The Young Philadelphians (1959)

The theme of The Young Philadelphians is that of choosing to marry for social position, which we all know is wrong, rather than marrying for love, which is what we are supposed to do.

When the movie opens, Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith) watches forlornly from across the street where the woman he loves, and who presumably loves him, is getting married to William “Bill” Lawrence III (Adam West), scion of a notable family that is part of Main Line society in Philadelphia.

That woman is Kate, whose mother encouraged her to make that choice.  She has a son, Tony (Paul Newman), and she is just as concerned as her mother was that Tony marry into a socially prominent family.

Tony has a friend, Chet Gwynn (Robert Vaughn), who we find out was married to the woman he loved for about two days before his family bought off his wife and had the marriage annulled.

Tony is in love with Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush), who comes from a socially prominent family.  However, though Tony has the name “Lawrence,” he is not really accepted as part of Main Line society, for reasons to be explained later.  Therefore, when her father Gilbert Dickinson (John Williams) finds out that Tony and Joan are about to elope, he persuades Tony to “postpone” the marriage for a few months by offering him advancement in his prestigious law firm.  Although Joan is all that Tony’s mother could want in the way of social advancement through marriage, she sees even more social advancement through his inclusion in the law firm, and so she conspires with Gilbert in his effort to prevent the marriage.

Joan doesn’t buy the postponement excuse, so she ends up marrying Carter Henry, not because she loves him, but being disillusioned about love, she decided that she might as well marry a man her family approves of.

When Tony finds out about Joan’s marriage, he doesn’t understand why she didn’t accept the fact that their marriage was only postponed.  He becomes disillusioned about love and everything else.  Success is the only thing that matters.

When Carol Wharton (Alexis Smith), wife of a senior partner of a law firm even more prestigious than the one Gilbert is a partner of, offers herself one night to Tony, who is a guest in the Wharton home, he knows he will have to finesse this one.  Having sex with her might spoil his chance for advancement, so he tells her that he doesn’t just want a fling, that he loves her and wants her to divorce her husband John Wharton (Otto Krüger) and marry him.  Though Carol is in love with Tony, she says she cannot do what he asks and so returns to her room.  Tony was pretty sure she would choose social position over love, and why not?  That’s what everyone else in the movie seems to be doing.

Even if free will is a fiction, it is an indispensable one.  And so, just as in real life, we usually assume that the characters in a movie make choices of their own free will.  But this movie is at pains to say otherwise.  When it begins, we hear Tony’s voice acting as narrator:  “A man’s life, they say, is the sum of all his actions.  But his actions are sometimes the result of the hopes, dreams, and desires of those who came before him.  In that sense, my life began even before I was born.”  Well, that certainly has a deterministic flavor to it.

He is referring to the choice his mother made in marrying William “Bill” Lawrence III, and his choice in marrying her.  No sooner are they married than Bill tells Kate, in an over-the-top melodramatic scene, that he cannot love her, that he was forced into this marriage by his mother.  Either he is impotent, or he is a homosexual.  It would make more sense if he were impotent, because it is not uncommon for a homosexual to marry a woman and have sex with her for the sake of appearances, especially when this movie was made.  Whatever the reason, he leaves her alone on her wedding night.  She goes to see Mike, has sex with him, and gets pregnant.  Only later does she find out that Bill killed himself in an accident by driving too fast.

Bill’s mother comes to see Kate in the hospital when she gives birth to Tony.  Mrs. Lawrence says that she knows, as a result of an investigation, that the baby is not her son’s.  (What kind of investigation could that have been?)  She tells Kate that if she gives up the “Lawrence” name, she will give her a lot of money.  But Kate chooses to keep the name.  Apparently, Kate believes that having a prestigious name is not only more important than love, but money as well.

All these choices are likely to make one drift back into the notion that these characters are all acting of their own free will, so it will take more than the opening lines of the movie to dispel that notion.  And so it is than when Tony, as an adult, is invited to a party, he is introduced to Dr. Shippen Stearnes, who is renowned for his research on the question as to which has the greater influence, heredity or environment.  The implication of that debate is that whatever the respective roles these two influences have, they are both deterministic.  They leave no room for free will.

Later in the movie, after Carter is killed in the Korean War, making Joan a widow, she and Tony begin seeing each other again.  For a while, it seems that they have gotten over the question as to who was to blame for breaking off their engagement, but eventually they start having an argument about it, during which Joan tells Tony that she knows that he can’t help what he has become, another deterministic comment.  It’s also an insult, for two reasons:  First, she implies that there is something wrong with what he has become, for which she condescends to forgive; and second, because no one likes being told that his success was not his own doing.  Only if a man is a failure does he want to hear that it couldn’t be helped.

Of course, it is not only the necessity of determinism that is inimical to free will.  Chance also works against this notion.  And much that happens in the movie is the result of coincidence and accident.  By chance, Tony finds out about an opportunity with Wharton.  By chance, he acquires a rich client for Wharton’s firm.  Carter is killed in the war.  Chet loses his arm during that same war.  One circumstance and happenstance after another leads to Chet’s being accused of the murder of his uncle, Morton Stearnes (Robert Douglas).

Faced with the loss of Joan, and threatened with the exposure of his mother’s adultery and the loss of his position in the law firm, Tony chooses to defend Chet even though his family would rather let him go to prison than endure a scandal.  This choice to act out of loyalty to his friend rather than out of self-interest may not be an act of free will, for in the end, who can say about such things?  But it sure looks like it.

Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, Tony’s decision to do the right thing comes with no cost:  He gets Chet acquitted, his ability as a lawyer in winning that case guarantees his future success, his mother’s sin is not exposed, and he and Joan are reconciled and will live happily ever after.

Kitty Foyle (1940) and Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)

Kitty Foyle begins as a comedy, and quite a funny one, I must say.  But once the title character falls in love, the movie becomes a melodrama.  Just like real life, I suppose.  Tom, Dick and Harry, on the other hand, is a comedy all the way through.  Ginger Rogers starred in both, the former being made a year before the latter, and in both movies, she must choose which man she will marry (or at least spend the rest of her life with).  In watching these two films, one gets the impression that those in charge of production at RKO were so pleased with the success of Kitty Foyle that they wanted to do something like that again.  But in order to avoid simply following the same formula, someone added a joker to the deck, with a few elements from the first movie making their way into the second.

Kitty Foyle, which has the subtitle, The Natural History of a Woman, begins with a prologue announcing that it is the story of a “white collar girl.”  It goes on to say that since she is a comparative newcomer to the American scene, it will consider her as she was in 1900.  Said 1900 old-fashioned girl has men scrambling to give up their seats on the trolley for her, with one lucky man having the privilege of doing so.  Subsequently, we see him sitting with her on her porch, wooing her with a ukulele.  He impulsively kisses her on the cheek.  She is shocked at the liberty he has taken.  Realizing he must do the honorable thing, he proposes marriage.  She is delighted, having used her womanly wiles to trap a man, while the man wonders how this could have happened to him.  We see them again after they have married.  He arrives home from work, turning over his entire paycheck to her, though she hands him back a coin, for the trolley, presumably.  Then he discovers that she is going to have a baby, and he kneels beside her, worshipping her now more than ever.  This is an amusing depiction of the idea that women had it made in the old days, that it was when they had few rights that they had real power, as expressed in the nineteenth century poem “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World.”

This is followed by an intertitle that reads, “But this was not enough.”  We see scenes of the women’s suffrage movement, with that same woman now holding a sign that reads, “Let the hand that rocks the cradle guide the state.”  However, once she gets her equal rights, men not only ignore her on the trolley, but when one man gets up to leave, another pushes her aside so he can have the seat for himself.  Quite frankly, I could have stayed with this woman for the rest of the movie.

Anyway, another intertitle tells us that once women began working “shoulder to shoulder” with men, the men became indifferent to the presence of women, leading to that “five thirty feeling,” presumably a woman’s feeling of loneliness at the end of the day on account of not being married.  The point of all this is that a woman now has a harder time getting a man to marry her.  We see a bunch of women on an elevator talking about how much they like having a man or how much they wish they had one.  One woman, however, expresses an independent point of view, saying that a woman can be happy without a man.  “What’s the difference,” she asks, “between men bachelors and girl bachelors?”  Then we see Ginger Rogers, as the title character, exiting the elevator while making her entrance into this movie by answering, “Men bachelors are that way because they want to be.”

This is a familiar premise in the movies, that women want to be married.  No such assumption is made regarding men.  A man may eventually want to marry some woman in particular, but a woman wants to get married as a matter of principle.  The corresponding premise for men in the movies is that they are perfectly happy being bachelors.  They typically do get married, of course, and for no better reason than they are in love.  But for women in these movies, things are not so simple.  Women want to get married even before they have some particular man in mind, and when there is some man in particular for them to think about marrying, considerations other than love enter in.

One consideration is the man’s socio-economic status.  From the time she was a young girl, Kitty has been fascinated with a Main Line social function in Philadelphia known as the Assembly.  By chance, she meets Wyn Strafford, and as soon as she finds out that he is one of the elite, she falls in love with him.  He falls in love with her too, but their class difference makes for difficulties, especially after they get married. When she meets his family, she finds out about their expectations for her, which apparently include sending her to finishing school so that she can comport herself properly at social functions.  And she learns of the hold they have on Wyn.  Kitty wants her and Wyn to move to New York, where they won’t have to bother about all this Main Line stuff, but the Strafford money is in a trust that would require them to live in Philadelphia at Darby Mill house, otherwise Wyn will lose his inheritance.  Kitty is offended, saying she will not go to school to get her rough edges polished off.  She announces disdainfully that she didn’t marry Wyn for his money, that she married a man, not a trust fund.

That’s a fine speech coming from her.  After seeing the way she was awed by those attending the Philadelphia Assembly, and after seeing her become enamored with Wyn the minute she found out he was a Main Liner, we are now supposed to believe that she cares nothing about class and money.  All she cares about is true love, and she is indignant that Wyn’s family is not egalitarian enough to accept her just the way she is.  Well, we all act from mixed motives, and when we do, they don’t stand out as discreet items for our inspection, but blend together into single result, making it easy for us to imagine we have acted from the best of intentions while suppressing those we would rather forget.

When she realizes that Wyn would never be happy if he had to forgo his inheritance, the two of them trying to make a go of it as a working-class couple in New York, she leaves him and gets a divorce.

Kitty has a baby and it dies.  So, what’s the point?  Her pregnancy was not inevitable, especially since she and Wyn were only together as a married couple for less than a week.  Well, in one sense, it was inevitable.  When a woman in a movie has sex with a man just one time, she gets pregnant. Presumably, Kitty and Wyn had sex more than once in the few days they were together, but that’s close enough to practically guarantee pregnancy in a movie.  (This rule does not apply to prostitutes or women that regularly have one-night stands, of course.) In any event, given the pregnancy, the death of the baby was not inevitable, since healthy babies are born every day.  But in another sense, the baby’s death was inevitable, because the plot required it, as we shall see.

On the rebound, she starts dating Mark Eisen, a doctor who is more concerned with helping the poor and needy than in making money.  Still, he wants to marry her, and she could be comfortable with him.  She accepts his proposal.  But as she is preparing to meet him later to get married, Wyn shows up, and it is clear they truly love each other.  He says he has left his wife and is going to South America.  And he wants Kitty to come with him, even though he has no intention of getting a divorce.

I’m not sure what the significance of South America is in these movies about the upper class.  In Stella Dallas (1937), the title character tells her daughter she is going to get married and move to South America to get away from it all.  Isn’t that a little extreme?  I understand wanting to get away from one’s family, because they can be a nuisance, but is it necessary to run that far?  Can’t they just move to Kansas or something, some place where everyone speaks English?

And I don’t mean to overthink this thing, but what will they live on?  Wyn will be disinherited, just as he would have had they moved to New York.  So, instead of his getting a job in New York, and, as Kitty put it at the time, living in a small apartment with a pull-down bed, eating meals in drugstores, going to a movie once a week, and trying to save a dollar or two against the day he may lose his job, now they can do all that in South America.

In any event, Kitty must choose:  have a respectable, comfortable life with Mark or be Wyn’s mistress.  And herein lies the answer to the twofold question, why did Kitty have a baby, and why did it die?  It is easy to understand why the baby had to die.  Kitty would not have been able even to consider living illicitly with a man if she had a child to raise.  It is one thing for her to live in sin with only herself to consider, but to make her child have to bear the disgrace as well would have been unthinkable in this movie.  But that only answers half the question.  Why was it necessary for her to be pregnant in the first place, aside from the reason given above?

When Kitty reflects on Wyn’s proposition, she thinks about how she will be regarded in society, and she wonders how their arrangement will fare as she gets older.  But one thing she never wonders about is what will happen if she gets pregnant.  In fact, we don’t wonder about that either as we watch this movie.  Why not?  Because once a woman in a movie has a baby that dies, she never has another.  Sometimes, after breaking the news to the mother that the baby was stillborn, the doctor then goes on to tell her that she cannot have another.  But that scene is not necessary.  Movie logic precludes another baby regardless.  So the death of Kitty’s baby allows her to consider living with Wyn without worrying about the possibility of getting pregnant again.  Kitty doesn’t know she is in a movie, of course, but we do.  And if we are not worried about her getting pregnant again, why should she?

Still, her life with Wyn would not be easy.  Normally in the movies, the woman chooses the man she loves, but since life with Wyn would be disreputable, she chooses a respectable life with Mark.  Or rather, I should say, by having Wyn’s proposition be an immoral one (by 1940 standards), the movie allows her to choose Mark, the man she does not love.  We are glad that Kitty makes the morally acceptable choice, but we are also glad the she is marrying within her class.  We don’t hold it against women in the movies for wanting to marry into the upper class, but it makes us uncomfortable nevertheless.

This is another difference in the movies between men and women.  A man like Wyn might have to choose between marrying within his class and marrying down, but we seldom see a movie about a man having to choose between marrying within his class and marrying up.  When we do see such a movie, the man’s desire to marry up is felt to be wrong.  But when a woman has a desire to marry up, we are more understanding.  We have misgivings, wondering as we do in this movie whether she can find happiness in a family worried about her lack of polish and refinement; and we may be relieved, as we are here, when she settles for someone in her own class.  But we don’t really think the less of her for wanting to marry into the upper class as we do with a man.

We now turn to Tom, Dick and Harry.  Instead of just two, there are three men in this movie that Janie (Ginger Rogers) must choose among.  Tom (George Murphy) is a car salesman, and he corresponds to Mark:  he and Janie are in the same class, and he can provide her with a comfortable life.  Dick is a millionaire playboy, and he corresponds to Wyn:  he is a member of the elite, and Janie wonders if she would fit in.  Finally, Harry (Burgess Meredith) is a trickster figure, who throws the formula out of whack:  he is an auto mechanic who cares nothing about getting ahead or making a lot of money.

In Kitty Foyle, the characters occasionally reflect on their situation.  In fact, Kitty literally does so when her image in the mirror tells her just how things will be in South America.  But Tom, Dick and Harry seems to take this to a whole new level, especially when Janie is with Harry, who waxes philosophical on her unrealistic dream of marrying into the upper class.  But we meet him later.  When the movie begins, Tom and Janie are in a movie theater, which is a reflexive device right there.  We don’t see the screen.  We only hear the voices of the actors.  It doesn’t sound like any movie that ever actually existed, but rather a parody of one we have already seen.  It is the final scene of the movie, and a man, who is rich and upper class, is telling a working-class woman that he wants her to come away with him, to someplace where they can get away from it all, to South America.  She is reluctant, thinking that he just wants her to be his mistress.  But no, he wants to marry her.  She is so happy, she cries.  They kiss.  The End.

It is a cloying variation on Wyn’s offer to Kitty, but it is just the kind of ending that Janie likes, for she too dreams of marrying someone rich and upper class.  After the movie, she and Tom discuss whether the movie was true to life, whether a rich, upper-class man would marry a poor, working-class girl.  Janie says it is, because he loved her.  Tom doesn’t think so, but that is because he doesn’t want it to be true to life.  He plans on proposing to Janie, and he doesn’t want her head full of foolish notions about marrying up.

The next day after work, Janie is standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus, when Harry pulls up in front of her driving an expensive car.  Not realizing that Harry is just a mechanic, and that he is delivering the car to a rich customer, who turns out to be Dick, Janie flirts with him and eventually becomes so brazen as to get in the car with him.  After taking her home, Harry makes a date with her for later that evening.  He shows up with what looks like two small bunches of violets, which is, perhaps, just a minor quotation of Kitty Foyle, where Wyn takes Kitty to New York, and just before entering an exclusive speakeasy, he buys her two bunches of violets.  More importantly, when they are seated at a table, she asks Wyn why he brought her to New York.  She explains:  “When I was going to high school in Manito, Illinois, it’s quite a small town and everybody knew everybody else’s business.  So, when a man wanted to take somebody out, he didn’t care particularly about being seen with her, he’d always take her up to Chicago.”  He says it’s nothing like that, although we suspect it is just like that when we see how cowed Wyn is by his family and their expectations.  In Tom, Dick and Harry, when Janie finally manages to meet Dick, he asks her to go on a date with him to Chicago, which Janie gleefully accepts, unencumbered as she is by Kitty’s worldliness.

All three men want to marry Janie, and she dreams of marrying each of them and then all of them at once.  As for that last dream, on their wedding night, we see the bedroom, and it is of the Production Code sort, with its respectable twin beds.  But then, with Janie sitting in one bed, all three men get in the other.  She wakes up and realizes she must choose.  The next morning, she chooses Dick because he is the man she has dreamed of marrying all her life.  She kisses Tom goodbye.  And then she kisses Harry.  Earlier in the movie, whenever she kissed Harry, they heard bells chiming, something that never happens when she kisses Tom or Dick.  And now, in kissing Harry goodbye, she hears them again.

In Kitty Foyle, we knew that Kitty liked Mark, but it was Wyn she loved.  In Tom, Dick and Harry, it is neither like nor love, but sexual arousal that clinches the deal.  Janie tells Dick goodbye, hops on the back of Harry’s three-wheel motorcycle, and off they go.

Dark Victory (1939) and The Hasty Heart (1949)

As a disease movie, Dark Victory might have been believable in 1939, but it is certainly far-fetched today.  Bette Davis plays Judith Traherne, a young, rich woman with all the character flaws that might easily come from being rich:  arrogant, spoiled, frivolous.  Transcending all this, however, is her intensity, which makes even her ordinary actions seem like vices.  Just watching her walk across a room will wear you out.  By way of contrast, her boyfriend, Alec, played by Ronald Reagan, is cool and relaxed.

Judith suffers from headaches and double vision.  Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), her secretary and friend, finally gets her to go to the doctor, and, not surprisingly, she is a bad patient.  Despite her resistance, she is diagnosed as having a glioma, a malignant tumor in the brain.  She consents to having surgery, but upon its completion, the prognosis is negative.

Negative, but preposterously artificial and precise:  she will live less than a year, but she will have absolutely no symptoms until just a few hours before she dies, at which point her vision will begin to fail and things will become dark.  The doctor says this is a rare case, which is an understatement, since it is so rare as to be nonexistent.

Well, they went to a lot of trouble to create this disease for this movie, so we know that something is up.  Presumably, the point is to pose the question, what effect would the certainty of death have on someone once all the symptoms leading up to death had been eliminated?  Judith will still be young, pretty, rich, and otherwise healthy.  She has no accompanying complications, like still needing to work in order to pay the bills or worrying about who will care for her children, of which she has none.  It is only death in all its purity that she must deal with.

Moreover, there is no indication that she is even remotely religious, so she must face death with no hope for a future life.  Nor can we believe that she has the consolation of philosophy, for the above-mentioned intensity of her personality suggests that she has been too busy living life to have spent much time reflecting upon it.  To be sure, neither religion nor philosophy can fully prepare anyone for death when it comes, but Judith has no cushion at all.

Dr. Steele (George Brent), who performed the brain surgery, and Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), Judith’s family practitioner, agree not to tell Judith that she is going to die.  We have doubts about the ethics of their decision, made all the more suspect when Steele confides in Ann about Judith’s condition.  After Steele and Judith fall in love and decide to marry, she accidentally finds out about her negative prognosis.  She becomes angry, accusing Ann of getting Steele to marry her out of pity.

As a result, the marriage between Steele and Judith is off, and she apparently descends into drunkenness and promiscuity, including affairs with married men.  At least, that’s what the movie let’s us think for a while, until it makes us aware that it is mostly malicious gossip.  She almost has an affair with Michael (Humphrey Bogart), her horse trainer, but then realizes that this is not how she wants to spend what is left of her life.  That is not surprising.  Most people want more out of life than just drinking and screwing.  Similarly, at different points in the movie, the subjects of euthanasia and suicide are broached, but quickly dismissed.  That too is not surprising, for most people believe that deliberately ending an unhappy life, one’s own or that of another, as not being the answer either.  At least, that is the attitude of this movie.

So, what is the answer?  At first it would seem that the movie says we should live a life of deception and delusion.  To begin with, the doctors and Ann lie to Judith about her condition, the idea being that she will be better off not knowing.  Right after Steele tells Ann the truth, Judith joins them and gives Steele a present, some cufflinks “from a grateful patient,” she says.  The act of giving him a present gives her an idea.  She declares that it is her birthday, not literally, but figuratively, in the sense that her life has a new beginning, now that she has been cured.  She suggests that they get together every year to celebrate, not realizing that by this time next year she will be dead.  Though Steele and Ann think they are doing the right thing by concealing the truth from Judith, yet there seems to be something so wrong about letting her live in a fool’s paradise.  They deprive her of dignity for the sake of a false happiness.  Then, after Steele and Judith reconcile and get married, they become deliberately oblivious to her illness, acting as though there is nothing wrong with her.  Finally, just as Steele gets word of an invitation to attend an important meeting in New York regarding his work, Judith experiences a dimming of her vision and realizes she will soon die.  But she deceives her husband, encouraging him to go on without her, which he does.

But this cannot be the answer.  It is one thing to go on with your life without dwelling on the finality of death, but it is quite another thing live in perpetual denial.  There is something almost desperate about their forced happiness.  And it is untenable.  When Michael casually refers to the prayers he has been saying for Judith, she flinches.

But before Steele leaves, she becomes realistic, speaks frankly about her fate, and says that she is prepared for the end.  Still unaware that Judith can no longer see very well, Steele reluctantly leaves on his trip.  Judith then tells Ann she wants to die alone, so that her husband will know that in the end she was not afraid.  This is what we have been waiting for, courage and honesty in the face of death, and the peace that comes with resignation.

This movie is similar to The Hasty Heart (1949), set in a makeshift hospital in a jungle in Burma just after the end of World War II.  Colonel Dunn, who appears to be the chief surgeon, tells the men that are still recovering from wounds or malaria that a new patient, a corporal that goes by the name “Lachie” (Richard Todd), will be arriving soon.  On the last day of the war, a piece of shrapnel damaged one of his kidneys, which had to be removed.  He has just about recovered from the surgery and appears to be well.  Normally, he could get along with just one kidney for the rest of his life, but the doctors have discovered that the other one is defective.  For the next few weeks, the kidney will do the work of two and then collapse.  At that point uremic poisoning will set in and he will die.

All this is more believable than the disease in Dark Victory, but just barely.  It seems a bit of a stretch that doctors in an army hospital in the jungle in Burma would be able to diagnose a kidney that is still functioning as being defective, and then give the prognosis that he will apparently be in good health for a few weeks and then die.  However realistic all that may or may not be, it is clearly designed to serve the same function as in Dark Victory, to allow someone to face imminent death free of all symptoms.

Colonel Dunn has not told him, however, much in the way that the doctors in Dark Victory decide not tell Judith.  And just as the doctors in Dark Victory told Ann about Judith’s prognosis, Dunn tells the men in the ward about Lachie, and he asks the men to keep the secret as well and to be extra nice to him.  Once again, we have to wonder about the questionable ethics of not telling the patient that he is going to die, and then telling others who are not even related to him about his terminal disease.  And just as Judith has no family when she is diagnosed with her disease, so too does Lachie have no family, “no ties.”  Because of this, Dunn has decided not to let Lachie go back home to Scotland as he so dearly wants.  Instead, Dunn has taken it upon himself to decide that Lachie will be better off if he is kept in this hospital, surrounded by men who have been ordered to be friends with him.

Lachie’s personality is every bit as intense as that of Judith.  By way of contrast, Ronald Reagan, playing the role of “Yank,” is also in this movie, and here too he is cool and relaxed.  Lachie hates the world and everyone that is in it.  The explanation given for his misanthropy is the fact that he was born illegitimate.  However, we have a hard time believing that this alone could make anyone as surly and hostile as he is.  Had Yank been born illegitimate, we have the feeling he would have shrugged it off and made the best of it.  In other words, Lachie’s personality is just one more contrivance, something made up for dramatic purposes only.

Patricia Neal plays a nurse, Sister Parker.  She comes up with the idea of having a birthday party for Lachie, in which she and the men in the ward buy him a complete outfit consisting of a kilt, brogues, and other appurtenances, all of which is rather expensive.  As in Dark Victory, we have the theme of a birthday for someone who will never live to see another, yet does not realize it, celebrating a beginning instead of facing the end.  Lachie is finally touched by their gesture of friendship.  He begins to think he has been wrong about people.

Soon after, he falls in love with Sister Parker, asking her to marry him.  She says, “If it makes you happy to think of us being married, then that’s what I want too.”  Now, you or I would surely have balked had we received an answer like that to a proposal of marriage.  And we would have wondered why a nurse and other men in a ward, whom we had only known for a couple of weeks, would have spent so much money buying us gifts.  But Lachie’s social skills are such that he suspects nothing.

And so it is that both movies feature references to the three most important events in a person’s life, birth, marriage, and death, each of which justifies an announcement in the newspaper, and for each of which we get a certificate.

Having gone this far with this deception, the only proper thing would be to see it through to the end.  That is, when Lachie’s kidney begins to fail him, everyone should act surprised and sad.  But no, just as Lachie has come to believe in friendship and love, Colonel Dunn tells him that he can go home after all.  Moreover, because his is a special case, he gets priority and can even go home by plane.  Why is he a special case? Lachie wants to know.  Dunn says he has been ordered to give him the facts of the case, which is that he is going to die soon.

We may have had misgivings about the way the doctors handled Judith’s case, but at least Ann really was her friend, having been so before Judith was diagnosed, and Dr. Steele really did love her and want to marry her.  But this handling of Lachie’s case is cruel.  He sees immediately that the men were just pretending to be his friend and that Parker only pretended to want to marry him, that they gave him “a fool’s religion to die on.”

To make matters worse, after Dunn tells Lachie he is going to die, he doesn’t bother to tell the men whom he ordered to befriend Lachie that Lachie knows everything.  He just walks past them, letting them make fools out of themselves by continuing to carry on the charade.  Of course, when Parker finally tells them that Lachie knows the truth, they all protest that they only pretended at first, but now they really are his friends, and so forth and so on.  “Well, then,” Lachie replies, “should I be proud that you liked me only because I was about to die?”  Just as Judith suspected Steele proposed marriage out of pity, Lachie accuses Parker of accepting his proposal for the same reason.  She replies, “Surely there’s pity in every woman’s love.”  That answer is even creepier than the one she gave to his proposal.

Needless to say, through one more contrivance that we need not bother with here, Lachie is finally convinced that Parker and the men really are his friends, and he decides to stay.  In the end, we are glad that he finally opens his heart, choosing to die among the only friends he has, just as we were glad in Dark Victory, when for the sake of those she loves, Judith chooses to die alone.

 

The Spiral Road (1962)

It’s not easy being a movie atheist.  More often than not, you will end up being humiliated in the last reel.  But of all the atheist-humiliation movies ever made, none have surpassed The Spiral Road.  There is no substitute for seeing this movie in all its glory, but in the meantime, I will try, in my own small way, to give the reader some sense of this film and the slow, relentless way it reduces the big, swaggering atheist to a sniveling, sorry spectacle of a broken man.

The movie is set in the Dutch East Indies in 1936.  As required by their medical school contracts, several young doctors arrive in Indonesia to spend five years treating the natives for tropical diseases, such as cholera, plague, and leprosy.  The brightest of these, a gold medal winner with high honors, is Anton Drager (Rock Hudson).  On the day of their arrival, the doctors are told they will attend a dinner where they will meet the hospital staff and their families.  At the dinner, Mrs. Kramer, the wife of the director, tells Drager that the social life in the Dutch colony can be quite enjoyable, but he says he didn’t come to this part of the world for dance lessons or to join the Country Club.  She says, “You make it sound like a fate worse than death.”

“I don’t believe in fate,” Drager replies.

Most people would regard Mrs. Kramer’s remark as merely a manner of speaking, but Drager cannot let the remark pass without taking a firm stand against such a notion.  This would be like someone saying, “We can thank our lucky stars that it didn’t rain today,” to which someone says with a straight face, “I don’t believe in astrology.”

“What do you believe in, Dr. Drager,” she asks.

“Anton Drager,” he replies.

After an arrogant answer like that, one suspects that Mrs. Kramer might not be too disappointed that Drager has no interest in the social life in Batavia.  Through subsequent conversation with her and then with her husband, we learn that Drager is quite ambitious.  He wants to work with Dr. Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), who is the best in the field of tropical medicine, but who hasn’t published anything in years.  Drager hopes to publish jointly with Jansen, so that when he returns to the Netherlands after five years, he will be very much in demand in the field of research, for which there will be significant remunerative benefit.  Kramer agrees to send Drager to Jansen.

On arriving in the area where Jansen usually works, Drager meets Harry Frolick, a river master, and Captain Wattereus of the Salvation Army.  Frolick goes out of his way to mock Wattereus’s religion, becoming so physically aggressive about it that Drager has to grab Frolick and push him away, knocking him to the ground.  After Frolick leaves with a prostitute, Drager remarks, “Well, that was a ridiculous exhibition.”

“Poor Harry,” Wattereus says.  “He’s going through a hell all his own, trying to prove God doesn’t exist.  For if God doesn’t exist, Harry’s sins don’t exist.  That’s why he’s so violent and unhappy.”

Drager disagrees, saying, “To me, Frolick is just a poor idiot who can’t hold his liquor.”

Now, either explanation could be correct, for all we know.  It could be as simple as Drager says.  But then, such extreme hostility toward religion on Frolick’s part makes us suspect he is an atheist who is still struggling against the remnants of religious upbringing that are still within him.

This is a recurring theme throughout the movie:  explanations involving people’s beliefs in the supernatural versus physiological explanations only.  Now, these explanations in terms of beliefs depend in no way on those beliefs being true.  Even if there is no God, Wattereus’s explanation for Frolick’s behavior in terms of his internal struggle against religion could still be correct.  But Drager seems incapable of making such a distinction, as if operating under a perverse sort of logic:  the supernatural does not exist; therefore, explanations in terms of the supernatural are false; therefore, explanations in terms of people’s beliefs in the supernatural are false; therefore, only physiological causes can explain human behavior.

As another example, when Drager catches up with Jansen, who is in a village trying to eliminate the plague that has beset a village, Jansen tells him that he will often have to appeal to magic to deal with the natives.  As easy as this is to understand, Drager appears to be unconvinced.

Later, when Drager tells Jansen of his dispute with Wattereus over the correct explanation for Frolick’s behavior, Jansen says, “I take it you don’t believe in God.”  Now, just as you do not have to believe in God to accept Wattereus’s explanation, not accepting that explanation does not mean you are an atheist.  So, there is no logical reason why Jansen should conclude that Drager does not believe in God.  As a matter of fact, Drager says he does not believe in God, so Jansen’s conclusion turns out to be true, but that does not make his reasoning valid.  So what is going on here?  The movie is equating an explanation in terms of beliefs with holding those beliefs.  By identifying atheism with a simplistic understanding of human nature, the atheist can be dismissed as a fool.

Along these lines, when it comes to physiological explanations, Drager is shown to be excellent.  He is able to diagnose leprosy at a glance, which amazes Jansen.  In other words, the movie makes it clear that in the realm of the physiological, Drager is brilliant.  Therefore, when his physiological explanations alone do not suffice, it follows, according to the thinking underlying this movie, that his atheism does not suffice.

After learning that Drager is an atheist, Jansen says that atheism is fine for civilization, but there are no atheists in the jungle.  This is a variation on the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes.  People who make that sort of argument reason as follows:  people need to believe in God, especially when they are afraid of dying; therefore there must be a God.  This is just one more conflation of the efficacy of a belief with the truth of that belief.

The whole reason the subject of Wattereus came up in the first place is that he runs the nearby leper colony, and Drager and Jansen are taking the man Drager correctly diagnosed as having leprosy to live there.  Jansen tells Drager that Wattereus and his wife Betsy are his best friends.  When they get there, it turns out that Betsy has leprosy.  She is behind a curtain surrounding her bed, so we are left to imagine that she has been horribly disfigured by the disease and is in much pain, as well as being blind.  Jansen gives her an injection to make her sleep.  Outside the hut, Jansen tells Wattereus, “She’s worse.  There she lies dying, mutilated, rotting away, and I can’t do a thing about it.”

Later, when Drager and Jansen are alone, Jansen tells how when he first met them, they were already out there, taking in lepers, but they were doing nothing to protect themselves, because, Betsy said, “God protects us.”  But he took one look at her hands and knew that she had the disease.  “Well,” Jansen said to her, “Your God’s made a fool of you…, because you’ve got it.”

He says he almost got satisfaction in telling her.  She was tending to a leper when he told her, but she just looked up at him and smiled. “I’ve never seen such beauty and peace,” he says.  In other words, Jansen was much like Drager when he first came to the jungle, and this is just one of the ways in which living in the jungle makes people believe in God.  It’s that same reasoning again:  Betsy’s love of God is so strong that not even the knowledge that she will slowly be ravaged by a horrible disease can dispel her feeling of blessedness; therefore, there must be a God.

When a movie presents you with a setup like this, you know that the subject of mercy killing will inevitably arise.  Drager asks Jansen if he ever thought about putting her out of her misery.  Jansen says he did once, about three years earlier, but he couldn’t do it.  Drager offers to do it himself.  Jansen then explains why he couldn’t do it. He says he had the needle to her skin.  She could still see and talk at that time, and she knew, so she asked God to forgive him even for thinking about it.  That was when he realized that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh way.”  Jansen says that he realized he must not play God, and he makes it clear that it would be wrong for Drager to do so as well.

This is not much of a moral dilemma.  If Betsy did not want to be euthanized, then that was her decision.  What we would like to know is what Jansen would have done if Betsy had begged him to kill her.  Would he still have said it was wrong to play God?  But that kind of scene belongs in a completely different movie.  This movie is not interested making us think.  It is interested only in presenting us with an utterly lopsided advocacy in favor of God and religious belief, and in showing us just how wrongheaded the atheist is.

After several months, Els (Gena Rowlands), Drager’s fiancé, shows up for a visit.  After one thing and another, they decide to get married.  During the ceremony, the bride and groom are both supposed to repeat after the minister a ritual affirmation that includes the phrase “in the sight of God.”  Drager tries to leave it out, but the minister isn’t having it, so Drager is forced to utter it.  It would have been more realistic if Drager had simply repeated the phrase the first time with indifference, as most atheists would, but this is a movie atheist, don’t you know, so such things matter to him.  Later, Els says it was sneaky of him trying to leave God out of the ceremony.  He jokes, “I was in a hurry.”

Jansen does not like to work with married men in the jungle, but Els eventually convinces him to take Drager back.  He agrees.  It turns out that during the intervening months, Drager has been compiling Jansen’s notes on leprosy into a coherent manuscript.  At first, Jansen is angry, but after reading most of it, he agrees that it is good.  But Drager tells him to read the last chapter, in which Drager concludes that management of all medical centers presently under control of religious and charitable organizations be taken from them and turned over to the administration of the government health service.  In particular, Drager believes that Wattereus is too sentimental, allowing people to stay in his leper colony long after their disease is in remission, causing the colony to be overcrowded.  But Jansen points out that their families will never take them back, that the leper colony is the only family they have.  Through the discussion, it becomes clear that Drager really doesn’t care about people beyond their role as patients with a disease to be cured.  All he really cares about is getting back to Holland and publishing the manuscript jointly with Jansen, as a means of becoming a successful researcher.  Jansen takes the manuscript away from him and says he will have him replaced.

The replacement is brought up by Inspector Bevers, who tells Drager that before he can take him back, they will have to check on Frolick.  When they get there, the camp is deserted, except for Frolick, whose hair and beard make him look like a wild man.  It is clear that he has gone mad.  He tries to kill Drager with a machete, and Drager has to shoot him.  Back in Batavia, Kramer is trying to understand what drove Frolick mad.  Drager says it was a psychotic state induced by excessive use of alcohol.  We have already seen that Frolick was an alcoholic, and there were bottles of gin everywhere.  But Bevers has a different theory.  The madness was caused by Burubi, the witchdoctor.  True, Burubi probably supplied Frolick with the gin, but we also saw a dead lizard surrounded by a circle of blood, as well as an effigy of Frolick cut into pieces.

So, here we are again:  Drager insisting on a purely physiological explanation; Bevers saying that black magic was involved.  It is a cliché to point out that voodoo can’t harm you, if you don’t believe in it; but if you do believe in it, it can kill you.  Superstitious natives have been known to go into shock and die when presented with an effigy of themselves with a pin stuck in it.  Through isolation and excessive alcohol, Frolick’s mind had deteriorated to the point that he came to believe in the witchdoctor’s black magic.  But Drager cannot accept this simple truth.

Drager is still stressed by having to kill Frolick, but he and Els decide to go to dinner.  Wattereus happens to be in town for his monthly checkup, and he joins them.  He laments that he might have been able to do something for Frolick.  Drager replies that all he had to do was work a miracle, turning whiskey into water.  That’s a pretty good line.

Wattereus argues that it was not the alcohol that drove Frolick mad.  Rather, after the natives deserted him, Wattereus continues, Frolick was forced to stand alone, and that’s what broke him.  Throughout the movie, there have been remarks by Drager to the effect that he is a rugged individualist, someone who relies solely on himself.  Now Wattereus is implying that this kind of stance toward the world is untenable.  He says of Frolick, “He cut himself off from God, and from people, at least the love of people, the only sources of strength a man can call on.”

This is another conflation that this movie makes, and it makes it in a big way:  love of God and love of people.  The idea is that because the atheist thinks he does not need God, it follows that he thinks he does not need people.  Of course, Drager is an atheist who, as a matter of fact, thinks he does not need people, but that is only because the people who made this movie wanted him to be that way.  Not only is there no logical reason why the two should be related, they are not so related as a matter of fact.  But in this movie, love of God and love of people are inextricably intertwined.  This is emphasized by an epilogue at the end of the movie, a quotation from the Bible, I John, 4:12, that makes this connection:  “No man hath seen God….  If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

But Wattereus is not through.  He moves on to the next step:  “And he was defenseless against the wilderness.  But then we began in the wilderness, all of us lost and afraid. But with a choice:  to take the spiral road upward, leading to God, or to remain in the darkness and degenerate back to the animal.  I know how terrifying it is to look into the face of a human being, someone you know, but can no longer recognize, and to see in it the image of what we can become.”  In other words, Frolick was not practically unrecognizable because he hadn’t shaved, bathed, or combed his hair in a month, but because he didn’t believe in God.  It was his atheism that caused him to become like an animal.

Drager has another explanation.  He tells about how just before he came out to the Dutch colonies, a God-fearing, gentle shopkeeper committed a brutal sex crime.  It seems he had been receiving hormone treatment for chronic prostatitis, and an accidental overdose was apparently responsible.  And so, Drager continues, if an injection can turn a saintly man into sinner, then the reverse should also be true.  Eventually someone will discover the right chemical to turn a sinner into a saint.  “It will be the first biochemical explanation for faith, like putting God into a test tube.  Religion would become nothing more than a matter of glands.  One simple shot.  Ten cc’s of saint serum and heaven on earth.”

After Wattereus leaves, Els chastises Drager for humiliating him, but Drager is clearly fed up with it all, saying he just wanted to clear the air:  “You heard him.  Spouting all the spiritual gibberish about poor Harry, the man without God, punished for his sins, struck down by some heavenly fist.”

Els says that was not what Wattereus meant, saying, “All he said was we all need faith in some power greater than ourselves, that we need each other, that without it we’re alone, and we can’t live alone.  No one is strong enough.”

Els is right in one respect.  Wattereus was not saying that God will strike down people who don’t believe in him, but rather that man cannot live without believing in God.  Drager says it’s the same thing.  On that they disagree.  But where they do agree is on the conflation, just reiterated by Els, of loving God and loving people, needing God and needing people.  But here too there is disagreement, a disagreement of attitude toward that conflation, with Els saying we need God/people, and Drager saying he doesn’t need God/people.

Drager says, “I’ve heard stuff like that since I was a kid, and it scared me then.  Love one another, love God or he will destroy you.  I heard it all.”  He tells how his father, who was a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, would “beat me regularly trying to teach me to love God.”  Drager says he was afraid at first, but then he stopped it once and for all.  At the age of ten, while his father was ranting from the pulpit, Drager says he dared God to kill him, saying to God, “I don’t love you, God.  Do you hear me?  I hate you….”  He says he kept that up every Sunday for a month.  But nothing happened.  And then he knew, “God couldn’t touch me.  He couldn’t hurt me.  And if he couldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t help me.  Nobody could.”

Note the conflation right at the end:  God can’t help me, therefore people can’t help me.  Needless to say, when he explicitly follows up on this by saying he doesn’t need anyone, Els draws the conclusion that he does not need her.  He is reluctant to go that far at first.  She says she wants to understand what is happening to him.  He says he is angry that Jansen won’t let him publish the manuscript with him, and he is upset that he had to kill a man.   And he tells her that he had an affair with a native woman while in the jungle, “No words, no questions.”  In other words, he may need sex, but he does not need the person that goes with it.  Finally, he tells Els that he does not need her, that she should go back to Holland.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, something has happened to Dr. Sordjano, who happens to be a Muslim.  Drager is sent to check on him, to bring him back if he is still alive, and to shut down the camp.  When Drager, Inspector Bevers, and their crew arrive, they find a situation similar to that of Frolick.  When Sordjano dies, Drager refuses to leave, saying, “I’m not Frolick, and I’m not Sordjano.  I don’t need liquor, or a prayer rug, or the Bible.”

After Bevers leaves, Burubi starts with the black magic, causing the men who were left with Drager to desert.  After several weeks, Drager is reduced to the same state that Frolick was in, shaggy hair and beard, wild look in his eyes.  When he sees his reflection in the water of a stream, he does not recognize himself, and he fires his gun at it.  This recalls Wattereus’s comment about looking into the face of someone you know but don’t recognize, seeing the image of what we can become without God.  Later, when Drager gets stuck in a pond, he sees his face again and says in horror, “It’s me.”  Then there is the scene we all knew was coming.  He prays to God, asking for help.  Immediately thereafter, he calls out to Els, establishing the conflation one more time of needing God and needing people.

Well, God sure acts fast, because just then a rescue party shows up.  Drager collapses in Jansen’s arms.  Later, back in Batavia, Els is by his bedside.  He is delirious but holds her hand tightly.  He starts calling out her name, louder and louder, so that Jansen and Wattereus come running in to see what is happening.  Just then, he comes to, takes Els in his arms, and says, “Thank God.”  He says that, he does, right there in front of God and everybody.

Boy, if he could have just held out another five minutes in the jungle, his dignity would have been saved, and we would have been spared the most degrading, atheist-humiliation scenes ever filmed.

Rich and Strange (1931)

Rich and Strange is a second-rate movie, made all the more disappointing by the fact that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  We expect more from Hitchcock, so we feel let down when we watch one of his inferior films.  However, this is frequently the case with his earlier efforts.  Nevertheless, I found the movie interesting because of its attitude toward love and marriage.

Fred and Emily are a married couple.  Fred is disgruntled.  He is tired of his job, the routine of domesticity, and the kind of entertainment afforded him and his wife by the radio and the movies.  Emily appears to be satisfied with their situation, but Fred is frustrated that he cannot provide for her properly.  But mostly, he wants the “good things of life.”  There is a painting of a ship that he points to, indicating that he wants adventure.  He is irritated that Emily seems so content, thinking she ought to want more.  In his exasperation, he flings something at their cat to get him off the table.  Finally, he concludes, “I think the best place for us is a gas oven.”  Needless to say, Emily is appalled, noting that they have a plenty of food and a roof over their heads.  And needless to say, Fred is not impressed.  This is a reversal from what we usually see in the movies, where it is the nagging wife who is dissatisfied and wishes her husband could make more money so that she could have nicer things.

A common plot point in a fairy tale is for someone to get his wish, only for things to go terribly wrong.  Presumably, the point is to make us content with our lot.  In any event, as in a fairy tale, a letter arrives from Fred’s uncle, who has decided to give Fred an advance on his inheritance so that he can travel and enjoy life to the full.  He and Emily set sail from England, heading first to France before eventually ending up in the Far East.

On board the ship, Fred gets seasick, leaving Emily enough free time to make friends with Commander Gordon, with whom she soon falls in love, though hesitantly.  Fred finally recovers, meets a princess, with whom he soon falls in love without any hesitation whatsoever.  He is so obvious about it that Emily forms an even stronger attachment to Gordon.

And it is here that we get the first indication that this movie has an unusual attitude toward love.  Emily asks Gordon if he has ever been in love, and he replies, “No, I can’t say that I have.”  Gordon is played by Percy Marmont, an actor who was about thirty-eight years old at the time, so we can figure that Gordon is supposed to be a man in his thirties as well.  The idea that a man could reach that age never having been in love is preposterous.  So, we have to assume that what most of us would call “love,” this movie would dismiss as puppy love, infatuation, or simply lust.  In other words, this movie has an idealistic notion of love, from which vantage point it is assumed that the only way for a (heterosexual) man to still be a bachelor in his thirties would be if either he had never truly been in love, or if his true love was unrequited, something he never completely got over.

At the same time, Emily espouses a grim view of love.  She says that because she loves Fred, she wants him to think well of her, but because he is so clever, he frequently makes her feel foolish.  In other words, he belittles her with his “cleverness.”  She goes on to say that love makes people timid.  They are frightened when they are happy and sadder when they are sad.  Everything is multiplied by two, such as sickness and death.  That’s why she is so happy with Gordon, she says, because he is not clever, and if he were to tire of talking to her and excuse himself, it would not be a big deal.  They agree that it is lucky they are not in love.  But then she concludes that love is a wonderful thing.  In other words, love justifies all the misery it puts people through, which is an essential feature of this movie’s sentimental notions of love.

Things eventually reach the point where Fred and the princess are going to run off together, and Emily is going to leave Fred and marry Gordon.  But Gordon makes the mistake of telling Emily how much he despises Fred, that he is a sham, just a “great baby masquerading as a big, strong man.”  He then goes on to mention that the “princess” is actually an adventuress who wants Fred only for his money.  That brings out Emily’s pity.  She leaves Gordon to go back to Fred, noting at one point that a wife is more than half a mother to her husband.

When she gets back to their room, she finds Fred and the princess making arrangements to leave.  Speaking sotto voce, the princess tells Emily she was a fool not to go with Gordon, for then both women would have benefited, after which she leaves, ostensibly to let Fred and Emily speak to each other alone.  Now, Gordon may have made a mistake bad mouthing Fred to Emily, but she turns around and not only tells Fred what Gordon said, but also that she realized he was telling the truth, so that’s why she came back to him.  When she repeats to Fred that Gordon said he was a sham and a bluff, Fred says he ought to smash him.  But Emily says that Gordon wouldn’t be afraid of him because he knows that Fred is a coward.  The reason she came back, she says, is that she now realizes that all along she had dressed up his faults as virtues, and that he would be lost without her.  Well, Fred would have to be the cowardly worm Emily says he is in order for him to remain married to her after she said all that.

Meanwhile, the princess takes off with £1,000 pounds of Fred’s money (about $80,000 today).  Almost broke, they catch a cheap ship to get back home, but it almost sinks and they are abandoned.  However, a Chinese junk comes along, the crew of which are intent on salvage.  Fred and Emily board the ship.  One of the crew gets tangled up in the lines, struggles, and then drowns.  The rest of the crew simply watch, with no one making a move to help him.  Back in those days, it was believed that people in the Orient were indifferent to the suffering of others, and this movie reflects that notion.

While Fred and Emily are on the Chinese junk, a woman has a baby. From the way they look at each other, there seems to be the suggestion that Fred and Emily are inspired to have a baby themselves, now that they are reconciled. Back home, Fred wonders whether they can get a “pram” (baby carriage) up the stairs, and Emily responds that they are going to have to get a bigger place anyway, presumably because they will need an extra bedroom.  So, it looks as though the baby is a done deal.

But I could not help wondering, “Whose baby is it?” The movie is not explicit about how far these two went with their philandering, although one gets the sense that Fred and the “princess” went all the way, while Emily and Gordon never went beyond kissing. But with these old movies, so much is left to the imagination that it is hard to tell.

Then again, even if we assume that Emily and Gordon did not have sex, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take Fred to start wondering whose baby it is.

And in any event, if Fred gets so irritated with their cat, what is he going to be like when the squalling baby arrives?

Are we really supposed to regard this as a happy ending?

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

The twentieth century is when art became ugly.  Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of art that philistines like me enjoy.  I’m talking about that highbrow, elitist art consisting of ridiculous paintings, nonsense novels, discordant music, and weird foreign films.  By the twenty-first century, the novelty of ugliness had begun to wear off a bit, but it can still be counted on to appeal to those who believe that an appreciation of ugliness is the mark of refinement.

Nocturnal Animals is not a weird foreign film, of course, but it could pass for one.  Right off the bat, the movie presents its highbrow bona fides by displaying disgustingly obese, naked women, dancing in place, in what turns out to be an art exhibit.  The woman who has arranged all this is Susan (Amy Adams).  Her life is as ugly as her art show, notwithstanding all the opulence in which she dwells.  Her husband cheats on her.  She can’t sleep.

She receives in the mail an unpublished novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).  I don’t suppose I have to tell you that it is an ugly novel.  It is about a man named Tony, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Susan’s mind as she reads the novel.  Just in case we might wonder if she is projecting by making this identification between the author and the protagonist, there is an earlier discussion between Susan and Edward when they were married, presented in a flashback.  She criticized something he wrote, telling him he needs to write about someone other than himself.  He says all authors do that.  They don’t, of course.  As Nietzsche once said, “Homer would never have created an Achilles or Goethe a Faust, had Homer been an Achilles or Goethe a Faust.”  But in this case, Edward has created a Tony because he is a Tony.

Anyway, in this novel, Tony, his wife, and his daughter are traveling across west Texas when they are waylaid by a bunch of psychopathic punks.  The movie wallows in the misery of a family being brutalized, resulting in the rape and murder of the two females.  With the aid of a lawman named Andes, who is dying of lung cancer, Tony is able to track down the killers.  Andes kills one of them, and Tony kills the other.  However, the one Tony kills lives just long enough to hit Tony in the head with a poker, blinding him.  Tony staggers outside, falls, and accidentally shoots himself, resulting in his death.

In reading the novel, Susan is deeply moved, even more than she was moved by watching a bunch of naked, four-hundred-pound women jiggle their decaying flesh.  Why is she moved?  Well, it probably has to do with the abortion she had after Edward got her pregnant.  She never meant for Edward to find out, but for some reason he just happens to show up at the abortion clinic just as she finished having it done.  So, you see, the death of Tony’s daughter corresponds to the death of Edward’s aborted child.  And the rape and murder of Tony’s wife corresponds to Susan’s infidelity, because turning Susan’s voluntary lust and betrayal into a gangbang rape is Edward’s imaginary revenge against her.  And just as Edward knows that he is weak, Tony is too weak to save his wife and child.

The death of Tony in the novel corresponds to Edward’s suicide, the novel being one long suicide note, which basically says, “You ruined my life by rejecting my love.”  This is not made explicit, but it is obvious.  When Susan emails Edward, saying she wants to see him, he emails her back, agreeing to meet.  She goes to a restaurant, but Edward never shows up.  Of course not.  He’s dead.

For people like me, this is an ugly novel within an ugly movie.  No wonder it got rave reviews.

Inside Llewn Davis (2013)

The Coen brothers have made a movie about a self-important, obnoxious bum who sponges off people because he believes he was meant for better things than holding down a job.  But such a movie, without any frills, would immediately be dismissed as irritating and boring.  And so it needs some frills.

First, they decided to make this bum a folk singer.  They had previously made the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), which succeeded with people that liked the music, although it failed miserably with anyone that did not.  So maybe they figured this movie would appeal to people that like folk music.  And even if the folk music in the movie is pretty bad, at least as far as the music performed by the title character is concerned, we know we are supposed to overlook the fact that he is a self-important, obnoxious bum because he is an artist, and that means we are supposed to care.

Frill number two is a cat.  Having a cat continually appear and then disappear gives the movie a motif, making it appear that there is some deeper, hidden meaning to it all.  There isn’t, but something has to get this movie on its legs.  The cat eventually turns out to have the name Ulysses.  Gosh, you mean the return of the cat is like the return of Ulysses?  Well, telling a dumb story with parallels to The Odyssey worked for James Joyce, so maybe the Coen brothers figured it would work for them too.  And it recalls the main character in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?  So make that two dumb movies by the Coen brothers that are supposed to be spiced up somehow by alluding Homer’s epic, with the second one also alluding to the first.

Finally, there is a time loop.  Sort of.  Except that in the second iteration of the time loop, the cat does not get away.  Now, there are some pretty good time loop movies.  Dead of Night (1945) was the first movie I know of to try this, and it worked fairly well.  And, of course, the greatest such movie is Groundhog Day (1993).  But does a time loop belong in a movie about a folk singer?  I mean, some genres don’t really mix well.  It’s like a movie that starts out as a murder mystery, and halfway through, while we are trying to figure out who done it, Godzilla comes to town.  However, the Coen brothers were desperate for another frill to keep this movie from seeming to be what it really is, and so a time loop is what we get.