The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 and 1981)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike:  What kind of message does it send you?

Christina:  You have only one real, lasting love.

Mike:  Now, who could that be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second agent:  Nothing so primitive.

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

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

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

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

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

Second agent:  That’s his department.

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

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

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

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

Mr. Jackson:  Oh, my God!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike should have stuck to divorce cases.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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

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

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

The Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brother-in-Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sister

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

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

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

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

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

The Title

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

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

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

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.