Psycho (1960)

There is a scene in Annie Hall (1977) where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have a date to see a Bergman film.  Keaton arrives late, and the ticket clerk informs them that the movie started two minutes ago.  Allen says they’ll have to forget it because he can’t go in a theater in the middle of a movie.  Keaton replies, with exasperation, that all they will miss are the titles, which are in Swedish. Allen is adamant, and they have to find something else to do.

In its exaggerated way, this scene illustrates a fundamental difference between two types people: those who must see a movie from the beginning, and those who don’t care.

I saw North by Northwest when it first came out in 1959.  It was rereleased in 1965, when I was in college, and I asked a girl out on a date to see it.  She had never even heard of the movie, and I didn’t tell her that I had seen it before.  My idea was that she would thoroughly enjoy the movie, which would redound to my credit, making her more likely to want to go out on dates with me in the future.

“What time does the movie start?” she asked me when I called to confirm our date that Saturday.

“It starts at seven,” I replied.

“All right,” she said, “pick me up at seven fifteen.”

I was in shock.  I had never heard of such a cavalier attitude toward watching a movie. After much protestation on my part, she said she would be ready at seven, which she said I should take as an indication of just how much she liked me.  She lived close to the theater, but it still meant we would come in about ten minutes after the movie started.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I agreed. Well, I was young, and she was beautiful.  The things we do for love!

I have since seen several old movies, made back in the 1930s or 1940s, where a man and woman are in a theater watching a movie, when one of them says, “This is where we came in,” and they get up and leave. It must have been common for couples to do that in those days.

One night when my friend and I were at a drive-in movie theater, a car pulled into the spot next to ours, twenty minutes after the movie started.  The woman stayed in the car while the man took their two children to the concession stand.  When they got back and got settled, the man asked his wife if she knew what movie it was.  “I think it’s a spy movie,” she replied.  Eventually the movie ended, and it was back to the concession stand.  Then the second movie began, and about an hour into that one, they pulled out of their spot and headed home.

It is on account of people like that, I suppose, that in the advertisements for Psycho, when it first came out in 1960, there were taglines informing us that no one would be admitted into the theater after the start of each performance, that it was important to see the movie from the very beginning. According to Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky, in their anthology, The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock, “Hitchcock had Paramount enforce the policy by having it written into the booking contract of all the theaters that exhibited it.”  In the bonus material of the DVD for this movie, we can see for ourselves how a big deal was made out of this policy.

Unfortunately, there is another fundamental difference between two types of people: those who don’t want to know what happens in a movie before they see it, and those who don’t care.

Those who don’t care if they know what happens in a movie before they see it also don’t care how much it matters to those of us who do, and thus they will blab about the movie once they’ve seen it, in spite of our objections.  Although I saw The Godfather (1972) the first month it came to the theaters where I lived, I was told twice by two different people about the horse’s head in the bed before I actually managed to see the movie.

Harris and Lasky say that steps were taken by Hitchcock to minimize this:

First of all, it was shot on a restricted set, with no visitors allowed.  Stills of important scenes were not released in advance, as is usually customary.  Reviewers and theater owners were not permitted to view the film until opening day.

In his Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary says that Psycho should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.  One reason it did not was that the members of the Academy are snobs, always wanting to present themselves as sophisticated and refined, so they disdain giving the Award to a horror movie no matter how good it is. But another reason was that the members of the Academy were “indignant because Hitchcock denied them special advance screenings lest they reveal the surprise ending.”

In one of the advertisements for this movie, Hitchcock encouraged those who are inclined to talk about a movie after they’ve seen it to avoid being around other people after watching Psycho.  But some people who have seen a movie will tell others how it ends out of spite, and Hitchcock’s admonition in this regard only enhanced the pleasure they took from ruining the movie for those who had not yet seen it.  This kid I knew when I was in high school gleefully told me, before I had a chance to see Psycho, that the mother that kills people in the movie is really her son dressed up to look like her.  I despise him to this day.

According to Harris and Lasky, all this secrecy on Hitchcock’s part resulted in the audience being shocked early in the movie:

The shock comes in the form of an unexpected and violent slaying. Janet Leigh, ostensibly the star, is killed off one-third through the film. First of all, we didn’t expect the murder and are that much more surprised by it.  Second, Hitchcock knows that audiences think that nothing can happen to her because she is the star.

Over the years, several critics have made this point, and I suppose it sounds believable to those who were not around back then.  But those of us that saw the movie when it first came out know that it simply is not true, because Hitchcock himself gave that much away in the trailer that he made for it.  I remember seeing the trailer at the time, and was able to refresh my memory of it, thanks again to some of the bonus material on the DVD.  Hitchcock takes us onto the set of the Bates Motel.  In the house up the hill, just behind the motel, he takes us to the stairs and says this is where the second murder took place, involving a knife, and resulting in a mangled corpse with a broken back at the bottom of the stairs.  Then he takes us into what he refers to as a parlor, the room just behind the desk where motel guests would register.  It was where the son would go to get away from his mother, who Hitchcock says is “maniacal,” thereby letting us know to whom the title refers.  Then he takes us into Room Number 1.  In the bathroom, he tells us about all the blood that was in there before it was cleaned up. What happened, he tells us, is that the murderer crept into the bathroom while someone was taking a shower.  Hitchcock pulls back the shower curtain, and we see Janet Leigh screaming.  Most people back then saw this preview, because Hitchcock featured it a couple of times during his popular television show.

It is hard to fault Hitchcock for giving so much away himself, for I’m sure that it made a lot of people want to see the movie, people that might have skipped it had he not talked about there being two murders with lots of blood, and then shown us a naked Janet Leigh screaming in the shower.

So far, we have been considering what people knew or didn’t know when the movie was being released for the first time.  A further consideration is how people experience this movie when they watch it for the first time years later.  Even in 1988, in his book Cult Movies 3:  Fifty More of the Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird and the Wonderful, Danny Peary could begin his review with a note of regret, saying that this movie can never again be experienced the way it was back then:

Almost everyone who saw Psycho in 1960 remembers that terrifying experience as if it were yesterday…. Today Psycho fans swap stories about how they closed their eyes during the film’s violence (but not the sex) or literally ducked under their seats (I admit measuring the amount of room down there), or how it scared them out of several nights’ sleep.

He is right about that.  Because I was only thirteen years old when this movie came out, I saw it at a drive-in with my parents. My mother screamed during the two slasher scenes and ducked her head to keep from seeing what happened.  You might think it would be enough merely to shut one’s eyes, but people ducked beneath their seats, not merely because they did not want to see what was happening, but because they wanted to protect themselves from the knife-wielding Mrs. Bates.

Peary continues:  “Viewers really were afraid to take showers for a long time afterward (and I am not alone in still occasionally thinking of Psycho when in a motel shower).” My mother told me that for years after that, whenever she took a shower alone in the house, she brought our dog into the bathroom with her. Another woman I knew also said she was scared to take showers alone in her house for years after seeing this movie.

Peary goes on to say that people seeing the movie “today,” which means in 1988, are so inured by all the slasher movies produced since then, with an ever higher body count and more grisly gore, that Psycho is regarded as “camp.”  And if that was true in 1988, then all the more so today.

When I watch the movie all these years later, I try to imagine myself not knowing anything about it.  To the extent that one is able to do this, the movie starts out as a melodrama, like Back Street (1961), for instance. We slowly close in on a hotel room in the middle of the day, entering inside to find Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lying supine on the bed in a white brassiere and half slip, and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), standing up bare chested, the two of them in a postcoital state.  He says to Marion, “You never did eat your lunch, did you?”  As he says this, the camera shows us some uneaten sandwiches sitting on a plate, notwithstanding the remark Marion makes about this being one of the “extended lunch hours” she takes when Sam is in town.

We conclude that they spent so much time having sex that she never got around to those sandwiches, and we don’t give it much thought beyond that.  But later on, we might notice that she never has anything to eat again until the night of the following day when she eats some sandwiches that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has prepared for her as the two of them have a conversation in the office of the Bates Motel.  And Robin Woods, in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, is just one of several critics that have commented on the fact the there is a physical resemblance between John Gavin and Anthony Perkins.

In the novel by Robert Bloch, on which this movie is based, there is no physical similarity between Sam and Norman.  In the first chapter, there is reference to the way Norman’s “plump face, reflected from his rimless glasses, bathed the pinkness of his scalp beneath the thinning sandy hair,” and later on to “the blubbery fat, the short hairless arms, the big belly.”

Back to the movie:  Sam and Marion want to get married, but Sam says they cannot afford it:

I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there.  I sweat to pay off my father’s debts, and he’s in his grave.  I sweat to pay my ex-wife alimony, and she’s living on the other side of the world somewhere.

I like that part about the alimony.  We are not to imagine his ex-wife holding down a menial job, just making ends meet in her small apartment, anxiously looking in the mailbox for her monthly check from Sam.  No, we envision her living in luxury in some foreign country, basking in the sun on a beach filled with rich tourists, telling her friends, “I earned it.”

I wondered about this business of having to pay off his father’s debts, since children are not legally obligated to pay off the debts of their parents when they die.  However, this is explained in the novel:

There was this hardware store, in a little town called Fairvale, up north. Sam had worked there for his father, with the understanding that he’d inherit the business. A year ago his father had died, and the accountants had told him the bad news.

Sam inherited the business, all right, plus about twenty thousand in debts. The building was mortgaged, the inventory was mortgaged, and even the insurance had been mortgaged. Sam’s father had never told him about his little side investments in the market—or the race track. But there it was. There were only two choices: go into bankruptcy or try and work off the obligations.

Sam Loomis chose the latter course. “It’s a good business,” he explained.

In general, the movie follows the novel closely.  Sometimes, as is the case with the debts Sam inherited from his father, the novel proves to be illuminating, at least for those of us that wonder about such things. In other cases, the differences between the novel and the movie can be regarded as Hitchcock’s contribution, giving us insight into how he wanted to present the story, as in the physical similarity between Sam and Norman, which wasn’t it the novel.

There is also the difference between descriptions in the novel and dramatizations in the movie based on it. The novel begins with Norman carrying on a conversation with his mother, who we have every reason to believe really exists.  In the movie, such a scene would have revealed that Mother did not exist except in Norman’s imagination, giving away the whole surprise ending. Nevertheless, because we never see Norman talking to his mother in the movie, most people begin to suspect she doesn’t really exist long before we have that revealed to us explicitly.  On the other hand, about halfway through the novel, we also get a clue, as Norman reflects on his dual nature:

It was like being two people, really—the child and the adult. Whenever he thought about Mother, he became a child again, with a child’s vocabulary, frames of reference, and emotional reactions. But when he was by himself—not actually by himself, but off in a book—he was a mature individual. Mature enough to understand that he might even be the victim of a mild form of schizophrenia, most likely some form of borderline neurosis.

When this book was written, most people thought that someone with schizophrenia had a split personality.

Back to the movie:  In addition to explaining why Sam does not feel that his financial situation can allow him and Marion to get married, having to pay off his father’s debts introduces a theme, that of a dead parent preventing an adult child from having a normal sex life.  Much in the way the sandwiches in a hotel room anticipates sandwiches later in a motel office, so too does Sam’s struggle with obligations imposed on him by his dead father anticipate Norman’s struggle with imagined obligations to his dead mother.

In the novel, by the way, his father’s debts are the only reason for Sam’s financial difficulties.  There is no ex-wife getting alimony payments.

Back to the movie:  Marion tells Sam this will be the last time they meet this way, secretly in a cheap hotel. She admits she’s thinking of breaking off the relationship, and she wouldn’t care if Sam broke off with her instead, now that she has ruled out any more sexual encounters.

In fact, as Raymond Durgnat points out in The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock:  or, the Plain Man’s Hitchcock, we don’t care either.  We are interested in these two, to be sure, but we neither expect nor hope that they will eventually get married and live happily ever after.  Durgnat does not say so, but I suspect that is because they don’t really act as though they enjoyed the afternoon they just spent together.  Sex is very pleasurable, but only sometimes fun.

Sam says he wants to keep seeing her anyway, even if it’s only to have lunch in a public place.

Marion:  Oh, we can see each other.  We can even have dinner.  But respectably.  In my house, with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.

Sam:  And after the steak, do we send sister to the movies, turn Mama’s picture to the wall?

Marion:  Sam!

Now we know why they’ve been meeting in cheap hotel rooms instead of at Marion’s place.  She lives with her sister, who we later find out is Lila, played by Vera Miles. And while Marion could move out and get an apartment of her own, Lila would suspect that she was doing it in order to have sex with Sam, which wouldn’t have been respectable.  At least, it wouldn’t have been respectable in 1960.

Marion’s name in the novel, by the way, is Mary.  (One critic has noticed that an anagram of “Marion” is “Normai,” suggesting a connection between her and Norman, as well as with his mother Norma.) There is no indication in the novel that Sam and Mary are having sex with each other.  In those days, though it seems almost unbelievable now, a lot of people actually waited until they were married before they had sex, and that is the case with these two.  As a result, there would be no reason for Mary to get her own apartment.

Back to the movie:  The reference to the picture on the mantel, by which Marion’s deceased mother can cast her disapproving eyes, reinforces Marion’s need for respectability.  This is another instance of a dead parent preventing an adult child from having a normal sex life, once again prefiguring the hold that Mother has over Norman.

Objectively speaking, things are not all that bleak.  Sam expects to have the debts paid off in two years, and if his ex-wife remarries, the alimony will stop.  But Marion is impatient.  She says they should just get married anyway, but Sam rejects that idea, saying they would have to live in the storeroom in the back of his hardware store. Marion doesn’t care, but he does.  Marion leaves to go back to the office, and this ends the section of the movie that appears to be a melodrama.

Now we enter into the section of the movie that purports to be a crime drama.  Shortly after Marion gets back to the real estate office where she works, a client, Tom Cassidy, comes in with Mr. Lowrey, Marion’s boss.  Cassidy flashes $40,000 in front of her, which he says he isn’t worried about, because he never carries more cash than he can afford to lose.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be just over $400,000 today.  The purpose of the money is to buy a house as a wedding present for his daughter. His philosophy is that while money cannot buy happiness, it can buy off unhappiness. With a mischievous look in his eyes, he asks Marion if she is unhappy.

In the novel, on a previous occasion, Cassidy put a hundred-dollar bill on Mary’s desk, suggesting she take a “little trip” to Dallas with him for a weekend.  Mr. Lowrey came in at that moment, ending the matter, but it irked Mary, and she never forgot it:

She couldn’t forget the wet-lipped smile on his fat old face.

And she never forgot that this world belonged to the Tommy Cassidy’s. They owned the property and they set the prices. Forty thousand to a daughter for a wedding gift; a hundred dollars tossed carelessly on a desk for three days’ rental privileges of the body of Mary Crane.

Back to the movie:  After Cassidy and Lowrey go into his office, Caroline, Marion’s co-worker, played by Hitchcock’s homely daughter Patricia, says, “He was flirting with you. I guess he must’ve noticed my wedding ring.”  That’s funny, of course, but it adds to Marion’s exasperation.  Cassidy’s daughter is going to get married, and Caroline is already married, but Marion’s desire to get married is stymied.  And Cassidy’s daughter will have no money problems, unlike Marion’s situation with Sam, where money, or the lack of it, is keeping them apart.  Perhaps this explains why Hitchcock added the part about alimony in writing the script, which wasn’t in the novel.  The debts Sam inherited from his father are, to Marion, just an unfortunate fact.  But the idea that the woman who used to be married to Sam is enjoying a carefree life at Marion’s expense completes the circle closing in on her.

Cassidy leaves the money with Lowrey, who in turn tells Marion to deposit it in a bank. In the next scene, she is in her house alone (Caroline told her Lila would be gone all weekend).  Now she is wearing a black brassiere and slip.  She looks at the bed with the $40,000 on it.  Well, she didn’t deposit it in the bank, so we figure she is going to take the money and run.  If she has to commit grand larceny to be respectable, so be it.

But why the change in her brassiere and slip?  If I were about steal that much money, it would never occur to me to change my underwear first.  But, since she is about to make a fresh start on life, perhaps, dare I say it, she took a shower.  And as she packs, we do see the shower head and curtain through the open bathroom door, another anticipation of what is to come.

There is something so desperate and futile in what she is about to do.  What does she have planned, and how does she expect to get away with it?  In the novel, her plan is to cover her tracks by switching out cars several times, marry Sam, and then sell the last car under her married name, Mrs. Sam Loomis.  She would tell Sam she inherited some money and that Lila moved to Europe, explaining why Lila would not be attending the wedding.  Lila wouldn’t tell the police about Sam until she talked to Mary.  The whole thing makes me nervous just thinking about it.

Back to the movie:  After leaving home, she doesn’t even make it out of town before she is spotted by her boss, who naturally wonders what she is up to, since she said she was going straight home and to bed after depositing the money in the bank.  Hours later, she pulls over to the side of the road to get some sleep.  She is awakened the next morning by a motorcycle cop wearing ominous sunglasses.  He tells her she should have checked into a motel, just to be safe.  She drives on for a while and then decides to sell her car and get another, as a way of throwing the police off her trail when her boss realizes she stole the money.  But while buying a used car, she sees that same cop watching her from across the street.

Everything thus far indicates that the movie will continue to be about her trying to get away with stealing the money.  That would be enough for most movies.  And we expect that cop to be on her trail unrelentingly, like Javert in Les Misérables, who will now know the make and model of the car she just bought, along with its license plate.  And yet, we never see him again.  Nor does her car play any role in her effort to hide from the police.  It just ends up being sunk into the swamp, along with Marion’s body and the $40,000.

As she drives to Fairvale, she imagines what various people she knows will say, especially Sam and Mr. Lowrey.  The look on her face is one of concern.  But then she imagines what Cassidy will say: “Well, I ain’t about to kiss off $40,000!  I’ll get it back, and if any of it’s missing, I’ll replace it with her fine, soft flesh!”  A slight smile appears on her lips.

It starts raining, making it difficult for her to see, leading her off the main highway, right up to the Bates Motel, with the spooky house behind it, just up the hill.  All of a sudden, “It was a dark and stormy night,” thereby leading the plot in a totally different direction as well.  And so, pretending we know nothing of this movie in advance, we are surprised by this turn of events, in which we now find ourselves watching a horror movie.

After Marion rents a room at the motel, she has a conversation with Norman while eating those sandwiches, indicating that she intends to go back and try to make things right.  And she might have been able to do so, for when her sister Lila shows up at Sam’s hardware store, Sam is just finishing the letter he has written to Marion, saying she is right, that they can get married right away, living in the back of the store for a couple of years, until the debts are paid off.  They will be poor, but happy. And Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private detective that enters the store right behind Lila, says Lowrey and Cassidy just want her to return the money and there will be no prosecution.  We might imagine Marion’s announced resolve to return to Phoenix being the final scene in one of Hitchcock’s television shows, lasting just under an hour, after commercials.

The anticipations we have noticed so far have not allowed us to guess what would come next.  They were only for the sake of aesthetics, structural similarities that create a sense of artistic unity. However, while Marion was in the office with Norman, she might have become aware of an anticipation that would have given her pause, had she noticed it.  There are several paintings of naked women on the walls, including a painting of “Susanna and the Elders,” based on a story in which two men watch a naked woman taking a bath.  This has been a favorite subject by many artists over the years because the artists were men, and men like naked women.  Bad enough that two men saw Susanna naked, but then the scene is imagined in different ways by different artists over and over again so that everybody gets to see her naked.  But at least the women were not really Susanna, only models that were perfectly happy to let all the world see them without any clothes on. It’s not like the way things are now, where if two men watched an unsuspecting woman bathing today, her pictures would end up all over the internet.  The paintings of Susanna are based on a story in the Book of Daniel, which is either in the Bible or in the Old Testament Apocrypha, depending on which version of the Bible you have.  In some paintings of this story, two lascivious men simply watch a beautiful woman taking a bath, but in the painting in Norman’s office, the men are also groping Susanna.

Hitchcock points to that painting in the trailer, saying it has significance, but we have forgotten all about that when watching the movie for the first time.  Moreover, we, like Marion, are distracted by all the stuffed animals in the office, anticipating the stuffed Mrs. Bates up in the house.  Had Marion noticed the painting of “Susanna and the Elders,” it might have warned her about taking that shower later on.  And indeed, just behind the painting is a peephole, allowing Norman (but not us, unfortunately) to watch Marion get completely naked, much in the way that Hitchcock turned us into voyeurs by pulling us in through the window of that hotel room in the beginning of the movie. Norman gets so aroused that Mother just naturally has to come down there and hack Marion up so she can have Norman all to herself.

Toward the end of the movie, Lila discovers Mrs. Bates’ stuffed body in the fruit cellar, at which point Mother comes running in with a knife, screaming, “I’m Norma Bates!” Sam comes in right behind Mother and grabs her, revealing that she is Norman when his wig falls off.  The hold that Sam has on Mother is similar to that in the painting of “Susanna and the Elders.”

After this comes the epilogue, the fourth section of this movie.  The scene is at the County Court House where Dr. Fred Richman (Simon Oakland) explains how all this came to be, how Norman became jealous when his mother started having sex with some man, so he poisoned them both. Then, since he loved his mother, he dug up her body and stuffed it.  But that’s all on the outside. On the inside, Norman Bates had a split personality, in which he would sometimes become Mother. Since Norman was jealous of his mother, he believed that Mother was jealous of him, a form of projection, killing any pretty woman that aroused him.  But now Mother has completely taken over Norman’s mind and blames Norman for all the killings.

In the novel, when all this comes to light, it makes headlines on the front page of the newspapers and is even covered on television, some write-ups comparing Norman to Ed Gein.  Rumors spread about “cannibalism, Satanism, incest, and necrophilia.” Regarding those last two items, incest and necrophilia, Robert Bloch doesn’t say that Norman was having sex with his mother, either before or after he killed her, for that would be too gross.  Bloch is only telling us that there were rumors to that effect.

My pretending not to know what is going to happen when I watch this movie adds to my enjoyment, notwithstanding that kid in high school, who tried to spoil it for me, and the trailer in which Hitchcock gives everything away but the ending.  Oddly enough, I also appreciate the anticipations of which I am now aware, having seen the movie so many times before, knowing how one scene is pregnant with a scene that will occur later, so that I enjoy the movie more on subsequent viewings than I did when I saw it for the first time.

No matter how many times I have seen this movie, however, on each subsequent viewing I must see it from the very beginning, as is the case with all the movies I see. The only exception was with that girl I knew in college, and I never asked her out to see another movie.  I’m sure she didn’t care.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Inasmuch as I was born in 1946, I certainly did not see The Grapes of Wrath when it was released in 1940.Instead, I first saw this movie with my parents at a drive-in movie theater when I was around eight years old.  To help me understand what was going on, my father told me about the Dust Bowl, a drought in the southern plains region of the United States where he grew up. That region included Oklahoma, where this movie begins.   The drought was so bad that the skies were filled with dust, and crops withered on the land.  He also said this was during the Great Depression.

For years after that, I assumed that somehow the two were causally related, that either the Great Depression caused the Dust Bowl, or the Dust Bowl caused the Great Depression.  But while the economy can be affected by the weather, I eventually realized the two were independent of each other, that it was just cruel fate that had brought them together.  Still, as we gather from other movies we have seen, it was the cities that were most affected by the Great Depression, while it was the farmers that were most affected by the Dust Bowl; for which reason, in his novel on which this movie was based, John Steinbeck used the entire first chapter to describe the emergence of this drought and the problems it caused the farmers.  But while all that is now clear in my mind, I have yet to completely untangle the cultural significance of this movie.

The movie was produced two years after the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, its central focus being communism, regarded as a subversive scourge at the time.  I remember how in the second grade, while we were saying the Pledge of Allegiance, the teacher admonished a couple of students who were talking, saying that they should be grateful they weren’t born in Russia.  I remember my mother asking a next-door neighbor if she had been watching the McCarthy hearings. And when I started college in 1964, I had to sign an oath that “I was not now, nor ever had been, a member of the Communist Party.”

So, what does all this have to do with The Grapes of Wrath?  Only that it makes the strongest case for communism of any movie I have ever seen.  And yet, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with other awards as well.  The movie was directed by John Ford, who made a lot of movies starring John Wayne, known for being staunchly anti-communist.  And yet, there was never a falling-out between the two over this movie, with Wayne refusing to work with Ford ever again.

I have read that Steinbeck was as opposed to communism as much as he was to capitalism.  Perhaps a qualification is in order. There is communism as it was envisioned by Karl Marx, and then there was Stalinist Russia, which presumed to call itself communist, but was nothing but totalitarianism, something Marx would have deplored.  Judging by the novel and the movie, it would seem that Steinbeck’s opposition to communism was probably directed toward Russia under Joseph Stalin rather than the writings of Karl Marx.

In 1945, Eric Johnson, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told the screenwriters, “We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath, we’ll have no more Tobacco Roads, we’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life.” Tobacco Road, a novel by Erskine Caldwell, was also made into a movie directed by John Ford in 1941, and was the second feature being shown the night I saw The Grapes of Wrath.  That movie wasn’t much, and it had nothing to do with communism, but the novel it was based on was as seamy as they come.

Steinbeck was not as seamy as Caldwell, but his novel had to be cleaned up a little when it was made into a movie.  For example, in the novel, Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda in the movie) knows that something is wrong when he arrives at his parents’ home and sees that the low gate across the front door was open.  He explains to Reverend Jim Casy (played by John Carradine in the movie):

“If Ma was anywheres about, that gate’d be shut an’ hooked. That’s one thing she always done—seen that gate was shut.” His eyes were warm. “Ever since the pig got in over to Jacobs’ an’ et the baby. Milly Jacobs was jus’ out in the barn. She come in while the pig was still eatin’ it. Well, Milly Jacobs was in a family way, an’ she went ravin’. Never did get over it. Touched ever since….”

Eric Johnson went on to say, “We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as a villain.”  The screenwriters Johnson was admonishing must not have been paying attention, because It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was produced the next year.  In that movie, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is a villainous banker who keeps the $8,000 that Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally puts in his hands.  George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who runs the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, fears that he will be arrested for embezzlement when the bank examiner sees that the missing money cannot be accounted for.  As a result, George attempts to commit suicide.

The banker in that movie is a single individual, which was usually the case in the old melodramas, where the banker threatens to foreclose on the widow who is late with her last mortgage payment. But in The Grapes of Wrath, the blame for what happens is dispersed.  When Tom gets to his parents’ farm and finds the place deserted, except for Muley (John Qualen), he wants to know what happened.  Muley explains that it all began with the “dusters,” year after year, blowing the land away, blowing the crops away.  As a result, a man shows up, telling them they need to get off:

After what them dusters done to the land, the tenant system don’t work no more. They don’t break even, much less show profit.  One man and a tractor can handle twelve or fourteen of these places. You just pay him a wage and take all the crop.

Muley pleads that his children aren’t getting enough food as it is.  The man replies:  “I can’t help that. I got my orders.  They told me to tell you to get off.”  He goes on to say it’s not his fault.  Muley’s son asks whose fault it is.  The man replies it’s nobody’s fault. It’s a company, the one that owns the land, the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company. Muley’s son says the company must have a president, one who knows what a shotgun is for.  The man says it’s not his fault because the bank tells him what to do, and the bank is in Tulsa.

Have we now arrived at what Johnson was talking about, the banker who is the villain? No, for as the man points out, it’s not the bank manager’s fault because he is half crazy trying to keep up with the orders he gets from back East.

Muley asks, “Then who do we shoot?”

The man replies:  “Brother, I don’t know. If I did, I’d tell you. But I just don’t know who’s to blame!”

What Johnson didn’t understand was that by having the banker be the villain, someone the hero can thwart by proving that he is guilty of fraud and having him arrested, the economic system itself is not being blamed.  In It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter never is caught and punished for keeping the money, but he is thwarted nevertheless when the people of Bedford Falls donate enough to make up for the missing money so that George will not be charged with embezzlement.  George is a good banker, whose Building and Loan works for the people, who in turn so love George and his bank that they give him money to show their appreciation.

Steinbeck, on the other hand, understood that if no one is responsible for the hardships people in his story have to suffer, and in particular, if there is no banker that can be blamed as the villain, then the economic system as a whole is to blame.  And the solution for that is a revolution.

Muley is defiant.  He talks about how his grandfather took up the land seventy years ago, how his father was born on that land, how members of his family died on it, and that makes it theirs, not a piece of paper with writing on it.

The next day a man driving a caterpillar tractor shows up to knock down Muley’s house.  Perhaps this is the man Muley can shoot. He threatens the man on the tractor with a shotgun, until he sees that the man is his neighbor’s son, who says he has to do it because he needs the money, what with a wife, her mother, and two children to feed. And besides, he points out, if Muley shoots him, Muley will just end up being arrested and hanged for murder, while another man in a tractor will show up three days later and finish the job.  Muley is defeated, lowering the shotgun as the tractor brings down his house.  He tells Tom that the same thing has happened to all the farmers in the area, that they all have to get out.

No one in this movie uses any of the theoretical terms of Marxism, such as “communism,” “socialism,” “capitalist,” “bourgeoisie,” and “proletariat.”.  The closest we come to that is later in the movie, when someone talks about “red agitators.”  Tom Joad asks what a “red” is, but he doesn’t get an answer in the movie.  In the novel, however, he does:

“Fella named Hines—got ’bout thirty thousan’ acres, peaches and grapes—got a cannery an’ a winery. Well, he’s all a time talkin’ about ‘them goddamn reds.’ ‘Goddamn reds is drivin’ the country to ruin,’ he says, an’ ‘We got to drive these here red bastards out.’ Well, they were a young fella jus’ come out west here, an’ he’s listenin’ one day. He kinda scratched his head an’ he says, ‘Mr. Hines, I ain’t been here long. What is these goddamn reds?’ Well, sir, Hines says, ‘A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we’re payin’ twenty-five!’ Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an’ he scratches his head, an’ he says, ‘Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain’t a son-of-a-bitch, but if that’s what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever’body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we’re all reds.’ ”

Though the words of Marxism are not used, yet the principles of Marxism are illustrated by things people do and say who, like Tom Joad, don’t even know what a red is.

When the movie opens, we see Tom walking down the road, on his way to the forty-acre farm where his parents live as sharecroppers.  He stops just outside a short-order restaurant in time to see a truckdriver getting into his truck.  Tom asks him for a ride, and the driver points to a sign in the lower part of the windshield saying, “No Riders Allowed,” and in smaller print below that, “Instructions of Owner.”  Tom says, “Sure I see it. But a good guy don’t pay no attention to what some heel makes him stick on his truck.”  Tom is suggesting that he and the truckdriver, both belonging to the working class, are basically good people, while it is the owner of the trucking company that the driver works for who is a heel.  This is the first hint of a more general attitude of the movie, in which it is the capitalists, the rich men that own the banks, the businesses, and the farms, who make the rules and the laws that favor themselves, to the disadvantage of the workers they exploit, the proletariat.  The truckdriver relents, allowing Tom to hitch a ride.

Tom has recently been paroled after serving four years for homicide.  As we find out later, he was in a dancehall one night when some guy that was drunk stuck a knife into him.  Tom hit him with a shovel, killing him.  We see immediately that it was self-defense, and there were bound to be witnesses at the dance who could vouch for him, but Tom is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison.  A member of the bourgeoisie would have been cleared of any wrongdoing, but neither the police nor the courts care about justice when dealing with the lower classes.  If there’s a disturbance, better to just lock someone up as a warning to the rest.

Later in the movie, when the Joads are on the road heading for California, Tom’s grandfather, Grandpa, dies of a stroke.  They have to bury him just off the road.  Tom writes a note, to be put with his grandfather, explaining what happened.  Tom is afraid that someone might dig him up and think he was murdered.  “Looks like a lot of times the government’s got more interest in a dead man than a live one,” he says.

The police become even more hostile later on, acting on behalf of the men that own large farms, arresting troublemakers who want to know in advance how much they will be paid to pick crops, breaking up strikes by providing armed escort for other workers to take their place.  And when it’s not the police, it’s private cops, like the Pinkertons, though they are not mentioned by name.  Toward the end of the movie, when Tom has to say goodbye to his mother, whom he refers to as “Ma” (Jane Darwell), he tells her that even if she never sees him again, he’ll be around in spirit, “whenever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there.”

Religion in this movie is minimized.  Early in the movie, after Tom gets off the truck, he heads for his parents’ farm, but runs into Casy, who says he used to be a preacher, but no more.  He says he lost “the call,” lost “the spirit.”  He does not say that he is an atheist, but that is implied.  No longer being religious, he also doubts all the morality that went with it:

So, maybe there ain’t no sin, and there ain’t no virtue.  It’s just what people does. Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice.  And that’s all any man’s got a right to say.

Later in the movie, after they bury Grandpa, Tom asks Casy to say a few words, even though he is no longer a preacher:

I’ll say ’em, make it short.  This here old man just lived a life and just died out of it.  I don’t know whether he was good or bad. It don’t matter much.  Heard a fella say a poem once. And he says, “All that lives is holy.”  Well, I wouldn’t pray just for an old man that’s dead, cause he’s all right.  If I was to pray, I’d pray for folks that’s alive and don’t know which way to turn.  Grandpa here, he ain’t got no more trouble like that. He’s got his job all cut out for him, so cover him up and let him get to it.

Except for the last sentence, an obligatory gesture about Grandpa having a “job” to do in some afterlife, whatever that would be, this is a secular prayer.

In movies, women are usually portrayed as being more religious than men, so it is hardly surprising that we hear Ma saying grace before a meal or saying “Thank God” when she sees Tom for the first time, but that is about it.  No one expresses any belief in a God that will help them in their troubles.

As is well known, Karl Marx was an atheist, famously saying that religion is the opiate of the masses, used by capitalists to keep the proletariat in their place, promising a reward in Heaven so that they need not fret about how things are for them here on Earth. The absence of religion in this movie fits with its communist message.

The extended Joad family, over ten of them, including Casy, manage to pile into a truck and become “Okies,” refugees from Oklahoma and surrounding states during the Dust Bowl who headed to California, looking for work.  They do so on the basis of a handbill saying that 800 workers are needed to pick crops. But when they stop at a camp, they find out what’s in store for them from a man who has been through it already, whose wife and two children starved to death, who says he’s going back where he came from to starve to death and get it all over with at once.  He explains about the handbills:

All right, this man wants 800 men. So, he prints up 5,000 of them handbills and maybe 20,000 people sees them.  And maybe two-three thousand starts moving west account of this handbill. Two-three thousand folks that’s crazy with worry heading out for 800 jobs! Does that make sense?

Yes, it makes sense.  It is an illustration of Marx’s concept of the reserve army of the unemployed. The capitalist likes it when there are a lot of unemployed people, especially when there aren’t any programs like unemployment compensation or food stamps provided by a socialist government. These people are desperate, will work for subsistence wages doing dangerous work for long hours. Those that have jobs are kept in line by this army, fearing that if they cause trouble, they will be fired and thrown into the ranks of the unemployed themselves.

Although I certainly was never in dire straits like the people in this movie, I have been through a version of it myself.  And what I learned is that if you are thinking of going into a line of work and wondering about the prospects, never ask the people who do the hiring.  They always say they need lots of workers in their industry, for which you can make good money. They want that reserve army of the unemployed to pick from. Instead, ask those who are employed in that industry, or better, those who used to be so employed. Then you’ll get the truth.

The implications of that reserve army of the unemployed are realized.  The Joads move from camp to camp, hassled by the police, confronted by citizens that don’t want any more Oakies, at odds with other workers when the Joads unwittingly become strikebreakers.  Casy is with those on strike.  He tries to explain to Tom the way things are, but Tom cannot get past what is good for him and his family, saying he can’t worry about others.  Casy says he’s going to have to learn things for himself.

While they are talking, some deputies show up, intent on beating up the strikers and running them off. One of them hits Casy with a pick handle, killing him.  Tom grabs the pick handle and hits the deputy that killed Casy, killing him in return.  Then Tom gets hit in the face.  A posse forms, looking to find a man with a bruise on his face, so they can lynch him.  Tom plans on leaving, but Ma begs him not to, saying that the family is breaking up:

There’s a whole lot I don’t understand.  But going away ain’t going to ease us.  There was a time we was on the land.  There was a boundary to us then.  Old folks died off and little fellas come.  We was always one thing.  We was the family.  Kind of whole and clear.  But now we ain’t clear no more.  They ain’t nothing that keeps us clear.  Al, he’s hankering and gibbeting to be off on his own.  Uncle John’s just dragging around.  Your pa’s lost his place. He ain’t the head no more. We’re cracking up, Tom. There ain’t no family now.  And Rosasharn [a contraction of “Rose of Sharon”], she’s gonna have her baby, but it won’t have no family.  [Rosasharn’s husband Connie has recently abandoned her.]  I been trying to keep her going, but… And Winfield. What’s he gonna be this way? Growing up wild, and Ruthie too.  Just like animals.  Got nothing to trust.  Don’t go, Tom.  Stay and help.  Help me.

Tom agrees to stay, but the Joads have to sneak out of the camp that night.

They just barely make it to another camp.  But this one is different.  There is a sign saying “Department of Agriculture,” indicating that it is sponsored by the Federal Government, under the auspices of the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, socialist programs intended to help people like the Joad family.  It is a clean place to live, with toilets and bathing facilities.  This is quite different from a previous camp.  At that place, when Rosasharn picked up what was left of a magazine when she and Ma entered the shack where they were to live, Ma told her to save the magazine because it might be useful later, implying the pages might serve as toilet paper.

At this nice camp, the residents elect their own cops and make their own laws.  Police from outside cannot come in without a warrant.  Only here do the laws work for people like the Joads.  As Tom passes a faucet, he sees there is water running out of it. There is a sign telling people to turn off the water when not using it.  Tom turns off the water. This is the only sign that Tom has had any respect for in this movie.

They find jobs at a farm paying decent wages.  However, the farmer warns them that some ruffians are going to try to start trouble at the dance being held at the camp, causing a riot, which will allow deputies to enter without a warrant and run off everybody. They plan on doing this because the government camp gives people ideas, showing them how things might be better, turning them into red agitators.

The residents in the camp manage to avoid trouble, but cops are still looking for Tom for killing a deputy, and he realizes he has to leave.  Ma wakes up as he is leaving, and he stops to talk to her. Previously, Tom had told Casy and the strikers that his family was all he could worry about.  As indicated above, Ma has been fretting about the family breaking up, and now she is worried that if something happens to Tom, she won’t know about it.  But now Tom thinks he understands what Casy was talking about, that there is a larger family, of the people:

Well, maybe it’s like Casy says.  Fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul.  The one big soul that belongs to everybody…. Then it don’t matter.  I’ll be all around in the dark.  I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready.  And when people are eating the stuff they raise, living in the houses they build, I’ll be there too.

And so, instead of the rugged individualism that capitalism is based on, where each man seeks after his own self-interest and that of his family, Tom is beginning to realize we should treat everybody as part of the family of mankind.

At the end of the movie, Ma seems to be in sympathy with what Tom was talking about:

Rich fellas come up, and they die, and their kids ain’t no good, and they die out.  But we keep coming.  We’re the people that live.  They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us.  We’ll go on forever, Pa, cause we’re the people.

In the novel, this idea of the larger family of mankind is physically illustrated in a vivid way.  Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn, and she is ill.  For a while, what’s left of the Joad family lives in a boxcar, but it has been raining so hard that it starts flooding, so they have to leave.  They reach a barn, where they find a boy and his father, who is starving to death.  Rose of Sharon is so wet and cold that Ma worries she’ll die if she doesn’t find a way to dry her off.  The boy brings her a comforter to cover her.  Rose of Sharon removes all her clothes and, under the comforter, is completely naked.

The boy tells how his father hasn’t eaten in six days and now can’t hold down solid food, saying he need soup or milk.  Ma and Rose of Sharon look into each other’s eyes and exchange a knowing look. Ma gets everyone besides Rose of Sharon and the old man to go into the tool shed to give them privacy:

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

It is understandable that this could not be shown in a movie made in 1940.  What is less understandable is that John Ford was not blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  I suppose that is because, unlike the Hollywood Ten, he did not refuse to testify.  Apparently, it was all right to make a movie promoting communism, just as long as you didn’t snub the Committee.

Something About Amelia (1984)

Countervailing Taboos

Having sex with children is taboo.  But while people recognize the importance of protecting children from child molesters, their will to do so is often undermined by another taboo, one that regards the sanctity of the family as inviolable.  This leads to a paradox.  On the one hand, if child molestation occurs within a family, then it is also incest, which makes it worse; on the other hand, it is something people don’t like to think about, which makes them more likely to “forgive” it, not because it deserves to be forgiven, but as a way of putting it out of their thoughts.  To put it differently, the greater the punishment for incestuous child molestation, however much it is actually deserved, the more people are forced to accept that there can be evil within a family, which should therefore be broken up.

The form of child molestation that people are most comfortable with is that which involves a stranger, sometimes referred to as stranger danger:  comfortable in the sense that they are willing to warn their children to be distrustful of strangers that approach them; comfortable in the sense that people are willing to condemn it in the harshest terms and mete out severe punishment for the perpetrator.  And yet, child molestation at the hands of a stranger is relatively rare.  A child is more likely to molested by a family member, but that is something a lot of people don’t like to think about, and they are far less likely to warn children about that danger.

Many states now have restrictions on abortion that do not allow exceptions for rape or incest.  I have recently heard commentators on television objecting to these laws, using a hypothetical example in which a girl is impregnated by her uncle.  While sex between an uncle and a niece would indeed be incest, it is obvious that the example is intended to avoid the more likely case of a father or a brother being the guilty offender.  As a rule, an uncle will not have nearly as much access to a girl as her father or brother.  But as the uncle is not part of the immediate family, typically not living in the same house as the girl, the more dreadful idea of the child being impregnated by a close family member living under the same roof is avoided.

When it is a case of a father having sex with his daughter, it is easier to accept if the man is a stepfather rather than her biological father.  Though it would still be incest in a legal sense, yet we do not regard it as bad as consanguineous incest.  But it is still worse than if the girl is molested by someone who is outside the family.  Nevertheless, the willingness to punish the outsider is greater than for the stepfather.

In other words, our dread of incestuous child molestation increases as we move along the following categories:  outsider < stepfather < father.  That is, there is no incest with the outsider, only legal incest for the stepfather, and biological incest for the father.  So, in one sense, the situation is worse as we move from left to right.  And yet, our willingness to contemplate the possibility of child molestation increases in the opposite direction:  father < stepfather < outsider.  That is, it is easier for people to think about a man molesting his stepdaughter than his biological daughter, and easiest of all to think about a man molesting a girl to whom he is unrelated.  And this is reflected in our increasing willingness to punish the offender as we move from left to right.

An example of this is the movie Lolita (1962).  Humbert Humbert (James Mason) has sex with his stepdaughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), who is fourteen.  But Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) is the man Lolita is in love with, eventually leaving Humbert to be with Quilty permanently.  When things do not work out between them, however, she leaves Quilty, meets a nice guy, and marries him.

To get revenge, Humbert tracks down Quilty and shoots him to death.  Humbert is arrested and dies in prison of coronary thrombosis while awaiting his trial for murder. In other words, he dies of a natural cause, one that might have happened anyway, even if he had never seen Lolita.  Though Humbert’s crime of child molestation is worse than that of Quilty, owing to the fact that it also involved incest, yet his punishment is much less than that of Quilty, who was completely unrelated to her. Furthermore, while there is actually a scene where Quilty is shot to death, we only read about the death of Humbert.  Words having less force than images, what little punishment Humbert gets for his sin is diminished in its effect on the audience by merely being described.

Something About Amelia (1984)

Something About Amelia, a television movie that aired in 1984, takes this principle to the next level. In this movie, a man has sex with a child that is his own biological daughter.  And yet, owing to the taboo of violating the family, he is not punished for his crime.  At most, he is inconvenienced.  In this movie, the Bennett family consists of married couple Steven (Ted Danson) and Gail (Glenn Close), and their two daughters, Amelia and Beth, ages thirteen and ten respectively.  In the first scene of the movie, Steven becomes upset when he finds out from Gail that Amelia is going to a dance with a boy named Robert.  You can feel the anger seething through him, saying that she is only thirteen, too young to be going on dates. Later, when talking to Amelia, Steven can just barely contain his irritation about her going out on a date. As we can already guess, he is possessively jealous of her.

When talking to Steven, Gail said she was glad that Amelia was finally taking an interest in boys.  At the dance, while other couples are dancing cheek to cheek, Amelia pushes Robert back when he tries to do the same.  It is clear from Gail’s remark and from Amelia’s refusal to dance close that she is sexually disturbed, so much so that she breaks away from Robert and leaves the dance floor.

After the dance, Amelia gets more pressure from her father about not going out with Robert again. Later, when Steven and Gail are alone in their bedroom, Gail makes reference to the fact that they haven’t had sex in a month.

The next day, Steven becomes angry that Amelia is not going to watch the football game with him because she is going to see a friend of hers.  As Amelia is leaving, she sees Steven with his arm around Beth, watching the game on the couch.  Later, in an argument with her mother about doing the ironing, Amelia says that not only is Beth old enough to do her own ironing, but also that ironing isn’t the only thing Beth is old enough for.  Gail and Beth don’t know what she means, but Amelia is thinking that Steven will soon be having sex with Beth too.

Mrs. Hall, the school guidance counselor, who noticed Amelia’s behavior at the dance, calls her into her office.  She notes that Amelia used to be on the honor roll, but lately her grades have been falling, and she thinks it has something to do with the fact that Amelia is obviously depressed.  After much coaxing, Amelia admits that her father has been “messing around” with her.  Mrs. Hall tells Gail what has been going on, but Gail doesn’t believe her, becoming furious with Amelia instead.

The police take Amelia away, and she ends up at the Hollowell Center, “a place for kids with trouble.” When Steven finds out what happened, he goes to the police station, where a detective tells him that if he were some guy that lived down the street, he’d be in jail already.  But since Steven is Amelia’s father, they book him on suspicion of child abuse and release him on his own recognizance.  This is the first indication we have in this movie that a father that molests his daughter will get better treatment and more consideration than a man who has had sex with a girl to whom he is unrelated. No explanation is offered as to why this is the case, but it is in accordance with the taboo against messing around with the sanctity of the family.

Through an interview with a social worker, Amelia says, in so many words, that her father began touching her when she was eleven, and he had sex with her shortly after that.  Steven is forced to move out and get an apartment, allowing Amelia to return home.  When Beth finds out what is going on, she calls Amelia a liar.  But once the facts have become undeniable, Gail becomes angry that Amelia let her father have sex with her, implying that it’s all her fault, and Beth says Amelia shouldn’t have told anyone about it.

Gail ends up going to see Dr. Farley, a family-guidance counselor.  He explains to her that Steven needs sympathy and understanding:

Because, like the other men who did what he did, he probably had an enormous need that he was unable to fulfill in any other way….  You’re going to find this almost impossible to believe, very difficult to understand.  But incest has relatively little to do with sex.  What these men yearn for, most of them, is comfort and warmth. Security, intimacy, love.

Remember that hypothetical guy down the street, who the detective said would already be in jail if he had been the one having sex with Amelia?  Try to imagine Dr. Farley saying something similar about him, that he simply yearned for “comfort and warmth,” for “security, intimacy, love.”

It would be unthinkable to characterize that guy’s molestation of an eleven-year-old girl in such endearing terms.  So, what’s the difference?  Had it been that guy down the street, it would not have been incest.  No sympathy and understanding would be vouchsafed that perpetrator, someone completely outside Amelia’s family.  Instead, he would be on his way to prison, and after serving his sentence, he would have to register as a sex offender.  But since it was incest between a father and his daughter, which is actually much worse, the attitude of this movie is that it warrants compassion and empathy.

Farley also says that men like Steven “can’t control their impulses.”  This is also intended to make Gail (and us) sympathetic, since we should not blame a man for what he does, if he is unable to control his impulses. But that undermines the whole point of providing Steven with counseling, with the ultimate goal of bringing the family back together.  If Steven can’t control his impulses, counseling will not change that, and there is no way he should be allowed to live in the same house with Amelia and Beth. But Dr. Farley is blind to this contradiction.

Gail picks up on the part about “an enormous need that he was unable to fulfill in any other way,” from which she infers that Dr. Farley is saying it is her fault.  But instead of simply saying, “Oh, no, you’re not to blame,” Farley says, “Blame is not what we’re about here,” which means he is implying that it is her fault.

Later, in a conversation Gail has with Steven, she says she doesn’t understand why he did it.  It’s easy to see why she is perplexed.  There is no behavior so bizarre that it cannot be explained to everyone’s satisfaction once sex is known to be the motive.  But now that she has accepted Farley’s assertion that incest is not about sex, what Steven did has become a mystery.  Farley has apparently told Steven too that it wasn’t about sex, and now he doesn’t know why he did it either.

Gail decides not to divorce Steven, admitting that she would be afraid to be alone.  She says:

I remember when Jack and Elaine had been divorced for, you know, six months.  And Elaine said, “It was a bad marriage, but anything’s better than this.”

In other words, the taboo against violating the sanctity of the family implies that divorce is unacceptable, and any woman who does divorce her child-molesting husband will be miserable.

Everyone agrees to go in for counseling, and we are left with the impression that one day they will all be one big happy family again.  This is supposed to be a nice, uplifting movie, assuring us that fathers that molest their daughters don’t have to go to prison. Instead, they can be rehabilitated by talking it out and having some sensitivity therapy. Those who produced this movie clearly felt that while incestuous child molestation is unfortunate, there is no need to let something like that break up a family.

In the final scene, we see Amelia remembering when she was little, and how Steven held her and sang a lullaby to her.  It makes her smile to think how much he loved her.  After all, a girl needs her father.

Child-Molester Movies (Pre-1968)

Of all the things prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code, child molestation was probably the most taboo subject of all, so taboo that no mention is even made of it in the written guidelines and rules issued by the Hays Office, possibly because neither Will Hays nor Joseph Breen ever imagined it as something that had to be explicitly proscribed.  I suppose it would fall under the rubric of impure love, but that was mostly intended to cover such things as adultery, homosexuality, and miscegenation.  And besides, I’m not sure they would have wanted to use the word “love” in forbidding it, even in the impure sense.

Frankenstein (1931)

As a result, not even in the Pre-Code period, ending in 1934, were there any American movies that explicitly touched on this subject, at least not intentionally.  In Frankenstein (1931), there is a scene where the monster (Boris Karloff) comes across Maria, a little girl playing with flowers by a lake.  She invites him to play with her, and they both start throwing flowers in the lake, watching them float. When the monster has no more flowers, he picks Maria up and throws her in the lake.  But instead of floating, she drowns.

Even today, there are not many movies in which a prepubescent child is murdered. Fewer still actually show the murder taking place.  Usually, it is just implied or described.  So, it is understandable that allowing the audience to see Maria being killed was regarded as unacceptable by the censors in the 1930s, the result being that it was edited out shortly after the initial release of this movie, cutting the scene at the point where the monster is seen reaching for Maria.  In this edited version, we don’t realize that she drowned.  The next time we see her, she is dead, being carried by her father, who says she was murdered.

As a result, people watching this version of the movie believed Maria had been sexually molested. After all, they were used to scenes cutting away whenever sexual activity of some sort was about to take place. Ironically, censorship had allowed the audience to imagine something much worse than what had originally been filmed.  It hardly needs mentioning that while actually showing a prepubescent child being murdered is rare, showing a child of such a young age being sexually molested would be unthinkable. Because the audience would never expect to see something like that, they would have thought it perfectly reasonable to cut the scene at the moment the monster reaches for Maria, if her sexual molestation was supposed to have taken place right after that. Once the edited footage had been restored, people realized that the monster meant Maria no harm, but simply thought she would float on the water like the flowers.

M (1931)

The first movie that was actually about a child molester, M (1931), was not produced in the United States, but in Germany.  Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a man that molests children and then murders them.  His victims are prepubescent, which makes the crime against them especially egregious.

When the movie begins, a bunch of children are singing a counting-out rhyme like “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” only this one is about a man in black that will use a meat cleaver to make mincemeat out of his next child victim.  We find out later that he has already killed eight children, mostly girls. There is reference to a boy, but the boy was with his sister, and so it may be only the sister that Beckert wanted, the boy being killed to get him out of the way.  The mother of one of the children tells them to quit singing that horrible song.  Another woman says not to worry.  As long as they can hear the children singing, she says, they know they are all right.  A dismissive attitude like that is bound to be punished, and it is.  Her daughter is approached by Beckert while she is bouncing a ball. He buys her a balloon from a blindman, so we figure there is no chance of his being identified by him later.  As time passes, the woman, now becoming concerned, calls for her daughter, but she can’t find her.  We see the ball rolling away in a grassy area away from the city streets of Berlin, and we see the balloon caught in the wires of a telephone pole.

There is no question about the sexual nature of the crimes.  When Beckert sees a girl’s reflection in a store window, a frisson of sexual desire ripples through him.  Later, a man refers elliptically to the state of the children when they are found.  After Beckert sends an anonymous letter to a newspaper, threatening more such crimes in the future, a handwriting expert discerns “the strongly pathological sexuality of this sex offender.”

Ordinary life in Berlin is disrupted.  Mobs accuse and attack innocent men, and the police become brutal and relentless in their investigation.  The police want to see everyone’s “papers,” by which they mean an identification booklet.  They do this because, as we all know, child killers don’t have papers. One man’s papers are in order, but the inspector notices that in the pocket of the man’s fur coat is a newspaper featuring a story about a furrier who was robbed.  In a manner that would astound even Sherlock Holmes, the inspector deduces that this man must be the one who committed the robbery, and so he has him arrested.  It’s just lucky for that man that the newspaper didn’t feature a story about the child murderer.

But the inspector is not limited to looking for men who don’t have their papers, or who carry incriminating newspapers around in their coat pockets.  He can tell that the child killer wrote his letter to the newspaper with a red pencil on an old wooden table.  How exactly this last part was determined escapes me.  Was there some wood residue on the back of the letter?  Furthermore, the inspector concludes that the old wooden table would have indentations left on it corresponding to the inscriptions on the letter, so if they examine the table of a suspect, they can look for those indentations.

Now, I know we’ve all seen movies where someone writes something on a notepad, and traces of that note are left behind on the page below, but I have never heard of anyone doing this with a wooden table.  Not only would the wood have to be soft enough to be indented, but the person writing the letter would have had to press down hard enough on the paper to leave behind indentations, and do so without tearing the paper or breaking the lead of the pencil.  Furthermore, since this is an old table, given all the times someone would have written something on a piece of paper while sitting at that table, by this time the table must look like some kind of indecipherable palimpsest.

Always endeavoring to keep an open mind, I tried writing something with a pencil on a thin piece of paper on anything I could find made of soft wood.  There was no wood residue on the back of the paper when I was finished, and no trace of what was written on the wood.  Then I tried writing on sheetrock, figuring that would be softer.  Same result.  Finally, I tried writing on that piece of paper on a cardboard box, pressing down with the pencil as hard as I could without breaking the lead. There was no residue on the back of the paper, and no indentations in the cardboard.  Is there something about old wooden tables made in Germany that I just don’t understand?

Anyway, the inspector has his detectives go around searching the homes of men who have some kind of police record to see if any of them have an old wooden table with traces of the inscriptions of the letter left behind on the table itself, as well as any indication that there has been a red pencil in that room.

While the police are searching for wooden tables and red pencils in people’s homes, the leaders of organized crime in Berlin, seeing that the police crackdown is bad for business, decide to take matters into their own hands and capture the child killer themselves.  Their plan is to have beggars follow children around to see if they get molested.  No one will think this is suspicious because they are just beggars.

When Beckert buys a balloon for another little girl, the blindman hears Beckert whistling the same tune he heard just before the other girl was killed.  He passes the information on to a beggar, who then follows Beckert and the girl.  After writing a big “M” on the palm of his hand in chalk, he hits Beckert on the back of his coat so he can be identified later.

Meanwhile, the police eventually get around to checking out Beckert’s room, where they find evidence that he wrote his letter to the newspaper, not on an old wooden table, but on the wooden windowsill, where some of the inscriptions in the letter match the indentations left behind on that windowsill.  And yes, I tried that on my windowsill, but with no results.  In any event, there are even pieces of the red pencil Beckert used to write that letter left behind as well, probably because he was pressing down on the paper so hard that he broke the lead.

But the criminals capture Beckert first and have a trial of sorts, during which he tells everyone that he is compulsively driven to do what he does.  The prosecutor argues according to utilitarian justice, saying that anyone who kills under a compulsion should be executed to make sure he never does it again.  Beckert’s defense counsel, on the other hand, argues according to retributive justice, saying that since Beckert acts under a compulsion, he is not morally responsible for his crimes and does not deserve death, but should simply be imprisoned or institutionalized.  The prosecutor replies that if they consent to that, Beckert is likely to be pardoned by a politician or “cured” by a doctor, releasing him upon the public, allowing him to kill children once again.  The jury of criminals agrees with the prosecutor, but before they can do anything to Beckert, the police show up and take him away.

M (1951)

In the American remake of M in 1951, the movie goes out of its way to make it clear that the children are not sexually molested, only murdered.  While a crowd watches the chief of police on television warning parents about the child killer, someone in the crowd asks, “What’s he mean the children were neither violated nor outraged?”  Someone else in the crowd responds, “What’s the difference? He killed them, didn’t he?”

Well, it may not make any difference to the people in the crowd, but if the child is molested before being murdered, that makes the crime even more horrible.  More importantly, however, it must have made a difference to the Production Code Administration.  It was not sufficient merely to omit all reference to sexual molestation. It had to be denied.  At the same time, all of the killer’s victims are little girls, which would seem to indicate a sexual preference, although that is explained away later.  Martin Harrow (David Wayne) is the killer in this remake.  He keeps the shoes of his victims, which suggests a fetish.

In one scene, a man and wife are informed that their child has been a victim.  As they start to leave, the woman turns around in desperation and says that maybe it is a mistake, that the child is someone else’s. We can only conclude from this that there was no body in the morgue for them to identify, that the police were only going by the doll and the girl’s dress, which are on the desk of the chief of police.  He holds up the dress for her to look at, which she recognizes as belonging to her daughter.  This can mean only one thing:  Harrow took off the girl’s clothes, and her naked body has yet to be found.  Still, we are supposed to believe that sex is not the motive for these murders. Censorship can be confusing.

It goes without saying that the original was much better, and one way in which it was better is that Beckert, the child killer, simply had an evil impulse that he could not resist and did not understand. In the remake, owing to the popularity of psychoanalysis at the time, we are given an explanation for the killer’s behavior as resulting from something that happened when he was a child.  As a harbinger of that explanation, we see Harrow strangling a clay model of a child, with a picture of his elderly mother sitting right beside him, almost as if she were watching him do it and giving her approval.  At the end, when Harrow is surrounded by the underworld figures that captured him, he gives a garbled explanation about how his father mistreated his mother, and how she raised him to believe that all men are evil.  As a result, he reasons that since he is a man, then he is evil and deserves punishment.  So, he has to kill little girls, partly to keep them from growing up and being mistreated by evil men, and partly so he will get caught and get the punishment he deserves.  In the original version, the motive for the murders of the children was sex, a simple, straightforward explanation.  But in order for sex not to be the motive in this remake, we are given this ridiculous psychobabble instead.

Harrow offers no explanation as to why he took the shoes of his victims.  And that is because the real explanation does not lie within the story itself, but is external to it. The producers of this version didn’t believe that business about indentations from a letter being left on a windowsill any more than I did, so they had the police find the shoes of Harrow’s victims in his apartment instead.

Child Bride (1938)

When a movie explicitly about child molestation was finally made in America, it kept the subject within three boundaries:  first, the girl has gone through puberty; second, the man and the girl are married; and third, the molestation is prevented when the man is killed before he has sex with her. That movie is Child Bride (1938), and the thrust of this movie is that the acceptance of child marriages in some backwoods communities in the United States is deplorable.  Nevertheless, in a rather perverse sort of way, having the girl be married to the man who wants to have sex with her made it more acceptable than if they were not married.  In addition to these three boundaries, the movie was able to go further on this subject than was usual at the time because it was an exploitation film, independently produced outside the studio system.

The girl is Jennie, played by Shirley Mills, who was twelve years old.  As she starts taking off her clothes near a lake, she tells her boyfriend Freddie that the teacher says they can’t go swimming naked with each other anymore, on account of their age, an indication that the two of them have gone through puberty.  As she says all this, she gets completely naked and then runs toward the lake, diving in, leaving Freddie bewildered.  Looking down from the vantage point of a cliff, a man named Jake leers at the naked girl swimming below.  Jake kills Jennie’s father and then makes her mother think she did it, blackmailing her into letting him marry Jennie.  Jennie goes along with it to keep her mother from being convicted of murder.

Jake starts courting Jennie, bringing her a box with a present in it.  I thought it would be flowers, but it was a doll.  But then, I guess that that is the way you would court a child. The marriage takes place, but Jake is killed by one of his enemies before the marriage is consummated.  Freddie and Jennie agree to get married when they grow up.

As with most exploitation films, this one tries to justify its existence by claiming to serve an educational purpose.  But mixing up the institution of child marriage with murder and blackmail, and then giving us a happy ending, was for our entertainment. A realistic depiction of this practice would be depressing.  A lot of people have children, not because they want them, but simply because they have sex.  Marrying a girl off at a young age is a way get rid of her, in some cases for a price, turning her over to some man who wants to have sex with her, resulting in children they don’t want either.

None Shall Escape (1944)

Shirley Mills went on to play a schoolgirl named Anna in None Shall Escape (1944). Anna’s age is never specified.  Mills was seventeen at the time, but given her looks, she could easily play a character of younger age.  Anna commits suicide after some kind of sexual incident with her school teacher.  The only word in the movie used to characterize the incident is “molested,” although she may have been forcibly raped as well.

Lolita (1962)

In the novel Lolita, the title character is a girl only twelve years old when Humbert Humbert falls in love with her.  He becomes her stepfather as a means to having sex with her.  When it was made into a movie in 1962, with Humbert being played by James Mason, Lolita’s age was said to be fourteen, and she was played by Sue Lyon, who was fifteen at the time.  Adding a few years to the character and the actress portraying her was obviously intended to make her seem less of a child and more of a woman.

The Naked Kiss (1964)

So far, of the movies made in America featuring the possible or actual molestation of a young girl, that girl has already gone through puberty.  The first movie made in America in which a prepubescent girl is molested is The Naked Kiss (1964).  Constance Towers plays Kelly, a prostitute. Shortly after she moves to Grantville, she decides to give up that way of life.  She learns from her landlady that J.L. Grant, society’s most eligible bachelor, rich and good-looking, is the great-great-grandson of the man that founded the town.  He is cosmopolitan and sophisticated, but no playboy, Kelly is told:

His very name is a synonym for charity.  He’s got the biggest heart in the world. Why, he built our hospital.  He built the orthopedic medical center and sponsors it all by himself. And it’s open to all handicapped children with no racial or religious barriers.

Kelly loves children, so she decides to go to work at that hospital, and we see that, indeed, there are children of different ethnicities, remarkable since this takes place at a time when racial and religious barriers still existed in many places.  Except for the babies, the children are wearing leg braces, supporting themselves with crutches. Children in general are vulnerable, but these children are especially so.

Eventually, Grant and Kelly meet and fall in love.  The first time he kisses her, she pushes him away, giving him a strange, hard look.  But then she pulls him back to her. She tells him of her past, and he immediately asks her to marry him.  She is overwhelmed by his willingness to overlook what she used to be.  “Why should Grant want to marry a woman like me?” she asks herself.  After some hesitation, she decides to accept his offer.

Shortly after that, in preparation for the Annual Picnic in Grantville, Kelly has the children rehearse singing “Little Child,” a sweet duet between parent and child.  In this case, the children sing the child’s part, with Kelly singing the part of the mother, who says she found happiness when “Heaven blessed me with you.” During the rehearsal, Grant looks on while making a tape recording of their singing, pleased with the affection that Kelly shows these children.

The next day, Kelly and her landlady finish putting her wedding dress together.  She decides to show it to Grant.  Her landlady says that would be bad luck.  And that is bad news, because such superstitions always portend disaster in a movie.  But Kelly says she wants to surprise Grant, something that is equally ominous in a movie.  She has the key to Grant’s house, and as she opens the front door, she can hear the recording of “Little Child” playing.  When she walks into the living room, she sees Grant fondling a seven-year-old girl, who gets up and skips out of the house.

Now Kelly finds out why Grant wanted to marry her.  He says they are both abnormal, and she has been conditioned to people like him and the sickness he has.  As he tells her how their marriage will be a paradise, she picks up the handset of the telephone and hits him on the head, killing him.  Then she sits in the darkness as the song finishes playing on the tape recorder. Later, we find out why she was repulsed by Grant the first time he kissed her.  She says it was a naked kiss, the kiss of a pervert.

She is accused of murder, and not many believe her story.  But finally, she sees the girl that was being molested, who verifies her story, presumably making what Kelly did justifiable homicide.  She leaves town, and we gather she will go back to work as a prostitute.

Repulsion (1965)

In 1965, Roman Polanski directed and helped write the screenplay for Repulsion.  In that movie, Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a woman with some kind of psychological problem concerning sex. She lives with her sister, whose sexual relations with her lover disturb Carol. Carol is very much upset that her sister is going away on a two-week vacation. During that vacation, Carol descends into madness.

A man who has been harassing her and stalking her breaks into her apartment because he just had to see her, not understanding why she is being so stubborn. After all, he is in love with her, so what else is there to think about?  She bludgeons him.

Then the landlord stops by to get the rent and decides to rape her as long as he is there. She slices him up with a straight razor. Then her sister returns to find the corpses and a catatonic Carol.

In the very last scene, we see a photograph, previously alluded to from a distance, of her family taken years ago. In it, we see everyone smiling and looking at the camera, except for a preadolescent Carol, who is looking with dread at a man to her left, presumably her father. In real life, such a picture would mean nothing, but its emphasis in the movie after what we have seen tells us that she was molested as a child, which further explains why she was so upset that her sister was going away. As a child, she was safe from her father as long as her sister was around.

The fact that Roman Polanski, having made a movie illustrating the terrible consequences of child molestation, would then go on to molest a child himself is repulsive indeed.


After the abandonment of the Production Code in 1968, things loosened up considerably.  In The Last of Sheila (1973), for example, James Mason, again playing the role of a child molester, is a likeable character who becomes the hero when he solves a murder.

And then there is the television movie, Something About Amelia, which aired in 1984, and which is in a class by itself.  But a review of that movie is for another day.

Reflections of a Moneylender

By nature, I am a moneylender.  Of course, in order to lend money, one first has to save it.  That I started to do when I was five years old.  Whenever my father came home at the end of the day, he would give me whatever pennies he had in his pocket.  After a year, I had accumulated about $2.00. This was 1952, so adjusted for inflation, that was the equivalent of just over $22.00 today, no small piece of change for a six-year-old boy.  Did I use the money to buy candy or a toy?  No.  I had too much fun counting my money.  But it wasn’t until I grew up, got a job, and moved into my own apartment that I was able to lend money at interest. That’s when I really enjoyed counting my money.

I have read that the total amount of global debt, which includes the debt of governments, businesses, and households, is around $300 trillion.  I have also read that if we divide this figure by the total number of people in the world, around 8 billion, this means that the average person in the world owes $37,500.  To many, that is an alarming figure.  But then, since for every dollar that was borrowed, there was a dollar that was lent, this means that the average person is owed $37,500.  So, I guess it all just balances out.

However, while it is true that the number of dollars borrowed must always be exactly equal to the number of dollars that are lent, the number of people that borrow money vastly exceeds the number of those that do the lending.  And while the debtor is most grateful for a loan upon receiving it, he soon comes to resent the man who lent him that money, as if he did him harm.  As Polonius advises his son in Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

Never having borrowed money, I wouldn’t know about dulling the “edge of husbandry,” but I certainly agree with the first part. Lending to friends and family is a bad idea.  In the words of Philip Gibbs, “It is better to give than to lend, and it costs about the same.” Much better is to lend to those with whom you have only a business relationship.

But even here, one can run into trouble.  In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock did not make the mistake of lending to family or friends, but he still got cheated out of what he had coming to him. Portia wins her case against Shylock with a most specious argument for the simple reason that those in the courtroom to whom she addressed her words were probably debtors themselves and were looking for any excuse to rule against Shylock.  And since the same might be said of those in the audience watching this play, they naturally approved of her reasoning as well.  The lesson a moneylender should take from this is that it is not enough to lend to those with whom you have only a business relationship.  One must do so anonymously.

Fortunately, this is easy to do in the modern age.  Inasmuch as I lend by way of money market funds, I have no idea who it is that is benefitting from my loan, and they have no idea who it is that lent them the money.  The loan is not only free from risk, but also impervious to the hostility of those who are in my debt, and secure from that blathering about how the “quality of mercy is not strained.”

Until recently, however, things were bleak.  Interest rates were practically zero for years.  But starting about a year ago, things have been picking up, and I now have almost as much fun counting the dollars I receive each month in interest as I did counting the pennies I had when I was a child. And I smile every time I hear that Jerome Powell, Federal Reserve Chairman, is pondering not whether he will continue to raise interest rates, but by how much.

Many economist and financial experts, however, are chagrined.  They worry that these increases in the interest rate will plunge the economy into a recession.  And this is seconded by politicians, who always want interest rates to be kept low, knowing that low interest rates stimulate the economy and prop up the stock market.

As I listen to their concerns, I think back to 1995.  I was watching CNBC one day, and several experts were discussing the economy, which was doing great, and the stock market, which was still going up. One of them commented on the fact that short term interest rates, such as that paid by money market funds, was around 6%, while inflation was running around 3%.  She said that a real return of 3% (the nominal rate minus the rate of inflation) was the sweet spot, the perfect level of interest rates for the economy.  The other two she was talking to agreed. And indeed, for the next several years, the economy continued to prosper, the bull market continued its run, and we ended the decade with balanced budgets.  According to the Congressional Budge Office, at the rate we were going, we’d have the entire national debt paid off in ten years. As a moneylender, I was pleased. What was there not to like?

Well, George W. Bush didn’t like it.  While campaigning to become president in 2000, he declared, “If we’re running balanced budgets, that just goes to show that the American people need a tax cut.” He was elected. He cut taxes.  And that was the last time anyone saw a balanced budget or ever will again.

In any event, if we had a real return of 3% today, that sweet spot they were talking about on CNBC, then given a 6% inflation rate, short term interest rates would be 9%. Instead, with short term rates being about 4.5%, the real return is still negative, or -1.5% to be exact.  And so, like Shylock, I’m being cheated.  I don’t want a pound of flesh.  I just want that 3% real return.

Will I ever get that again?  Maybe.  Politicians and other government officials would never raise interest rates at all were it not for inflation.  But there’s the rub.  With a recession, a lot of people lose their jobs, but most people remain employed.  When inflation heats up, however, everyone is affected. Every week, people are reminded when they buy groceries and fill up with gas that the cost of necessities keeps going up. They become furious, and when election day arrives, they avenge themselves on any politician who happens to be in office.  That’s when politicians give their silent consent to higher interest rates.

And so, I’m hopeful that things will improve.  After all, in 1981, when inflation was running around 10%, I was getting a 17% return in a money market fund. Those were the days!

Caged (1950)

Caged (1950) is a movie about women in prison.  When it opens, we see new arrivals getting off a bus.  One of them is played by Eleanor Parker, the protagonist, innocent of the crime for which she was convicted.  After many harrowing and frustrating experiences, and unable to get herself paroled legitimately, she receives a parole by agreeing to become part of a shoplifting ring run by an inmate with political connections, who is herself serving just a short stretch.  It is clear from a remark made by an old inmate, as well as the prison superintendent, played by Agnes Moorehead, that Parker will soon be back.

One of the repeat offenders, who arrives when Parker does, sees another prisoner she knows from before, scrubbing the floor.  The first woman sticks out her hand, saying, “Give me some skin!”  The second woman shakes hands with her, and then sticks her hand into a bucket of water and lye, pulls it out, and wipes it off.  The first woman reassures her, “No guy’s given me a tumble in months.” There is only one way to interpret that scene.  The first woman is a prostitute, and the second is afraid of contracting syphilis.

We expect to see Parker placed in a cell, but she is brought to a room full of cots instead.  She asks if she can write her mother a letter, but the guard, played by Jane Darwell, says, “No, not while you’re in isolation. You gotta stay here until your blood test comes back, so for two weeks, there’ll be no mail, no visitors, no nothing.”  There is a similar scene in Women’s Prison (1955), where new arrivals Phyllis Thaxter and Jan Sterling are put in quarantine for two weeks.

The reference to a blood test in Caged, along with a period of isolation, reinforces what we gleaned from the previous scene, that new arrivals are suspected of having syphilis. When I applied for admission to the University of Houston in 1964, I had to take a serology test.  When I asked what that was for, I was told that it was to make sure I didn’t have syphilis.  When I joined a fraternity a few months later, the other pledges and I were given a booklet, telling us what was to be expected of us. Under no circumstances, it said, were we to associate with anyone that had syphilis.  I thought that was strange.  How was I to know if someone had syphilis?  After all, if you could tell just by looking, there would have been no need for me to have a blood test in order to be admitted to the university. I finally concluded that this requirement that we not associate with people that had syphilis was a circumlocution for telling us not to have sex with prostitutes. In other words, for most people in those days, the association between prostitutes and syphilis was so strong that the mention of either one would naturally bring the other to mind as well.

Of course, my doctor might have checked for signs of exposure to other pathogens in my blood.  But going by what I was told was the reason for the serology test and what the pledge pamphlet cautioned us against, where it was syphilis and syphilis alone that was specified, it is clear that this disease was of central concern in those days.

In the scene described above, where a new arrival attempts to assure the inmate scrubbing the floor that she hasn’t been with a man in a long time, the prostitute is referring to the possibility of having gotten syphilis from a man.  That is unusual.  We figure she would have gotten it from a man, of course, but for most movies, once the disease had been traced back to a prostitute, that was the end of the inquiry.

In Dead End (1937), Claire Trevor lets her old boyfriend, Humphrey Bogart, know that they can’t be lovers again because she is “sick,” as a result of her being a prostitute.  They had been talking in the shadows, but now she steps into the light and tells him to look at her.  As he does, he pulls back with a look on his face of revulsion.  Maybe the idea is that you can tell by looking if someone has syphilis, but she looked just fine to me.  In any event, we know she must have contracted the disease from a man, but we don’t wonder who he was, and the absence of an explanation as to who gave it to her is not experienced by us as an omission.  On the other hand, if she had said something like, “I got it from that brother of yours,” that would have shocked us.

In Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullets (1940), Edward G. Robinson plays the title character.  At the beginning of the movie, we see him treating a young man who has contracted syphilis. The young man comes across as naïve and innocent, a lad who had a moral lapse one night and had sex with a prostitute. He says he is in love with a girl and wants to marry her, but Robinson says that’s out of the question. So, clearly Robinson does not want the disease to spread.  And yet, he does not ask the young man who the woman was that he had sex with, as a first step in trying to keep her from giving syphilis to other men.  His lack of interest in finding out who the woman was betrays an attitude on his part that there will always be prostitutes with syphilis.  It’s just a fact of life.  The best he can hope for is to find a cure for patients like the young man in this scene. Furthermore, he never considers the possibility that the woman in question may be as naïve and innocent as the young man in his office, a woman who needs treatment just as much as the man does.  The fact that she has syphilis automatically means she’s a whore, not worth worrying about.

It is curious, however, that in all the movies I have seen about men in prison or on a chain gang, none have corresponding scenes to the ones in Caged.  I have never seen a man disinfect his hand after shaking hands with another inmate, nor have I seen new arrivals put in isolation until their blood tests come back. Prior to the elimination of the Production Code in 1968, in movies made in America, it was assumed that the men in prison did not have syphilis.  Logically, this makes no sense. Even if we start with the idea that prostitutes are the ultimate source for syphilis, prostitutes have sex with men, of course, and the kind of men that end up in prison are probably just the kind that would have sex with those prostitutes.  It would only be reasonable to assume, therefore, that just as many men have syphilis as women.

And that assumption would probably be correct were it not for homosexuality.  I was not able to find any statistics on the prevalence of syphilis in men as opposed to women in years past, but at the present time, men are many more times likely to have syphilis than women, owing to the rate at which this disease spreads among homosexuals.  But during the pre-1968 period, in movies made in America, there was never any hint of homosexuality in movies about men in prison.  The men were always assumed to be as straight as they were healthy.

But while none of the men in prison were imagined to be homosexuals, that was the first thing people thought of regarding women in prison.  When Bette Davis was offered a part in Caged, she turned it down, saying she wasn’t interested in making a “dyke movie.”  She automatically assumed that the movie would be about lesbians. There are no corresponding stories about male actors turning down roles in movies about men in prison.  When Wallace Beery was offered a role in The Big House (1930), for instance, he did not turn it down, saying that he was not interested in making a “faggot movie.”

There is a theory in film criticism centering around the concept of the male gaze.  The basic idea is that most movies cater to the heterosexual male.  There have always been women’s weepies, of course, movies like Stella Dallas (1937), intended for a female audience, but these were the exception.  Most movies were made with the idea of pleasing the heterosexual male, as evidenced by the way the camera would linger more on a woman’s body than on that of a man.  Women and homosexuals might also enjoy these movies, but it was the heterosexual male that these movies were primarily designed to please.

Actually, this heterosexual male in male-gaze film criticism is a bit of a fiction, like the economic man or the prudent man, an idealized concept, but it will do.  This heterosexual male prefers that the sex in movies be heterosexual, but he doesn’t mind if a movie features a little lesbian sex as well.  As a general rule, however, he does not want to see movies about male homosexuality.  An extreme example of this can be found in pornography.  In a typical pornographic movie, most scenes will feature men and women having sex. However, there will usually be at least one scene in which two women have sex, because that way the heterosexual male gets to see two naked women instead of just one.  But there will be no scene involving sex between two men. That can be found only in a subgenre of pornography, the male homosexual video. In an episode of The Man Show (1999-2014), a television show that parodied the heterosexual male, Jimmy Kimmel warns of the danger of accidentally wandering into the section of the video store featuring gay porn.  As he is saying this, we see Adam Carolla apparently doing just that, screaming with horror as he looks at the picture on a video cassette.  “A shock like that,” Kimmel cautions gravely, “can traumatize the penis permanently.”

And so, when movies were made about men in prison, they were suited for the male gaze.  The heterosexual male did not want to see the men in those prisons being sexually attracted to each other.  If anything, there would be an emphasis on an inmate’s love for some woman he hopes is waiting for him, as is the case for Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946) and Victor Mature in Kiss of Death (1947).  But when that same heterosexual male went to see a movie about women in prison, he was open to the possibility of women having sex with each other, even hoping for such, although the Production Code was not likely to allow more than a hint of it.

The use of the word “caged” for the title of this movie about women in prison might have been intended to suggest that the women are being treated like animals, since it is animals that we put in cages.  But it also fits with the concept of the male gaze, because the reason we put animals in cages is so we can look at them.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the word “cage” appears in the titles of other movies about women in prison, such as The Big Bird Cage (1972), Caged Heat (1974), Caged Women (1980), The Naked Cage (1986), and Caged Fury (1990).  And while the word “cage” is not in the title of The Big Doll House (1971), the posters for the movie show women in a cage, with the tagline, “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires.”  Try to imagine that as a tagline for a movie about men in prison.  In any event, there is no movie about men in prison that has the word “cage” in the title.

So, does the movie Caged have lesbian sex in it?  No, it doesn’t, objectively speaking. But that doesn’t matter, because the heterosexual male wants it to be in the movie, and all he needs is an excuse.

First of all, unlike the two examples given above about a man in prison thinking about the woman he loves, no woman in Caged is dreaming of the day when she will be able to get back together with the man she loves, the one who is waiting for her. Typically, it was some man who led to an inmate’s downfall, and she despises him for it.  “If it wasn’t for men, we wouldn’t be in here,” one inmate says. Eleanor Parker’s husband got her involved in a robbery that she had no idea he was going to attempt, and sweet thing that she is at the beginning of the movie, she probably would have planned on getting back together with him when she got out, but he was killed during the aborted holdup. That would have been unlikely, though, according to one inmate, saying of Parker’s husband, “If he was alive, he’d have another dame when you get out anyway.”  One inmate killed her husband, while others were also there for murder, and one gathers that for them too, it was men they killed.  They remind me those women singing the “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago (2002), the key line being, “He had it coming.” Given that these women have such animosity toward men, the heterosexual male can easily imagine these women drifting into lesbian relationships.

Second, the heterosexual male might be able to hang his hopes on some other bits of dialogue. When one inmate fails to get paroled as she was hoping, she starts showing signs of having a psychotic breakdown.  One of the inmates expresses concern, but the head matron says, “All repeaters act queer when they get flopped back.”  The word “queer” in this context clearly has the ordinary meaning of “strange” or “peculiar.”  But undoubtedly it triggered a response in the heterosexual male looking for any sign of lesbianism among the women, for the male gaze hears as well as sees.  An inmate tells Parker, “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think of guys at all. You just get out of the habit.”  In other words, even where there is no resentment against men, a woman in prison will lose interest in them.  That paves the way for interest in other women.  At least, that’s the way the heterosexual male will interpret it.

The heterosexual male primarily wants to see lipstick lesbians, like the one in Girls in Prison (1956). In that movie, Anne is a new arrival.  A pretty inmate named Melanee makes sexual advances, petting her and stroking her.  Anne rebuffs her.  Later, Melanee says she hates Anne, and another inmate makes a remark about a “woman scorned.”  Eventually, Anne and Melanee end up wrestling in the mud, something I have never seen two inmates do in a movie about men in prison.

But the heterosexual male knows he must also be on the lookout for the bull dyke in such movies, and this leads to the third hint of lesbianism in Caged. Suspicion naturally falls on the head matron, referred to above, who is played by Hope Emerson. At six feet, two inches tall and weighing two hundred and thirty pounds, Emerson fits the stereotype of the butch lesbian.  There is a scene in which she gets dressed up, telling the inmates she has a date with some guy named Pete.  You might think that the heterosexual male would accept that he was wrong, that Emerson is just a big, heterosexual woman, but that would just go to show how much you underestimate the determination of the heterosexual male to see lesbians in a movie like this.  I read a review in which it was claimed that Emerson was lying about having a boyfriend as a way of concealing her sapphic desires.

After 1968, things became more explicit in movies about women in prison, like those with the word “cage” in their titles or taglines mentioned above.  Male homosexuality in the movies also became explicit, as in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Deliverance (1972), soon followed by movies featuring sex in a prison for men, a couple of the more well-known ones being American Me (1992) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).  From what has been said previously, it might be thought that the heterosexual male would eschew such movies, but far from it.  Paradoxically, the male gaze is determinative even in movies like these, for the homosexuality is not presented as something positive, but rather as something to be dreaded or feared.  The heterosexual male feels sorry for John Voight in Midnight Cowboy, the way he is reduced to hustling homosexuals because he needs the money.  The male rape scenes in American Me and The Shawshank Redemption add to the horror he imagines to exist in prison life.  And after seeing Deliverance, he will probably turn down any offer to go on a canoeing trip, fearing that he might end up having to squeal like a pig.

As for syphilis, that was displaced by the onset of the AIDS epidemic, starting in 1981. Whereas syphilis could be treated with penicillin, AIDS was a death sentence in the early years of that disease, and then only after a long period of pitiful, physical deterioration.  And whereas it was the female prostitute that was associated with syphilis, it was the male homosexual that was associated with AIDS.  The movie Philadelphia (1993), while no doubt of much interest to homosexuals, still captured the attention of the heterosexual male, who could be grateful that he was attracted to women and did not have to go looking for sex in a gay pornographic movie theater like the Stallion Showcase Cinema.

The heterosexual male has come to expect a gay character in any movie he is likely to see nowadays, for that is a box that needs to be checked off.  And while he could just as easily do without such characters in the movies he watches, he may even benefit from their inclusion.  By magnanimously accepting a gay character in a movie, he will be able to convey to the woman who is his date for the evening that he is tolerant and broad-minded in such matters, traits that she is likely to find appealing in a man.

But this will be true only if the homosexuality in the movie is not presented as something erotic.  In that case, he is likely to run screaming from the theater, just like Adam Carolla.

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

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

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

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

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

The Iron Mask (1929)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man in the Iron Mask (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man in the Iron Mask (novel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 and 1981)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ETs Among Us: UFO Witnesses and Whistleblowers (2016)

Science Fiction Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ufology Movies

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

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

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

Government Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Implications

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

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

Extraterrestrial Motivations

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Galactic Diplomacy

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

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


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

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

Our Martian Ancestry

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

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

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


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

Boomerang! (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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