Adam’s Rib (1949)

Does Adam’s Rib give us a glimpse into what life was like in America in the late 1940s, or does it just tell us about what movie audiences expected to see on the big screen in the late 1940s?  Looking back that far, it is hard to tell.

The theme of the movie is the double standard regarding the sexes, which in those days meant that when a man had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another woman after he was married, it was no big deal; but if a woman had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another man after she was married, her behavior was shameful and scandalous.  Arising out of this general attitude was the “unwritten law,” which held that a man should not be punished for killing his wife’s lover, especially if he caught them in flagrante delicto.  But the same latitude was not extended to the wife, should she kill her husband’s lover.  It is the assertion of this movie that the double standard is wrong, that men and women should be treated equally.

On the one hand, this movie would seem to be premised on idea that this double standard was widely accepted by society at that time, not only as the way things were, but as the way they ought to be as well.  On the other hand, if the double standard were as firmly accepted by society as this movie would have us believe, then a movie like this that challenged that double standard would have been regarded as scandalous and unfit for viewing.  In other words, the audience had to be receptive to the idea that the double standard was unfair in order for this film to be successful.

When the movie begins, we see dizzy Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) following her philandering husband Warren (Tom Ewell) on his way to an assignation with Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen).  The movie is unrelenting it its determination to show us that Doris is klutzy and simpleminded.  For example, we see her looking at the instruction booklet just before firing the revolver she has in her hand, as if pulling the trigger was something complicated.  The purpose of depicting her in this way, one must suppose, is so that we won’t hold her morally responsible for shooting her husband, which she manages to do after firing wildly around the room.  Later, she testifies that she was not trying to shoot anyone, but only trying to scare Beryl into leaving her husband alone.

The scene shifts to the Bonner household, where Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda (Katherine Hepburn) are being served breakfast in bed by their maid.  This is not a special occasion, like an anniversary.  It is just another workday for this married couple.  Whom do you know today that gets served breakfast in bed by a maid just before going to work?  I refer back to my question in the first paragraph:  Was this normal in 1949, or was this something people expected to see when they went to the movies?

Anyway, Amanda says that Adam was making strange sounds in his sleep, which she mimics.  Because the idea of infidelity is already in our heads, we suspect he was dreaming about having sex with another woman.  Whatever the case, she spots the article in the newspaper about Doris shooting Warren, smiles broadly, and says, “Hot dog!”  Is this really an occasion for glee?  When she says the husband survived, Adam says, “Shame,” a sarcastic response to Amanda’s genuine delight.  She says it serves him right.  Later, after they leave the bedroom, the maid sees the story and says, “Attagirl.”

It turns out that Adam is an assistant district attorney, and he is assigned to prosecute Doris, while Amanda is also an attorney, who decides to defend Doris.  We know this is unrealistic, just a plot device, something that would never be allowed to happen in real life.  During the trial, Amanda keeps trying to make the case that there is a double standard for men and women, especially when it comes to the “unwritten law.”  However, Amanda does not explicitly say that she believes it should be all right for a woman to kill her husband’s lover.  As a further complication, that would not apply in any event, because Doris did not shoot Beryl, but Warren.  Perhaps Amanda meant the unwritten law to say that it is also all right for the husband to kill his unfaithful wife, and so that should apply to the woman as well, allowing her to kill her husband.  We don’t know, because Amanda does not say that either.  This unwritten law seems to be an unspoken law in this movie as well.  In the end, we get a watered-down version, in which Amanda argues that Doris was just trying to protect her home by scaring Beryl, and shooting Warren was just an accident.

Now, it is not just the men in this movie that believe in the double standard.  Amanda’s secretary approves of the double standard just as much as the men.  At the same time, just like Amanda’s maid, her secretary seems to resent the very double standard she embraces, because upon hearing that a woman shot her husband, she says it served him right, even before knowing any of the details of the case, including the infidelity.

We have already noted that Doris is portrayed as being a dimwit, so as to make her less culpable.  Her husband Warren, on the other hand, is depicted as being a real jerk, who says on the witness stand that he does not love his wife and does not know why he married her.  Furthermore, he admits that he beats her regularly, often knocking her to the ground.  Earlier in the movie, Doris tells Amanda that the first time he hit her, he broke her tooth, the upper-left molar, no less.  And the point of this depiction is to make him seem to deserve being shot.  These characterizations are so heavy-handed as to make the story completely uninteresting.  After all, a man does not have to be a wife-beater to be unfaithful, and his wife does not have to be addlebrained to shoot him in a jealous rage.

The movie tries to have it both ways.  During the trial, Amanda calls to the stand three women who are seen to be equal, if not superior, to men, both mentally and physically, the point being that women should be treated the same as men.  So, why not have a movie in which, say, the chemist, with several advanced degrees and responsible positions in both the public and private sector, be the one who shot her husband?  Flipping back and forth like a Necker cube, the movie wants us to acknowledge that women are equal to men, while at the same time it tries to elicit our compassion for a helpless, weak woman who would be the last person you would offer up as an argument for gender equality.

At this point, I must comment on another double standard, one not made explicit in the movie, but which is definitely present nevertheless:  that between blondes and brunettes, or more generally, between blondes and all other women.  Aside from an occasional woman seen briefly with no speaking part, Doris is the only blonde in the movie.  All the rest are either brunettes, red heads, or elderly women with gray hair.  As if the movie had not already made it painfully obvious that Doris is not very bright, the producer must have decided that this had to be reinforced by the dumb-blonde stereotype.  But that is not all.  During the trial, when Amanda is summing up and wants to drive home her point about the double standard, she implores the jury to imagine Doris as a man.  We see Doris transform into a man with dark hair.  And then she points to Warren, asking them to imagine him as a woman, at which point he changes into a woman with blond hair.

Anyway, the conflict between Adam and Amanda spills over into their marriage, causing them to break up, leading to apparent infidelity, threats with a fake gun, making up, but with fake tears, and hints of further conflict to come.  But at least their reconciliation seems to make sense, sort of.  What does not make sense is the reconciliation of Doris and Warren.  After she is found not guilty by the jury, Doris and Warren become a loving couple, embracing each other and their three children, ready to go back home and live happily ever after.  I’ll bet he beats as soon as he gets her alone, and I’ll give him a week before he starts cheating on her again.  Oh wait, I forgot, this is a movie, not real life.  Never mind.

Of course, the reason for their reunion is that a more realistic ending for them would have been unthinkable.  In other words, suppose Doris had turned to Amanda after her acquittal and said, “Will you help me get a divorce from that no-good louse?”  And while I’m on the subject, suppose Amanda had decided she was fed up with Adam’s insufferable attitude toward her on account of the way she defended her client in court, and she decided she would get a divorce as well.  That would have offended the audience of 1949 far more than the movie’s challenge to the double standard ever could.

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Scream (1996)

People in movies often refer to movies.  And why, not?  They are a big part of our world.  However, when it comes to remakes, it is necessary that the characters in that movie be unaware of the original.  For example, in the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the characters exist in a world much like our own with one notable exception:  it is a world in which no one has seen the original movie.

Remakes aside, sometimes the ignorance of the characters in a horror movie about movies is laughable. The very title of the movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) tells us that this is a late entry into the genre.  And yet, when the law enforcement officers are perplexed about the nature of a recent murder, Pepe the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff), having looked at a photograph of the murder victim, tells Officer Stanley (Guy Williams) that the boy was killed by a werewolf.  Stanley acts as though he has never heard of such a thing, and Pepe has to explain to him what a werewolf is.  In real life, Stanley would have said, “Oh yeah, there was a wolfman in the Abbott and Costello movie I saw last week at the Bijou.”

I can’t say that An American Werewolf in London (1981) is the first movie in which people have an awareness of werewolf movies, but it is the first one to do so in a big way.  Two American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking through England.  They stop at an inn called the Slaughtered Lamb, and one of them comments on the pentangle on the wall, saying, “Lon Chaney Jr. at Universal Studios said that’s the mark of the wolfman.”  After they leave, they are attacked by a werewolf.  Jack is killed, but David is only wounded.  Jack comes back from the dead to tell David that all that stuff about werewolves is true, and that David has become one himself.  It is interesting that though these two characters are Americans, yet the setting is in England.  In other words, in the Old World, there really are werewolves; in the New World, there are only werewolf movies.

The next stage in the evolution of movie awareness in horror films came with There’s Nothing Out There (1991).  Several teens decide to spend spring break in a house in the woods.  One of them, Mike (Craig Peck) has seen every horror film that has ever been made, and he begins to notice all the warning signs typical of such movies.  He enunciates some rules needed to stay alive, such as not wandering off by yourself in the woods and not going skinny dipping.

It eventually becomes clear that there is an alien creature intent on mating with one of the girls.  After all, it is a given in such movies that human females are the most sexually desirable creatures in the universe.  At first, Mike begins using his horror movie knowledge to thwart the alien, but he eventually comes to suspect that he and his friends are actually in a movie.

The ideas in this film reached their apotheosis in Scream (1996).  The movie begins with a scene in which a Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone at night in a fully-lit house that almost seems to have more windows than walls.  She receives an ominous phone call, and instead of hanging up immediately, she keeps talking to the caller.  This is typical of women in such movies who receive such phone calls, where they say things like, “Why do you keep calling me while I’m naked?”

But instead of the creep on the phone asking her what color her panties are or whatever, this guy asks her trivia questions about horror movies.  And this is just the beginning of such allusions.  As audiences of Psycho (1960) were said to be shocked by the fact that a major star like Janet Leigh was killed off early in the movie, so too is Drew Barrymore’s character Casey likewise killed off earlier than one might expect for a star of her standing.

Casey and her boyfriend are killed by a character that eventually came to be referred to as Ghostface, who is both scary and funny.  When thwarted in his attempt to stab someone, he takes what might be called variations on pratfalls.  And yet we are brought back from these scenes of mirth to horror when he succeeds in plunging his knife into one of his victims.

Though seemingly a minor character, the most essential person in this film is Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a teenager that works in a video store and is an expert on horror films.  He is like Mike in There’s Nothing Out There, except more so.  His expertise in this area allows him to correctly identify one of the two killers early in the movie, and he further acts as a guide through the movie by drawing inferences from horror films to the situations the teenagers find themselves in.  In the sequel to this movie, he draws inferences from sequels, and in the third film he draws inferences from trilogies.  But Randy is not the only one doing this.  The two killers, who take turns dressing up as Ghostface, are also guided by their study of horror films.  One of them says that they even took notes while watching them.  And just as Mike in There’s Nothing Out There wonders if he and his friends are actually in a horror movie, one of this killers in Scream tells his girlfriend Sidney (Neve Campbell), protagonist and ultimate target of Ghostface, that life is a movie, “Only you can’t pick your genre.”

It is possible to go further with this principle of people in horror movies referring to horror movies, shaping their behavior according to what they have seen in horror movies, and even believing they are in a horror movie.  The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a good example of that.  But the question is whether it is possible to do better than Scream with this idea.  I don’t think so.

Dark Victory (1939)

Understood as a medical movie, Dark Victory might have been believable in 1939, but it is certainly farfetched today.  Bette Davis play Judith Traherne, a young, rich woman with all the character flaws that might come from being rich:  arrogant, spoiled, frivolous.  Transcending all Judith’s character flaws, however, is her intensity.  Actually, this intensity makes even her ordinary actions seem like vices.  Just watching her walk across a room will wear you out.  Having a conversation with her would be exhausting, even if you just let her do all the talking.  By way of contrast, her boyfriend, Alec, played by Ronald Reagan, is cool and relaxed.

Judith suffers from headaches and double vision.  Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), her secretary and friend, finally gets her to go to the doctor, and, not surprisingly, she is a bad patient.  Despite her resistance, she is diagnosed as having a glioma, a growth in the brain.  She consents to having surgery, but upon its completion, the prognosis is negative.

Negative, but preposterously precise:  she will live less than a year, but she will have absolutely no symptoms until just a few hours before she dies, at which point her vision will begin to fail and things will become dark.  The doctor says this is a rare case, which is an understatement, since it is so rare as to be nonexistent.

Well, they went to a lot of trouble to create this disease for this movie, so we know that something is up.  Presumably, the point is to pose the question, what effect would the certainty of death have on someone once all the symptoms and suffering leading up to death had been eliminated?  Judith will still be young, pretty, rich, and otherwise healthy.  She has no accompanying complications, like still needing to work in order to pay the bills or worrying about who will care for her children.  It is only death in all its purity that she must deal with.

Dr. Steele (George Brent), who performed the brain surgery, and Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), Judith’s family practitioner, agree not to tell Judith that she is going to die.  We’ll skip over the ethical questions concerning their decision, made all the more suspect when Steele confides in Ann about Judith’s condition.  Instead, we’ll consider only its dramatic function.  After Steele and Judith fall in love and decide to get marry, she accidentally finds out about her negative prognosis.  She becomes angry, accusing Ann of getting Steele to marry her out of pity.

This is similar to The Hasty Heart (1949), set in a makeshift hospital in a jungle in Burma during World War II.  The doctor tells the men that a new patient will be arriving soon.  He has just had surgery and appears to be well.  In fact, he will be completely free of symptoms until just before he dies of kidney failure in a few weeks.  The doctor has not told him, however, and he asks the men to keep the secret as well, and to be extra nice to him.  This doomed patient is played by Richard Todd, and his personality is every bit as intense as that of Judith.  Ronald Reagan is also in this movie, and here too he is cool and relaxed.  Patricia Neal plays a nurse, with whom Todd falls in love.  He asks her to marry him.  Later, when he finds out he is going to die, he suspects the she accepted his proposal out of pity.  In this case, however, it is hard to believe otherwise.

Anyway, the marriage between Steele and Judith is off, and she apparently descends into drunkenness and promiscuity, including affairs with married men.  At least, that’s what the movie let’s us think for a while.  She almost has an affair with Michael (Humphrey Bogart), her horse trainer, when she realizes that this is not how she wants to spend what is left of her life.  That is not surprising.  As much as we might enjoy such things, most people want more out of life than that.  Similarly, at different points in the movie, the subjects of euthanasia and suicide are broached, but quickly dismissed.  That too is not surprising, for most people regard deliberately ending a life of suffering, one’s own or that of another, as not being the answer either.  Living just for the sake of pleasure seems as wrong to a lot of people as deliberately dying to end suffering.  They are just the two sides of the pleasure principle, neither of which is enough for what we want out of life.  At least, this is the attitude of the movie.

So, what is the answer?  At first it would seem that the movie says we should live a life of deception and delusion.  To begin with, the doctors and Ann lie to Judith about her condition, the idea being that she will be better off not knowing.  Then, after Steele and Judith get married, they become deliberately oblivious to her illness, acting as though there is nothing wrong with her.  Finally, just as Steele gets word of an invitation to attend an important meeting in New York regarding his work, Judith experiences a dimming of her vision and realizes she will soon die.  But she deceives her husband, encouraging him to go on without her, which he does.

But this cannot be the answer.  It is one thing to go on with your life without dwelling on the finality of death, but it is quite another thing live in perpetual denial.  There is something almost desperate about their forced happiness.  And it is untenable.  When Michael casually refers to the prayers he has been saying for Judith, she flinches.

But before Steele leaves, she becomes realistic, speaks frankly about her fate, and says that she is prepared for the end.  Still unaware that she can no longer see very well, Steele reluctantly leaves on his trip.  Judith then tells Ann she wants to die alone, so that her husband will know that in the end she was not afraid.  This is what we have been waiting for, courage and honesty in the face of death, and the peace that comes with resignation.

The Music Man (1962) and The Rainmaker (1956)

The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist.  According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band.  After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play, because he doesn’t know a note of music himself.  In so doing, he ruins these towns for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.

But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the kind of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be.  Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.

Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band.  When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which introduces young men to the ways of sin.  A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.

Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him.  Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is.  Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect.  She has somewhat scandalized the town, because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with an old man, the result of which she inherited all the books in the library, many of which are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.

Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp.  Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian becoming an old maid.  Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.

Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town.  She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp.  She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself.  Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.

Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her.  They stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta.  Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy.  But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her.  Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.

Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.”  He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G.  Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian.  He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, which is a rendezvous for young lovers.  They start kissing.  But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others.  Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled, and that they are looking for Hill to tar and feather him.  Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.

I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here.  It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town.  The footbridge is understood to be a place where girls lose their virginity, a bridge to the other side, as it were.  In other words, Marian gave herself to Hill.  Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance.

The fact that Marian let him “kiss” her knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him.  The townsfolks are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness.  Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.

But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms.  They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G.  One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band.  In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.

At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.

What exactly is this movie telling us?  That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness?  There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to.  The misery they experience then makes a mockery of the false happiness they experienced, which they would have been far better off without.  Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right?  Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, is that the key to happiness?

While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something.  Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head.  It has a similar theme, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common.  The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster).  His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain.  But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain.  Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.

Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster.  According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian.  The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is.  That’s probably true.  I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me.  Furthermore, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.

Anyway, Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell.  He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him.  Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum.  He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.

Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father, H.C. Curry, to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being.  While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married.  Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck.  Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.

In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end.  Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves.  But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain.  Just as boys’ band actually is able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man because the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie because Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go.  Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain.  Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him.  At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay.  She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime.  This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies:  Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.

Now let us try to answer the question raised previously:  What are these two movies trying to tell us?  That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud, because it will make us happy?  That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love?  This cannot be the message of these two movies, because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.

Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function.  Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex.  It may be argued that this custom was more honored in the breach than the observance, but it was the ideal at the time nevertheless.  In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have premarital sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong.  Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated.  And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.

These movies allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, while at the same time discouraging any inclinations we might have to actually do such a thing.

Crimson Tide (1995)

In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met.  Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be Executive Officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose mission it is to destroy those missiles at the first indication that they are about to be launched.  The commanding officer of that submarine is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman), who is a little contemptuous of Hunter because he is an “egghead” who spent a year at Harvard, and because he has never seen combat.

Everything is going along just fine until fire breaks out in the kitchen, or whatever they call that in the navy.  Then they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which also causes some damage.  The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through.  Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the Russian missile sites.  Hunter argues that they should not proceed, because the message fragment might have been an order to cancel the launch.  Let other submarines, which are not damaged and out of communication, do what needs to be done, he argues.  The result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny.  In the end, Hunter prevails, and it turns out he was right.

All in all, this is not a bad movie, but much of the suspense is undermined by the fact that the ending is completely predictable.  First of all, in any movie you have ever seen in which someone wants to launch nuclear weapons, that person is either crazy, as in Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); evil, as in The Dead Zone (1983); or just wrongheaded, as in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).  So, we know there is no way that it is going to turn out that Ramsey is right and Hunter is wrong.

We can try to imagine two possible endings going against this formula.  Ending One:  Ramsey succeeds in launching the missiles. And it is good he did too, because all the other American submarines in the area had been taken out by Russian submarines.  As a result, the missiles controlled by the rebels are destroyed, and even the Russians are grateful for Ramsey’s bold and decisive action.  Hunter is court martialed and sentenced to twenty years in military prison.

Ending Two:  Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from destroying the rebel missile sites.  As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die, and the Earth is poisoned with radioactivity.  Hunter realizes he was wrong, as he and the other members of the crew slowly begin dying of radiation sickness.

As if that were not enough, the race of the two respective officers also makes the outcome predictable.  We cannot simply switch the roles of these two actors, because Gene Hackman is about twenty-five years older than Denzel Washington.  But let’s use our imagination.  Let Morgan Freeman play Captain Ramsey and let Brad Pitt play Commander Hunter.  Everything that happens is otherwise the same.  For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch.

Of course, we could have Morgan Freeman’s Ramsey turn out to be right, launching the missiles and saving the day, while Brad Pitt’s Hunter is court martialed.  That would preserve our race expectations, but at the expense of violating our expectations regarding the rightness of using nuclear weapons.

Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is doubly predictable.

Liliom (1930)

I saw Carousel (1956) about thirty years ago, and I was surprised to see that it sentimentalized wife beating and child abuse.  Recently, I discovered that Carousel was actually a softened version of the original play Liliom, first seen in Hungary in 1909.  From what I have been able to gather, it was a failure, but this play was nothing if not resilient:  it kept being staged, made into several movies, adapted for radio, turned into the musical Carousel, first on stage and then the movie, made into a ballet, produced for television in different countries, and still thrives to this day.

To try to get a better understanding of the appeal of this story, I decided to watch the 1930 version in which the title character was played by Charles Farrell.  The movie begins with a prologue, which reads:

This play is the love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker. Liliom gropes and struggles through life and death, and even beyond death, ever seeking escape from himself, while Julie’s love for him endures always.

That is to say, Liliom is a tormented soul.  It’s a good thing the movie included this prologue, because without it, we would think that Liliom was just a louse and a layabout without ever realizing his existential significance.  At several points in the movie, he refers to himself as an “artist,” probably because artists are often depicted in film as having tormented souls.  And it is good we are informed of that too, because we sure don’t see him painting any pictures.

As we go through the movie, we find out at various points that Liliom has beaten at least one woman in his past, is a gigolo, seduces women with promises of marriage, only to take their money and abandon them later, and doesn’t like to work, so he lies around sleeping it off while he and Julie are supported by her aunt.  But all these faults are supposed to be just part of Liliom’s charm, whose good looks make him a romantic figure.

Julie’s friend Marie has a suitor named Wolf, and they eventually get married. We are supposed to think of Wolf in a negative light, as someone who is funny-looking and a bit stodgy.  And there is a carpenter that is in love with Julie.  Every week he comes by and asks her out, and every week she says no.  At the end of the movie, eleven years later, he is still coming by once a week, and Julie is still saying no.  Admittedly, a man would have to be pretty pathetic to do that.  But that’s the point.  The idea is that being married to either of these two men would be a boring, dreary business.  You see, they do not have Liliom’s charm (if you can call it that) or good looks.

When Liliom and Julie first meet, he loses his job, because the owner of the carousel is jealous, and Julie loses her job, because she deliberately stays out late.  That’s why they end up living with her aunt.  Julie has a pretty face, and that’s about it.  She never really wants to do anything, and she never has much to say.  She just sits there and waits for Liliom to seduce her and get her pregnant.  The carpenter doesn’t know how lucky he is.

When Liliom realizes that Julie is pregnant, he decides he needs money.  But he doesn’t want to work for a living, so he and his friend decide to rob a man carrying a huge payroll.  But the man turns out to be too much for them, and rather be arrested by the police, Liliom stabs himself and dies.

Like so many movies that portray the afterlife, modern technology is involved, much in the way Satan used cannons in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  In this case, it is trains.  I guess trains were a big deal in the early twentieth century when the play was written.  And as is usual, we never see God, only some administrator, in this case the Chief Magistrate.  For reasons that make no sense whatever, an exception is made in Liliom’s case about returning to Earth for a second chance.  Perhaps it’s because he is charming (if you can call it that) and good looking.  But first, he will spend ten years in Hell, and then he will be allowed to go back to Earth to try to do something good, to make up for hitting Julie when they argued.

When the ten years is up, he goes down to Earth.  He talks to his daughter.  When she refuses to cooperate in his effort to make amends, he slaps her.  Liliom finds himself back on the train that takes people to Heaven or Hell, and presumably it’s the latter for him.  Liliom says he failed, but the Chief Magistrate says he did not.  They listen in on Julie and his daughter, who agree that sometimes a slap feels like a kiss, that even if a man “beats you and beats you and beats you,” it doesn’t hurt a bit.  The Chief Magistrate says that Julie’s forgiving, undying love for Liliom is touching, even mysterious.

Presumably, this movie and the play it was based on were made at a time in which women were so dependent on men economically that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, especially with children depending on them.  That is, movies like this tried to make women feel better about the way their husbands beat them and the children, to help them believe that deep down these men really loved them, and so that made it all right.

But those days are long gone.  Women have options today, and there is no longer any need to romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love.  And yet, this story remains popular.  It beats me.

Death Wish (1974, 2018)

The 1974 original version of Death Wish proved to be so successful at the box office that it spawned four sequels and the remake of 2018.  When the original starts out, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are at the beach on vacation.  It’s a deserted beach, so Paul suggests making love right there in the open, but Joanna says they are “too civilized” for that, so they go back to the hotel.  When they return from their vacation, Paul finds out from his coworker, Sam, that the murder rate in New York City is getting worse, saying that decent people will have to work in the city and live somewhere else.  Paul notes that by “decent people,” Sam means those who can afford to live somewhere else.  His coworker accuses him of being a bleeding-heart liberal in his concern for the underprivileged, saying that they should all be put into a concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Joanna and the Kersey’s daughter, Carol, are at the grocery store where three hooligans are so behaving so obnoxiously that we don’t even need to see the rape and murder that come later.  We are ready for someone start wasting these characters right now.  As they follow Joanna and Carol to their apartment, we see some nuns crossing the street just as the two women pass by, but before the three men do.  Literally, the nuns come between the men and the women, but figuratively, they do not, as if to make it clear that we live in a godless universe where faith is folly.  Pretending to be the delivery boy with the groceries, the bad guys get in.  What follows is a nightmare of cruelty and horror, as Carol is brutally raped and Joanna is murdered.  The funeral, where words are spoken over Joanna’s grave by a priest, acts as a bookend to the nuns, further driving home the pathetic impotence of faith in the face of so much evil in the world.  Had Carol died as well, there might have been a period of grieving and then moving on.  But Carol degenerates into a catatonic state, thereby acting as a continual reminder of what happened to her and her mother.

If this had happened to Sam’s family, and he got out his gun and started blowing away the city scum, that would have been all wrong, for two reasons.  First, since he is already a fascist, there would be little dramatic value in seeing him put his beliefs into action.  Second, as he is played by William Redfield, we would know that someone who looked like that in a movie would never be able to do what someone who looks like Charles Bronson can do.  Of course, speaking of looks, we had a hard time accepting that Bronson’s character was a bleeding-heart liberal in the first place, but we knew that we were just being prepared for a reluctant-hero situation, so that made it all right.

Paul puts some roles of quarters in a sock to act as a makeshift blackjack, which he gets to use in short order when someone tries to hold him up.  But as he re-enacts the scene at home, elated at the discovery that he is not powerless and does not have to be a victim, the roles of quarters burst apart, so we know that something a little more dependable will be needed.

As an architect, Paul is sent to Arizona to have a look at the real estate project proposed by Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin).  Never mind that places out West like Texas and Arizona are just as modern and urban as the rest of the country, the movies still like to play up the idea that cowboy culture is alive and well.  And this movie really lays it on thick.  As Paul is arriving at the airport, we see Aimes pushing open a couple of swinging saloon doors underneath a sign that reads “Last Chance Cocktails.”  He is dressed in full Western regalia.  Except it’s modern Western clothes, and he is wearing glasses, so he’s kind of a cowboy wannabe.

They go out to where Aimes wants to build his houses, and while they are looking around, we see a real cowboy named Judd herding cattle through the area.  Aimes says he doesn’t want to bulldoze the hills.  Paul says the hills take up a lot of space.  Aimes replies that the open spaces are what this part of the country is all about, saying we need space for life, for people like Judd, for horses and cows.  That sounds nice, but once the houses start being built, won’t Judd and the horses and cows find themselves in the same situation we have seen in Westerns many times, where the free-range cattlemen find themselves shut out by homesteaders?  You can’t herd cattle through the middle of a suburban neighborhood, even if the hills do remain in place.  There won’t be any range war, of course, but it just shows how silly the whole Western nostalgia business is, something Aimes seems to be oblivious to, and which we are supposed to overlook.

Speaking of Western nostalgia, they next find themselves in “Old Tucson,” a movie lot for Westerns and a tourist attraction where scenes are acted out in which a sheriff takes on the bad guys.  These were the good old days, when outlaws met with swift justice.  Subsequently, Aimes takes Paul to his gun club, where we find out that Paul was a conscientious objector during the war.  It seems his father was killed in a hunting accident, and so his mother turned Paul into a pacifist, but not before his father had first taught Paul how to use a gun, so he is a crack shot.  After solving the real estate problem he was sent to fix, Paul heads back home.  Before he leaves, Aimes puts a present in his suitcase.  When Paul gets home, he discovers that the present is a thirty-two revolver.

Now, wait a minute!  Did some city slicker write this script?  No self-respecting, macho, urban cowboy would buy someone a thirty-two, unless it was for his wife, and even then she’d have to be petite.  Nothing less than a forty-five would be the thing for Charles Bronson, even if his character is a bleeding-heart, conscientious-objecting, momma’s boy.  Whatever the caliber, though, it had to be a revolver.  A semi-automatic lacks the cowboy juju that is needed to bring Western justice to the big city.

In any event, it is important that someone gave Paul this gun.  It is standard in the movies that if a civilian buys a gun, he is just going to get himself killed.  But if he acquires the gun in some other way, then he will be able to use it effectively.  And that he does.  Not only does he successfully kill hoodlums right and left, but he causes the crime rate to go down as well:  in part, because the bad guys are afraid they might run into the vigilante; in part, because other law-abiding citizens start fighting back too.

At the beginning of the movie, “civilized” just meant not having sex on the beach.  Later in the movie, it acquires a more pejorative connotation.  Jack, Paul’s son-in-law, says they should have moved to the country, out of the city, where Joanna and Carol would have been safe, recalling Sam’s remark about what decent people would soon need to do.  Paul is contemptuous of this idea, of running away, suggesting that if the police cannot protect people, they should do it themselves.  Jack says, “We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad.”  Paul asks, if we are not pioneers, what are we then?  “I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become?  What do you call people who, when faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it?  They just run and hide.”  Jack answers, tentatively, “Civilized?”

As we get toward the end of the movie, more Western tropes start piling up right along with the bodies.  Paul tells one bandit to “fill his hand,” to “draw.”  Later, when a police lieutenant (Vincent Gardenia) tells him to leave town, because the higher-ups don’t want him arrested for political reasons, Paul says, “By sundown?”

Paul does move to another city.  Chicago, of course.  And when some punks in the station harass a woman, Paul helps her with her packages, and then uses his thumb and forefinger to suggest a gun, pointing it at them, allowing us to enjoy the thought that this vigilante’s job is not done, that he will soon be cleaning up the streets of Chicago.

So, what can we say about the 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey?  Let us consider a few of the differences.  First, in the 1974 original, what happens to Paul’s wife and daughter is much worse than in the 2018 remake.  The daughter is brutally raped in the original, while her mother watches helplessly.  It is pathetic and horrifying.  In the remake, rape is only threatened, and the women are able to fight back:  the daughter slicing a man’s face; the mother throwing boiling water in the face of another.  The daughter never recovers psychologically in the original; she makes a full recovery in the remake.

Second, whereas Paul was an architect in the original, in the remake he is a doctor who works in the emergency room of a hospital.  At first, I thought this was for the sake of irony.  I could almost imagine a tagline:  “He removes bullets from bodies by day.  He puts them back into bodies by night.”  However, the purpose of his being a doctor was really to provide him with a way of finding out who the perpetrators were, which begins when one of them is brought into the emergency room.  Paul of the original never even imagines that he will encounter the men that killed his wife and raped his daughter.  All the men he kills are just bad guys, none of whom he has any personal connection with.  He just walks the streets at night as bait, luring them to their doom.  Paul of the remake does kill a few bad guys unrelated to the assault on his family, but then the rest of the movie is about tracking down all the men that had anything to do with killing his wife and assaulting his daughter.  Actually, even the killing of one of the men who had nothing to do with the assault on his family is an act of revenge in behalf of a boy who came into the emergency room with a gunshot wound.  Presumably, the producers of the remake thought this would make the movie better.  It doesn’t, and not simply because the original is more realistic in this regard.  Between getting revenge on the men that attacked his family and having his daughter make a full recovery, Paul of the remake gets closure.  The situation for Paul of the original remains forever unresolved, for those men are still out there somewhere, and his daughter will never be the same.

Third, there is no Western theme in the remake.  Though the Western comparisons in the original were a little corny, yet they kept the film upbeat.  Paul is at one with himself in his new role as vigilante.  And when he talks to his son-in-law about whether it is better to fight back or to hide, he is reflective and philosophical.  In the remake, Paul is conflicted.  When his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) confronts him about what he is doing, his attempt to justify himself comes across as whiny and moralistic.  Moreover, at the end of the original, when Paul forms his forefinger and thumb into a gun, we believe he will continue to be a vigilante after his move to Chicago.  When Paul does that in the remake, we don’t believe him.  Having killed the men connected to his family’s tragedy, there no longer seems to be sufficient motive for him to continue in that vein.

There is one similarity worth noting.  As I mentioned above, it was important that Paul be given a gun as a gift, because normal, law-abiding citizens that buy guns in movies usually end up getting killed.  In the remake, Paul starts to buy a gun, but changes his mind when confronted with the regulations.  He later sees a gun drop from a victim in the operating room, and he opportunistically secretes it on his person to be used later, thereby avoiding the jinx of buying it.  He does buy a gun later, a machine gun no less, but that is after he has already done a lot of killing.

All in all, the Death Wish of 1974 is by far the better movie.  The remake is just another revenge movie.  The original is existential.