Boomerang! (1947)

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction.  And indeed, there are stories that would be unbelievable if presented as a work of fiction, but succeed because they are 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 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 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:  “The basic facts of our story actually occurred in a Connecticut community much like this one.”

Hadley’s narration accompanies us through the murder of Father Lambert and the outrage on the part of the citizens of the community.  But then we have a flashback of sorts, 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, tearing up the piece of paper he was handed.  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, in which 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.”  Lambert even suggests that the man’s mother may have to find out (Gasp!). We never learn exactly what this man 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 the man will go further.

At first, this seems strange.  We can see that Waldron’s anger could be a motive for murder, but that would be quite 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 very definitely has a motive for murder. So, why would the movie tell us who Lambert’s killer was right in the beginning?  Sometimes murder mysteries do that, however.  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 prosecuting attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), actually presents evidence that Waldron did not commit the murder, despite all the political pressure and even blackmail brought against him.  Throughout the trial, we see the child molester in the courtroom watching with apprehension on his face.  Then there is a ridiculous 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, which is immediately followed by Ed Begley’s character committing 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.”

Anyway, Waldron’s innocence having been established, he is released.  We see the guilty-looking child molester leaving the courtroom, while a savvy reporter, played by Sam Levene, looks at him suspiciously.  Later, we find out that the child molester was killed in an automobile crash.  He was fleeing from police for speeding, when he suddenly swerved, presumably intending to kill himself.  While we are seeing all this, the narrator tells us that the case was never solved.

Now wait just a cotton picking minute!  In other words, there was no child molester.  It was a total fabrication.  In its confused way, the movie is admitting that no one ever found out who killed Father Lambert, while at the same time suggesting that somehow or other justice was served.  The reason for this piece of baloney is easy to understand.  If the movie had stuck to the facts, if all the stuff with the child molester had been edited out, then it 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 the 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.


The Big Sleep: The Book and the Adaptations

All right, we’ve all heard the story about how The Big Sleep (1946) has the most complicated and confusing plot of any film noir ever made; and so much so that when the director, Howard Hawks, and the screenwriters could not figure out what caused the death of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, they cabled Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel that the movie was based on, and asked him about it, and he confessed that he did not know either.  This is not to say that one cannot come up with a reasonable explanation for Taylor’s death, for more than one is possible, but it is the mere fact that Chandler so confused himself with his convoluted plot that he neglected to account for Taylor’s death that makes the anecdote forever an essential part of the movie.  No critic can now discuss The Big Sleep without mentioning it.  Just for the fun of it, then, let us examine the matter in more detail.  We will begin with the movie and summarize only that part of the plot that concerns the death of the Sternwood chauffeur.

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood, because he is being blackmailed by a man named Arthur Geiger, after having previously been blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody.  Ostensibly, General Sternwood has merely been presented with gambling debts in the form of markers signed by his daughter Carmen, but he suspects something more scandalous may be involved, otherwise he would simply pay off the debts.  He wants Marlowe to take care of Geiger permanently.

It turns out that Geiger runs a bookstore that is a front for pornography.  Marlowe follows him to a house, where soon after Carmen drives up and enters the house too.  The purpose of their meeting is so that she can pose for some pornographic pictures in exchange for a fix.  After sitting outside in his car for a while, Marlowe hears shots being fired, after which two cars drive off, one right behind the other.  Marlowe enters to find Geiger dead in front of some surreptitious camera equipment while Carmen is all doped up, sitting on some special chair for picture taking.  She is fully dressed, but given the Production Code at the time, we can hardly have expected otherwise.  In the novel, she is naked.  Marlowe discovers that the film has been removed from the camera.

Later that night, Bernie, a homicide detective who recommended Marlowe to General Sternwood, shows up at Marlowe’s apartment.  He tells him that a Packard belonging to the Sternwood family is in the surf right off Lido Pier.  Inside the Packard is Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, who, we find out, was in love with Carmen.  The doctor at the pier says Taylor was hit with something.  When Marlowe suggests a blackjack, the doctor says that is a possibility.  When Bernie wonders aloud if the death of Taylor was a suicide or an accident, Marlowe says it was neither, which means it was murder. And that seems to square with the fact that the throttle was set halfway down, indicating that someone besides Taylor set the car in motion.

The next morning, Carmen’s sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall) comes to Marlowe’s office to show him a picture that was sent to her, presumably one that was taken the night before, with a blackmail demand for five thousand dollars.  We don’t get to see the picture, but the novel refers to it as a nude photo.

Marlowe manages to figure out that Joe Brody is the one now blackmailing the Sternwood family.  He confronts Brody, who finally admits that he was sitting in a car in back of Geiger’s house the previous night, hoping to get something on him.  He saw the Packard and found out it was registered to the Sternwoods.  Brody says he got tired of waiting, and so he went home.

Marlowe knows that Brody is lying.  He tells Brody that the Packard was fished out of the water with the body of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, in it.  He goes on to say that Taylor went over to Geiger’s house because he was in love with Carmen, and because he didn’t like what Geiger was doing with her.  He jimmied his way in through the back door and shot Geiger.  Then he grabbed the film, got in the Packard, and drove off.

Brody then admits that he followed Taylor, and when the car slid off the road, he went up to it and played copper.  Taylor pulled his gun, so Brody says he sapped him.  Then he saw the film and took it.  That was the last he saw him, Brody concludes.  Marlowe doesn’t buy it, because, he points out, that would mean someone else came along later, drove the car to the pier, and sent it into the water.

Someone rings the doorbell, and when Brody answers it, he is shot by Carol Lundgren, who the novel indicates is Geiger’s homosexual lover.  He thought Brody killed Geiger and was seeking revenge.  If he had known Taylor killed Geiger, he would have gone after him instead of Brody.  In other words, it is not Lundgren who killed Taylor.

This is as far as the movie goes regarding the death of Taylor.  The important thing about Marlowe’s statement that his death was the result neither of an accident nor suicide is that he speaks with an authoritative voice.  In other words, in real life, we would say that Marlowe’s assertion is just his opinion.  But in a movie like this, if Marlowe says it’s murder, then it’s murder.  Given that it is murder, then the most reasonable suspect is Brody.  He admits everything else:  he followed the Packard until it slid off the road, and he hit Taylor with a blackjack.

Being hit with a blackjack is not necessarily fatal, but it certainly could be.  In real life, that is.  But there is a convention in the movies that when a man is hit in the head, it typically only knocks him out temporarily.  In Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on another Chandler novel, a man named Marriott is killed when someone hits him with sap several times, but that is an exception.  In fact, in the same movie, Marlowe is hit hard enough to knock him out a couple of times, but in each case, the only effect is a temporary loss of consciousness.  In other words, when Brody says he only hit Taylor with a blackjack and did not kill him, it is this movie convention that allows us to believe him.  In real life, we would suspect that the blow to the head killed Taylor, and Brody decided to put the car in the drink to make it look like an accident.  And we have no reason to believe Brody, for being the seedy blackmailer that he is, he would hardly flinch from lying about the matter.  Besides, are we to believe that while Brody was following Taylor, someone else was following Brody, even though Marlowe was parked outside Geiger’s house and saw no third car in pursuit.  And if no one followed Brody, are we to believe that some perfect stranger came along, found an unconscious man in the Packard, drove it to the pier, set the throttle halfway down, and sent it through the railing, just because he could?

Now, most of us, when watching the movie the first time, forget all about Owen Taylor just as Chandler apparently did in writing the novel.  But even after repeated viewings, especially after having been made aware of the anecdote that began this essay, we are still reluctant to conclude that it is Brody.  In real life, we would have no such reticence.  But this is a movie, and what we lack is someone’s authoritative voice on the subject.  Just as we believe Taylor was murdered on account of Marlowe’s authoritative voice, so too does the lack of that voice leave us without a solution.  That is to say, another convention of a murder mystery is that someone with authority must make a pronouncement as to who done it.  It might be in the form of a pronouncement by a private eye or a cop, or it might be a confession by one of the suspects.  But someone has to say something, by jingo!  Because the movie lacks such a declaration, by Marlowe or anyone else, we just do not feel right about drawing the conclusion all on our own that Brody killed Taylor.

With the movie, it is only the absence of an authoritative voice that makes us shy away from accusing Brody of the murder.  In the novel, however, Marlowe lends his authoritative voice to making an affirmative case that Brody did not do it.  Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney, suggests that Brody might have killed both Geiger and Taylor, but Marlowe makes short work of that argument:

“What makes you so sure, Marlowe, that this Taylor boy shot Geiger? Even if the gun that killed Geiger was found on Taylor’s body or in the car, it doesn’t absolutely follow that he was the killer. The gun might have been planted—say by Brody, the actual killer.”

“It’s physically possible,” I said, “but morally impossible. It assumes too much coincidence and too much that’s out of character for Brody and his girl, and out of character for what he was trying to do. I talked to Brody for a long time. He was a crook, but not a killer type. He had two guns, but he wasn’t wearing either of them. He was trying to find a way to cut in on Geiger’s racket, which naturally he knew all about from the girl. He says he was watching Geiger off and on to see if he had any tough backers. I believe him. To suppose he killed Geiger in order to get his books, then scrammed with the nude photo Geiger had just taken of Carmen Sternwood, then planted the gun on Owen Taylor and pushed Taylor into the ocean off Lido, is to suppose a hell of a lot too much. Taylor had the motive, jealous rage, and the opportunity to kill Geiger. He was out in one of the family cars without permission. He killed Geiger right in front of the girl, which Brody would never have done, even if he had been a killer. I can’t see anybody with a purely commercial interest in Geiger doing that. But Taylor would have done it. The nude photo business was just what would have made him do it.”

In real life, this argument would not stop us for a moment.  Even if Brody is not the killer type, if he hit Taylor with a blackjack hard enough to knock him out, then he hit him hard enough to kill him.  And while Brody might not have intended to kill him, he would certainly rise to the occasion if he accidentally did so and send Taylor and the car off the pier.  But Marlowe’s authoritative voice in the novel trumps any reasonable conclusion that we might have in real life.  No wonder Chandler didn’t know who killed Taylor.  He really boxed himself in with Marlowe’s asseverations.

But let’s back up for a minute.  In the movie, Marlowe’s authoritative voice makes it certain that Taylor was murdered.  In the novel, however, there are three different opinions as to the cause of Taylor’s death, none of them Marlowe’s:

The uniformed man said: “Could have been drunk. Showing off all alone in the rain. Drunks will do anything.”

“Drunk, hell,” the plainclothesman said. “The hand throttle’s set halfway down and the guy’s been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I’ll call it murder.”

Ohls looked at the man with the towel. “What do you think, buddy?”

The man with the towel looked flattered. He grinned. “I say suicide, Mac. None of my business, but you ask me, I say suicide. First off the guy plowed an awful straight furrow down that pier. You can read his tread marks all the way nearly. That puts it after the rain like the Sheriff said. Then he hit the pier hard and clean or he don’t go through and land right side up. More likely turned over a couple of times. So he had plenty of speed and hit the rail square. That’s more than half-throttle. He could have done that with his hand falling and he could have hurt his head falling too.”

So, in the novel, if no sense can be made out of Taylor’s being murdered, there seems to be room for either an accident or suicide.  A man just having been sapped might be so groggy as to accidentally drive off a pier.  And Taylor might have been so despondent when Brody took the film, that he decided to commit suicide by driving off the pier, though why he wouldn’t use the gun he had on him at the time would be a mystery all by itself, especially when you consider that driving off a pier might not be successful, and he could have ended up in an Ethan Frome situation.

In the novel, the newspaper states that Taylor’s death was a suicide, but we gather that this is the result either of journalistic incompetence or of a cover story put forward by the Sternwood family to avoid a scandal, not to mention Carmen’s complicity in a murder of her own.

And for what it is worth, in the remake of this movie in 1978, a detective asks Marlowe, when things are being wrapped up, if Taylor’s death was a suicide, and Marlowe says that he thinks so.  Well, Marlowe’s authoritative voice may suffice for that movie, but it carries no retroactive weight for the 1946 version, which is the only one that matters.

Ultimately, however, we love the story that not even Chandler knew who killed Owen Taylor so much that we really don’t want a definitive answer.

Farewell, My Lovely:  The Book and the Adaptations

If you are not clear on the distinction between an ordinary detective movie that was filmed a long time ago in black and white, a film noir, and a neo-noir, then you might try watching the three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.  Begin with Murder, My Sweet (1944).  This movie not only follows the novel’s plot reasonably well, but it also has the same tone.  More to the point, it is as good an example of film noir as one might want.

An earlier version of this novel is The Falcon Takes Over (1942).  Even though it is a black-and-white detective movie from the 1940s, it absolutely does not qualify as film noir.  The detective is Gay Lawrence, known as “the Falcon,” rather than the novel’s Philip Marlowe.  The Falcon is an English gentleman who is an amateur sleuth, whereas Philip Marlowe is a hard-boiled, American, professional private eye. Moreover, the Falcon has a sidekick who is supposed to provide comic relief, whereas Marlowe works alone, the only humor being his wisecracks.  As a result, the tone of this version is most decidedly not film noir.

The third adaptation, made in 1975, is the only one to take its title from the novel. The movie has elements of the noir style, unlike The Falcon Takes Over, but it does not qualify as film noir primarily because there is a self-conscious aspect to it, which is what distinguishes neo-noir from film noir proper.  Unlike the traditional film noir, this version was made in color.  But it would not have helped if it had been made in black and white, because the day had passed when studios made black and white movies to hold down the cost.  By the 1970s, movies that were made in black and white were done so for artistic reasons.  So, we would have been saying to ourselves, “Oh, it’s in black and white, just like a film noir.

Then there is the setting.  Just as a choice had to be made about color versus black and white, so too did a conscious choice have to be made between the original setting and a contemporary one.  The 1970s just do not have the same cultural feel as the 1940s.  For example, if a private detective in the 1970s wore a trench coat and a fedora, we would think he was some kind of Don Quixote who had seen too many films noir and was trying to be like those romanticized detectives of fiction.  For that reason, perhaps, the movie was set in the 1940s.  But now when we see the trench coat and the fedora, we check them off, as if they were items on a list of things that every film noir private detective must have.  Furthermore, there are a few elements from the 1970s that work their way into this movie, and those too we know to be a self-conscious choice.  And so, the self-conscious choices that must be made by producers and are recognized as such by the audience are what place this and other movies like it in the neo-noir category.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Devil in a Blue Dress is a neo-noir, which is to say, it is made in the film noir style but after the period in which such movies were originally made, the decades of the 1940s and 1950s.  Furthermore, it is set during the film noir period, in 1948 to be exact.  Many such movies featured a private detective who is hired to do what seems to be a simple job but soon finds things are more complicated than he was originally led to believe.  In this movie, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is not a private detective as such, but is hired to do some detective work, and by the end of the movie has decided to make a career of it.

He is hired by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a white woman, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who has a “predilection for the company of Negroes.”  She is assumed to be hiding out in the black neighborhood, which is why Albright cannot just look for her himself.  The story Easy is told is that Todd Carter, her boyfriend, has dropped out of the mayor’s race on account of her disappearance, and Albright offers the unemployed Easy $100 to find her.

At this point, anyone reading this who has not seen the movie is advised to stop reading and watch it:  first, because the movie is quite enjoyable, and second, because the plot is so complicated that it would be tedious to try to reproduce it in detail here.  For those who are familiar with the movie, only enough detail will be provided to point out an unfortunate inconsistency in what is otherwise such a good movie.

The story told to Easy turns out to be a lie.  Actually, Albright is working for Carter’s opponent, Matthew Terrell, a pedophile, who is trying to recover some incriminating photographs of him with children.  The real reason that Carter dropped out of the race, as we eventually discover, is that Daphne’s mother was Creole, a fact known by Terrell, and Carter’s relationship with a woman with “Negro blood” would have been enough to cost him the race.

The man who is in possession of the photographs is Richard McGee.  Supposedly, he sold them to Daphne, who says she paid $7,000 for them (adjusted for inflation, this would be about $70,000 in 2017 dollars). However, she does not have the pictures. In other words, we have to assume that McGee and Daphne met somewhere, and she handed him seven big ones, even though McGee did not give her the pictures at that time. That does not make sense.

But wait a minute. McGee does not know where Daphne is, which is why he was trying to get into the black nightclub, to see if she was there. Now, if Daphne paid $7,000 for pictures on the promise that McGee would give them to her later, she would have made sure McGee knew where to find her, which would have been the hotel room she was staying in, and she would have given him her phone number as well.  So, the fact that McGee does not know where Daphne is does not make sense.

Because McGee did not know where Daphne was, he handed the pictures, disguised as a letter, to Junior, giving him $50 to give the letter to Coretta, who was supposed to give it to Daphne; but Coretta, who looked inside and discovered the pictures, decides to sell them to Terrell, so in the meantime, she hides the pictures in her Bible, which she hands to Dupree on his way to his sister’s house.  The reason McGee is so desperate to get the pictures to Daphne, even though he has already been paid for them, is presumably that he believes that the pictures are too dangerous to hold on to.  But passing the pictures on to Junior to pass on to Coretta to pass on to Daphne does not eliminate the danger, because he is murdered soon after.  Similarly, the danger Coretta knew she would be in once she tried to shakedown Terrell was not eliminated by hiding the pictures in her Bible and giving it to Dupree for safekeeping, and she is soon murdered by Joppy.

Roger Ebert coined the expression idiot plot, which is a plot that only works if everyone in the movie is an idiot.  This movie almost fits that definition.  Daphne would have to be an idiot to pay $7,000 for photographs until she could actually take possession of them.  And, if she were idiot enough to pay that kind of money on the promise of receiving those pictures later, she would have to be an idiot not to make sure McGee knew where he could get in touch with her.  And McGee and Coretta would have to be idiots to think that if Terrell’s henchmen caught up with them, their not having the pictures on their person or in their house would keep them safe.

But Alfred Hitchcock coined the expression icebox scene, which refers to a scene in a movie that does not make sense, but you don’t realize it until you have already left the theater, gone home, and opened the icebox looking for something to eat.  By then it is too late, because you have already enjoyed the movie.  A movie with a true idiot plot is known to be such while we are watching the movie, while the absurdity at the heart of Devil in a Blue Dress can more properly be said to occur in an icebox scene.

Dark City (1950)

How many songs does a movie have to have to be a musical?

Before going any further with that question, we need to make a distinction between expressionistic musicals like My Fair Lady (1964) or Grease (1978) and backstage musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or New York, New York (1977).  In the former, it is sometimes said, somewhat derisively, that people are just walking down the street and then break out into song, accompanied by a disembodied orchestra.  In the latter, the singing and dancing occurs during rehearsals or on stage during a performance.  In other words, it is realistic, something you might actually see and hear in real life.  Actually, Busby Berkeley musicals are not realistic in the sense that the numbers could never be performed on a real stage, but they are more realistic than expressionistic musicals.

Dark City is certainly not an expressionistic musical.  But does it qualify as a backstage musical?  Early in the movie, we see Fran (Lizabeth Scott) singing a song in a nightclub.  I thought to myself, her singing sounds fine to me, but I suspect a lot of people would say that she cannot sing, although I understand that the singing was dubbed anyway.  But then, I further reflected, I don’t have a good ear, so who am I to judge?

After she finishes her song, Danny (Charlton Heston), her boyfriend, tells her he liked her song, to which she replies, “Aren’t we a pair?  I can’t sing and you don’t have a good ear.”  That took me back a little.

Anyway, I mused that even though the movie had a song in it, it was not a musical, because one song does not a musical make.  But then she sang another song, and another, and another, until she sang five in all.  Still, the movie did not seem to me to be a musical, and it would not have been, even if they had managed to squeeze one more number into it.  Moreover, just to get an objective assessment, I checked Internet Movie Database and Netflix, and neither of them classified it as a musical, but only as a crime drama or film noir.

In reflecting on why this was so, I thought back on that earlier comment by her that she could not sing, followed later by another remark to the effect that singing in a nightclub was just a way of making a living, something she would gladly give up if Danny would marry her.  And that must be the key.  In the typical backstage musical, the main performers are ambitious, just waiting for their chance to take the spotlight and become a star.  Or, as in a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, where Rooney gets the idea of putting on a show to save whatever it is that needs saving in that movie, the success of the show is what matters.  In other words, in a backstage musical, it is not a question of how much singing and dancing there is, but whether the plot centers around the performers qua performers, their individual success or the success of the show as a whole.

In Dark City, on the other hand, the plot centers around people that are not performing musical numbers.  Rather, Danny is a bookie who has been put out of business by too many raids and is looking for a bankroll so he can move to another town.  He and his pals get a sucker into a poker game and take him for all his money.  The sucker is devastated and commits suicide.  Now the police are investigating the situation and the sucker’s brother is out to kill everyone that was in the game.  As a result, the songs Fran sings are just fillers, which actually have the effect of slowing the movie down.

As a crime drama, the movie is mediocre, but as an illustration of the fact that a backstage musical must be more than just a bunch of musical numbers, this movie is instructive.

Storm Warning (1951)

If you didn’t know better, you might think Storm Warning was a musical once you found out that Ginger Rogers and Doris Day are two of the leading stars, along with Ronald Reagan, but it is actually a grim film noir about the Ku Klux Klan.  But while the main part of the story involving the Klan is engrossing enough on its own, it occurs within the framework of a morality tale, in which a selfish woman is punished for taking advantage of a man she cares nothing about.  This part of the movies is easily overlooked, and so I will give it emphasis here.

The movie opens with Marsha (Ginger Rogers) and Cliff (Lloyd Gough) on a bus.  They work as a team for a clothing manufacturer, where he is a salesman and she is a model.  They are supposed to meet some buyers the next day, but she says she is getting off at Rock Point to see her sister and will catch up with him the next night, which means she won’t be there to model the clothes as she is supposed to.  She tells him to show them the clothes on hangers.

In real life, stealing a little time from the boss is no big deal, something most people have done at one time or another.  In a movie, however, it often happens that people are punished severely for a mere peccadillo, and so we get a slight sinking feeling at this most venial of sins.  But it gets worse.  She starts taking samples out of Cliff’s suitcase to give to her sister, whom she has not seen in two years, as a belated marriage present. This means she is not just stealing time from her boss, but dresses as well.  Furthermore, she is putting Cliff on the spot.  “What will I tell the home office?” Cliff asks, knowing he has to account for every item.  “Tell them you ran into Jesse James,” is Marsha’s flip answer.  In other words, she is not saying that she intends to reimburse the company as soon as she gets her next paycheck.

At this point, we might be wondering if they are in some kind of romantic relationship, in which case it might make sense that she would expect the man who is in love with her to cover for her.  But the movie nips that in the bud.  It is immediately made clear in their conversation that Cliff has been pursuing Marsha for some time, but to no avail, and she is firm in telling Cliff that it is time for him to give up.  In short, she is imposing on a man whom she will not even go to dinner with.

When the bus pulls into Rock Point, Cliff gets off with Marsha just to stretch his legs.  He refers to the town as a “dead end,” as a “wilderness,” but she defends it as a place where the people are nice and everyone goes to church, something her sister must have told her in a letter, since Marsha has never been there before.  It is indeed isolated.  While on the bus, they passed a billboard stating that Rock Point was a community of American homes and ideals, with “American” in large print, bookended by two American flags.  Such fervent patriotism is always ominous.

Marsha heads to a payphone to call her sister to come pick her up.  She tells Cliff to give her a nickel, which he does.  He tries to buy a pack of cigarettes at the counter, but is told to use the machine.  Apparently cigarette machines were new at the time, because Cliff comments that the way things are going, pretty soon they won’t need people.  He returns to the phone booth just as Marsha hangs up.  Because no one answered the phone at her sister’s house, Marsha retrieves the nickel, and, with Cliff standing right there, she opens her purse, holds the nickel about six inches over the opening, and drops it in, ostentatiously not returning it to Cliff.  She could have simply slipped the nickel into her purse while still sitting in the booth, but the movie is going out of its way to make sure we notice this business about her keeping it.

But she’s not done.  She turns to Cliff and tries to bum a cigarette.  As it is a fresh pack, Cliff has trouble removing one cigarette, and because the bus is about to leave, he ends up tossing her the whole pack as he gets aboard.  She is stealing time from her boss, she stole some dress samples, she kept Cliff’s nickel, and now she even has the poor guy’s only pack of cigarettes, all in the space of ten minutes.  Taking it all together, we see that Marsha is the kind of woman who, because she is attractive, believes it is her prerogative to take advantage of men, even men she has no interest in romantically.

None of this had to be in the movie, and it did not get in there by accident.  The script could have been written differently, in which she simply tells a passenger she happens to be riding with that she is going to see her sister, after which she gets off the bus and uses her own nickel to make the call.  The pack of cigarettes could have been left out entirely.  Instead, script was written to make it clear that Marsha is a bit of a chiseler, and that she thinks she can get away with it on account of her looks.  In real life, such women do.  But this is a movie, and all that follows is punishment for her sins.

As soon as the bus pulls out, businesses start closing and turning off their lights.  Marsha finds herself on a dark, deserted street.  She starts walking in the direction where she believes her sister is working, when she witnesses a man being murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  While hiding in a dark doorway, she sees two of the Klansmen who, thinking they are unobserved, remove their hoods.  Only later does she realize that one of the men, Hank (Steve Cochran), is married to her sister Lucy (Doris Day).

It turns out that the man who was murdered was a reporter from out of town who was secretly investigating the Klan.  When it was discovered what he was doing, he was arrested on a trumped up charge, after which the Klan broke him out of jail intending to lynch him, but in a moment of panic, Hank shot him as the reporter tried to escape.  Later, the county prosecutor, Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), reveals that other such incidents have occurred, always when someone from out of town starts snooping around.

In other words, we most emphatically do not see the Klan doing anything bad to African Americans.  Later in the movie, at an inquest, we do see a few such African Americans in the crowd outside the courthouse, but that is the extent of their presence in the movie.  The only people intimidated in this movie are journalists from out of town and all the white citizens of Rock Point who do not belong to the Klan.  Apparently, when this movie was made in 1951, dramatizing the Ku Klux Klan’s mistreatment of blacks was thought to be too controversial, notwithstanding the fact that intimidating the black race was the Klan’s main reason for existing in the first place. Perhaps the producers were afraid that showing the Klan mistreating African Americans would have angered southerners, who would have boycotted the movie, assuming theater owners would have agreed even to show it. Apparently, it was all right to make a movie showing that the Ku Klux Klan is evil, but not to make a movie showing that it is wrong to keep black people in their place.

Furthermore, the people who made this movie are at pains to insist that the Klan is guilty of corruption and income tax evasion.  In other words, it would not do to portray the Klan as composed of people who are sincere in their racist beliefs, who lynch people to preserve the Aryan cause of white supremacy.  Instead, the Klan is portrayed cynically.  Some naïve bumpkins might actually fall for all that stuff and nonsense about white supremacy, but they have been duped by the men at the top who care only about lining their pockets.  And so, instead of tackling racism head on and asserting that it is evil, this movie takes the easy way out.  It avoids any explicit mention or depiction of racism and simply faults the Klan for being a racket.  Presumably, the fear is that if the Klan is portrayed as composed of people who sincerely believe in the cause of white supremacy, including and especially its leaders, people in the audience might start wondering if there is something to it.

A similar way of presenting the Klan occurred in the earlier movie Black Legion (1937).  Actually, the movie is not about the Klan per se, but rather it is about a similarly robed and hooded organization in Michigan.  Again, the victims of this vigilante group are all white:  they are foreigners from countries like Poland and Ireland, thought to be taking jobs away from Americans of white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant heritage.  And again, while the rank and file are true believers, their leaders are corrupt.

In any event, Marsha gets caught in an Antigone situation, where she must choose between duty to her family and duty to the state.  Because Lucy is pregnant and refuses to leave Hank even when she finds out that it was Hank who pulled the trigger, Marsha remains loyal to her sister and refuses to tell what she knows on the witness stand, not only refusing to identify the two men who removed their hoods, but also refusing to say that the men were dressed in the robes and hoods of the Klan.

Earlier, the leader of the Klan in that town, Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders), in pressuring Marsha to keep her mouth shut, tries to tell her about the good that the Klan does, saying, “Without us, a girl like you wouldn’t be safe on the street at night.”  The implicit threat he is referring to is that of a black man raping a white woman.  It is ironic, then, that after the inquest, Hank tries to rape Marsha, reinforcing the point that what white people really have to fear in that town is the Klan.

The attempted rape is discovered by Lucy, who decides to leave Hank, freeing Marsha to tell what she knows, now that she no longer has to protect her sister.  But Marsha is kidnapped and whipped by the Klan until Lucy brings Rainey and some detectives to rescue her.  Hank tries to shoot Marsha but kills Lucy instead, whereupon a detective kills Hank.  Charlie Barr is arrested, and the rest of the Klansmen flee the scene in a panic, leaving us with the impression that this is the end of the Klan in that town, punctuated by the collapse of the burning cross.

As the movie comes to an end, we can only hope that Marsha has learned her lesson and will not take advantage of Cliff in the future.

Hardcore (1979)

Hardcore begins in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Christmas day, where much of the congregation from the Dutch Reformation Church has gathered together in the house of Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott).  Even allowing for the fact that it is a Christian holiday, we see that for these people religion permeates every aspect of their lives.

In one room, some men are discussing the unpardonable sin, rejection of the Holy Spirit. In that discussion, one man refers to the Pelagian heresy.  Pelagius was a British monk who, on his visit to Rome just before the turn of the fifth century, was disturbed by the effect that the idea of predestination was having on people.  It was thought that because of Adam’s original sin, everyone is born sinful.  Only with the grace of God could a person be saved, but man is so corrupt that he cannot even ask for God’s grace unless he already has it.  This is known as the doctrine of prevenient grace.  Then, once one has God’s grace, one’s salvation is assured and one has no choice but to follow the path of righteousness, known as the doctrine of irresistible grace.  And as God had ordained all things in advance, it was already determined before man was born whether he would receive God’s grace and be saved or not.  Pelagius concluded that these doctrines were causing people to become fatalistic.  If everyone is predestined to either be saved or damned, there seems to be little point in trying to be good.

According to St. Augustine of Hippo, a contemporary of Pelagius and a strong proponent of predestination, man did have free will, but without God’s grace, all he could do was choose one sin rather than another.  Pelagius countered this by arguing that man’s free will was such that he could choose to be good all on his own, and that he could ask for God’s grace freely.  Subsequent Pelagians continued this line of thought, maintaining that Adam’s sin was not passed on to subsequent generations, and that there were men without sin before the coming of Christ.  Of course, this called into question the whole need for Christ’s crucifixion:  if man was not all that sinful, there seemed to be no need for God to atone for man’s sins by suffering on the cross.  As a result, this line of thinking came to be known as the Pelagian heresy.

With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin took predestination one step further.  Whereas Augustine had maintained that man had free will, but that it was not worth much unless accompanied by the grace of God, Luther and Calvin rejected the idea of free will outright.  There was no such thing.  All had been ordained by God from eternity, including who would be saved and who would be damned.  As Calvin said, everyone deserves damnation, and all salvation is unmerited, granted by God to a select few, not because they deserve it, but because it pleases God to do so.  It is this theology that is the basis of the Dutch Reformation Church and which characterizes the thinking of the members of the congregation to which Jake belongs.

While the theological discussion among the men is going on in one room, in another room a bunch of kids are watching television with Joe VanDorn (Paul Marin), apparently Jake’s father.  On the television, a bunch of men dressed in Santa Claus suits are dancing to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  Joe gets disgusted, stands up and turns the set off, saying that the people who make shows like that are the kids who used to live in Grand Rapids and then left for California (a harbinger of what is to come).  “I didn’t like them when they were here, and I don’t like them out there.”  It seems like harmless enough entertainment, but Santa Claus and Christmas trees represent a secularized form of Christmas, not to mention the fact that a lot of Calvinists regard dancing as sinful.

Jake expresses concern about his teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) and her cousin Marsha DeJong (Karen Kruer) going to a Youth Calvinist Convention.  He expresses his misgivings somewhat jokingly, because he knows they will be heavily chaperoned, but as it turns out, such concern was more warranted than he imagined.

The next day at his furniture factory, Jake talks to a woman he hired to come up with a sign for his business.  He doesn’t quite like it because it is too “overpowering,” although if anything is overpowering, it is Jake’s personality.  The woman says she has worked really hard to get the color just right, but she says she will change it, if that is what he wants.  He says he would not have hired a display designer, if he did not trust her taste.  But he keeps expressing misgivings until she agrees to change the sign the way he wants it.  Once she consents to making the sign the way he prefers it, Jake says, “If you say so.”  This recapitulates the whole business about God and free will discussed above.  The display designer supposedly has free will in choosing the color for the sign, but the color that will end up being on the sign has been ordained by Jake.

Meanwhile, at the church where the Youth Calvinist Convention is being held, Marsha and Kristen are talking about boys.  Marsha tells Kristen about a game of chicken, in which a boy will move a finger closer and closer to a girl’s breast until she says “Chicken,” at which point he stops.  Laughably innocent to us, but bordering on scandalous for them.  Then one of the counselors calls the all the teenagers into another room for a discussion group, at which point the counselor admonishes Marsha and Kristen to put their name tags back on, perhaps a sign of rebellion on their part.

Jake gets a call from Marsha that on a trip to an amusement park, Kristen disappeared.  Jake and Marsha’s father Wes (Dick Sargent), Jake’s brother-in-law, fly out to California, where Marsha tells them that there was a boy there that Kristen met.  At the police station, the detective suggests that Kristen may have run away.  When Jake becomes angry, saying his daughter was not the type to run away, he gets his first of many doses of culture shock when the detective points out that her being a runaway is the best they can hope for, as he points to pictures of others girls who may never come back at all.

Jake decides to hire a private detective, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), whose hardboiled, irreligious talk disturbs Jake, even though he realizes Mast is the kind of guy he needs to help find his daughter.  Mast apologizes for offending Jake’s religious beliefs, noting that he is a practitioner of Mind Science himself, as if that is supposed to be reassuring.  Mast tells Jake and Wes to go back home and says he will call them when he knows something.

Several weeks later, Wes tells Jake that we can’t always understand the Lord’s ways, that the Lord his testing him, that he has to have faith.  This is an irritating trait that some people have, advising others about the ways of God when they are trying to cope with a misfortune, but considering the community in which they live, it is not surprising.  In any event, Jake expresses his contempt for the remark about having faith.  As is often the case, it is easy to talk about God’s ways and having faith as long as the bad stuff is happening to others.  But now that something bad may have happened to his daughter, he begins to have doubts.

Mast turns up in Grand Rapids with an 8mm hardcore movie, which he shows to Jake in a “stall” theater that he has use of for an hour.  Today, Jake would be told which adult website to look at, but back in the 1970s, when this movie was made, before cable, video cassette recorders, and the internet, most pornographic movies were seen in adult movie theaters or in adult bookstores with private stalls.  The movie shows two men having sex with Kristen.  Mast promises he will find her, and he heads back to California.

Jake gets tired of just waiting around, so he drives out to California and surprises Mast while “doing research” (slipping the panties off a porn star).  Jake becomes so angry, he runs Mast out of his own apartment, and then goes through some of the evidence that Mast has accumulated (pictures, names, addresses) and decides to see if he can find his daughter himself.

The structure of this movie from this point is like that in Dante’s Inferno, where Jake gradually descends into the sex trade, at first by looking at the street prostitutes and advertisements, then by pretending to be a customer in an adult book store where he looks at the various adult novelties and magazines.  He does fine as long as people think he just wants sex, but as soon as he starts asking questions, trying to find out if anyone has seen his daughter, he runs into trouble, at one point being bounced from a whorehouse.

Since that gets him nowhere, he decides he will do better pretending to be a producer of pornographic movies, which will allow him to meet a lot of people in that business.  He goes to see Mr. Ramada (Leonard Gaines), a movie producer whose name Jake got from Mast.  Ramada gives Jake some advice.  “Start small.  Start with the kiddie porn.”  Well, that makes sense.  Children are small, after all.  Ramada is serious, but clearly Paul Schrader, the writer and director of this movie, is making a sick joke, although one with a purpose.  I said that this movie has the structure of Dante’s Inferno, where we encounter increasingly worse aspects of the sex trade as the movie proceeds.  Child pornography is the worst form of pornography, belonging in what would correspond to the lowest circle of Hell.  But Ramada makes it sound as if child pornography corresponds to Limbo, where one finds the unbaptized infants.

The reason Schrader dismissed child pornography in this manner was to get it out of the way.  He wanted snuff films to be the worst form of pornography in his movie, especially since it would directly threaten Kristen.  Technically, the movie with Kristen would today be counted as child pornography, because she is a minor.  But what Ramada is referring to, of course, is prepubescent children, which is vastly worse.

Jake does not take the advice about kiddie porn, of course, but he does have some success posing as a producer of smut.  In pretending to interview “actors” for a film, one of the men he saw in the movie with Kristen finally shows up.  When Jake asks him where he can find the girl he was in the movie with, the guy says she abused him in the making of that movie and that he never wants to work with “that bitch” again.  Jake becomes angry and beats the porn star until he gets some information out of him, which leads him to Niki (Season Hubley), who will become his guide into the lower regions of the sex trade, much in the way Virgil was a guide for Dante.  Virgil was a virtuous pagan.  Niki is also a pagan of sorts, referring to herself as a Venusian, as in Venus, the goddess of love, but as she is a porn star and a prostitute, she does fall a little short in the virtue department.  Anyway, she agrees to help Jake find Kristen, for money, of course.

Niki is perceptive.  She quickly figures out that Jake is not a producer.  He tells her he is a detective, but she sees through that too.  He finally tells her that he is Kristen’s father and that he is a widower, but later she asks him point blank, “Your wife’s not dead, is she?” to which he admits his wife left him. She is clearly thinking it was for the same reason that his daughter ran away.

In addition to being smart, Niki is likable.  In fact, we begin at this point to compare her to Jake’s daughter, who is a big nothing.  Kristen is so docile and passive that it would be easy to indoctrinate her into a religion, and then just as easy for someone to come along and talk her into running away.  We feel sorry for Kristen, who cannot help being what she is (there is no free will, after all), but we would much rather spend time with Niki.

She becomes curious about Jake’s beliefs, and he tells her they can be summed up by the acronym “TULIP,” which covers some of the things discussed above.  “T” stands for “total depravity,” which is the doctrine of original sin, that man is incapable of good.  “U” stands for “unconditional election, which is the belief that God has chosen a certain number of elect from the beginning of time.  “L” stands for “limited atonement,” which means only the elect will go to Heaven.  “I” stands for “irresistible grace,” meaning grace cannot be resisted.  And “P” stands for the “perseverance of the saints,” by which is meant that you cannot fall from grace once you have it.

Niki helps Jake look for Tod (Gary Graham), the other guy in the film with Kristen.  She learns that Tod has been associating with Ratan (Marc Alaimo), and she becomes visibly shaken, saying, “He’s into pain.”  Of course, the name “Ratan” is only one letter removed from “Satan,” which is appropriate, since he is the most evil man in the entire sex trade.  Mast, who in the meantime has been secretly rehired by Wes, catches up with Jake.  When asked, Mast tells him that Ratan is the kind of man who can supply child whores and sex slaves, and who can have people raped or killed while the cameras are rolling.  Niki sets up an appointment for Jake to meet Tod in an adult bookstore, where Jake says he wants to see one of Ratan’s most recent films, thinking that Kristen may be in it.  It turns out she is not, which is fortunate, because what starts out to be a phony bondage flick turns into a snuff film in which a man and a woman are murdered by Ratan with a knife.  By the time the movie is over, Tod has disappeared.

Just as we compared Niki with Kristen, Niki begins to think of herself as Jake’s daughter, telling Mast that Jake will take care of her, get her out of the sex trade.  Mast ridicules the idea.  When Jake returns, he demands that Niki tell him where he can find Tod.  She is afraid to talk, saying she is afraid Jake will desert her.  He slaps her and threatens to beat her with his fists until she tells him.  Then he kisses her on the forehead and promises he won’t forget her.

Jake catches up with Tod at his bondage business and beats him until he tells Jake where Ratan is.  When Jake finds Ratan in a strip joint, Kristen is with him.  Ratan slashes Jake with his knife and runs out.  Mast had followed Jake, and shoots Ratan, killing him.  Kristen is hostile to Jake at first. Her rejection of their way of life in Grand Rapids is like the rejection of the Holy Spirit, which is the unpardonable sin.  But the elect can never fall from grace, and Jake makes excuses for her, saying they forced her. Kristen asserts that she left of her own free will.  But after Jake admits his failures, they reconcile.  After helping his daughter into the police car (they need her as a witness), he turns and sees Niki.  As he fumbles with his words, she realizes that Mast was right, that Jake has no more need for her.  When Jake turns to Mast, asking him if there is something that can be done for Niki, if money would help, Mast tells him to go home, that he does not belong there.

In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary makes the following observation in reviewing this movie:

By the time Scott [Jake] saves his daughter from the pimp who controls her, he believes he has learned to be a good father to her—but his sudden rejection of Hubley [Niki], as being unworthy to be his daughter’s adopted sister, shows he is a hypocrite.  … [The] ending is not very satisfying because the girl you care about gets the shaft while the other gets salvation.

Peary is right as far as how we feel about the ending, but the ending is appropriate nevertheless.  Kristen is like one of the elect in Calvinism, one who has received God’s unmerited grace, while Niki is like one of the damned, whose exclusion from being one of God’s chosen strikes us as not only unfair, but also heartless.