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 it 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 the 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 falls 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 Paul threw out the window, who claims that he saw Madvig and Taylor arguing that night.  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.  This is noticed by one of Varna’s henchmen, who passes the information on to his boss.  In the 1935 version, 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 presumptions.

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 he wants to beat up.  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.  He has figured Jeff out, and is using his sexuality to seduce him.  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’s mother 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 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 are in love with 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell, My Lovely:  The Book and the Adaptations

If you are not clear on the distinction between an ordinary detective movie that was filmed a long time ago in black and white, a film noir, and a neo-noir, then you might try watching the three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.  As is often the case with some of those hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s and 1940s, this one has a convoluted plot, which lends itself to variations in the adaptations.  I suppose one could begin with the novel and then catalog all the ways in which each version deviates from the original, but that would be as tedious as it would be unnecessary.

Let’s begin with Murder, My Sweet (1944).  This movie not only follows the novel’s plot reasonably well, but it also has the same tone.  More to the point, it is as good an example of film noir as one might want.

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

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

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

One such choice consists in adhering more closely to the novel than the earlier versions.  In the novel, Florian’s has become a Negro bar.  When Murder, My Sweet was made, they kept the bar white, possibly to avoid upsetting the 1940s audience on such matters as 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 to satisfy the need for affirmative action, 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 Murder My Sweet in order to reflecting the zeitgeist of 1975.  An extraneous mixed-race couple is added to the plot.  That’s not so bad, but they have a child for Marlowe to worry about.  It was around this time that children started gratuitously showing up in movies that would have been much better 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 become Frances Amthor, a butch lesbian madam.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark City (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storm Warning (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardcore (1979)

Hardcore begins in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Christmas day, where much of the congregation from the Dutch Reformation Church has gathered together in the house of Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott).  Even allowing for the fact that it is a Christian holiday, we see that for these people, religion permeates every aspect of their lives.  And while this movie can be enjoyed by those that know next to nothing about Christian theology, I believe an appreciation for this film is enhanced by an understanding of the particular version of Christianity that these people believe in, especially since the story can be understood allegorically.  For that reason, and because I have always been fascinated by the doctrine of predestination, I shall indulge myself in a preliminary discussion of it.

In one room, some men are discussing the unpardonable sin, rejection of the Holy Spirit.  Actually, the verses in the Bible that mention the unpardonable sin, Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, speak of blaspheming against the Holy Ghost, but these men are apparently construing that as rejecting the Holy Ghost. One man questions whether one can be guilty of that sin unwittingly. That suggestion is dismissed by another as verging on the Pelagian heresy.

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

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

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

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

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

Jake voices some concern about his teenage daughter Kristen and her cousin Marsha going to a Youth Calvinist Convention in California.  He expresses his misgivings somewhat jokingly, because he knows they will be heavily chaperoned, but as it turns out, such concern was more warranted than he imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reason Schrader dismissed child pornography in this manner was to get it out of the way.  He wanted snuff films to be the worst form of pornography in his movie, especially since it would directly threaten Kristen.  Technically, the 8mm movie showing Kristen having sex would today be counted as child pornography, because she is a minor.  But what Ramada is referring to, of course, is prepubescent children, which is vastly worse.

Jake does not take the advice about kiddie porn, of course, but he does have some success posing as a producer of smut.  In pretending to interview “actors” for a film, one of the men he saw in the movie with Kristen finally shows up.  When Jake asks him where he can find the girl he was in the movie with, the guy says she abused him in the making of that movie and that he never wants to work with that “freaky bitch” again.  Jake becomes angry and beats the porn star until he gets some information out of him, which leads him to Niki (Season Hubley), whom Jake had already met on the set of a porn film being produced by Ramada.   Niki regularly works at a place called Les Girls, and if you ever wanted to find out just how disgusting the sex trade can be, the scene at that establishment alone is worth the price of admission.  Niki will become his guide into the lower regions of the sex trade, much in the way Virgil was a guide for Dante.  Virgil was a virtuous pagan.  Niki is also a pagan of sorts, referring to herself as a Venusian, as in Venus, the goddess of love.  She agrees to help Jake find Kristen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peary is right as far as how we feel about the ending, but that is precisely the effect Schrader intended.  Kristen is like one of the elect in Calvinism, someone who has been saved without seeming to be worthy of special consideration; while Niki is like one of the damned, whose exclusion from being one of God’s chosen strikes us as not only unfair, but also heartless.

This Gun for Hire (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

At the beginning of The Blue Dahlia, three veterans who fought together during the war return home.  One of them, Buzz (William Bendix), had suffered an injury, leaving him with a plate in his head along with brain damage, causing him to become confused at times, to have trouble remembering, and to easily lose his temper.  Another of the veterans, George (Hugh Beaumont), being realistic, advises Johnny (Alan Ladd) to call his wife first instead of just showing up without warning.

Johnny doesn’t take that advice, and when he shows up at the his wife’s apartment, he finds that she is throwing a party, and it becomes obvious that she has been having an affair with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), owner of the title nightclub.  After the guests leave, they have an argument, and Johnny pulls out his gun, but then tosses it on the couch and leaves.  Somewhat later, she is found murdered with that gun.  Naturally, Johnny is suspected by the police, while we start suspecting Buzz.

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

Unfortunately, the proof that Buzz didn’t do it is weak. At the end of the movie, with the police and all the people involved in the story in Harwood’s office, Johnny gets Buzz fire a pistol at a match that he holds in his hand about ten feet away, with the bullet grazing the match just enough to light it up. No consideration is given to the fact that the bullet would continue to go past the match and through the wall, possibly killing someone in the next room, not to mention the fact that the police would never allow a murder suspect to have a pistol in hand.

Even so, the point of the demonstration was to prove that Buzz was a crack shot. Helen was shot by a gun placed against her heart. So, Johnny argues, Buzz would not need to press the barrel of the gun against her body, owing to his marksmanship. But if a man is in a heated argument with a woman in a hotel room and decides to shoot her, he is going to shoot her at close range if she is standing right in front of him at the moment he decides to pull the trigger. He is not going to say to himself, “Wait a minute. I’m a marksman. I don’t have to be this close. I need to go to the other side of the room to shoot her.” Furthermore, jamming the gun against her heart before pulling the trigger is not a sign of poor marksmanship, but rather of anger and aggression. It makes the killing more personal. And in any event, even a poor shot would be able to hit a woman at several feet away, and Dad was an ex-cop, so he was probably a fair shot himself in any event.

Also, Dad’s confession when confronted with the fact that his wet umbrella was found in Helen’s apartment is ridiculous.  In real life, Dad would have said, “Oh yeah, I was in her apartment briefly earlier that evening, and I accidentally left it behind,” after which he would get himself a lawyer.  Fat chance of convicting him on evidence like that.

In addition to this weak ending, the movie has another plot point that does not make any sense.  It is hard to understand why, at an earlier scene in the movie, Johnny would get mad when he finds out that Joyce (Veronica Lake), whom he met right after leaving Helen, is married to Harwood. She would have told Johnny, but he didn’t want to know her secrets. Moreover, he kept telling her that there was no future for the two of them. And in any event, she was just as much a victim of an unfaithful spouse as he was.

These flaws aside, however, it remains a great film noir, with some of the best hard-boiled dialogue in the genre.