhaps a better fitting definition of Waters' brand of camp is one that is defined by the filmmaker himself in a 1997 episode of The Simpsons. Titled “Homer's Phobia”, Waters makes a guest appearance as a collectable junk store owner called John. Upon visiting his store, Homer asks John why a “grown man” would collect such junk, and John replies:

JOHN:         It's camp!

Homer looks back at John with a blank expression, not comprehending what he means.

JOHN:        The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic. HOMER:     Oh yeah, like when a clown dies. JOHN:        Well sort of, but I mean more like inflatable furniture or Last Supper TV trays or even this bowling shirt… HOMER:     And that kind of stuff is worth money? … You should come over to our place, it's full of valuable worthless junk.

Waters in The Simpsons
Waters in The Simpsons

This dialogue from The Simpsons plays into the way Waters' camp aesthetic playfully celebrates “valuable worthless junk”. In many respects, this view of camp echoes cultural critic Andrew Ross' argument that camp is primarily concerned with reconstituting history's trash as treasure. Ross perceives camp as a delight in that which is considered culturally outmoded. He writes: “The knowledge about history is the precise moment when camp takes over, because camp involves a rediscovery of history's waste”.

Waste is one of the recurring themes of Waters' films, and is depicted on screen as something that is often corporeal. Waters delights in demonstrating how shit, vomit, puss, mucus, saliva and other such bodily fluids can be a rich source of material from which to develop a cinematic language for the white trash body. Part of the appeal of Waters' films is that they belong to the category of low camp. As Waters states, “I've always tried to please and satisfy an audience who think they've seen everything. I try to force them to laugh at their own ability to be shocked by something. This reaction has always been the reason I make movies”. In a contemporary context, however, the appeal of Waters' films has extended far beyond the select few. In a review of one of his more recent films Pecker, Mark Kermode writes:

The greatest irony of John Waters' career is that he has ended up loving and being loved by Baltimore, the town he initially tried to infuriate. From being the most disgusting filmmaker in the world, Waters has become something of a local hero, venerated for bringing an element of glitter into an area not known for its star-spangled potential.This “local hero” status was certified on February 7, 1985, when it was proclaimed “John Waters Day” in his home town of Baltimore by the presiding mayor. Despite such accolades, Waters has also become more generally an icon in American cinema. As Sarah Hampson notes, “He is the iconoclast who has become an icon; the anti-establishment voice who has become an institution”. Certainly, Waters has become something of an anti-establishment institution in US culture, evidenced by the way his work has been celebrated within a mainstream context. For example, Waters' film Hairspray (1988) was transformed into a hit Broadway musical in 2002.

- Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Waters has pursued a vision as singular as any American filmmaker. He has revitalized some of our big-time Hollywood stars (Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith), reintroduced us to the kitsch glory of others (Tab Hunter, Joe Delassandro, Joey Heatherton) and shown us a thing or two about some of the others we snidely thought we knew all about (Pia Zadora, Sonny Bono, former teen porn queen Traci Lords), at the same time faithfully maintaining, into a third decade, his "repertory" of actors, a regular Royal Shakespeare Company of Raunch called the Dreamlanders. Though untimely death has caught up with many of the greats in his magnificent motley stable of thespians, we would be much poorer without Divine emblazoned in our collective pop-culture memory, alongside Edith ("Edie the Egg Lady") Massey, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller and those still going strong -- Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce.

- Daniel Reitz, Salon.com critical biography

Interview by Michael Dare for Movieline Magazine, February 19, 1988

Interview from 1978

Review of Waters' early films screening at the New Museum of Contemporary Art by Nick Stillman for the Brooklyn Rail


IMDb Wiki

Matthew Kennedy reviews My Son Divine written by Frances Milstead

Tribute site at Dreamland News

Drag-queen and cult-movie star Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, was a high-school acquaintance of John Waters in the early '60s. Waters indulged his chubby friend's penchant for crossdressing, and Divine's acting career was launched with Water's first films in the mid '60s, Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup both filmed while Divine still worked as a hairdresser. As Waters' work became more funny and outrageous with Mondo Trasho(1969) and Multiple Maniacs(1970), Divine's performances became richer and wilder; the two achieved immortality with the outrageously raunchy cult classic Pink Flamingos(1972) in which Divine competes to become the "World's Filthiest Person." They continued working together during the late '70s and into the '80s making two of their best films, Female Trouble(1974) and Polyester(1981). Divine also began appearing for other filmmakers, playing a woman in Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust(1985) and shedding his feminine garb to play a man in Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind(1986). In his/her last appearance for Waters's, Hairspray(1988), Divine played a dual role, one male, one female, and was quite effective in both parts.Those who could get past the unremitting weirdness of Divine's performance discovered that the actor/actress had genuine talent, including a natural sense of comic timing and an uncanny gift for slapstick. In 1989 Divine died suddenly of an enlarged heart at the age of 42 while preparing for a guest appearance on Fox TV's Married...With Children.

- All Movie Guide

961 (103). The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)

screened Friday March 27 2009 on Warner DVD TSPDT rank #865  IMDb Wiki

Even the likes of Pauline Kael turn their noses at Sam Peckinpah's most commercially successful feature as a formulaic genre exercise done mostly for the paycheck. But Peckinpah's creative investment is apparent from the opening sequence, a dense montage that weaves multiple layers of time to establish a cold, mechanistic world in which ex-con Steve McQueen and wife Ali McGraw (who, with his consent, sleeps with a prison warden to ensure his release) rediscover each other with tension and tenderness. The overt mechanical elements of this opening, such as the numbing, clacking sounds of prison doors and work equipment, might be Peckinpah's way of acknowledging the trappings of heist film formula with which he must contend.  The film is far from resembling the satire on the genre he had planned, but it expresses his candid, problematically misogynist views on sexual relationships and loyalty perhaps more complexly than any of his features, though as usual the depth lies more on the male side of the ledger.

This time Peckinpah's Man, that molotov cocktail of helplessness and violence grubbing for salvation, is imbued with a cold professionalism unparalleled in his filmography thanks to McQueen's tightly coiled appearance of masculine assurance: unflinching eyes incessantly assessing everything around him; a body that betrays nary a twitch of unnecessary movement. He's among the least sentimental of Peckinpah's heroes, but this should not be confused with a lack of pathos; McQueen's character finds redemption in a job well executed, and the upholding of a moral code throughout - involving repeated beatings of McGraw whenever she messes up. Peckinpah validates McQueen's behaviors by contrasting him with Al Lettieri, a heist accomplice who betrays McQueen, then kidnaps a doctor who saves his life and seduces the doctor's voluptuous, dim-witted wife (Sally Struthers), enacting a comic and nightmarish opposite of McQueen and McGraw's Ideal Man and Woman. While I don't have that much use for Peckinpah's worldview, and consider his prominence largely a sign of pervasive misogyny in Hollywood culture (I'll reconsider my position the day that Hollywood regularly produces eloquently man-hating movies by female directors), I have to admit that few directors are as good at dramatizing their pathologies as Peckinpah.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Getaway among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They?

Angela Glaser, Steadycam (2007) Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007) Klaus Lemke, Steadycam (2007) Larry Clark, indieWIRE (2006) Kinema Junpo, The Greatest Foreign Films (1999) Maxim, The 100 Greatest Guy Movies Ever Made (1998) Premiere, 100 Best Action Movies on DVD (2003) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) TV Today, The Best Movies on DVD (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

If The Getaway had just rolled off the studio assembly line, the work of a competent craftsman, it could pretty easily have been passed over and forgotten. It is, however, the work of a major American film artist. Sam Peckinpah's 1969 western, The Wild Bunch, looks even at this distance like a great film, and his other movies, from 1961's Ride the High Country to last year's Straw Dogs, form a body of work as substantial as any other contemporary film maker's. Such a director is owed more than a measure of indulgence and loyalty. But in The Getaway, Peckinpah is pushing his privileges too far.

The Getaway is basically a streamlined heist-and-chase movie, but Peckinpah keeps stumbling over his subplots. Moreover, his two stars, Steve McQueen and All MacGraw, are unregenerately narcissistic. They appear as a husband and wife, professional thieves, who knock over a small-town Texas bank and spend the rest of the time speeding across the state to Mexico, pursued by the cops and crews of greedy confederates.

It has lately become Peckinpah's ironic pleasure to refer to himself in interviews as a "whore," and, appropriately, The Getaway works on that same kind of disinterested, mechanical level. There are a great many scenes of action and bloodletting, professionally handled and exciting. But the viewer is always aware that he is being manipulated very coolly and cynically.

McQueen is primarily a deep-frozen presence, although he handles a variety of guns with impressive familiarity. As a screen personality, MacGraw is abrasive. As a talent, she is embarrassing. Supposedly a scruffy Texas tart. MacGraw appears with a complete designer wardrobe and a set of Seven Sister mannerisms.

Peckinpah seems perfectly aware of all this, but instead of trying to do some thing about it, he puts her down — lit erally. She and McQueen stow away in a garbage truck and come spilling out in a gush of trash onto the town dump. Peckinpah's chuckling is almost audible.

- Time, January 8, 1973

Another bank heist, and the wholesome, clean-cut robber pair take forever to make it across the Mexican border with their loot. The audience hoots her line readings and applauds when he smacks her around; maybe this audience participation helps to explain the film's success. Sam Peckinpah directed in imitation of Sam Peckinpah; it's a mechanical job, embellished with a vicious, erotic subplot involving Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers.

- Pauline Kael

An evident precursor to The Driver (Walter Hill scripted both, this one from Jim Thompson's novel). The major strength of The Getaway rests solidly on McQueen's central role, a cold tense core of pragmatic violence. Hounded by furies (two mobs, police, a hostile landscape), he responds with a lethal control, blasting his way through shootouts that teeter on madness to the loot, the girl, and Peckinpah's mythic land of Mexico. Survival, purification, and the attainment of grace are achieved only by an extreme commitment to the Peckinpah existential ideal of action - a man is what he does. Peckinpah's own control of the escalating frenzy is masterly; this is one of his coldest films, but a great thriller.

- Time Out

It's too bad they didn't really film Jim Thompson's novel, which remains one of the most astonishing pieces of pulp fiction ever written, yet Sam Peckinpah does a professional job with this much-watered-down version (1972). It becomes a conventional chase picture with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as an outlaw couple fleeing for the Mexican border after a bank job; Al Lettieri is the sadistic, double-crossed partner on their trail.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

It is the fate of films from under-recognised areas, such as the action film, to suffer the arbitrary stock market fluctuations which broker reputations, as well as a progressively hazy blurring of distinctions and accomplishments generally. The Getaway is a typical and instructive case (the unique novelty of the film is that it was duplicated with a different cast in 1994 with very few changes or additions to Walter Hill's 1972 script or to the directing, casting, and structuring strategies of the original). When The Getaway was released, Sam Peckinpah was a high-profile auteur on the basis of Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971); he was at the centre of a violence-in-films controversy pushed along by his considerable self-promotion efforts as a “Hollywood maverick”; and he was a currently-practising action specialist taken seriously by the film intelligentsia. He was probably overvalued as a director, undervalued as a writer. His films popularised the use of slow-motion in action sequences and he has come now to stand as the sign for that large area of post-war Hollywood cinema marked not only by his own accomplishments, but also the rather larger ones of Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller.

Seen now, The Getaway is more interesting as one of the early prototypes of the modern US action film, following from the headwaters (Dirty Harry, 1971): clean-lined, built for speed, self-effacing but an intricately worked object nonetheless. It was a product of Hollywood's then-booming independent sector, in this case a production company controlled by the film's star. This hints at one of the problems the project holds for Peckinpah: Steve McQueen is too obdurate and self-contained an actor to fit easily into Peckinpah's preferred ensemble method – although even in this Scandinavian-furniture, streamlined concept film, the director manages to stuff members of his baroque stock company into the cracks (providing Peckinpah's cherished redneck comedy are Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Roy Jensen). Although too early for a Walter Murch-style “Sound Design” credit, the soundtrack work is complex and sophisticated: beyond jazz veteran Quincy Jones' score lies elaborate use of sound-as-music as well as sharp punctuation – observe the interplay and progression of images and sounds in the opening sequence, one of the most impressive passages in the film. Whenever possible, events are presented kinetically, that is, for maximum visceral effect (The Getaway is not a reflective film; it doesn't have time to be).

Another site of interest is the script. Adapted from one of Jim Thompson's novels, screenwriter Hill discards most of the novel's interesting but difficult aspects – the psychological portrait of the hero, Doc; the quirky, complicated deployment of characterising details; the imperceptible slide into a surreal world of symbols; and a ghastly black humour ending. With what remains, he fashions a concept-film script exactly as spare as that of Reservoir Dogs (1992) – situation: a bank job gone wrong; imperative: the central couple need to escape the pursuing assassins; complicating problem: Doc's reactions to Carol's necessary infidelity. An extremely mean antagonist is provided (Al Lettieri here, reprised in Mr Majestyk [1974]; Michael Madsen in the 1994 reconstruction). With a minimum of characters, Hill works out a geometry of parallel actions and scenes as the central section of the film, particularly effective when Lettieri and his hostage/lover Sally Struthers cartoon the jealousy/adultery theme complicating Doc and Carol's life.

Hill's script is dedicated to Raoul Walsh for appropriate reasons, not least of which is Doc's request, upon being released from prison, to be taken to a park (see Humphrey Bogart's Roy Earle in Walsh's High Sierra, 1941). What it surprisingly does not do is provide the usually plentiful epigrammatic lines of dialogue which make most Peckinpah movies endlessly quotable and which are, perhaps, the most basic element of his style (it does manage to include the usual misogyny, particularly abetted here by Sally Struthers' performance). The script looks forward as well as backward: the opening sequence with its themes of imprisonment versus freedom and its use of animals is a striking forerunner to the opening sequence of Hill's 48HRS (1982). The elaborate and elegant final shoot-out in the El Paso hotel has nothing to do with the way action sequences are sculpted in other Peckinpah films, and everything to do with the speciality item Hill developed them into in his own directing.

An interesting point of intersection then, a crepuscular Peckinpah with a nascent Hill, a traditional story and genre with the beginnings of the contemporary “concept” approach. Except for some romantic imagery required by star egos, a trip through a cold, hard-hearted world which makes its characters do extraordinary things with their suspect virtuosities in order to buy a chance at a happy ending.

- Rick Thompson, Senses of Cinema

We usually think of excess when we think of Peckinpah, most readily from the trademark slow-motion violence of 1969'sThe Wild Bunch. We don't often think of his nuts-and-bolts filmmaking. Yet despite the gunplay and occasional slow-mo in The Getaway, the movie is ample evidence that he could really tell a story in more traditional ways, too. The crisp opening detailing the grinding monotony of Doc McCoy's prison stint, the cross-cutting among all the elements of the heist and a tense sequence in which McQueen scours a train for a con man who bamboozled Carol out of their bag of ill-gotten money are all textbook examples of visual storytelling. Peckinpah and McQueen had just come off of the flop Junior Bonner together (another fine collaboration), while McQueen laid a more high-profile egg before that with Le Mans, so the emphasis here was to make a crowd-pleaser, and they definitely succeeded.

Balancing the crime story is the romance between Doc and Carol. Their relationship has to survive the fact that she slept with a member of the parole board (Johnson) in order to get Doc out of jail, as well as overcome the stress of being outlaws on the run. This part of the story doesn't date as well as the brisk action. McGraw's performance has always been flat, but her star power gave it a big boost when the movie was new (this was her first film after the pop culture phenomenon that was Love Story). She's beautiful, and we don't doubt Doc's affection for Carol for a moment (indeed, McQueen and McGraw each divorced their spouses to be married after falling in love during the shoot). But, 30+ years later, McGraw comes off as awfully dainty for the rough-and-tumble role. Typically for a Peckinpah movie, the stars bump into all sorts of colorful supporting players during the story, many, like Johnson, familiar faces in the director's movies. These include Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins and Richard Bright.

- Paul Sherman, Turner Classic Movies

The violence in The Getaway is largely mechanical and dehumanized; it operates without the emotional pain and trauma that are its familiar accompaniments elsewhere. Furthermore, as Robin Wood notes, in that film Peckinpah cannot seem to detach himself from the brutish Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), a professional killer pursing Doc McCoy, and the elaborate tortures he inflicts upon a veterinarian whom he has kidnapped. (Wood finds the humorous approach to the latter character's suicide, and Butler's response to it, to be "in all Peckinpah's work to date the moment that is hardest to forgive.")

- Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Published by University of Texas Press, 1998. Page 121

Peckinpah uses a number motifs to bring out subsidiary themes. Heavy machinery is often a focus, especially in a threatening manner: the opening credits in prison include numerous closeups of heavy, pounding machinery, and one of the most threatening segments of the picture involves a harrowing encounter with a garbage truck. This emphasis on machines as an enemy to happiness and freedom is intertwined with extended references to the question of whether life is a game. While McQueen insists that this is nothing but a game, Carol is more grounded and takes the position that life is something more. It's surprisingly philosophical in its approach to an action drama, but then Peckinpah always manages to surprise.

- Mark Zimmer, Digitally Obsessed


The following passages are taken from Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage by Garner Simmons. Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998:

"The Getaway was my first attempt at satire, badly done... To many people took it too seriously. Five times in that picture I have people saying, 'It's just a game.' I was dealing with a little bit of High Sierra there and a couple of other things. It was a good story, and I thought I had a good ending. It made my comment."

- Sam Peckinpah, quoted p. 157

"Sam and Steve got into a big argument over that first love scene in The Getaway. Steve wanted to rape Ali. That's the way he saw it. This guy's been in prison for five years, and he just comes home and really takes what he feels is rightfully his. He couldn't understand what Same wanted him to do. He thought it was phony. But Sam insisted and again it played perfectly. Really one of the most sensitive love scenes on film, I think.

Then for the scene which follows - I think it's supposed to be the next morning - Steve had written seven pages of dialogue, you know, explaining the whole thing. Well, Sam got him into that cooking thing where he's got eggs and catsup and all this stuff in a frying pan on the stove. And Steve was just really in his element. He loved it. He's very good with props. Then when Ali comes down they embrace, and I think they maybe have a couple of dozen words between them total, and that was it.

"So after they saw the dailies, Sam said to Steve, 'And that was what you wrote seven pages of dialogue to explain?' And Steve laughed and said, 'Well, you know better than to listen to me, Sam.'"

- Cinematographer Lucien Ballard, p. 158

"Sam and Ali got along great. Sam was wonderful with her. He loves to holler and scream. It's his way of letting go of the things that have been building up inside of him. But Sam also has this tremendously gentle side, and that's the side he showed to Ali. And she really performed magnificently."

- Producer David Foster, quoted p. 162

"After we had completed The Getaway and I looked at what I'd done in it, I hated my own performance. I like the picture, but I despised my own work. I really couldn't look at it... I adore Sam as a director. He is really a marvelous man, a sexy man. He really knows how to get through to a woman when he wants [her] to do something in front of the cameras. It is very difficult to be objective about my own work in the picture, but I would love to work again for Sam Peckinpah."

- Ali McGraw, quoted p. 162

It was during the filming of The Getaway that Sam Peckinpah married for the fifth time, this time to Joie Gould, the English secretary he had been living with off and on since making Straw Dogs. It was done, Peckinpah recalled, as an act of contrition. "We had gotten into an argument, and I slapped her with my open hand. I really felt bad about it. So in a moment of remorse I agreed to marry her - in Mexico where I knew that I could get a one-day divorce. That's what I thought. Well I was wrong. When things fell apart it took me a year to get the divorce and it cost me my shirt, my pants, and my embroidered jock strap! But some you win and some you louse. So she took all the money I got on Getaway and took a trip around the world at my expense. We were not exactly what you might call star-crossed lovers."

Following their disastrous entanglement, Peckinpah would swear off the state of matrimony as being both costly and dangerous. To prevent his romantic nature from taking advantage of his better judgment, the director decidd to place a clause in each of his film contracts that would stipulate that should he marry during the course of making a given picture, he would forfeit all of the money due him from the project. (p. 163)


I never thought of myself as any kind of hardcore Sam Peckinpah fan before. That’s probably partly due to the piecemeal way I’ve been catching up with his filmography—randomly watching this movie or that one, one every couple of years, as likely to choose The Osterman Weekend as I am Straw Dogs. So it’s taken me a long time to figure out that Peckinpah has never once disappointed me. I even thoughtThe Osterman Weekend was pretty terrific. Now, granted, I haven’t seen anything from that streak of movies he made during the years of his mid-’70s decline—Cross of Iron, The Killer Elite, Convoy—but if they've got even a fraction of the spark that animates The Getaway, Peckinpah's place in my personal pantheon of great American directors is assured. (Yeah, yeah, I know: stop the presses! Sam Peckinpah is awesome! Cut me some slack—I was slow to catch onto him, okay?)

Has there ever been a director of “guys’ movies” with a more poetic eye than Peckinpah? The Getaway has one of the most fascinatingly edited opening 10 minutes I’ve ever seen in an action movie—images of the numbing routine of prison life, of Steve McQueen being turned down yet again for early parole, fantasies of lying in his bunk and feeling the caress of his wife’s hand on his shoulder, all shown out of sequential order, tumbling around in such a way that the fantasy mingles with the reality, all set to the numbing, repetitive sound of the mechanical loom McQueen operates in the prison workroom.

And then, when McQueen does get paroled, there’s another great sequence when he and Ali MacGraw drive to a picnic area set up beside a lake—Peckinpah shows you McQueen and MacGraw diving into the water, so happy to be together again that they don’t even bother taking their clothes off. It’s filmed so dreamily that you think it’s just another one of McQueen’s fantasies—until you see McQueen pull MacGraw to the side of the water, whereupon Peckinpah jump-cuts to the two of them arriving home, their clothes still soaking wet. It’s such a sexy, adult sequence—it’s like a bit from Don’t Look Nowgot dropped accidentally into the middle of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. What are the chances that a modern action picture would ever try for a mood this oblique? Unless Steven Soderbergh were directing it, almost nil.

I loved every nasty, violent moment of The Getaway, and it may be the most misogynist movie I’ve ever gotten this much enjoyment out of. There’s an amazing subplot, for instance, involving Al Lettieri, who plays a fellow bank robber that McQueen shot and left for dead, and who spends the rest of the film on his trail, determined to snatch the cash for himself. He forces a veterinarian to tend to his wounds at gunpoint, and then takes the guy and his wife hostage. Amazingly, the wife (Sally Struthers!) has apparently been dreaming her entire life for a brutal thug to whisk her away from her boring existence, and she volunteers to become Lettieri’s accomplice and lover the very first chance she gets. (The Quincy Jones music that plays under this scene is wonderfully sleazy.) Her behaviour is so appallingly slutty that it’s hilarious—even the scenes where Lettieri ties up her husband and forces him to watch them have sex are played for comedy.

The flipside of this scene is a moment that takes place between McQueen and MacGraw by the side of their car on the side of a highway. She’s just shot the criminal who’s set up the bank robbery (who’s also the guy on the parole board that she slept with earlier), and McQueen still can’t believe she’d do something that stupid. So he slaps her. And he slaps her again. And then he slaps her a couple more times. It’s a really ugly, vicious scene—one that feels absolutely right for the character, but which makes you recoil from him in a way that again I doubt any modern Hollywood studio (or male star) would have the stomach for.

But the movie’s misogyny is inextricable from its themes—the screenplay is all about these parallel stories of a “good” unfaithful wife and a “bad” unfaithful wife. Which may be why the only bum note is the happy ending, with Slim Pickens giving McQueen and MacGraw his benediction for a blissful life in Mexico. It’s quite a departure from the insane, cannibalistic final chapter in Jim Thompson’s original novel, but the problem isn’t that Peckinpah is unfaithful to his source (which probably would have been unfilmable anyway); it’s that after two hours of emotional violence every bit as bloody as the shootouts, the idea of any married couple living happily ever after seems highly dubious.

- Paul Marwychak, The Moviegoer

It’s not very popular to assert the opinion that The Getaway is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film. As just a casual Peckinpah admirer, I might be able to get away with it, but I know I’m skating on thin ice among the faithful. I can only imagine the dismissive reaction I’d have if someone called Sabrina their favorite Billy Wilder movie. It could be generational. Peckinpah’s films now feel very much like the product of a bygone era. They’ve influenced countless filmmakers, but show almost zero modernity in comparison to what’s come along this decade. His patience is not particularly in style nowadays. Yet, that laconic quality is part of why I appreciate The Getaway so much. The film takes its time from start to finish. It’s an action movie with very little action.

As far as movie stars who understood subtlety in the ’60s and ’70s, the discussion begins and ends with Steve McQueen. The idea of him overacting is inconceivable. Detractors might view this as an emptiness, but I’d beg to differ. While the method style of acting gained notoriety for overdoing emotions to the point of fake realism, McQueen didn’t choose this particular path. His style was far more contemplative. A look from McQueen could eliminate half a page of dialogue. I’d love to have seen what Jean-Pierre Melville would have done with him. Instead, we know what Peckinpah was able to achieve while working with the actor both here and on Junior Bonner, two of McQueen’s four or five best films. In The Getaway, he’s Doc McCoy, who suffers the remedial prison life until his wife (Ali MacGraw) pays a porn-like visit to a man with bureaucratic pull named Benyon (Ben Johnson).

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

- clydefro

THE GETAWAY looks surprisingly good for a film that was disowned by its director. During the production Peckinpah and McQueen had more than serious creative differences with the actor having the upper hand, receiving the backing of studio heads and making sure that the final cut would be his and not Peckinpah's. Because of that, many of those who think of Peckinpah as a great director often have a low opinion of THE GETAWAY. This opinion is unjustified because Peckinpah's talent nevertheless managed to survive McQueen's intervention. Perhaps this film is bellow the highest standards of Peckinpah, but it looks like a masterpiece compared with the most of action films made today. The reason for that could be found in the realism that is present throughout the film - in authentic Texan locations, characters and motivations that resonate with people we might meet on the street, and in the action that is spectacular yet not beyond the realms of real life. From the first haunting shots that show the depressive monotony of incarceration, the audience is thrown to the world that doesn't look like a Hollywood fantasy. In this world heroes are often damaged or morally questionable, marriages aren't the fairytales in which people live happily ever after, and the crime is often in the form of petty thefts or small-time cons. Peckinpah nevertheless manages to turn this simple and prosaic reality into something truly exciting. One of the finest examples is the scene in a train, which uses rather simple yet unexpected plot development to create suspense of Hitchockian proportions.

- Dragan Antulov, All-Reviews.com

Like any old-time Western--a genre Peckinpah enjoyed updating and reinventing--"The Getaway" ends in a big shoot-out, so there's no questioning that this is an action movie. Still, you'll find a good deal of character interaction along the way, some of it fun, some of it illuminating, some of it tedious. Make no mistake, though: This is a Peckinpah picture, so expect the violence to be more realistic than in most previous Hollywood movies. Today, we take blood and guts for granted in action and adventure movies, but it was directors like Peckinpah who began the trend toward greater realism. He practically started the sights of blood-soaked bodies, slow-motion deaths, and the like. Nevertheless, the violence is not excessive, especially by recent standards; indeed, one might say it is almost quaint by comparison to some of our more contemporary films.

- John J. Puccio, DVD Town.com

Yes, The Getaway has a healthy dollop of McQueen coolness. And yes, it has the traditional drawn-bow tension and pacing of a Peckinpah film. But in the end, it's just a '70s outlaws-on-the-run potboiler; a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde. That doesn't make it a bad film; it's actually a good potboiler. But it does stand out in both the McQueen and Peckinpah canons as a primarily commercial, and not artistic, venture. It's neither artist's finest moment, but there's certainly no reason for them to be embarrassed by the film.

Unsurprisingly, the weak link in the film is Ali MacGraw. MacGraw is certainly a lovely woman, and she appears (at least in the rare interviews she gives) to be both intelligent and personable. But she was thrust into the limelight mainly because she was pretty and Robert Evans's girlfriend, not because she was an elite actor suited to be matched with talents like McQueen. McQueen ate her alive in The Getaway, completely overwhelming her (probably deliberately, knowing his personality) on the screen. And off it, too—by the end of the shoot, she and McQueen had abandoned their respective spouses for each other; their tempestuous marriage lasted five years. Frankly, that developing attraction is the best thing about her performance here. She clearly cares about Doc because she really cares about Doc. But her best and most real moment came when she wasn't acting—the infamous "slap" scene.

When Doc pulls over to the side of the road, gets out, and confronts Carol about her role in Benyon's double cross, Doc slaps her hard. A few times. The story behind the story here—something that, ironically, isn't discussed in this film's commentary track, but is discussed in the definitive The Essence of Cool documentary included as an extra with Bullitt—is that there was no movie trickery at work in the scene; McQueen really did hit MacGraw, and pretty hard to boot. Not only that, he told Peckinpah he was going to do it, and the two of them agreed that she shouldn't be told in advance. So Carol's response to Doc's actions are totally realistic—because MacGraw was reallybeing smacked around by Steve McQueen, and didn't know it was coming, and just responded as anyone would do in that situation.

Because of the magnitude of the tabloid fodder that the McQueen-MacGraw romance generated, it's easy to forget that this was not only a Sam Peckinpah film, but the second film he had done with McQueen. The first wasJunior Bonner, a sad, elegiac film about the death of the traditional American West, as seen through the character of a broken, over-the-hill rodeo rider. It was nothing like Peckinpah's "normal" films—nobody died, there weren't gallons of bright-red blood spraying around, and nobody had a slow-motion gun battle. Although Junior Bonner was a fine film, it flopped miserably at the box office—primarily because it was marketed as a McQueen action film. The two apparently enjoyed working together, though, and when McQueen (through his production company, Solar) approached Peckinpah about directing an adaptation of Jim Thompson's (The GriftersAfter Dark, My Sweet) novel, Peckinpah jumped. The Getaway had more action than Junior Bonner—but it still was no Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs. Was this a blatantly commercial venture? Did McQueen and Peckinpah view this film as a way to recoup some of the cost of the more personal and intimate Bonner? We'll never really know—but it was the most commercially successful film in Peckinpah's career, and arguably the most "mainstream" film he made. I guess sometimes you make a film for the love of the craft, and sometimes you make a film to pay your mortgage.

- David Ryan, DVD Verdict

As for [Peckinpah's] reliance upon blood, and the blood appearing real (although in today's sense, it looks very soupy and ketchupy, but I can only imagine back then), only helps reinforce his destructive qualities and render you helpless in regards to what's occurring on screen. Peckinpah's characters don't necessarily thrive off of what they have to do, they're just people making use of situations that were never meant to have rosy outcomes. These are people who use violence as not a means to an end, but rather, as a means of escape, as a means of restoring harmony to their narrative developments. Peckinpah does appear to relish these moments, shooting them in a very balletic style, allowing for the associated horror on screen to be juxtaposed with the very beautiful qualities told through his filmmaking. It works spectacularly, and while not at his particular best here (The Wild Bunch), he's still breaking boundaries not quite explored before with such panache.

- Newell Todd, Chud

Peckinpah’s skill is immediately in evidence with the opening, a lengthy montage which flicks backwards and forwards in time to give us a vivid impression of the monotony and aching frustration of prison life. Combined with brief flashbacks of Doc and Carol’s lovemaking, this vibrantly establishes the relationship between the central characters which Carol’s deal with Benyon – which involved sex as well as the robbery – puts in jeopardy. Throughout the film, Peckinpah’s style is crisp and straight to the point, driving the story forward with a raging momentum. His slight self-indulgence in the use of slow-motion is easy to forgive when placed in such a focused context. Sam also uses ellipsis to great effect, often giving the bare minimum of explanation and relying on us to fill in the gaps. It’s never directly stated, for example, that Carol slept with Benyon in order to get Doc out of prison. But it’s obvious in the unspoken looks between Doc and Carol, in Benyon’s self-satisfied manner, in Doc’s confused anger at his wife and his own post-prison impotence. Incidentally, it’s in this sideline of the story that we see Peckinpah’s own puzzlement and fury at women being reflected and it’s surely no accident that Doc’s slapping of his wife is so sudden and brutal. Yet the irony is that Carol is often as much of an active force in the film as her husband – it’s she who makes the deal and she who shoots Benyon for his assumption that she would happily kill her husband for her own safety. Although Ali McGraw’s blank-faced performance tends to mask this a little, Carol is a tough and intelligent woman and it’s not hard to see that this is one of the key factors keeping her and Doc together.

The relationship between Carol and Doc is pure Peckinpah, both in its vicious twists and turns and its ultimate fairy-tale ending. Sam was just as much of a romantic as he was a misanthrope and his feelings towards women were finely pitched between adoration and disgust. This also comes out in the subplot where the injured Butler forces a timid veterinarian to tend to his wounds and then decides to seduce his wife. The wife, played by the TV actress Sally Struthers, is deliberately and crudely sketched as the living embodiment of a sexist joke and I see her as the summation of Peckinpah’s negative feelings about women as unfaithful whores who want it rough because that’s the only thing they understand. If this were the whole of Peckinpah’s view of women then the labelling of him as a misogynist might have something to it but there’s also the tender, admiring side which comes out in complicated characters like Ida Lupino’s Ma Bonner in Junior Bonner and Isela Vega’s tough-as-nails heroine in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, Sam is often at his best when the two attitudes collide as in the character of Carol in this movie, in Straw Dogs and, most interestingly, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Having accepted that the Struthers character is an unashamedly sexist creation then it’s easier to appreciate some of Sam’s black humour such as the brilliant food fight in the car and the fact that what Butler actually wants is to humiliate the husband far more than he wants to screw the wife.

Indeed, one of the things which defines much of Peckinpah’s work in this period is his use of a stock company of technicians and actors whom he happened to find agreeable. He wasn’t able to use many of them on Straw Dogs - hence the appearance in his filmography of John Coquillion who later took over regular DP duties – but they’re all here bar one. Lucien Ballard is the cinematographer, doing a superb job with the extensive location shooting in Texas. Robert L. Wolfe is the editor, working alongside Roger Spottiswoode, and they produce some stunning stuff, particularly in that opening montage, the famous garbage truck scene and the climactic hotel shoot-out. Indeed, the action in The Getaway is superbly achieved throughout – although there’s less of it than you might expect and it’s never allowed to overtake the careful plotting and character development which Walter Hill’s screenplay takes such pains to achieve. In many respects, it’s very close to the original novel but it’s less cynical and the ending is completely different. Thompson’s ending is darkly brilliant as Doc and Carol find themselves in a living hell but I tend to agree with most other writers that this wouldn’t have worked in this kind of film. Thompson’s central couple are mean-spirited and opportunistic while Peckinpah’s are likeable and have their own sense of honour. I suspect the new happy ending was a commercial decision but I think it’s the right one. Peckinpah certainly wasn’t averse to downbeat endings per se, however, as a look at Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia will confirm.

- Mike Sutton, DVD Times

Other reviews:

- Rusty White, EInsiders.com

- Mark A. Rivera, Genre Online


The Getaway appears slightly more detailed than the simultaneously released Bullitt on Blu-ray from Warner and both are probably exact duplicates of their HD-DVD editions.  The image quality shows some grit and minor grain. It probably looked quite similar to this theatrically over 35 years ago.  This is only single-layered and one of the earlier classic brought to hi-def disc. Colors seem brighter and truer than SD could relate although it can tend to look blocky at times. Skin tones seem quite warm - contrast exhibits healthy, rich black levels. Daylight scenes are more impressive but nothing is overly dark. This Blu-ray has a nice realistic feel with the only black-mark being the stock footage used in the film which comes across quite poorly.  By modern standards this is fairly tame visually but as a representation of the original - I doubt much more could be done. This Blu-ray probably looks like the film The Getaway and it advances beyond the last DVD editions in several key areas - notably detail and colors.

Audio :

No boost going on here - its a mono track pushing mostly through the center channel. I like the authenticity but fans who indulge for their Surround systems will be left empty handed with The Getaway. Quincy Jones does a great score switching moods and encapsulating strong emotions with his deft arrangements. The closing harmonica theme music seems absolutely perfect and sounds crisp enough without range or depth.

Extras :

The supplements appear to duplicate the SE DVD with the fine Redman led commentary. The 'Virtual' Reel One Commentary by Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw and Sam Peckinpah is s nice nostalgic SD touch for about 10 minutes. There is an SD featurette on Jerry Fielding and The Getaway Reel 4 Bank Robbery Sequence with alternate Jerry Fielding Score in HD. As an audio-only bonus - we get the Alternate Jerry Fielding Score and a trailer gallery of Sam Peckinpah Films. Overall the commentary is the king and very much worth indulging in.


I loved revisiting this film in 1080P and got a lot more out of it noticing plenty of Peckinpah 'socially soured' touches. As an action/thriller this holds up just as well today and the chemistry of McQueen/McGraw is perfectly implemented into the story. This is infinitely superior to its Basinger/Baldwin remake and a great film to have on Blu-ray in my opinion. I doubt we're going to see it looking any better and I recommend!

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

Video: Warner made a similar misprint of The Getaway's packaging as it did with Bullitt, swapping the two films' aspect ratios. Despite what the flipside of the case claims, The Getawayis presented at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it looks fantastic in high-definition. Admittedly, its early moments in particular seem excessively dark, and the palette is dingy and heavy on browns, something that may be intended to reflect its dusty western setting. The image is crisp and smooth, richly detailed and light on the film grain I would've expected from a movie of this vintage. It's a marked improvement over the simultaneously-released HD DVD of Bullitt in that respect, and aside from potentially being a touch too dark, there really aren't any flaws of note -- the authoring seems adept, there are no nicks or specks in the source, and it's devoid of the telltale signs of excessive noise reduction. Very nicely done.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus audio sounds strikingly like a 35 year old mono track -- and that's exactly what it is -- but even if The Getaway isn't the most aurally impressive release, it's still reasonably robust. There's no thundering bass, of course, and the audio is obviously routed through a single speaker rather than dishing out a multichannel assault, but the film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, and Quincy Jones' score has an understated but decent presence. Nothing remarkable but no real complaints.

Monaural tracks are also offered in Spanish and French alongside subtitles in all three languages.

Extras: Although McQueen and Peckinpah are no longer with us and MacGraw doesn't seem keen on participating in DVD extras, Warner has compiled a virtual commentary with the three of them for the first ten minutes of the film, culling soundbites from vintage interviews. They each get a fair amount of time to themselves, discussing what drew them to the story and commenting on the lead characters, such as how universal and easily relatable Doc and Carol are even if they are bank robbers. They also each have their own angle to discuss: McQueen revealing that his Doc McCoy is a Bogart tribute and how he immersed himself in a maximum security prison alongside hardened criminals, MacGraw on her inexperience as an actress and her preference for working with strong directors, and Peckinpah on his response to the material and his thoughts on the movie some years later. It's too short to offer much insight but is fairly interesting nonetheless. Unlike a traditional commentary, the audio doesn't play over the movie itself, instead placing a timecoded version of the first reel of the film on the left of the screen while stills of MacGraw, McQueen, and Peckinpah appear on the right.

There is a proper audio commentary for the entirety of the film, moderated by Nick Redman and featuring three authors on Peckinpah and his films: Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. They naturally devote little time to the behind the scenes comments that typically litter commentaries, instead relating The Getaway to the rest of Peckinpah's body of work, pointing out familiar themes and how the deliberate pace of the movie would never make it past studio marketeers today. This sort of emphasis on critical analysis isn't really my usual bag, but it's a welcomed change of pace from a traditional audio commentary.

Though not directly addressed as such, one topic briefly touched upon in the commentary is what Steve McQueen hoped to get out of the score by bringing in Quincy Jones. The score for The Getaway had originally been composed by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding, and the remaining extras revolve largely around his involvement with the film.

In fact, Warner has gone to the impressive lengths of reinserting Fielding's music back into the film with an isolated score. Fielding's compositions are bouncy and somewhat country-flavored, placing particular emphasis on the snare drum, while Jones' has a more traditional funk flavor, heavy on bass and accompanied by strings and a guitarist mashing a wah pedal. It's surprisingly difficult to find all that many scenes to compare and contrast the two scores -- it's often the case that one track has music and the other is silent.

The late Jerry Fielding is also the focus of a half-hour featurette. Although it's named "Main Title 1M1: Jerry Fielding, Sam Peckinpah and The Getaway", that's somewhat misleading asThe Getaway is only touched upon for a few short minutes. This wonderful featurette pairs Camille Fielding, the composer's widow, with Peckinpah assistant Katy Haber as the two of them reminisce about these deeply creative men. Fielding introduces her husband's work by speaking about his early life and how he broke through the blacklist, and the remainder of featurette focuses almost entirely on the composer's tumultuous relationship with Peckinpah, even showing the text of a memo Peckinpah sent Fielding about his "overscored, pretentious" music for The Wild Bunch while screening dailies in a Mexican laundromat. The discussion about The Getaway includes notes about how unusually pleasant the experience was putting this film and its score together and how shattered Fielding was that McQueen replaced his score with one by Quincy Jones, so much so that it had lasting repercussions on the family cat. This featurette offers a sweet, charming look at these two men and is very much worth setting aside the time to watch.

- Adam Tyner, DVD Talk

Other reviews:

- Peter M. Bracke, Hi-Def Digest



Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Peckinpah:

"His preoccupation with the omnipresence of violence and the ambivalence of morality made for complex characters, never sure of their identity or their moral standing. But there was nothing ambiguous about Peckinpah's own view of man as an ignoble beast, though many questioned his insistence that the gratuitous gore in his films was in truth an expression of the director's quest for a better world." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"American director who has made some of the most exciting gun duels and action scenes ever put on screen. Nor was it all blood and thunder: the human spirit was never better celebrated than in some of Peckinpah's early work. Unfortunately, after The Wild Bunch, things did not develop quite as one would have hoped." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)

"The more that emerges on Peckinpah the man, the clearer it is that he was in brazen pursuit of his own fantasies - and expecting others to pay for it. A very dangerous man, because he could be so damn good. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid makes Clint Eastwood look like a carpetbagger." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"The dying of the American West has been the subject of his best efforts (Ride the High Country, 62; The Wild Bunch, 69; The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 70). Lately, however, he's taken to projects containing mindless violence, limp plots, and surface characters (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 75; The Killer Elite, 75)." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I want to be able to make westerns like Akira Kurosawa makes westerns." - Sam Peckinpah

On the 29th December 1984, the day after Sam Peckinpah died at the age of 59, a small obituary appeared in The New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, "best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence. attained notoriety for such films as The Wild Bunch, a brutal picture that was by several thousand red gallons the most graphically violent Western ever made and one of the most violent movies of all time." (2) With the release of The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah became known as "Bloody Sam". In 1971, Straw Dogs hit the screen and the cult of notoriety was cemented: Peckinpah became a marketable, yet controversial director. Much sought after, he gave contentious interviews to a variety of newspapers and magazines including GamePlayboyFilms and Filmmaking and Take One, while also writing letters to newspaper editors justifying his work and slamming his detractors. (3) Under the microscope of feminist film theory his sometimes aberrant treatment of the representation of women and his "excessive" use of violence was noted and condemned. The critical uptake of the notion of Peckinpah as the "master of violence" and the momentum of the debates that ensued affected not only the discussion of his so-called "violent films" but also the reception of his more "gentle" ones. Peckinpah made numerous television serials and three films before The Wild Bunch, none of which was heralded as brutal, or violent. After The Wild Bunch, he made The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and after Straw Dogs he made Junior Bonner (1972). Both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner are about individuals who are running out of time and space-but they are also full of the affirmation of life.

The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch

In working through the criticism that has evolved around Peckinpah's 14 films, what becomes evident is the concentration on specific moments in this working history. The personal mythology surrounding Peckinpah is inscribed in much of the writing generated by these films. A drunk, a coke addict, a sentimental romantic, possibly schizophrenic, a little man with a big chip on his shoulders-Peckinpah is said to be many things. Yet it is obvious from the large body of critical literature, which includes reviews, articles and numerous books, both critical and biographical, that Peckinpah is not a "neglected" filmmaker; rather, there is an unwillingness to deal with the paradoxical nature of his films. In an allusion to Pauline Kael, the 1995 Peckinpah retrospective held by the Film Society of the Lincoln Centre was entitled: "Blood of a Poet". (4) In this short phrase Kael captures something elemental about Peckinpah's films, something that is often ignored-that the intensity, resonance and vitality of these films' aesthetic expressiveness, be it violent or utopian, takes us into the realm of the poetic.

Charting the path of Peckinpah's critical and personal reputation is something like taking a roller coaster ride. From the late '60s through to the '70s, Peckinpah was both celebrated and condemned as the cinematic poet of violence. After this brief period, although occasionally producing films that express the strength of his artistic vision, he went into an erratic artistic and physical decline. By the end of the '70s, he disappeared into obscurity; yet after his death, he slowly began to re-emerge as an influential presence who left us with a disparate but rich cinematic oeuvre. In 1993, the BBC produced Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron (Paul Joyce, 1992), a feature-length documentary dealing with his personal life and films. Retrospectives have also been staged at the Cinémathèque Français in Paris, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and at London's National Film Theatre, while Film Comment and Sight and Sound have published reappraisals of his work. Major publications in the last ten years include David Weddle's 1994 insightful biography, Paul Seydor's 1997 "Reconsideration" of his 1980 text Peckinpah: The Western Films (1980) and two collections of essays on The Wild Bunch(5) Michael Bliss' Justified Lives: Morality & Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, which was published in 1993, is one of the few texts that deals with all of Peckinpah's films; while Stephen Prince's Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies explores Peckinpah's work in the context of changes within the industry and the social milieu in which this filmmaker was working. Some of the most insightful and thoughtful work on Peckinpah's films has been produced by theorists and critics such as Bliss, Terence Butler, Jim Kitses, Mark Crispin Miller and Paul Seydor who address Peckinpah's films within the context of an American literary tradition and the western genre. Bliss and Seydor have picked up where Jim Kitses started, claiming Peckinpah as the son of an American cultural tradition that includes Cooper, Emerson, Hemingway, Faulkner and Mailer. Both these writers address his films in the context of the western, discussing his tarnished approach to the original ideal. These major reappraisals, the re-release of The Wild Bunch and the retrospectives have all helped to re-ignite interest in Peckinpah's legacy as both a mercurial personality and an important director whose influence is acknowledged by many contemporary filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.

- Gabrielle Murray, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

The first point that must be made, here in the 21st century, is that Peckinpah's films are not terribly violent. That's how he made his reputation: as "Bloody Sam", the man who never met a bucket of theatrical blood he wasn't willing to splash around, and who always made certain you knew when the blood was about to flow, by means of slow motion. Still, by today's standards, the better part of the Peckinpah canon is not terribly violent - not when judged against today's rivers of gore. There are, in Peckinpah, no fountaining bodies, no bits of brain tissue splattered about. Anything released in the last 20 years is quite a bit more repellent. Seen any of those Saw movies?

And the very last thing Peckinpah shot? Right before his death? Julian Lennon's music videos for Vallotte and Too Late for Goodbyes. Did he need the money? Did he like playing the underdog? Was there something moving about musical advertisements for the son of a famous victim of violence? However you answer these questions, there's something starkly beautiful about Valotte. Julian Lennon, his features and his voice so unsettlingly reminiscent of his late father's, sits alone at the piano in a recording studio, as the camera seems to hover, as if from hereafter itself, at the uppermost corner of the ceiling above the performance.

There's nothing flashy or cheap about the video (in an era when cheap was the order of the day), and everything about it feels understated, even graceful. But whose heavenly ken is depicted therein? From the top of that ghostly staircase? John Lennon's point of view, lamenting a son he insufficiently came to know? Peckinpah's, who knew his time was short and that his vision, as realised, was incomplete? Maybe Valotte was a sort of funeral oratory, too - one, as in David Warner's speech from Cable Hogue, in which the orator was unable to lie.

- Rick Moody, The Guardian

Sam Peckinpah on Facebook


Stories of Steve McQueen's troubled childhood and roustabout adolescence never squared with the fastidiousness of his screen persona, the aristocracy of his best roles. McQueen did not need to act snobbery and elitism; his whole being vibrated with a sense of natural superiority. Only once, in The Thomas Crown Affair, did he play the wealthy and powerful man he was in real life, and then the role fitted him as perfectly as his tailoring.

Repressed loners in search of standards were McQueen's speciality. His wintry blue eyes, neat movements, and clipped unemotional voice told you everything you needed to know about life on the road, in the trenches, in prison, or on the trail. He did not mind being unsympathetic; audiences knew he was a cut above those around him, and identified with his locked-tongue loneliness, his private obsession—something Peckinpah explored (and exploited) to great effect in The Getaway.

The best McQueens are in the 1960s. His ambitious young professional gambler in The Cincinnati Kid, psychopathic World War II G.I. in Hell Is for Heroes, World War II pilot in The War Lover, itinerant jazz musician in Love with the Proper Stranger, and rootless wanderer in Baby the Rain Must Fall all flirt with villainy, particularly in their callous attitude toward the women who love these driven men. His Frank Bullitt in Bullitt is no better, but when, in the final enigmatic scene, he returns to his apartment after the bloody airport shootout, sees his mistress sleeping, and impassively washes his hands before joining her, the line between hero and clod is decisively drawn.

John Baxter, updated by John McCarty, Film Reference.com

960 (102). The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray)

Screened March 18 2009 on divx .avi in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #740 IMDb Wiki

Consciously or not, the characters in Nicholas Ray's cinema live as if heaven is just one step ahead, and hell just one step behind. What these tragic heroes learn - often too late - is that both heaven and hell are moving faster than they are. But that tragic pursuit amongst dreams and demons, filled with aspiration and anxiety, is what gives his films their kinetic charge. It's not even that his films are cinematically action-packed, though The Lusty Men, with its generous helpings of real rodeo footage, certainly packs a thrill. It's that even in the quietest, most meditative scenes, there's a restless waiting for what's next that keeps the viewer on edge, anticipating the revelations of the next moment. In other words, Nicholas Ray is the first existential action filmmaker.

Robert Mitchum's performance as an ex-rodeo champ, a stoic lump of washed-up man meat, attests to this aesthetic brilliantly. Seeming only to live for nothing more than whatever situation comes his way, his hulking, limping frame either ambles along or hangs upright in postures of cowboy confidence; his voice is even more rock steady. That leaves his eyes to play a virtuoso range of movements: glaring anger or downcast shame, lightning alarm or low-lidded arousal. His eyes are windows to the storm of unresolved feelings locked inside.

He’s complemented by a ranch couple, young but no less hard-nosed: Arthur Kennedy, an aspiring rodeo star whose teeth gleam with carnivorous ambition, and Susan Hayward, who turns a thankless wife-watching-from-the-sidelines role into a gravitational coil of skeptical worry. The three of them collectively map out a vast terrain of equivocal emotions, dubious dreams and miles of regrets. It’s a world of hurt from which even the young are unsheltered – for me the knockout blow comes in a flash cutaway that lasts just long enough for a teenage rodeo girl to silently mouth “I love you” to her dying idol. We hardly know anything about this girl, but her gesture both confirms and expands the universal heartbreak that drives Ray’s vision.


A masterpiece by Nicholas Ray--perhaps the most melancholy and reflective of his films (1952). This modern-dress western centers on Ray's perennial themes of disaffection and self-destruction: Arthur Kennedy is a young rodeo rider, eager for quick fame and easy money; Robert Mitchum is his older friend, a veteran who's been there and knows better. Working with the great cinematographer Lee Garmes, Ray creates an unstable atmosphere of dust and despair--trailer camps and broken-down ranches--that expresses the contradictory impulses of his characters: a lust for freedom balanced by a quest for security. With Susan Hayward, superb as Kennedy's wife.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Nick Ray understood character and psychological pressures better than almost any of his contemporaries, and The Lusty Men was one of his happiest breaks: sympathetic producers, a great cameraman (Lee Garmes, who shot Sternberg's Dietrich movies), and one of Robert Mitchum's finest performances. The story isn't much (the security of family life versus the rootlessness and danger of working as a rodeo rider), but the situation is rich in emotional resonances which Ray conjures into life convincingly.

- Time Out

I love “The Lusty Men,” Ray’s saddest work, and, like every viewer before me, I am felled by the beauty of the shot that finds Mitchum—a rodeo rider—limping amid gusts of trash through a vacant arena, with the sharp, heartbreaking light of late afternoon slicing in from the side. At the same time, I cannot rid myself of an anecdote reported by Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server. A leading lady was required, and Susan Hayward was brought in, on loan from Twentieth Century Fox, while the script was still being written. She sat and knitted for a while, as Ray spoke of his characters and their various plights. Finally, she put down her knitting and said, “Listen, I’m from Brooklyn. What’s the story?” ?

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The first few brief sequences in Nicholas Ray’s rip-roaring rodeo flick The Lusty Men tell us visually almost everything that we need to know about the director’s interest in this story. We see legendary rider Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) straddling a bucking bronco in a display of his masculine prowess. We see him as he’s thrown from that horse in a demonstration of how that masculinity becomes self-destructive. We see him limp across the deserted ring after the show as the debris from the bygone celebration swirls around him. Afterwards, McCloud returns to his childhood home to find it dilapidated and owned by another person. With no home to return to, he makes a literal attempt to recapture his childhood as he climbs under his raised house to find a stash of childhood treasures. This affecting, wordless scene shows how in Ray’s films, the protagonists speak most loudly with their actions. Though Jeff McCloud might not be a man of many words, we see that he’s a man with secrets who is capable of sentimentality. When he does finally start to open up verbally, to the man who has purchased the farm he grew up on, the two of them communicate in the language of the everyman, with simple but sincere platitudes and philosophies. Perhaps the most telling moment of all occurs when McCloud compares his calling to a career in horse riding to a preacher’s calling to the Lord. In Ray’s eyes, McCloud’s choice of profession might define him, but in no way does that choice limit his personal investment in the work he does. Even in the most seemingly mindless types of grunt work, the director sees the possibility of grace (a fitting stance for a man who frequently worked as a hired gun in the Hollywood studio system).

After McCloud’s personality is established, The Lusty Men becomes more plot-driven, focusing less on his loneliness and more on his relationship with a young married couple who are attempting to earn enough money to purchase McCloud’s old home. The breadwinner Wes (Arthur Kennedy) convinces McCloud to teach him the ropes of riding. Louise (Susan Hayward), Wes’ headstrong wife is initially reticent to allow her husband to risk his life in the rodeo ring, but she acquiesces when Wes tells her she lacks guts. Before long, the trio set off on the rodeo circuit, lodging at a series of trailer parks and spending their evenings in rowdy bars as they hustle from town to town chasing after prize money. The film presents a portrait of America's capitalist system as a never-ending series of competitions, and as a result, the characters are rarely able to relate to each other without the buzz of commerce drowning out what they say. The integrated stock footage of rodeo performances genuinely adds to the excitement because it is suggested that each ride could be the last for these cowboys. The pursuit of fame has rarely looked so gritty in a classic Hollywood film, but the journey still has its share of humor and affection toward its characters.

There’s a certain amount of comedy in watching the two leading macho men tussle over who gets to bed down with the macho, gravelly voiced Louise, a woman who seems tough enough to tangle with either of them. Still, Ray isn’t out to make fun of his characters. Shots such as the one where he raises a US flag between a composition featuring his two leading men in the foreground suggest an intangible feeling that they represent some larger, unsaid thing about the working men of America. There’s sadness in the observation that the men in this profession inevitably start drinking and gambling to hide from others how scared they feel every time they get on the saddle. Since they seemingly can only fully express their emotions though riding and fear is not an option during the ride, the internalization of that fear takes its toll, leading to a slow downward spiral toward regret in which the men don’t realize that their days of fame and wealth are passing them by. Ray does an excellent job of establishing these internal demons, so there’s genuine tension in McCloud’s struggles to save Wes from the fate that’s already ruined him. Because of The Lusty Men’s admirable emotional restraint, the quiet moment before the climactic ride where the men exchange a wink, a half-smile, and an affirmative “Good luck” has as much impact as any more emotive conversation could.

- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

Written by Horace McCoy and David Dortort from a Life magazine story by Claude Stanush, The Lusty Men is one of director Nicholas Ray’s three outstanding films; the others are In a Lonely Place(1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954). (His vapid, sentimental Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, indulges the whining self-pity of its adolescent characters.). It is also the most substantial thing starring “the Brooklyn Bernhardt,” plainspoken Susan Hayward, who gives what may be her most electric and captivating performance.

- Dennis Grunes

"I have two acting styles -- with or without a horse," once claimed the self-deprecating Robert Mitchum. One of the actor's best Westerns was The Lusty Men (1952), a look at contemporary rodeo riders co-starring Arthur Kennedy as a fellow broncobuster and Susan Hayward as the latter's wife and third member of an explosive romantic triangle. At that point in his career, Mitchum considered the film one of three favorites among his own work.

To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him "The Mystic" because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters.

Susan Hayward, who was borrowed from 20th-Century-Fox at great expense to RKO, was leery of the project from the start since her part was practically non-existent and had to be completely rewritten and expanded once she signed on. According to Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Nicholas Ray tried to stimulate her interest in the role: "He zeroed in on a mutual enjoyment of Thomas Wolfe - and certainly drew from her an excellent performance, but she remained typically tempestuous and cranky - Mitchum called her "the Old Gray Mare" - and on one occasion held up production when she refused to play a scene as written." She took issue with the dialogue proclaiming her character had the foulest mouth she'd ever heard in her life. Eventually, they managed to come up with new lines that met with Hayward's approval.

Unlike Hayward, Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy relished the macho rodeo atmosphere surrounding the shoot and even violated the terms of their studio's insurance coverage by performing some reckless stunts on horses and bulls. Mitchum recalled, (in Server's biography) "I get on...and they all say, 'It's OK, he's just a retired old bronc,' and this thing is turned loose...and I can't get off him. They'd go in and try and pick me off and my horse would turn around and kick the pickup horse...I'm bleeding from my hair by this time.." Even Ray felt compelled to show he had what it took, hopping aboard a bucking bronco at the San Francisco Cow Palace. "I guess," he said, "we all have a little of that wildness in us."

- Roger Fristoe, Turner Classic Movies

Ray worked very slowly, to the point where Robert Mitchum nicknamed him ‘the mystic’ because of the way he would stare at the actors, trying to probe them for psychological insight into a scene. Robert Mitchum was well-known for his ‘indifference’ about acting and filmmaking. ‘What page are we on and what’s my mark?’ and of course, my favourite Mitchum quote: ‘People say I have an interesting walk, but I’m just trying to hold in my gut.’

Although Ray was a serious artist, he was also a womanizer and a boozer and he and Mitchum connected on this film, both as loose cannons and as artists. Ray was the first to suspect that Mitchum’s supposed ‘indifference’ was just a masking of his real artistic and even poetic self.

THE LUSTY MEN is a great film. Interestingly, the parties involved knew it even before it was released. Mitchum, who normally couldn’t give a rip about his finished films (‘They don’t pay me to see ‘em’) actually asked to see some of the film before it was completed. Ray obliged and showed him two-thirds of the movie. Mitchum apparently left walking ten feet high, he was so proud. In typical macho man fashion, they went to a bar to celebrate. Ray later recalled, as he crawled home hours later, that his last memory of Mitchum that evening was of him regaling a couple of drunk FBI agents. Mitchum then proceeded to borrow one of the agent’s gun and started firing at the dirty dishes while the kitchen staff ‘got the heck out of Dodge’.

- Jon Ted Wynne, EInsiders.com

"This film is really a film about people who want a home of their own," Nicholas Ray said of The Lusty Men (1952).1 In this way the film's central characters (two men and a woman) recall the teenage trio in Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, who find their one interlude of pure happiness playing house in a deserted mansion. In both cases, only two can find a home. Here the odd man out is the hero, played by Robert Mitchum, who also reportedly co-wrote the film with Ray and an assortment of helpers, coming up with the scenes as they were shot.2

Arthur Kennedy's specialty was ambivalence, and he's brilliant as usual, balancing the weakness and decency in this callow, petulant man. Even Kennedy's looks were ambivalent; he's blonde and fine-featured, yet there's some subtle flaw that keeps his face from being handsome. His smile is too aggressive, his voice too close to a whine. He never has the calm self-assurance that Mitchum displays, so he's a perfect foil. Susan Hayward's pedal-to-the-metal style can get monotonous, but here it's well suited to her feisty, hard-headed character. It seems to be Louise's utter, grounded certainty of what she wants that attracts Jeff, who never seems sure of what he wants. That, and her cooking. From his start in Westerns Mitchum retained something of the cowboy's stance towards women in his movies. He is forever the lonesome drifter out in the cold, for whom a woman represents a warm hearth, a good meal, clean sheets, a home. He longs for these things but pursues them in a self-defeating way, often attaching himself to other men's families and falling in love with married women who won't leave their husbands. The closest thing he has to a family of his own in The Lusty Men is a little tomboy girl who travels with her father, a grizzled rodeo veteran, and who — in the film's only cloying touch — mouths "I love you" to Jeff as he lies dying.

Mitchum and director Nicholas RayIn a movie review in The New Yorker,4 David Denby stated, "an actor won't last as a leading man unless he plays characters who want something passionately." That sounds plausible, but then what about Robert Mitchum? What does Mitchum want? I've come to the conclusion that Mitchum's enduring power lies in the way he leaves that question open. The motivations of his characters may be clear, but his performances blur them. The script may say he wants a woman, or a home, or money, or revenge, but he doesn't really convey lust or greed or any kind of burning desire, any need. And yet you can't just say he wants nothing — baby, he doesn't care — because that would make him invulnerable, and you always believe that he can be hurt, that he has been hurt. This core of mystery is Mitchum's gift to his movies. He's always holding something back. Trying to figure him out is like dropping a stone into a well and listening for the splash. It falls and falls, and you never do find out how deep the well is.

- Imogen Sara Smith, Bright Lights Film Journal


Nicholas Ray gets his own stand-alone webliography


IMDb Wiki

Tribute Page on Classic Movies.org with links to many other tribute sites

Meredy's Robert Mitchum Trivia Mania: 25 questions to test your knowledge of the actor

Robert Peters' complete volume of poetry, Love Poems for Robert Mitchum

Before Mitchum was two years old, his father, a blue-collar railroad worker, was crushed to death between two goods vans and through much of the Thirties he rode the rods around Depression America as an itinerant labourer, doing some boxing and serving a stretch on a Deep South chain gang for vagrancy. He wound up in California and, in 1940, married the woman he'd stay with for the rest of his life, despite his endless philandering and the drinking that would eventually lead to the Betty Ford Clinic.

He drifted into acting, appearing in 19 of his 120 films in 1943, his first year in Hollywood, and getting an Oscar nomination for his first starring role in an A-movie as an infantry officer under stress in Italy in The Story of GI Joe (1945). On the brink of major stardom, he was the victim of a rigged drugs bust for marijuana possession in 1948 and served a second jail stretch. Miraculously, he survived, his reputation as a hellraiser enhanced.

Tall, thin, broad shouldered and languid, he moved gracefully, had heavily lidded eyes that could express contempt, menace and a deep sadness, a broken nose and a curiously eloquent dimpled chin that he could tilt, pull in and thrust out to dramatic effect. Though he affected indifference to his craft and claimed to be averse to work, he was greatly respected by the directors he worked for. Fred Zinnemann considered him 'one of the finest instinctive actors in the business, almost in the same class as Spencer Tracy', and John Huston called him 'a rarity among actors, hard-working, non-complaining, amazingly perceptive'.

He first made his name in Forties film noir thrillers, the finest being the doomed private eye falling for femme fatale Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), creating along with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas a new kind of doomed loser hero. But he was also at home in the saddle, especially in such brooding psychological westerns as Pursued (1947), The Lusty Men (1952) and Track of the Cat (1954).

Arguably, his two greatest performances were playing psychotic villains, the first as the homicidal preacher in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), the second as the sadistic criminal terrorising Gregory Peck, the man who sent him to jail in Cape Fear (1962).

Most of his later films are indifferent, significant exceptions being his sad, small-time Boston crook in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and his outstanding Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1975).

David Lean (who directed him in Ryan's Daughter): 'Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness but his forte is his indelible identity. Mitchum, simply by being there, makes almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.'

Mitchum on his career: 'I gave up being serious about making pictures years ago, around the time I made a film with Greer Garson [Desire Me, 1947] and she took 125 takes to say no.'

The 1948 drug bust Mitchum gave his occupation to the police as 'ex-actor'.

Charles Laughton: 'All the tough talk is a blind. He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He would make the best Macbeth of any actor living.'

- Philip French, The Guardian

Nicholas Ray: A Webliography

IMDb Wiki

Nicholas Ray's MySpace Page

Quotes from the TSPDT profile page for Nicholas Ray:

"Few other directors had such a sense of the effect of locations and interiors on people's lives, or the visual or emotional relationship between indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs...There is not a director who films or frames interior shots with Ray's dynamic, fraught grace and who thereby so explodes the rigid limits of "script" material. No one made CinemaScope so glorious a shape as Ray, because it seemed to set an extra challenge to his interior sensibility." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"A huge cult has grown around this American director in recent years, bigger than almost any film-maker, and certainly one of Ray's uneven output, could warrant. His best films are clustered in his initial RKO Radio period - apart from Rebel Without a Cause, his only truly first-rate film outside that studio. Observers have professed to find various wonders in such later Ray films as Hot Blood, The True Story of Jesse James, Bitter Victory and others. I can only confess that their virtues escaped me at the time and, on a re-viewing, still do." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"One of the finest directors of the '50s, Nicholas Ray transcended the limitations of genre to create movies of a highly personal nature. Imbued with an intense, romantic pessimism and photographed with a rare feel for the emotional resonance of colour and space. Ray's films are distinguished by a passionate identification with society's outsiders, his sympathies possibly arising from his own troubled relationship with the film-making establishment." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Those who form their own moral laws, whatever the consequences, people the films of Nicholas Ray. His tendency to cut his images on character movement makes his work extremely fluid." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"In the theatre, words are eighty to eighty-five percent of the importance of what is happening to you for your comprehension. In film, words are about twenty percent. It's a different figure, but it's almost an opposite ratio. For the words are only a little bit of embroidery, a little bit of lacework." - Nicholas Ray (Directing the Film, 1976)

"My affection for CinemaScope initially was my affection for the horizontal line as I learned it from having been apprenticed to an architect who was someone named Frank Lloyd Wright." - Nicholas Ray (Directing the Film, 1976)

Nicholas Ray has been the cause celebre of the auteur theory for such a long time that his critics, pro and con, have lost all sense of proportion about his career. Nicholas Ray is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack. The Truth lies somewhere in between. It must be remembered that They Live by Night, The Lusty Men, Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life are socially conscious films by any standards, and that Knock on Any Door is particularly bad social consciousness on the Kramer-Cayatte level. His form is not that impeccable, and his content has generally involved considerable social issues. Ray has always displayed an exciting visual style. For example, if one compares They Live by Night with Huston's The Asphalt Jungle - and these two films are strikingly similar in mood, theme and plot - one will notice that where Ray tends to cut between physical movements, Huston tends to cut between static compositions. Ray's style tends to be more kinetic, Huston's more plastic, the difference between dance and sculpture. If Ray's nervous direction has no thematic meaning, he would be a minor director indeed. Fortunately, Ray does have a theme, and a very important one; namely, that every relationship establishes its own moral code and that there is no such thing as abstract morality. This much was made clear in Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean and his fellow adolescents leaned back in their seats at the planetarium and passively accepted the proposition that the universe was drifting without any frame of reference. Even thought Ray's career has been plagued by many frustrations, none of his films lack some burst of inspiration. Johnny Guitar was his most bizarre film, and probably his most personal. Certainly, we can sympathize with Everson and Fenin trying to relate this "Western" to the William S. Hart tradition, and finding Ray lacking; but this is the fallacy of writing about genres. Johnny Guitar has invented its own genre. Philip Yordan set out to attack McCarthyism, but Ray was too delirious to pay any heed as Freuidan feminism prevailed over Marxist masochism, and Pirandello transcended polemics.

- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema. Pages 107-108

"The cinema is Nicholas Ray." Godard's magisterial statement has come in for a good deal of ridicule, not by any means entirely undeserved. Yet it contains a core of truth, especially if taken in reverse. Nicholas Ray is cinema in the sense that his films work entirely (and perhaps only) as movies, arrangements of space and movement charged with dramatic tension. Few directors demonstrate more clearly that a film is something beyond the sum of its parts. Consider only the more literary components—dialogue, plot, characterisation—and a film like Party Girl is patently trash. But on the screen the visual turbulence of Ray's shooting style, the fractured intensity of his editing, fuse the elements into a valid emotional whole. The flaws are still apparent, but have become incidental.

Nor is Ray's cinematic style in any way extraneous, imposed upon his subjects. The nervous tension within the frame also informs his characters, vulnerable violent outsiders at odds with society and with themselves. The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it—to become (like Bowie and Keechie, the young lovers ofThey Live by Night) "like real people." James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men, all start by rejecting the constraints of the nuclear family, only to find themselves impelled to recreate it in substitute form, as though trying to fill an unacknowledged void. In one achingly elegiac scene in The Lusty Men, Mitchum prowls around the tumbledown shack that was his childhood home, "looking for something I thought I'd lost."

Ray's grounding in architecture (he studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright) reveals itself in an exceptionally acute sense of space, often deployed as an extension of states of mind. In his films the geometry of locations, and especially interiors, serves as a psychological terrain. Conflict can be played out, and tension expressed, in terms of spatial areas (upstairs and downstairs, for example, or the courtyards and levels of an apartment complex) pitted against each other. Ray also credited Wright with instilling in him "a love of the horizontal line"—and hence of the CinemaScope screen, for which he felt intuitive affinity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who found it awkward and inhibiting, Ray avidly explores the format's potential, sometimes combining it with lateral tracking shots to convey lyrical movement, at other times angling his camera to create urgent diagonals, suggesting characters straining against the constrictions of the frame.

Equally idiosyncratic is Ray's expressionist use of colour, taken at times to heights of delirium that risk toppling into the ridiculous. In Johnny Guitar, perhaps the most flamboyantly baroque Western ever made, Joan Crawford is colour-coded red, white, or black according to which aspect of her character—whore, victim, or gunslinger—is uppermost in a given scene. Similarly, the contrast in Bigger than Lifebetween the hero's respectable job as a schoolteacher and his déclassé moonlighting for a taxi firm is signalled by an abrupt cut from the muted grey-browns of the school to a screenful of gaudy yellow cabs that hit the audience's eyes with a visual slap.

"I'm a stranger here myself." Ray often quoted Sterling Hayden's line from Johnny Guitar as his personal motto. His career, as he himself was well aware, disconcertingly mirrored the fate of his own riven, alienated heroes. Unappreciated (or so he felt) in America, and increasingly irked by the constraints of the studio system, he nonetheless produced all his best work there. In Europe, where he was hailed as one of the world's greatest directors, his craft deserted him: after two ill-starred epics, the last sixteen years of his life trickled away in a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects. Victim of his own legend, Ray finally took self-identification with his protagonists to its ultimate tortured conclusion—collaborating, in Lightning over Water, in the filming of his own disintegration and death.

Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com

That Nicholas Ray's professional name was derived from an inversion of his first two surnames sounds fitting for a filmmaking career that proceeded backwards by conventional standards, beginning in relative conformity and ending in rebellious independence. Like Jacques Tati and Samuel Fuller, Ray did a lot of living before he ever got around to filmmaking-pursuing a life largely rooted in the radical dreams and activities of the Depression years, which we mainly know about thanks to Bernard Eisenschitz's extensive and invaluable biography, one of the best-researched factual accounts we have of any director's career. In a sense, the celebrations of alternative lifestyles (such as those of rodeo people in The Lusty Men [1952], Gypsies in Hot Blood [1956], and Eskimos in The Savage Innocents [1960]), and passionately symmetrical relationships (such as the evenly balanced romantic couples of In a Lonely Place [1950] and Johnny Guitar [1954] and the evenly matched male antagonists of Wind Across the Everglades [1958] and Bitter Victory [1957]), and a sense of tragedy underlining their loss or betrayal, can largely be traced back to his political and populist roots. A creature of both the '30s and '60s, he was ahead of his time during both decades.

In a Lonely Place
In a Lonely Place

Yet the signs of Ray's personal stamp weren't merely stylistic but also occult gestures of a particular kind: alluding to the direct references to Ray's personality, his first Hollywood apartment, and his recently busted-up marriage to Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place, American film critic Dave Kehr once noted in a capsule review that "The film's subject is the attractiveness of instability, and Ray's self-examination is both narcissistic and sharply critical, in fascinating combination." (1) (The same sort of deadly romantic mix, which led some French enthusiasts to link him to Rimbaud, was noted more critically by Jean-Marie Straub when he once observed that Ray, in contrast to the relative clarity and lack of sentimentality in a Hawks or a Buñuel, "is always fascinated by violence, and so, at a certain moment, he slips on the side of the police.") (2)Furthermore, a passionate desire to place his mark on the work can even be felt in Ray appearing in the final shot of Rebel Without a Cause, walking towards the planetarium-not the sort of detail needed by the plot, the theme, or the mise en scène, but something closer to a naked paw print perhaps, a gesture of possessiveness and exhibitionism that paradoxically thrives on an innate sense of privacy.

Yet the strength of his first dozen or so years as a filmmaker remains unshakable: 18 features, most of which could plausibly be called masterpieces of one kind or another. (At the very least, They Live By NightIn a Lonely PlaceOn Dangerous GroundThe Lusty MenJohnny GuitarRebel Without a CauseBigger Than LifeBitter VictoryWind Across the EvergladesParty Girl, and The Savage Innocents-and potent stretches in most of the others, including even King of Kings [1961].) Robin Wood once noted that no one ever gives a bad performance in a Ray film, not even Anthony Quinn, and on balance the statement is far less hyperbolic than it sounds. It's hard to think of another Western with as many vivid and singular characters as Johnny Guitar, or two wooden actors used more creatively and movingly than Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse in Party Girl. Maybe that's because even within a vision as fundamentally bleak and futile as Ray's, a clear view of paradise is never entirely out of mind or even definitively out of reach. This is the utopian promise of the '30s and the '60s that his work keeps alive, and it remains a precious legacy.

- Jonathan RosenbaumSenses of Cinema

There was a time when film enthusiasts fought fiercely over Nicholas Ray and what he stood for. He was a test case, and rose to the challenge in his special way. He had an intensely brooding but romantic view of himself and of his inevitable "outsider" status. He was as tall and handsome as a western hero, and spoke slowly - so slowly that you could believe he had forgotten you and the conversation - as if to indicate the desperate burden of sincerity or determining what he believed. Women and men were drawn to him by the same gravitational pull; it had something to do with the demons that never left him.

For years, he was idolised by the young French writers who would become the directors of the New Wave. François Truffaut once noted: "There are no Ray films that do not have a scene at the close of day; he is the poet of nightfall, and of course everything is permitted in Hollywood except poetry." Contrasting Ray and Howard Hawks, he added: "But anyone who rejects either should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognise inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself." Jean-Luc Godard offered another sweeping panegyric: "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."

He was not a rapid developer, unlike Welles, say, who was four years his junior and also from Wisconsin. Ray met a young writer, Jean Evans. They lived together for several years and married in 1936. But Ray was not faithful and not simply heterosexual. Houseman had discerned how confused he could be: "Reared in Wisconsin in a household dominated by women, he was a potential homosexual with a deep, passionate and constant need for female love in his life. This made him attractive to women, for whom the chance to save him from his own self-destructive habits proved an irresistible attraction of which Nick took full advantage and for which he rarely forgave them. He left a trail of damaged lives behind him - not as a seducer, but as a husband, lover and father."

There is a biography of Ray, by Bernard Eisenschitz (published in Britain by Faber). It is useful and devoted, if far from complete. Like many admirers who tended Ray in the hope that he might recover and work again, Eisenschitz glosses over the bisexuality and quite ruinous personal indulgences. Ray had the looks, talent and friends that might have made a great career. There was a great film-maker inside him, yet he relentlessly hacked away at his support and supporters. Was it self-loathing, a warped self-pity? Was it a defence, or was it that deeply fatalistic vision that is expressed by Richard Burton in Bitter Victory: "I kill the living and save the dead"?

- David Thomson, The Guardian

Poor Nick Ray. No artist should be asked to weather such unmitigated awe. The French were right to honor the convulsive strangeness of “Johnny Guitar” (1954), the tale of a saloonkeeper (Joan Crawford) fighting, with the aid of an old flame (Sterling Hayden), to survive a lynch mob. Only foreign eyes, perhaps, could widen with suitable amazement, and without a tremolo of sniggers, at the movie’s lunging gestures and superheated tones. When our heroine is advised to change out of her milk-white dress to evade pursuit, she sensibly slips into a shirt of blinding red, suggesting that she has also found time to don a radioactive bra. What Godard and his colleagues could not register—and what, as moralists of the pure image, they would dismiss as irrelevant—were the qualities that an American audience would bring to bear. Good sense, the narrative urge, a limited patience for the warped and the whimsical: all would be tested by a film like “Johnny Guitar,” which seems about as clued in to actual cowboys as Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West.” The movie is majestic, but, like the face of Joan Crawford, which could have been chipped from the buttress of a Gothic cathedral, it is howlingly close to mad.

Ray’s movies, which deal with everything from dancing Gypsies to a middle-class cortisone addict, teem with solitude; one staggers out of them with the dizzying suspicion that men and women are like planets and moons, each following a predestined curve, repeatedly tugged or slung away by the gravity of other bodies.

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

All our critics distinguish, more or less explicitly, between commercial and personal cinema. The distinction is occasionally valid, often silly, and always dangerous. It is quite legitimate, for example, to point out that Nicholas Ray has frequently been obliged to work from a scenario with which he was not satisfied: Run for Cover, Hot Blood, Party Girl; that many of his films have been mutilated after completion: The James Brothers, Bitter Victory, Wind across the Everglades, The Savage Innocents, King of Kings; and that the stories of The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life might look uninviting on paper. But film is not paper, and never can be except in the wishful imagination of a critic who regards his eyes only as the things that he reads with. The distinction between personal and commercial cinema has become a weapon for use against films which do not impress by the obvious seriousness of their stories and dialogue. The director's contribution is as irrelevant to the critical success of They Live by Night and Rebel without a Cause as it is to the critical neglect of Johnny Guitar, Bigger than Life, or Wind across the Everglades. It is nonsense to say that in Party Girl Ray's talent is "squandered on a perfect idiocy" (Louis Marcorelles in, of all places, "Cahiers du Cinema"). The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject. Ray has himself criticised the literary preoccupations of some screenwriters. "'It was all in the script' a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?" The disillusioned writer and the insensitive critic are alike in discounting the very things for which one goes to the cinema: the extraordinary resonances which a director can provoke by his use of actors, decor, movement, colour, shape, of all that can be seen and heard.

Primarily, one sees and hears actors. Ray's films contain a number of performances which can be called great because they give complete characterisations: Bogart (In a Lonely Place), Mitchum (The Lusty Men), Dean, Wood, Backus (Rebel without a Cause), Burton (Bitter Victory) and Christopher Plummer (Wind across the Everglades) spring immediately to mind. But the director's control is proved not so much by the perfection of individual performances as by the consistency with which Ray's actors embody his vision. This consistency is the result - it's an ancient paradox - of the director's search for the particular truth of each particular situation. Johnny Guitar's isolation is depicted in such specific terms that we appreciate, without directorial emphasis, the wider significance of his remark "I've a great respect for a gun, and, besides, I'm a stranger here myself." In They Live by Night Cathy O'Donnell is unable to put her watch right because "there's no clock here to set it by." The remark has a specific, complex, dramatic context. We are aware, as the character is not, of its more general relevance for a girl who was "never properly introduced to the world we live in."

Again, while insisting on Ray's genius in conveying the general through the particular, the abstract through the concrete, I have no wish to claim that it is uniquely his gift. It is simply the ability which distinguishes the true filmmaker from the pseud-director who provides "photographs of people talking." And it is an ability which one feels not just in Ray's direction of his actors but in his use of the entire vocabulary of film.

- V. F. Perkins, "The Cinema of Nicholas Ray." Published in Movies and Methods. Edited by Bill Nichols. Published by University of California Press, 1976. Page 351-352.

958 (100). Moonrise (1948, Frank Borzage)

screened August 3 2008 on .avi TSPDT rank #945  IMDb Wiki

Frank Borzage's greatest films celebrate and investigate the miracle of romantic love; but perhaps the greatest miracle of his career was in generating a film of darkly stunning compassion upon one of the most wretched characters conceived in cinema. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, in a proto-Method performance of inspired contempt for everything around him) is tortured throughout his young life by his father's legacy of murder, which he fully inherits within the first 10 minutes of the film, setting off a downward spiral of guilt, rage and violent self-destruction. (The blueprints to Raging Bull are all over this film; a couple of shots seem practically plagiarized).

Borzage's men have typically been roughewn jars of clay shaped and refined by feminine light, but Danny Hawkins is a festering pool of mud oozing from the film's swampy environs.  He's saved by Borzage's ultimate faith in redemptive grace, embodied by the fiancee of the man Danny kills, who unfathomably falls in love with Danny despite nearly being killed by him in a stunning car accident.  Her unlikely attraction to him is made credible through our own, an empathy accomplished through Borzage's ability to plant the viewer squarely in the passionate, angst-ridden hell of Danny's worldview.

Starting with a wildly expressive flashback opening on through a series of terrifying crisis moments shot and cut with dizzying intensity (a swamp killing; a rainstorm car crash; a bedroom strangulation; a suicidal leap from a ferris wheel), it's a world cloaked in perpetual night, virile in its violence, seductive in its shadows. The civic-minded sobriety of the daylight scenes, where everyone from the local sheriff to a self-exiled, swamp-dwelling Negro (a powerfully melancholy Rex Ingram) espouse liberal compassion for poor Danny, can't compete with the allure of destructive darkness that pervades this film. Even the sentimental strings in the soundtrack, employed heavily during interludes of romantic redemption, stir reserves of disconsolate ache.  If the redemptive, sober climax that resolves the narrative feels less than fully earned, it's because Borzage has perhaps succeeded too well at mining the bottomless chasm of a man's affliction.  But such a degree of achievement in suffering wrought into art embodies its own salvation.


Frank Borzage's last masterpiece (1948) and one of his best-known films, although in many ways it's atypical of his work. Made on a middling budget for Republic Pictures--the studio of serials and cowboys--the film adopts a rich and elaborate expressionist style; with its shadows and tension-racked frames, it resembles no other film in the Borzage canon. The social conflicts that plagued Borzage's spiritually attuned lovers in earlier films here become psychological ones, as a young man (Dane Clark) fights to overcome his "bad blood"--his father was a convicted killer. Still, the Borzagian principle of transcendence applies, expressed through a complex mise-en-scene centered on circular camera movements. The earlier, disappointing Smiling Through (1941)--with its image of a blocking, ever-present past--seems a rough draft for this final achievement.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Many of Borzage’s projects, particularly toward the end of his career, were indisputably trivial in conception, but the director’s personality never faltered, and when the glorious opportunity of Moonrise presented itself, Borzage was not stale or jaded. This, if anything, is the moral of the auteur theory.

- Andrew Sarris

In many ways, it is unlike any of [Borzage’s] earlier works. Its plot, dealing with murder and guilt, departs dramatically from the simple love stories the director usually tells [...] Stylistically, Moonrise marks a visual revolution of sorts for Borzage, with its tremendously dynamic compositions, tight framing and low-key lighting. […] Yet even though Moonrise looks different from Borzage’s other work, it reveals as deep a commitment as ever to the concerns that occupy his other films.

- John Belton, Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.; London: The Tantivy Press, 1974), p. 112

Moonrise is Frank Borzage's sensual scrutiny of a man's free will. In the film's striking opening moments, a dazzling spectacle of black-and-white chiaroscuro conveys a throbbing sense of madness cattle-branded into the imagination of a young Danny Hawkins, who is terrorized by bullies from childhood to adulthood because of his father's execution. When Danny (Dane Clark) kills one of his tormentors, he must struggle with the terrible push-pull effect of the past and the memory of his father on his psyche. Borzage magnificently frames the film along very severe, richly layered diagonal angles, catching nervous hands and faces from odd positions and giving startling visual expression to Danny's loose grip on his moral compass. A shot might begin with Danny towering above a character, only to end with him cowering beneath the same person, and in a tour-de-force sequence at a town fair, Borzage's camera moves in heady and terrifying tandem with the stop-go movements of a Ferris wheel. The director plays with shifting perspectives to convey the disorientation of a man struggling to stay on top even as he is drowning.

- Ed Gonzalez, Slant

Moonrise snaps on-screen with a shadowplay execution-by-hanging, shot with expressionistic verve, that cuts, on the snap of the neck, to the dead man’s newly fatherless child squalling in his crib over the nightmare image of cold court-ordered death—Borzage is still frequently written off as a better-than-average concoctor of shadows n’ muslin confections, but just try to find anything equivalent to the gutty social outrage of this stark edit in contemporary Hollywood fare. From this point the film rolls into a montage of schoolyard degradation—always the same punk, our fatherless child, always the same bully—that grounds the film in a smotheringly small town where reputation is inherited and it brands like the mark of Cain (the on looking kids mocking chant: “Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged”), and where grudges have a lifetime to percolate.

Hawkins, played without a hint of petitioning for sympathy by Fifties and Sixties television standby Dane Clark, understandably grows up into a furtive, crabbed, hate-encysted young man. Danny’s introduced full-grown in the thickets behind a local dancehall, at the receiving end of one-beating-too-many from his tireless victimizer—something snaps, a jagged rock gets into the mix, the bully is finally hushed up, dead. He goes back, throws some water on his face, and cuts in for a stiff dance with the corpse’s clueless fiancée, prim schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell). Driving her and some friends home, boozy, he buries the gas pedal, buzzing with rage, and flips the car. Wailing, soaked to the skin, pulling his co-opted date from the wreck through the side door, Danny’s a wreck of inchoate emotion—he wails as if in the trauma of being born.

From this literal and figurative breakdown, the film proceeds as the redemptive chronicle of Danny’s emotional education, his gradual indoctrination into humanity, and his acceptance of guilt for his crime. Gilly is the primary instrument that pries him open, operating through the breach opened by the somewhat baffling romance that’s ignited between them; the two spend plenty of runtime with their faces smooshed together in close-up, scenes that should gain plenty when writ large on the screen, as Borzage was an infamously attentive orchestrator of the minutest tremors of expression. Also crucial in Danny’s rehab is his sole friend, the aforementioned Mose, a retired brakeman-turned-recluse richly played by the great Rex Ingram; it’s a too-rare specimen of a black actor’s performance being allowed to flourish amid an all-white cast without the taint of awkward tokenism, Stepin Fetchit clowning, or phony-worshipful messianic Negritude. Ingram can handle thesis lines and common-sense morality with unpretentious thoughtfulness (“How does he know what’s good and what’s bad?” “Someone told him.”), but he’s best when singing a dolorous back-porch blues—the film’s title may come from the syrupy tune that’s warbled over Danny and Gilly’s first, death-infected dance, but Mose provides this dark-as-pitch picture’s true theme: “Rope hanging from the gallows/ Pit waiting for my bones...”

Nick Pinkerton, Reverse Shot

Moonrise immerses us in swamp country for a meditation on ‘nature’ of all kinds - including human. The thing about Southern noir is that nature is not only everywhere but a player in the drama. Contrast this with your typical urban thrillers where, amongst all the built structures and machinery we narrow our focus onto the one unpredictable element in the mix – the protagonist. In Moonrise we see, and quickly come to feel , the swamp as metaphor for this small town setting, subtly reinforcing our view of its human inhabitants.

Director Borzage’s clever tactic of showing us all the action from the point of view of Danny, Dane Clark’s central character, is one reason for this sense of immersion, but even more subtle is this native Southern boy’s near-complete lack of an accent, let alone any ‘aw-shucks’ yokelisms. He’s a universal character, his very neutrality earning him center stage in this sphere of fetid growth where the great noir standbys - buried guilts and past secrets – bubble to the surface.

The film’s struggle, which Dane Clark portrays economically and brilliantly, is between society’s labelling of Danny as a ‘criminal type’ versus his belief of his own inner goodness. This is established from the outset through the stunning opening montage limning the story’s background (the execution by hanging of Danny’s father while the boy is in infancy and the ensuing torment and harassment by other children– especially rich preppie brat Lloyd Bridges) which makes it clear you are in the hands of a cinematic master. The brutal linkage this montage climaxes with – cutting from the father’s noose in shadowed profile to a ‘mobile’ hanging over the infant child’s cot – still packs a jolt, especially on the big screen. Clark, an unassuming, 1940s prole-looking leatherneck who often picked up John Garfield comparisons, plays Danny (not surprisingly) as a pent-up ball of resentment who seethes with internalised anger.

- Roger Westcombe, Big House Film Reviews

If the love story in Moonrise is a classic Borzagian scenario, the film's visual style is decidedly less typical of the director's oeuvre. From the extraordinary opening scenes, with truncated framings, the forceful play of light and shadow and dynamic cross-cutting, Moonrise represents a departure from the more measured visual style of earlier Borzage works.

With the services of cinematographer John L. Russell (who went on to shoot Hitchcock's Psycho [1960] amongst others), Borzage employs tight framings and consistent close-ups, (particularly of the beleaguered Danny), off kilter angles, and an odd but effective focus on the hands and feet of the central protagonists. Even the lovers' romantic clinches are presented from unconventional angles, often obscuring facial expressions, and thereby making the emotional tenor of these scenes more difficult to read.

Borzage's stylistic innovations in Moonrise, while uncharacteristic of the director's work, align the film with the classic film noir canon. In Moonrise, as with many a noir work, the expressive visual style makes a significant contribution to the films' atmosphere of escalating tension and its pervasive sense of unease.

Borzage's predilection for shooting on studio sets, regardless of the storyline locale, gave the backgrounds of his films, as one reviewer describes, “an unreal fairytale quality”. This is very much in evidence in Moonrise. Despite its rural small town setting with adjoining swamplands, Borzage forgoes any suggestion of bucolic expansiveness. Rendering the town streets and surrounding countryside claustrophobic and oppressive, he creates a subtle feeling of disquiet and vague unreality entirely appropriate to the central protagonist's troubled state of mind.

Borzage once remarked that “Every good story is based on a struggle”. Haas' adaptation of Strauss' novel gave Borzage just such a good story. With powerful performances from his lead actors, particularly Dane Clark in arguably the best role of his career, Moonrise was a romance after Borzage's heart, with an additional layer of psychological intensity. It remains, justifiably, a critically acclaimed high point in his career.

- Rose Capp, Senses of Cinema

Both the script and the performances were evocative of the mood that Frank Borzage strove to create. Lyrically, Borzage eschewed Sleepy Time Down South for the Sidewalks of New York in the casting of Dane Clark as Danny Hawkins. Clark gives it his all and brings off a difficult part exceedingly well. I didn’t notice that Clark (or any of the other actors for that matter) lacked southern accents until he was obliged to occasionally let loose with a “I reckon” or “Yankee” that momentarily punctured my suspension of reality. Clark succinctly projected the internal moral dilemma faced by Hawkins without resorting posturing or overacting. Moonrise may well be his finest screen performance.

Gail Russell plays the schoolmarm with the right mixture of initial primness, concern, and genuine affection with a dash of lust. Russell’s well-chronicled slide down the Hollywood Babylon oblivion chute awash in a sea of booze ended tragically at age 36 in 1961. Allyn Joslyn scored as one of film noirs most unusual John Lawmen. Imagine a southern sheriff without a drawl who speaks gently, waxes philosophical (“Murder is like love, it requires two people”) and never threatens or brandishes a weapon! At the final denouement, he even prevents a deputy from handcuffing the surrendering Clark, remonstrating with him to “let him walk in like a man”. Perhaps Borzage just didn’t have it in him to cast another heavy other than Lloyd Bridges in this picture. Ethel Barrymore lends credibility as only she could in a brief, but pivotal scene as Grandma Hawkins. Both Harry Morgan and Rex Ingram add additional heft in interesting supporting parts. Ingram’s character, in a surprising display of late 1940’s racial tokenism, is refreshingly absent any stereotypes or similar stupidities.

- Alan Rode, Film Monthly

Moonrise, marking the end of Borzage's unhappy tenure at Republic, may be a throwback, but to what? That film's neo-primitive expressionism anticipates The Night of the Hunter in some ways, but it also seems designed to pay lip service to the paranoia that had crept into modern cinema (something that Borzage later professed to despise). Although Moonrise is finally just as romantic as the rest of his work, the disembodied visual scheme of its first half, designed as an illustration of psychological trauma, is a singular event in Borzage --an interesting choice of material that probably marked a sly compromise between the director's own concerns and the more fashionable notions of the day.

In the end, what is Borzagean remains at the core of every project, overpowering all pictorial and topical considerations with a rapture that goes far beyond the idea of a mere touch or set of preoccupations. His is a body of work that remains vital less for its visual sublimity than for its twin pillars of physical dynamism and philosophical extremity. For about twenty years, Borzage's distinctly American brand of spirituality was in perfect accord with the sensibility of the country at large, a brief loss of faith during the late silent era notwithstanding. By the beginning of the Forties, he had become "outmoded" and, by the time he worked at Republic in the latter part of the decade, when many of his contemporaries were moving into the most glorious phases of their careers, he had already become an exotic remnant of an earlier era. But he never wavered in his own belief in himself and in paradise on earth through love and art.

- Kent Jones, Film Comment

Borzage has his protagonist turn his back to others and avert his gaze during... dialogue scenes... He also regularly positions two characters at an angle of 90 degrees to each other, further stressing their avoidance of eye contact by framing one character in profile. While such a mise en scène contributes to a particularly pictorial storytelling, Borzage repeatedly forgoes any dialogue during the first third of the movie. Instead, he has gestures speak in close-ups. During the opening sequence, words only function to identify Danny and Jerry at young age.

Danny reveals his greatest secret, when he affirms Mose’s suspicion. Yet, Borzage stresses the scene’s quite sadness by contrasting the silent accord between both men with a dynamic tension between foreground and background. In a medium long-shot, we see Danny in the background lying at the edge of the swamp, while Mose in the foreground sits on the porch of his cabin. By alternating close-ups of each men, Borzage emphasizes the distance between them – the more so, as Mose apparently does not have the heart to look his friend in the eye. Framed in close-up, slightly from below and almost in profile, Mose stares off-screen, without ever turning his head to Danny.

The beauty of this mise en scène, which accentuates the emotional charge of the situation, can certainly be attributed to the director, even if it is strikingly different from the style he is mainly associated with. But apart from the mise en scène, this scene has been transposed virtually unchanged form the literary source [by Theodore Strauss]. The same applies to almost every single of the film’s dialogues, while the slight changes to the plot have resulted primarily in tightening it.

While Borzage’s work has lately been the object of a modest revival, Strauss has been completely forgotten.That is a pity, because his earnestness in dealing with a poor man’s Crime-and-Punishment-theme is, like Borzage’s, totally disarming, even if his tone tends to be as grave as one might assume from Mose’s and the sheriff’s dialogues. Strauss’ book featured prominently in the publicity campaign for the film, and was displayed on posters and lobby cards. Film reviewers regularly referred to Moonrise’s literary source and The New York Times even opened its review of the film stating, “The ancient argument as to which medium tells the story best, written words or pictorial images, is again brought into focus by Moonrise.” And the reviewer actually thought that “the book towers above the picture”. However, the novel – as well as the film – had apparently been already forgotten, when in 1951 it was published as a paperback, since Bantam re-titled it Dark Hunger.

Moonrise’s thoroughgoing fidelity to its literary source poses the question: Did Borzage adopt the book’s philosophical quintessence as well? His films after Seventh Heaven have often been interpreted as endorsing the renunciation of all worldly matters. “[A] world destroying dignity is but a sordid deserted place not worth returning to, but of going beyond. [...] Borzage's heroes do not aspire to reenter into society”, concludes Dumont. Moonrise, however, suggests a different interpretation: “Man ought to live in a world with other folks” is what Strauss and Borzage have Mose say. “What I did was resign from the human race – and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is.”

When Joe McElhaney applies the quintessence of these words – obviously unaware of their origin with Strauss’ novel – onto Borzage’s whole œuvre, he acts overhasty, to say the least. But this particular outlook on the human condition and the world is not only affirmed by the narrative of Moonrise, it is also underscored by Mose’s last words. Addressing one of his dogs as “Mister Dog”, Mose states: “If a man knows how to rejoin the human race, once he’s resigned, it helps, Mr. Dog, it helps.” Tellingly, these are among the few words in this movie which do not originate with Strauss. That Borzage’s film thus, paradoxically, attests to Strauss’ outlook on the human condition by a rare divergence from his book, might offer an ironic moral of sorts for auteurists, too.

- Holger Römers, “The Moral of the Auteur Theory”: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (and Theodore Strauss’ Source Novel). Senses of Cinema

Perhaps Borzage's greatest film, Moonrise, a brooding tale of a murderer's son (Clark) driven to violence by others harping on his past, is the perfect answer to those critics who have derided Borzage as a 'mere' romantic, a mere celebrator of the magic of love. Deeply melancholic, the film (from a novel by Theodore Strauss) creates a sense of physical reality with its low key lighting and harsh compositions that Borzage's lovers on the run cannot defeat: their 'Seventh Heaven' in an abandoned mansion is only temporary.

- Time Out

It's a grim melodrama that feels tragically realistic, touching on the raw nerves of the brooding accused murderer who has been forced into violence and going on-the-run because his tormentors have rattled him. The film's beauty lies in Borzage's overpowering visual mise-en-scene, making the film a character study as the protagonist wrestles with his inner conflicts between the peaceful and wrathful deities. The conflicted young man eventually overcomes his past bad karma because he finds someone to love, support from his betters and values to believe in. Spiritual ideals such as transformational love are the very things the director, himself, finds very dear in his real life.

- Dennis Schwartz

This outstanding movie has been dubbed a "melodrama," and it's easy to see why. But unlike most melodramas, there's a deeply serious social message pulsing through; and, while many people, then and now, might have found this too earnest, I'm just grateful work like this exists as a point of moral and artistic reference. Borzage makes a visual homage of his own, this one to silent movies, and along with that he works in a couple of important themes too complex (and too intelligently discussed) to go on the back of a t-shirt; but I'll risk reducing them anyway. The first is that, when it comes to crime, we should be careful before we start talking about "fate" or "bad blood." As a child, Danny Crane (Dane Clark, above, second from left) was mercilessly teased about his father's execution for murder. As an adult, he is again confronted by his chief tormentor from childhood and, in self-defence, kills him. The main body of the film takes us through what happens next. Can he live with the guilt? Will his community discover the truth? If so, will they turn on him? Or will a consensus conclude that Danny, far from being "born that way" or doomed by fate, succumbed to social forces that must also bear some responsibility? As the film actually plays it, what I notice today is that here's one small-town society capable of making restrained, evidence-based judgments about its own people — and not because of huge amounts of book-learning either!

- D.J.M. Saunders, Bright Lights Film Journal


The titles of Borzage’s sublime (no other word will do) MOONRISE play out over strange, rippling pools of liquid fog.


This eventually resolves, post-titles, into the shadows of liquid fog, pooling eerily in an inexplicable fashion, as we enter a peculiarly abstract landscape of rain, where an execution is about to take place. I will say no more.

But that same year, 1948, Orson Welles was making MACBETH, at the same studio as Borzage, Republic. And when Welles’ weird women peer into their cauldron in Act 1, Scene 1, amid the murk and mist and bubble bubble, we get this liquid fog again:


Welles has double-exposed it with a shot of fas-motion billowing clouds, oddly enough. All playing the contents of an enchanted cauldron. You maybe have to see it moving in good definition to see that it’s exactly the same effect as Borzage’s liquid fog. So, either both men made use of a piece of kit in stock at Republic, which I’m going to call Professor Strickfaden’s Liquid Fog Vortex Projector, or, more likely in my opinion, Welles simply borrowed a few seconds of Borzage’s movie to enhance his own. It’s the sort of thing he’d do more wholeheartedly in F FOR FAKE, and which he’d already done in CITIZEN KANE, which uses footage, and animated bats, from SON OF KONG.

As John Huston says in Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, “It’s quite alright to steal from each other. What we must never do is steal from ourselves.”


Frank Borzage: master of the shadows.


This, the opening of MOONRISE, is what turned me on to F.B. The beauty and boldness of the visual storytelling, the combination of a powerful story idea (a boy is persecuted because his father was hanged — then he himself becomes a killer: all this in the first five minutes!) put over with flamboyant but never inappropriate use of film technique.

Also, in the above image, the little kid is meant to be crying, but he obviously isn’t. Some crying sounds have been dubbed on, while the youngster tries to make a “sad face”. I realised that Borzage was too nice to make a baby cry for his film, even though the lack of tears slightly mars the film. That puts him in a different ethical class from practically all his peers. Can we imagine William Wyler hesitating?


I love that the entire set for this shot is the studio floor, doubling as an implausibly shiny playground. MOONRISE was shot on entirely in a tiny array of tightly packed sets in a single studio, with a very short schedule. Republic seem to have been experimenting with artistically ambitious films on low budgets in 1948: hence Welles’ MACBETH. Of course they were John Ford’s refuge where he could make less overtly commercial projects at lower cost.

The tree-shadow totally MAKES the shot, transforming it from an obvious interior to a poetic, unreal exterior. Shades of Sternberg, who was particularly fond of tree-shadows in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

- David Cairns, shadowplay
Read Jesse Schlotterbeck's study "Non-Urban Noirs: Rural Space in Moonrise, On Dangerous Ground, Thieves’ Highway, and They Live by Night" in M/C Journal
Also see entries on Moonrise by:

Noir of the Week

Watch Moonrise (1948) in Film Noir |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com



Quotes posted on the They Shoot Pictures Borzage page:

“By the mid-1920s, Borzage was one of the most successful Hollywood directors - as witness the fact that he won the newly created Oscar for direction twice in its first five years - for Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl. War, and the consequent taste for realism, destroyed the world he had created and after The Mortal Storm, only one other film - Moonrise - properly revealed his talent. As a result, he is now badly neglected.” - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

“Frank Borzage was that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist…Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real worlds of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

“Crucial to his films’ incandescent romanticism were his fluid use of the camera, floating through unoccupied spaces to suggest mysterious invisible forces existing beyond the material realm, and a focus on luminous faces; his attention to actresses, especially Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan, made unusually palpable the strength of their undying love.” - Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)

“Borzage’s top films are laden with romance and expressive camera work and lighting.” - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)

Frank Borzage had a rare gift of taking characters, even those who were children of violence, and fashioning a treatment of them abundant with lyrical romanticism and tenderness, even a spirituality that reformed them and their story.

- DeWitt Bodeen, Film Reference.com

There's a director I know who's fond of saying that he's more interested in what current filmmakers are doing (even the mediocre ones) than in studying "classic cinema," older films touching him only to the degree that they illuminate modern experience. It's a brutal approach to film history, perhaps a bit too brutal for me, but it has a certain validity as an alternative to the ahistorical side of film culture. Perhaps Borzage really is nothing more than the cinema's Great Romantic --a compliment that has the stale aftertaste of day-old beer since, in contemporary terms, it places him so far outside of the strange jumble of neurosis, solitude, and disillusionment we currently refer to as reality.

He was a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life --the world around Borzage's lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions. An arch-symbolist with a deep belief in the communion of souls, he woefully lacks any of the credentials necessary for worship by modern audiences (precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir). Nor can it be denied that Borzage's oeuvre sports a generous helping of mediocre-to-bad actors (Douglass Montgomery, Robert Taylor, Phillip Dorn, and John Howard --the only actor wooden enough to take the air out of Borzage's billowing romanticism, in Disputed Passage), as well as a high percentage of filler (endless Dick Powell musicals at Warners, topical melodramas for Fox, a biography of Dolly Madison). On top of that, his films don't even work as satisfyingly snotty postmodern experiences, probably due to the fact that they are almost all structurally identical.

In his lovingly researched Frank Borzage --Sarastro à Hollywood (an act of true literary devotion that provides all of the biographical information for this article), Hervé Dumont cites Borzage's development of intimate scenes "to the detriment of the action" as the basis of contemporary objections to The River, the director's fearsome 1929 masterpiece that was caught in the mad crossfire between silence and sound. It's the same kind of complaint that you hear about "foreign films" today. And the charge of artistry is more than justified. Besides Nick Ray, with whom he has often been compared, Borzage was one of Hollywood's only truly obsessive artists of the sound era (Welles, who made most of his films outside of Hollywood, doesn't count), which is what truly made him a favorite of the Surrealists. Borzage's artistic vision was not a loose conglomeration of tics, talents, and obsessions to be tallied up at the end of his career. He had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life that, at a certain point in his career, took precedence over the delivery of a satisfying piece of entertainment. It may have been a naïve one, nourished by Masonic teachings and quite possibly by his early exposure to the Mormons when he was growing up in Salt Lake City, but he believed it and sometimes bent plots inside out to accommodate it. It also informed his unique way of arranging space. When a character looks in a film by Hawks or Hitchcock, he or she is usually looking at something concrete. When a character looks in a film by Ford, it's often into the past. When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it's usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony, around which time tends to dilate and space tends to become elastic to the point of transparency.

For Borzage, love means certainty (which may account for another aspect of his current neglect: his films never partake of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience). And like all philosophies, Borzage's is completely without interest outside of the physical act of its own creation. The human evidence of Borzage's superhuman idea of existence --to be found in Charles Farrell's and Janet Gaynor's rapturous walk up the stairs and into paradise in Seventh Heaven (27), in the beautifully elongated flowering of their love in Lucky Star (29), in Dane Clark and Gail Russell's moonlit idyll in an abandoned mansion in Moonrise (48), in Margaret Sullavan sleeping in her shimmering evening dress on Robert Taylor's doorstep in Three Comrades, in James Dunne and Sally Eilers's touchingly naïve attempt at marriage in Bad Girl (32), in James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan taking the family marriage cup from Maria Ouspenskaya before their potentially fatal trek over the Austrian border in The Mortal Storm --is one of the great glories of the cinema.

Can a body of work consisting of a hundred films and three television shows, which begins in 1915 and ends in 1959 and passes through almost every major studio in Hollywood, be reduced to such a singleminded preoccupation? In one sense, no. It's an auteurist tradition to identify something singular in a director's work and then leave it at that, chucking the quirks, oddities, momentary fashions, and comminglings with commerce and studio style that make up a big part of any Hollywood oeuvre. Such selectivity has probably outlived its usefulness. In Borzage's case, one can see a whole panorama of momentary influences stretched across his career.

- Kent Jones, Film Comment

949 (91). Radio Days (1987, Woody Allen)

Screened January 2 2009 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #880  IMDb Wiki

A series of loosely connected anecdotes reminiscing over the heyday of radio programs and their effect on a Queens household modeled after that of Woody Allen's childhood, Radio Days resembles a standup routine more than any of the work of this legendary comedian-turned-actor/director.  Allen's buoyant voiceover accompanies a wall-to-wall soundtrack of period jazz, a fluid, hard-driving talk-and-tunes narrative approach that anticipates the first hour of Scorsese's GoodFellas [TSPDT #99] by a few years.  A third of the anecdotes lead nowhere other than to provide amusing flourishes to this vivid period portrait, but the general narrative disjunction makes sense in a film whose underlying philosophy is to resist the passage of time, though history registers gently with the onset of World War II and its effect on both the family and the radio industry. Its hometown nostalgia owes a debt to Fellini's Amarcord [TSPDT #82] and Allen's cartoonish cast is also Felliniesque, with not one but two Giulietta Masini holy fool types who are the only characters possessing a narrative arc (Mia Farrow as an aspiring radio star and Dianne Wiest as a spinster aunt looking for Mr. Right).

It's typical of the leveling tendency of Allen's social worldview to make the radio stars seem banal in their appearances and concerns, while the humble working class Jewish family and neighborhood denizens carry the aura of genuine experience, especially in a series of coarse but witty family arguments.  The stars only matter because of the feelings and fantasies they evoke among family members, leading to some gently lyrical moments such as a girl in a makeshift Carmen Miranda getup doing a bedroom cha-cha while family members look on.  Allen's attempt to bridge the gap between the glamorous radio world the outer boroughs comes through Farrow's cigarette girl looking for a break into the studio, a saga whose exaggerated incidents (involving gangster hits and Pearl Harbor) are largely unconvincing despite Farrow's best attempts to channel Judy Holliday.  A number of the punchlines are quaintly anachronistic (i.e. one of Wiest's suitors aborting date rape when he hears Orson Welles' panic-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast on the radio) and for that reason a number of them land limply (i.e. one of Wiest's dates turning out to be gay).

But even these anecdotes roll by in a rush of such nostalgic goodwill that it's hard not to embrace its immense charms.  Those charms are due in part to fluid camerawork and triumphant art direction, each set filled with loving detail and shot in brown tones as cozy as a hot cup of coffee.  Ironically - and fittingly - the lush visual design could vanish, leaving the rich soundtrack of Allen's voiceover, the airtight comic banter and music to thrive as a ninety minute radio program of its own.

Wanna go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Radio Days among the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:

Jaume Figueras, Nickel Odeon (1994) Mike Leigh, Empire (2008) Sonke Wortmann, Steadycam (2007) Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films  (1987) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Radio Days screenplay accessible at Drew's Script-o-Rama

Stig Bjorkman: Was Radio Days a story you'd been planning to make for a long time? Woody Allen: It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone. SB: It's a very elaborate script, considering all the elements in it: the family, the school, the radio events, the radio personalities.. WA: A film like Radio Days presents a particular type of problem. When you don't have a 'What happens next?' story, when you're working with anecdotal material, the trick, I feel, is that you have to sustain each thing on its own brilliance, on its own rhythm, on its own style. So you really have to work very, very hard to make a movie like that, because you have to know that the anecdotes that you're relating to the audience an hour, an hour and a half into the film are not going to bore them. That they're still going to find them fresh and funny. It's a difficult kind of film to do, a non-plot, a non-conventional plot film.

- from Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman. Published by Grove Press, 1995. Page 158


''Radio Days,'' which opens today at the New York Twin and other theaters, is as free in form as it is generous of spirit. It's a chronicle of a family during the radio years, as well as a series of short-short stories. These follow, one after another, like the tales of Scheherazade, if Scheherazade had been a red-headed little Jewish boy in the Rockaways, born poor, star-struck, infinitely curious, and seriously incompetent as a juvenile criminal.

''Radio Days'' is so densely packed with vivid detail of place, time, music, event and character that it's virtually impossible to take them all in in one sitting. Carlo Di Palma is again responsible for the stunning photography, and Santo Loquasto for the production design.

The film is nothing if not generous with - and to - its talent. Miss Farrow is hilariously common-sensical as the ambitious cigarette girl (''Who is Pearl Harbor?'' she asks in bewilderment on Dec. 7, 1941), and Diane Keaton, on the screen only a few minutes, helps to bring the film to its magical conclusion with a lovely, absolutely straight rendition of ''You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to.'' It's New Year's Eve, 1943, and Mr. Allen's radio days are as numbered as those of Proust's old Prince de Guermantes.

At this point I can't think of any film maker of Mr. Allen's generation with whom he can be compared, certainly no one at work in American movies today. As the writer, director and star (even when he doesn't actually appear) of his films, Mr. Allen works more like a novelist who's able to pursue his own obsessions, fantasies and concerns without improvements imposed on him by committees.

At this point, too, his films can be seen as part of a rare continuum. Each of us has his favorite Allen movie, but to cite one over another as ''more important,'' ''bigger,'' ''smaller'' or ''less significant'' is to miss the joys of the entire body of work that is now taking shape. ''Radio Days'' is a joyful addition.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, January 30 1987

Excerpt: Opening

Woody Allen offers brief, casually brilliant parodies of radio performers and formats: an inspirational sports storyteller modeled on Bill Stern; a smarmy counselor like Mr. Anthony; and, of course, a superhero for boys, the "Masked Avenger." The slender thread holding this part of the movie together recounts the rise from cigarette girl to airwaves gossip star of Sally White (played with her customary comic poignance by Mia Farrow).

The other part is about the listening audience. Here Allen finds cross section enough in a single source, an extended lower-middle-class Jewish family in Rockaway, Queens. Among these dreamers by the glowing dial, the most touching and memorable is again a woman, Aunt Bea (played with becoming lack of sentiment by Dianne Wiest). Since this nameless clan lives near Allen's old neighborhood and includes a shy, slender, red-haired boy, the unwary may conclude that Allen is being autobiographical.

But Radio Days has larger ambitions. Rather than a personal history or an exercise in nostalgia, it is a meditation on the evanescence of seemingly permanent institutions. To a child like Joe (Seth Green), it is inconceivable that something as powerful as radio could ever disappear. Might as well tell him that one day his family will cease to be a similarly compelling reality. But here it is, 1987, and Joe is a voice-over narrator of a movie with no coherent narrative, only such anecdotes as groping memory can rescue from the receding past. In the most delicate way imaginable, the snippets drawn from the seemingly great world of broadcasting and those from the little world of listening shed the most affecting and provocative light on each other. Somehow, one thinks of Chekhov, and is once again astonished by the complexity and clarity of Woody Allen's vision.

- Richard Schickel, Time Magazine, February 2 1987

Allen is not concerned with creating a story with a beginning and an end, and his movie is more like a revue in which drama is followed by comedy and everything is tied together by music, by dozens of lush arrangements of the hit songs of the 1940s. He has always used popular music in his movies, but never more than this time, where the muscular, romantic confidence of the big-band sound reinforces every memory with the romance of the era.

In form and even in mood, it is closest to Federico Fellini's "Amarcord," which also was a memory of growing up - of family, religion, sex, local folk legends, scandalous developments and intense romantic yearn ings, underlined with wall-to-wall band music. In a way, both films have nostalgia itself as one of their subjects. What they evoke isn't the long-ago time itself, but the memory of it. There is something about it being past and gone and irretrievable that makes it more precious than it ever was at the time.

"Radio Days" is so ambitious and so audacious that it almost defies description. It's a kaleidoscope of dozens of characters, settings and scenes - the most elaborate production Allen has ever made - and it's inexhaustible, spinning out one delight after another.

Although there is no narrative thread from beginning to end, there is a buried emotional thread. Like music, the movie builds toward a climax we can't even guess is coming, and then Allen finds the perfect images for the last few minutes for a bittersweet evocation of goodbye to all that.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

Excerpt: A Lesson in Marxism

Didn't Neil Simon already do this? But there wasn't much radio consciousness to speak of in Brighton Beach Memoirs, and anyway Woody Allen's semiautobiographical Jewish family lives in Rockaway, Queens, rather than Brooklyn, so I guess not. The good news is that Allen has returned here to the broad anecdotal sources of his humor (after a dutiful Chekhov vacation with Hannah and Her Sisters); the bad news is that the obligations of being a serious film stylist have taken a heavy toll. Nothing's very fresh and nothing's very incisive, but everything bobs along blandly like a well-meaning exercise in therapeutic remembering (what Allen remembers mostly is a suffocating radio blanket of big band music: even Jesus stations have more programming variety than this). The bed-hopping fate of Mia Farrow's aspiring airwave starlet sums up the film's inconsequentiality: despite her career exertions, she still winds up on the same cabaret rooftop where she started. Plus ca change, Woody, and ho-hum.

- Pat Graham, The Chicago Reader

While the music gives the film a certain authenticity, it also serves to make one wonder how much of the rest of Allen's material is authentic. Either the radio shows Allen heard on the East Coast were entirely different from those heard during the '40s on the West Coast, or he simply made up a lot of them.

One is forced to think about authenticity after the laughs stop - about two-thirds of the way through the film. That's when Allen seems to run out of comic material, having exhausted the humor inherent in Joe's quirky family: his perennially battling parents, Aunt Bea's unsuccessful search for the perfect husband, Uncle Abe's fondness for fish.

When Allen tries to turn serious, it doesn't really work.

- Don Carter, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 30 1987

Excerpt: Carmen Miranda

Radio Days followed one of Allen's most ambitious films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and seemed to be done for comic relief after the emotional complexity of the previous film. Allen himself told interviewer Stig Bjorkman, "I think of Radio Days basically as a cartoon. If you look at my mother, my Uncle Abe, my schoolteacher, my grandparents, they were supposed to be cartoon exaggerations of what my real-life people were like." Allen himself narrates the film, in the first person.

Allen's use of music in his films has always been masterful, and Radio Days is one of the finest examples of his mastery. In fact, he told Bjorkman, music was the original starting point for the film. "It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up, and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone." There are 43 songs used in the film, and some standout musical moments. In one scene, a teenage girl lip-synchs to a Carmen Miranda song, her head wrapped in a towel turban, watching herself in the mirror. Her father and uncle, charmed by her charade, join in. Near the end of the film, it's New Year's Eve 1943. Diane Keaton, in a cameo as a band vocalist, sings (in her own voice) the Cole Porter standard that expresses the longing of a war-weary nation: You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To. Allen says, "I wanted to make sure, since Diane was making one little appearance in the picture, that the song was potent." It was.

Radio Days marks the only time that Allen's two longtime companions and muses - former flame Diane Keaton and his then-current partner Mia Farrow - appeared in the same film. Keaton has remained friends with Allen over the years; Farrow has not. After a bitter, litigious, and highly publicized breakup, Farrow remains estranged from Allen and her daughter, Allen's wife Soon-Yi Previn.

Reviews for Radio Days were mostly raves, although there were a few dissenters, such as the always-acerbic John Simon of the National Review, who called it "really a congeries of blackout sketches barely bothering to make like a connected narrative, scoring now and then and falling flat the rest of the time." But Variety called it "One of Allen's most purely entertaining pictures. It's a visual monolog of bits and pieces from the glory days of radio and people who tuned in.... Radio Days is not simply about nostalgia, but the quality of memory and how what one remembers informs one's present life."  Allen's warm, funny screenplay and Santo Loquasto's nostalgic and detailed art direction both received Oscar® nominations.

- Margarita Landazuri, Turner Classic Movies


A trip down memory lane for Allen (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose), who lovingly reconstructs the life and times of growing up during in Rockaway Beach, New York in the Golden Age of radio.  Radio Days is teeming with nostalgia value, and even if you didn't grow up in that era, Allen does a masterful job recreating the look and feel of the era, such that you'll also be nostalgic even if you've never lived it.

It's not all sunshine and roses, as Radio Days is more of a bittersweet experience.  The radio can bring both happiness, such as remembering a time when life was good, but also sadness, where a song will remind you of a long-gone loved one or inform you of the tragedies of the day.  Like many nostalgia films, it is very sentimentalized in its delivery, and as is typical of Allen's storytelling style, real-life events are altered and shaped for purposes of creating a funny scene or poignant dramatics.

You'll love it for the characters, the sweetness and Allen's wonderful blend of humor and heartfelt drama, making Radio Days one of the best films of his career.  It's not as substantial as some of his other works, and will probably quickly fade from memory once it's over, but that's ok...like any fond memory, this is the kind of film you'll probably revisit time and again.

- Vince Leo, Qwipster's Movie Reviews

Excerpt: Diane Keaton singing "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"

John Baxter, who has written the definitive biography of Woody Allen, calls Radio Days “Allen’s most logistically ambitious film since Love & Death.” To include 150 performers in an Allen film is almost unheard of, and a daunting task for a filmmaker accustomed to casts numbering fewer than 20. Yet somehow, Allen handles his ensemble with ease and manages to pack the film with a wallop, particularly for a film that runs less than ninety minutes.

The film can loosely be divided into two parts, pre-Second World War innocence and then post-1941 optimism as characters like the Masked Avenger suddenly take on more political and patriotic roles. While I don’t want to give away all the vignettes, I should point out that the “Hitting Rabbi” scene should leave you in stitches and, as with all of Allen’s films, there are priceless one-liners that make repeated viewing a requirement.

- Jamie Gillies, Apollo Film Guide

To a generation raised in Top 40 and all-news formats, radio is often little more than background noise. But to an older generation, it connotes a magic theatre of sound and incident. Radio Days affectionately eavesdrops on the past and gives everyone a wonderful opportunity to re-imagine what it was like when this communications medium was king.

- Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice

The film is a series of vignettes, clearly drawn from Allen's days as a youngster, and only tangentially interrelated. It's almost overly upbeat -- to the point where you wish Woody would get a little more miserable from time to time.

- Christopher Null, FilmCritic.com

Woody Allen has never disguised his love of the thirties and forties nor his love of old-time radio. I´ve never disguised my love of "Radio Days" as one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures. It´s a sweet, lighthearted, nostalgic look back at an era before the tube, when voices were king, when comedy was innocent, and when music was still listenable. "Radio Days" may not have the depth or insight of films like his "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," or "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but blessed with a plethora of fine tunes, fine characters, and fine jokes, it´s one of the most enjoyable things Allen´s ever done.

- John Puccio, DVD Town

Radio Days is a warm, sunny piece of American nostalgia told with the visual flair of Fellini, but with all the humor and intelligence of Woody Allen. It’s a film so rich in memory that every time I see it, I wax nostalgic for the times depicted in it, even though they were decades before my birth.

The whole nostalgia theme is beautifully and comically handled. The film is like walking through memories, even to the point of realizing that memories are sometimes even better than the real thing. When the radio stars ponder their futures on New Years’ Eve of 1944, they wonder if they will be remembered. And Allen himself dutifully points out that memories do in fact get fainter and fainter as the years pass.

The radio days are indeed gone forever. But they couldn’t have asked for a better tribute than this warm, funny film from Woody Allen.

- Michael Jacobson, DVD Movie Central

Radio Days is not about real history. This is the simplified world of a child's memories -- although Joe is no naïve waif -- and it is largely remembered with fondness. Woody Allen does not seem interested in exposing the "hypocrisy of simulation" or some such cliché about our immersion in popular culture. Frankfurt School theorists may find themselves at a loss at Woody's warm embrace of middle-class capitalist media. The film begins with an amusing story of burglars sidetracked on night by a phone call from "Guess That Tune." The next day, the family awakens to find their house robbed, but a driveway full of prizes won for them by the hapless burglars. In the end, the magic of popular media rewards its loyal followers, and everyone lives comfortably ever after.

Woody Allen has a difficult job in structuring this film around a series of anecdotes only loosely chronological in their order (the film's timeline runs roughly from the late 1930s until New Year's 1944, with the war still raging and the future uncertain), and in the hands of a less-able screenwriter, this film might have been a structural mess. But the rambling nature of the film ties in nicely with the sense that the narrator is merely another storyteller, conjuring whatever ghosts come most quickly to mind. Stories within stories within stories. How many of these things are true? Did Sally White really go from local girl to cultured star? Or does it even matter, if the stories are good enough on their own?

- Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict

The script is really nothing but a dramatised collection of reminiscences, and as you'd expect from such a setup some are better than others. The biggest challenge of all is to make it hold together as a single entity. It works best as a box of treats to dip into whenever we feel like it, so unlike most films, catching five minutes here and there while channel surfing roughly equates to watching it in an 85 minute stretch. You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene, and it would still make about as much sense.

- Hal Astell, Apocalypse Later: a Cinematic Travelogue


We have come to expect a certain level of performance from MGM on these Woody Allen discs. In this case, the mono soundtrack is perfectly suited to the film, given the predominance of old music and voice-over dialogue. Any radio static or hissy old records that play in the background enhance the nostalgic feel of the film. Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer seems to have made the film a bit dark and created some muddy and slightly overenhanced coloring (particularly the reds). This may add to the cartoony look of the film, but it does get somewhat annoying. And, as always, no extra content is offered other than some production notes and a faded trailer.

- Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict


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The following quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Allen:

"While most other recent screen comics have aimed their lamebrain, slapdash spoofery at teenage audiences, Allen Stewart Konigsberg, as he was born, has alone been consistent in catering to more adult tastes. His is a comedy increasingly defined by character: notably, his own." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Allen's genuinely original voice in the cinema recalls writer-directors like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Preston Sturges, who dissect their portions of the American landscape primarily through comedy. In his creative virtuosity, Allen also resembles Orson Welles, whose visual and verbal wit, though contained in seemingly non-comic genres, in fact exposes the American character to satirical scrutiny." - Mark W. Estrin (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Great comedians almost always portray little men attempting to cope with the trappings of a civilization that is a bit too much for them, and Woody Allen is no exception. His insecurities - physical, sexual and emotional - are truly of monumental proportions." - (The Movie Makers, 1974)

"Blends nightclub jokes, visual humor, and literary references into a wild sense of comedy. Has a good pictorial sense." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"If my films don't show a profit, I know I'm doing something right." - Woody Allen

"If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I have done my job." - Woody Allen

Additional choice quotes by Allen on The Quotations Page

Self-deprecating humor, classicly Jewish, boosts its audience as much as happy endings. Storytellers made self-doubting fools of themselves so their listeners -- other Jews who had no reason to feel better than anybody -- could have someone to feel one-up on, if only for the span of the joke. Similarly, Allen's viewers most likely feel as insecure and inept as his characters, but as he exaggerates his gaffs and lets us laugh at his expense we're assured we couldn't be as awful as that. If you've ever wondered why so much grief and tsuris flood Jewish humor (or why the Holocaust peppers so many of Allen's scripts), it's because, next to all that trouble, how bad could your life be? The Jewish talent for exaggerating life's bumps is the other side of fabricating impossibly smooth endings. Either way, audiences sigh a little in relief. (You'll recognize the sigh, too, as the archetypical Jewish response. Should some dour neighbor or relative sigh too deeply, as if to say life is indeed that bad, the story and the joke fall flat.)...

Allen's twenty-year body of work is a kitsch-en sink of Jewish storytelling, with the self-mockery and the paranoid, hypochondriacal exaggeration of difficulties thrown in, along with a taste for endings where evil is trounced and the good guys win -- even spectacled shlemiels like Allen. These tropes bend the course of the secular "Hannah" and "Another Woman" as surely as they do "Danny Rose" or "Radio Days", but in the former, the tradition and motive behind Allen's impulses aren't explicit. No one turns to the camera in "Hannah" and says, this adulterous mess may end hellishly in life but I need a happy ending onscreen so I'm going to conjure one up.

- Marcia Pally, Film Comment

In her review of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) the late film critic Pauline Kael suggests that the reason New York critics love Woody Allen is that “they're applauding their fantasy of themselves”. In some of his films, including Stardust Memories (1980) and Deconstructing Harry (1997) Allen has explored being a prisoner of his own persona (whilst denying the likeness). Although the persona secured Allen a loyal audience, he has fallen in and out of favour with the film community partly, as Kael suggests, because of his appeal to the urbane quasi-intellectuals who critique cinema; a familiarity that has over time moved from intimate to contemptuous. Too often in recent years 'criticism' of Woody Allen's films has virtually forsaken content wherever it does not fit into a discussion of what seems to have become more important: his scandalous personal life.

Mighty Aphrodite
Mighty Aphrodite

With his strong background in writing, Allen's films, particularly the broadly comic ones, are dialogue-heavy (which Allen feels is more challenging than a film without dialogue). He works frequently with master shots and actor choreography, a technique more successfully realised in say Husbands and Wives (1992) than in Mighty Aphrodite (1996). Despite a widely perceived decline in the ambition and accomplishment of his films in the last decade he remains a key figure in the American film landscape. Both academic and popular film criticism on Allen most often employs psychoanalytic theory, as his subject matter corresponds easily to the Freudian concepts of desire, repression, and anxiety and sexuality. The thesis of The Denial of Death (a psychoanalytic text which Alvy buys Annie and reflects on after they separate in Annie Hall) cites as two strategies of evading mortality – sexuality, which Allen has embraced wholeheartedly in both his work and life, and the belief in and service to God, which he has not. Other critics have noted the parallels with philosophers such as Socrates and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter with regard to the impossibility of authentic romantic commitment. *** What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.

– Selections from the Allen Notebooks'

You have no values. Your whole life, it's nihilism, it's cynicism, it's sarcasm, and orgasm.Y'know, in France I could run on that slogan and win.

Deconstructing Harry

Natasha, to love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But, then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness, I hope you're getting this down.

Love and Death

These quotes encapsulate Allen's philosophy – he undercuts his own existential angst with absurd humour that provides distraction or comic relief and is in its own way an answer to these unanswerable questions. It is almost as if he is sending up the more austere philosophers who formulated these enquiries. His films are largely comedies – but, as one of his characters maintains, what is comedy but tragedy, plus time? (5) The spectre of death haunts many of Allen's films, as thanatos, the essential flipside to the forces of life and love that are irresistible.

Doc: Why are you depressed, Alvy? Mother: Tell doctor [?] It's something he read. Doc: Something you read, heh? Alvy: The universe is expanding. Doc: The universe is expanding? Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything! Mother(shouting): What is that your business? (to doctor) He stopped doing his homework. Alvy: What's the point? Mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

– Annie Hall
Annie Hall
Annie Hall

Allen appears fascinated by the fact that whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, death's constant presence is manifested in the idea of God and the possibility of moral order in the universe, the afterlife, fate. Throughout his career he has invested a scholar's commitment to the predicament of man in a doomed universe. For Allen these are all inescapable aspects of humanity and it is thus our lot to struggle with the paradoxes of desire and morality, freedom and faith, consummation and reflection. His films explore the perhaps pointless struggle to achieve resolution. Sometimes it appears, as in Annie Hall (1977), as the ironic dissatisfaction that comes when a much-yearned for ideal is attained and the reality is (necessarily) lacking. Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Annie Hall and Manhattan (1979) celebrate, nostalgically, the end of love. As a psychoanalytic notion nostalgia is a painful return, an uncanny pathology. In other films like Interiors (1978) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) death is more patent – a mother commits suicide, a mistress is murdered in cold blood. The fatal aspect of romance for Allen is foregrounded. In Love and Death (1975), an earnest but comic take on the themes of sex, death and the possibility of an afterlife (set against a nineteenth century Russian literary landscape), Allen's character Boris cavorts through the woods with the Grim Reaper, both recalling and parodying the Death figure of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957).

- Victoria Loy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

943 (85). Murder by Contract (1958, Irving Lerner)

Screened Wednesday December 16 2008 on VHS in New York NY TSPDT rank #726 IMDb

Irving Lerner hard-sells an implausible premise of Claude, a novice contract killer (Vince Edwards, an outwardly tougher but equally brittle Montgomery Clift type. ) working his way at record speed to a major league hit, much in the way Claude sells himself to his client: memorable tough-talking one-liners offset by gestural terseness. Claude's preparation and execution of his new trade is a series of lizard-cool rituals shot and edited with the exactitude of a metronome, actions alternating with shots of clocks and scribbled notes adding dollar figures for each mission accomplished, as mesmerizing as a video game in its lockstep rhythm of rounds and rewards.

For his big hit, Lerner introduces two Abbot and Costello sidekicks who ostensibly support and monitor Claude, but practically serve as on-screen audience surrogates analyzing the film noir hero standing in their midst. Flabbergasted by Claude's super-cool reluctance to execute the hit, the sidekicks engage in an extended comic give-and-take, a brilliant device that co-opts the audience's fragile suspension of disbelief by giving voice to it, while building up near-impossible expectations of Claude's hitman abilities. It's when Claude discovers late in the game that his target is a woman that his game plan starts to crumble, leading to a succumbing of linear rationalism to crazed impulse worthy of Kubrick. In terms of scale, Murder by Contract is a modest chamber piece compared to The Killing's multi-character symphony, but it cuts deeper into the same heart of male self-destructiveness underlying its most outrageous aspirations.

Want to go deeper?

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Murder by Contract on the TSPDT 1000:

Andrew Rector, Senses of Cinema (2002) Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007) Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007) Harun Farocki, Facets (2003) Jorge Didaco, Senses of Cinema (2003) ? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) ? Martin Scorsese, Guilty Pleasures (1998) ? Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977) ? National Society of Film Critics, The B List: Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love (2008)

Memorable quotes:

"Now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody's willing to pay. It's business. Same as any other business. You murder the competition. Instead of price cutting, it's throat-cutting. Same thing."

"If I'd have known it was a woman I would have asked double. I don't like women. They don't stand still. When they move it's hard to figure why or wherefore. They're not dependable. It's tough to kill somebody not dependable."

"The human female is descended from the monkey. A

Listen to a podcast on Murder by Contract at The Lost Picture Show with Julian and John

This is the film that has influenced me most. I had a clip out of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out: it was too long, and a little too esoteric. And there's a getting-in-shape sequence that's very much like the one in Taxi Driver. The spirit of Murder By Contract has a lot to do with Taxi Driver. Lerner was an artist who knew how to do things in shorthand, like Bresson and Godard. The film puts us all to shame with its economy of style, especially in the barbershop murder at the beginning. Vince Edwards gives a marvelous performance as the killer who couldn't murder a woman. Murder By Contract was a favorite of neighborhood guys who didn't know anything about movies. They just liked the film because they recognized something unique about it.

- Martin Scorsese, "Martin Scorsese's Guilty Pleasures," Film Comment, May-June 1998

This rarely screened 1958 gem about the mind of a contract killer is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite thrillers, and it’s easy to see why. The film follows an existential hipster (Vince Edwards) who coolly regards his work as a business until he gets thrown by a big-time assignment to rub out a woman about to testify in court. Neither the screenwriter (Ben Simcoe) nor the director (Irving Lerner) ever made it big, but here they achieved something nearly perfect–with a memorable guitar score, a witty feeling for character, dialogue, and narrative ellipsis, and a lean, purposeful style. Lucien Ballard did the black-and-white cinematography.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

A terrific, no-nonsense B movie which comes on like something by Jean-Pierre Melville: cool, calm and dispassionate. Edwards is Claude, a technician who goes into crime as a career move, to 'improve himself'. A series of hits later, he looks every inch the professional assassin, confident enough to take his time, competent enough not to fear detection. It isn't entirely his fault if something goes wrong on the big contract... Lerner and his superb cameraman, Lucien Ballard, make the most of a shoestring budget to produce a taut, spare, amoral film; it doesn't look restricted, it looks restrained. Well ahead of its time, too.

- Time Out Movie Guide

The originality of this B-picture, shot in only a few days, lies in its depiction of a hired killer as a technician, a man who is in a steady job but wants to 'better' himself and make big money, and who outwardly and officially is the essence of white-collar respectability. The film's distinctiveness stems from its coolness of tone, which is suitably complemented by Perry Botkin's guitar accompaniment.

- Phil Hardy, British Film Institute, The BFI Companion to Crime. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997. Page 234

When Martin Scorsese dedicated New York, New York to the memory of Irving Lerner (1909-1976), it wasn’t because Scorsese’s somber, fatalistic musical had anything in common with Lerner’s handful of noirs, apart from spiritual darkness. Of Lerner’s small output, the film that Scorsese was most influenced by, and cited frequently, was Murder by Contract (1958). A quickie shot in eight days on a microscopic budget, it’s a potent reminder of how less can be more, centered on Vince Edwards’ loner killer for hire. Cool on the outside, tightly coiled on the inside, Edwards’ Claude, priding himself on having put his emotions on ice, exemplifies a sort of cusp noir, a harbinger of postwar American change...

What anthropologically-trained Lerner tapped into was American postwar change. Where historians saw an age of conformity, Lerner saw a release of pent-up energies, a metaphysical sprawl that was soon to have its analogue in suburban sprawl. In his brilliant study, Film Noir: The Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg usefully makes a distinction between the centripetal force of the classic noir of the cities, with everything, including women trapped in male sexualizing of women’s roles, pulled toward the city’s dark center, and the centrifugal forces of the postwar world, with everything spiraling outward, into the suburbs and away from older role models...

Clean, lean and mean, tight, tense and satisfyingly reverberant, Murder by Contract vaults over its Poverty Row origins. We can understand why the young Scorsese was much more taken by it than by the A-movie on the double bill he saw. We see in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) Travis Bickle’s genuflections to Edwards’ ascetic preparations. Scorsese says he recalled Perry Botkin’s potent music for Murder by Contract – a single guitar, which Botkin played, redolent with hints of ‘50s Italo-pop and Anton Karas’s zither music for The Third Man (1949). Howard Shore devised a similarly guitar-flavored score that underlined the web-of-fate element in Scorsese’s Oscar®-winning The Departed (2006). In its pared-down imperative, and its distant early warning signals of postwar societal upheaval, Murder by Contract, with its fade to white, is a big little film noir turned film blanc.

- Jay Carr, Turner Classic Movies

This neglected low-budget B/W noir film from the 1950s is a beaut, an absolutely superb thriller. It reminds me so much of Jean-Pierre Melville's great existentialist character study film noir called Le Samurai (67), where the point of the film remains less on the story and more on how the protagonist is suave and calculatingly dispassionate...

This is a perfectly nuanced film with the atmospheric noir cinematography by Lucien Ballard, plus a brilliantly appropriate one-man guitar musical arrangement heard in the background. The film also had a beautiful feel for who the character is and the situation he was in. There were no phony contrivances, as everything felt natural. They don't make noir films better than this. Interestingly enough, the director and screenwriter never went on to do something even close to the quality this B- film achieved, while this role deservedly catapulted Vince Edwards career into stardom. Martin Scorsese said this was the film that influenced him most when he made "Mean Streets."

- Dennis Schwartz

There’s an original approach to the framing of shots (a floor level view of bound and gagged barbershop employees as Edwards prepares to cut the throat of an unsuspecting victim in the front of the shop). Ballard also moves smoothly from the outdoors (Edwards and two gangster clients tooling around Los Angeles in a convertible) to long static takes indoors in which Edward’s alienated psychological state is subtly revealed through his body language and actions. The montage sequence where we observe him over a two week period never leaving his room while he waits for a client’s phone call is masterful and will obviously remind you of Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER and maybe even Jef Costello in LE SAMOURAI. He does pull-ups from a closet rod, push-ups off two chairs, he prepares for bed repeatedly, and he calls in food orders and lays out the measy dime tips on the cardtable in front of him, parsing one out to each delivery boy like a machine.

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog

There is an effortless lightness of touch to this film, a lightness which begins with the crisp editing and directorial efficiencies praised by Scorsese and continues via transference to Vince (Ben Casey) Edwards’ portrayal of Claude, the hitman whose deadpan existentialism infuriates his mob handlers as much as it creases up audiences who feel they are in on the gag. His zen philosophising on ‘the assassin worldview’ links Murder By Contract to the This Gun For Hire archetype of the lone killer with a higher purpose even as it satirises it.

With this sure touch goes perfect balance. The opening scenes have a noir darkness (courtesy veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard) while the establishing ‘hits’ are very deftly sketched in (check the Coen Bros’ comparable barbershop scene in their 2001 genre homage The Man Who Wasn’t There), but we know little of Claude’s persona here. It’s only in the main body of the film, when the plot shifts from New York to California and the associated brightness of sunny location shooting, that the strains of Claude’s idiosyncrasies emerge and supply enough gravity to balance the light. Music continues this dualism, with nothing more than a spare, Third Man-like Mediterranean guitar picking that alternates with an insistent, near-techno, pulse in the scenes of tension.

Without Claude’s inscrutable delaying tactics, lateral-thinking work ethic and impossibly conflicted gender politics (which tie him up in knots on discovering his West Coast target is – gasp! – a woman) Murder By Contract wouldn’t rise above the level of forgotten 50s TV crime shows. Its clean lines and simplicity schematize gangland behaviour (unrealistically of course) into neat roles which are comic book reassuring.

Even so the film falters noticeably after Claude’s gangland minders outlive their usefulness and he turns his talents in their direction. But even this is handled with felicitous irony, the Hollywood backlot where Claude dispatches his erstwhile handlers underscoring the play-acting dimension to the superficiality of it all.

Like every version of the Gun For Hire archetype (through variants like 1974’s The Conversation right up to 1999’s Ghost Dog), it’s the humanising entry of feelings into his detached makeup that proves the protagonist’s undoing. Claude’s delayed ‘gratification’ of the hit, conflated with his female aversion, is a psycho-sexual conundrum that makes Murder By Contract enduringly intriguing. No wonder Scorsese likes it!

-    Roger Westcombe, Big House Film

Another Missing Link film, this one informing the steely-eyed, pretensions-to-philosophy hitman subgenre (echoing especially now with current online rumbles over the Coens’ No Country for Old Men). This film has the isolated astringency of European art-house films of the time (the score, titles, and opening scene are distinctly European for this time period, probably Italian-influenced), and completes the picture by saddling our cold-blooded hitman “hero” with a pair of comical, worrying overseers from the Syndicate (or Organization, or whatever these 1950s movies lovingly called the Nation Wide Mob). Minimal editing within a scene, Lerner sticking to single shot, high-ish angle setups give the film a stern, singular, and terse cinematic vernacular. While the staging and acting sometimes slides into the silly, the L.A. of 1958 is too fascinating, Lerner’s compositions to often good (Lucien Ballard inexplicably shooting this no-name B-film), and, like so many existentialism-influenced films that began appearing around this time, it’s got a sublimely poetic-fatalist ending that keeps the whole thing well above an unseen curiosity.

- Daniel Kasman

About Irving Lerner


Murder by Contract is a minor classic of murderous understatement, and is all that need be said about Irving Lerner's career. Perhaps it is a mistake to treat films like Murder by Contract as means to an end or as overtures to grand operas. A director, like any artist, may have but one good work in his system. Often the promising work turns out to be the ultimate work, and Murder by Contract seems to fall into that category.

- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Published by Da Capo Press, 1996. Page 215

After seeing MURDER BY CONTRACT for the first time I wanted to find out more about Lerner and was amazed to see how many different types of films he had worked on and in different capacities. Here was a former research editor for Columbia University’s Encyclopedia of Social Sciences who ended up becoming the head of New York University’s Educational Film Institute after World War II. He then hooked up with director Joseph Strick (THE SAVAGE EYE) on a short documentary, MUSCLE BEACH (1948), and then on his own made SUICIDE ATTACK, a 1951 documentary that utilized captured Japanese footage to show WWII (especially the live combat) from the Japanese point of view. After that, Lerner entered the B movie industry but more on that in part two. He also produced several documentaries including TO HEAR YOUR BANJO PLAY (1947) which he co-directed with the great Willard Van Dyke (THE CITY, 1938) and featured Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, & Sonny Terry & Brownee McGhee among others and the big budget Western CUSTER OF THE WEST (1967) starring Robert Shaw. He even dabbled in producing some spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef – CAPTAIN APACHE (1971) and BAD MAN’S RIVER (1971).

But it gets weirder. He served as a technical advisor on both ROBOT MONSTER (1953) and Anthony Mann’s GOD’S LITTLE ACRE (1953). He worked as an associate editor on EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973), the Dalton Trumbo scripted dramatization of the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. He worked as an actor in Jose Luis Borau’s HAY QUE MATAR A B. (1975, aka “B Must Die) opposite Darren McGavin, Stephane Audran, and Patricia Neal. I swear I am not hallucinating! To top it off he served as an uncredited editor on Kubrick’s SPARTACUS as well as Fred Haines’s 1974 film adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s STEPPENWOLF and the documentary MUSTANG: THE HOUSE THAT JOE BUILT (1978), Robert Guralnick’s documentary on America’s first legal brothel – in Nevada. WHAT? Who the heck is this guy? Next week I’ll cover some of his other films as a director including the follow-up to MURDER BY CONTRACT – CITY OF FEAR (1959).

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog

About Vince Edwards

Poor Vince has never gotten much respect as an actor but that’s because most people only remember his reserved but compassionate one-note performance as “Ben Casey,” the popular TV medical series that ran from 1961-1966. MURDER BY CONTRACT was the role he was born to play and to state the obvious Vince was never the best choice to play goody-two-shoes leading men. Almost every line of dialogue the misogynistic Claude delivers in this film is quotable – if you’re drunk at a stag party circa 1958: “The human female is descended from a monkey!” Vince was also quite memorable as the scariest of the three thugs terrorizing Jack Kelly’s family in THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955) – scarier even than his hoodlum co-star John Cassavetes whose film TOO LATE BLUES he would appear in in 1961. He’s also cool and devious in Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956) as the young hot shot who’s double-crossing Elisha Cook, Jr. in a heist ripoff with Cook’s wife, Marie Windsor. And he popped up in some prestige projects too such as I AM A CAMERA (1955, based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, the basis for CABARET), the Oscar winning THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957) and Carl Foreman’s war epic THE VICTORS (1963).

- morlockjeff, Movie Morlocks, the TCM blog