The Man in the Iron Mask (The Book and the Adaptations)

When I was in college, I saw The Three Musketeers (1948), the one with Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan.  I thought it a bit silly, all that smiling and laughing while he and the title characters fought with swords, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.  So, I decided to read the novel, written by Alexandre Dumas.  I struggled through one bewildering chapter after another, overwhelmed by all the complications and intrigues, until I finally gave up and returned to my studies, which I should never have neglected in the first place.

The novel was originally published in serialized form, and was the first of the D’Artagnan romances, the last of which was The Man in the Iron Mask, which I shall refer to as a novel, though it is sometimes regarded as the third part of a larger novel. These two novels are the most well known, but there is lots of other stuff in between. And even though I am now retired and have neither school nor work to make demands on my time, I admit that I simply am not up to reading all those D’Artagnan romances.

And yet, I am sympathetic to it all.  It was the nineteenth century when all this was written. There were no movies, no television, and certainly no internet.  As a result, reading stories in serialized form in regular installments in a magazine must have been a pleasant diversion in those days.  The reader, if he was enjoying the story, had no desire for it to end too quickly, and thus was not the least bothered by all the complications and intrigues that completely did me in when I was in college. Dumas, being paid as he was for each installment, was at pains to milk it for all it was worth, never hesitating to introduce new characters, who would allow for further complications and intrigues.

As a result, I contented myself with watching movie versions of these two novels, along with movie versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, the only other novel by Dumas with which most people are familiar. And that would have been the end of it save for variations in the versions of The Man in the Iron Mask that struck me as a story that was struggling against itself.  The movie versions of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo have variations of one sort or another, the difference between one version and another being unremarkable, the only consideration being whether one has enjoyed the movie or not. In the case of The Man in the Iron Mask, however, there are significant differences between the novel and the movie versions, as there are among the movies themselves, differences that have resulted from more than the mere need to simplify the story in one way or another.  Instead, in whatever way the story is told, it can make people uncomfortable, and when the story is changed to put them at ease, others are likely to find it disturbing in a different way.  To explain what I mean, I have decided it will better to discuss the movies first and then the novel.

The Iron Mask (1929)

The first movie version is The Iron Mask, made in 1929.  D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) and the Three Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, all sleep together in one big bed.  The English translation of what is inscribed on the upper part of that bed is “All for one and one for all.”  This gives those words a whole new meaning.  Much of the movie consists of a lot of swashbuckling on their part, which need not be described in detail, except that they are typically smiling and laughing, just as they were in the 1921 version of The Three Musketeers, which also starred Douglas Fairbanks.

Queen Anne, wife of King Louis XIII, gives birth to a son, Louis, which is hailed as great news. But then she also gives birth to his twin, who is unnamed in this movie, referred to only as the “Twin Brother.”  He is regarded as bad news by Cardinal Richelieu, who fears his existence might mean revolution.  He decides this must be kept hidden from the people of France and arranges to have the Twin Brother taken to Spain. However, the Count de Rochefort, the villain of the piece, finds out about him, kidnaps him, and raises him for his own evil purposes.

Four years later, Louis, Dauphin of France, is a nice little boy, but the Twin Brother is a spoiled brat. Twenty years later, the Dauphin has become Louis XIV.  He is a good-hearted fellow.  But the Twin Brother, whom see practicing the signature of Louis, is mean-spirited and cruel.  Along with the Count de Rochefort, he plans to put King Louis XIV in prison and put himself on the throne.  Louis is kidnapped, and that is when he finds out about his twin.  De Rochefort says Louis will not be killed because that way he has something to hold over the Twin Brother, in case he gets any funny ideas.

To keep Louis from being recognized, the Twin Brother has an iron mask put over Louis’s head, and has him confined in the River Castle.  One day, Louis looks out the window of his cell and sees a man in a boat. He inscribes a message on a silver dish and tosses it out through the bars to the man below, promising a reward if he takes it to D’Artagnan.  He does so, and D’Artagnan figures out that Louis must have a twin brother, and that twin has usurped his throne.

D’Artagnan sends for the Three Musketeers, and the four of them rescue the king and bring him back to the palace, each of those Three Musketeers losing his life in the fighting as they do so. D’Artagnan and King Louis XIV put the iron mask on the Twin Brother’s head and have him sent to a prison for the rest of his life.

Then D’Artagnan dies from a wound he received during the fighting.  We see the souls of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis welcoming the soul of D’Artagnan to Heaven.  The four of them laugh at all those fools below that are grieving over D’Artagnan’s corpse.

As noted above, in this movie, as in the 1921 version of The Three Musketeers, they are always smiling and laughing, even when engaged in a sword fight.  This is a childlike depiction of them, which puts the audience in a childlike posture as well.  As such, it was probably deemed necessary to reassure the audience the way one reassures children, making it clear that the death of these men is not something sad, but rather that they are smiling and laughing now in Heaven as they did on Earth.

One of them says, “Come on!  There is greater adventure beyond.”  They turn and walk away, with the words “The Beginning” on the screen.  This is a modern conception of Heaven, one in which we imagine our loved ones doing in Heaven what they enjoyed doing on Earth.  This may be momentarily comforting, but when that is thought through to its ultimate conclusion, we experience a feeling of revulsion.  Are we to imagine them swashbuckling for eternity, sword fighting with the souls of Richelieu’s men, with nothing ever being accomplished thereby?  I should think that would get to be old after a few thousand years.

In the movies, Heaven is something that should be held out only as a hope, not made explicit, as it is here.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

In the 1939 version, King Louis XIII (Albert Dekker) is informed by an adviser named Colbert about the twin brother, who is called Philippe.  They decide to let D’Artagnan (Warren William) raise him in Gascony. However, they express their regret that there is no D’Artagnan for the doctor and the midwife, implying that they must be killed to keep the secret from getting out. You know, just a couple of cold-blooded murders for the greater good of France.

That greater good of France being that the first-born son becomes Louis XIV (Louis Hayward), who is a “profligate, spendthrift, and a tyrant,” one who finds it amusing to watch people being hanged while betting with Fouquet on whether the rope will break. Louis knows nothing of his twin brother, but Fouquet had overheard people talking about the twins when they were born and used that knowledge to rise to a powerful position.  But he now intends to have D’Artagnan and Philippe (Louis Hayward) hanged, and so he gets the king to allow him to send troops to Gascony to arrest them for not paying their taxes.

Meanwhile, at D’Artagnan’s estate, we see him, the Three Musketeers, and Philippe sitting around the table having a jolly good time.  Philippe has been raised to be just the like these other men, and he is a swell fellow.  In the previous movie, Louis XIV was good and the Twin Brother was evil.  In this movie, it is Louis who is evil, and Philippe who is good.

The king’s men, numbering ninety in all, arrive to arrest D’Artagnan and Philippe. Though there are only five to resist them, those five manage to kill about half the king’s men in the ensuing sword fight. And then, right while they are in the middle of doing all this killing, there is an inexplicable cut in the action, and we see Philippe, D’Artagnan, and the Three Musketeers, with nary a scratch on them, smiling and laughing, having surrendered for some reason, and being taken back to Paris.  I rate this scene as the ultimate swashbuckling absurdity in any movie ever made about D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers.

Regarding this scene of five men fighting against ninety of the king’s men, it is worth comparing this to what happens in Chapter V of The Three Musketeers.  This is where D’Artagnan is about to fight a duel with each of the Three Musketeers when five men of the cardinal’s Guards show up.  Discounting the presence of D’Artagnan, who was not at that time a Musketeer, Athos expresses dismay over the odds:

“There are five of them,” said Athos, half aloud, “and we are but three; we shall be beaten again, and must die on the spot, for, on my part, I declare I will never appear again before the captain as a conquered man.”

But that is the difference between the novels of Dumas, which tell the stories seriously and realistically, and these early movies, which are silly and juvenile.

Fouquet does his best to hang the lot of them before Louis can find out about Philippe, but Colbert thwarts him.  When Louis sees how much Philippe looks like him, he decides it will be useful to have Philippe perform dangerous or unpleasant tasks expected of the king, while he, Louis, gets to drink wine and make love to his mistress. Philippe goes along with this in exchange for which his companions are spared.

When Louis finds out that Philippe is his twin brother, however, and not just someone who happens to look like him, he decides Philippe must be disposed of.  Louis chooses not to hang him because he would not enjoy seeing his likeness dangle from the end of a rope.  Instead, he has him locked up in the Bastille with an iron mask on his head.  D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers find out about this and free him from the Bastille.  They go to Louis’s bedroom, put the mask on his head, and send him to the Bastille.

As in the 1929 version, Louis writes a message on a silver dish, but since this is an evil Louis, the message is addressed to Fouquet.  Fouquet and his men free Louis. Philippe, D’Artagnan, and the Three Musketeers engage them on the road, but one by one the Three Musketeers die in battle. Fouquet is killed and Louis’s carriage goes off a cliff and into the river below, where he drowns, still wearing the iron mask.  This is a merciful ending for the evil Louis, unlike that for the evil Twin Brother of the 1929 version, who will wear the iron mask in prison for the rest of his life.

D’Artagnan gets Philippe back to the Cathedral for his marriage to Maria Theresa (Joan Bennett), at which point D’Artagnan dies from his wound.  We then see his soul and the souls of the Three Musketeers, mounted on the souls of their horses as they ride in the sky.  This is a bit of an improvement over the 1929 version because we don’t see them laughing at the fools below that are grieving over their deaths.  But I suppose something like this was still deemed necessary in order for the audience to regard this as a happy ending.

Let us note that unlike the 1929 version, where Louis is king at the end, this version ends with an imposter on the throne.  But since he is Philippe, who is good, then as far as I was concerned, that was all for the best.  His being an imposter didn’t bother me one bit.  But then, I have always been completely indifferent to matters of royalty and the order of succession.  For those who do care about such things, however, this might be unsettling.

When Queen Elizabeth II died recently, I was amazed at the nonstop coverage that went on for the better part of a week. According to what was reported on the news, half the world, over four billion people, tuned in to watch her funeral ceremony.  And that was in addition to the coverage of the royal family of England that we have been treated to over the years, which a lot of people seem to obsess over, for as long as I can remember.

In other words, even today, right here in America, there are a lot of people for whom the royal order of succession is important, even to the point of believing that kings rule by divine right.  Such people undoubtedly feel uncomfortable watching this 1939 movie in which Louis, the rightful heir to the throne, is killed and replaced by Philippe, an imposter, thus thwarting the will of God.

The 1929 version avoided that outcome by having Louis be good and the Twin Brother be evil. Then, at the end of the movie, when Louis had become king again, it was the good brother who was king, and who was also the one who had a sacred right to be king.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1977)

In the 1977 version, as in the preceding 1939 version, Louis XIV (Richard Chamberlain) is evil, and Philippe (Richard Chamberlain) is good.  In the 1939 movie, however, in order for the good brother to be king at the end, Philippe, the younger twin, had to replace Louis, who was older and thus had a right to be king.  And so, when the movie ended, Philippe, the imposter, had permanently usurped Louis’s throne.

This 1977 version avoids the 1939 outcome by having Philippe be the older brother. The first minister of Louis XIII told the king that one of the twins died and faked a burial.  The minister purposely allowed the younger son to become Louis XIV, having secretly raised Philippe, the older son, in order to have power over Louis when he became king.  The minister has since died, but D’Artagnan (Louis Jordan) knew about this and had his men arrest Philippe and put him in the Bastille for safekeeping.  But Philippe is accidentally recognized by the Chevalier Duval, who brings Philippe’s existence to the attention of Fouquet (Patrick McGoohan).

Therefore, at the end of the movie, when Philippe replaces Louis as king, it is not only the good brother that becomes king, but also the one who has a right to be king. Philippe has to go by the name “Louis” for the rest of his life, so to that extent he is still an imposter.  But since Louis was an unwitting imposter himself, being the younger brother, then Philippe is the imposter of an imposter, and so it all just cancels out.

But the main thing is that for all those people that would otherwise have misgivings, who would feel distraught at the idea of having someone be king who was not intended to be so by virtue of the order of succession, they will be pacified.

I didn’t mean to rush past the fact that it was D’Artagnan who saw to it that Philippe was initially imprisoned.  In his discussion with Colbert, they agree that it is better at the present time not to tell Philippe that he is the twin brother of Louis, while they keep him locked up.  That way, they agree, even if the guards torture Philippe by putting him on the rack, he won’t be able to tell them a thing.

Fouquet informs Louis of his twin brother.  Louis orders Fouquet that not a single drop of royal blood be spilled, lest they tempt Providence by doing so.  Apparently, they figure that they will not incur the wrath of God if they slap an iron mask on Philippe and move him to another prison, where they intend for him to remain for the rest of his life, because that is what they do.

D’Artagnan rescues Philippe and, at a party hosted by Fouquet, Philippe successfully passes himself off as Louis, while condemning the real Louis to have the iron mask put on his head, which he is condemned to wear in prison for the rest of his days.

Now, it may seem that by making Philippe be the older brother, that solves the problem of having him become king in a way that will not offend those who would be bothered if he were the younger brother, and thus had no right to sit on the throne.

But what this movie gives with one hand, it threatens to take away with the other. After Philippe has replaced Louis, he dances with Louis’s wife, Maria Theresa, the queen. Through what can only be called a woman’s intuition, she discerns the Philippe is not Louis, and subtly lets him know that she knows the truth.  As they engage in a hypothetical discussion about “just suppose” and “what if,” she lets Philippe know that she will play along with this charade so long as the children she has already had will retain their royal status, including the right of her oldest son to become king of France. Philippe agrees.  Therefore, while Philippe, being the older brother, is by right the king of France, the queen’s children are the offspring of Louis, which puts them at some remove in the order of succession.

But wait!  She and Philippe presumably never have any children after the switch, so her oldest son will therefore have the right to be king, though as a historical point, he died before Louis XIV did.  But at least the great grandson of Maria Theresa and Louis became Louis XV, so I guess it’s all right. Whew!

The Three Musketeers are not in this version.  This allows for a change in tone.  We don’t see D’Artagnan or anyone else in this movie smiling and laughing while sword fighting.  D’Artagnan does not die in the end, and given this change in tone, there would have been no need to see his soul ascend to Heaven even if he had.  Furthermore, it is not clear that D’Artagnan would deserve to go to Heaven in any event, given what he did to Philippe.

In the 1929 movie, D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers are morally upright by whatever standard of right and wrong one applies.  In the 1939 movie, D’Artagnan deceives Philippe while he is being raised, not letting him know that he is the younger brother of Louis.  But since Philippe has had a happy childhood and is enjoying life as a young adult, the deception would seem to be morally forgivable.  In this 1977 version, however, D’Artagnan’s moral character is disturbing, for he was the one that initially had Philippe imprisoned, even though it meant he might be tortured.

A major theory of ethics is utilitarianism, one version of which holds that the right action is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  A standard problem that arises within this theory is that it would seem to justify putting an innocent man in prison if society as a whole would benefit.  As opposed to this, there are those who advocate a deontological theory of ethics, which holds that some actions, like knowingly imprisoning an innocent man, are intrinsically wrong.  So, whereas a utilitarian might see D’Artagnan’s action in this respect as right, since it is for the greater good of France, a deontologist would say that what he did was wrong regardless of the consequences.

This issue was actually present in the first two movies, especially in the 1939 version, where Louis XIII and Colbert have the doctor and midwife murdered to keep the birth of Philippe a secret, but this 1977 version is the first in which it is the moral quality of D’Artagnan’s actions that are suspect.

Of course, we are suspicious of this notion of doing what is best for the greater good of France anyway, when it might simply be a matter of doing what is best for the greater good of those who happen to be in power and want to hold on to it.  Inasmuch as it was Louis XIV who said, L’État, c’est moi, we may be excused if we are not persuaded by this justification of what is best for France.

Finally, we must return to the importance that some people place on royalty and the order of succession.  Just as some people would argue that imprisoning an innocent man is wrong, as is the case in this movie, so too would others argue that violating the order of succession is intrinsically wrong as well, as was the case in the 1939 version.  Those espousing the utilitarian theory of ethics, on the other hand, would say either action would be justified, so long as civil war and anarchy are averted as a result.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

In the 1998 version, Louis is evil, and Philippe is good, both men being played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Three Musketeers have retired, going their separate ways, with only D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) remaining with the Musketeers.  Athos (John Malkovich) has a son, Raoul, who plans to become a Musketeer and marry Christine, the girl he loves.  But Louis wants her for himself, so he pulls a David and has Raoul returned to combat, ordering that he be placed at the vanguard of the assault, in front of the cannon, where he will be killed.  Then Louis has his way with Christine, who later hangs herself in disgust.

Athos wants to avenge Raoul’s death by assassinating Louis, but Aramis (Jeremy Irons), who has become a Jesuit, has a better idea.  It seems that Louis XIII confessed on his deathbed to his son, soon to be Louis XIV, that he had a younger twin brother Philippe. Immediately upon becoming the new king, Louis had Aramis go to where Philippe had been secretly raised, take him to the Bastille and imprisoned there, with an iron mask over his head.  Aramis gets Athos and Porthos (Gérard Depardieu) to go along with his plan to sneak Philippe out of prison and switch him out with Louis. Eventually, the plan works:  Philippe is put on the throne, and Louis is put in the Bastille with the iron mask on his head.

As evil as Louis had been in this movie, it would have been perfectly satisfying to let it go at that. However, one suspects that those who made this movie decided that a 1998 version of the good Philippe precluded the possibility of his letting Louis spend the rest of his life in prison with an iron mask on his head.  But if we had seen Philippe pardoning Louis and allowing him to spend the rest of his days in the countryside, we would have been disappointed with such a wimpy ending, if not incredulous that Louis would have acquiesced and not tried to regain the throne.

So, the movie tries to have it both ways by use of a narrator.  At the beginning of the movie, we heard a narrator saying something about how the story of the man in the iron mask was part fact and part legend. Now, at the end of the movie, the narrator returns with his part-fact-and-part-legend commentary, telling us that “it was whispered among his jailers” that the “prisoner” received a pardon and spent the rest of his days in the countryside.  The pardon thus being only a possibility, and words having less force than a visualization in any event, we are spared the offending scene of Philippe granting that pardon.

The whole business about who is the older brother with the right to be king is dispensed with. Their real father is D’Artagnan, who had an affair with Queen Anne, and so neither twin has a right to be king.  I suppose the idea was that we wouldn’t worry about which brother had the right to be king, since neither brother had that right.  But I suspect that those that care about such things were bothered by the fact that at the end of the movie, a bastard sits on the throne.

D’Artagnan dies in the end, but we don’t see his soul leave his body and rise to Heaven, something I doubt a modern audience could watch without groaning.  We made allowances for the 1929 and 1939 versions, but could not do so for a version made near the end of the twentieth century.  As for the Three Musketeers, there is none of that silliness we have come to expect, the three of them smiling and laughing as they swashbuckle.  That childlike characterization of them having been eliminated, the need to reassure the audience with depictions of souls ascending to Heaven was obviated.  Furthermore, had there been such a scene, we might have wondered why the soul of Aramis was not descending into Hell, given what he did to Philippe.  So, just to be on the safe side, I suppose, the movie avoids having them die anyway, the issue then being moot.

Aside from being guilty of adultery, which is no longer the great sin it once was, D’Artagnan is basically good in this movie.  It is Aramis, however, whose moral character is now in question, inasmuch as he not only had Philippe imprisoned in the Bastille, but also had that iron mask put on his head, intending for Philippe to remain that way for the rest of his life, which I regard as pure evil, only helping to free Philippe from prison when it suited his purposes, owing to a change in circumstances.  You really have to be a staunch defender of utilitarianism to think what he did was right.

The Man in the Iron Mask (novel)

As noted in my introduction, I never finished reading The Three Musketeers.  Nor have I read The Man in the Iron Mask, and I certainly did not read the stuff in between.  By what presumption, you might well ask, do I now propose to discuss this final novel of the D’Artagnan romances?  Well, the same way I managed to get through college.  If assigned to read some work of literature that was too long and ponderous for my taste, I would make do by reading those parts of the book the professor seemed to regard as important, and then get the rest from Cliff Notes.  While not using Cliff Notes for the purpose at hand, the internet has provided me with a summary, and from it I figured out which passages of the novel itself to read, which is also available online.

Before this novel even begins, Aramis, who is now the bishop of Vannes, has learned from a former lover, Madame de Chevereuse, that King Louis XIV has a twin brother.  And he has learned from from Baisemeaux, the governor of the Bastille, that there is a prisoner that looks exactly like King Louis XIV. In Chapter I, on the pretense of hearing that prisoner’s confession, Aramis gets to see this prisoner alone. Through a long and involved conversation, we learn that this prisoner, whose name is Philippe, was raised as a child by a nurse and a preceptor, in a secluded house surrounded by high walls.  Other than those two, he has seen very few people, one of whom we gather was his mother, Queen Anne.  He has never even been allowed to see his own reflection in a mirror, for there were none in the house, and Philippe does not even know what the words “mirror” or “looking-glass” mean.

But then one day, concerning an incident in which a letter from the queen fell into a well, the significance of which I had a hard time following, it seems that this alarmed the queen so much that she had Philippe’s nurse and preceptor killed, and then had Philippe transferred to the Bastille, where he presently resides. In the 1929 and 1939 movie versions, we always figured the queen knew she had twins, but men made the decision to conceal this fact from the people of France, and we concluded that she was relatively blameless.  In the 1977 and 1998 versions, she is told that one of the twins died right after being born. But here, we might well count her as one of the villains, more so than Louis XIV, who knew nothing of this, for she is the one who now condemns her own son to his undeserved fate.

Aramis shows Philippe a mirror to look into, and also shows him a picture of the king, convincing him that he is the king’s identical twin brother.  In case you are wondering, Philippe is not, at this point in the story, wearing an iron mask.

Aramis explains his plan to put Philippe on the throne in place of Louis.  Philippe is reticent, but Aramis eventually gets him out of the prison anyway.  In Chapter IX, Aramis tells Philippe that he is the “natural and legitimate heir to the throne of France.” However, Aramis cannot be trusted.  He also indicates the Louis has been responsible for Philippe’s imprisonment, when in point of fact, Louis knows nothing of Philippe at this point in the story.  It may be that Aramis is saying all this, not because it is true, which it is not, but to get Philippe to go along with his plan, part of which, as we find out in Chapter X, is for Philippe, once he is king, to help Aramis become pope.

They pull off the switch, with Louis being kidnapped by two masked men, who are Aramis and Porthos. They take Louis to the Bastille, telling the governor that they made a mistake when they took Philippe out of prison and are now returning him.  The governor believes the story and locks Louis up in the cell Philippe was in.

In all the movies we have considered, one brother was good and the other was evil.  In the 1929 version, it was Louis who was good, and the Twin Brother who was evil.  In the subsequent three movies, it was Louis who was evil, and Philippe who was good. But in every case, it was the good brother that was king in the end.  As for the novel, though it is not simplistic in its contrast between the brothers regarding their moral qualities, as is the case in all the movies, yet we nevertheless must conclude that, morally speaking, the worse of the two brothers is Louis, the one who is king at the end.

First, there is a comment by Aramis in Chapter I that if Philippe becomes king, it will be for “the good of humanity.”  However, Aramis may simply be saying that to justify his actions.  At the end of Chapter XXIV, however, D’Artagnan admits that Philippe might have made a better king.

Second, while Philippe intended to keep Louis in prison for the rest of his life, he believed that this was what Louis had intended for him, based on what Aramis had told him, and thus was only repaying Louis in kind.  But it was Louis that not only imprisoned Philippe once more, but condemned him to the awful fate of wearing that iron mask.

Third, Louis’s ingratitude toward Fouquet is shocking.  Just before he was put in the Bastille, Louis was planning on arresting Fouquet for embezzlement.  Aramis tells Fouquet of the switch, thinking he will be pleased to be free from arrest now that Philippe is king.  But Fouquet cannot in good conscience go along with this scheme. Instead, he goes to the Bastille and has Louis released. Once Louis regains his power as king and has Philippe arrested and returned to prison, now wearing an iron mask, he then has Fouquet arrested and put in prison too.  In other words, so strong was Fouquet’s belief that it was of the utmost importance that Louis be king, since he was the older brother and had that right, that he acted against his own self-interest by getting Louis back on the throne, where he would once again be made to suffer from the king’s displeasure.

It is suggested in Chapter XXIII that the reason the king shows no gratitude toward Fouquet is that Fouquet saw him in the Bastille looking a wreck from the brutal kidnapping, and acting weak and scared:

Louis, recalled to himself by the change of situation, looked at himself, and ashamed of the disordered state of his apparel, ashamed of his conduct, and ashamed of the air of pity and protection that was shown towards him, drew back. Fouquet did not understand this movement; he did not perceive that the king’s feeling of pride would never forgive him for having been a witness of such an exhibition of weakness.

Louis even begins blaming Fouquet for his abduction, saying, “You should have foreseen it.” What Fouquet should have foreseen was just how ungrateful Louis would be.

In the 1929 and 1939 versions of this story, Louis throws a silver dish out of his prison cell with writing on it, asking for help.  As a result, D’Artagnan in the former and Fouquet in the latter get Louis out of prison. In Chapter XXXI of the novel, it is Philippe, now wearing the iron mask, who is the one that tosses the silver dish out the window. But as there is no one to help him, since it was the king who ordered him confined there, he merely asks people to pray for him. Athos and his son Raoul pick up the dish. But then D’Artagnan shows up, takes the dish away from them, and scratches out the message.  Since D’Artagnan was the one who took Philippe to the prison and had the iron mask put on his head, under the king’s orders, Philippe’s silver dish accomplishes nothing.

If we imagine this being in a movie, this futile, pathetic gesture would be painful to watch.  For that reason, this incident with the silver dish is either transformed into an efficacious event in the first two movies, allowing the prisoner with the iron mask to escape, or it is eliminated entirely, as in the last two movies.

This business with the silver dish occurs about halfway through the book.  Save for one brief moment later on, Philippe is never referred to or thought of again.  Not only is Philippe condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison wearing the iron mask, but he is pretty much forgotten about as well.  Given the title of this novel and the horrifying image it creates, it is surprising how once Philippe is put back in prison, now wearing an iron mask, he is hardly given another thought, his terrible fate seemingly a matter of indifference to everyone else in the story.

In the Epilogue, D’Artagnan is mortally wounded.  He says, “Athos—Porthos, farewell till we meet again! Aramis, adieu forever!” This is followed by the last line of the book:  “Of the four valiant men whose history we have related, there now remained but one. Heaven had taken to itself three noble souls.”

Why this distinction between his farewell to Athos and Porthos on the one hand, and to Aramis on the other?  Of the three, Aramis is the only one still alive, but D’Artagnan could just as easily have said “till we meet again” to him as well, implying that Aramis’s soul will arrive in Heaven too when he eventually dies. By saying “forever” in his goodbye to Aramis, D’Artagnan, it would seem, does not expect to see Aramis in Heaven when Aramis eventually dies because, being guilty of trying to put a pretender on the throne in place of Louis, he had committed a mortal sin in his effort to subvert Louis’s divine right to rule, for which Aramis must spend eternity in Hell. What D’Artagnan did, on the other hand, taking Philippe back to prison and putting an iron mask on his head, which Philippe will be condemned to wear for the rest of his life, D’Artagnan did to make sure that Louis’s place on the throne would be secure, all for the greater good of France, the preservation of the royal order of succession, and in conformity with what had been ordained by God. Because D’Artagnan has been the hero of this novel and all those that came before it, and because his noble soul is taken into Heaven, it is clear that Dumas would have us approve of what D’Artagnan did, and therefore that God would approve as well.

As I commented in the review of the 1929 version, it is perfectly acceptable when people on Earth express a hope for a future life, that they or their loved ones will go to Heaven.  It becomes problematic only when Heaven is made explicit.  And so, the fact that D’Artagnan believes he will see Athos and Porthos again in Heaven, while expressing regret that Aramis will be sent to Hell, does not strain our credulity.

In Chapter LVII, however, Dumas does more than have people merely talk about Heaven.  When Athos’s son Raoul dies, Athos sees his son’s soul ascending to Heaven:

At length he gained the crest of the hill, and saw, thrown out in black, upon the horizon whitened by the moon, the aerial form of Raoul. Athos reached forth his hand to get closer to his beloved son upon the plateau, and the latter also stretched out his; but suddenly, as if the young man had been drawn away in his own despite, still retreating, he left the earth, and Athos saw the clear blue sky shine between the feet of his child and the ground of the hill. Raoul rose insensibly into the void, smiling, still calling with gesture:—he departed towards heaven. Athos uttered a cry of tenderness and terror. He looked below again. He saw a camp destroyed, and all those white bodies of the royal army, like so many motionless atoms. And, then, raising his head, he saw the figure of his son still beckoning him to climb the mystic void.

Perhaps it is on the basis of this passage that those who produced the 1929 and 1939 movie versions of this story thought it appropriate to have us see the souls of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers rise into Heaven as well.


It is clear that Dumas had a fondness for royalty and took seriously the order of succession, so much so that he believed it warranted having an innocent man imprisoned for most of his life, the latter half of it with an iron mask on his head.  But whereas God would be forgiving of what was done to Philippe, he could not forgive Aramis, who tried to violate the order of succession by putting Philippe on the throne, for which reason Aramis must burn forever in the fires of Hell.

As I noted above, even here in America, where our Founding Fathers rejected the idea of royalty and a hereditary order of succession, where we now regard all men and women as equal, there still lingers among many in this country a fondness for monarchy.  For them, the importance of the hereditary order of succession is a value that competes with the importance of a monarch’s moral qualities.  In the novel, the order of succession wins out over moral worth, but not so in the movies, where this struggle expresses itself in the different ways, but with moral worth always winning out in the end.

Furthermore, although atheism had begun to flourish during the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and was gaining traction throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, I suspect Dumas believed that there was a God and a future life for the immortal soul.  Instead of merely letting this be the hope on the part of the faithful, he guaranteed it, as it were, by having Athos actually see his son’s soul rise to Heaven.

As for religion in general, when a likable character dies in a movie, it is seldom felt necessary to make it clear that the person’s soul has gone to Heaven, and when that does happen, it is usually enough that someone utter words to that effect.  And this has become increasingly so over the last hundred years, so that we are less likely to hear about Heaven in a movie today than we might have in the early part of the twentieth century, unless it is a production from Pinnacle Peak Pictures, of course.

The references to the soul surviving death in this novel, made explicit in the case of Raoul, arose out of a sincere belief in God and immortality on the part of Dumas.  The need to ensure that the souls of these characters went to Heaven became even greater when the decision was made to portray D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers as childlike in the first half of the twentieth century.  And needless to say, that absolutely precluded any scene where we see the soul of Aramis being dragged down to Hell.  In the latter part of the twentieth century, the subject of souls going to Heaven in the last two versions of this story was avoided entirely, evincing a more secular attitude today than there was in the past.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 and 1981)

The Postman Always Rings Twice was written by James M. Cain in 1934.  There are a lot of movie versions of this novel, many of them foreign films, none of which I have managed to see except Ossessione (1943), and that was a long time ago.  By default, then, I must confine myself to the two versions made in America.

When I read James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity having already seen the movie several times, which is one of my favorites, I thought to myself that had the movie been like the book, I don’t think I would have cared for it.  I had a similar feeling with his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, except in this case, they did make a movie in 1981 that was a lot like the book, and I can say for sure that I didn’t care for it. Sometimes you really have to hand it to those major movie studios, Paramount in 1944 for the former, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1946 for the latter.  And perhaps I should give begrudging thanks to the Hays Office as well.  Joseph I. Breen declared that none of Cain’s novels would ever be made into a movie, and thus some of the scrubbing may have been necessary to appease his wrath, which resulted in movies more to my taste.

Of course, I have no doubt that some people prefer 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice to the 1946 version, and thus found it unfortunate that the 1946 version gave the story the high-class polish typical of Hollywood in those days.


If you like your sex rough, then the novel and the 1981 version are for you.  In the novel, Frank Chambers is a tramp.  He gets thrown off a hay truck, and after walking awhile, he comes across Twin Oaks Tavern.  He decides he’ll try to con a meal out of the owner, whom he is able to identify as a Greek before he even knows his name, which turns out to be Nick Papadakis.  Nick offers Frank a job, which Frank is none too sure about until he sees Nick’s wife Cora:

Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

And that’s exactly what he does do after taking the job and getting her alone:

I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers…. “Bite me! Bite me!”I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

Now, the 1981 version does not actually have a corresponding scene where the blood spurts into Franks mouth, with it running down Cora’s neck.  But the sex is still pretty rough.  Frank (Jack Nicholson) starts by forcing himself on Cora (Jessica Lange), which would have become a rape scene, except she gets turned on by it and wants it just as bad as he does.  They do it on the table where she had the baked bread, knocking that and everything else off onto the floor—knife, dough, flour—so they can satisfy their lust right then and there, only removing just enough clothing to allow for penetration. You see, if a couple takes the time to go to the bedroom, get fully undressed, and then slide into bed to make love, that’s too civilized.  But if they can’t wait for all that, but must do it wherever they happen to be at the moment, and in too much of a hurry to remove their clothes, then that just goes to show how hot their passion really is.

So, how did the 1946 version handle their first kiss?  Frank (John Garfield) kisses Cora (Lana Turner) against her will.  She does not bother to fight him or push him off.  She merely waits until he is through, flips open her compact, and looks into its mirror. Then she pulls out a handkerchief and wipes away the smeared lipstick.  That being done, she gives Frank a look of indifference as she pulls out her lipstick, which she reapplies, after which snaps the compact back together and walks away.

Well, maybe that’s not fair.  The rough sex scenes in the novel and 1981 version occur while Nick is away getting a new sign, and Frank locks the front door to keep customers out.  The 1946 scene described above occurs before that.  Later in that movie, Frank locks the door too, but this is followed by some hardboiled dialogue between him and Cora, in which she explains why she married Nick and admits she has fallen for Frank. They look into each other’s eyes and tenderly kiss. I’ll bet they went upstairs, got completely undressed, slid into bed, and made love just the way most of us would.


Frank wants Cora to run off with him, but she doesn’t want to go back to working in a hash house with Frank holding down some menial job.  She likes owning Twin Oaks Tavern, and she doesn’t want to give that up.  One thing leads to another, and she talks Frank into killing Nick and making it look like an accident.

Actually, here too there is a difference.  In the novel, they first try to murder Nick, but when that fails, they decide to run off together, although Cora soon realizes she wasn’t meant to be a tramp like Frank.  In the movie versions, they try running off first.  Then, when that doesn’t work, they plan to kill Nick.  That would seem to be the more natural thing, to attempt to simply leave Twin Oaks before deciding on something as drastic as murder.

In the novel, Frank explains how they planned on killing Nick:

We played it just like we would tell it.  It was about ten o’clock at night, and we had closed up, and the Greek was in the bathroom, putting on his Saturday night wash.  I was to take the water up to my room, get ready to shave, and then remember I had left the car out.  I was to go outside, and stand by to give her one on the horn if somebody came.  She was to wait till she heard him in the tub, go in for a towel, and clip him from behind with a blackjack I had made for her out of a sugar bag with ball bearings wadded down in the end. At first, I was to do it, but we figured he wouldn’t pay any attention to her if she went in there….  Then she was to hold him under until he drowned. Then she was to leave the water running a little bit, and step out the window to the porch roof, and come down the stepladder I had put there, to the ground. She was to hand me the blackjack, and go back to the kitchen. I was to put the ball bearings back in the box, throw the bag away, put the car in, and go up to my room and start to shave. She would wait till the water began dripping down in the kitchen, and call me. We would break the door down, find him, and call the doctor. In the end, we figured it would look like he had slipped in the tub, knocked himself out, and then drowned.

Frank does not say so in describing his plan, but presumably Cora was to lock the bathroom door from the inside after killing Nick.  That’s why she has to leave through the window.  And that’s why they would have to break down the door to get in later.

However, things don’t go as planned.  Frank sees a cat climbing the stepladder.  He goes to shoo it away. While away from the car, a motorcycle cop pulls in to see what is going on, suspicious of a man standing near a stepladder late at night.  Being away from the car, Frank cannot honk the horn. After the cop leaves, Frank starts to honk the horn to call off the whole thing, but suddenly the lights go out and Cora starts screaming.  It seems that just as Cora hit Nick, the cat got into the fuse box. She did not have time to hold Nick under the water, nor does Frank want her to at that point, now that a cop has seen that stepladder with Frank standing nearby.  So, they call an ambulance, and Nick survives.

Their plan did not deserve to work because it was unnecessarily elaborate.  There is no need for a stepladder for Cora to exit the bathroom, and therefore no need for Frank to be outside making sure the coast is clear.  Instead, after killing Nick, Cora could call an ambulance, saying she found Nick that way when she went in to get a towel.

The part about having to break down the door to get into the bathroom makes no sense.  After all, Cora didn’t have to break down the door to get into the bathroom to kill Nick, for the simple reason that Nick didn’t lock the bathroom door.  And why should he? The point of breaking down the door was to make it look as though Nick must have been alone when he fell, but that requires the police to believe that a married man would find it necessary to lock the bathroom door when taking a bath in order to keep his wife from coming in.

But suppose, nevertheless, they decide that they must break down a locked bathroom door to make it look as though Nick was alone when he fell.  In that case, after killing Nick, Cora could simply close the bathroom door and lock it from the inside, after which Frank would break down the door. Without the stepladder being outside leaning against the house, the cat would never have gotten to the fuse box, and the lights would never have gone out.  And without Frank standing outside, the cop would not have stopped to check on things.

Sex and Murder

Sex is more than just a motive for murder.  It’s a facilitator.  For Frank and Cora, it is what makes murder possible. Assuming that the part about door to the bathroom being locked is eliminated as an unnecessary complication, and likely to arouse suspicion besides, Cora didn’t need Frank’s help to murder Nick, at least as far as the physical aspect of the crime was concerned.  After she killed Nick, she would have been perfectly capable of putting the ball bearings back in the box and disposing of the bag, after which she could call the ambulance herself.  Stories in which a woman and her lover kill her husband are as old as that in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthus conspired to kill Agamemnon.  But Clytemnestra needed a man’s strength to put the sword to her husband.  In this case, however, Cora is supposed to do all the killing by herself.

But psychologically speaking, she did need Frank.  Sexual desire has a way of suppressing any qualms one might have of doing something immoral.  Together, a man and woman in love are capable of doing things they might not even consider otherwise.  In Double Indemnity, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) says to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), not realizing he is the one who conspired with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband, “There’s two of them, so they think it’s twice as safe.  But it’s not. It’s ten times twice as dangerous.”  Indeed, after seeing the movie, a friend of mine said, “If you’re going to commit a murder, do it alone.”  But while it may be safer to do it alone, it may not be possible without the needed element of love to neutralize one’s conscience.

Of course, in Double Indemnity Phyllis needed Walter’s knowledge of the insurance business to pull it off without getting caught. But in The Postman Always Rings Twice, all Cora needs is Frank’s love to enable her to get past her moral inhibitions.  One of the ways that love does this is by making the person you are cheating on become nothing in your eyes.  We are all familiar with the cliché, “I love my wife, but…,” as a man’s way of excusing his philandering.  And, indeed, if it were just a matter of getting a little on the side, it might not be so bad.  But while a man is carrying on with another woman, his wife means nothing to him. She’s just this thing that lives in his house. And that is the ugliest part about adultery.

The novel reveals how Cora turns Nick into a despicable thing, as preparatory to cheating on him. First of all, she takes pride in being white.  When Frank says to Cora, “you people” really know how to make enchiladas, she suspects he thinks she is a Mexican (in the novel, she has black hair).  She takes umbrage at that, saying, “I’m just as white as you are.”  But she does not regard Nick as white, as narrated by Frank:

It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white, and she was even afraid I would begin calling her Mrs. Papadakis.

My guess is that back when this novel was written, America had so many citizens that were of northern European descent that anyone whose ancestors were from southern Europe was not thought of as white.

“He’s greasy and he stinks,” Cora says of Nick.  And later she says he makes her sick when he touches her. Her contempt for Nick makes it possible for her to have an affair with Frank, which in turn makes her despise Nick even more.

Murder Again

After their first attempt at murder fails, they give up on the idea.  But in the novel as well as in the 1981 remake, after his close brush with death, Nick decides he wants Cora to have a baby with him. She says the idea disgusts her, saying Frank is the only one she wants to have a baby with.  In other words, it’s bad enough, to her way of thinking, to be married to someone that isn’t white without having a baby with him as well, which she says will be greasy, just like Nick.  In order to avoid having that greasy baby, they decide once again to kill Nick.

In the 1946 version, Nick, whose last name is changed to Smith, is just as white as Cora. Miscegenation was not allowed under the Production Code.  She could have still been repelled by the idea of having his baby, however. There is nothing unusual about a woman not wanting to have a baby with a man she detests, and there is nothing unusual about a woman detesting her husband. But that is not given as the reason for murder.  Perhaps having a woman in a movie expressing disgust at the idea of having a baby would have been objectionable to Breen, as an affront to motherhood.  In this version, what precipitates a second go at murder is Nick’s decision to sell Twin Oaks Tavern and move to northern Canada.  (Not simply Canada, mind you, but northern Canada.) He and his sister own a house up there, but she has become paralyzed and will need a woman to take care of her, that woman being Cora.  And just to put a cherry on it, Nick says of his sister, “Oh, she’s going to live for a long time yet, I hope.”

Never has a movie made me so sympathetic to a murder.  Of course, if I were Cora, I would just leave and go back to slinging hash.  There are worse things in life than holding down a menial job.  But she so hates that idea that Frank finds her in the kitchen holding a knife.  He thought she was planning on killing Nick with it, but she says she was going to use it on herself.  That’s when they decide on murder once more.

I was critical of their first attempt at murder.  But I cannot find fault with their second scheme to murder Nick because I don’t understand it.  I had the same trouble trying to understand the mechanical explanation for the death of the Sternwood chauffeur when I read The Big Sleep.  Maybe it’s because my knowledge of cars is limited to being able to drive one, and maybe it’s because cars functioned differently back then. Fortunately, both movie versions simplified it.  The idea was to make it appear that the car accidentally went over a cliff, killing Nick, even though Frank had already whacked him in the head, probably in the same spot where Cora had smacked him with the bag full of ball bearings. But things don’t quite go as planned, and Frank ends up getting caught in the car when it becomes dislodged and rolls further down the cliff, getting injured in the process.

Frank and Cora are suspected of murder.  And this where I really get confused.  It all has something to do with legal proceedings and insurance companies (three in the novel; one in the 1946 version; and two in the 1981 remake).  Essentially, District Attorney Sackett scares Frank into signing a complaint against Cora, which infuriates her.  Frank is the weaker of the two.  Cora is the one who had to talk Frank into committing a murder in the first place, and we have the sense that Sackett would never have been able to break her story.

In the novel, they have a smart lawyer named Katz, who manages to get Cora off with a charge of manslaughter, suspended sentence.  There is also a plot point involving blackmail by one of Katz’s former employees, a Mr. Kennedy, who has a confession from Cora that she and Frank planned the murder, which she signed in order to get even with Frank for betraying her.  However, Frank persuades Kennedy to hand over the confession by beating his face to a pulp.

The end result is that the love Frank and Cora had for each other is now poisoned. Worse, Cora cannot be tried for the same crime twice, but Frank was never charged with anything.  Therefore, Cora could simply testify with impunity that she and Frank did murder Nick, if she felt like it, and which she suggests she might do.  This makes Frank start thinking about killing Cora.

But it turns out she is pregnant with Frank’s baby.  They reconcile and get married. However, they end up in an automobile accident in which Cora is killed. Sackett now gets another chance to convict Frank, this time for murdering Cora.  There is a trial in the novel that I don’t understand any better than when Sackett tried Cora for killing Nick.  Frank is convicted and the story ends with him in prison, awaiting execution. There is no trial in the 1946 version.  The movie jumps ahead, and we find out that Frank has been narrating this story from his prison cell.  In the 1981 version, Frank is not narrating the story.  The movie ends at the scene of the accident, leaving us with no idea what happens to him after that, unless your familiarity with the novel or 1946 version allows you fill in the blanks.


Referring back to the scene of the murder, after the car has gone partway down the cliff, and before Frank is injured when it becomes dislodged, he and Cora become so overwhelmed with lust for each other that they have to have sex right there on the ground next to the car where Nick’s body lies crumpled-up in the front seat.  That is in the 1981 version as well as in the novel. Throughout the 1946 version, we never actually see Frank and Cora do anything but kiss, the rest of their sexual activity being implied, as was typical under Breen’s oversight of the Production Code.  But they don’t even kiss here.  That strikes me as more realistic.  If I were in the middle of committing a murder, I don’t believe I would be in the mood for love either.

And this brings out another difference between the 1946 version on the one hand, and the novel and 1981 version on the other. Part of the fun of watching the 1946 version is the way you get drawn into identifying with Frank and Cora.  They seem like an ordinary man and woman that slowly drift into murder.  But in the novel and 1981 version, they come across as animals.  Frank even refers to himself in the novel as an animal when he ravishes Cora right after the murder. As a result, we don’t identify with them.  We just react with disgust.

Of course, this is exactly how things would appear to us if we were invited to identify with a cuckolded husband witnessing his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto.  So, if Nick, not quite dead, had regained consciousness and looked out the window, Frank and Cora would have looked just like the animals they were.  But neither in the novel nor in either movie version are we encouraged to identify with Nick.  Rather, he is portrayed in such a way as to preclude identification.  We don’t feel the least bit sorry for him when he is murdered.

The animals to which there are repeated references in the novel are cats.  First, Frank says Cora looks like a “hell cat.”  She says she is not really a hell cat, but she needs to be a hell cat just this one time.  That’s when Frank realizes she wants to kill Nick.

Second, there is the cat that gets into the fuse box, shorting out the lights and getting killed in the process. It may be that the unnecessary complications of their first attempt at murder were needed by Cain so that a cat could be the reason why their plan failed.

Third, when Frank kills Nick in the car by hitting him in the head, he says of Nick, “He crumpled up and curled on the seat like a cat on a sofa.”

Fourth, their attorney’s name is Katz.  And so it is in the 1981 version.  But in the 1946 movie, their attorney’s name is Keats (Hume Cronyn).  In other words, the 1946 movie eliminates all references to cats, other than the one that got into the fuse box.

Fifth, after they escape from justice for murdering Nick, Cora gets word that her mother is ill.  While she is gone, Frank has an affair with Madge, a woman that catches lions, tigers, and jaguars.  Then she sells them to zoos, works them in movies, or just keeps them on exhibit at the restaurant she owns because they attract the trade.  She distinguishes between jungle cats, which you can train, and outlaw cats, raised in captivity, which are more likely to kill you because they are “lunatic cats.”

But Frank misses Cora, so he returns to her after she gets back from her mother’s funeral.  They start to patch things up between them, but while Frank is taking care of Kennedy, the one who tried to blackmail them, it seems that Madge stopped by, not knowing about his relationship with Cora, and left a young puma with her to give to Frank to remember her by.

In his review of the 1981 version, Roger Ebert mentions this part of the story, as criticism of the movie:

Along the way, there is a brief and totally inexplicable appearance by a woman lion tamer (Anjelica Houston), who seems to be visiting from another movie.

He is right about that.  It does seem that way.  And yet, it is faithful to the novel.  Half a chapter is spent on his relationship with Madge, and much of the next chapter is about the puma she left for Frank.  In a subsequent chapter, Madge testifies at Frank’s trial for Cora’s murder.  Sackett even brings the puma into the courtroom as Exhibit A.

In the 1946 version, there is no lion tamer.  Madge (Audrey Totter) merely works in a lunchroom.  We only see her when they meet.  The rest is implied.  Cora finds out about their affair when Madge stops by Twin Oaks to return Frank’s tie, which he accidently left in her glove compartment.

And so, I suppose it’s just a matter of taste.  If you prefer a story in which a man and a woman act like animals, cats in particular, outlaw lunatic cats, to be even more specific, you will likely prefer the novel and the 1981 remake.  But if you enjoy the guilty pleasure of identifying with a man and woman who seem almost like the rest of us, but who give in to the temptation of murder while under the spell of illicit love, then the 1946 version is the movie to see.

ETs Among Us: UFO Witnesses and Whistleblowers (2016)

Science Fiction Movies

My interest in flying saucers is strictly limited to science fiction movies.  The first such movie I ever saw, back when I was just a kid, was Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).  I’ll never forget the way a flying saucer lands, and an alien steps out from the force field surrounding that spacecraft.  Before the alien has a chance to say, “Take me to your leader,” we let him have it, killing him on the spot. On the other hand, sometimes we were the ones with the flying saucer, as in Forbidden Planet, which was also made in 1956.

It didn’t have to be flying saucers, of course, just as long as there was some kind of spacecraft that would allow extraterrestrials to visit Earth or for us to visit them.  And the distance travelled need not be great, as in Cat Women on the Moon (1953).  More likely, the extraterrestrials would be on a planet in our solar system, such as Venus in Queen of Outer Space (1958), or Mars in War of the Worlds (1953).

As for the possibility of encountering extraterrestrials originating outside our own solar system, it was necessary to imagine some kind of faster-than-light space travel, such as hyperspace or warp drive.  Since we have no such technology, our visiting other planets outside our solar system had to be imagined as taking place far into the future. Aliens from other planets, on the other hand, could arrive at any time.

As indicated above, as far as I was concerned, all this was just for fun.  I never took these movies seriously. The distance between stars is too great; traveling faster than light is not possible.  There may well be planets scattered throughout our universe supporting intelligent life, but we won’t be able to visit them, and they won’t be able to visit us.  Too bad.

In fact, we’d be doing good just to have some kind of communication with them.  So far, we haven’t received any signals from another planet indicating intelligent life.  And even if we did, a conversation with aliens on another planet would be tedious, after we somehow managed to teach them English, that is.  We would say something, years would pass, they would receive our message and say something in return, after which more years would pass, and then finally we would hear what it was that they said.

All the movies referred to above were made back in the 1950s, when we thought we could trust our government.  That ended in the 1960s and 1970s, when we learned ugly truths about J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., the machinations of the C.I.A., the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.  The resulting distrust found its way into science fiction, allowing for the possibility that the government knows more about extraterrestrials than it is letting on, notably in The X-Files, a show that debuted in 1993.

This too, as far as I was concerned, was just for fun.  I especially liked it in the beginning, when Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) was assigned to spy on Agent Mulder (David Duchovny), who was too willing to believe stuff for his own good, or rather, for the good of the government that didn’t want anyone to know about certain things.  While two government officials talk to Scully, a mysterious third man, wearing a black suit, stands off to one side, observing the interview.  The role of this third man was parodied in Men in Black (1997), in which the title men do their best to protect us from space aliens, while at the same time keeping the public from knowing about those aliens.  Mulder and Scully didn’t trust each other, and neither had a love life.  It was a cold world, a perfect atmosphere for that show. All that began to change as time went by, which, I suppose, was as inevitable as it was unfortunate.

Ufology Movies

A friend of mine, however, has recently immersed herself in the theory that there are aliens from other planets flying around in our skies, and she asked me to watch ETs Among Us:  UFO Witnesses and Whistleblowers (2016) and tell her what I thought.  I think she believed I might be persuaded by this documentary, which surprised me. She has known me to be a skeptic on this subject for a long time, going all the way back to 1968, when Erick von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? Nevertheless, I decided to give it a look.

Since I had never paid much attention to this ufology genre, which takes the idea of extraterrestrials seriously, I naively thought I might watch all the movies of this sort in order to get a good understanding of the situation.  The only one I had ever seen was The UFO Incident (1975), a movie based on a “true story” about a couple that had been abducted by aliens.  That bit about sticking a needle in the navel really made me squirm.  But other than that, I had no idea there were so many movies, mostly documentaries, that purport to provide evidence that UFOs are alien spacecraft.  I was overwhelmed.  There must be a huge audience for this sort of thing, I thought to myself. Indeed, it appears that forty percent of Americans believe in flying saucers.

My friend, on the other hand, has seen a lot of these ufology movies, and it was this particular one, ETs Among Us:  UFO Witnesses and Whistleblowers, that she seemed to regard as providing conclusive evidence for an alien presence here on Earth, covered up by the government.  I have decided, therefore, that even if I have not surveyed the entire field, she has, thereby relieving me of the need to view any more than just this one.

Government Conspiracies

It starts right off with Clifford Stone asserting that our government and other governments around the world know that UFOs are not of earthly origin, but have been denying this fact for years. The reason being, according to Richard C. Hoagland, is that if the American people were to find this out, civilization would be destroyed.  Later in the movie, he says that a lot of people will commit suicide if they learn that there are flying saucers.  This is followed by Robert Dean, who says that ninety percent of human beings are asleep, having no idea what’s going on in the world, living in a little illusional world of their own.

But if people will commit suicide if they wake up to the truth, then is it not better that they remain asleep? Does it not follow that this documentary we are watching is endangering civilization? Shouldn’t we be thankful that our government knows what is best for us, and that it is this very movie that poses a threat to our way of life?  I’m sure glad my friend didn’t commit suicide when she watched this movie and was persuaded as to its veracity.

In any event, we can’t handle the truth.  Toward the end of this movie, Dr. Z informs us that those in the government that dare to reveal what they know about extraterrestrials are assassinated. Sometimes, even those who keep what they know to themselves are killed anyway, just to be sure.

Jim Marrs, however, provides a different motive for why the government is keeping us from knowing about extraterrestrials.  If we became aware that they exist, then we would know that there are alternative sources of energy, methods of transportation, and other technologies, which would undermine the monopolies from which the government gets its power.  In this case, we can handle the truth, but letting us know the truth would not be good for those that benefit by keeping it all a big secret.

It may appear that this will be the basis for a debate between Hoagland and Marrs as to what the reason is for the government conspiracy behind the coverup regarding UFOs.  Instead, these alternative motives are allowed to coexist.  When one motive stops making sense, the ufologists can shift to the other motive, and when that one begins to falter under the facts, they can move back to the first one.  However, they are not equals.  The principal theory is that the government does not want us to know the truth because civilization would be destroyed if we did, while the theory that our knowledge would undermine monopolistic power is secondary, to be relied on only when necessary.

Around seven minutes in, Donald Ware says that the Council on Foreign Relations is the United States branch of world government, and you can’t get nominated to be president of the United States, Democrat or Republican, unless you have been groomed by the CFR for world service.  So, Donald Trump was groomed for world service before he took office, contrary to what you might have supposed.  Of course, it is only after they are elected to be president that these men are informed by the CFR that there are flying saucers.  Before that, they are in the dark, just like the rest of us. Later in the movie, we are informed that President Eisenhower actually met with some of these space aliens.  Furthermore, Ware says that the chairmen of the boards of all the major media companies in the United States, along with several others on those boards, are members of the CFR, and they see to it that we don’t know the truth.

Suspicions about world government have long existed by those who have no interest in UFOs.  They believe that organizations like the CFR, the United Nations, Bilderberg Group, and the Trilateral Commission are composed of elites who pull strings and control events behind the scenes.  As a result, those that maintain that UFOs are alien spacecrafts have a ready-made belief system that allows for the most essential feature of their views, which is that these world governments are determined to keep us from knowing about these aliens.

Conservatives are the ones that have always been bothered by this idea of world government, fearing that the United States is losing its sovereignty.  This was taken to the next level in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in which the whole world loses its sovereignty to a galactic government, which threatens to destroy earthlings with robots like Gort, if they don’t behave.  And the attitude of that movie was that the representative of that galactic government, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), is a good alien, and we should be grateful that he and his galactic government are doing this for our own good.  Conservatives must have really hated that movie.

Anyway, a little more than eight minutes into this movie, Jim Marrs claims that the government is now preparing us to believe that there is alien intelligence, because all governments need an enemy to control the people.  That is, since communism is gone, and terrorism will fade one day, an extraterrestrial threat will soon be needed to take their place.  Therefore, no matter what the government does, they can’t be trusted. Right now, they are mostly concealing or disputing evidence that would support the existence of alien spacecraft, but to the extent that they actually release evidence that does support their existence, that is because they will soon need us to believe in flying saucers so we will be frightened into submission.

This is another pair of contradictory, alternative theories.  When the government does anything that seems to go against the idea that they don’t want us to know about flying saucers, the ufologists can take the position that the government is trying to control us by making us afraid that there are extraterrestrials. But when that position begins to seem unlikely, they can move back to a government coverup.  Once again, however, they are not equals.  The principal theory is that the government doesn’t want us to know there are extraterrestrials, and the other theory, that the government needs us to believe in flying saucers so that they can control us, is utilized only as needed.

Shortly after that, Daniel P. Sheehan refers to the 1977 Congressional Research Service report that concluded that there were two to six highly technologically developed, intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. As noted above, even now in the twenty-first century, we have yet to detect any signals from space that would indicate even one such planet beyond our solar system with intelligent life on it, and he says that in 1977, this report stated that there were two to six of them.

Well, I researched it, and I could find no reference in that report to these extraterrestrial civilizations. Assuming that the report does include this subject, it would have been nice if Sheehan had provided a link so we could read about it.  Or, if this is classified information that only he was privileged to see for some reason, he might at least have told us what the evidence is for such a claim.  In particular, what is it that allows us to be sure there are at least two such planets, but leaves us in doubt as to the other four?

Religious Implications

Then there is a shift to ancient astronauts.  Poala Harris says we have proof that we were visited by extraterrestrials in ancient times, and as she is saying this, we see a painting of a flying saucer hovering over a brontosaurus.  More significantly, however, we are shown religious art featuring flying saucers: paintings of Moses, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus, all supposedly with one or more flying saucers somewhere in the picture.  I guess the idea is that Moses got the Ten Commandments, not from God, but from some ancient astronaut, and it was not the Holy Ghost that came upon the Virgin Mary, but some extraterrestrial.  Of course, these artists were not around in biblical times, just as there were no artists around in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, so it is not clear how these paintings are supposed to be evidence of such.

And why religious art anyway?  In the movie Contact (1997), when it appears that there is intelligent life on another planet, we see Robert Novak on Crossfire saying, “Even a scientist must admit there are some pretty serious religious overtones to all this.”  For some reason that I have never understood, he is expressing a view held by a lot of people, that the existence of extraterrestrials would have religious significance.  Now, if there is a God, he could have chosen to put intelligent life on other planets, or he could have confined it to just this one.  If there is no God, then since evolution produced intelligent life on this planet, it could just as easily have done so on other planets.  The supposed religious implications are nonexistent.

Extraterrestrial Motivations

Up to this point, the focus has been on theories about what the government is up to regarding UFOs. But there is also the question as to the role of the aliens in all this, especially if they are the ones responsible for religious belief on this planet.  Do they want us to know about them, or are they trying to avoid detection; are they acting independently, or in a conspiracy with the government; and are they benevolent, or do they wish us harm?

This consideration is precipitated by a discussion of the autopsy of an alien whose flying saucer crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, which was filmed and later broadcast in 1995, under the title Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction.  Either the film is real, and that creature was an alien from another planet, or it is fake, as the government claims.  In general, when we look at a picture, there is usually someone telling us what it means, without which we would not know what we were looking at.  Therefore, the whole thing hinges on whether the person telling us what it means is reliable.  In this case, the person that talks about that autopsy is some guy in Greece, Nikos Alexacos, whoever that is.

Alexacos says that the brain of the alien that was autopsied shows evidence of telepathic powers, and that lots of people right here on Earth have received communications from the aliens through ESP.  Who these people are and what the aliens psychically said to them, Alexacos doesn’t tell.  In any event, the aliens must want us to know about them, otherwise they wouldn’t let people know of their existence through telepathy.

Mental telepathy aside, it is argued that the aliens want us to know about them through ordinary means, deliberately flying around so we can see them, and even getting out of their flying saucers to talk to people, making it difficult for the government to keep it all a secret.  But if the aliens want us to know about them, all they have to do is land right in the middle of the football stadium at half-time during the Super Bowl, step out of their flying saucer, and say, “Here we are!”

Perhaps they are afraid to do so.  According to Alfred Webre, the extraterrestrials are from benevolent civilizations, but Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, and David Rockefeller set up a “virtual disinformation system” to discredit all contactees, and then they essentially declared war on the aliens with the goal of capturing their technology, presumably for the sake of wealth or conquest.

I once read that Stephen Hawking advised against sending signals into space.  Instead of trying to make contact with intelligent life on other planets, he said we should avoid making contact, or they will come here and hurt us.  Well, people that think as he did might just as well relax.  According to Donald Ware, Zeta Reticulans are already here, living among us.  But the Zeta Reticulans are not the only ones.  Clifford Stone says there are fifty-seven different alien species on our planet.  He bases this on a book he saw when he was in the military with instructions on how to render first aid to any alien species that soldiers might come into contact with.  Because the aliens don’t speak English, they would let us know about their injuries through mental telepathy.


This leads to the subject of hybridization.  A female abductee, taken aboard a flying saucer, will have the DNA in her eggs modified through splicing.  Then the fetus is implanted in her.  Six weeks later it is extracted and put in a jar with liquid in it, presumably so it can further develop.  The point is to alter human bodies in a way that will allow our souls to inhabit these hybrid forms when they are reincarnated into them in the future.  Furthermore, for some reason or other, fifteen percent of the world’s population already have alien implants in their bodies, composed of iron surrounded by tissue full of nerves.

Galactic Diplomacy

Earlier I made reference to alternative theories, in which two mutually incompatible theories are allowed to exist at different times, depending on the situation, without forgoing either one completely.  By this point, it should be clear that this movie is supporting a whole variety of theories about extraterrestrials, many of which are inconsistent with one another.  They are invoked as needed, ready to be set aside temporarily when a totally different theory is deemed suitable for the occasion.  So, if your mind is beginning to wilt under the onslaught, that is to be expected.  I say this because another layer is about to be added to all this, and you are not expected to be able integrate this information with what has come before.

It seems that the aliens are worried about us.  They are concerned about the environment, but mostly, they are concerned that we will destroy our planet through nuclear war.  To that end, they have an “integrated galactic plan” for the benefit of our planet.  That is why an alien visited Gorbachev and told him that the Soviet Union needed to change its ways, right after which Gorbachev initiated Glasnost and Perestroika.


While we wonder if an alien will soon be sitting down to talk to Putin, the subject changes to a moon base being planned by the military.  Paul Hellyer, the former Minister of National Defence in Canada, worries that if the Moon is being used by extraterrestrials, then we cannot be sure what kind of reception Americans will receive when they start working on that moon base.  One of the problems, according to Hellyer, is that he doubts if a single member of Congress knows about the existence of these extraterrestrials on the Moon.  When they fund such projects, they are unknowingly putting us in danger.

In fact, it seems that the Defense Department could not account for over two trillion dollars in spending for secret projects like this moon base, so to cover up this activity, it was made to appear that a plane flew into the Pentagon on 9/11, while in point of fact, the destruction was actually produced with explosives set off by agents of our own government.  Not surprisingly, according to Jim Marrs, the majority of fatalities at the Pentagon that day were in the Army’s accounting office, the very people investigating the missing money.

Our Martian Ancestry

And then it turns out that the extraterrestrials are us.  According to Richard C. Hoagland, the human race did not originate on Earth, but on Mars.  Actually, Clifford Stone says the Martians lived inside the two moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos, before they came here.  Neither man says exactly when the Martians migrated to Earth, or whether there are Martians that still live inside those moons, but David Hatcher Childress suggests that at least some of the Martians came here thousands of years ago, since they were the ones responsible for building the megalithic structures here on Earth, obelisks and pyramids, which are just like the ones on the Moon and on Mars.

One wonders why they would waste time with obelisks and pyramids when they could have been building refineries and electric power plants to supply themselves with the same conveniences they presumably enjoyed back home, while living inside those moons.

Putting it all together, we are not of pure Martian ancestry, but rather a hybrid of Martians and humans at an early stage of evolution, which resulted in what we now call modern man. Anyway, after they colonized Earth, the Martians continued with what David Jacobs calls their goal of “planetary acquisition.”  Dave Perkins says this is achieved by means of cattle mutilations, the purpose of which is to take bacteria from the rectums of these cows, which is then used to nurture hybrid babies in space, the ones in those jars referred to above, which are then used to populate the universe.


I will never watch another ufology film.  This one wore me out.  What really worries me, though, is that from now on, I may not be able to enjoy watching science fiction movies anymore either.

Boomerang! (1947)

It adds to our interest in a movie to learn that it is based on a true story. It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that movies are better when they are based on something that really happened rather than based on nothing more than a writer’s imagination.  And this is because whereas a work of fiction can be structured so that everything is developed smoothly and is satisfactorily resolved by the end, reality is often messy and incomplete.

Boomerang! is a good example of that.  It was made during a period in which a lot of filmmakers were on a realism kick, wanting to make movies based on true stories and filmed on location.  It begins with a Reed Hadley, semi-documentary, Louis de Rochemont style of narration, with “America, the Beautiful” playing in the background to put us in the proper, patriotic mood: “The basic facts of our story actually occurred in a Connecticut community much like this one.”  It seems quaint now when we hear him say that, for location filming is not something we care about today. The prologue tells us that many “actual characters” were used in filming this movie, whatever that means, since the crime on which this movie is based occurred in 1924, twenty-three years earlier.

Hadley’s narration accompanies us through the murder of Father Lambert and the outrage on the part of the citizens of the community.  This community, Hadley informs us, had recently benefitted from a reform movement, which ousted the machine politicians that had run things in the past. Throughout the movie, there are several references to the way the Reform Party has brought decency to this town.  In a flashback, we see Lambert sitting next to Madge Harvey (Jane Wyatt), chairman of the committee in charge of city-improvement projects, like parks and playgrounds.  She and Lambert are in complete agreement as to the worthwhile nature of the latest project, a recreation center, which is being promoted by Paul Harris (Ed Begley), who believes his bank may be able to arrange for the purchase of the land needed for that project. As we later find out, Madge is married to State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews).

But then we have another flashback, in which we see Father Lambert dealing with two different men, as narrated by Hadley: “Since he was a man of God, his labors sometimes led him into the strange and secret places of men’s souls. He was just and forgiving, but he was also a man and a stern and uncompromising judge of character.” The first man, we later find out, is John Waldron, played by Arthur Kennedy.  We see Lambert give him something, smile, and pat him on the shoulder.  But Waldron angrily turns away, wadding up the piece of paper he was handed and throwing it away. From what we find out subsequently, Waldron was presumably asking for a handout, but all he was given instead was “a lecture and a pamphlet.”

This is followed by a conversation Lambert has with a second man, Jim Crossman, who is around forty years old, judging by the actor, Philip Coolidge, who plays this role. Lambert tells him that he is sick and needs to be institutionalized:  “This time, fortunately, no great harm has been done. But the next time…. No, I can’t let you go any longer. It’s got to be a sanitarium.”  It would be reasonable to assume that Jim works for the church in some capacity in order for Lambert to know him well enough to have him in his office.  Lambert asks Jim if he has spoken to his mother about his problem, at which point Jim becomes frantic at the thought she might find out.  From the remarks by Father Lambert, we had already accepted the fact that Jim was mentally ill and needed to be institutionalized.  So, why this reference to his mother?

In the movies, a mother can be an ominous character, suggesting some kind of emotional problem on the part of her son, especially if he still lives with her.  This is not invariably the case, however.  In the movie Marty (1955), we never conclude that there is anything mentally unbalanced about the title character, played by Ernest Borgnine, even though he is in his thirties and lives with his mother. It appears that he supports his mother, now widowed, and that goes a long way in reassuring us. And we find out that he is unmarried, not because he is too attached to his mother, but simply because, as he puts it, he is a “fat, ugly man.”

But in other movies, a close relationship between mother and son is a bad sign.  In The Organization Man, William H. Whyte, Jr. says that the kind of man a major corporation wants for upper management is one who loves both his father and his mother, but his father a little bit more.  As in real life, so too in the movies, a man who is more attached to his mother than his father is thought to be a “mama’s boy,” as in Home from the Hill (1960).  Another example of this was dramatized in The Caine Mutiny (1954).

For some reason that escapes me now, I once happened to be watching the Lifetime Channel, where two women were talking about how much they liked that channel because it has stories about communication and feelings.  As one of the women noted with regret, men don’t like to talk about their feelings.  In response, the other woman expressed exasperation, saying, “And why is it when you do find a guy that’s really nice, they all have these strange relationships with their mothers!”  As she says this, we see a grey-haired, bespectacled woman, sitting on a couch with a contented smile on her face, while her adult son lies there with his head in her lap, sucking on a baby bottle.

In His Girl Friday (1940), Cary Grant does not want his ex-wife, Rosalind Russell, to marry Ralph Bellamy.  As soon as Grant finds out that Bellamy lives with his mother, and that Bellamy is planning on him and Russell living with his mother for the first year of their marriage, Grant knows that those marriage plans don’t have a prayer.  After all, Grant went through the same thing in The Awful Truth (1937), when his wife, played by Irene Dunne, planned on marrying Bellamy right after her divorce from Grant became finalized.  And there too, Bellamy lived with his mother.  In the end, he broke off his engagement with Dunne, and he and his mother moved back to Oklahoma.

It is not just the son’s attachment to his mother that causes problems.  Maternal jealousy can be a factor as well.  In The Awful Truth, Bellamy’s mother despises Dunne before she has even met her, and she tells her son she wants him to keep his mind off women.  Even in Marty, when Borgnine does find someone, Betsy Blair, who might be willing to marry him, his mother tries to sabotage their relationship so she can to maintain sole possession of him, saying Blair is too old for him, and that she is just “one step away from the streets.”  His mother concludes by saying she doesn’t want him to bring Blair to the house anymore.

Near the end of The Awful Truth, when Bellamy decides to break off his engagement to Dunne, he says, “I guess a man’s best friend is his mother.”  Or, as Anthony Perkins would later say in Psycho (1960), “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”  This takes us beyond the situation where a man may have difficulty establishing a normal relationship with a woman on account of his attachment to his mother, and moves us into the area where a man’s relationship with his mother is an aspect of his insanity.  Other examples are Strangers on a Train (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956).

And so, since Jim presumably still lives with his mother, even though he is forty years old, we gather that his mental problems must have something to do with his relationship with her and the sexual distortion that implies.  We never learn exactly what Jim has done, but everything points to his being a child molester. The remark about no great harm having been done this time suggests that he was caught fondling a little girl, and Lambert is afraid that the next time Jim will go further.

As for Waldron, we know that anger can be a motive for murder, but killing a priest because he gave Waldron a pamphlet instead of some money is a bit of a stretch.  On the other hand, a child molester who is afraid his mother will find out and that he will be put in a sanitarium definitely has a motive for murder. So, why would the movie let us know who Lambert’s killer was right in the beginning? Sometimes murder mysteries do that.  In the television series Columbo, we always found out in the beginning who the murderer was, and the fun was watching the cat-and-mouse game played between him and the title detective.  So, I settled in with that assumption and continued to watch the movie.

The Morning Record is the local newspaper, whose star reporter is Dave Woods (Sam Levene).  We know he’s hardboiled because we repeatedly see him typing with just his two index fingers.  The Record is owned by a man who preferred the previous administration rather than the Reform Party, and so his paper is playing up the story of Lambert’s murder, making a political issue out of it, putting pressure on Chief Harold Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), State’s Attorney Henry Harvey, and the politicians at City Hall. The pressure is intensified by the fact that an election is coming up soon, and failure to find the killer may lead to a loss for the Reform Party.

When Harvey gets home, he and Madge discuss the case, and then she talks about the recreation center, saying they may even be able to have a swimming pool.  Harvey says, “Well, you can’t ever say you haven’t any kids to fool with.  You’ll have hundreds hanging around….”  Her face falls, and he realizes he made a mistake in referring to the fact that they haven’t been able to have any children.  We gather that this is the reason she has immersed herself in projects that children would benefit from.

Eventually, Waldron is arrested by the police in Ohio for carrying a .32 revolver, like the one that was used to kill Lambert.  Witnesses that were present the night Lambert was shot pick him out of the lineup, and the ballistics confirms that his gun is the murder weapon.  Waldron says he wants a lawyer, but Chief Robinson says, “You’ll get one later.”  A uniformed cop, an older man that has been on the force for a long time, wants to beat a confession out of Waldron, complaining that they are wasting time and losing a lot of sleep.  Robinson refuses to go along with that.  I suppose that is a reflection of the decency brought about by the Reform Party.

But in one sense, the uniformed cop is right:  giving a man the third degree is a tough job when you can’t just beat it out of him. After an eight-hour shift, the detectives who have been grilling Waldron are exhausted, heading for home, while another shift takes their place, working hard to keep Waldron awake while they badger him with questions.  After two days of keeping Waldron from getting any sleep while they continue the nonstop interrogation, the detectives wonder how much longer they can keep it up.  But finally, Waldron gives in and just signs whatever confession they stick in front of him.  Worn out from it all, Robinson says, “What a way to make a living!”

At this point, I figured that the time had come when a clue would be found indicating that Jim might be the actual murderer.  And so it began to seem, at first.  Though Harvey is to be the prosecuting attorney, he shocks the court on the first day of the trial by announcing that he intends to prove that Waldron is innocent.  Pretty much everyone is upset by this, but none more so than Jim, whom we see in the audience with a scared look on his face.  I guess he figures that only if Waldron is convicted will he be safe from suspicion.  The judge calls Harvey into his chambers and threatens him with prosecution. Chief Robinson is angry, but he does break up a lynch mob outside the courthouse.  Even Waldron’s lawyer is upset with this intrusion on his role as defense attorney.  But it turns out that Harvey’s doubts are not brought about by any clue regarding Jim.  He tells one of his politician acquaintances that he just believes that Waldron is innocent.

When Harvey gets home, Paul Harris, the banker played by Ed Begley, is waiting for him.  He admits that he owns the land the bank is supposed to buy for the recreation center, and if they lose the election on account of Harvey’s refusal to prosecute, there will be no recreation center, and he will be ruined. Furthermore, he tells Harvey that Madge gave him $2,500 to help him buy that land, and that wouldn’t look good if that came out.

I doubt this is one of the facts of the true story on which this movie is based, for I found no hint of it in researching it.  Instead, it appears to be an expression of attitude on that part of Richard Murphy, who wrote the screenplay, and Elia Kazan, who directed this movie.  In particular, they are saying, “See what happens when a woman tries to compensate for not having children by getting involved in do-gooder activities. She ends up making foolish decisions, causing problems for her levelheaded husband.”

The next day, Harvey presents evidence that Waldron did not commit the murder, despite all the political pressure and even blackmail brought against him.  He gives reasons to doubt the eyewitness testimony, the ballistics report, and the validity of the confession.  There is a preposterous scene in which Harvey has an assistant point Waldron’s loaded revolver at his head and pull the trigger in order the prove that the firing pin was faulty, and thus the gun could not have been the murder weapon.  That could have been demonstrated without such theatrics.  Following this, Dave, the reporter played by Sam Levene, passes a note to Harris, letting him know that he has found out about his land deal. As a result, Harris commits suicide by shooting himself right there in the courtroom.  Somehow, I doubt seriously that these are some of the “basic facts” of this “true story.” But the main thing is that Harvey did not present any evidence that the murder was actually committed by Jim in an effort to conceal the fact that he is a pedophile.

Anyway, Waldron’s innocence having been established, he is released.  We see Jim leave the courtroom, while Dave happens to glance at him over his shoulder.  Later, Dave learns that Jim was killed in an automobile crash.  He was fleeing from police for speeding, when he suddenly swerved, presumably intending to kill himself.  Dave has a look that indicates he has put it all together and knows that Jim is the killer.  But the only reason we believe he knows the truth is that we know the truth, and we project our knowledge into this character.  At the same time, Reed Hadley, the narrator, tells us that the case was never solved, again accompanied by “America, the Beautiful.”

In other words, there was no pedophile.  It was a total fabrication.  In its confused way, the movie is admitting that no one ever found out who killed Father Lambert, while assuring us that justice was served by the death of this fictional character Jim.  The reason for this is easy to understand.  If the movie had stuck to the facts, if all the made-up stuff with Jim had been edited out, then the movie would have ended with the unsatisfactory conclusion that while an innocent man was cleared, the guilty man, whoever he was and whatever his motive, was never caught.

This movie cheats, trying to have it both ways.  It presents its story as based on actual events and filmed on location to give it an aura of authenticity, and then it concocts an imaginary child molester to be the villain so he can be killed off at the end, giving the movie the kind of resolution that we typically have in a work of fiction.

King Kong (1933)

I first saw King Kong on television about sixty years ago.  It opened on board a tramp steamer, already in the vicinity of Skull Island.  Apparently, this was the only version that had been available for a long time because even the Mad Magazine spoof published in the 1950s started at that point.  It was not until a little over ten years later that I saw the entire, uncut movie at a revival house. It was then that I saw the introductory scene in New York, where Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), movie director, finds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), down on her luck on account of the Great Depression, and promises her a chance to be the leading lady in an adventure film he plans on making.

I also saw for the first time a lot of the mayhem that King Kong, a giant gorilla, wreaked on the village once he got outside the wall that kept him and all those dinosaurs that populated Skull Island confined.  And even more shocking, I saw Kong removing Ann’s clothes once he got her back to his lair, making it clear that he was sexually aroused by her and wanted to see her naked.

I first became aware that I was not alone in regarding King Kong as a really great movie when I read Danny Peary’s Cult Movies:  The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, which included an essay on King Kong.  In 1993, Peary published his Alternate Oscars, in which he says King Kong should have won the Award for Best Picture, but the Academy thought it undignified to give such an award to a monster movie. Instead, the Award for Best Picture of 1933 went to Cavalcade.  Need I say more?

The Girl in the Hairy Paw is a 1976 anthology of reviews and essays on King Kong, which I suppose is further evidence that not only was I not alone in thinking this movie was special, but also that there were movie critics that have an even higher regard for it than I did.  There are essays on technology, especially stop-motion.  There is one on the score by Max Steiner.  There are essays on previous works that have influenced King Kong, such as Gulliver’s Travels, in which a giant monkey in the land of Brobdingnag pulls Gulliver out of his room and climbs to the top of a roof with him. There are also discussions of The Lost World (1925), a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  That movie definitely has elements in it that later made their way into King Kong.  There is the painting by Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Dead, which was the basis for Skull Island.  And, of course, there is the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, which is explicitly emphasized in the movie, from start to finish.

Even more unexpected than the fact that this movie is held in such esteem by film critics is the fact that there are so many interpretations of this movie. Usually, a movie is just what it seems to be on the surface.  And that’s how I regarded King Kong, as a scary monster movie.  Had it turned out that a single film critic was able to see a deeper, hidden meaning in this movie, that would have been surprising enough.  But I have lost count of all the different ways this movie can be interpreted.

In his forward to The Girl in the Hairy Paw, Rudy Behlmer says that Merian Cooper did not want his movie to be interpreted:

Cooper became irate when we discussed those who attached “symbolic” overtones—phallic and otherwise—to various aspects of Kong.  As far as he was concerned there were no hidden meaning, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything remotely resembling intellectual “significance” in the film.

[According to Cooper]“King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple. A more illogical picture could never have been made.” [page 13]

That is an understandable reaction from someone that intended his movie to be nothing but entertainment, but such protests are of no avail.  This movie was made in the early twentieth century, at a time when psychoanalysis was all the rage.  And a fundamental principle of this branch of psychology is that a man is not necessarily an authority on the meaning of what he says or does. Psychoanalysis is no longer the dominant force it was once, but left in its wake is the theory that authorial intent is irrelevant, that a text may be interpreted on its own merits, without regard for, or even in disregard of, the purpose the author says he had in writing it. So too is it with movies.

One thing that encourages interpretation is the fact that what happens on Skull Island is recapitulated by what happens in Manhattan.  In this regard, Peary gives some examples:

For instance, a giant snake is replaced by a snakelike elevated subway; the pterodactyl by airplanes; the mountain lair by the Empire State Building, and so on. Only, on the island it is Ann who is in chains, while in New York it is Kong. [Alternate Oscars, page 24]

After Kong escapes, Ann says, “It’s like a horrible dream.  It’s like being back on the island again.”  As a result, we can’t help but wonder if this means that events in the jungle are telling us something about what happens in the city. And if it is a horrible dream, as Ann says, that really is the gateway to interpretation.  Jean Boullet is emphatic on this score:  “King Kong is—and this is probably unique in the history of cinema—a dream filmed in its entirety [Hairy Paw, page 108].”

It has often been observed that much of this movie is not realistic.  Cooper himself said it was illogical, as noted above.  No gorilla could be that big without collapsing under his own weight.  A brontosaurus gobbles up someone even though it is not a meat eater. And I still find it hard to believe that they could have gotten Kong back to New York on a raft.  Defenders of the dreamlike quality of this movie turn these inconsistencies, absurdities, and fictions into just so much support for their thesis, saying these unrealistic features of the movie are part of what makes us experience it as a dream.

The examples just given are conceptual absurdities, which would exist no matter how the movie was filmed.  Claude Ollier, on the other hand, emphasizes the visual discrepancies:

We may note, then, how even the minor flaws in the continuity of perspective or movement, far from destroying or enfeebling the credulity of the spectacle, are in accord rather with the presentation of a totally dreamlike state, a dream created by means of spatial illusion, optical displacements, and disruptions between individual shots and overall continuity. [Hairy Paw, page 115]

And there is also the fact that we mostly dream in black-and-white. Sometimes I experience color in my dreams.  Most of the time, however, if there are colors, they are so muted that the dream still has more of a black-and-white quality. Had King Kong been filmed in color, that would have worked against the experience of the movie as a dream.

Of the interpretations, I suppose we can start with the economic allegories. In Great Hollywood Movies, Ted Sennet says, “It has been interpreted in Marxist terms:  the enslavement of the powerful but ignorant masses, straining to break their bonds [page 172].”  Ollier, who refers to Denham as a “capitalist,” also sees this movie as symbolic of the financial crisis that America was in at that time:

Thematically, the film stresses the conjunction between the stupefying power of theatrical spectacle and the stock market activity bound up with it, and the way this in turn inexorably leads to a catastrophic depletion and disorder—disasters of a kind which seem nonetheless to have been unconsciously wished for by the populace. [Hairy Paw, page 111]

And in Pre-Code Hollywood:  Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty makes yet a third economic interpretation:  “Kong tumbles from the heights and crashes to the street below, like the stock market, the nation, flat on its back [page 292].”

I don’t know.  Maybe this category of interpretation had more resonance when the movie was released, in the middle of the Great Depression.  Seeing it as I did for the first time in the 1960s, without the scenes in New York before the ship sets sail, where Ann is on the verge of starving to death before Denham buys her a meal and promises to make her a star, that made an economic interpretation by me unlikely.  Perhaps this first impression on me makes me resistant to such an interpretation even now.

Peary makes references to an interpretation in which the movie is “an indictment of ‘bring ’em back alive’ big game hunters [Cult Movies, page 180].” In a similar vein, Sennett says, “It has been called a diatribe against the brutality of civilized man [Great Hollywood Movies, page 172].”

Moving on now to psychoanalytic interpretations, one suspects R.C. Dale is under Jungian influence when he makes the following remarks:

The film manages to bypass the critical, censorious level of the viewer’s consciousness and to secure his suspension of disbelief with what appears to be great ease.  A number of French critics have attributed this phenomenon to what they call the film’s oneiric qualities, its pervasive dreamlike control of some subconscious, uncritical part of the mind….  But probably the most important reasons for the film’s success at capturing us as spectators are that it carefully establishes a reality of its own; it employs extensive use of archetypal myth imagery that appeals directly to our subconscious, and it uses an extremely effective narrative approach to its subject. [Hairy Paw, page 117]

You are probably familiar with the question raised by one critic, “If the natives wanted to keep King Kong on the other side of the wall, why did they build a door big enough for him to get through?”  I’m no Freudian, but someone of that school of thought might argue that there is an unconscious desire to let the id escape from its suppression. Skull Island represents the mind of man. The peninsula where the natives live corresponds to the conscious ego; the wall is the superego; behind the wall is the id. Deep down inside, the natives want to let loose these “monsters from the id,” perhaps owing to what Freud called a death drive, an urge toward self-destruction.

Along the lines of such a Freudian understanding of this movie, Peary argues in Cult Movies, pages 181-83, that only part of King Kong is a dream, starting when The Venture leaves port, and even then, it is not our dream but that of Carl Denham.  Early in the movie, Denham, a bachelor, expresses disdain for women, but the public demands a love interest in a movie, so he needs a woman for his next film.  Incapable of having a sexual relationship with women himself, his subconscious conjures up Kong as his alter-ego, who can give free reign to his lust for Ann.  In support of this, Peary notes that the only scenes in which Denham and Kong are in the same frame are those in which Kong is incapacitated in some way.

Or the movie can be seen as a woman’s worst nightmare.  One thing that women dread is being overpowered by a man, especially one who is too big for her.  The greatest impossibility of this movie comes when Kong starts taking Ann’s clothes off her in a desire to mate with her.  Their difference in size makes sex between them impossible, and yet we know that is what Kong wants, and, beyond all reason, would have ravished her had Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) not rescued her at the last moment.  But then, as Peary points out, one of the reasons that Kong is sometimes regarded as a hero by women is that “he doesn’t hide his feelings as most men do [Cult Movies, page 183].”

The editors of The Girl in the Hairy Paw, Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman, tackle the subject that most critics would prefer to avoid, but which must ultimately be acknowledged:  the theory that King Kong is a racist nightmare.  In the movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), a black man named Gus almost rapes a white woman, but she leaps off a cliff, killing herself, to avoid the fate worse than death.  But in The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, the novel on which the movie was based, Gus does rape white maiden. He is referred to as “apelike” and as having “black claws.”  As Geduld and Gottesman point out, this is nothing new:

… for the ape and the Negro have been all too often associated in the minds and literature of racists….  The association of ape and Negro relates to King Kong in so far as the film has sometimes been interpreted as a white man’s sick fantasy of the Negro’s lust to rape white women. [pages 24-25]

Ironically, this interpretation may explain why the movie was not welcomed by the Third Reich, as suggested by Doherty:

King Kong went on to become a global phenomenon—with one notable exception. In Germany, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels banned the film from import into the Fatherland.  RKO distributors were bewildered by the decree, but perhaps the Nazis had rightly gleaned the subtextual threat to Aryan womanhood by the Untermensch turned Übermensch, King Kong. [Pre-Code Hollywood, page 293]

And yet, if we set aside the fact that Kong is a gorilla and simply focus on the fact that he is black, then an identification between Kong and African Americans might be embraced by black people in a positive way. This alternative attitude, arising from an identification of Kong with a black man, is noted by Sennett:

Occasionally the movie has been viewed from both sides of the racist coin. On one side, it is seen as proof positive that unfettered blacks will surely run roughshod over fair-skinned women.  On the other, it has been said to show that blacks have a formidable strength that will overwhelm and destroy their oppressors. [Great Hollywood Movies, page 172]

In his Cult Movies, Peary says that one of the many ways some critics see Kong as a hero is precisely this identification:  “black people see him as a black character who fights white America [page 183].” And in The Girl in the Hairy Paw, there is a review by X.J. Kennedy, written in 1960, in which he notes something similar:

A Negro friend from Atlanta tells me that in movie houses throughout the South, Kong does a constant business.  They show the thing in Atlanta at least every year, presumably to the same audiences…, [leading me to] wonder whether Negro audiences may not find some archetypal appeal in this serio-comic tale of a huge black powerful free spirit whom all the hardworking white policemen are out to kill. [page 123]

But we would not care one whit for any of these interpretations if we did not enjoy the movie as it appears on the surface, as a scary monster movie, and it certainly is that.

The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis (1951)

The Sign of the Cross, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1932, is based on a play of the same name, produced in 1895.  It is said to resemble the novel Quo Vadis? which was published around the same time, and which has been made into several movies, notably Quo Vadis in 1951. That movie is more spectacular, being filmed in technicolor, which allows us to see how beautiful Rome was.  But The Sign of the Cross is a pre-Code movie, and as such, it has a quality not captured by this later film.

And then there are the historical facts of the matter.  Liberties are taken in both movies, of course, but what is more important lies in the differences between these two movies and what they choose to emphasize, regardless of what may or may not be historically accurate.

The Sign of the Cross begins in Rome in 64 A.D., on the third night of a great fire, during which thousands of people have died.  The Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) is playing a lyre.  Suddenly, one of the strings of his lyre breaks, spoiling his whole evening.  He collapses in his throne, distraught.

As is often the case in such movies, Romans are played by British actors, such as Laughton, especially if they are degenerates, but good Romans tend to be played by American actors, in this case Fredric March, in the role of Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome.

In Quo Vadis, Nero is played by another British actor, Peter Ustinov, while Marcus Vinicius, a good Roman, is played by Robert Taylor, an American actor.

Ben-Hur (1959) has British actors Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith, along with Stephen Boyd of Northern Ireland.  Charlton Heston, an American actor, plays the title character, who is a Jew. Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov play Romans in Spartacus (1960), as does Laurence Olivier, another British actor. The good guy is played by Kirk Douglas, an American actor. In The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) we have Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, all from the United Kingdom, including more I haven’t bothered to list. In The Passover Plot (1976), Donald Pleasance plays Pontius Pilate, and of course he is a British actor, as is Malcolm McDowell, who played the title emperor in Caligula (1979).  The television miniseries I, Claudius (1976) used British actors Derek Jacobi and John Hurt for Claudius and Caligula respectively, much in the way the never-completed version of I, Claudius in 1937 used Charles Laughton and British actor Emlyn Williams for those roles.

We are so used to seeing these British actors playing evil or decadent Romans that we almost forget to ask ourselves why.  An American actor could play such a part just as well, as does Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator (2000), although this is more than made up for by the British actors Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Derek Jacobi, who are also Romans in this movie. If foreign actors were needed to play the roles of Romans given to sin and corruption, so that American actors would play the decent Romans for the most part, then I should have thought those foreign actors would have been Italian, Rome being in Italy, after all.

Failing to see any reason why British actors dominate the field when it comes to playing Romans, I was tempted to guess that it was just by chance that Charles Laughton was selected to play Nero in The Sign of the Cross, and he did such a good job that Hollywood has been picking British actors for such roles ever since.  The only other reason I could think of why British actors have been so regularly asked to play the parts of decadent, if not degenerate, Romans is that there is an American prejudice about the British people, suspecting them of being very much like those Romans.

One such suspicion may have something to do with homosexuality.  In his book Pre-Code Hollywood:  Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty says that one way movies could indicate that a character was a homosexual was to have him be British:

Associated with the upper ranks of the British class system and the backstage worlds of theater and high fashion, the mincing gestures and perfumed wardrobe of the nance had been staples of vaudeville sketches, legitimate theater, and the silent screen in the 1920s….

Sound gave the nance a voice:  a high-pitched trill, often British in inflection or vaguely foreign in accent. [page 121]

Whether this association of the British with homosexuality was based on reality or merely an unwarranted American prejudice, I cannot say.  But lately, it seems that this association has found its way into heterosexual relationships as well, and this brought about by the British themselves.  It all started when I saw the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), which is set in England. It is directed by Matthew Vaughn, a British film producer, and stars Taron Egerton, a British actor, playing a superspy. Toward the end of the movie, a beautiful princess tells Egerton that after he saves the world, “We can do it in the asshole.”  Boy, does he ever hurry up and save the world, returning with champagne and two glasses, at which point the beautiful princess presents her butt for penetration.

Now, I can certainly understand anal sex for homosexuals.  And in times past, it may have been practiced by heterosexuals as a form of birth control.  But the idea of this movie seems to be that anal sex is a treat for male heterosexuals, the best form of sex with a woman any man could possibly want, but which the princess reserves only for someone who is special.

One movie like that, by itself, means nothing.  But several years later, a woman who is a friend of mine recommended the television show Fleabag (2016-2019). So, I decided to give it a try and rented the DVD. In the pilot, in the very first scene, the title character has met some man in a nightclub and they agreed to meet back at her place to have sex.  Much to her surprise, the man inserts his penis into her rectum. When she wakes up the next morning, she sees him looking at her with worship in his eyes. You see, no woman had ever let him do anal on the first date before.  She is the ideal woman. His character is the “Arsehole Guy,” played by a British actor.  And Fleabag is played by a British actress. And the story is set in London.

I pressed the eject button and sent the DVD back.  I wanted to ask my friend what she thought about that scene, but I never worked up the nerve.

Just recently, I watched the movie The Forgiven (2021).  At some point in the movie, a woman asks a man whether a prostitute he availed himself of did anal. “What’s the point of a hooker if she doesn’t do anal?” he replies.  The idea seems to be that the world is full of women from whom you can get vaginal sex, but if you want it really good, if you want the ultimate form of sex that most men only dream of, the ecstasy for which there is no equal, then you may have to pay a prostitute for that. But if she doesn’t do anal, she’s worthless.  You might just as well settle for ordinary sex with ordinary women and get if for free.  The woman he is talking to jokingly threatens to tell his mother he said that.  “My mother would be fascinated,” is his reply.  It sounds as though he thinks his mother might like to try a little anal sex herself.

“This must be another British production,” I said to myself, as I hit the eject button.  I was right.  The director is British, and there are several British actors in this movie as well.  With this third example, I’m starting to wonder if using British actors to play Romans has something to do with this British obsession with anal sex, something long suspected by Americans, but only recently made explicit in these movies.

But I digress.  Returning to The Sign of the Cross, the movie presents us with a choice. If you lived in the first century A.D., would you rather be a pagan or a Christian?  At first, I thought I might prefer to be a pagan, since they seem to be having a good time, what with all the feasting and drinking; although the one thing I wouldn’t want to drink would be a glass of milk, for I would wonder where it came from, having seen the Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) bathing in a swimming pool full of asses’ milk.  That’s icky, but as film critic Joe Bob Briggs might have pointed out, you do get to see most of her breasts. And then there seems to be lots of fornicating going on, so that’s a big plus. Being a Christian, on the other hand, would seem to be a drag.  The Christians are plodding in their movements, heavy in their speech.  But according to the movie, the Roman soldiers are trying to find them and kill them, so I guess we can’t be surprised if they aren’t having much fun.

The Roman soldiers are trying to kill all the Christians because they believe in a “dangerous superstition,” refusing to recognize that Nero is a god.  But in addition to that, Tigillenus, head of the Praetorian Guard, warns Nero that the people might blame him for the fire, especially since Nero says he is glad Rome is burning.  Nero suggests that the blame be shifted to the Christians, making it easier to root them out and have them all killed.  This is what they do.

In the midst of all that, we have a love story between a pagan and a Christian, where Marcus Superbus falls in love with Mercia, a beautiful woman, whose parents were coated with pitch and burned as torches to light up one of Nero’s orgies. Unfortunately, a child that lives in the same house she does is captured and subjected to unspeakable tortures, forcing him to tell where all the Christians will be meeting that night.

Note 1:  The corresponding child in Quo Vadis is not tortured, nor is he later sent to his death in the arena as he is in The Sign of the Cross. Instead, he escapes from Rome unmolested with the help of Saint Peter.

At the meeting that the child told about, there is a Christian who had seen Jesus and heard him speak.  He tells of what he learned:

For me, for all men, he lifted the black mist from the face of God.  And there was no longer the God of wrath, but only a loving father.  All that we had been taught before about the great spirit became suddenly a new understanding, a compassionate God to whom we could turn.

Later on, when they are about to face death in the arena, several of the Christians begin wishing they still had that God of wrath, one who would make short work of the Romans, much in the way he helped the Hebrews slaughter whole nations in the Old Testament.  But given their present situation, the most they can realistically believe in is a God of compassion, one who won’t do anything to protect them, but will at least feel sorry for them.

Tigillenus shows up with his men, who start killing the Christians.  They would have killed them all, but Marcus and his men arrive and put a stop to it.  Those still alive are taken prisoner, including Mercia.  They will still be executed, but now it will happen in the arena.  Marcus manages to get Mercia out of the prison and bring her to his house. He offers her freedom, but she would have to forget about the other Christians as they go to their death, which she says she cannot do.  And she would have to have sex with him without the benefit of marriage.  She says she’d rather die with the rest of the Christians.  Friends of Marcus, who are in the next room enjoying the banquet he is having at his house, come in and interrupt their argument. Marcus gets a wicked woman named Ancaria to do the “Dance of the Naked Moon,” trying to seduce Mercia, but she is not amused, let alone seduced.  Maybe Marcus thought a little lesbian lust would put Mercia in the mood for love.  In any event, Ancaria’s dance is spoiled as they hear Christians singing on their way to the arena dungeon. Marcus tells everyone to leave, after which he and Mercia begin arguing again. Then Tigillenus shows up with orders to take Mercia to the arena dungeon too.

Still not giving up, Marcus tries to get Nero to make an exception to his decree that all Christians must be put to death, letting him have Mercia, but Poppaea disapproves and chastises the easily manipulated Nero. She is in love with Marcus and wants Mercia out of the way.  Nero says Mercia might be spared if she publicly renounces her faith. He then hastens away, saying he doesn’t want to be late for the games.

The games!  This is where you know you could never be a Roman, witnessing the gruesome cruelty presented in the arena.  But fortunately, you can be an American watching the depiction of said spectacles in a movie like this one, and not feel the least little bit of guilt.  But even more fortunately, the movie was not filmed in Smell-O-Vision.  A sign advertising the games promises that the arena will be perfumed between events, and we actually see such perfuming being done.  We hear a typical Roman married couple arguing about the seats they will have.  They have their son with them, about ten years old, I’d say, because it’s never too soon to introduce your children to the games.  The wife complains they will be sitting up so high that they won’t see much, but the husband points out that at least the smell of Christian blood won’t be so strong.

Of course, we know that it is more than blood they will smell.  When gladiators kill one another, or when slaves or Christians are killed by one means or another, their corpses will have their final bowel movement, as the feces are let loose into their pants or onto the floor of the arena. Somehow, I just don’t think perfume would be able to fully cope with the foul stench of death that those games produced.

But even without the smell, the games depicted in this movie are the worst I’ve ever seen.  We hear a Roman say that there are a thousand coffins ready for the dead.  In addition to gladiators killing one another, we also have barbarian women and pygmies engaged in mortal combat.  Then we see elephants crushing the skulls of bound slaves. A beautiful, scantily clad woman is tied up as crocodiles are released so they can devour her.  A naked woman is tied to a pole, and a gorilla is let into the arena.  As he looks at her, the camera shifts to the audience, and from the reaction shot, we know that the gorilla is ravishing her.

As a matter of fact, the worst part of these games is the audience reaction.  As a slave slowly dies from having been gored by a bull, his arms reaching out for mercy, the audience is hysterical with laughter. Lovers, on the other hand, are sexually aroused. The intense emotions they experience as they watch gladiators being disemboweled is channeled into the love they have for each other. They gaze longingly into each other’s eyes with sweet affection as they hear screams of death coming from the arena.

Note 2:  Writing for the New York Times in 1951, Bosley Crowther, in reviewing Quo Vadis, makes a comment that I can scarcely countenance:

“And for such awesome exhibitions as the historic burning of Rome or the slaughter of Christian martyrs, which was common in Nero’s time, there has never been a picture that offered the equal of this. Even the previous excursion of Cecil B. DeMille in this realm in his left-handed version of ‘Quo Vadis?’, the memorable ‘The Sign of the Cross,’ had nothing to match the horrendous and morbid spectacles of human brutality and destruction that Director Mervyn LeRoy has got in this.”

I’ll admit that the fire is spectacular.  But when it comes to the games, it is exactly the opposite of what Crowther says here. It is The Sign of the Cross that has the “horrendous and morbid spectacles,” while Quo Vadis is relatively tame in comparison.  I can only suppose that he saw a version of The Sign of the Cross that had been severely edited after the Production Code started being strictly enforced in 1934.

Furthermore, none of the events described above have any corresponding scenes in Quo Vadis: there are no gladiators killing one another, no mortal combat between barbarian women and pygmies, no elephants crushing skulls, no crocodiles eating a beautiful maiden, and absolutely no gorilla raping a naked woman.  We see only scenes of Christians being killed.

Finally, the sentiment of the audience in Quo Vadis begins to turn against Nero, disapproving of his slaughter of the Christians, unlike the audience in The Sign of the Cross, which is with him all the way, cheering, laughing, lusting.

It is also unnerving to listen to the Christians being held in the dungeon as they await their turn in the circus, the climax of events, where they are to be devoured by lions. Only Mercia seems to believe wholeheartedly, although even she starts to break at one point.  All the rest of the Christians are terrified, though they do manage to sing as they are being led to the lions.  To say they only half believe would be saying too much. Rather, their cries to God are pathetic, a desperate clinging to a hope that provides no comfort, like men who at the moment of death cry for their mothers.

Note 3:  In Quo Vadis, the Christians go to their death in peace, knowing that the kingdom of God awaits them.  After it is over, Nero walks through the arena to look at what remains of the bodies of the dead Christians.  He is appalled at the way their corpses all have smiles on their faces. Perhaps this was required by the Production Code, which frowned on showing Christians having doubts, questioning why God does not save them, and experiencing agony in their final moments.

Marcus tries to get Mercia to renounce her faith, saying that Nero will spare her for Marcus’s sake if she does, and then he promises he will marry her.  But she will not renounce her faith.  Poppaea has saved her for last, the other Christians having already met their end.  As Mercia prepares to enter the arena, Marcus chooses to go with her. He is an atheist, but if he cannot believe in any pagan god, he tries to believe in Christ, if only because he believes in her.  Together, they enter the arena, and as the doors close behind them, a light shining on those doors forms the sign of the cross, assuring us that they will go to Heaven.

Well, I don’t know about that, but those Romans definitely deserved to burn forever in the fires of Hell.

Note 4:  Marcus Vinicius and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in Quo Vadis correspond to Marcus Superbus and Mercia in The Sign of the Cross. When Lygia’s giant slave kills a bull in the arena, where she was tied to a pole, the audience cheers for them and signals thumbs up, with only Nero signaling thumbs down.  But Nero is thwarted when soldiers loyal to Marcus win the day.  Marcus and Lydia, who were married by Saint Peter, are spared, and they live happily ever after.

The Sign of the Cross ends with Nero and Poppaea triumphant.  In Quo Vadis, however, Marcus declares that henceforth, General Galba will be emperor of Rome. Having been deserted by the Praetorian Guard and the people, Nero strangles Poppaea and then commits suicide.

So, it’s thumbs up for The Sign of the Cross, and thumbs down for Quo Vadis.

Road to Singapore (1940)

The theme of Road to Singapore is that men are better off without women.  The idea is that the bachelor leads a carefree life.  He need consider only his own whims and wants.  Unburdened as he is by any responsibility for others, even a modest-paying job will leave him flush with funds.  The only serious threat to his happy life is women.  The flesh being weak, he finds himself continually lured by the momentary rewards of carnal delight, which make him vulnerable to the trap being set for him. And that is because, according to this movie, while men are better off without women, women cannot do without men, but must ever pursue their one goal in life, which is to marry and have babies.

The ocean is symbolic of this freedom from women.  Back when this movie was made, only men were sailors.  While aboard ship and out to sea, men were perfectly safe from the enticements of the fair sex. And so, it is not surprising that the principal male characters in this movie, Josh Mallon (Bing Crosby) and Ace Lannigan (Bob Hope), both of whom are bachelors, are also sailors.

Of course, every ship must dock at some port from time to time, and that is when men are most in danger of losing their freedom, evident by the fact that some of the sailors Josh and Ace have sailed with are married, and when their ship arrives in San Francisco, those men are greeted by their wives. As Josh and Ace look on from above while still on deck, they see one wife smiling at her husband while she takes his entire pay and sticks it in her brassiere.

“There you are, Josh,” Ace says, “that’s married life for you.”

“Yeah,” Josh agrees, “isn’t that beautiful.  If the world was run right, only women would marry.”

Then they see another sailor being met by his wife.  She has their four children with her, and she immediately starts nagging and browbeating her husband.  She’ll probably have a fifth child on the way by the time he sets sail again.

As Josh and Ace watch this sorry spectacle, Josh says, “Let that be a lesson to you.”  Ace sneers at the idea that he needs a lesson about women, whom, he says, he can just brush aside.

But as they return to their quarters, they are greeted by three rough-looking men, the older of the three wanting to know which one of them is Ace Lannigan.  After finding out, he asks Ace if he knows a gal named Cherry.  It does not escape our notice that her name is also the word that is sometimes used to characterize a luscious maiden, whose virginity is ripe for the taking.

Ace acts as if he is not sure he knows a girl named Cherry, but Josh helpfully reminds him that she was that little blonde.  By this time, we have gathered that the three men are Cherry’s father and two brothers. The father tells Ace that Cherry is getting married, and she wants Ace to come to the wedding.  “Who’s the lucky guy,” Ace asks. “You are,” Cherry’s father replies.

Josh and Ace start doing a pat-a-cake routine, with Cherry’s father and brothers gathering around to see what they are doing.  Suddenly, Josh and Ace each sock someone.  They end up being arrested for being part of a waterfront brawl, but at least Ace escapes from the fate worse than death.

Cherry’s father never says that she is pregnant, only that Ace kept her out half the night, implying that they had sex.  Back in those days, that alone could be enough for a shotgun wedding.  As a result, this movie has it both ways.  If Cherry’s father had explicitly stated that she was pregnant, the situation would not be funny, for Ace never marries her.  But as long as they just had sex, without any reproductive consequences, then we are allowed to be amused by Ace’s scapegrace behavior, especially since we never see actually see Cherry, and thus cannot fully relate to her as a person.  On the other hand, by allowing us to wonder if Cherry is pregnant, the movie reminds us of just what it is that makes women dangerous. They have babies!

The police bring Josh to the office of his father (Charles Coburn), Joshua Mallon IV, a shipping magnate. It appears that the ship Ace and Josh were on is one of a fleet of eighty ships owned by the Mallon family. Mr. Mallon wants Josh to settle down, marry his girlfriend Gloria, and start working regular hours behind a desk.  Josh wants to remain a bachelor and have fun instead.  Mr. Mallon says that when he was Josh’s age, he was already married and his wife had given birth to Josh. “Suppose I had gone vagabonding around the world?  Where would you be now?”

“You got me there, Skipper,” Josh admits.

I have heard an argument like that against abortion from people who are pro-life, saying, “Where would you be if your mother had had an abortion?”  But, aside from this movie, I have never heard the argument, “Where would you be if your father had remained a bachelor?”  The one makes about as much sense as the other, I suppose.

Just then Gloria shows up.  She is certain she and Josh will be married, and she starts showing him her sketches for the apartment she has picked out for them and how it will be furnished.  It is stuff that only she cares about.  When Josh looks at a sketch of some shelves, he says he could put his ship models on them, his one small effort to see something positive in Gloria’s plans.  But Gloria gently reprimands him, saying, “Oh, honey, no.  They’re not smart anymore.”  Just as we begin to wonder why Josh would go along with all this, Gloria becomes seductive, talking about romance, reeling him in for a kiss.  Between his father’s demand that he carry on the tradition of taking over the family business, and Gloria’s charms, Josh appears to be doomed.

In the next scene, Ace is back out on the ocean in a small boat, doing some fishing, while hiding out from Cherry’s family.  Josh catches up with him in another boat and climbs aboard.  Having said to Ace earlier, “Let that be a lesson to you,” regarding the woes of married life, he now has to admit that his engagement to Gloria will be announced that night.

Had the engagement been announced at a party somewhere in the city, Josh’s marriage to Gloria would have been sealed.  But the engagement is to be announced on Mr. Mallon’s yacht, which means at sea. As noted above, the ocean is bachelor territory, giving Josh the home advantage.  As a result, Ace and Josh scandalize Gloria’s family with their carrying on at the party, eventually resulting in a pat-a-cake routine for Gloria’s obnoxious brother and friends, causing a society-page scandal.

The next Mr. Mallon hears from Josh, he and Ace are in Honolulu, and on their way to Singapore. They must get there by means of a ship sailing across the ocean, which makes sense, because the next best thing to being on the ocean as a way to avoid women is to put an ocean between you and the women you wish to escape from.   The word “road” in the title is therefore figurative, for had they remained on land, which is what a road would imply, their liberty would be in peril.

They don’t actually get to Singapore, but end up on the fictional island of Kaigoon instead, somewhere in the vicinity of that country.  They manage to rent a small shack, and having settled in, they swear off women completely.  That means they are free to be lazy slobs, flicking ashes on the floor with impunity. They decide to splurge and go out for a couple of beers at a local joint.  Once there, they watch a performance by Caesar (Anthony Quinn) and Mima (Dorothy Lamour).  It is partly a dance they do, and partly a routine where Caesar dominates the submissive Mima with a whip.

Josh and Ace begin losing their resolve regarding women, especially when Mima seems to be attracted to them.  Caesar doesn’t like that, so a fight breaks out, and the next thing you know, Josh and Ace abscond with Mima and bring her to their little shack. Mima tells of how her mother worked with Caesar as a performer after her father died. When her mother died, she kept on with Caesar in performances too. This was not a problem when she was a child, but now, as a woman, she worries that Caesar has designs on her, so she is glad to be away from him.  If Josh and Ace are supposed to be better off without Gloria and Cherry, Mima is their complement, for we know she is better off without Caesar.

The next morning, she begins keeping house, ordering Josh and Ace about, domesticating them.  But as both men are falling in love with her, their hopes of holding on to their freedom seem to be slipping away. Things seem especially grim when Mima starts talking about Josh and Ace getting jobs. But Ace figures out a scam involving soap suds presented as a miracle spot remover, called Spotto. It begins with a song and dance routine by the three of them to bring the suckers in first.  Of course, it turns out to be a disaster. During a demonstration, Ace ruins a man’s suit by putting Spotto on it. The three of them have to flee the marketplace.

Both men start romancing Mima, but, after all, Josh is played by Bing Crosby, who is a crooner, and when he and Mima begin singing a duet, “Too Romantic,” they make us believe in love again.  And if they can make us believe in love again, we know they believe in it too.

Meanwhile, back in the states, Mr. Mallon has been informed of Josh’s whereabouts, and he and Gloria catch a plane out to Kaigoon, where Gloria plans on using her womanly wiles to bring Josh back home so they can be married.  But it doesn’t work. Josh refuses to go back, intending to stay in Kaigoon and marry Mima.  But Ace wants to marry her too.

For Ace, Cherry was just for one night.  As for Josh, he was being pressured into getting married, and since Gloria was available, pretty, and his social equal, she was the logical choice for him.  But he didn’t love her. With Mima, however, it’s different.  Both men are truly in love with her.

When Mima saw Gloria and found out about Josh’s position back in America, she decided that he belonged with Gloria.  And so, though she loves Josh, yet she pretends to love Ace instead.  As a result, Josh decides to go back with his father and with Gloria.

Under threat of deportation, instigated by Caesar, Ace has to leave Kaigoon, and Mima goes with him. Ace soon realizes that Mima really loves Josh, that she “went noble” in giving him up.  But he goes noble too, deciding to stick by her as a friend.

The ship Josh is on that is sailing back to America stops at a tropical port, where a man comes aboard complaining about his suit being ruined by someone selling Spotto. Josh realizes that Ace and Mima must be nearby.  Although Josh thinks Ace and Mima are in love and are now married, he decides he still wants to be with his friends and hops on a boat that is heading for land.  As Gloria watches him leave, she says, “That little scene is called ‘Spurned at the Altar,’ or ‘The Sailor’s Farewell.’”

When Josh catches up with Ace and Mima running the Spotto scam, he finds out that they aren’t married, that he was the one Mima was really in love with.  Josh and Mima hug each other.  But another man with a ruined suit brings the police with him to arrest Ace.  Ace and Josh do their pat-a-cake routine, and the movie ends with a fadeout as they punch the two unsuspecting policemen, after which we imagine Ace, Josh, and Mima escaping.

The movie ends in a way that allows us to give no thought as to what comes next, or perhaps to imagine that things will go back to the way they were, the three of them living together, enjoying their friendship with one another.  But we know that cannot be.  Because it is true love, Josh and Mima will marry.  Being faced with the responsibilities that come with being a married man, especially once he finds out that Mima is going to have a baby, Josh will return to San Francisco with her, where he will take that job working behind a desk, just as his father wanted him to.  Ace, on the other hand, will return to the sea, probably aboard one of the ships owned by the Mallon family.  In the years to come, as he stands on deck and gazes out at some distant shore, he will sigh with fond regret as he recalls the unrequited love he found on the island of Kaigoon.

Let that be a lesson to you.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

As a bachelor, I have never had any personal experience with divorce, although it does seem like the next best thing to never having married at all.  My best friend, however, was not as lucky in love as I, so he ended up marrying his sweetheart in the year of our Lord 1967, with me as his best man.

“I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he said to me three years later, “but it can’t go on.”  He probably would never have left her, but one weekend she decided to spend a few days with her sister and brother-in-law, and it turned out to be a permanent separation.  A few years after that, he decided to move away, and he suggested to her that she file for divorce before he left, in case she wanted to marry again. She cried, realized it was a good idea, got herself a lawyer, and filed for divorce.

After it was done, she told my friend that the judge wanted to know why she was seeking a divorce. So, she said, “I told the judge, ‘I came home from shopping one Saturday afternoon, and my husband and two of his friends [that’s me and another fellow] had made a mess of the apartment. They were sitting around, smoking cigarettes, drinking cokes, and watching a monster movie on television.’”

And that was all there was to it.  The point of all this is that I did not appreciate at the time that in years past, getting a divorce was not that easy.  Before no-fault divorce became widely accepted, a spouse would have to allege adultery, abandonment, cruelty, or some other reason sufficiently grave.  In Frenzy (1972), a man is suspected of murdering his ex-wife because the divorce petition alleged “extreme mental and physical cruelty” and “depravity” as well.  The ex-husband tries to explain:

It had to read that way, but there wasn’t a word of truth in it!  The lawyers made it all up. We didn’t want to wait three years for a divorce based on desertion, so I allowed her to divorce me on the grounds of cruelty.

As a result of my naivete, when I saw those ads in the yellow pages for private detectives, and they used the phrase “peace of mind,” I took that as a way of saying, “Don’t think of hiring us as betraying a lack of faith in your spouse.  You just need a little reassurance that he or she truly loves you.”

Perhaps I should have been suspicious.  When I used to watch old movies featuring private detectives, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), they mostly did missing-person cases. These private detectives in the movies never seemed to help anyone get that peace of mind.

Out of the Past (1947) starts out as a missing-person case, but when private detective Robert Mitchum finds himself having to hide out from gangster Kirk Douglas, he has to keep a low profile:

I opened an office in San Francisco.  A cheap little rat hole that suited the work I did. Shabby jobs for whoever hired me.  It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it.

Looking back, I can see now that he was talking about divorce cases.

Had I seen Private Detective 62 (1933), that would have cleared things up for me.  In that movie, a private detective agency frames innocent wives for adultery so that their husbands can divorce them and not have to pay any alimony.  In a typical frame, a woman is given a knock-out drug, and then wakes up to find herself in a hotel room, in bed with some strange man, with photographs having been taken to document the deed.  But I would not see that movie until years later.

And so it was that Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was the first movie I had ever seen where the private detective did divorce cases.  And when I saw it, I was a little perplexed.  But let me start at the beginning.

When the movie opens, we see Cloris Leachman running down the highway at night, wearing nothing but a trench coat.  Desperate to have someone give her a ride, she stands in front of an oncoming Jaguar convertible that has to swerve off the road to avoid hitting her.  The driver is Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Disgusted, as he tries to get his car started again, he says, “Get in.”  Her name is Christina, and Mike figures she was out on a date with a guy who thought “No” was a three-letter word.  But when they come to a police blockade, he finds out she has escaped from an insane asylum.  Mike has such disregard for the law that he pretends Christina is his wife. “So, you’re a fugitive from the laughing house,” he says as they drive away.

Apparently, Christina has gotten herself involved in something illegal and dangerous. She becomes mysterious, saying “they” took her clothes away to make her stay.  Mike is curious as to who “they” are, but she doesn’t want to get him involved.  When he stops at a filling station, Christina goes into the ladies’ room.  When she comes out, she hands the attendant a letter and asks him to mail it for her.

As they drive down the road again, Christina begins psychoanalyzing Mike.  Only Mike has been through this sort of thing before with women who presume to tell him all about himself, and he responds with sarcasm:

Christina:  I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things.  Your car for instance.

Mike:  What kind of message does it send you?

Christina:  You have only one real, lasting love.

Mike:  Now, who could that be?

Christina:  You’re one of those self-indulgent males, who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.

What we are learning from all this is that, unlike the private detectives of previous movies, who always seem to be just scraping by, Mike Hammer lives well and can easily afford to drive an expensive car and wear tailored suits.

Then she asks him if reads poetry.  Mike just gives her a look that says, “Are you kidding?”  She tells him about Christina Rossetti, whom she was named after, and who wrote love sonnets.  And then she says that if they don’t make it to the bus stop, where he is to let her off, she asks him to “Remember me.”

Suddenly, a car pulls in front of them.  Next, we see Mike, only partially conscious, lying on bedsprings, while three men are torturing Christina.  We see them only from the waist down, one of whom is holding a pair of Channellock pliers, used to try to extract information from Christina before she died from the ordeal.  The men put Christina’s corpse and Mike in his sportscar and push it off a cliff.  Mike survives, but spends several weeks in a hospital.  When he gets out, he is greeted by some kind of federal agent and is brought in for questioning.  In a room with several agents, Mike tells them what he knows.  The agent in charge decides to get down to some basic questions, only before Mike can answer them, a couple of other agents snidely answer the questions for him:

Agent in charge:  Just what do you do for a living?

Second agent:  According to our information, he calls himself a private investigator. His specialty is divorce cases.

Third agent:  He’s a bedroom dick.  He gets dirt on the wife, then does a deal with the wife to get dirt on the husband.  Plays both ends against the middle.

Agent in charge:  How do you achieve all this?  You crawl under beds?

Second agent:  Nothing so primitive.

Third agent:  He has a secretary.  At least, that’s what he calls her.

Agent in charge:  What’s her name, Mr. Hammer?

Second agent:  Velda Wickman.  She’s a very attractive young woman.

Third agent:  Real woo-bait.  Lives like a princess.  He sics her onto the husbands, and in no time he’s ready for the big squeeze.

Agent in charge:  Who do you sic onto the wives, Mr. Hammer?

Second agent:  That’s his department.

Well, it doesn’t look as though Mike’s clients find much peace of mind.  Not only does he do divorce cases, but he often makes things worse than they already are, being the cause of the very infidelity he was hired to investigate.

Just as we earlier learned that Mike lives well, we find out that his “secretary” Velda is well paid herself.  But it was that last part of the “interrogation” that really made me wonder.  We can imagine Mike showing a wife pictures of her husband and Velda kissing in a parking lot or entering a hotel room. And later on in the movie, he tells Velda that the bedroom tape she made with lover-boy got lost, and that she will have to call him up, make a date, and try to get some more of that “honey talk” again.  He smirks as he says all this, saying, “That tape sure was nice.”

But when the husband is the client, and the wife is Mike’s “department,” we have to imagine the following conversation:

Mike:  I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Jackson, but your wife is having an affair.

Mr. Jackson:  Oh, my God!

Mike:  We have some photographs, if you would like to see them.

Mr. Jackson:  All right.  [He looks at the pictures.]  Wait a minute!  That’s you!

But this is confusing only if you are still laboring under the peace-of-mind motive for hiring a private detective to check on your wife, unless it is the peace of mind that comes from getting a divorce and being single once again.  Once you realize that when this movie was made, a man needed a serious reason to divorce his wife, it becomes clear that it wouldn’t have mattered to him if the private detective he hired was the one having an affair with his wife, just as long as it finally gets him out of the marriage that is making him miserable.

Anyway, after the federal agents finish interrogating Mike, he goes to his apartment. Now we really see how lucrative divorce cases must be.  His apartment is big and swanky, unlike the cramped quarters of the typical movie private eye, or that of his spare office with a secretary he can just barely afford, if he has one at all.  When I saw the answering machine he had, I had no idea such things existed.  They would not become a common item in the average person’s home for at least two decades.  At the time, I thought how wonderful it would be to find out who’s calling you before answering.  In 1955, of all the stuff in Mike’s apartment, that was not only the greatest indication of how well off he was financially, but also that he had the latest technology in the private-detective business.

When Mike begins to figure that whatever Christina was involved in might be something big, he decides to pursue it himself, to see if he can get a cut of whatever it is.  He tells Velda not to bother about trying to make another tape with lover-boy, saying he wants to forget about these “penny-ante divorce cases” for a while.

Velda is skeptical.  She refers to whatever Mike is looking for as the “Great Whatsit.”  As is well known, Alfred Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the thing the spies in a movie are after, but the audience doesn’t care.  However, no one in a Hitchcock movie ever used the word “MacGuffin,” as in, “I sure hope we find the MacGuffin before the bad guys do,” or thought of what they were after in that dismissive way.  In Kiss Me Deadly, however, not only is there a MacGuffin, but it is cynically regarded as such by Velda. She just has her own name for it.  “Does it exist?” she asks.  “Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in a fruitless search—for what?”  We never do find out what part all the people involved played in inventing this Great Whatsit, stealing it, and hiding it, but I guess that doesn’t really matter either.

In particular, the thing the police, the federal agents, the gangsters, and Mike are all after is a small box with some kind of nuclear device in it that makes no sense technologically.  It is nice and quiet as long as the lid is closed, but when it is opened, it begins glowing and hissing.

Lieutenant Pat Murphy, a detective with the police department, revokes Mike’s detective license and gun permit to keep him off the case.  But Mike has no problem dealing out pain and death without either one, as when Mike punches some guy that was following him, bashes his head against the wall several times, and then throws him down two flights of concrete stairs.

But not all the pain he inflicts is physical.  Mike gets a lead on some unemployed opera singer that might know something.  He goes over to the man’s apartment, just as that man happens to be singing along with a recording of Martha.  When Mike starts to question him, the man says he knows nothing. There is a vast collection of records in the room that the man treasures.  Mike pulls a record out of an album, looks at it, and says, “Hey!  Caruso’s Pagliacci.  That’s a collector’s item.”  The man agrees, smiling enthusiastically. Mike snaps the record in two.

It turns out that Christina, having seen the registration certificate in Mike’s car, which had his address on it, sent the letter she gave the filling-station attendant to Mike.  In it, it has just two words enclosed in quotation marks:  “Remember Me.”  It turns out Mike is pretty good at interpreting poetry.  He found a book of sonnets by Christina Rossetti in Christina’s apartment and took it with him.  He figures out from reading the poem “Remember Me,” which speaks of “darkness and corruption,” that Christina must have swallowed something before she was killed.  Accompanied by Gabrielle, a woman Mike believes to be Lily Carver, who was Christina’s roommate, he goes to see the coroner (Percy Helton), and gives him some money as a bribe.  The coroner admits he found a key in Christina’s stomach when he performed an autopsy, but he tries to play cute by putting the key back in the drawer, indicating he wants more money. Mike rams the drawer on the coroner’s hand again and again, making him squeal with pain as Mike grins. Then he pushes him aside and takes the key.

The key is to a locker in an athletic club.  Mike gets into the locker and finds the box. When he opens it just slightly, he gets a radiation burn on his wrist.  He closes it back up.  But when he gets back to his car, Gabrielle is gone.

Meanwhile, an art dealer tricks Velda into thinking he can give her information, but is actually part of a plot to kidnap her.  He lives upstairs above his modern art gallery. When he hears Mike breaking in, he swallows a bunch of sleeping pills, trying to kill himself first, as Mike makes his way up the stairs past a bunch of ugly paintings.

Why a modern art dealer, you may be wondering.  Mike has a cavalier attitude toward the fine arts throughout this movie.  Christina loved poetry, which Mike sneered at.  When Mike was in her apartment, he turned on the radio and found that it was tuned to a classical-music station.  We see Velda doing ballet exercises, stretching one of her legs resting on her desk.  Mike rotates her leg to the back of a chair so he can get by.  After Mike snapped the Caruso record and got the information he wanted from the opera singer, he put the needle back on Martha and left, saying, “A lovely record.”  And now we have a modern-art dealer mixed up in this story.  Mike is indifferent to all this cultural refinement, except when he can use it to get what he is after.

Anyway, Mike tries to beat some information out of the art dealer, but the man passes out from the sleeping pills.  Mike turns on the man’s radio.  More classical music.  He looks around the room.  He sees the name of Dr. Soberin on the bottle of sleeping pills. Velda had mentioned that name.  He calls Soberin’s answering service and finds out that he has a beach cottage.  Mike realizes it’s probably the same place where Christina was tortured, and subsequently the place where the gangsters forcibly brought him later in order to find out what he knows, only Mike killed two of them and got away.  Mike doesn’t bother to call an ambulance for the art dealer.  He just leaves for the beach house, letting the man die of an overdose.

Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) is, in fact, the chief villain, and Gabrielle is actually his lover. She told Soberin where the box was, and he now has it at his beach house, with Velda locked in one of the rooms.  Gabrielle wants to know what is in the box.  In the space of two minutes, Soberin alludes to Pandora’s box, Lot’s wife, and the head of Medusa.

Gabriele says she wants half of what is in the box, but Soberin says it can’t be shared. So, in that case, she says she wants it all, pulls out a revolver, and shoots him.  He still has time for one last allusion, referring to Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of Hell, as he warns her not to open the box.  Gabrielle doesn’t care about all those references to mythology or stories in the bible. She wants to know what’s in the box.

In any event, just after Gabrielle kills Soberin, Mike comes in through the door.  She tells Mike to kiss her, saying it would be a “liar’s kiss,” referring to the way Mike treats women as sex objects, but only when he’s in the mood to bother with them at all. Perhaps he got a little off Gabrielle when she stayed at his apartment, and she felt used.  Before he has a chance to do anything, however, she shoots him.  Then she opens the box.  It hisses and glows.  She can’t help herself.  She must keep opening the box, screaming as she becomes engulfed in flames.  Don’t ask how anyone ever got that thing in the box to begin with.

There are two endings for this movie, in both of which the final scene is that of the beach house exploding in a fireball.  In what is now called the “original ending,” the wounded Mike manages to get himself and Velda out of the house and into the surf, where they watch the house explode.  Big deal. All this for a bomb that can blow up a house?  That makes no sense.  At the very least, we have to suppose this is an atomic bomb of sorts, one that will destroy Los Angeles.  But in that case, seeing Mike and Velda escape from the house is pointless, for they will soon be incinerated.

What is sometimes called the “shortened ending” makes more sense.  Mike finds the room where Velda has been locked up, but then we see the entire house exploding, presumably killing them both.  So, now we can assume it is an atomic bomb, inasmuch as Mike and Velda will be dead anyway.

Or can we?  By 1955, nuclear weapons were a commonplace.  One more bomb would have been just one more bomb.  And it would not have even been a danger to the United States, because Soberin told Gabrielle that he was leaving, and that it was not possible for him to take her with him. Presumably, he was leaving the country.  For this reason, and perhaps because that glowing, hissing thing almost seems to be alive, some critics argue that this device is setting off a chain reaction that will continue to grow until it consumes the entire world.  Not just Mike and Velda, not just the citizens of Los Angeles, but everyone on this planet will be killed.

Mike should have stuck to divorce cases.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

At the beginning of the movie Leave Her to Heaven, Richard “Dick” Harland (Cornel Wilde) has just been released from prison after serving a two-year sentence, and is returning home to his lodge in Maine, a place called Back of the Moon.  He arrives at a dock by motorboat, where he is greeted by his lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins), who also happens to be an old friend of his.  Glen says everything has been arranged. Richard gets in a canoe by himself and proceeds to his lodge across the lake, where Glen says “she” is waiting for him.

We learn the story behind Richard’s trial and conviction in a flashback, as Glen tells it to a man he happens to be with as they have coffee.  It seems that Richard had just finished writing his latest novel, Time without End, and needed a rest, so Glen invited him to come to his ranch in Jacinto, New Mexico for a vacation.  Richard takes a train to get to Glen’s ranch, and on the way finds himself sitting across from a woman, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), who is reading the very novel he just finished writing. She is also traveling to Jacinto along with her mother, Mrs. Berent, and adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who are in another part of the train at that moment.  As it turns out, Glen and his wife are also friends of the Berent family, who live in Beacon Hill, Boston, and who are also on their way to Glen’s ranch.

Apparently, Richard’s novel is not that interesting because Ellen puts it in her lap and falls asleep. When the book falls to the floor, Richard picks it up and hands it to her. She thanks him and then begins staring at him intently, almost as if she were in a trance.

The Father

At first, we think she recognizes Richard from his picture on the back of the book jacket.  But soon we find out that he has a remarkable resemblance to her late father, to whom she was very much attached.

Just how attached, we wonder?  Later in the movie, Ruth comments that Mrs. Berent adopted her. Richard asks her why she said only Mrs. Berent adopted her and not Mr. Berent as well.  At first Ruth says she doesn’t know why she said that, but then says perhaps it was because Mrs. Berent suggested it, because she was alone so much.  Ruth seems a little uncomfortable and changes the subject.  By that time, we have pieced together that Mrs. Berent was alone much of the time because her husband spent so much time with their daughter Ellen.  Ellen and her father used to come to the ranch every spring, but her mother never came along.  Ellen says it is because her mother doesn’t like New Mexico, but her mother denies that, so we have to suspect another reason, which is that she felt excluded, believing that her husband and daughter wanted to be alone with each other, and that she was not wanted.

Mrs. Berent is played by Mary Philips, who was forty-four years old when this movie was made, and thus Mrs. Berent may be assumed to be in her forties as well.  If we assume that Mr. Berent was about the same age, then he must have died in his forties.  It might have been of natural causes, but toward the end of the movie, Ruth says to Ellen, “With your love, you wrecked Mother’s life and pressed Father to death.” Because she speaks with an authoritative voice, we know that must be true.  But delving more deeply, what does she mean by “pressed Father to death”?  There are three possibilities.

One is that Ellen demanded that her father spend so much time with her that she wore him out.  But that just doesn’t seem to be sufficient to bring about an early death:  first, because he could easily have put limits on her demands; second, because her demands would not have been a problem if he had enjoyed his time with her.

A second possibility is that she was sexually aggressive, always tempting her father, cuddling with him, kissing him.  He resisted the temptation, but he wanted her, and it stressed him out so much that it killed him.

The third possibility is that he gave in to temptation and had a sexual relationship with her, causing him so much guilt that he died from that.

Given the powers of censorship on the part of the Production Code, the second and third possibilities could not have been made explicit in 1945.  However, the novel on which this movie is based is just as indefinite as to their relationship.

The purpose of the visit to the ranch has to do with the father’s death.  It seems he died back East some time ago, in Beacon Hill, and was cremated.  The reason for the visit is so that Ellen can scatter the ashes of her father in the mountains where she used to spend a lot of her time with him.  She and her father had made a pact:  when they died, their ashes would be brought out there and mixed together, and that whoever died first would see to it.

Because Richard reminds her so much of her father, Ellen falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with her fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price).  When Russell gets her telegram, he is so angry that he flies up to Jacinto, saying he wanted to congratulate her on her forthcoming marriage; but this is bitter sarcasm, since he refuses to shake hands with Richard, who is only then learning about Ellen’s plans to marry him, but is too polite to say anything. Russell is perplexed, saying, “I always knew you’d never marry me while your father was alive.  But after he died, I thought….  Well, I thought there might be a chance.”

Just as a side observation:  Russell is a politician running for district attorney.  He is afraid that having Ellen break off their engagement will hurt his chances in the upcoming election, and so he asks her if she would postpone the wedding until after the election is over in the fall.  I guess it didn’t take much to make for a political sex scandal when this movie was made in 1945.

Anyway, she refuses to postpone the wedding, saying she and Richard will get married immediately. Before he leaves, Russell tells Ellen that he loves her and always will.  “Remember that,” he says with seething anger in his voice.  “Russ,” Ellen replies calmly, “is that a threat?”  Ominous words, as it turns out.

When Richard tries to confront her after Russell leaves, she subdues him, asking, “Darling, will you marry me?”  Unable to resist, he kisses her.  She says, “And I’ll never let you go.  Never. Never. Never.”  And these too are ominous words.

The Brother-in-Law

As noted above, even though Ellen is only in her twenties, her father is already dead. Ruth is also in her twenties, and both her parents died when she was a child, which is why she was adopted.  And even though Richard is only thirty years old, both of his parents have been dead for some time.  I guess people didn’t live long back then.

Anyway, Richard takes care of a younger brother Danny, played by Darryl Hickman, who is about fourteen years old.  When we see him at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, an institution that provides rehabilitation therapy for people with polio, he is in a wheel chair.

Ellen knew about Danny before she married Richard, but she didn’t think he would be living with them. She believed that he would continue staying at the Foundation, and when he got better, he would go back to boarding school, which means living away from home.  She even spends a lot of time with Danny, helping him learn to walk with crutches toward that end.

She tells Richard, in a house they have rented near the Foundation, that she doesn’t want them to have a maid or a cook, that she will do everything for them, because she doesn’t want anyone else living with them.  Richard brings up the possibility of their having a child, and she says, “That’s different.”  When he asks about Danny, she says, “That’s different too.”  As it turns out, however, they are not different at all.

Let’s step back just a minute, forget about the details of this movie, and think about the situation with marriage in general.  I knew a guy once who said that when he got married, he thought he and his wife would live together in their own little love nest, just the two of them.  Six months later, he said, she started talking about having her mother move in with them:  not out of any economic necessity, but for emotional reasons only, because she just liked the idea of having her mother around.

In To Catch a Thief (1955), Cary Grant has a beautiful house on the French Riviera.  At the end of the movie, Grace Kelly follows him to his house.  They start kissing, and it is clear they are going to get married, at which point she says, “Mother will love it up here.”  Cary Grant gets a look of horror on his face.

As for children, another guy I knew said that when he and his wife got married, they had an understanding that they would not have any children.  When she got pregnant, he thought that, per their agreement, she would have an abortion, but she decided she wanted the baby.  “That’s when I found out I couldn’t trust my wife,” he told me.  Nine months later, she had the baby, and he had a vasectomy.

In other words, there are two kinds of people:  there are the love-nest types, whose idea of marriage is a man and a woman living together, just the two of them; and then there are the inclusive-family types, who want others, be they children, relatives, or friends, to be a part of the household too.  It’s not that these two types are completely unaware of each other’s preferences when they marry each other, as so often they do.  It’s that they fail to comprehend just how strong those preferences are, never imagining how much stress this will put on their marriage.

Ellen is definitely the love-nest type.  She is the last person in the world who should marry into a package deal.  As noted above, she figured she could navigate the situation, but things don’t work out the way Ellen planned.  When Richard first sees Danny walking on crutches, he is thrilled.  Then Danny says, “Now we can, all three of us, go to Back of the Moon.  Can’t we, Dick?  Can’t we?”  Richard says, “You bet we can.” Ellen, who had been smiling, pleased with Danny’s progress, narrows her eyebrows and frowns, and then sadness covers her face as she looks down.

In the next scene, Ellen tries to get Dr. Mason (Reed Hadley) to advise Richard that it would be better for Danny to stay at the Foundation for more therapy, or to go to a boarding school, but Mason thwarts her every argument.  She says there is no telephone out in Richard’s lodge in case of a medical emergency; Dr. Mason is sure there won’t be a such an emergency.  She says there won’t be a school for Danny to go to; Dr. Mason says school can wait.  Finally, she even admits that it is partly for selfish reasons that she doesn’t want Danny to live with them.  She says she gave up her honeymoon so that Richard could be with his brother, but Richard has been working, and the burden has fallen completely on her, to the point that she is worn out taking care of Danny.  She insists she loves Danny just as much as Richard does, “But after all,” she says, “he’s a cripple.”

Ellen realizes her mistake and apologizes, saying, “I’m afraid I haven’t been too well myself lately.”  And yet, most people would know not to say something like that, even if they were thinking it, and even if they weren’t feeling well.  That she said that anyway is an indication of just how intense is her desire to be alone with Richard, making her oblivious to all other considerations.  Having recovered herself, she continues to plead with Dr. Mason to help her make her case to Richard, with Dr. Mason refusing to do so.  When Richard shows up, Ellen says, “Oh, Richard, I’ve got such wonderful news.  Dr. Mason just consented to let Danny come with us to Back of the Moon.”

So, it’s off they go to Back of the Moon.  The walls are paper thin in that lodge, so there isn’t much privacy, certainly not enough for Ellen, especially since there is also Richard’s friend, Leick Thorne (Chill Wills), a handyman who lives in the house too.  In other words, Richard is an inclusive-family type.  And just when Ellen thinks it cannot get any more crowded than it already is, it turns out that Richard has invited Mrs. Berent and Ruth up there under the misguided notion that Ellen would be pleased.  She is not pleased.  His excuse for not discussing it with her first is that “We wanted to surprise you, honey.”

You see, Richard lacks empathy.  It sounds strange to say that of someone who otherwise seems to be a nice guy.  We tend to associate a lack of empathy with people that are selfish and mean.  But that is not always the case in real life, and it is not true in Richard’s case either.  Richard is so convinced he knows what will make Ellen happy that, notwithstanding what she earlier said about wanting to live alone with him, he never considers that he might be wrong in this matter.  Being the inclusive-family type, Richard likes having lots of people living with him, and lacking empathy, he projects that same attitude onto to others, Ellen in particular.

Mrs. Berent and Ruth invite Danny to stay with them at their summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, mentioning that there is a school he could attend there.  When Ellen suggests it to Danny, however, he says he is not interested in going there unless all three of them can go together.  In other words, Danny is as attached to Richard as Ellen is, and she realizes there is no way to get rid of him.

Well, there is one way.  Ellen mentioned to Leick that she had a strange dream in which Richard was drowning and she was unable to save him, saying she had no voice to call for help, that her arms were paralyzed, and she couldn’t row to him because the lake was like glue.  Freud was a dominant intellectual force in those days, and with that in mind, we can see that this dream is the fulfillment of a wish, the wish that Danny would drown.  But her conscience would not let her dream that about Danny, so she substituted Richard. Since there was no way she wanted Richard to drown, the dream caused no feelings of guilt.

But there may be more to this dream than that.  As noted above, when Ellen first saw Richard, she went into a dream-like trance staring at him.  There are times in Ellen’s life when, though awake, it is as if she is in a dream, under a compulsion, and unable to do anything about it.

In any event, the dream turns out to be prophetic.  She encourages Danny to try swimming across the lake, as therapy, while following him in a rowboat.  As he eases into the water, she puts on a pair of sunglasses.  Ostensibly, this is to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun.  But when someone conceals his eyes, it makes it difficult for others to engage him emotionally.  Sunglasses confer on the wearer a degree of moral detachment.  That the sunglasses are heart-shaped, suggesting a warmth that isn’t there, is all the more disturbing.  When Danny starts cramping and going under, she seems to be in that dream she had, paralyzed, even though we know she is an excellent swimmer and could easily have saved him.  It is only when she hears Richard whistling as he walks along the lake that she is roused from her dream, screaming, “Danny!” and then jumping in the water, as if she is trying to save him.

Another side observation:  During her stay at the lodge, Ruth is suddenly frightened by the sound of a loon across the lake, and it is shortly afterwards that Ellen lets Danny drown.  In A Place in the Sun (1951), a man plans to drown his pregnant girlfriend in Loon Lake, and after she does drown, he is bothered when he hears a loon, reminding him of what he did.  I guess this association between loons and someone drowning in a lake is just a coincidence, but I can’t help thinking it has a significance that escapes me.  Otherwise, why have a scene where Ruth is bothered by the sound of a loon?

The Baby

After Danny’s death, Richard can’t stand living at Back of the Moon, so he and Ellen go to Bar Harbor to stay with Mrs. Berent and Ruth.  Ellen is getting nowhere in her hopes of living alone with Richard. Now she has to live with her mother and sister as well. This would be bad enough if things were pleasant, but Mrs. Berent shuns her, leaving the room when walks in.  Presumably, she suspects something.

Ruth suggests that Richard might better be able to deal with his loss if he had a child of his own. Normally, Ellen would be averse to the idea, as any love-nest person would be.  But she is desperate and appears to be considering it.  She does get pregnant, and as she get further along in her pregnancy, the doctor tells her not to walk up the stairs.  One day she does just that, only to discover that Richard is changing her father’s laboratory into a playroom.  For Ellen, the room was a shrine, and she did not want it changed.  She asks Richard why he didn’t consult her first.  Once again, given his lack of empathy, he was so convinced that he knew exactly what would make her happy, which just happened to be what would make him happy, that he saw no need to talk to her about it first.  And when Ellen appears to be upset, he once again falls back on the old excuse:  “We wanted to surprise you,” which is supposed to make everything all right.  He even admits he knows she doesn’t like being surprised, but he won’t be denied, saying, “but we were trying to please you.”  And that is supposed to put her in the wrong, making her appear ungrateful.  Of course, Mrs. Berent and Ruth are not much better, for they knew more than anyone how Ellen felt about her father, and yet they said nothing to Richard, but merely helped him with his plan.

As time goes by, Ellen finds herself even more limited in what she can do, the doctor telling her she needs lots of rest.  Meanwhile, Richard has been spending time with Ruth, of whom Ellen has long been suspiciously jealous, especially now that she does not like the way she looks in the late stages of her pregnancy.

Her pregnancy is obvious only to her and the people in the movie, however, not to us in the audience.  We are supposed to imagine that the robe she is wearing signifies a distended belly. Apparently, Joseph Breen, head of the Hays Office, was afraid that if a woman in a movie looked pregnant, that might cause us to think about the sex that was involved in getting her pregnant, thereby precipitating the collapse of Western civilization.

Anyway, thinking she is losing out to Ruth, with her nice trim figure, and realizing that having a baby would just be like having Danny around again, she says to Ruth, “I hate the little beast.  I wish it would die.”  After Ruth leaves, Ellen decides to induce an abortion by flinging herself down the stairs, making it look as though she tripped.  I’d be afraid that if I tried that, I would break my back and be paralyzed for the rest of my life.  But I guess she figured that the doctor would be able to tell if she used a coat hanger.  In any event, she loses (kills) the baby.  The suspicious Mrs. Berent says, referring to Richard, “First his brother, and now his son.”

The doctor says of Ellen, “When she came to, she remembered nothing about leaving her room.  She thought she must have been walking in her sleep.”  Ruth says she couldn’t have been asleep, since she was with her just twenty minutes before it happened.  But that is because Ruth is thinking of sleeping and dreaming in the ordinary sense, and not in the sense that is sometimes true of Ellen.

The Sister

Free of that baby, Ellen is happy again.  But that is short lived.  Mrs. Berent warned Richard that he should dedicate all his future books to his wife, but like an idiot, he dedicates his next book to Ruth, using his nickname for her, “To the Gal with the Hoe,” because she likes planting things.  Being the inclusive-family type, Richard thinks members of a family are all full of love for one another.  He has a blind spot when it comes to understanding just how jealous a love-nest person can be.

The dedication precipitates an argument between Ellen and Ruth, in which Ruth tells Ellen how much she despises her, a lot of which Richard overhears.  Then Ellen and Richard start arguing, and he finally coerces a confession out of her that she let Danny drown.  In one sense, this is a movie confession, one that meets the needs of melodrama; for we might legitimately imagine that a real-life Ellen would continue to deny all, saying she loved Danny, and that it broke her heart when he drowned.  But in another sense, this recalls her attempt to elicit sympathy from Dr. Mason by saying that Danny was a cripple.  She becomes so single-minded in her desire to be alone with Richard that she finds it difficult to lie, which does take more effort and deliberation than simply blurting out the truth.

Richard tells her he is going to leave her.  Figuring he is going to run off with Ruth, Ellen decides to fake evidence, making it look as though Ruth poisoned her.  On her death bed, she tells Richard she wants to be cremated, with her ashes scattered where her father’s ashes were.  He does as she asks, little knowing that she changed her will to say she wanted to be buried in a cemetery, making it look as though an attempt was made to prevent an autopsy.  And then we learn the significance of Russell’s vehement assertion that he will always love Ellen, which she referred to as a threat.  She writes Russell a letter, telling him that Richard and Ruth are in love, and that Richard wants a divorce.  She says she tried to get Ruth to give him up, but Ruth threatened to kill her.  Ellen undoubtedly realized that with Russell as the district attorney, he will be relentless in trying to convict Ruth of murder.

It almost works, but Richard finally tells all on the witness stand about what a monster Ellen was, killing his brother and then their baby, making it plausible that she wanted to make her suicide appear to be murder. Ruth is acquitted, but since Richard withheld evidence of Ellen’s crimes, he is charged as an accomplice, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison.

And so, it is Ruth who is waiting for Richard at Back of the Moon.  Jeanne Crain is pretty in much the same way that Gene Tierney is, but with less character in her face.  We can easily believe that she will make for an innocent version of Ellen.  The irony is that Ruth will have Richard all to herself.

The Title

I suppose a word must be said about the title.  It comes from Hamlet, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells of how he was murdered by his brother, demanding that he be avenged.  But then he says, “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her.”  This is quoted just below the title of the book.  But to whom is that admonition addressed, and does it make any sense?

It sounds as though the ghost is saying that Hamlet’s mother will suffer enough just knowing what she has done.  Well, I don’t see how that applies to Ellen.  First of all, Hamlet’s mother is not guilty of murder, only incest, if you can call it that, by marrying her brother-in-law, whereas Ellen is guilty of murder and other wickedness.  Second, whereas Hamlet’s mother is still alive when the ghost tells Hamlet not seek vengeance against her, it’s too late for anyone to get revenge against Ellen, because she’s dead.  We can’t say she has already suffered from remorse, because when she told Richard that she did let Danny drown, she said she had no regrets and would do it all over again.  Finally, Ellen’s death is not punishment.  It’s a weapon.  Her final act on this Earth was to use her own death to destroy Ruth.  That hardly sounds like someone who had been bothered by thorns in her bosom.

Perhaps the author of the novel figured people might not like the fact that Ellen goes unpunished, and he is trying to justify his letting her get away with it, as if an allusion is a substitute for logic.

Panic in the Year Zero (1962)

Before considering the movie Panic in the Year Zero, some general remarks about nuclear-war movies are in order.

Nuclear-War Movies

Nuclear war, should it ever occur, would be a dreadful thing.  But from that it does not follow that a movie about nuclear war will induce a feeling of dread in its audience. And so it is with a lot of subjects that, in themselves, are dreadful, but the presentation of which in a movie can be quite enjoyable. Murder is something dreadful, but murder mysteries are fun.

Perhaps that is because few of us are in fear of being murdered.  We take precautions, of course, but the prospect of being murdered does not weigh heavily on our minds. Cancer, on the other hand, is something that threatens us all.  And certainly, a movie about someone dying of cancer might be expected to induce a feeling of dread, such as Cries & Whispers (1972).  But other movies in which cancer plays a role can be quite enjoyable, such as Rebecca (1940).  Of course, it might be argued that the woman who has cancer in that movie, though she is the title character, is never seen, but only referred to.  However, in Dark Victory (1939), the protagonist, played by Bette Davis, has terminal cancer and dies in the end.  And while this movie is a tearjerker, it is not dreadful, but actually uplifting.

Whether a movie about nuclear was will be experienced as dreadful or not depends in part on the way the story is presented, and in part on the attitudes of those who watch the movie.  In the 1950s, the threat of a nuclear attack was thought to be a real possibility.  There were a lot of civil defense and military films produced by the government to prepare its citizens for nuclear attack, the most well-known being Duck and Cover (1952).  In this partially animated short, featuring Bert the turtle, who has the advantage of being able to duck into the shell he carries around with him, children are advised to seek shelter in case there is a warning that an attack is imminent.  We hear air-raid sirens, at which point children go into buildings, preferably into those with a bomb shelter.  In some cases, adults wearing civil defense helmets advise them where to go.  Since bombers were the principal means by which atomic bombs would be dropped in those days, it was expected that there would be such warnings.  If there was no warning, the first indication of such an attack would be a flash of bright light, at which point the children were advised to avail themselves of whatever cover was at hand, protecting their head and neck primarily.  Being a child myself back then, having been born in 1946, I remember that we would regularly have nuclear-attack drills.

I also remember the films.  In the 1980s, I began hearing about all the trauma children like me experienced in those days.  That’s not the way I remember it.  I used to like it when we were able to get out of class to see one of these films.  I especially liked watching the way buildings were flattened by the atomic bomb. Other students my age seemed to have similar attitudes.  When I was in junior high, some smart aleck posted a sign on the wall that read as follows:

In case of nuclear attack:

1. Bend over.

2. Put your head between your legs.

3. And kiss your ass goodbye.

As noted above, during the 1950s, the principal means of delivering nuclear bombs was by airplanes. Every day, twenty-four hours a day, planes loaded with nuclear bombs would head toward Russia, prepared to proceed to their targets should they receive an order to do so.  In Strategic Air Command (1955), James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player.  He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long-range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out.  His wife Sally (June Allyson) really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Halfway through the movie you’ll be wishing that war would break out, and that Dutch will get the order to proceed to a target inside Russia.  Instead, in an effort to keep us from being bored, the movie manufactures moments of dramatic tension:  a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog. It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war.  Let’s face it. Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull.  In fact, life during peacetime can also be pretty dull.  I sometimes wonder how many wars are started because someone got bored.

During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder.  This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending:  Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life.  Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe.

In 1964, two movies were made based on these long-range nuclear bombers:  Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  The former was played straight, intended to fill us with dread; the latter was a satire, meant to be enjoyed.  Both movies, however, have an interesting twist.  The threat is not an attack by the Soviet Union, but rather a failure in the American defense system, one that allows the crews of American bombers to believe they have a legitimate order to attack Russia, even though the Russians have done nothing to warrant it.  In Fail Safe, it is an accident that some bombers receive an order to attack Russia; in Dr. Strangelove, a mentally unbalanced American Air Force general deliberately orders a nuclear strike. In both movies, a bomber manages to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia.

In Fail Safe, Henry Fonda, as president of the United States, has a nuclear bomb dropped on New York City as payback for the unintended strike on Moscow.  The fact that the president’s wife happens to be in New York at the time really makes this dreadful.  Dr. Strangelove, which is too well known to warrant even a minimal synopsis, is great fun.

Subsequent movies have played on this theme, in which America might inadvertently start a nuclear war rather than having it begin with an attack by the Russians, as was the principal fear in the 1950s. However, unlike the two movies above, an attack on Russia is averted in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), The Dead Zone (1983), War Games (1983), and Crimson Tide (1995).  That fact that nuclear war is completely avoided makes it easy to treat such movies as entertainment.

Movies in which nuclear war does break out are usually intended to fill us with dread, and they tend to be ambiguous as to who started it. In the early 1980s, there was some concern that President Ronald Reagan would get us into a nuclear war.  In response to this, there were protests and calls for disarmament. Perhaps as a result of this movement, The Day After was produced in 1983, in which escalating tensions build up between the United States and the Soviet Union until full-scale nuclear war breaks out. There is no sneak attack, and both sides seem to be partially to blame for what happens. This movie falls into the dreadful category, although it sometimes seems as though the point of the movie is that nuclear war will ruin everyone’s sex life.  An even more dreadful nuclear war movie is Testament (1983), where we never find out how the war started.  Another nuclear-war movie made during this period is Threads (1984), a television movie produced by the United Kingdom.  It too is supposed to be in the dreadful category, but we are reassured by the fact that Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has survived.

Finally, there are the movies in which we learn about a nuclear war that has already taken place.  On the Beach is intended to give us that feeling of dread, no doubt owing to the fact that it was made in 1959. Since then, however, the nuclear war that took place at some time in the past merely allows us to enjoy stories of adventure in the post-apocalyptic world, notably the Mad Max movies.

The 1980s seem to be the last time the threat of nuclear attack was high on the list of things to worry about.  I live in Houston, and at the start of that decade, an air-raid siren could still be heard every Friday at noon as a test to make sure it was still working.  A few years later, this practice was discontinued. Nuclear-attack drills in school have been replaced by active-shooter drills.  Fallout shelters have been replaced by safe rooms.

Panic in the Year Zero

Panic in the Year Zero was made in 1962, when a sneak attack by the Soviet Union was still regarded as a genuine threat.  Early in the movie, nuclear war begins when just such a sneak attack is initiated, though by an unnamed enemy.  This movie is unusual in that it is intended to be enjoyed, despite such a scenario and the year in which it was produced.  Imagine an episode of Father Knows Best, a television show that ran from 1954 to 1960, in which the Anderson family finds itself having to deal with such an attack.  Except for the absence of someone corresponding to Kathy, the daughter still in grade school, there are corresponding characters in the Baldwin family in Panic in the Year Zero:  Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland); Ann (Jean Hagen), Harry’s wife; Rick (Frankie Avalon), their son; and Karen (Mary Mitchel), their daughter.

Frankie Avalon was twenty-one when this movie was made in 1962, but was still playing teenage roles, as in this movie.  Mary Mitchel was only one day younger than Avalon, but plays a teenager as well. One wonders, would it be considered politically incorrect to let adults like Avalon and Mitchel play teenagers in a movie made today, as a form of ageism, much in the way it is frowned upon to let actors play ethnicities and gender identities that are not really theirs?

In any event, when the movie begins, we hear a jazz score, which tends to suggest a loosening of the restraints of civilization.  At the same time, the camera focuses on a car radio.  In addition to the numbers and a vertical bar indicating the approximate locations of the AM stations, we see two marks that are immediately recognizable to those who were around when this movie was made:  the CONELRAD stations located at 640 and 1240 kHz.  In case of atomic attack, American citizens could tune in to those two stations and find out from the government what they should do or where they should go.

We see Harry with his fishing rod, standing in front of his car with a trailer attached. He and his family are about to embark on a trip to the country where they can do some fishing.  In other words, the Baldwin family will be away from Los Angeles when nuclear war breaks out, and they will be in good shape for surviving in the aftermath. However, it is important that it is a fishing trip and not a hunting trip they are going on.  Civilians who own guns when a movie begins usually end up being killed, as a kind of cinematic punishment.  But civilians that do not own guns when the movie begins, but acquire them later, after they find themselves in danger, are likely to survive and defeat the bad guys.

As the Baldwin family drives down the road, a couple of hours after having left town, they become aware of flashes of light behind them.  Harry says he is going to stop and check the rear window on the trailer, but that is not the real reason.  He suspects the flash may indicate something ominous, and he does not want to alarm his wife Ann. This is the first indication that Harry, being a man, is able to handle the truth, while Ann, being a woman, must be protected from the harsh realities of life.

Eventually, they see a mushroom cloud rising from the west.  They decide to call Ann’s mother to see if she knows anything.  And there, in the middle of nowhere, is a phonebooth on the side of the road, all by itself. Boy, was that a long time ago!

However, the telephone lines to Los Angeles are dead.  Up till now, Harry has been just like Robert Young in Father Knows Best, easy going and relaxed, but now he acquires an edge.  He is still the one in the family who knows best, but as the patriarch, he must now set aside his genial attitude and become firm and resolute in what must be done. But while Harry gets to be the one who can see the big picture, using reason and a realistic understanding of the Hobbesian world they are about to enter, Ann is consigned to the role of silly, emotional female.  When Harry says they cannot go back to Los Angeles, Ann cannot believe he is just going to forget about her mother.  Karen is not much better, being the other female in the family, who can’t believe her father doesn’t care about “grandma.”  Of course, Harry knows that Ann’s mother is dead by now, a fact the women in his family just cannot face.  Over and over, during this movie, Harry has to reprimand Ann for whining and being irrational, and he does so in a loud voice.  I felt sorry for her.  Then, I began to feel sorry for Jean Hagen, who had to play this part, similar to that of June Allyson’s character in Strategic Air Command.  But finally, I began to feel sorry for the women of those days who suffered from such stereotypes.

As noted above, the Baldwin family didn’t start out with guns.  But Harry decides they now need them, as well as a lot of other supplies.  Not having the cash to pay for it all, he robs a hardware store, using the very pistol he just purchased.  That is a bit of a cliché in the movies.  In real life, customers are not typically allowed to load up the gun they are about to purchase.

Rick helps his father pull off the robbery.  Being the other male in the family, he is rational and competent too.  However, being young, he is a little too eager to violently engage in this world of every man for himself.  In fact, he seems to be having a good time.  When Harry punches out the owner of a filing station in order to steal his gasoline, Ann is shocked, but Rick just grins.

The Baldwin family has two problems.  First, there is the general panic on the part of people like themselves.  Second, there are three jive-talking hoodlums they have to confront.  When these punks start roughing up Harry, Rick shoots one of them with a shotgun from inside the trailer.  The hoodlums take off. Harry asks Rick why he almost missed the guy, just barely wounding him in the shoulder. Ann admits that she pushed Rick’s arm to keep him from killing the guy.  Harry admonishes Ann, telling her they would have killed him and Rick, and then, in so many words, would have raped her and Karen.  Rape is a major theme in this movie, although the word “rape” is never used. One almost gets the feeling that the purpose of the women in this movie is either to be raped or be in danger of such.  After Ann gets back in the trailer, Rick gets a dreamy look in his eyes, saying, “I could have blown that guy’s head off.”  Harry gives Rick a stern lecture, telling him he mustn’t like doing this sort of thing.

Harry figures they would be sitting ducks living in the trailer, so they ditch it, cover the car with foliage, and take up residence in a cave.  When listening to a radio, they hear that looting has been taking place and that all those responsible are guilty of treason and will face the death penalty. Looks like Harry just might be in some trouble.

By coincidence, Ed Johnson, the owner of the hardware store Harry robbed, and his wife have made their way to the same area and have taken up residence in the trailer. It turns out that Harry was right to abandon it, for he and Rick later discover the couple have been murdered, and the wife raped.  But every cloud has a silver lining. That’s one less witness to the looting Harry’s been doing.

It turns out that the three hoodlums they encountered earlier have taken up residence in a nearby farmhouse.  And while Harry and Rick are burying the Johnsons, two of the hoodlums come across Karen and rape her, a really wild jazz score playing in the background.  Ann hears Karen screaming. She redeems herself somewhat by taking a couple of shots at the two men, but she doesn’t hit either of them because such competence would have been in conflict with the stereotype to which she must conform.

When Harry and Rick find out, they go to the farmhouse, and Harry kills the two hoodlums that raped Karen, the third one being out at the time.  They find Marilyn, who lived there with her parents before the hoodlums killed them.  She has been repeatedly gangraped by the three hoodlums and others as well.  Rick talks his father into bringing her with them.  The next day, Rick makes a move on Marilyn, but she recoils.  I guess he figured the rape had worn off on her by that time.

When the third hoodlum shows up, he shoots Rick in the leg, but Marilyn shoots and kills him.  She is allowed to be a competent female because she was raised on a farm, as opposed to urban females like Ann and Karen, who just get emotional.  Since Rick is losing a lot of blood, they are forced to leave camp and go back to civilization in search of a doctor.  While in the car, the radio says that the “enemy” has asked for a cessation of hostilities.  This enemy could not possibly be any other than the Russians, but they are not mentioned specifically.

After being stopped by some soldiers, who are restoring order in this post-apocalyptic world, they are directed to a hospital where Rick will be able to get blood.  It might be thought that the rape of the two teenage girls in this movie would preclude the possibility of regarding this movie as having a happy ending, but that is not the case. Although rape is, in itself, something dreadful, it, like murder, cancer, and nuclear war, can be featured in a movie meant to be enjoyed.  This is especially so if the movie is one in which women are depicted as being of little value, expect in their role as something for men protect or avenge.