The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man begins with a prologue, not a written one, but a scene with Alfred Hitchcock at a distance, barely visible in the light on a dark street, saying that the movie we are about to see is “a true story, every word of it.”  Then come the credits, followed by a disclaimer where this is directly contradicted:

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious.  No identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

So, there!

The story is about a man named Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who works at the Stork Club in New York as the bass player in the orchestra.  The movie really wants us to know that he is a family man.  When he gets off work, while riding the subway, he looks at an advertisement for an automobile promising family fun.  Then he looks at an advertisement for a bank, claiming to be a family bank. When he stops to get something to eat, the man behind the counter asks him, “How’s the family?”  When he gets home, he brings in the milk left by the milkman, which is a nice family touch, but either Manny works really late, or the milkman makes his deliveries extra early.  As he passes the bedroom where his two sons are sleeping, he looks in on them.  Then he checks in on his wife Rose (Vera Miles).  The next day, his mother calls, asking him to stop by.  We later find out he has a sister and brother-in-law.  I suppose the idea is that what will soon happen to him will disrupt everyone in his extended family, making it much worse than if it happened to a bachelor whose parents were no longer living.

In looking at the ads mentioned above, it is clear that Manny would love to take out a loan from the family bank to buy the car and have some family fun.  But that is just an idle dream for him.  He pretends to play the horses, marking pretend bets, and then checking later to see how much he would have won.  But his reality is dreary.  He may have to take out a loan, not for a car, but rather so that Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed.  And the reason his mother wants him to stop by is that “Pop” is not doing well.

Manny takes Rose’s life insurance policy to the company to get that loan.  While there, he is mistaken for a man that held up the company on two previous occasions.  They call the police after he leaves, and Manny is arrested and taken to the police station.  A police detective assures him that an innocent man has nothing to worry about, that only guilty have anything to fear.  And yet, he is repeatedly identified as the man that held up one business or another, including the insurance company.

This is as unsurprising as it is unnerving.  If a Mr. Jones is known to the witness of a crime beforehand, and testifies that Jones committed that crime, we have good reason to trust his testimony.  But if the witness had never seen Jones before the day of the crime, then his testimony to that effect should be treated with a fair amount of skepticism.  I have read of studies in which psychologists staged crimes before a room full of students.  Later, only 14% of the witnesses were able to correctly identify the “culprit.”  In another staged crime, 60% of the witnesses in the classroom, including the professor, identified the wrong man as the one supposedly guilty of the faked assault.  And yet, many an innocent man has been sent to prison on the basis of just such evidence alone.

There have been over a dozen times in my life where someone has mistaken me for someone else, saying he saw me at a store that I do not patronize, or asked me how I enjoyed the concert, which I did not attend.  I usually joke that I hope these doppelgängers behave themselves so that I don’t get blamed for something they did.  But when watching this movie, recalling those times where I have been mistaken for someone else makes me squirm.

Before we had the technology to identify people with DNA evidence, there was the case of a man that kept being accused of rape by women, who then picked him out of a lineup.  He fortunately had alibis the first two times.  Then he started keeping a diary, accounting for his whereabouts in fifteen-minute intervals, requesting whoever was present to sign his diary for the given time.  He continued to be arrested as women continued to identify him, and his diary was the only thing that saved him.  Eventually, the rapist was caught.  They made a movie based on his story, but the name of it escapes me.

In a lot of movies, Manny would be arrested, locked up, arraigned, and bailed out in five minutes of screen time.  But Hitchcock takes us through the whole process slowly, so that we experience the dread of handcuffs, bars, hard beds, and angular accommodations.  On the day of his arraignment, he has to show up in court unshaven, which only adds to his humiliation.

After he is bailed out, thanks to money raised by his sister and brother-in-law, Rose begins having a nervous breakdown.  She blames herself for what happened to Manny, but then she blames him, accusing him of borrowing money so they could go on a vacation they couldn’t afford, something he had already admitted at the police station.  So, it appears that some of Manny’s money problems were self-inflicted, contrary to what we thought at first.

Then, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, says he will show that Manny needed to borrow money to pay off the bookies, based on statements he made to the detectives.  Manny looks at his lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), negatively shaking his head to indicate that it isn’t true.  We heard Manny admit that he went to the race track a few times, but that is all.  Did the detectives misunderstand him?  Did they purposely make this up?  Or was he indeed in trouble with the bookies? We never find out, since it ends in a mistrial.

The reason for the mistrial is that a juror expresses his impatience when O’Connor is cross examining the eyewitnesses.  I must admit, I am sympathetic to his exasperation.  There are two witnesses, a Mrs. James and Miss Willis, who both work at the insurance company.  First, Mrs. James identifies Manny as the one that held up the insurance company where she worked.  Then Miss Willis takes the stand.  Manny’s lawyer asks her about the “alleged lineup,” to which there is an objection, of course.  I don’t know why he would disparage the lineup.  Maybe it was because one of the men in the lineup was the husband of the other witness.

O’Connor:  Were there any men in that alleged lineup you knew before that night?

[After an objection to his use of the word “alleged,” he continues.]

O’Connor:  How many of the men did you know?

Miss Willis:  One.

O’Connor:  And who was that?

Miss Willis:  Mrs. James’ husband.

We saw the scene where the women picked Manny out of the lineup.  So, why didn’t we hear Mrs. James say, “Hi, George.  What are you doing here?” or something to that effect?

Anyway, O’Connor then begins a tedious process of asking the Miss Willis about the men in the lineup, including Mr. James.  He asks what the various men were wearing, how tall they were, and how much they weighed.  Who could be expected to remember such details?  It is at this point that a juror asks, “Your Honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this?”

He took the words right out of my mouth!  If this is the best O’Connor can do, I thought to myself, Manny is in trouble.  Anyway, justified or not, the remark occasions the request for a mistrial, which is granted.

After the mistrial, Rose has a complete mental collapse, staring vacantly off into space.  She talks about how “they” will find Manny guilty not matter what he does.  Manny has to put her in an “institution.”  However, he voiced similar sentiments himself when two of the men that might have provided him with an alibi turned up dead.  He tells O’Connor, “You know, like someone was stacking the cards against us.”  In short, there is the suggestion that dark, mysterious forces are working against them.  Well, I suppose anyone would become paranoid at this point.

And then, in what thus far had been an engrossing movie, there is a complete narrative rupture.  Manny’s mother tells him he should pray.  He says he already has prayed.  And we know he has.  When first arrested, he has to remove all the items from his pocket.  One such item is a Rosary.  Any man that would carry a Rosary around in his coat pocket is definitely religious.  During the trial, we see him holding the Rosary in his hands, under the table, presumably saying the prayers.  And so far, those prayers have come to naught.  Nevertheless, his mother says, “My son, I beg you to pray.”

Manny goes into the next room where he looks at a picture of Jesus on the wall.  We see him gazing at it has his lips move.  His image is superimposed over that of a man walking down the street.  He comes closer and closer until Manny’s face coincides with the face of the man in the street.  They have roughly similar features.

Well, the man tries to rob a store, and the owners subdue him and have him arrested.  At the police station, one of the detectives working Manny’s case notices the similar appearance of that man to that of Manny.  The end result is that Manny is freed.

This miracle ruins the movie.  And it is especially presumptuous, given Hitchcock’s claim that the story is true.  Yes, it was probably true that Manny’s mother told him to pray, and right after that the holdup man was arrested.  But given the way it is filmed, there can be no doubt that there has been divine intervention, something Hitchcock could hardly guarantee.  Maybe that’s why there was a disclaimer.

We never minded when we saw Manny praying with the Rosary.  Religious people pray in times of stress.  And if he had subsequently been freed when the man was arrested later on in the film, we would not have felt obliged to see that as resulting from a supernatural cause.  But the scene involving Manny’s face superimposed over the holdup man as Manny prayed to the picture of Jesus makes it impossible to interpret that as anything other than a complete miracle.

In Chapter XV of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author reflects upon the fact that the degree of credence we accord to miracles depends largely on when they are supposed to have occurred.  He admits that in the early days of Christianity, the intervention of God was more necessary than it is today:

If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous na­tions to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

And so it is, Gibbon goes on to say, that it is only with reluctance that even the most devout will admit to miracles in present circumstances:

In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active con­sent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.

And if Gibbon was right when saying this of the eighteenth century, then all the more so is this true in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.  People might still accept miracles that occurred in subsequent centuries, but Gibbon’s expression “visible action of the Deity” is significant.  What counts as a miracle no longer is something utterly contrary to what can occur in nature.  Rather, it is something compatible with natural causes, but ascribed to the hand of God nevertheless.  We might say of such miracles that they involve the invisible action of the Deity.  When an airplane crashes, and all are killed except a baby, some may say that it was a miracle the infant survived, but we know that the skeptical will have no trouble attributing the event to mere chance.

What Gibbon said of life also applies to the movies.  We not only accept, but also look forward to, the depiction of miracles in film as they occurred in biblical times, whether it be that of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, or that of Jesus as he walked on water.  But when a miracle supposedly takes place in a movie set in contemporaneous times, we do not see a marvelous violation of some natural law, but rather an outcome that the movie encourages us to regard as a miracle, usually because someone prays just before the event takes place, a conclusion we would never have come to otherwise.

For example, in Made for Each Other (1939), a nun encourages Carol Lombard to pray to a statue of Jesus that the serum for her baby will arrive in time to save its life, after which the pilot with the serum manages to bail out of his plane, get to a farmhouse, where the farmer calls the hospital to tell them the serum has arrived.  Absent the prayer, we’d have just said to ourselves, “Well, that was a close call!”

After he has been exonerated, Manny goes to the insane asylum to tell Rose the good news, but she continues to stare off into space, saying it doesn’t matter.  He says to the nurse, “I guess I was hoping for a miracle.”  She replies, “They happen, but it takes time.”  The epilogue tells us that Rose was released from the hospital after two years.

Just as we were not bothered by the Rosary and Manny’s prayers during the trial, so too do we think nothing of this conversation about a miracle regarding Rose’s recovery.  People speak of miracles figuratively all the time, meaning nothing more than a positive outcome that was unlikely.  So, it is only the undeniable miracle involving the picture of Jesus that ruins the movie.

There are movies, even in the twenty-first century, where miracles are perhaps more acceptable.  If the movie lets us know from the outset that it is religious in nature, such as God’s Not Dead (2014), where God, we are invited to believe, keeps a reverend from being able to leave town so that he can get the atheist professor to ask for God’s forgiveness and be saved, the miracle is at least in keeping with what has come before.  It doesn’t matter whether you regard this as a good movie or not.  The point is that the miracle is not unexpected, since we have been prepared for something like that from the beginning.

In the case of The Wrong Man, however, we have not been so prepared.  Up to the point of the miracle, this is the most realistic movie Hitchcock ever directed, and thus the fantastic miracle really seems out of place. When out of the blue, a miracle occurs in the last reel, it comes across as a deus ex machina.  Actually, a genuine deus ex machina is a contrived and artificial solution to a problem that seems unsolvable.  In the case of The Wrong Man, however, the miracle could have been left out, and we would have accepted the arrest of the man who actually held up the insurance company as something that could easily happen.  So, we get the disadvantage of a deus ex machina, as something contrived, without any benefit, since there was no need for such a drastic solution to Manny’s problem in the first place.

In addition to movies that announce their religious themes up front, I suppose it is worth mentioning that we never object to miracles in a comedy, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  And whatever misgivings we have about miracles ordinarily understood, in which God intervenes for someone’s benefit, we usually are much more receptive to evil miracles, as it were, as when the supernatural cause comes from Satan or other sinister forces, as in The Exorcist (1973).

It is not just, as Gibbon says, that we are reticent to accept the occurrence of genuine miracles in the modern age.  It is also the fact that the supposed occurrence of such encourages reflection on the problem of evil, to wit, if there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is there so much sin and suffering in the world?  For a lot of religious people, this is not a problem.  They have their pat answers, involving such things as free will, God’s divine plan, and the sin of questioning the ways of God in the first place.

But for others, even those that are otherwise religious, such thoughts are disturbing, precipitating a whole raft of questions:  Why did God let all these bad things happen to Manny and Rose in the first place, when he could have made sure the bad guy was caught right away?  Why was a prayer necessary to bring about the miracle, and if it was, why did Manny’s previous prayers not suffice?  And why didn’t Manny just go back to the picture of Jesus and work up another miracle to get Rose out of the mental institution right away?  (The movie says Rose was all right after a couple of years, but I have read that she never really did completely recover.)

All these questions interfere with our enjoyment of the movie.  And this is regrettable, since the movie would have been just fine with no miracle at all.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

This review has no spoilers.  I wouldn’t dare.

The Last of Sheila is a closed-universe mystery, one in which all the suspects can be gathered together in one room, which they typically are at one point in the movie.  It is one of the best such movies ever made.  I put it right up there with Mystery on the Orient Express (the 1974 version, of course) and Ten Little Indians (1965).  Of this latter movie, it has been made several times, but I think this one is the best, slightly better even that the first version, And Then There Were None (1945).

As for The Last of Sheila, this one is limited to seven people on a yacht, plus the crew.  Now, I confess that with such movies, I really don’t try to solve the mystery as I watch it.  Not that I would likely be successful if I did.  In the television series Ellery Queen (1975-1976), the title detective, played by Jim Hutton, would suddenly realize the solution to the mystery he was trying to solve just before the end of the show.  He would then break the fourth wall, bring our attention to several clues, after which there would be a commercial break, giving us a chance to answer the question, “Who done it?”  Even with all that, I never solved a single mystery.  But I did appreciate the fact that the show played fair, that the clues should have pointed me in the right direction.

As with most movies of this sort, we become fully aware of all the clues that have been presented to us at the dénouement.  In the case of The Last of Sheila, however, while some of the clues are indeed made explicit by the end of the movie, there are others that are not, some of which I did not notice until a second or third viewing.  And this movie is worth a second or third viewing.

My favorite clue is one that I thought was a goof.  I said to myself, “Oh no, they forgot that ….”  But they didn’t forget.  And there is another in-your-face clue that I just missed.  And, of course, there are a few red herrings.

At the beginning of the movie, Clinton (James Coburn) and his wife Sheila, who is a gossip columnist, are at a party having a bitter argument.  She becomes so angry that she leaves, deciding she will walk home.  Then we see a car speeding down the road, weaving around and striking some garbage cans.  Then it hits Sheila, killing her.  The driver of the car stops, backs up, looks at the body, and then drives off.

A year passes, and we see Clinton on his yacht, which he has named “SHEILA.”  Being a game enthusiast, he has decided to host a game aboard his yacht in honor of Sheila.  He invites the following people:  Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Christine (Dyan Cannon); Philip (James Mason); and Alice (Raquel Welch) and her husband Anthony (Ian McShane).

Clinton is a movie producer, and everyone he has invited is connected to the movie business in some way.  Tom is a screenwriter, who keeps hoping Clinton will produce a movie based on his favorite script; Lee has grown up in the film industry since she was a child; Christine is an agent; Philip is a director, presently reduced to directing commercials; Alice is an actress; and Anthony is her manager.  In addition, he would like to be an assistant producer.  Christine refers to them all as the “B-Team,” probably including herself.  As part of the lure to get them aboard his yacht, Clinton says he intends to make a movie based on Sheila’s life, and they will all be a part of it.  And because they are desperate to be part of a major project, they suffer his abuse, as when he refers to all of them as has-beens to their face.  As a result, a lot of them harbor ill feelings toward Clinton.

Each person is given a card with a pretend secret on it.  Each night, at a different port, they will be given a clue allowing them to find the evidence that establishes the identity of the person with that night’s secret.  Everyone who solves the mystery, gets a point.  If the person who has the secret solves it, the game ends, and those that have not yet solved it don’t score.  The better the score by the end of the week, the better billing he or she will get in the credits of the movie.  And so, on the first night, they go ashore and try to establish who is the shoplifter, which is Philip’s pretend secret.  Tom solves it, and so does Lee.  When Philip solves it, that ends the game for the night.

A game like this, or perhaps one a little less elaborate, may have begun life as a party game conceived by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins.  However, in trying to devise such a game, it likely occurred to them that it could be the basis for a movie, for which they then wrote a script.

As far as the game in this movie is concerned, it sounds like a lot of fun at first.  But Alice becomes suspicious.  She had once been arrested for shoplifting, and she begins to wonder if each pretend secret is the real secret of someone else on the yacht, just as Philip’s pretend secret was Alice’s real secret.  Clinton would know about these real secrets because Sheila, being a gossip columnist, would have told him about them.  Furthermore, Alice holds the homosexual card, and she knows that one of the guests on the cruise is a homosexual.  And yes, there are both clues and red herrings as to who the homosexual is.

And then something unexpected happens, bringing us to a second mystery, a real one this time, where Alice’s suspicions are confirmed and made explicit by Tom, who has had similar suspicions as to what the game was really all about.  This one involves the death of Sheila.  After much analysis, with contributions from everyone, they solve this real mystery.

Or do they?  I knew a guy once who said he got up and left the theater at this point, figuring the movie had to be over.  I had to tell him that there was a third mystery, which he might take the trouble to watch some time when he is not in so much of a hurry.

And at this point, I cannot help but express my astonishment at the not insignificant portion of the human race that will go out for what should be an enjoyable night at the movies, and then feel compelled to leave before it is over, in order to have the satisfaction of being able to drive out of the parking lot before anyone else does.  I estimate that by doing so, they manage to get home about five minutes earlier than they would have had they stayed until the movie was completely over.

I remember one night in particular.  I was watching There Was a Crooked Man (1970) at the movie theater.  The movie has a twist ending:  you think it’s going to end one way, and then something completely unexpected happens, leading to a totally different ending, in which we find out that the title refers to someone other than the one we thought it did.

It was Saturday night, and the movie, which had started at 7:00, was completely over a few minutes past 9:00.  In other words, it was not likely to be way past anyone’s bedtime.  And yet, just before the movie got to that twist ending, about a third of the audience had already gotten up out of their seats and were heading for the exit.  A few went through the door, and they were undoubtedly pleased that they beat everyone else in the race to get home before 9:20 that evening.  The rest of them began to realize that the movie was really not over.  They milled around up front, shuffling slowly toward that all-important exit, heads turned to the left so they could see what was happening, but without giving up their place in line to get out the door.  One man was halfway through that exit, holding the door open with his left hand, craning his head back in to see what was going on, neither moving forward nor moving out of the way.

Anyway, for those that have the patience to wait until a movie is completely over, The Last of Sheila is a three-part mystery, the last of which is actually worth the extra time it takes to see how it unfolds.

Inasmuch as this movie is almost fifty years old, and it does not show up on your typical list of must-see movies, I figured it was worth bringing to the attention of those that might be completely unaware of its existence.

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

The Prince and the Pauper is a novel by Mark Twain.  It is about two little boys that look very much alike, even born on the same day:  one is Tom Canty, a beggar; the other is Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales.  Just for fun, they exchange clothes, but before they can make the switch back, Edward, thought to be a beggar, is expelled from the castle, while Tom is forced to take his place and possibly become the king.  Eventually, Edward, with the aid of Miles Hendon, is restored to his position just in time to be crowned king of England.

In real life, Edward, as the son of Henry VIII, would eventually become Edward VI when he was just nine years old.  When he was fifteen years old, he became ill and died.  I found this to be a little depressing. How much fun are we supposed to have watching a movie about a child that dies?  Sure, we don’t see the death in the movie, but we know it’s coming.

One of his playmates is Lady Jane Grey.  Yikes!  After Edward died, she got to be queen for nine days while still just a teenager, was deposed, and had her head chopped off by Queen Mary.  Boy, what fun imagining those two children playing together!

In the preface, Mark Twain says that this story, which has been passed down by word of mouth through the generations, may actually be true.  If so, then as the story unfolds, we wonder if the person that was eventually crowned Edward VI was actually Tom Canty, and that Edward was condemned to spending his life as a beggar in the slums of London.  Not knowing how the story will end as we read it, we are supposed to care whether Edward will eventually be crowned king, or whether the person history refers to as Edward VI was just an imposter.  But if one will be king while the other will be a beggar, what difference does it make which is which?

When a child becomes king, there will typically be a Lord Protector that gets to make all the decisions and rule for him until he reaches his majority, which the person that history refers to as Edward VI never did. Therefore, that Lord Protector will make the same decisions and rulings regardless of whichever little boy sits on the throne.  In the novel, a great deal is made of how Edward, who has literally placed himself in someone else’s shoes, is so outraged by the suffering and injustice that he witnesses, of the way people are flogged, pilloried, and mutilated, that he resolves to abolish the unjust laws and rule with mercy.  But if the Lord Protector will be making all the decisions for the boy king, such empathy will seem to be of small consequence.

In any event, can we really believe that Edward will suddenly have empathy for the poor and downtrodden?  If you or I saw people having such punishments inflicted upon them, we would be deeply moved.  But I have doubts about the effect this would have had upon someone like Edward, given what we learn about Humphrey Marlow, the whipping-boy.  Tom learns from Humphrey that whenever the prince fails at his lessons, Humphrey is whipped in his place, since it would be improper for the master to whip the prince himself.  And by “whip,” I do not mean a spanking, but rather the use of a scourge.  When Tom is alarmed to hear of this, Humphrey is perplexed, for he is regularly whipped several times a week, so often did Edward make mistakes.  And we further gather that Edward never had any sympathy for Humphrey, for the latter is surprised when Tom shows concern for him in this regard.  In other words, by this time in his life, Edward would doubtless have become inured to the suffering of Humphrey on his account.  As a result, Edward would more likely have come to be insulated against against any inclinations for empathy, and thus no more moved by the suffering of the great unwashed than he was by the regular beatings inflicted on his whipping-boy.

Mark Twain notes that the punishment of boiling prisoners in oil was repealed during the reign of Edward VI, but whether that was supposedly the result of Edward’s experience as a beggar, the influence of the Earl of Hertford, Lord Protector, or merely a decision made by Parliament is not clear.  Other than that, the empathy that we are expected to believe was acquired by Edward pretty much comes to naught, since he died before many of those fine sentiments were able to yield a practical result.

The people that produced the 1937 movie based on this novel probably had the same misgivings that I did, for they changed the story in several ways.  First of all, they eliminated the whipping-boy, thereby making it more believable that Edward would by moved by the suffering of others.  Second, they changed the story so that it would seem to matter who sat on the throne. In the movie, if Tom Canty is crowned king, the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains), who is evil and has figured out that Tom is an imposter, will be the Lord High Protector; whereas if Edward is crowned king, the Duke of Norfolk (Henry Stephenson), who is good, will be the Lord High Protector. So, what we really care about is which Lord High Protector will rule England while Tom or Edward is still just a child.  Or to put it differently, if Tom is crowned king, then that would explain all the evil things that happened in England until he died at fifteen; and if Edward is crowned king, then that would explain all the good things that happened in England until he died at fifteen.  But, of course, it’s the same English history either way.  In any event, in real life, Norfolk remained imprisoned in the Tower of London during the entire time that Edward was king, while the Earl of Hertford became the Lord Protector, so it appears that the screenwriters of this film got things backwards.

But wouldn’t it be an injustice for Tom to sit on the throne while Edward is forced to be a beggar? Not really.  Edward has no more right to be a king than Tom does, for the simple reason that no one has a right to be a king.  So, while it would be sad to think that Edward would be forced to live in poverty and be beaten by Tom’s father, John Canty (Barton MacLane), it would be just as sad to think of Tom having to return to that fate.

This brings us to a third major change in the story.  The movie further ups the ante by having Hertford send the Captain of the Guard (Alan Hale) out to find Edward and kill him, so that no one will ever know.  So, it is more than just a question as to who must live his life in poverty, for Edward’s life is at stake.  In this way, the movie does a better job of making us care whether Edward will succeed in proving who he is than the novel does.  In the end, Miles Hendon (Errol Flynn) kills the Captain of the Guard, Edward becomes king, and Tom is made a ward of the crown.

This movie would be easier to watch if you didn’t know anything about British history. But as it is, I kept being jerked back and forth between what really happened regarding Edward and what happens to him in this story.  How happy can we be that Tom Canty escapes poverty by becoming a ward of the crown when we know that there was no such person, while countless British subjects did continue to live in abject poverty and suffer from brutal laws and punishments, something that no facile happy ending in the movie can make us forget.

Now, I realize that it is at this point that many people will take exception, maintaining that it would be a wrong for a commoner to be crowned king while the true heir to the throne is denied his seat upon it. Although we fought a revolution to get out from under the rule of George III, establishing a democracy for ourselves, I often get the sense that a lot of Americans still hanker after monarchy.  They are mesmerized by stories about the British royal family, wishing they could bow and scrape before a majesty or a highness right here at home.

Back when people were making a big deal about Princess Diana, I remember Cokie Roberts saying that it is every little girl’s dream to be a princess.  Is that really true?  If so, I had no idea.  But then, as Thackery noted in Vanity Fair, “if Harry the Eighth or Bluebeard were alive now, and wanted a tenth wife, do you suppose he could not get the prettiest girl that shall be presented this season?”  As for me, I certainly never had a dream about being a prince, so I thought this might be a girl thing.  But in the novel, Tom Canty dreams of such.

By and by, Tom’s reading and dreaming about princely life wrought such a strong effect upon him that he began to act the prince, unconsciously.  His speech and manners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration and amusement of his intimates.  But Tom’s influence among these young people began to grow now, day by day; and in time he came to be looked up to by them with a sort of wondering awe, as a superior being.  He seemed to know so much! and he could do and say such marvellous things! and withal, he was so deep and wise!  Tom’s remarks, and Tom’s performances, were reported by the boys to their elders; and these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty, and to regard him as a most gifted and extraordinary creature.  Full-grown people brought their perplexities to Tom for solution, and were often astonished at the wit and wisdom of his decisions. In fact he was become a hero to all who knew him except his own family—these, only, saw nothing in him.

Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court!  He was the prince; his special comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries, lords and ladies in waiting, and the royal family.  Daily the mock prince was received with elaborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom from his romantic readings; daily the great affairs of the mimic kingdom were discussed in the royal council, and daily his mimic highness issued decrees to his imaginary armies, navies, and viceroyalties.

So, I guess there are both boys and girls that fantasize about being princes and princesses, and when they grow up, they follow the doings of British royalty with some of that longing still in their hearts.  In their minds, whatever miseries were suffered by the common folk in the sixteenth century, the privilege of living in a kingdom and being ruled over by a monarch must have made it all worthwhile.  For such people, this story in The Prince and the Pauper would likely be engaging, for they would think it a great injustice should the wrong person become king.

But even so, what is that injustice compared to that inflicted on the subjects of whoever it is that wears the crown?  That Edward’s father, Henry VIII, was a cruel and murderous tyrant makes it clear just how terrible it can be to live in a country ruled by a king.  And just as Henry VIII chopped off the heads of tens of thousands of people, including a couple of wives that were inconvenient to him; so too did Queen Mary chop off the head of Lady Jane Grey because she was inconvenient, in addition to burning lots of people at the stake; and so too did Queen Elizabeth chop off quite a few heads, as well as having many of her subjects drawn and quartered.  I could go on, but you get the idea: these people were a bunch of psychopaths.  Are we supposed to imagine that Edward VI, had he lived to be an adult, would not have chopped off quite a few heads himself?  In the novel and the movie, Edward’s experience as a beggar supposedly made him wise and merciful, but we can believe that only because he never got to be old enough to be vain and tyrannical like the rest of his family.

Earlier I questioned why Mark Twain would have chosen to tell this story about a child that died when he was fifteen, thinking that to be a little depressing.  But had he picked some other monarch to have these adventures, one who grew to be an adult and ruled for many years, this story would have lost its charm.  It is only because Edward never lived past his childhood that this story has appeal, for it allows us imagine that the Edward, as an adult, would somehow have retained the innocence and goodness he had when he was a child, just as many imagine that the world in general would be a better place if adults could somehow be like children.  Jesus was given to this notion himself when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  But as St. Augustine pointed out in his Confessions, if we say that children are innocent, it is only because they are weak, for if babies had the size and strength of adults, they would be monsters.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie about three veterans that return to Boone City, a fictional, small midwestern town, after the end of World War II:  Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a captain in the Army Air Force; Al Stephenson (Frederic March), a sergeant in the Army; and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor in the Navy.

They all face challenges adapting to civilian life after more than three years of war, but none more so than Homer, whose hands were burnt off during a fire on the ship that he was on, and who now has hooks to replace them.  I believe we are supposed to sympathize with the problems of all three men equally, but we are so overwhelmed trying to imagine how we would cope if we were in Homer’s situation that the problems of Fred and Al seem trivial by comparison.  Before the war, Homer planned on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), but now he is reluctant.  She insists she loves him, however, and they eventually do get married at the end of the movie.

Because we know the title of a movie before we watch it, we wonder about this one as the movie begins. Usually, it is an expression of resentment, what a woman might say when her husband divorces her:  “I gave him the best years of my life.”  The irony of the remark is that the years in which one is a young adult, from the late teens through the twenties, are the best years in the sense of their potential; but they may be the worst years in the sense of what actually happens, as when the years are spent in a miserable marriage.

Or fighting a war.  So, in one sense, the title refers to what these men had to go through at a time when they should have been enjoying the benefits of youth.  But in another sense, it may represent the attitudes of the civilians that cared more about their own hardships, what with sugar rationing and Meatless Tuesdays, than that of the soldiers that were off fooling around somewhere overseas. During an argument Fred has with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), after catching her alone in their apartment with Cliff (Steve Cochran), Fred says he can guess what she has been doing with other men while he was away.  She replies, “Go ahead and guess your head off!  I could do some guessing myself.  What were you up to in London and Paris and all those places?”

She continues, being the one person in this movie that gives voice to a phrase similar to the one in the title:

I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me.  I gave up the best years of my life! And what have you done? You’ve flopped. Couldn’t even hold a job at the drugstore.  So I’m going back to work for myself.  And I’m going to live for myself, too.  And in case you don’t understand English, I’m gonna get a divorce.

This Cliff character, by the way, seems to have plenty of money, which is why Marie has a date with him. When Fred tells him to leave, Cliff puts on the coat of his expensive-looking, dark suit with the kind of pinstripe often worn by movie gangsters.  Fred notices he is wearing the pin of an ex-serviceman.  Cliff says he hasn’t had trouble adjusting because he takes everything in stride.  We figure he makes his money in the black markets, probably starting while he was still in the army.

The marital difficulties of Fred and Marie are just one example in which we are not sure how we are supposed to interpret what is happening, since attitudes were different when this movie was made than they are today.  We get the impression we are supposed to be on Fred’s side, but we are not unsympathetic to Marie’s situation, looking at things from the vantage point of the present.

Another is the movie’s attitude toward any mental problems that returning soldiers might have.  The movie acknowledges such problems, but at the same time, there is resistance to the idea.  Early in the movie, as the plane the three men are on is heading to Boone City, Al says, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.”  Fred says, “All I want is a good job, a mild future, and a house big enough for me and my wife.  Give me that much and I’m rehabilitated like that,” as he snaps his fingers.

Prior to the scene with Cliff, we learned that Marie had a job she liked, working in a nightclub, making good money.  But Fred wanted her to quit that job because it was “inconvenient,” what with her working nights.  At first, it was all right because he had some money saved up, but they blew through that.  One night, they start arguing about the fact that they are stuck in a small, one-bedroom apartment, not going anywhere, because Fred hasn’t been able to find a good-paying job.  Suddenly, Marie has a look of concern:

Marie:  Fred.

Fred:  Yeah?

Marie:  Are you really all right?

Fred:  Of course I’m all right. Why?

Marie:  I mean, in your mind. Is anything…?

Fred:  My mind?! You mean you think I’m going goofy?

Marie:  I’ve been wondering.

She’s been wondering on account of a nightmare he’s been having about a pilot that got killed who was a friend of his.  “The war’s over,” she says.  “You won’t get anyplace till you stop thinking about it.”

Rather than spend another dull evening at home, she tells him she still has some money saved, so they can go out, saying, “Dinner’s on me tonight.”  But he tells her that they are eating at home. She says she is going out by herself in that case.  As she starts to leave, he grabs her and jerks her around, forcibly holding her by both arms, saying, “You’re not going. You’ll eat what I cook.”

Now, we could interpret this scene as one showing how a soldier returning home from war was likely to lose his temper as a result of PTSD, so that even though he is in the wrong to insist on having his way about everything, and physically abusing her when she won’t obey, we should be understanding and sympathetic.  Perhaps Fred is in denial about what he needs in the way of rehabilitation.  On the other hand, one suspects that this may not be how people were supposed to react to this scene in 1946. Rather, they might have thought that Fred was in the right and perfectly justified in physically forcing her to stay home and do what he says.  At this distance, though, it’s hard to tell.

We have the same trouble interpreting another scene that occurred earlier.  While Fred is working as a soda jerk one night, with Homer sitting at the counter, another customer starts popping off about how we were duped into fighting the war, saying we fought the wrong people.  Needless to say, it is tactless and insensitive to tell a veteran, especially one whose hands have been replaced by hooks, that his sacrifice was in vain. Homer becomes angry and rips a flag pin off the man’s lapel and starts pushing him, at which point they start struggling.  Fred jumps over the counter, and we think he is just going to break it up, as he should.  Instead, he punches the man so hard that he crashes through a glass counter. Granted, Fred and Homer were provoked, but verbal provocation does not justify the use of physical force.  If this happened today, Fred would have been arrested and charged with assault.  More importantly, though, we would probably want to make allowances for his violent reaction, thinking it was an expression of PTSD.  But punching people in the movies in the old days was usually accepted as justified and praiseworthy, provided it was done by someone good-looking like Dana Andrews.  In other words, whereas we today we would regard Fred’s behavior as the result of his psychological problems, back when this movie was made, audiences probably thought what he did was healthy and clean.  In any event, the only thing that happens to Fred is that Mr. Thorpe, the store manager, fires him.

Speaking of Mr. Thorpe, in order to get a job working in that drugstore, which in many ways is more like a department store, Fred was interviewed by him. During the interview, we see Thorpe repeatedly using a nasal inhaler.  I have seen this in other movies, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), where Gary Merrill plays a gangster that is always using an inhaler.  In another movie, one I can’t recall the name of, we see a man furtively using an inhaler, suspiciously looking to one side and then the other. In all these instances, I always had the feeling there was supposed to be something sleazy about what they were doing, but I never knew why.  I thought to myself, “The guy has an allergy.  So what?”  Years later, I found out that inhalers used to have Benzedrine in them, so these characters are giving themselves a little amphetamine kick with each sniff.  Therefore, if you see someone using a nasal inhaler in a movie made in the 1940s or 1950s, you are supposed to have a low opinion of him.  When the interview with Thorpe is over, Fred tells him to “take care of that cold,” obviously being sarcastic.

I don’t know much about the military, but it seems strange that Fred, who grew up in the poor part of town, and who was a soda jerk before the war, became an officer; while Al, a bank executive, whose family lives in a swanky apartment, and who presumably had a college education, ended up as an enlisted man. I suppose such things happened.  But the purpose of writing the story this way was to emphasize the egalitarian nature of the war, where one’s social status as a civilian could be upended in the armed forces, and then upended again after the war.  It was also important that there be at least one officer among the three men, and at least one enlisted man.  Had all three men been officers, the movie might have seemed elitist; had all three of them been enlisted men, the movie might have come across as populist.  Moreover, while officers and enlisted men are not allowed to fraternize while in the service, the fact that these three men can be friends as civilians is a further way to emphasize American egalitarianism.

Anyway, all Thorpe is willing to offer Fred is a low-paying job as a sales clerk, who will be expected to work the soda fountain some of the time.  “The war is over,” he tells Fred, a common refrain in those days by civilians who were tired of veterans acting as if they were entitled to special consideration.

Al is much luckier.  Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), the president of the bank where he used to work, wants him back.  After offering Al a cigar, Milton talks about how hard it’s been getting good cigars during the war, and how business conditions are uncertain, owing to strikes and ruinous taxes.  But he offers Al a promotion to vice president in charge of small loans, explaining that he will be valuable to the bank, owing to his ability to understand the needs of the veterans returning home from the war.

That sounds good, but the first person to come to the bank asking for a loan is a veteran that wants to buy a farm, but who has no collateral.  The fact that he wants to buy a farm tells us that he should get the loan, owing to the myth surrounding the yeoman farmer and his basic goodness, the backbone of America.  At first, Al’s prewar habits of sound banking make him reluctant.  But then he sees Homer in the bank cashing his disability check.  This reminds him that a lot of veterans need help, so he approves of the loan.  But when it is reported to Mr. Milton, he reprimands Al:

We do have a desire to extend a helping hand to returning veterans when possible.  But we must all remember that this is not our money we’re doling out.  It belongs to our depositors, and we can’t gamble with it.

Al promises not to do it again.

As for his family life, Al has been married for twenty years to Milly (Myrna Loy), with whom he has an adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a son in high school.  He arrives home, somewhat unexpectedly, and so after the usual hugs and kisses, Milly calls her friend to explain why they won’t be coming over for dinner that night, saying, “Alice, this is Milly.  I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t be over.”  We see Al look at her with an irritated expression on his face.  But then Milly reverses herself, saying, “I mean, I’m terribly happy,” explaining that Al has just come home.  I see nothing wrong with her use of the word “sorry” in explaining why she has to break a dinner engagement.  It’s just a manner of speaking. Again, we have a situation that is hard to interpret all these years later.  Should we regard Al’s anger sympathetically on account of the trauma he suffered during the war, that he too is in denial about his need for rehabilitation?  Or is that just too twenty-first century?  One suspects that the 1946 audience thought Milly was wrong to use the word “sorry,” and that Al’s anger was justified.

The weakest parts of the movie are the drunk scenes, especially the one at a bar that is owned by Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael), who is Homer’s uncle.  He sells liquor, but he never lets Homer have any, lecturing him on the curse of drink.  He lets Homer have beer only, not the whiskey that Homer wants. However, Al and his family show up there on his first night since he got back, and so does Fred.  These two men get drunk. I think this is supposed to illustrate the way a lot of veterans tried to cope with their war experiences by turning to drink, but if so, they should have made it clear that this was a bad thing, just as Butch claimed.  Instead, as was the case with so many movies made in those days, their drunk behavior is supposed to be cute, and the scene is played for laughs.  It goes on way too long, and then it is followed by the obligatory hangover scene, which is played for laughs too.

At the beginning of the movie, when the three men first manage to get on a flight heading home, they pass over a graveyard of bombers, brand new, fresh from the factory, but no longer needed now that the war is over.  They are symbolic of the country’s attitude toward veterans, no longer needed.  Toward the end of the movie, Fred decides to leave town by catching a flight at the airport where all the junk bombers are.  While waiting for his flight, he climbs into a bomber like the one he used to fly, possibly reminiscing about a time when he felt useful and needed.  A foreman tells him to get out of the plane. Fred finds out from him that they are going to use the material from the planes for building prefabricated houses (houses for veterans, no doubt).  He asks for a job and gets it.

This is much better than the humiliating job he had at the drugstore because it is manual labor, which has the cachet of being good, honest work.  At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be regarded in the movies.  He tells Peggy, with whom he has fallen in love and will eventually marry, that he is now in the junk business, “An occupation for which many people feel I’m well qualified, by temperament and training.”

It is to be noted, by the way, that Fred is content with his situation, that he apparently has been “rehabilitated,” now that he has a good job and the prospect of marrying Peggy.  There is no scene, in other words, in which Fred seeks counseling for the mental problems that Marie was worried about.  It would seem that while the movie does acknowledge the stress that war can have on a man, even after the war is over, it is not something we need to worry about.  As long as a veteran is in good shape physically, his only real problems are economic, getting a job or a loan, and domestic, having to do with marriage and family.

The romance between Fred and Peggy began while he was still married, before Marie said she was going to get a divorce.  Peggy visits him at the drugstore where he is selling perfume and lotion for women, definitely a degrading job for a man by 1946 standards.  They agree to have lunch, which they do at a nearby restaurant.  It is Lucia’s, an Italian place where friendly people speak broken English with Italian accents.  It is easy to dismiss this as incidental, as it would be in real life. But this is a movie, and it would not have been filmed except with deliberation.  It really is interesting how many movies that were produced back then, both during and after the war, that went out of their way to show that Italians were basically good people:  those living in Italy were just misled by Mussolini, and Italian-Americans were always patriotic.  No need to have concentration camps for them as we did with Japanese-Americans. And, of course, it would have been out of the question to see Fred and Peggy eating sausage and sauerkraut at a German restaurant.

Gaslight (1940 and 1944)

A long time ago, I saw the 1944 version of Gaslight, and then, some years later, I saw the 1940 version.  But that was before the term “gaslighting” had become a part of our vocabulary.  Now that the week does not go by that someone does not use that word, I decided to watch both movies again.

The 1940 Version

The 1940 version of Gaslight begins with Alice Barlow, an elderly widow, working on a piece of embroidery, on which she has stitched the date, 1865.  A man sneaks up behind her and strangles her with a skein of worsted picked up off the table next to her.  It is late at night, and for over five hours, he ransacks the place.  Then he really becomes desperate and starts ripping open the furniture cushions.  He apparently has to give up and leave, for in the next scene, the maid is coming out of the door, screaming for the police, having just arrived around seven in the morning.  The newspaper informs us that the murderer got away with the Barlow rubies, worth £12,000. Converted to dollars, and adjusted for inflation, they would be worth about $1,500,000 today in America.

At this point, we could follow the events as they unfold in the movie.  And while that is a suitable method for summarizing most movies, perhaps the only one that makes sense in certain cases, with other movies there may be a benefit in reconstructing the events and their meaning, which can be grasped only after the fact.  As I watched this movie, I was perplexed at certain points, and even after seeing the entire thing twice, I found that much of it did not make sense.  Therefore, by pulling together bits and pieces gathered from different points in the movie, I shall try to make clear my misgivings.

The first thing that bothered me was that no one seems to have received the Barlow estate through inheritance.  After the murder, twenty years pass, with the house at 12 Pimlico Square still sitting there, complete with all the furniture and other possessions of Alice Barlow.  Now, I realize that probate can sometimes take a while, but twenty years is a bit much, even for the estate of someone that is rich.  Nor is there a word in the movie explaining this, such as a reference to relatives, possibly children of the Barlows, contending with each other in court for possession of the house, belongings of the deceased, or even what she might have had in the bank.  In fact, twenty years later, the house seems to be not only unoccupied, but unowned.  There is a sign in front of the house indicating the agent that is in charge of leasing the property for the estate, but no reference to an owner.

I belabor this point because the man that murdered Alice Barlow was her nephew, Louis Bauer.  In the absence of any reference to this woman having had children, Bauer would seem to be the most likely heir. Prior to the murder, Bauer was not a criminal, and the police never suspected him of that murder. Therefore, it would seem that all Bauer had to do was inherit the house and then resume his search for the rubies, as a bachelor, unencumbered by a wife.

Presumably, then, Bauer was not the heir to the Barlow estate.  So, he emigrates to Australia and gets married.  That doesn’t make sense.  Inasmuch as the house has remained unoccupied for twenty years, he could have stayed in London and, after things calmed down a bit, break in and look for the rubies again. With no fear of being interrupted, he could have leisurely searched the place whenever he wanted to and as often as he liked.  Again, he is not a suspect, and he is not a criminal as far as the police are concerned, so this move to Australia is completely unmotivated.

But he does move to Australia and get married.  For the next two decades, he remains there with his wife, until one day, we can only suppose, he gets to thinking about those rubies he could never find. He can’t afford to buy or even lease the Barlow house, so he decides that he should return to England, marry a rich woman, use her money to buy the house, move into it, and resume his search for the rubies.  Divorce in Australia was not easily obtained in the nineteenth century, so he figures he will just abandon his wife, change his name to Paul Mallen, and marry a rich woman in England while still having that wife in Australia.  It’s just too bad he didn’t think of all this twenty years earlier.  Then he could have legally married a rich woman under his real name right there in London.

Anyway, he executes his plan, marrying a rich woman named Bella.  After moving into the house at 12 Pimlico Square, Bella finds an envelope addressed to Louis Bauer. When she asks Mallen about this letter, he realizes he is in danger of being exposed. So, he figures he needs to make her think she is going mad, and then have her committed to an insane asylum where no one will believe anything she says.  He does this by periodically hiding something, then asking her where the hidden item is, making her think she unconsciously hid the item herself and then repressed her memory of having done so.

One item in particular that Mallen hides from Bella is a cameo brooch that he pocketed the night of the murder, which he gave to her as an engagement present.  The irony is that the brooch has a secret compartment, containing the rubies, along with the initials “A. B.” inscribed inside, which is the final piece of evidence that will convict Mallen of murder.

At night, under some pretense never given, he leaves the house.  Then, making sure no one is looking, he sneaks into the house at 14 Pimlico Square, which is right next door. He can do this because he holds the lease on this house and refuses to rent it out.  He goes upstairs and leaves through the attic window onto a balcony that is shared with house number 12, the one he lives in. That means he is able to cross over to the attic window of his own house, through which he enters, allowing him to once again search for those rubies. Once inside, he lights a gas lamp, which causes the lamp in Bella’s room to dim.  She notices that it has dimmed, and she hears him rummaging around upstairs.  No one is supposed to be up there because the upper two stories, which contained all of the Barlow household possessions, had been closed off.

This is all wrong.  Since Mallen has control of both houses, he should have had him and Bella move into house number 14.  Then there would be no need to go across the balcony and break into his own house.  He could just walk over to house number 12 and look around without causing suspicion.  The flame of the gas lamp in Bella’s room would not dim, and she would not hear noises coming from above.  And he wouldn’t have to worry about the maid and the cook hearing those noises either.  For that matter, he could be completely honest about going next door, telling Bella that since a rich woman used to live in house 12, he thought he would go over there and look around to see if he can find anything of value.

As a matter of fact, Mallen is completely unaware that he is causing the light to dim in Bella’s room, for Bella never says anything to him about it.  But she does say something about the noises to Elizabeth, the cook. Elizabeth agrees that the lamp is dim, but dismisses it as something being wrong with the pipes.  As for the sounds upstairs, they just happen to stop when Elizabeth enters Bella’s room, and they start right up again as soon as she leaves the room.  Had the timing been slightly different, Elizabeth would have heard the sounds too, which would have caused problems for Mallen.

By the time we meet Bella in this movie, Mallen has been working on her for some time, either making her think she is crazy, or driving her crazy, or a combination of the two.  Therefore, we don’t know what she was like before she met him.  At one point, he says she was normal when he first met her, but he is not a reliable source of information.  As a result, by the time we are introduced to Bella, she comes across as one of the weakest women in the history of cinema. When Mallen tells her that he is going to have her committed to a madhouse, she asks him, “Paul, did you ever love me?”  He replies, “I hate you.  You are utterly repulsive to me.”  And yet, when she finds out that he is Louis Bauer, who murdered his aunt, and who is trying to have her committed to keep her quiet, she stands by him, refusing to provide evidence against him, saying, “I couldn’t betray my husband.” Such sniveling!

There are three possible explanations for this.  First, maybe Bella was just a weak woman to begin with, easily manipulated.  Could Nancy, the parlor maid, who was a fast piece, have been so easily fooled?  That strains credulity. Second, maybe women in the nineteenth century were so completely dominated by their husbands that they could be more easily controlled.  Aside from the fact that there would be no gaslights in the twenty-first century, we wonder if this movie could be remade today, set in contemporaneous times. Or third, it may be that Bella was a perfectly normal woman, and that Mallen’s persistence just wore her down to the pathetic state we find her in when we first see her. But since we are not privy to what she was like before marriage, we just don’t know.

After they move into the house, they attend church the following Sunday.  Mr. Rough, a retired police officer, who now runs a livery stable, is taken aback when he sees Mallen. He tells his assistant, Mr. Cobb, that he has just seen a ghost. Then he remembers that the man was Louis Bauer.  Mr. Cobb tells him he is going under the name of Mallen, causing Rough to become suspicious.  They both begin investigating and ultimately find out what is going on.  There is a confrontation, leading to a fight, after which Rough and Cobb tie Mallen up.  As if the movie were not already heavy in melodrama, there is a scene in which Bella acts as though she would cut her husband loose, but she says that on account of her madness, she doesn’t realize she holds a knife in her hand.

Bella reveals the secret compartment of the brooch and the rubies that were hidden therein.  As Mallen grabs them, a policeman puts the handcuffs on him.  Suddenly, Mallen’s mind gives way to madness, the very madness he was trying to inflict on Bella.

The 1944 Version

This movie was remade in 1944.  Those who wrote the screenplay for this version apparently noticed some of the problems discussed above and made changes to eliminate them.  On the other hand, they introduced some new difficulties of their own.  The differences are many and some quite substantial.  It may be useful to organize these differences under headings.

Names and Places

Sometimes the scriptwriters of a remake will keep all the same names for the characters in the movie, but some, like this one, will give everyone different names just because they can.  Even the house has a different address, being 9 Thornton Square instead of 12 Pimlico Square.  So, let’s establish the identities before we begin:

Alice Barlow (elderly widow) becomes Alice Alquist (prima donna).

Paul Mallen, aka Louis Bauer, becomes Gregory Anton, aka Sergis Bauer, (Charles Boyer).

Bella Mallen becomes Paula Anton (Ingrid Bergman).

Mr. Rough sort of becomes Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton).

The maid and cook have the same names, Nancy and Elizabeth, with Nancy being played by Angela Lansbury.

The Jewels

In the 1940 version, the newspaper makes it clear that the police believe that the murderer got away with the Barlow rubies.  In the 1944 version, as far as the public is concerned, no one knows what the motive was for the murder.  Brian Cameron, who works for Scotland Yard, is informed by his superior, the commissioner, that Alice Alquist was given some jewels by someone of royal blood, though the public knows nothing of this.  The official theory is that the jewels were the motive for the murder, but this was hushed up by order of an “important personage.”  Cameron’s superior does not know whether the murderer succeeded in stealing the jewels.

In the 1940 version, the rubies are hidden in the one thing the murderer stole from the house, the brooch. In the 1944 version, the jewels turn out to be fastened to the dress Alice wore when performing as the Empress Theodora, presumably so that her lover could see her wearing those jewels when she performed. While we are supposed to be amused by this hide-in-plain-sight feature, it is hard to believe that it would have taken Anton that long to spot them.  The irony of the stones being hidden in the brooch that he stole the night of the murder in the 1940 version was better.

The Night of the Murder

In the 1940 version, the murderer ransacks the house for over five hours, tearing things apart, before he has to leave without having found the rubies.  He did, however, steal a brooch, not realizing that the rubies were hidden in a secret compartment.  In the 1944 version, the murderer broke the glass of a cabinet where Alice kept her most treasured possessions.  Though items were moved around as he searched for the jewels, he took nothing.  In particular, he does not steal a brooch. Anton does give Paula a brooch, saying it belonged to his mother, which he then hides as part of his plan to make her think she is losing her mind.  He says it belonged to his mother. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t.  But he did not steal it on the night of the murder.

Relationship to the Murdered Woman

In this movie, Alice is an operatic diva, murdered by Sergis Bauer, who was her pianist in Prague.  There is no reference to her ever having been married.  She had a sister who died giving birth to Paula.  Nothing is known about Paula’s father.  And so, Alice ends up raising her niece Paula, who was there the night of the murder.  It was Paula whom Bauer heard coming down the stairs, causing him to flee.  In other words, Paula inherited her aunt’s house, which was left unoccupied while she was sent to Italy to study the opera herself.

Bigamy

Ten years pass between the time of the murder and when Paula comes to know Bauer, going under the name of Gregory Anton.  Though not explicitly stated as such, it is easy to imagine that when Bauer accompanied Alice on the piano in Prague, he was already married.  We may allow that the difficulty of getting a divorce precluded the possibility of obtaining one, so he abandoned his wife and took up an assumed name for the purpose of marrying Paula and getting access to her house. He gets to know her by becoming her pianist while she receives singing lessons.

The House

Paula falls in love with Anton, after knowing him for only two weeks, and agrees to marry him.  On their honeymoon, he finagles her into a conversation about the house, getting her to tell him about it, as if he didn’t know. She makes the following remarks:

That house comes into my dreams sometimes, a house of horror.  It’s strange.  I haven’t dreamed of it since I’ve known you.  I haven’t been afraid since I’ve known you….  For years I’ve been afraid of something nameless ever since she died.  You’ve cast out fear for me…. It is true. I’ve found peace in loving you.

And so, her fears having melted away owing to the curative powers of true love, she is ready to move back into the house of her youth.  All of her aunt’s possessions are moved to the attic and boarded up. In this version, Anton does not control, through ownership or lease, the house next door. Instead, he breaks in the back of the house at 5 Thornton Square, which just happens to be empty, exits through the attic, walks across the roof, and breaks into his own house so he can search through the stuff that is in the attic.

The Noise in the Attic

In the 1940 version, to say it was bad luck that the noises stopped as soon as Elizabeth entered Bella’s room and started up again as soon as she left is an understatement.  In this 1944 version, nothing is left to chance concerning Elizabeth.  We have a scene early in the movie that informs us that Elizabeth is extremely hard of hearing, and thus is unable to hear those noises.  With Nancy, however, the movie still depends on luck. Paula is in her room with Nancy when the lights dim for the first time.  They discuss it, with Nancy being somewhat indifferent as to what caused the flame to lower.  But then she leaves the room, and right after she does, the noises can be heard from above.

The Weak Woman

This version gives us some idea as to what Paula was like before she was married, and some understanding of her mental state.  Since she was in the house when her aunt was murdered, and was just a young girl at the time, she would naturally be traumatized.  And so, moving back into that house could easily make her mentally unstable. However, she is a mouth-breather in this movie, so we have to wonder if her mind was weak to begin with.  And again, we have to wonder if Nancy, in this case played by Angela Lansbury, would not have been more difficult to bamboozle had it been her aunt that was murdered.

The Ghost

In the 1940 version, Mr. Rough says he has seen a ghost, figuratively speaking, when he sees Louis Bauer at church. When Mr. Cobb says Bauer is now going by the name of Mallen, Rough becomes suspicious, leading him to investigate.  In the 1944 version, it is Cameron who says he has seen a ghost when visiting the Tower of London, by which he means he has seen a woman that looks like Alice Alquist, a woman that fascinated him when he was just twelve years old.  The woman he actually saw, of course, was Paula.  His supervisor points out that there is naturally a family resemblance between Paula and her aunt, whose house she owns through inheritance.  In other words, there is absolutely nothing unusual about the situation at all. Therefore, Cameron’s suspicions are just a “feeling” he has, one that is completely unwarranted.

Tying Up the Murderer

In the 1940 version, Rough and Cobb are just private citizens, so it makes sense for them to tie up Mallen until the police arrive.  But in the 1944 version, Cameron and his assistant are the police.  Tying Anton to a chair so that Paula can pretend she is crazy and doesn’t know she has a knife to cut him free, and then untying him and taking him to the police station seems artificial and forced.

The Meaning of the Word “Gaslighting”

It is clear that the word “gaslighting” has shifted its meaning slightly from the movies that gave birth to it. In the movies, Mallen/Anton tries to drive Bella/Paula mad by hiding things and then making her believe that she was the one that hid them.  Today, when people use the word “gaslighting,” it usually refers to someone that is repeatedly saying things that are false in order to get us to doubt our own perceptions or judgment.  The act of hiding something and trying to make us think we have hidden it ourselves is absent.

Until I recently watched these two movies again, I thought that Mallen/Anton tried to make Bella/Paula think that she was hallucinating when she saw the gaslight dim.  And that would certainly conform to the meaning of the word “gaslighting” as we use it today.  Moreover, it would be the link between what happens to the gaslight in the movie and the meaning the word has recently acquired. But in neither movie does that happen. Mallen/Anton is completely unaware that the lights dim when he is in the attic, and Bella/Paula never mentions it to him.  Nor would it have made sense for him to deny it had she done so, for Elizabeth confirms the dimming of the light in the 1940 version, and Nancy does so in the 1944 remake.  It is the one thing that is not a part of the gaslighting Bella/Paula is subjected to.

Bertrand Russell once noted that a lot of people suppose that when a sentence is uttered, first you understand what the sentence means, and then you decide whether you believe it or not.  He disagreed with this.  According to Russell, the belief comes with the understanding, and an extra effort has to be made to disbelieve it.

If Russell is right, this could explain, at least in part, why we can become vexed when someone asserts something we disagree with.  In so doing, he is forcing us to believe, if only slightly and for a moment, something that we regard as false.  It is an imposition. That we have to make an effort, even if only in our mind, to reject what he says is irritating.

But suppose we have no strong views opposing what someone says to us.  With repeated assertions, we may come to believe what we are hearing for lack of the will to resist it.  In Scream (1996), Neve Campbell is upset about the way people in her town, including her friend Rose McGowan, believe all the rumors of her mother’s infidelity.  McGowan replies, “Well, you can only hear that Richard Gere-gerbil story so many times before you have to start believing it.”

Though seeing is believing, assertions to the contrary can make us doubt even our own perceptions. In A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Robert Morse is a womanizer who is schooling Walter Matthau on how to cheat on his wife.  One lesson is that if his wife begins to suspect something, Morse says he should “deny, deny, deny.”  But, Matthau responds, what if she knows?  Morse repeats, “deny.”  But Matthau persists, what if she really knows?  Morse is unmoved.  “Deny!” he insists firmly.  This is followed by a skit illustrating his point.  A woman comes home to find her husband in bed with another woman.  While she is throwing a fit, her husband and the other woman get dressed.  When the wife asks how he could do that, he acts as though he doesn’t know what she is talking about.   The other woman leaves.  He finishes making up the bed, continuing to pretend as if nothing has happened.  Then the husband goes into the living room, sits in a chair, lights his pipe, and starts reading the newspaper.  The wife looks into the bedroom, where no trace remains of the deed.  She then looks at her husband, who is reading and smoking, while sitting in his favorite chair. With resignation, looking helplessly into the camera, she says, “Charlie, what do you want for dinner?”

And so it is that we needed a word like “gaslighting,” even if its meaning does not perfectly correspond to the events in the movies.

Darker Than Amber (1970)

Physical deterioration, censorship, studio control, formatting, and limitations of time are among the many reasons that movies end up being altered, cut, or just plain lost, sometimes before they even make it to the theater.  Each period in movie history had its own challenges, but the 1970s were especially difficult.

During this period, after a movie had been shown in the theaters and then at the drive-ins, it would be sold to the television networks.  To be shown on television, movies needed to be reduced in length to fit into a two-hour time slot, allowing for commercials.  Widescreen formats were replaced by pan-and-scan, if they were lucky; more often than not, the sides were simply lopped off, forced onto the Procrustean bed of the television screen with its 1.33 aspect ratio.  And, of course, much of the sex and violence, now allowed by the elimination of the Production Code in favor of the ratings system, had to be edited out for viewing in prime time, when children might be watching.

This would not have been so bad had someone made sure that the original film was preserved.  But it would not be until the 1980s that the average person had cable television and video cassette recorders, not to mention the eventual emergence of DVDs and widescreen televisions.  In the 1970s, for a lot of movies, all that survived was the edited-for-television version.

Perhaps this is no more so than for Darker Than Amber.  This is not a great movie.  But it is a darn good one.  I saw it back in 1970 at the drive-in, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Little did I know at the time what a sad fate the future had in store for it.  When it was shown on television, it was butchered, for the reasons given above.  When the movie became available on video tape years later, it was the edited-for-television version.

Recently, I purchased a DVD version, a two-disc set no less.  One version had Dutch subtitles; the other did not.  Neither one is what one might hope.  First of all, neither one preserved the original 2.35 aspect ratio.  One of them seemed to be a 1.6 aspect ratio; the other, 1.85.  But upon closer inspection, I concluded that what I was really watching in both cases was the 1.33 aspect ratio with a little removed from the top and bottom to give it a widescreen appearance.

However, in watching the movie, I never got the feeling that I was missing out on anything as far as formatting was concerned.  Some directors, like Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah, made full use of the widescreen format, so when their movies were first shown on network television in the 1.33 format, you always had the feeling that there was something going on just outside the frame.  But with Darker Than Amber, I never got that sense on these DVDs.

Also, I believe the versions on these two DVDs are uncut.  Here too, I must rely on intuition and a memory that is unreliable after fifty years.  When watching movies in the 1970s on television, I could usually tell when something had been edited out.  There would be a jump from one image to another that seemed discontinuous.  That was the impression I had when watching the movie on video tape about thirty years ago.  I never got that impression with these DVDs.

One of the DVDs was obviously recorded from a television broadcast.  I know, because while watching the credits at the end, an announcer came on to inform us of a movie about General Custer that would be shown next Tuesday.  However, this may be a television broadcast made recently, perhaps on some cable channel, in which case editing was not felt necessary.  I wondered if the manufacturer of this DVD might get in trouble for pirating.  But then I thought to myself, “No one has given a damn about this movie for fifty years, so why should they start now?”

Anyway, Darker Than Amber is a movie full of muscle and manhood.  When the movie begins, a bodybuilder named Terry (William Smith) and another bodybuilder named Griff throw Vangie (Suzy Kendall) off a bridge into the water below with her left foot tied to a dumbbell that I wouldn’t have been able to lift with both hands.  As it turns out, Travis McGee (Rod Taylor) and his friend Meyer (Theodore Bikel) are fishing down below, and McGee dives in the water to save her.

When someone in a movie dives into the water, do you ever hold your breath to see if you could do what the hero in the movie is doing?  Well, I held my breath to see if I was a real man like McGee.  I drowned.

Terry noticed the men in the boat below, so he hired someone to sit on the bridge and await developments.  Sure enough, the man sees McGee return to the scene and retrieve the dumbbell he untied from Vangie’s foot.  And he notices the name of the motorboat, which McGee hired from a man named Burk.  Through the boat’s name, Terry tracks down Burk in order find out who rented that boat.  When Burk refuses to say, Terry, muscle-bound brute that he is, beats Burk to a skull-crushed pulp.

Vangie has it made on McGee’s houseboat, living the good life, having hot sex with McGee, once it pleases him to do so.  He advises her against going back to her motel room to get her money, offering to get it for her, but she takes off on her own anyway.  Word gets to Terry that she is back.  He grabs her on the street and throws her into the path of Griff’s speeding car, her body flying through the window of an ice-cream parlor.

McGee finds out about both Burk and Vangie.  It’s time for revenge.  He goes to her motel room, where he encounters Griff.  Griff is outside in a bathing suit, working out with a dumbbell, and then greasing up his body, rubbing his own muscular flesh with passionate selflove. He chases off McGee before he can get into Vangie’s room, but when McGee returns later on, Griff is waiting for him with a gun.  He forces McGee out into the woods, making him dig his own grave.  But McGee slings the shovel into Griff’s gut, and after a brief struggle, kills him with his own gun.  Then he dumps his body in the grave, covers him up, and tosses away the shovel.

But he still has to find Terry.  McGee learns that Terry, Griff, Vangie, and another woman named Judy had a racket going.  One of the women would seduce some old man on a cruise ship, figuring he would carry plenty of cash with him.  After the man was knocked out with a little chloral hydrate, the men would come in and take the money.  Vangie wanted out, so that’s why she was killed.

McGee makes contact with Judy when the cruise ship she and Terry are on stops at a port.  He convinces her that she will get what Vangie got unless she goes along with his plan.  She is skeptical, asking what happens if Terry finds out.  McGee says he’ll take care of Terry.  “You’ve got an answer for everything,” she replies.  “Listen,” he tells her, “I never put mine in with a loser.”  She agrees, reluctantly.

Later, on the ship, in McGee’s stateroom, the original plan having changed, Judy is again in disbelief about McGee’s plan to handle Terry.  “You really think you can take him,” she says, thinking his self-confidence is completely unjustified, knowing how strong Terry is.  Again, McGee becomes irritated with her doubts about his ability.  In the course of their conversation, he finds out that in many cases, Terry wouldn’t wait for her to slip an old man a Mickey Finn.  He would just burst into the room early so he could have the pleasure of smashing the geezer’s face in, after which he would throw the body over the rail. When she sees the look of disgust on McGee’s face, she says, “It wasn’t me.  It was Terry.”

Later, McGee puts the dumbbell, complete with seaweed, in Terry’s bathtub full of water.  That makes Terry furious.  But what McGee didn’t count on is that Terry is just as good at detective work as he is, for he figures out that McGee was the one that saved Vangie, and he finds out where his stateroom is.  When McGee returns to it, he sees Judy lying prone on the bed.  She is dead, probably from a broken neck, but thinking she is sleeping, McGee shakes her.

Then Terry comes charging out of the bathroom, beginning the fight scene for which this movie is notorious.  Stories are told of how the fight turned real, resulting in a broken nose, some broken ribs, and a knocked-out tooth.  The result is that McGee gets his comeuppance, because Terry beats the crap out of him.  We see McGee staggering down the hallway, his face battered and bloody, as Terry takes off, figuring he’d better get away before the cops find out about Judy.  When Terry gets to the gangplank, he sees a woman that McGee hired who looks just like Vangie, waving at him from behind a high, chain-link fence, yelling, “Hi, Terry.”  This, along with the dumbbell in the bathtub, was part of McGee’s plan to unnerve Terry.

I guess you could say it worked.  Terry goes berserk, flinging people out of the way left and right trying to get to her, even losing his hairpiece in the mayhem.  The Vangie impersonator looks scared, but McGee recovers in time, pushes his way down the gangplank, picks up a two-by-four, and kneecaps Terry, who collapses onto those busted knees, after which McGee delivers the coup de grâce with a fist in the face.

Somewhat later, back on his yacht, the Vangie impersonator offers herself just as the real Vangie did.  But McGee says he needs time to get over the real Vangie first.  That won’t take long.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

I just barely made it through The Invention of Lying (2009).  It struck me as a one-joke movie.  In the world in which this movie is set, no one can tell a lie.  At first, this might sound like a good thing, for when we think about lying, what usually comes to mind are the lies that are immoral, the ones in which you deceive someone for your benefit but at his expense.

But while focusing on these forbidden lies, we sometimes forget about the lies that are permissible, the ones in which there is nothing immoral about telling such a lie, but neither would it be immoral to tell the truth, as when someone asks us a personal question. We may lie to protect our privacy, or we may share that information as we see fit.  And then there are the obligatory lies, the lies we tell when being honest would be immoral, as when we lie to keep from hurting someone’s feelings.

The first part of The Invention of Lying emphasizes what life would be like if no one were capable of telling lies that are obligatory.  People in this movie go around insulting other people, saying things that are hurtful.  Of course, even in a world where lying was impossible, people could still avoid hurting others simply by not saying anything.  So, in this parallel universe, people are not only incapable of telling lies, neither are they capable of just keeping their mouths shut.  Apparently, there is a compulsive component to this inability to lie.  By not telling someone he is fat and has a snub nose, by just not commenting on his looks at all, that is apparently a form of deception itself.

The same can be said for the permissible lies.  When Mark (Ricky Gervais) arrives for a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), she just blurts out that she had been masturbating, even though unprompted by any question as to what she had been doing just before she opened the door.  So, just as no one can refrain from insulting others by merely saying nothing, neither can they protect their privacy by saying nothing either.

But listening to people insult each other or reveal personal information just wasn’t that funny.  And I thought, “I can’t watch much more of this.”  But then it turned into a two-joke movie, as could be expected by the title.  Presumably, through some kind of genetic mutation, Mark finds he is able to lie.  At first, he tells lies of the forbidden kind, as when he lies to the bank teller about how much money he has in his bank account, and then withdrawing more than he really has on deposit.

At this point, it should be noted that in a world where nobody is capable of lying, that does not mean no one is capable of being mistaken, which is to say, people might inadvertently say things that are false.  At the very least, the teller at the bank had to conclude that the computer was wrong when it said Mark had less money in his account than he claimed.  For this reason, the words “true” and “false” should still be a part of their vocabulary, even if the word “lie” is not.

And yet, the fact that someone might unintentionally say something false, either because he misunderstood what someone else said, or because his memory is faulty, never seems to occur to anyone. Therefore, the people of this world are excessively gullible, believing whatever anyone else tells them.  And that leads to the third joke in this movie. When Mark’s mother is dying, it occurs to him to tell her a pious lie, a lie that we tell others for their own good, usually of a religious nature. He tells her that she has an immortal soul that will go to Heaven when she dies, and that she will be with God.  He does not, however, use those words.  He speaks of the “man in the sky” and a place where everyone will have his own mansion. Whether a pious lie is one that is forbidden, permissible, or obligatory is debatable.

The lie about the mansion is interesting. There have been a lot of conceptions of Heaven throughout the centuries, but I have never before come across one where someone can go into a room by himself and close the door behind him. It’s almost as if a desire to be alone would be some kind of sin. So, this movie gets credit for allowing solitude and privacy to be part of the eternal reward, even if it is a lie.

Word gets out about what he told his mother, and this leads to his becoming the founder of religion. Not merely a religion, mind you, but religion itself.  In a world where no one can lie, religion is impossible, and everyone is a de facto atheist. At least, that is the underlying assumption of this movie. But it is too cynical to say that the founders of religions were lying. More likely, they were just delusional.

Because people in this world are gullible, they don’t half-believe in God and Heaven the way most religious people do. Instead, they believe all the way.  A lot of people lose all interest in this world, just marking time until they get to live in their mansion.  And while the man in the sky gets credit for all the good stuff that happens, he also gets blamed for the bad, for infecting children with AIDS, for example.  People pray for God’s cure for God’s disease.

Anna does not want to marry Mark because their children will have half of Mark’s genes, which means they will probably be fat and have snub noses.  But she finally realizes that she loves him, which matters more than having genetically superior offspring, and so they get married.  The final joke of this movie is that Mark is the one with the superior genes, in particular, the gene that allows one to tell a lie, which is passed on to his chubby, snub-nosed son. As this lying gene spreads through the gene pool, and more and more people start telling lies, the world will become a better place.

When the Production Code was in force, a movie like this would never have made it to the big screen, being regarded as sacrilegious.  Once the Production Code came to an end and was replaced by the ratings system, blasphemy in the movies showed up almost as quickly as pornography, starting with Bedazzled in 1967. But while that movie was something of a shock at the time, The Invention of Lying is able to pass as a harmless comedy. If you look for them, you can find religious critics that are offended by this movie, though one senses that they have long since resigned themselves to the secular, unbelieving world in which they must live.

God’s Little Acre (1958)

Unlike the movie Tobacco Road (1941), which is as unfaithful to the 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell as it is pointless, God’s Little Acre (1958) is a pretty good rendition of that author’s 1933 novel, although it varies significantly from the novel at several points.

The novel is pretty raunchy, which is why efforts were made to censor it.  Naturally, that made it a best seller.  Sex is mesmerizing, which is why it is the sexual themes of this novel that readily come to mind when someone refers to it. The movie cleans up the sex, although it was still regarded as unsuitable for minors when first released. On the other hand, there were those who were concerned about the subplot of workers taking over a factory, especially since this country was still obsessed with communism at the time.  But the title directs us to the most essential idea of this novel, to the way people regularly adjust their moral and religious views so that they can do whatever they want.

As we watch the opening credits, we see a creek with a bridge crossing over it.  Then the camera pans to the right, and we see a farm.  Where crops should be growing, we see barren land that is pock marked by large holes.  In one of those holes, about ten feet deep, we see shovels rising up and tossing out dirt, as Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) and his two sons, Shaw (Vic Morrow) and Buck (Jack Lord), proceed to dig deeper. Then part of the hole collapses, undoing much of their labor.

Shaw says they should start a new hole, since they’ve been digging this one for two months.  Ty Ty tells him and Buck that they don’t have his patience, that he’s been digging these holes for fifteen years, and he intends to dig another fifteen, if that’s what it takes.  Buck says that they don’t need patience.  What they need is a diviner.  Ty Ty dismisses that as superstition, priding himself on being scientific about it all.

Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett) stops by to tell the Walden family that he is running for sheriff.  When he asks what they are digging for, Ty Ty tells him that they are looking for gold coins and other fabricated forms of gold.  He says that “grandpa” told him that there was buried gold somewhere on the farm, and that he willed it to Ty Ty just before he died.

Pluto says that his grandfather might have been mistaken.  “Are you makin’ my dead grandpa out to be a liar?” Ty Ty asks, furious with indignation.  One way to win an argument is to make it personal, turning any disagreement into an insult.

Pluto deflects from this, saying that what Ty Ty needs is a diviner.  Not just any diviner, but an albino. They have a special power to see right through the ground.  Ty Ty becomes convinced, allowing that with an albino to do the divining, it would be scientific.

As they prepare to go catch the albino that lives in the swamp, Pluto makes the offhand remark that the albino might find the gold anywhere, even over in that field, he says, pointing to a section of the farm with nothing growing on it but a bunch of weeds.  In the middle of that field is a cross.

Ty Ty gets a worried look on his face.  He starts pulling the cross out of the ground. Pluto doesn’t understand, thinking that the cross marks the spot where Ty Ty’s grandpa was buried.  But Ty Ty explains to him that the cross is there to mark God’s little acre. The day he got married, twenty-seven years earlier, he promised that acre to God. Anything that comes from it, cotton, corn, and the like, goes to the church. Of course, nothing comes from that acre because it has been completely neglected.  In fact, that is why it is the one part of the farm where no holes have been dug.

If the albino points to that part of the farm as being where the gold is, Ty Ty would have to give all that gold to a preacher.  Worse yet, he might keep the gold for himself, which would be sinful.  So, he moves the cross to the corner of his house, marking the new God’s little acre.  He takes a knee and asks God to forgive him. But he is sure it will be all right because he knows God wouldn’t want him to give in to temptation.

While we watch this scene with complete cynicism, it would be a mistake imagine that Ty Ty is likewise being cynical in moving the cross.  He was sincere when he first dedicated part of his farm to God on the day of his marriage, and he is just as sincere in his belief that God approves of his moving God’s little acre beyond the reach of temptation.  The sincerity is evident from his use of the word “little” as a modifier of the word “acre.”  The area indicated by the word “acre” is fixed, so the word “little” is not being used to say something about the size of that sacred piece of land, but rather as a diminutive, expressing Ty Ty’s affection for the land he has dedicated to God.

Ty Ty and Uncle Felix (Rex Ingram) set out to capture the albino. Uncle Felix is one of the sharecroppers, the only ones producing any income on that farm so that Ty Ty can keep digging holes. They capture the albino, Dave Dawson (Michael Landon), hogtie him, and bring him back to the farm.  Dave says he doesn’t know anything about divining for gold, but after being threatened by Ty Ty and Uncle Felix, he takes hold of the willow fork.  Suddenly, it seems to come alive, almost as if it is pulling Dave to go here and there.

Of course, there is no surprise about what happens next.  Dave starts heading straight for the corner of the house where the cross is, indicating the new God’s little acre.  Ty Ty makes him stop, pulls up the cross, and then lets Dave continue.  Right where the cross had been stuck in the ground, the willow fork points straight down, indicating where all the gold has been buried for a hundred years.  Ty Ty is so excited about finding the gold, he says, “Praise the Lord.”

Uncle Felix says, “Amen.”  And then, realizing that the house sits right in the middle of God’s little acre, he says, “Maybe, Mr. Ty Ty, you’ll stop diggin’ and start farmin’!” No point in digging for gold if God is just going to get it all.

Ignoring that remark, Shaw starts digging furiously.  Buck tries to stop him, saying that the gold belongs to God because this is now God’s little acre.

“I can’t honestly say it is,” Ty Ty says, who apparently has had an epiphany. “The minute before Dave found the gold, something come over me.  And I decided to change the location of God’s little acre. Just about in time, I reckon.”  Griselda, who is married to Buck, asks him where God’s little acre is now.  Ty Ty says that the Lord hasn’t told him yet.

Ty Ty takes the cross to the creek near the bridge, the same spot we were looking at during the opening credits.  Ty Ty sticks the cross into the ground right at the water’s edge, marking the third God’s little acre. He reverently speaks to the Lord, saying, “Now, God, I don’t aim to cheat you none, but with this unseasonable weather and all, you won’t mind to have your acre in a cooler spot.  If you don’t like this, if you don’t approve of what I’m doing, Lord, then strike me down dead right here where I stand!” God gives Ty Ty the sign of his approval by not striking him dead.  “Thank you, Lord,” he says.  “Glory be.  Amen.” That being out of the way, Ty Ty and his two sons start digging under the corner of the house, which has to be propped up so it won’t collapse.

Interspersed with all this digging for gold is a lot of hot, steamy sex.  Pluto is obsessed with Darlin’ Jill, one of Ty Ty’s daughters, who teases him.  She says she won’t marry him because he has a big belly. But without the big belly, she says, he could never get elected sheriff.  And if he can’t get elected sheriff, she won’t want to have anything to do with him.  But after driving him crazy with that talk, she has sex with Dave because he’s an albino.  His divining rod pointed right to the spot.

And then there is Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), who is madly in love with Griselda.  He is a union leader, determined to turn the power back on in the cotton mill, shut down by the owners rather than meet the demand of the workers that their pay not be cut. When he breaks into the mill, Griselda has sex with him in hopes of making him forget about turning on the power, so he won’t get into trouble. This temporarily distracts him, but when they start to leave the mill, Will sees half the town outside the fence, waiting for him to turn on the power.  It’s too late to back down now.  But as he turns on the power, the security guard wakes up.  The guard is an old man, afraid of losing his job if he doesn’t do something, and he ends up shooting Will, killing him.

After the funeral, Buck, who knew all along that Griselda and Will had a thing for each other, is now furious with his suspicion that they had sex that night at the mill.  Just as Ty Ty is managing to calm things down with a little homespun philosophy about love and understanding, which is what God wants, another of his sons, Jim Leslie, a rich cotton broker, invites Griselda to come live with him right in front of Buck.  He and Buck start fighting. Ty Ty accidentally gets hit in the head, but gets back up just in time to keep Buck from pitchforking Jim Leslie.

Maybe that blow to the head knocked some sense into Ty Ty, because he tells God he’s going to go back to being a farmer.  “God,” he says, “give me the strength to spread out my arms to the end of my fields.  Let me fill up the holes and make the land smooth. You spared my sons.  I’ll never dig another hole again, except to plant seeds for things to grow.”

Time passes, and in the final scene, Pluto arrives at Ty Ty’s house, all decked out in a sheriff’s outfit, greeted by Darlin’ Jill, who has agreed to marry him.  All the holes have been filled back up.  Ty Ty, Uncle Felix, Shaw, and Buck have hitched up the mules and are plowing the land.  Buck and Griselda appear to have reconciled.

But then Ty Ty’s plow hits something.  He pulls it out of the ground.  It is the head of an old shovel. Ty Ty becomes convinced that this is the shovel that was used to bury the gold a hundred years ago. He immediately stops plowing and uses that shovel to start digging.  Slowly, the camera pans to the left, returning us to the same shot of the creek as in the opening scene, where we see the cross sticking out of the water, not ten yards from where Ty Ty is digging.

Now, you don’t need me to supply you with examples of people that take a position in the figurative sense, believing it with all their heart, and then change that position when it becomes inconvenient, much in the way Ty Ty changed the position of the cross in the literal sense when that became inconvenient for him.

My personal favorite is that of a friend of mine who, back in the 1970s, asserted that abortion was wrong because a fertilized egg was a human being, and therefore killing it was murder.  Like Ty Ty, she said she was being scientific, because the fertilized egg has a complete set of genes. Thirty years later, for reasons we need not go into here, her daughter and son-in-law availed themselves of the services of a fertility clinic.  They removed several of her eggs, fertilized them with her husband’s sperm, and grew embryos in vitro.  One of them was selected and implanted in her uterus.  The rest of the embryos were frozen.  She had a healthy baby as a result.  A couple of years later, she instructed the fertility clinic that she had no more need of the remaining embryos, and they were destroyed.

I asked my friend if her daughter and the people in the fertility clinic were guilty of murdering those snowflake babies.  With complete sincerity, she said that her daughter was not guilty of murder because the embryos had not been implanted in her uterus, so they did not count as human beings. In other words, she pulled a Ty Ty.

But not all such adjustments in position are a bad thing.  Just as God’s little acre could be moved as the situation warranted it, so too could the Promised Land be moved. Perhaps we could buy the Israelis a portion of Texas, call it New Israel, and move the Jews presently living in Israel to this new location.  The Arabs could keep the land no longer occupied by the Jews and call it Palestine.  All the fighting over that piece of land would come to an end. And what we would save in no longer having to give Israel billions in defense would more than pay for the cost of buying that piece of Texas many times over.  Moreover, we could then get out of the Middle East altogether, saving billions more.

Dear Lord, if you disagree with me about moving the Promised Land to Texas, then strike me dead as I write this.

Thank you, Lord.  Glory be.  Amen.

From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Hunt (2020)

In 1924, Richard Connell published The Most Dangerous Game, which begins with Sanger Rainsford on board a ship in the Caribbean, heading for South America, where he intends to bag a jaguar.  He regards hunting as the “best sport in the world.”

His companion, Whitney, qualifies the statement, saying it is great sport for the hunter; for the jaguar, not so much.

“Don’t talk rot, Whitney,” said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”

“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney.

“Bah! They’ve no understanding.”

“Even so, I rather think they understand one thing—fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.”

“Nonsense,” laughed Rainsford. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees.  Luckily, you and I are hunters.”

Rainsford falls off the yacht he was on and has to swim to the nearby island, the one that the sailors were afraid of for some reason.  He makes it to an enormous structure.  Inside, the owner of the place is a General Zaroff.  He used to be a military man from an aristocratic family, a Cossack.  He explains:  “After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. I, luckily, had invested heavily in American securities, so I shall never have to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris.”

Like Rainsford, Zaroff has an attitude about hunters and the hunted, as something that was meant to be, saying, “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter.”  However, he found he had grown bored with just killing animals.  “No animal had a chance with me any more….  The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason.”

Zaroff continues, saying he needed a new animal to hunt.  “I wanted the ideal animal to hunt….  So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.’”  Such an animal would be the most dangerous game of all.  This idea occurred to him while suffering from a splitting headache, probably the result of the fractured skull he received when he was hit by a Cape buffalo, so there is the suggestion that his madness was brought on by that.

When Rainsford finally realizes that Zaroff is talking about man, he is appalled.  At first, it seems that Zaroff is hoping his new companion will join him in the hunt, for he has a bunch of men from a ship that crashed into some rocks and sank, owing to some deceptive lights that lure ships to their doom.  But when Rainsford refuses, calling it murder, Zaroff sends him off to his room to sleep, while he proceeds to hunt one of the sailors in the basement.

The next morning, Zaroff tells Rainsford that the man he hunted, a big, strong, black man, who looked resourceful, was nevertheless too easy a prey.  Zaroff expressed his fear that even here he was becoming bored.  But then an idea occurs to him.  If Rainsford refuses to join him as a hunter, he can join him as the hunted.  Being a man experienced in big game hunting, he will indeed be the most dangerous of the most dangerous game.

And so, the hunt begins.  The rest of the story is of thrust and parry, of the wits of Rainsford versus the cunning of Zaroff.  In the end, Rainsford outsmarts the general and kills him.

There have been many adaptations of this short story.  I even saw an episode of Get Smart based on it, “Island of the Darned.”  Before considering them, let us isolate four features of this story, which will be a guide to determining how closely an adaptation is to the original.

First:  The essential feature of this story is that of one person hunting another.

Second:  A second feature is the theme of the hunter who becomes the hunted.  The man being hunted is a big game hunter, who therefore knows his woodcraft and knows what hunters look for in pursuing their game.

Third:  A third feature concerns the motive of the man doing the hunting, a man who has become bored with hunting animals.  He can get a thrill only by hunting the most dangerous game, which is man.

Fourth:  Finally, the hunter who has become the hunted is arrogant at the beginning of the story.  He regards his role as a hunter as just the way things are.  And he lacks empathy.  It doesn’t bother him to kill animals just for sport.  The animal’s life means nothing to him, nor does he concern himself with the any pain and suffering experienced by the animal.

In the 1932 movie based on this short story, all four elements are preserved.  Rainsford (Joel McRea) expresses similar sentiments to that of his character in the short story, except that he suggests that the animal enjoys the hunt as much as the man, referring specifically to a tiger he recently killed.  When asked if he really thinks he would have enjoyed the hunt as much if he had been the tiger, Rainsford hedges, suggesting it is an idle hypothetical:  “This world’s divided into two kinds of people, the hunter and the hunted.  Luckily, I’m a hunter.  Nothing can ever change that.”

However, he is just a touch less arrogant than in the short story.  The Rainsford of the latter is completely contemptuous of his friend’s apprehension regarding the waters they are in, and he dismisses the nervous sailors as just superstitious.  In the movie, Rainsford suggests they play it safe and go the long way around, but the owner of the yacht insists they proceed through the channel indicated by the lights.  As a result, the yacht smashes into the rocks and sinks.  Only Rainsford survives.  Still, the Rainsford of the movie satisfies the fourth feature of arrogance and lack of empathy.

There is, however, a variation on the first feature, which is Rainsford has a female companion who is hunted along with him, a woman who is from another ship that sank.  She is played by Fay Wray.  Her clothes manage to become torn as she and Rainsford run through the jungle, exposing some of her beautiful flesh, much in the way she would lose some of her clothing in another jungle movie she would star in the following year.  In fact, in some scenes it appears to be the same jungle.  And she becomes the spoils of the hunt, as it were, because Zaroff (Leslie Banks) says that love is best after the kill.  In the short story, the knocker on the door is merely a gargoyle, but in the movie, the knocker, as well as a painting on the wall inside, is that of a centaur with an arrow sticking out of his chest as he carries a woman, an allusion to the myth in which Heracles kills a centaur on account of the woman he is carrying away.  The centaur perfectly represents the idea of a man being hunted as an animal, and the woman he is carrying as the prize.

A Game of Death (1945) sticks fairly close to the 1932 version.  Here too, Rainsford suggests playing it safe and going the long way around, but in this case, the owner of the yacht ends up agreeing with him.  However, the change of course occurs too late.  Still, Rainsford expresses the same attitude about the animals he hunts as in the original story.  Zaroff, the Russian, has been replaced by Erich Krieger, a Nazi.  There are other variations from the 1932 version, which render it inferior to the original, but all four features are still present.

Run for the Sun (1956) is said to be a remake of A Game of Death, but that’s only because Russians have been replaced by Nazis in those two movies.  In fact, whereas as A Game of Death mostly follows The Most Dangerous Game, Run for the Sun varies significantly from either of those two movies.  The feature of the protagonist being a hunter is present, but somewhat understated.  Richard Widmark plays a novelist who has lost his ability to write because his wife left him.  He has become a recluse, making a living mostly by fishing.  There is some reference to his having at one time been a big game hunter, but just in passing.  I saw the movie when I was a child and saw it again some years later, in both cases before I had read the short story or seen the 1932 movie based on it.  When I did finally become aware of the original story, I thought to myself, “It’s too bad they didn’t use the theme of the hunter becoming the hunted in Run for the Sun.”  When I saw it again recently for a third time, I was surprised to find out that Widmark had been a hunter in that movie, so little emphasis is given to that aspect of his personality.  In any event, he does not come across as arrogant about his superiority to animals or express contempt for what the animal feels.

Widmark’s plane gets off course and runs out of gas, forcing him to land in the jungle near the house of two men, Trevor Howard, who is British, and Peter van Eyck, a German who claims to be an archaeologist.  The library in their house has no books on archaeology, but there is one by Nietzsche, so you know what that means.  Sure enough, Howard turns out to be have been a traitor during World War II, and van Eyck is a Nazi.  They have been hiding out in the wilderness until they feel safe to return to civilization, for they fear being prosecuted for war crimes.  While they are both hunters, the reason Howard and van Eyck end up hunting Widmark is to keep their secret safe from the world, merely self-interest.  So, in this movie, we have only the first two features of the original story.  Widmark is not hunted for the sport of it, and he is not arrogant or lacking in empathy.

Jane Greer is Widmark’s companion and love interest in Run for the Sun.  The women in these adaptations are not helpless females, whose sole function is simply to be rescued, but rather are intelligent and resourceful.  They make the story more interesting, more engaging.

In Surviving the Game (1994), there is not even a shred of the Rainsford character in the one played by Ice-T.  Instead of a hunter getting a little karma, finding out what it feels like be hunted, we have the ultimate sad sack.  He lost his family in an apartment fire and ended up homeless.  His only friend and his dog both die, and he is on the verge of committing suicide.  So, when we find out he is to be hunted like an animal, it just seems to be so much piling on.  Oh, sure, he uses his street smarts instead of any knowledge of woodcraft to outwit them all, and I suppose that he has been given a new lease on life.  But the second and fourth features are both missing.  The third feature, that of the most-dangerous-game theme, is present, for he is hunted by wealthy men of various sorts for the pleasure of the kill.  There are no women of any significance in Surviving the Game, which is just one more mark against it.

In some movies, women are more than just a companion for the man being hunted, but rather play the role of either the hunter or the hunted.  In Hounds of Zaroff (2016), there is a male Zaroff, but a woman plays the Rainsford character.  More than one woman is hunted in The Woman Hunt (1972).  It is a woman who does the hunting in Confessions of a Psycho Cat (1968).  As another variation, the hunt sometimes takes place in the city rather than in a jungle or the woods, as in the last one just mentioned and in Hard Target (1993).

And then there are the movies that are so good that they stand on their own, apart from any connection they might have to the original story by Richard Connell:  The Naked Prey (1965), Deliverance (1972), and Southern Comfort (1981).

Interestingly, the fourth feature, in which the one being hunted is someone who is arrogant and lacks empathy, is least likely to be present in a remake.  Perhaps we today would find such a protagonist too unlikeable for our taste, but I think it is exactly this feature that perfectly anticipates the attitude of Zaroff, who has taken Rainsford’s view of things to the next step, feeling superior to other men and having no sympathy for their suffering when he hunts them.

For example, in Never Leave Alive (2017), an announcer on the radio says that Rainsford is trying to turn over a new leaf after all the trouble he has been in on account of being an alcoholic.  To that end, he has started a wildlife preservation campaign.  He is referred to as altruistic, as being a philanthropist.  When he kills a deer, he donates the venison to charity.

There is a television series entitled Most Dangerous Game (2020).  It seems to involve some new kind of broadcasting technology that made me tired just reading about it.  It appears to be in the same category as Surviving the Game, in which the protagonist is not a hunter, let alone an arrogant one lacking in empathy.  Rather, he is pitiful, having just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  He has only a few weeks to live and must worry about supporting his pregnant wife and future child.  So, he agrees to be hunted through the city, and the longer he stays alive, the more money that is put in his account.  I haven’t been able to see it.  I’m almost glad.

Finally, we come to The Hunt (2020).  It is hard to believe this movie’s release was delayed on account of some shootings that took place in 2019, or that it inspired serious political criticism.  Filled with Grand Guignol humor, this over-the-top satire doesn’t take itself seriously, so why should anyone else?

In this story, a bunch of liberal elites in prominent positions get on a roll one day, texting each other about how they are looking forward to the Hunt at The Manor, where they will slaughter a bunch of deplorables, alluding to Hillary Clinton’s phrase, “basket of deplorables,” which she used to denigrate those Trump voters that have views that are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.”  Athena (Hilary Swank) later explains that she used the word “deplorable” in texting as a polite term for “fucking rednecks,” “gun-clutching homophobes,” “academically challenged racists,” and “tooth-deprived bigots.”  It was all a joke, but it leaked and was posted on the internet, fomenting a conspiracy theory known as Manorgate.

As a result, the liberal elites that participated in the thread of text messages all lost their jobs.  To get even, they decide they will turn their joke into a reality and hunt down all those responsible for pushing that conspiracy theory, after abducting them and taking them to a place in Croatia made to look like Arkansas, where the Manor is supposedly located.  It is left to our imagination as to how they landed that plane in Croatia, removed all those drugged deplorables, and transported them to the countryside, without the government of Croatia knowing about it, a government depicted in the movie as being especially concerned to keep refugees from entering the country.

As the liberal elites prepare for the Hunt, trying to decide who their victims will be, one of those to be hunted is seen in a photograph posing over a rhinoceros he just bagged, and he is selected.  He gets wiped out by stepping on a landmine before he gets a chance to expound on any philosophy about the hunter and the hunted, but I suppose the smirk on his face as he poses over the rhino allows us to infer he is arrogant and lacking in empathy for the animals he hunts.  Still, his role is so small that this hardly qualifies as satisfying the fourth feature.

The principal hunter, Athena, and Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the only one of the hunted to survive, are both women.  And Crystal turns out to have been a victim of mistaken identity, having nothing to do with the internet conspiracy theory.  Neither of them has hunted animals, as far as we can tell, but they both seem to have had a lot of martial arts training.

Athena had nicknamed Crystal “Snowball,” an allusion to one of the pigs in Animal Farm, and she is surprised when Crystal gets the reference, though Crystal doesn’t understand what she has to do with that character, suggesting Athena is more like Snowball.  Other deplorables are also named after characters in that novel.  The farm in that story ends up being called “The Manor Farm,” and there is a pet pig the liberal elites have brought along named “Orwell.”  Perhaps the idea is that in Animal Farm, those that claim to be acting for the greater good of all are really in it for themselves, though, as Crystal suggests, that may be just as true of the elites as it is the deplorables.

In most of the previous versions or variations of The Most Dangerous Game, the men that hunt other men are on the far right of the political spectrum.  Having the manhunters be liberal elites is disorienting.  It is easy to fall into the old habit of thinking that those doing the hunting are fascists.  But we are regularly reminded of their leftist attitudes as they admonish one another when someone says or does something that is politically incorrect:  failing to use gender-neutral words, being guilty of cultural appropriation, saying things like “those people” when referring to African Americans, and debating whether calling them “black” is almost as bad as using “the N-word.”  In selecting their list of twelve people to be hunted, they wanted to include an African American for the sake of diversity, but he didn’t score high enough on the deplorable scale.  Just before one of the victims dies, he tells the woman leaning over him, “You’re going to Hell.”  But she says she doesn’t believe in Hell because she is one of the “godless elites,” citing a remark from his website, apparently.

And we are also reminded of the mentality of those being hunted.  When a woman starts convulsing after eating a doughnut, another one of the deplorables says she must be “dianetic.”  Gary talks about the “globalist cucks who run the deep state.”  And Don tells Crystal that when this Manorgate scandal breaks wide open, the two of them are going to be on Hannity.  He says they will become famous, “just like them two Jew boys that fucked Nixon up.”

On the flight to Croatia, with a dozen drugged deplorables in the back of the plane, one of the liberal elites tells Kelly, the stewardess, who offers him caviar, that he just had caviar yesterday, and he is weary of it.  (In the credits, Kelly is also listed as “Not Stewardess,” since the word “stewardess” is now politically incorrect.)  When he agrees to have some champagne, she pulls out a bottle, and he asks if that is the Heidsieck.  She is puzzled by the question, so he explains:  “A German sub sank a ship on the way to Tsar Nicholas II.  Couple years back, they found the wreck and a case of the 1907 Heidsieck.  They sent a little robot down there to bring it back up.  Athena bought three bottles at 250K per.  And no one even knows what the stuff tastes like.”  But it is just ordinary champagne that Kelly has to offer.

During the climactic fight, Crystal grabs a bottle of the 1907 Heidsieck and throws it at Athena.  Horrified, Athena catches it and sets it aside.  After Crystal kills Athena, she picks up that bottle and heads for the plane that brought her to Croatia.  She gets on board and tells the pilot that everyone else is dead and she wants to go home.  She invites Kelly to have some caviar with her.  Then she picks up the bottle of the 1907 Heidsieck that no one has ever tasted, puts it to her mouth, and guzzles it.  When Kelly asks her how it is, Crystal says, “It’s fucking great!”

The Glass Key (1935 and 1942)

The Glass Key is a 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammet.  It was made into a movie in 1935, which is a lot better than I thought it would be.  Although most critics say that film noir began in the 1940s, this version of the novel, apart from the date of production, would almost seem to qualify.  Its remake in 1942, however, is unequivocally film noir, and one of the best.

When the 1942 version begins, we are introduced to Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a crooked ward heeler who has contempt for Senator Ralph Henry, the reform candidate for governor.  When he makes a snide remark about the Senator’s son Taylor, who he says could stand some reforming himself, the Senator’s daughter Janet (Veronica Lake) slaps him in the face and calls him a crook.  Being a real man, Madvig just stands there and takes it.  In fact, he immediately becomes smitten by Janet.  As a result of this infatuation, he tells Ed Beaumont (Ned in the novel), played by Alan Ladd, that he is going to support Ralph Henry for governor.  When Sloss, one of Madvig’s henchmen, tells him he won’t remain boss for long if he supports the reform candidate, Madvig tosses him through the window and into the swimming pool.

Madvig is head of the Voters League, which sounds like a civic-minded organization.  But when Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) and his bodyguard, Jeff (William Bendix), push through the doors of the headquarters, we see people shooting pool, playing poker, and shooting craps.  They tell Oswald, the man who greets them at the door, that they want to see Madvig.  Oswald relays the message to Beaumont, right while he’s trying to make his point with the dice he’s about to throw.

In a film noir, craps is one of the gambling games that it is respectable for a tough guy to play.  The same can be said for shooting pool, playing poker, and betting on the horses.  These are all games that require some skill or sophistication to do well at.  Furthermore, it is with games like these that the tough guy gets to hold something, whether it is a cue, cards, dice, or a racing form.  This makes him an active participant.  Moreover, his physical contact with these items makes it more difficult for others to cheat him at the game.

Roulette, on the other hand, is something a tough guy must never play.  There is nothing to think about, no place for skill.  You don’t get to hold anything, unless it’s your chips, and you just plop them down somewhere and passively await results.  As often as not in the movies, the wheel is crooked.  It is strictly for women and weak men.  In Dead Reckoning (1947), when Lizabeth Scott starts playing roulette, saying she has a system, Humphrey Bogart suggests she might as well throw her money out the window.  She loses a lot of money, but he stops her while she still has a little left, suggesting she let him see what he can do shooting craps.  On the way there, the owner of the casino remarks that it all depends on the talent of the player.  Humphrey Bogart wins three times in a row, getting all her money back for her.  The croupier says the house will change the dice.  Bogart says he can feel snake eyes in the new dice.  The original dice are given back to him, and he wins back twice as much money as Scott started with.  In Out of the Past (1947), when Robert Mitchum makes a snide remark about the way Jane Greer is losing at roulette, she asks, “Don’t you like to gamble?” to which he replies, “Not against a wheel.”  In Casablanca (1942), it typically happens that when a married couple needs to leave Casablanca, Claude Rains, a corrupt Vichy official, will require that the wife have sex with him.  Humphrey Bogart, who runs a casino, feels sorry for one couple.  He sees the husband, looking weak and pathetic, sitting at the roulette table, trying to win enough money for him and his wife to leave Casablanca.  Bogart tells the man what number to bet on and then signals the croupier to let him win just enough money to book passage out of the city so the man’s wife won’t have to have sex with Rains.

I say all this because it came as a surprise to me, when watching the 1935 version of The Glass Key, to see George Raft, as Ed Beaumont, betting against a wheel.  The wheel is a fan with numbers on the blades, and men bet on the number that is on the bottom blade when the fan stops.  However, he redeems himself later when he looks out the window, sees that it is raining, and calls in a bet at the racetrack.  This shows knowledge of which horses do better on a wet track, something we can admire in a tough guy.  Still, this scene of betting against a wheel is another reason why this 1935 version should not be counted as being a film noir.  It was not in the novel, and it is not in the 1942 remake, to which we now return.

After making his point, saying, “Little Joe, brother, that’s it,” Beaumont tells Varna he’ll let Madvig know he’s there.  When Beaumont walks in the office, we find Madvig putting on some socks with a fancy design on them.  I have never been able to tell what it is the design of.  In the 1935 version, Beaumont says something about Christmas trees, and in the 1942 version, he says something about a clock.  In any event, when he tells Madvig that Varna wants to see him, we begin to see that there is a difference in the intellectual capacity of the two men.  With Madvig, what you see is what you get.  His thinking is straightforward.  He tends to insult people because it is too much trouble to lie just to be polite, because it requires double thinking, knowing what is true while saying what is false.  Of course, as we find out later, he can lie when he really needs to.  It’s the subtle kind of lying that is too much for him.

Beaumont, on the other hand, has the ability to think at a higher level.  So, whereas Madvig cannot think past his love for Janet, Beaumont can see that backing Ralph Henry and the Reform Ticket will disrupt their whole setup, causing trouble between Madvig and Varna, who is head of a rival gang.  Beaumont tells Madvig he’s wrong, “as wrong as those socks.”  In the 1935 version, following the novel, he tells Madvig (Edward Arnold) on a separate occasion, “Silk socks don’t go with tweed.”  Madvig replies, “I like the feel of silk,” to which Beaumont rejoins, “Then lay off tweed.”  Madvig knows only what feels right to him.  Beaumont knows how things will appear to others.

Madvig is going to have dinner with Senator Henry, and he mentions that it is Janet’s birthday.  He asks Beaumont what he should get her.  Beaumont asks, “Want to make a good impression?”  When Madvig says he does, Beaumont says, “Nothing.”  Madvig is stunned.  “But why?” he asks.  Beaumont answers, “Because you’re not supposed to give people things, unless you’re sure they like to get them from you.”  It is clear that Ed Beaumont is the Miss Manners of film noir.

Beaumont asks if Madvig is sure that Senator Henry will “play ball” after the election.  Madvig says, “Why he’s practically given me the key to his house.”  Beaumont says it’s a glass key, which might break off in his hand.  Then Madvig says he is going to marry Janet Henry, although only he and Beaumont know about it.  Beaumont suspects the Senator is just using his daughter as bait.  He tells Madvig he’d better insist on the wedding before election day, so he can be sure of his pound of flesh.

In the novel, Madvig objects to Beaumont’s suggestion that the Senator will go back on his word after the election, saying, “I don’t know why you keep talking about the Senator like he was a yegg. He’s a gentleman and….”

“Absolutely,” Beaumont agrees.  “Read about it in the Post—one of the few aristocrats left in American politics. And his daughter’s an aristocrat. That’s why I’m warning you to sew your shirt on when you go to see them, or you’ll come away without it, because to them you’re a lower form of animal life and none of the rules apply.”  That’s a pretty good line.  Unfortunately, it didn’t make its way into either of the movie versions.

Meanwhile, Oswald, under Madvig’s orders, is trying to keep Varna out, but Jeff shoves him aside.  When Oswald’s glasses fall on the floor, Jeff deliberately grinds on them with his heel.  Once inside the office, Varna complains about his gambling joints being closed down, and that he knows Madvig is behind it.  But Madvig tells him that’s the way it’s going to be, and he’ll just have to take it.  Before they leave, Jeff lets a big wad of spit fall from his mouth onto the floor.

That night at the dinner party, Madvig is telling the other guests about how politics is simple, just a matter of muscle.  Janet looks at him with amused disdain.  As they get up from the table to go to the living room for coffee, Senator Henry tells Janet that he needs her to be nice to Madvig until he wins the election.  She says at least he will be good for some laughs.

Janet’s brother Taylor signaled her while she was at the table, and she goes to meet him.  He needs money to pay his gambling debts, but she has already given him all she has.  Their father shows up, and he and Taylor start quarreling.  When his father threatens to get him a job on Monday, that is just too much to bear, so Taylor leaves in a huff, letting in Beaumont on his way out, who just dropped by to bring Madvig some figures.  He is invited to join them for coffee.

As Madvig reminisces about his days working for the Observer, Janet starts giving Beaumont a sexy look.  It is clear that they are attracted to each other.  Furthermore, she is Beaumont’s equal mentally, though she has a bit of a mean streak.  Madvig tells what his job was, saying that if he came across someone selling the Post, he would slug him.  But then he made the same deal with the Post, saying, “You see, if the guy handed me the Observer, I’d slug him for the Post. If he hands me the Post, I’d slug him for the Observer. It was very simple.”

Janet observes with amusement, “You certainly were a two-fisted newspaper man, Mr. Madvig.  Wasn’t he, Mr. Beaumont?”  This goes right over Madvig’s head.  But Beaumont doesn’t like it.

Madvig continues.  “Yeah, but there was just one hitch.  I used to have to be very careful about repeating.  But once I missed.  I remember it was on Third and Broadway.  I slugged a guy for handing me the Observer.  About a week later, I got balled-up, and I found myself in the same spot.  Well, the guy hands me the Post, so, I have to slug him again.  You should have seen the expression on that fellow’s face.”

“There was enough there for an expression?” Janet asks as she glances again at Beaumont.  Again, Madvig has not the slightest idea that he is being made fun of by the woman he loves, who instead is flirting with best friend.

On the way home, Beaumont is approached by Opal (Bonita Granville), Madvig’s sister, who asks him for money, all he has on him.  He gives it to her, and she drives off.  He follows her to Taylor’s apartment.  She has given Taylor the money for his debt to Varna.  Beaumont drags her out of there and takes her home.  Being a gentleman, he lies to Madvig about where she’s been, but she defiantly says she was at Taylor’s apartment.  In those days, that meant she was going to have sex with him.  And in those days, that was something shameful.  She even says she has been to his apartment many times.  Beaumont leaves while they are arguing.

A parenthetical consideration:  If Madvig married Janet, Taylor would be his brother-in-law.  And if Taylor married Opal, he would also be Madvig’s brother-in-law.  So, if they all got married, that would double the in-law situation.  That’s not actually incest, but it is a little too all-in-the-family.  In fact, I seem to recall from when I read War and Peace a comment to the effect that in Russia at that time, if a man married a woman, his sister could not marry his wife’s brother.

Anyway, when Beaumont gets home, he gets a call from Opal, who is frantic, because Madvig is heading over to the Henry house after Taylor.  She’s afraid he’s going to kill him.  By the time Beaumont gets there, he finds Taylor’s corpse lying in the gutter in front of the Henry house.

From this point on, things become increasingly tense between Beaumont and Madvig.  There is a lot of suspicion that Madvig killed Taylor, and Varna claims to have a witness, that fellow Sloss that Madvig threw out the window, who claims that he saw Madvig and Taylor arguing that night.  Janet has been sending the District Attorney anonymous letters trying to incriminate Madvig, even after she and Madvig have become engaged; and Opal has agreed to let the Observer run a story in which she accuses her brother of killing Taylor.  Beaumont practically cuckolds the owner of the newspaper by making out with his wife on the couch while the pitiful husband asks her if she’s coming to bed.  When she keeps kissing Beaumont, the husband kills himself, and the story about Opal’s accusation is quashed.  But that comes later.  In the meantime, Beaumont tells Madvig it is more important than ever to make peace with Varna, but he refuses.  Adding to that is the fact that Beaumont has fallen for Janet too.

Beaumont decides to leave town.  When Madvig tries to talk him out of it, Ed suggests they have a drink for old times’ sake.  In the 1935 version, they knowingly go into a bar that is one of Shad O’Rory’s places, Shad O’Rory being the character equivalent of Nick Varna in the 1942 version.  This is important for interpreting what happens later.  In both versions, they start quarreling again, and Ed leaves.  In the 1935 version, this is noticed by one of O’Rory’s henchmen, who passes the information on to his boss.  We figure that Beaumont is purposely putting on a show, to make it look as though he is through working for Madvig.  Because Madvig is not good at dissembling, Beaumont does not tell him what he is up to.  In the 1942 version, it seems to be only an accident that one of Varna’s men overhears what is going on.

Varna gets the word to Ed that he wants to see him and offers to pay for Beaumont’s services, to get him to work for him, and Beaumont seems to be interested.  This theme of the servant of two masters, of a man playing one gang off the other for his own profit, is said to have been the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was turned into a Western by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  In all three stories, the law is weak or corrupt.  And in all three stories, the protagonist is beaten severely when one of the gang leaders realizes he has been betrayed.

What Varna really wants from Beaumont is anything that might help him pin the murder of Taylor on Madvig.  But when Varna realizes that Beaumont is still loyal to Madvig, he tells Jeff to beat the information out of him.

At this point, we come to the question as to whether there is a homosexual subtext in the novel and its movie versions.  In a review by Curt J. Evans, he suggests that it is not so much that Beaumont wants Janet as it is that he is jealous because of his homosexual feelings for Madvig.  Being straight myself, that would never have occurred to me.  To me, the men are just friends.  Even if Beaumont had not been in love with Janet, he could easily resent the fact that Madvig was letting his infatuation with Janet cloud his judgment, jeopardizing their political organization, without leading me to conclude that deep down he wanted to have sex with him.

Jeff is a different matter.  In the novel, he refers to Beaumont as “sweetheart” and “baby.”  And in the 1935 version, Jeff, played by Guinn Williams, likewise uses those terms of endearment while beating up Beaumont, and also “sweetie-pie” and “cuddles.”  Still, I would never have suspected anything from that.  To me, it would just be cruel sarcasm.  But the 1942 version managed to penetrate my heterosexual way of looking at things.

Perhaps it is the way William Bendix portrayed him, but Jeff clearly seems to be a man with repressed homosexual tendencies, and when another man arouses such urges in him, he just naturally has to beat the crap out of him.  Not only does he use those same terms of endearment, but he also says that Beaumont likes it, a sadist fantasizing a complementary masochism on the part of the man whose face he is pounding on.  But my becoming aware of this repressed homosexuality was facilitated by Alan Ladd playing the role Beaumont.  As noted above, in the 1935 version, Beaumont was played by George Raft, who has a standard tough-guy persona.  But Alan Ladd is a small man with delicate features.  It is easy to imagine him bringing out feelings in Jeff that he doesn’t fully understand.

Beaumont manages to escape from the brutal beating, which he barely survives.  After Madvig is indicted for Taylor’s murder, he and Beaumont start quarreling again about Janet.  Madvig claims he did kill Taylor in self-defense, but didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to lose her.  Beaumont suspects there is something phony about this admission, but he is not sure what.  He leaves the district attorney’s office where Madvig is being held.

The scene shifts to a bar owned by Varna.  We see a black woman, Lillian Randolph, playing the piano, singing “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You.”  Well, you know how it is.  Once your gaydar has finally been turned on, you begin seeing stuff everywhere.  As she sings that love song, she gazes into the eyes of another woman, who is leaning on the piano and looking back at her.  It made me wonder.

In any event, she eventually turns and begins looking at Jeff, who is also at the piano.  Jeff doesn’t seem happy.  Maybe the song has made him sad.  Suddenly, Beaumont appears on the stairs, slowly descending.  He and Jeff look at each other across the room.  Beaumont approaches, looking timid and submissive.  Jeff puts his arm around him and leads him upstairs to a private room, talking about how he’s going to bounce him off the walls.

Once in the room, Jeff says he knows what Beaumont is up to, trying to get him to talk.  He tells him he’s a heel.  Usually, that is something a woman says about a man, or a man will say about another man in reference to a woman, as in, “Your boyfriend is nothing but a heel.”  Now, I realize that a man might say that to another man.  In fact, in the novel, Madvig calls Beaumont a heel when Beaumont tries to tell him what Janet is up to.  Interestingly, that comes right after a line that Evans cites as evidence that Beaumont might have homosexual feelings for Madvig:

“What is it, Ned? Do you want her yourself or is it—” He [Madvig] broke off contemptuously. “It doesn’t make any difference.” He jerked a thumb carelessly at the door. “Get out, you heel, this is the kiss-off.”

What was the “or is it” Madvig was referring to?  In any event, Jeff uses the word “heel” in talking to Beaumont again and again, which seems express his feeling of being betrayed by someone he loves.

Varna shows up, irritated that Jeff has not stayed undercover as he was told to and irritated that he killed Sloss.  They start fighting, and Jeff strangles Varna, feeling sorry for himself as he does so, saying, “I’m just a good-natured slob.”  When the police arrive, before they start to take Jeff away, he tries to show his contempt for Beaumont by letting another big drop of spit fall to the floor, but Beaumont neatly slides a cuspidor underneath him to catch it.

In the end, it turns out that the Senator was the one who accidentally killed his son Taylor.  I said at the beginning that the 1935 version would almost qualify as film noir were it not for the date of production.  However, there are two differences in the endings that make it easy to see which one was made before the film noir period, and which one was made during it.

In the 1935 version, Madvig lives with his mother, something a tough guy in a film noir never does.  She says that Senator Doherty, the one who will be taking Ralph Henry’s place, is an honest man, one whom Madvig will not be able to handle.  She tells Madvig and Beaumont that they will enjoy working with an honest man once they get used to it.  In short, corruption is coming to an end in this town.

In the 1942 version, Madvig, who doesn’t even have a mother, let alone live with her, says he hasn’t picked who will be the next governor yet, but he guarantees he’ll be a winner.  There is every indication that the corruption will continue just as before, especially since Madvig will not be having anything to do with the Reform Ticket anymore.

Second, in the 1935 version, Beaumont and Janet do not fall in love, so there is no triangle between those two and Madvig.  And after Senator Henry confesses, there is no more mention of anything between her and Madvig either.  Instead, it turns out that Beaumont and Opal have started dating and are now in love.

In the 1942 version, however, the fact that both men want Janet only aggravates the tension between them.  In the final scene, Madvig finds out that Janet and Beaumont are in love.  He gives them his blessing, tough-guy style, and then slides the ostentatiously expensive engagement ring off her finger, saying, “If you figure on getting married with my rock, you’re nuts.”