The Glass Key (1935 and 1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leigh Brackett was one of the screenwriters, along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, hired by Howard Hawks to help turn The Big Sleep into a movie, which is notorious for having the most convoluted plot in the film noir canon.  In The Big Book of Noir, page 138, she makes the following comment:

True, the plot was so tangled and complicated that we all got more or less lost in it.  But it only got that way if one paused to look too closely.  Otherwise, the sheer momentum of the action carried one along, and why quibble?  . . . I did witness the historic occasion upon which everybody began asking everybody else who killed Owen Taylor, and nobody knew.  A wire was sent asking Chandler, and he sent one back saying, “I don’t know.”  And really, who cared?

After the movie was made and shown to the public, Brackett says that the audiences had pretty much the same attitude:

Audiences came away feeling that they had seen the hell and all of a film even if they didn’t rightly know, in retrospect, what it was all about.  Again, who cared?

She is right, of course.  I shouldn’t care.  But I do.

I first saw The Big Sleep on the late show, back when the late show was how most of us saw old movies fifty years ago.  About forty years ago, I saw the 1978 remake.  Sometime after that, I read the novel by Raymond Chandler.  About twenty years ago, I saw the 1945 pre-release version.  And off and on, through the years, I’ve seen the 1946 version about seven or eight more times.  And yet, I still found myself wondering what really happened.  And so, I set about the task of getting to the bottom of this mystery.  I reread the novel, read the original screenplay, and watched every version of this story all over again.  I think I may have hurt myself.

I suspect that most people would agree with Brackett.  They enjoyed watching The Big Sleep and have no need of a thorough analysis of what happened, who did it, and why.  But on the outside chance that there may be one or two others in the vicinity of my blog that might be interested in the results of my research, I am putting it all down on electronic paper.

The Novel

Rather than give a synopsis of the novel, I think greater clarity can be achieved by approaching the story in a different manner.

The Dramatis Personae

First, let us consider the characters in this novel, organized into groups:

The Sternwood Household.  General Guy Sternwood is a frail, old man with a sizable fortune.  He has two daughters in their twenties:  Vivian and Carmen.  Vivian is married to Rusty Regan, but he has recently disappeared.  There is also Vincent Norris, the butler, and Owen Taylor, the chauffeur.

Eddie Mars’ Casino.  Eddie Mars runs a gambling casino.  He has some hoodlums that work for him, the worst of which is Lash Canino, a killer.  Eddie is married to a woman named Mona.

Geiger’s Bookstore.  Arthur Gwynn Geiger owns a bookstore that pretends to sell rare books out front, but rents out illegal pornography in the back.  He has an assistant, Carol Lundgren, who lives with him as his homosexual lover.  Geiger has a secretary named Agnes Lozelle that waits on the customers.  She has two boyfriends:  Joe Brody and Harry Jones.  General Sternwood had once paid Joe Brody $5,000 to leave Carmen alone.  The general is under no illusions about the vices his daughters indulge in, so it is not clear what he thought Carmen was doing with Brody that she couldn’t do with someone else.

Philip Marlowe and the Law.  Philip Marlowe is a private detective.  He used to work for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator, under the supervision of Bernie Ohls.

The Ultimate Cause

By the time we get to the end of the novel, where Marlowe finally reveals the ultimate cause of the events that ensued, we are so worn out from it all that we are barely paying attention.  We are just glad that things are being wrapped up at last.  This is even more so in the 1946 adaptation, where Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is talking so fast and in reference to events not fully spelled out that we just assume he knows what he is talking about on account of his authoritative voice.  Therefore, let us begin where the novel ends, so to speak, where we finally find out what started it all.

Owen Taylor Loves Carmen.  Owen Taylor was in love with Carmen.  They had run off together once, with him thinking they would get married, but with Carmen just out for a good time.  Taylor got thrown in jail on charges of the Mann Act, but Vivian persuaded the police that he wanted to marry her, so they let him go.  The Sternwoods kept him on as the chauffeur.  He gave Carmen a little pearl-handled .22 caliber revolver as a present, with the engraving, “Carmen from Owen.”

Carmen Murders Rusty Regan.  Vivian has been married three times, the last to Rusty Regan, who used to be a bootlegger.  Carmen offered herself to Regan, but he declined.  As a woman scorned, and a psychopath at that, she talked him into taking her to a secluded place and teaching her how to shoot the pistol Owen gave her.  When he set up a target for her and walked back toward her, she shot and killed him.

Vivian Asks Eddie Mars to Help Cover Up the Crime.  Carmen went home and told Vivian all about it, “just like a child,” as Vivian puts it.  Carmen has epileptic seizures, and the novel seems to suggest that this is why she is crazy.  Perhaps that was the thinking in those days.  Anyway, in part to protect her sister from going to prison, but mostly to protect her father from having to live with the knowledge of what Carmen has done, especially since her father was quite fond of Regan, Vivian turns to Eddie Mars for help.

Vivian knows Eddie because she is a regular patron at his casino.  Their spouses knew each other even better.  Rusty was in love with Mona, but she married Eddie instead.  So, Rusty ended up marrying Vivian on the rebound.  But Mona didn’t care for Eddie’s illegal activities, the least concerning of which was operating the casino, so she left him.  Eddie didn’t much care that she left, and they remained on good terms.  Soon after, she and Rusty started having an affair.

Eddie Mars Plans to Blackmail the Sternwoods.  When Vivian asked Eddie for help disposing of Rusty Regan’s body, he had Canino put it in the sump near where Regan was killed.  Eddie figures he will be able to blackmail Vivian after that.  She makes her payments to Eddie by losing at the roulette table.  When General Sternwood dies, his daughters will inherit his millions, and that’s when Eddie really expects to cash in.

This is a cushy deal, but Eddie is worried.  If Regan’s disappearance comes to the attention of the police, they might investigate, suspecting that Eddie had him killed for fooling around with his wife Mona.  While carrying out that investigation, they might find out that Regan was murdered by Carmen.  That would put an end to the whole blackmail scheme.  Therefore, he asks Mona to go into hiding for a while so that the police will simply think she and Rusty ran off together.  She still loves Eddie, so she agrees to stay in a house Eddie has in the hills.

That takes care of the police, but Eddie is in a hurry for the general’s money.  He wants to know if the old man knows what Carmen did.  If so, Eddie can blackmail him immediately without waiting for him to die.

Eddie Mars Uses Geiger as a Cat’s Paw.  Geiger knows nothing about Regan’s murder, but goes along with what Eddie Mars asks of him.  In exchange for supplying Carmen with drugs, Geiger gets her to sign some promissory notes, supposedly representing gambling debts, amounting to $3,000.  The way Eddie figures it, if the general knows Carmen murdered Regan, he will suspect that Geiger’s demand for money is an indirect form of blackmail regarding the murder.  In that case, he will pay up.  And that will mean the serious blackmail of the general can begin immediately.  But when General Sternwood refuses to pay, Eddie knows that the general is not aware that Carmen murdered Regan, and that he has to wait until the general dies, when the daughters will inherit all his millions.

Philip Marlowe Enters the Story

Upon receiving the notes from Geiger, General Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe to deal with him.  And that is where both the novel and the adaptations begin.  My purpose here is not to give a complete synopsis, but only to explain what led up to this point, to give the ultimate causes while the mind is still fresh.  From this point forward, the novel and the movie versions can be followed with a better understanding of what is going on.  However, there are a few more plot points worth mentioning.

The Gang’s All Here.  Several times when Marlowe goes somewhere, an amazing number of people show up at the same place.  For example, Marlowe follows Geiger to his home and parks outside.  But Joe Brody is parked down the street too.  And so, apparently, is Owen Taylor.  And then Carmen shows up.  If Marlowe had followed Geiger the night before, Geiger would probably have just listened to the radio for a while and then gone to bed; if Marlowe had waited until the day after, Geiger would already be dead.

A couple of days later, Marlowe goes over to Brody’s apartment.  Agnes is also there.  In the 1946 movie, Vivian is there too.  And then Carmen shows up.  She has her .22 revolver with her, demanding the pictures that Geiger took of her naked.  Marlowe takes the gun away from her and sends her home.  Then Carol Lundgren shows up and shoots Brody.  Once again, Marlowe’s ability to be at the right place at the right time is uncanny.

The Death of Owen Taylor.  There are three opinions in the novel concerning the death of Owen Taylor, that it was an accident, suicide, or murder:

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.”

Ultimately, we have Marlowe’s authoritative voice to settle the issue, where he says Taylor was murdered:  “He had been sapped and the car pointed out the pier and the hand throttle pulled down.”  In the 1946 movie, Marlowe also dismisses both accident and suicide as the cause of death, leaving murder as the only possibility.

After Marlowe turns Lundgren in for killing Brody and reports the murder of Geiger, District Attorney Wilde suggests that Brody might be the one that killed Taylor, but Marlowe argues against it:

“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.”

Marlowe seems to be denying that Brody killed Taylor, but what he is really denying is that Brody killed both Geiger and Taylor, for Marlowe believes Taylor killed Geiger.  As for Brody, he previously admitted to Marlowe that he was the one that hit Taylor in the head with a blackjack.  Let’s look at the line cited above:  “He had been sapped and the car pointed out the pier and the hand throttle pulled down.”  The natural way to read this is that the person that sapped Taylor is also the one that made his death look like an accident.  As Brody has admitted to the former, then he is the one responsible for the latter.

Carmen Tries to Murder Marlowe.  Finally, Marlowe gives Carmen her revolver back.  She had once offered herself to Marlowe, but he had declined, so you know what that means.  She asks him to teach her to shoot.  They go to where she had previously killed Regan under the same pretense.  But Marlowe has filled the pistol with blanks.  She shoots at Marlowe again and again, emptying her gun, thereby confirming what he had suspected.  She then has an epileptic seizure.  He takes her home, telling Vivian to have her committed, or he will go to the police.  As for Eddie Mars and the blackmail scheme, Marlowe says he’ll talk to him.  Having recently killed Canino, Marlowe expects Eddie to be intimidated enough to leave the Sternwood family alone.

The 1944 Screenplay

The screenplay written in 1944 is in some ways different from both the novel and the movies.  Regan’s first name is now Shawn, and Vivian was never his wife, for she is now referred to as Mrs. Rutledge, divorced, presumably to make her available to Marlowe as a love interest.  It wouldn’t do to have Marlowe and Vivian be a romantic couple while she should be mourning her murdered husband.  This was not important in the novel, where Marlowe has no interest in her romantically.  In fact, the Marlowe of the novels never seems to be interested in women romantically, not even when he’s kissing them.  Some critics have accused him of misogyny, but I think that is too harsh.  Rather, he’s just so hardboiled that when he’s on a case, no womanly wiles can distract him from doing the job he was hired for.

But in the screenplay, not only is Vivian a woman that Marlowe shows an interest in sexually, he is also allowed a little nookie from the proprietress of the bookstore across from Geiger’s place.  After he gets some information from her about Geiger, they have a few drinks and then have sex.  Just before Marlowe leaves, she says, “A couple of hours, an empty bottle, and so long, pal,” her way of saying she knows this was just for the afternoon, not the beginning of anything more.  Marlowe also says, “So long, pal.”  It’s mutual.  She’s just as hardboiled as he is.

In the 1946 movie, however, it is only Marlowe that uses the word “pal” in saying goodbye to her (Dorothy Malone), and when he does, her shoulders droop, for she realizes he has no intention of seeing her again.  I always feel sorry for her when I see that scene.

Anyway, as Regan is no longer General Sternwood’s son-in-law in the screenplay, he is now just an employee.  And from the way the general talks, he was employed as a paid companion.

After Raymond Chandler admitted to Howard Hawks that he didn’t know who killed Owen Taylor, the authors of the screenplay apparently cared a little more than Brackett would have us believe, because they decided to solve that murder for him, revealed in a conversation Marlowe has with the district attorney:

Wilde:  So Taylor killed Geiger because he was in love with the Sternwood girl.  And Brody followed Taylor, sapped him and took the photograph and pushed Taylor into the ocean.  And the punk [Carol Lundgren] killed Brody because the punk thought he should have inherited Geiger’s business and Brody was throwing him out.

Marlowe:  That’s how I figure it.

This is the simplest solution to the murder of Owen Taylor.  Brody was not a killer, but he admits to hitting Taylor with a blackjack, knocking him out.  If you hit someone with a blackjack hard enough to knock him out, you’ve hit him hard enough to kill him.  When Brody realized that Taylor was dead, he decided to make his death look like an accident.  Then he quite naturally denied doing so when Marlowe questioned him.

Notice that Wilde gives ownership of Geiger’s business as the reason Lundgren killed Brody, whereas in the novel, Lundgren was in love with Geiger, and he mistakenly killed Brody for revenge, thinking Brody had killed Geiger.  In 1946, the Production Code did not allow references to homosexuality, so a different motive was provided.  There is no need to repeat the various homophobic remarks made by Marlowe in the novel, but there is one that is revealing as an apparent stereotype of homosexuals when the novel was written.  At one point, Lundgren hits Marlowe on the chin.  Marlowe says, “It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.”

The final scene in the screenplay takes place in Geiger’s house.  After Carmen fires blanks at Marlowe, revealing that she murdered Regan as Marlowe suspected, Carmen says there is nothing he can do about it.  If he goes to the cops, she will tell what happened, and it will be a big scandal in all the newspapers.  Vivian will go to prison too for helping to cover it up.  And her father will find out about it, which will make him miserable.  Marlowe admits defeat, saying he wouldn’t want that to happen.

I wondered about that part in the novel where Marlowe tells Vivian to have Carmen committed.  How exactly was Vivian supposed to have Carmen committed to an insane asylum against her will, without telling the police about the murder?  This screenplay ending makes more sense.

Anyway, Carmen is triumphant.  As she starts to leave, Marlowe gives her his hat and coat like a gentleman, even though she just tried to kill him, saying that she will need them because it is raining.  But Marlowe knows that Eddie Mars is just outside the house, waiting to shoot him when he leaves.  So, when Carmen leaves, Eddie mistakes her for Marlowe and shoots her.  Then Marlowe shoots Eddie.  With both Carmen and Eddie dead, the whole blackmail scheme has come to an end.

The 1946 Movie and the 1945 Pre-Release Version

As noted above, the screenplay has Marlowe agree that Joe Brody murdered Owen Taylor.  In the movie, Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) merely says that Brody’s denial that he killed Taylor does not make sense.  Consider the discussion in the movie where Brody finally explains that he got the naked pictures of Carmen by taking them away from Taylor after hitting him with a blackjack:

“He [Taylor] skidded off the road and came to a stop.  So I came up and played copper.  He had a gun. He was rattled, so I sapped him down.  I figured the film might be worth something, so I took it.  That’s the last I saw of him.”

Marlowe is skeptical:

“So you left an unconscious man in a car way out near Beverly.  And you want me to believe somebody came along, ran that car to the ocean, pushed it off the pier….”

In a movie, there is a world of difference between having Marlowe positively affirm that Brody killed Taylor, which is the original screenplay version, and having Marlowe say that Brody’s denial that he killed Taylor doesn’t make sense, which is the movie version.  In the absence of a confession on Brody’s part, we need to hear Marlowe’s authoritative voice assert that Brody killed Taylor.  But we never quite get that.  Therefore, there remains the sense that the death of Owen Taylor is never accounted for.  For this reason, most people that have seen this movie will be resistant to the idea that Brody killed Taylor, if you suggest it to them.  At least, that has been my experience.

Also noted above, the novel has Lundgren kill Brody because he was Geiger’s lover, and he thought Brody had killed Geiger, but the screenplay avoided this homosexual motive, giving control of Geiger’s pornography racket as the reason why Lundgren killed Brody.  However, the movie drops this economic reason and returns to the novel’s homosexual motive, but only in the form of a queer flash.  In the screenplay, when Marlowe takes Lundgren to Geiger’s house at gunpoint, he hands Lundgren the key to the house, which Marlowe had pocketed on the night of the shooting, and tells him to open the door with it.  But in the movie, he does not give Lundgren the key.  Instead, he tells Lundgren to use his own key to get in, implying that he lived with Geiger.

The 1945 pre-release version of this movie followed the screenplay in allowing Marlowe and Vivian (Lauren Bacall) to be a romantic couple, and the 1946 version went even further in establishing their relationship.  In the novel, it is Mona, Eddie’s wife, that helps Marlowe escape; in the movie, Vivian is also at the house with Mona, and Vivian is the one that helps him escape from Canino (Bob Steele).

The movie follows the screenplay in killing off Eddie Mars at the end.  Marlowe tells Bernie Ohls that Eddie killed Regan, even though he knows it was Carmen.  Since Carmen is not killed off, the movie reverts to the questionable idea of having her committed.

The 1978 Remake

In 1978, the movie was remade by Michael Winner, in color and widescreen, set contemporaneously in England.  Perhaps all these differences were meant to keep us from comparing it too closely with the original.  But notwithstanding the fact that it is it is filled with good actors, it falls flat.

This remake more closely follows the novel in some ways, while departing from it in others.  Vivian (Sarah Miles) is again Rusty Regan’s wife, and she has no romantic relationship with Marlowe (Robert Mitchum).  It is Mona, not Vivian, that helps Marlowe escape from Canino (Richard Boone).  And not only do we see Carmen, now going by the name of Camilla, firing her pistol with blanks at Marlowe, but we also see her shooting and killing Regan in an imagined flashback.

In the novel, Marlowe is still handcuffed behind his back when he shoots Canino.  But in both movies, the handcuffs are in front when Marlowe shoots him.  That’s too bad, because having Marlowe shoot Canino while his hands are cuffed behind him is quite an image.  It was illustrated that way on the cover of the paperback I bought so I could read the novel.

One thing that amused me was the pornography angle.  In the novel, Marlowe follows one of Geiger’s customers after he leaves the store with a package.  The customer gets scared and drops the package.  Marlowe opens it up, finding a book with both text and pictures.  He characterizes it is as “indescribable filth,” for which reason he doesn’t describe it.  Such a scene is not in the 1946 movie, but it is in the 1978 remake.  Marlowe gives a similar characterization of the book:  “indescribably filthy.”  In this case, however, we get to see the pictures he is looking at when he says they cannot be described.  They are nothing but pictures of naked women with their breasts exposed.  The pictures are no more revealing than a Playboy centerfold from the 1960s.  Later in the movie, Marlowe comes home to his apartment to find Camilla in his bed, completely naked.  She throws back the covers, and we see full, frontal nudity, including her pubic hair.  And so, if the book from Geiger’s bookstore has pictures that are indescribably filthy, then by its own standards, this movie is even filthier, even if it is only R-rated.  Obviously, they should not have allowed us to see those harmless photos of naked women as Marlowe expresses his disgust with what he is looking at.

Finally, this version tries to justify its existence by directly addressing the death of Owen Taylor.  Instead of availing itself of the screenplay solution, which was that he was killed by Joe Brody, this movie has Marlowe say that Taylor’s death was suicide.  The idea is that Taylor wakes up after being sapped, realizes the naked pictures of Camilla have been taken from him, and drives his car off the pier at a high rate of speed.  This contradicts what Marlowe said in the novel and in the 1946 movie.  It is also not realistic.  If Taylor wanted to commit suicide, it would have been simpler for him to shoot himself in the head with his revolver.  Driving a car into the ocean may not quite do the trick, but I guess the Owen Taylor of this version had never read Ethan Frome.

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.  Before comparing these movies, however, let’s review the novel itself.

The Novel

This novel, published in 1940, is not as complicated and confusing as The Big Sleep, the novel Raymond Chandler wrote before writing this one, but it comes pretty close.  So, rather than follow Philip Marlowe, the private-eye narrator, through all the dead ends and red herrings that he is subjected to before he solves this mystery, let’s consider the events as they actually occurred.

Velma Valento betrays Moose Malloy

Velma Valento is a beautiful song-and-dance girl that works at a night club named Florian’s in the fictional town of Bay City, California.  That is where she comes to know Moose Malloy, who also works there.  He is an extraordinarily huge man, the bouncer of the joint, and he falls madly in love with her.  He robs a bank in order to have the money he needs to spend lavishly on Velma, but he makes the mistake of confiding in her.  Rather than let Malloy spend that money on her a little at a time, she turns him in for the reward so she can get a lot of money all at once.  After Moose is convicted and sent to prison, she quits Florian’s and goes to work as a singer at a radio station owned by Lewin Lockridge Grayle, an old and sickly man, but one who is worth $20,000,000. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $400,000,000 today.)  He soon falls in love with Velma.

Jessie Florian goes to work for Lindsay Marriott

Several years later, Mike Florian dies.  He was the owner of the nightclub where Velma worked, and he leaves the place to his widow Jessie.  But as the neighborhood has been going downhill, she ends up selling it for not much money to a black man named Montgomery.  Needing a job, she goes to work as a servant for a family by the name of Marriott.  One member of that family is Lindsay Marriott, who is an announcer at the radio station where Velma is employed.  Apparently, it is a small world in Bay City.

One day Jessie hears Velma singing on the radio and recognizes her voice.  She goes to the station and sees that she is right.  She doesn’t know that Velma turned Malloy in for the reward, but she knows enough about her past to be a concern.  Therefore, Velma has Marriott buy her off with an expensive radio and monthly payments in exchange for holding the trust deed on her house, which means he could throw Jessie out on the street if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut.

Velma becomes Mrs. Grayle

But it’s not Marriott’s money that is paying for all this.  Velma is getting it from Mr. Grayle, whom she has agreed to marry, after telling him about her situation with Malloy.  He agrees to marry her in Europe and then sell his radio station, thereby making it difficult for anyone else to track her down. She not only becomes Mrs. Grayle, but changes her first name to Helen as well.

Having purchased the silence of Jessie Florian, Velma now has to worry about Marriott, letting him have enough money so that he doesn’t have to work anymore.  He becomes her regular companion, to which Mr. Grayle turns a blind eye.  He has what we would now call his “trophy wife,” and that is enough for him.

Moose Malloy gets out of prison

But then Malloy, having served an eight-year sentence, is released from prison.  He wants to find Velma, the woman he still loves. He buys himself a fancy suit of clothes and goes back to Florian’s. The place still has the same name because it would cost too much to buy a new sign.  While he is standing outside looking at the place, he is noticed by Philip Marlowe, who becomes curious about the guy.

Malloy goes inside to find Velma, and Marlowe ends up following him in.  Inasmuch as the nightclub serves only a black clientele, there is a lot of friction and physical confrontation, until Malloy ends up killing Montgomery, who pulled a gun on him.

The police are not really interested in the murder of a black man, which Marlowe refers to as a misdemeanor.  But to curry favor with Nulty, the detective in charge of the case, Marlowe agrees to see if he can find Velma as a way of getting information on the whereabouts of Malloy, who took off after killing Montgomery.

This leads him to Jessie Florian.  He doesn’t get far with her, but after he leaves, she contacts Marriott, telling him that Malloy is out of prison and looking for Velma, and that there is a private detective named Philip Marlowe that is also on the job.

Velma kills Lindsay Marriott

When Velma finds out about this, she decides that Marriott is the weak link to her past, someone who would probably fold if things got too hot.  So, she decides to kill him. Jessie doesn’t realize that Velma has become Mrs. Grayle, so she is not a problem anymore.  However, Malloy ends up killing her anyway while trying to find out about Velma.  But that comes later.

Velma tells Marriott that she is worried about Marlowe and wants him killed.  Marriott has come to enjoy all the money she has been supplying him with, so he agrees to do it.  She gets him to go to Marlowe with a phony story about how her necklace, made of Fei Tsui jade, had been taken from her during a robbery, and now the jewel thieves are willing to sell it back for a fraction of what it is worth.  The idea is to get Marlowe to go with him to a secluded place, where the exchange is supposed to occur.  That is where Marriott is supposed to kill Marlowe.  Instead, Velma is waiting for them.  When Marlowe leaves the car looking for the jewel thieves, she blackjacks Marriott several times, so viciously that his brains end up on his face.  When Marlowe returns, she hits him with the blackjack too, but only once, just enough to knock him out.  She is afraid of the heat that could come from killing a private detective who might have friends in the police force.

Velma frames Jules Amthor

There is another reason Velma does not kill Marlowe:  she needs him alive to tell the made-up story about the stolen jade, to distract the police and keep them from suspecting that she had anything to do with Marriott’s death.  After killing Marriott, she planted a cigarette case on him, in addition to the one he already had.  This one had three marijuana cigarettes in it, each one with a mouthpiece made from a business card.  (I didn’t know marijuana cigarettes could be rolled with a mouthpiece, but so they were.) Each business card said, “Jules Amthor, Psychic Consultant,” whom she had visited on several occasions. The idea was to make Marlowe think Amthor had something to do with the robbery and murder of Marriott.

Anne Riordan becomes Marlowe’s helpmate

When Marlowe recovers from being sapped, a woman named Anne Riordan shows up, who just happened to be driving by.  She later finds out that the jade that was stolen (supposedly) belonged to Mrs. Grayle.  As a result, Marlowe makes an appointment to see her, to find out if she wants him to try to get the jade back for her.  Mrs. Grayle leads Marlowe to believe that Marriott was a blackmailer of women.  Marlowe suspects that he might have fingered her for the robbery.

Dr. Sonderborg keeps Marlowe doped up

Then Marlowe pursues the Amthor clue.  He suspects that Amthor had a lot of rich women for clients.  If they wore expensive jewelry, he might let a gang of jewel thieves know about it. Marlowe goes to see Amthor and ends up being roughed up by one of Amthor’s hoodlums and then by some crooked cops, who drop him off at a small hospital run by a Dr. Sonderborg.  Marlowe is drugged, but eventually manages to escape.  The hospital is a front for all sorts of illegal activity, especially drug dealing. Another activity is that of providing a hideout for criminals on the lam. That’s why Marlowe sees Malloy there.  As I said, it’s a small world in Bay City.

Velma kills Malloy

Eventually, Marlowe figures it all out.  He gets word to Malloy to come to his apartment through a gambler named Laird Brunette. He gets Mrs. Grayle to come there too. Malloy hides in the next room while Mrs. Grayle and Marlowe talk.  Marlowe tells her he knows she is Velma, that there never was a robbery, and that she was the one that killed Marriott. When Malloy realizes it is Velma that Marlowe is talking to, he comes out of the room, still holding a gun absentmindedly in his hand. But Velma puts five slugs in him. She tries to kill Marlowe, but runs out of bullets.  So, she just takes off.

Velma kills herself

She ends up working in a nightclub in Baltimore.  A detective recognizes her and confronts her, but she shoots him three times, killing him.  Then she shoots herself in the heart.  Twice.  Marlowe says she did it to protect her husband, the one man that really gave her a break.  With his money, she could have beaten the murder rap against Malloy, claiming self-defense.  And they could never have proved she killed Marriott. But she wanted to spare her husband the pain of a scandal.

Nevertheless, because she was the wife of a rich man, the whole business brings a lot of people down. Although Amthor and Sonderborg had nothing to do with Velma’s treachery, they are casualties in the case, with both of them leaving town, running from the law, Amthor being caught in New York.  The bad cops in Bay City lose their jobs.

The Falcon Takes Over (1942)

As may be surmised by the title, the first movie version of this novel was transformed into a vehicle for a very different kind of detective than the hardboiled Philip Marlowe. Rather, he is an amateur sleuth known as The Falcon, a refined English gentleman who, in this movie, goes by the name of Gay Lawrence, played by George Sanders.  He makes a good living in the bond business. The movie is part mystery, part silly comedy. If you have ever labored under the misconception that a film noir is any black-and-white crime drama made in the 1940s or 1950s, this movie will disabuse you of that misapprehension.

Lawrence has a chauffeur named Goldy, who functions as a sidekick, with the usual kind of humor that such characters are given to.  Moose Malloy is played by Ward Bond, who is a big man in his own right, but made to look even bigger with padding. The nightclub that used to be Florian’s is now a high-class establishment, full of white people, and going by the name Club 13, the sort of place that Lawrence often frequents in formal attire.

By way of contrast, consider the opening line of the novel:  “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro,” referring to the street on which Florian’s was located.  This alone reminds us of the times in which this novel was written, back when “Negro” and “colored” were the polite words our mothers told us to use rather than those preferred by our fathers.  Or preferred by Philip Marlowe, for that matter.  Though he uses the polite word “Negro” here, Marlowe uses a variety of racial slurs throughout the novel.  In a movie made today, if a character used the words Marlowe does, we would know that he was the bad guy, and that we were supposed to dislike him.  But when this novel was written, those were the days when one could be a racist without fear of censure; for we are supposed like Marlowe, and his racist remarks were just supposed to be the sort of thing a hardboiled private eye would say.  The reference to “mixed blocks” tells us that this part of town was becoming undesirable on account of all the African Americans that had been moving in.  But what would a man like Gay Lawrence be doing in that neighborhood?  Hence the transformation to a nightclub in the nicest part of town, catering to café society.

In this movie, as well as the two that follow, we pretty much encounter the same dramatis personae, but with variations.  They each want different stuff, do different things, serve different functions, and have different relationships with one another.  Some characters are added, combined, or deleted.  There are even variations on their names.  It would be tedious to enumerate and analyze them all, only a few being worthy of comment.

For example, as noted above, the racism of the novel is eliminated in this movie by changing the clientele of Club 13, formerly Florian’s, from black to white.  Although there was plenty of racism in movies made back in those days, it was seldom as stark as that in the novels.

Another difference is the treatment of homosexuality.  In the novel, Marlowe refers to Marriott as a “pansy” on account of his mannerisms.  But in this movie, Marriott (Hans Conried) merely comes across as weak.

Then there is the matter of motive, Velma’s reason for hiding from Moose Malloy.  In this movie, Malloy took a manslaughter rap for his boss.  But that means Velma didn’t turn him in for the reward money, so it is not clear why she is paying off Jessie Florian not to tell Malloy where she is, or why she changed her name.  All we can figure is that Malloy is the kind of guy who could kill a woman out jealousy and would be too strong for anyone to stop him.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The second movie version of this novel is Murder, My Sweet, made a couple of years later.  This is a genuine film noir, and it closely follows the novel in plot, style, and tone, though with some simplifications that are usually necessary when bringing a novel to the screen.  Raymond Chandler used the words “sleep,” “farewell,” and “goodbye” in three of his novels, each a metaphor for death. However, the studio executives decided they needed a title with a literal meaning.  Dick Powell had been chosen to play Philip Marlowe.  Previously, he had starred in musicals, singing and dancing. The producers were afraid that if they used the same title as the novel, people would think it was another musical.

This movie is told mostly in flashback, which mirrors the first-person narrative style of the novel.  In addition, flashbacks are common in films noir, for they can give a movie a fatalistic tone, inasmuch as the events of the past cannot be undone, especially when the flashback begins after something bad has happened.  In The Falcon Takes Over, there is no flashback.  Everyone seems to have free will, and anything can happen.  But when Murder, My Sweet begins, Marlowe is being interrogated in a police station, accused of murder, and his eyes have bandages over them.

In the story that he relates, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hires Marlowe to help him find Velma (Claire Trevor), unlike in the previous version and in the novel, where Lawrence/Marlowe just accidentally encounters Malloy in front of Club 13/Florian’s. Instead, they go to Florian’s together. This time the place is white, but low class.

The next day Marriott shows up to hire Marlowe, saying he wants his company when he is supposedly going to buy back the stolen necklace.  The elevator operator comments that he is a cute, little fellow, and that he smelled nice too.  Later on, Mr. Grayle refers to him as a “foppish” man. This counts as a queer flash, about as close as the movies could come to homosexuality in the days of the Production Code.

Once again, Velma’s motive for hiding from Malloy is unclear.  There is no reference to her having turned him in for a reward.  In fact, we don’t even know why he was in prison.  Nor does she seem to be afraid of him.  Toward the end of the movie, she tries to get Marlowe to kill Amthor for her because he was blackmailing her, since he knew of the affairs she had had.  But she does not ask Marlowe to kill Malloy.

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

In this third adaption, made in 1975, Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) says he was sent to prison for robbing a bank, returning to the reason for his incarceration in the novel. And Velma (Charlotte Rampling) turned him in for the reward, just like in the novel.  Therefore, she once again is afraid of Malloy, and she has a strong motive for trying to keep him from finding her.

This adaptation takes its title from the novel. By this time, Chandler’s novels had come to be revered as classic detective fiction, so the title was too valuable to just set aside as it was in the first two movies.  The movie has elements of the film 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 changed its category 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 Robert Mitchum as Marlowe in a trench coat and a fedora, we check these items off, as if they were 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, which we know to be deliberate choices made by the producers.  These 1970s situations and values retrojectively put into a story supposedly set in the 1940s are also what place this and other movies like it in the neo-noir category.

One such choice consists in adhering more closely to the novel than the earlier versions.  In the novel, Florian’s has become a “Negro” nightclub.  In the two previous movie versions of the novel, the studio executives kept the nightclub white, possibly to avoid upsetting the 1940s audience on matters of race.  By 1975, showing Florian’s as being a black establishment was not only more acceptable, it was almost hip. Movie producers were by that time looking for ways to have more blacks in their movies, and so following the novel in this regard was made to order.

Other stuff is thrown into the movie that was neither in novel nor in the previous versions in order to reflect the zeitgeist of 1975. An extraneous mixed-race couple is added to the plot.  That could hardly have been a commonplace in the 1940s, so it calls attention to itself as rather forced.  Jessie Florian says that it ruined the career of the husband, who was white, for “marrying a nigger.”  In this way, the movie allows its audience to feel smug, regarding itself as superior to the past as it deplores the racial prejudices of those times.  In the novel, it was Marlowe, among others, who used racial slurs like that.  In this movie, other people use racial slurs, but Marlowe uses only the polite words of the 1940s, “Negro” and “colored.”

If putting a miscegenous couple into this movie seems forced, the fact that they have a child for Marlowe to care about is even more so.  I suppose the fact that Marlowe is friendly with a mixed-race child lets us know we are supposed to like him, as if we needed a push in that direction.  In any event, it was around this time that children started gratuitously showing up in movies that would have been better off without them.  Sappy sentimentality simply does not belong in a film noir, but I guess this is another difference between that genre and neo-noir.

Then there is Jules Amthor, who has become Frances Amthor, a lesbian.  With the end of the Production Code, it was now possible to feature homosexuality explicitly. However, there was no felt need to treat such characters sympathetically.  Instead, she is a huge woman, portrayed as the stereotypical butch dyke.  Her presence in the movie might be indicative of the fact that there was less censorship in 1975 than in the 1940s, but it is in no way an expression of tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. In fact, whereas Marlowe refers to African Americans with polite words only, he refers to Marriott as a “fairy.”  The movies of the 1970s showed more deference to African Americans than they did to homosexuals.

A Future Remake

It’s about time for another remake, one suitable for the twenty-first century. It will probably have to have a simpler plot in order to make room for all the CGI action sequences.  But more important than that are the issues of homosexuality and race.

A gay character will be required, of course, for that is one of the boxes that need to be checked off when making a movie like this today.  But that does not mean having a homosexual like Marriott or, in the case of the last remake, Frances Amthor, both of whom are portrayed by means of negative stereotypes. Rather, having Philip Marlow himself be gay should meet with approval from today’s audience.

Actually, this has already been done in a way.  In the movie Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Michelle Monaghan grew up reading hardboiled novels about a private eye named Jonny Gossamer.  Robert Downey Jr. is in love with her, and he also knows a lot about those novels too.  He tries to understand the mystery he gets involved in by reference to things that happened in those novels. Jonny Gossamer is the equivalent of Philip Marlowe, and the movie is divided into chapters named after Raymond Chandler’s books, the last one being Farewell, My Lovely.  The real hardboiled private eye that Downey meets is gay. In fact, his name is Gay Perry.  So, he has the same first name as Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, though with a different connotation, of course.  Since Perry is played by Val Kilmer, he is a real man, not like the effeminate Marriott of the novel and the movies.  Also in keeping with the sensitivities of the twenty-first century, Perry doesn’t like secondhand smoke.

Another box that must be checked off today is the miscegenous couple.  As noted above, there was such a couple in the last remake, but they were minor characters.  In a twenty-first century remake of Farewell, My Lovely, Moose Malloy and Velma Valento should fill that slot.  However, it will have to be Velma that is black and Malloy that is white.  It simply wouldn’t do to have Moose Malloy be a big, hulking black man looking for his white Velma, who is desperate to get away from him.  That simply would not bespeak of the enlightened, progressive attitude that a mixed-race couple in a movie is supposed to represent nowadays.

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, but it is actually a 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 movie 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 with whom she will not even go to dinner.

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 is a community of American homes and ideals, with “American” in large print, bookended by two American flags.  Such fervent patriotism is always ominous, as was the part about everyone going to church.

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.  Evidently, 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 condemning the Klan for 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 genuinely believe in the cause of white supremacy, including and especially its leaders, the sincerity with which they hold their racist views might lend them a certain legitimacy.

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.  And while this movie can be enjoyed by those that know next to nothing about Christian theology, I believe an appreciation for this film is enhanced by an understanding of the particular version of Christianity that these people believe in, especially since the story can be understood allegorically.  For that reason, and because I have always been fascinated by the doctrine of predestination, I shall indulge myself in a preliminary discussion of it.

In one room, some men are discussing the unpardonable sin, rejection of the Holy Spirit.  Actually, the verses in the Bible that mention the unpardonable sin, Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, speak of blaspheming against the Holy Ghost, but these men are apparently construing that as rejecting the Holy Ghost. One man questions whether one can be guilty of that sin unwittingly. That suggestion is dismissed by another as verging on 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 sincerely 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 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, 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 deserved it, but because it pleased God to do so.  It is this Calvinistic theology that Jake’s congregation believes in.

Referring back to the man who wondered whether one could commit the unpardonable sin of rejecting the Holy Ghost unwittingly, he was suggesting that if such a man knew he was doing that, he might choose not to.  But that would seem to suggest that he had the power to choose otherwise, which implies free will.

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, apparently Jake’s father.  On the television, some 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 voices some concern about his teenage daughter Kristen and her cousin Marsha going to a Youth Calvinist Convention in California.  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 design 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.

Jake gets a call from one of the counselors, informing him that on a trip to an amusement park, Kristen disappeared.  Jake and Marsha’s father Wes, 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 informs him that her being a runaway is the best they can hope for, as he points to pictures of other 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, presuming to advise those suffering from a misfortune about the mysterious ways of God, 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, which has a devastating effect on Jake.  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 he is in the middle of “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, a movie producer whose name Jake got from Mast’s files.  Ramada gives Jake some advice.  “Start small.  Start with the kiddie porn.”  Well, that makes sense.  Children are small.  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 8mm movie showing Kristen having sex 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 “freaky 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), whom Jake had already met on the set of a porn film being produced by Ramada.   Niki regularly works at a place called Les Girls, and if you ever wanted to find out just how disgusting the sex trade can be, the scene at that establishment alone is worth the price of admission.  Niki 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.  She agrees to help Jake find Kristen.

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 that one who has God’s grace cannot choose to reject the Holy Ghost.  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, the other guy in the film with Kristen.  She learns that Tod has been associating with Ratan, 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 he 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 because she wanted to, but there is no such thing as free will in their religion.  Jake admits his failures, however, and 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 of her.  Jake turns to Mast, asking him if there is something that can be done for her, if money would help.  But in so doing, Jake refers to her as “the girl” rather than as “Niki,” so we know he wants to distance himself from her.  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 that is precisely the effect Schrader intended.  Kristen is like one of the elect in Calvinism, someone who has been saved without seeming to be worthy of special consideration; 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.

This Gun for Hire (1942)

This Gun for Hire is about a hired killer named Raven, and it uses a variety of means to make us like him. First, Raven is played by Alan Ladd, who is good looking, and we have a natural inclination to like good-looking people. Second, he has a cat for a pet, of which he is very protective, causing him to slap a maid when she runs the cat out of the room after it knocks over a can of milk. We tend to like people who like animals. True, we tend to not like men who slap women, but that is the sort of thing we would expect from a man who kills people for money. It is the positive qualities that he is given to make us like him, in spite of the negative ones that would ordinarily make us not like him, that are interesting.

When he goes to an apartment where there is a man he is supposed to kill, he sees a little girl sitting on the stairs with her legs in braces, probably a victim of polio. He doesn’t like the fact that she is a witness, but he continues on up the stairs. Once inside the room, he is dismayed by the presence of a woman. After he kills the man, he sort of apologizes to the woman, saying he was told the man would be alone, and then he shoots her too. The man he killed was a blackmailer, so we had no sympathy for him, but in killing the woman, who presumably was nothing more than a girlfriend of the blackmailer, Raven shows that he is not averse to killing someone who is innocent, if she happens to be a witness. As a result, we wonder if he will shoot the little girl too on his way back down the stairs. He is tempted, but takes pity on her and simply leaves after handing her the ball she dropped. That is another way the movie gets us to like him.

Furthermore, the movie gives us another villain, Willard Gates, whom we are encouraged to despise. Gates is played by Laird Cregar, who just has the look and manner of someone creepy. He is the one who hired Raven to do the job. He pays Raven off in ten dollar bills, and then double-crosses him by giving the serial numbers to the police so that Raven will go to prison where he cannot talk. At least, that is the idea, but it really doesn’t make sense, because the best way to keep a hit-man from talking to the police is by not double-crossing him. In any event, it turns out that Gates works for a chemical company that is selling a formula for poison gas to the Japanese during World War II. Compared to Gates, Raven seems to be a pretty good guy, for a hit-man.

Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a showgirl, is enlisted by a senator to go undercover and investigate Gates and his company. This naturally results in her and Raven crossing paths. He almost kills her to keep her from talking, but she gets away. Eventually, they come to like each other, especially after he rescues her from Gates, who was planning to have her killed. Raven confides in her about dreams he keeps having of the woman who raised him as a child, who beat him regularly, and even hit him with a flatiron, deforming his wrist. This movie was made when psychoanalysis was familiar to audiences, who were therefore primed to accept childhood trauma as an explanation for mental problems later in life. Even today, we tend to accept this explanation for why Raven is the way he is, somewhat excusing his evil nature.

Raven wants to get even with Gates and with Brewster (Tully Marshall), the man Gates works for, while Ellen wants to find out if those two men are traitors. This leads them to cooperate with each other, with Ellen telling Raven where he can find the two men. Brewster is an old man in a wheel chair, which makes him the third person in this movie with some kind of physical disability, though there seems to be no special significance about that in this case, unless it is to provide a dramatic contrast between his physical weakness and his lust for power. In any event, when Raven forces Brewster to sign a confession, the latter dies of a heart attack, after which Raven kills Gates. This is a common ploy of the movies, having the protagonist act from personal motives, which just happen to be of great help for the war effort or some other noble cause. So this is another way the movie gets us to like Raven.

Finally, Raven starts to shoot a police detective, but when he sees that he is Ellen’s fiancé, he holds his fire. This consideration for her makes us like him some more. Then he is shot by a policeman and dies. Because his death is the proper punishment for the crimes he has committed, it balances the books, allowing us to like him without feeling guilty about it.

Calcutta (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Saigon (1947)

It was 1965, and I was in my second year of college.  Having just finished watching a monster movie on the late show on Saturday night, I changed channels and came in toward the end of another movie, starring Alan Ladd.  I had seen Ladd in Shane (1953) when I was just a child, which was great, and I might have seen another of his movies with my parents a couple of years later, but that one had left no impression on me.

Anyway, in this movie, Ladd walked into a room where several people were gathered, and someone said, “We were just talking about you.”

“My favorite subject,” Ladd replied.

Now, I’m not going to say that this was the greatest bit of hardboiled dialogue ever delivered on the big screen, but it was the first one I’d ever heard.  When he uttered this line, he wasn’t smiling.  Actually, that was my parents’ chief complaint about Alan Ladd.  “He never smiles,” they said.  But what they regarded as a fault, I came to see as a virtue.

Anyway, the scene was apparently one involving a double-cross.  Speaking to the beautiful woman in the room that had betrayed him, Ladd says, “Sorry you can’t join us in a glass of rat poison.”

Once again, this was hardly a brilliant witticism.  But it had been delivered by Alan Ladd, with that voice of his and that look.  In any event, I had never heard anyone talk that way in a movie before.  Wishing that I had seen the movie from the beginning, I merely made a mental note to watch it in its entirety the next time it was featured on the late show.  For some reason, I didn’t bother to check the newspaper to see the name of this movie, figuring I’d know it when I saw it.  Little did I realize that it would never be shown on television again.

The years passed, and in the 1980s, cable television and video-cassette recorders expanded my viewing options.  Moreover, I became acquainted with the term film noir, and soon it was that I had seen the best of Ladd’s movies in this genre:  This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946), each costarring Veronica Lake.

But eventually, I began to think again about that movie I had seen in college.  I remembered the oriental setting, and so for a while, I wondered if the movie could be Calcutta (1946).  It wasn’t readily available, but it did finally show up on the internet.  It’s about three commercial pilots transporting goods between Chungking and Calcutta.

Two of the pilots are played by Alan Ladd and William Bendix.  The third pilot, whose name is Bill, is murdered.  He was engaged to be married to Gail Russell, but she was just using him to smuggle jewels on his plane without his knowing about it, something she had done with other pilots.

At the end of the movie, Ladd beats a confession out of Russell, kills a casino operator named Lasser, who is the head of the smuggling ring, and then calls the police and has Russell arrested.  And that wasn’t easy for him to do, since they had fallen in love with each other.  As Ladd says to Russell, “Does a guy have to trust a girl to fall for her?”  But Ladd figures that since she had already killed one man in order to steal the jewels she thought he had, and had helped Lasser murder Bill, someday she might decide to kill him too, and he might not get much sleep thinking about it.

That’s how hardboiled characters have to weigh the pros and cons of marriage in a film noir.  It reminds me of that incredible conversation between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, which is in both the novel and the 1941 movie based on it.  Spade tells Brigid that she’s taking the fall because she killed his partner.  Her feelings are hurt.  She accuses him of not loving her.  He admits that he probably does love her, and he accepts that she loves him.  But he won’t play the sap for her.  Otherwise, as he points out in the novel, when the love wears off, she might kill him one day.  Still, he figures that if they don’t hang her by her pretty neck, she might get out of prison in twenty years, in which case he will wait for her.  Twice he says that he will wait for her!

So, like Sam Spade, Ladd chose to turn the woman he loved in to the police rather than marry her and take a chance of her murdering him someday.  Of course, Ladd had a dim view of marriage all along, quite apart from the question of whether his wife might someday kill him.  Earlier in the movie, when he and Bendix find out Bill is going to get married, they are appalled.  Ladd sneers, saying that what women want is “stability, to settle down.”

Ladd becomes suspicious about Bill’s murder because he still had money on him when his body was found.  Whoever strangled Bill must not have watched many movies, or else he would have known this fundamental rule:  if you are going to commit a murder, be sure to remove all the money and jewelry from the person you kill so that the police will suspect that robbery was the motive and let it go at that.  In any event, Ladd suspects Russell may have had something to do with it right from the beginning.  She protests that she would never have done anything to cause Bill a moment of unhappiness.

“Wouldn’t want to harm him, huh?” Ladd asks.  “Then why’d you want to marry him?”

In a later conversation, when Ladd says he doesn’t trust women, Russell asks, “What was she like?” referring to the woman she assumes must have walked off and left him bitter like that.

Ladd replies, “A woman always wants to blame a guy’s good judgment on a woman.”

And yet, while I enjoyed this movie, it was not the one I was looking for.

After seeing several more Ladd films set overseas, but to no avail, I finally had eliminated every possibility except Saigon (1947).  Of course, if I had realized that the beautiful woman to whom Ladd had suggested a glass of rat poison was Veronika Lake, that would have helped me narrow it down.  It was not available on Netflix, but it was available as a DVD, though of poor quality.  Anyway, I could hold out no longer, so I ordered it.

Saigon turned out to be the movie I was looking for.  I was pleased to see that I had not been misled by the brief impression I had formed of this movie by watching ten minutes of it over fifty years ago.  It holds up throughout.

In this film, Alan Ladd plays a recently discharged major in the Army Air Forces.  He piloted a bomber during the war until his plane was shot down.  He finds out that another crew member, Mike, who was a captain in his crew, has two or three months to live.  He suffered a severe head injury and now has a large piece of platinum as part of his skull.  The doctor agrees to let Ladd tell him the grim prognosis, but Ladd tells another crew member, a sergeant named Pete, while they are sitting in a bar, that they aren’t going to tell Mike anything.  His parents are dead, and he has no wife.  So, they’ll just show him a good time for the next two or three months.  It is a Dark Victory (1939) situation:  Mike will have no symptoms (or not many, at least) until he dies; the prognosis is precise in the time left for him to live (just a few months); and someone has taken it upon himself to keep him from knowing.

Of course, this immediately reminded me of The Blue Dahlia, where Ladd was the leader of a flight crew during the war, including William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont.  In this movie, it is Bendix that has the plate in his skull.  His problem, however, is not that he has only a few months to live, but rather that he gets confused and forgetful.  When the three men get off the bus at the beginning of the movie, after having been discharged at the end of the war, Ladd and Beaumont are wearing suits, but Bendix is wearing a leather jacket.  Though there is no reference to their rank in the service, yet we gather that Ladd and Beaumont were officers, while Bendix was an enlisted man.

If so, then once again we have two officers and an enlisted man, once members of a flight crew, and now able to fraternize as civilians.  Only in this case, it is the enlisted man who has the plate in his skull, whereas in Saigon, it is one of the officers.  There was never any reference to the war in Calcutta, but three young American pilots were bound to have been in combat.  And given Bendix’s screen persona, it is hard to imagine him as being an officer.

Anyway, in Saigon, after Ladd and Pete agree not to tell Mike about his prognosis, Mike shows up at the bar and joins them.  Ladd leaves the table, and when Mike starts talking about going home, Pete gets Mike to agree to stay so that they can cheer Ladd up.  It seems that Ladd was planning on getting married, but then he received a Dear John letter, breaking off the engagement.

And so, whereas Ladd was a misogamist in Calcutta, in Saigon he has been jilted by a woman he wanted to marry.  He got even further in The Blue Dahlia.  In that movie, he is married to woman named Helen.  When he and his two friends say goodbye after getting off the bus, Beaumont advises Ladd not to just show up at his wife’s hotel room unexpectedly, but that he should phone first.  Ladd says, “Maybe,” but there is no maybe about it.  Only a wittol would do that, someone that might go on to become Ward Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), for instance.  But a real man just walks right in, and if he catches his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto, he can settle matters right then.

Instead, when he gets to Helen’s hotel room, which is more like an apartment, there is a swinging party underway.  He tells the inebriated woman that opens the door that he is looking for his wife.  “We have lots of wives here,” she informs him.  Later, when Howard Da Silva, Helen’s lover, realizes that her husband has returned, he decides to leave the party.  Helen kisses him goodbye, not realizing that Ladd can see her doing so.  “You’re wearing the wrong lipstick, Pal,” Ladd tells Da Silva seconds later as he punches him in the mouth.  Da Silva shows some class.  Wiping the spot with a handkerchief where he was kissed and then punched, he says, “You’re right.”

After the guests leave, Ladd and Helen have an argument, during which she tells him, in order to hurt him, that their son died because she had an automobile accident one night while she’d been drinking.  He pulls out his gun, saying he should use it on her, but then tosses it on the couch and leaves.  Somewhat later, she is found murdered with that gun. Naturally, Ladd is suspected by the police, while we start suspecting Bendix, who later meets Helen in the hotel bar, and then accepts her invitation to go back to her room, not realizing she is Ladd’s wife.

The original story of The Blue Dahlia, as written by Raymond Chandler, had Bendix be the one who murdered Helen, but the Navy objected to having a veteran be the killer, so the script was changed to make “Dad,” the house detective, be the villain. I like the movie ending better anyway. We would have felt sorry for Bendix, and that would have been depressing. Much better to have Bendix be suspected on account of his war injury, and then have the unlikable house detective be the murderer.

As a side note, in Dark City:  The Lost World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller, in discussing The Blue Dahlia, says that in general, there was an unwritten law that a veteran in a movie must never be found guilty of a crime.  He overlooked Crossfire (1947), however, in which Robert Ryan is a veteran who commits a murder.  And this is a peculiar oversight, since Muller discusses this movie in the same book.  I suspect that the difference had to do with the reason for the murder.  In the case of The Blue Dahlia, the Navy did not want a man to commit a murder because of an injury sustained during his service in the war, whereas the Army could accept that Robert Ryan’s character had been evil before he enlisted, and his service during the war had nothing to do with it.

So, whether as a confirmed bachelor, jilted fiancé, or cuckolded husband, Ladd seems to have good reasons for being cynical about women and having a dim view of marriage.  Not that these movies can end on that note, though.  In Calcutta, after sending Russell away with the police, Ladd gets some consolation from another woman, Marina, from whom he regularly gets a little uncomplicated nookie.  We get the sense that he might just marry that girl one of these days.  In The Blue Dahlia, Ladd and Veronika Lake, who was Da Silva’s wife, have fallen in love, so the good spouses from the two marriages will now presumably make one good marriage and live happily ever after.  We also figure that Ladd will marry Lake at the end of Saigon too, but only after first offering her that glass of rat poison.