The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie about three veterans that return to Boone City, a fictional, small midwestern town, after the end of World War II:  Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a captain in the Army Air Force; Al Stephenson (Frederic March), a sergeant in the Army; and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor in the Navy.

They all face challenges adapting to civilian life after more than three years of war, but none more so than Homer, whose hands were burnt off during a fire on the ship that he was on, and who now has hooks to replace them.  I believe we are supposed to sympathize with the problems of all three men equally, but we are so overwhelmed trying to imagine how we would cope if we were in Homer’s situation that the problems of Fred and Al seem trivial by comparison.  Before the war, Homer planned on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), but now he is reluctant.  She insists she loves him, however, and they eventually do get married at the end of the movie.

Because we know the title of a movie before we watch it, we wonder about this one as the movie begins. Usually, it is an expression of resentment, what a woman might say when her husband divorces her:  “I gave him the best years of my life.”  The irony of the remark is that the years in which one is a young adult, from the late teens through the twenties, are the best years in the sense of their potential; but they may be the worst years in the sense of what actually happens, as when the years are spent in a miserable marriage.

Or fighting a war.  So, in one sense, the title refers to what these men had to go through at a time when they should have been enjoying the benefits of youth.  But in another sense, it may represent the attitudes of the civilians that cared more about their own hardships, what with sugar rationing and Meatless Tuesdays, than that of the soldiers that were off fooling around somewhere overseas. During an argument Fred has with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), after catching her alone in their apartment with Cliff (Steve Cochran), Fred says he can guess what she has been doing with other men while he was away.  She replies, “Go ahead and guess your head off!  I could do some guessing myself.  What were you up to in London and Paris and all those places?”

She continues, being the one person in this movie that gives voice to a phrase similar to the one in the title:

I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself. I gave up my own job when you asked me.  I gave up the best years of my life! And what have you done? You’ve flopped. Couldn’t even hold a job at the drugstore.  So I’m going back to work for myself.  And I’m going to live for myself, too.  And in case you don’t understand English, I’m gonna get a divorce.

This Cliff character, by the way, seems to have plenty of money, which is why Marie has a date with him. When Fred tells him to leave, Cliff puts on the coat of his expensive-looking, dark suit with the kind of pinstripe often worn by movie gangsters.  Fred notices he is wearing the pin of an ex-serviceman.  Cliff says he hasn’t had trouble adjusting because he takes everything in stride.  We figure he makes his money in the black markets, probably starting while he was still in the army.

The marital difficulties of Fred and Marie are just one example in which we are not sure how we are supposed to interpret what is happening, since attitudes were different when this movie was made than they are today.  We get the impression we are supposed to be on Fred’s side, but we are not unsympathetic to Marie’s situation, looking at things from the vantage point of the present.

Another is the movie’s attitude toward any mental problems that returning soldiers might have.  The movie acknowledges such problems, but at the same time, there is resistance to the idea.  Early in the movie, as the plane the three men are on is heading to Boone City, Al says, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.”  Fred says, “All I want is a good job, a mild future, and a house big enough for me and my wife.  Give me that much and I’m rehabilitated like that,” as he snaps his fingers.

Prior to the scene with Cliff, we learned that Marie had a job she liked, working in a nightclub, making good money.  But Fred wanted her to quit that job because it was “inconvenient,” what with her working nights.  At first, it was all right because he had some money saved up, but they blew through that.  One night, they start arguing about the fact that they are stuck in a small, one-bedroom apartment, not going anywhere, because Fred hasn’t been able to find a good-paying job.  Suddenly, Marie has a look of concern:

Marie:  Fred.

Fred:  Yeah?

Marie:  Are you really all right?

Fred:  Of course I’m all right. Why?

Marie:  I mean, in your mind. Is anything…?

Fred:  My mind?! You mean you think I’m going goofy?

Marie:  I’ve been wondering.

She’s been wondering on account of a nightmare he’s been having about a pilot that got killed who was a friend of his.  “The war’s over,” she says.  “You won’t get anyplace till you stop thinking about it.”

Rather than spend another dull evening at home, she tells him she still has some money saved, so they can go out, saying, “Dinner’s on me tonight.”  But he tells her that they are eating at home. She says she is going out by herself in that case.  As she starts to leave, he grabs her and jerks her around, forcibly holding her by both arms, saying, “You’re not going. You’ll eat what I cook.”

Now, we could interpret this scene as one showing how a soldier returning home from war was likely to lose his temper as a result of PTSD, so that even though he is in the wrong to insist on having his way about everything, and physically abusing her when she won’t obey, we should be understanding and sympathetic.  Perhaps Fred is in denial about what he needs in the way of rehabilitation.  On the other hand, one suspects that this may not be how people were supposed to react to this scene in 1946. Rather, they might have thought that Fred was in the right and perfectly justified in physically forcing her to stay home and do what he says.  At this distance, though, it’s hard to tell.

We have the same trouble interpreting another scene that occurred earlier.  While Fred is working as a soda jerk one night, with Homer sitting at the counter, another customer starts popping off about how we were duped into fighting the war, saying we fought the wrong people.  Needless to say, it is tactless and insensitive to tell a veteran, especially one whose hands have been replaced by hooks, that his sacrifice was in vain. Homer becomes angry and rips a flag pin off the man’s lapel and starts pushing him, at which point they start struggling.  Fred jumps over the counter, and we think he is just going to break it up, as he should.  Instead, he punches the man so hard that he crashes through a glass counter. Granted, Fred and Homer were provoked, but verbal provocation does not justify the use of physical force.  If this happened today, Fred would have been arrested and charged with assault.  More importantly, though, we would probably want to make allowances for his violent reaction, thinking it was an expression of PTSD.  But punching people in the movies in the old days was usually accepted as justified and praiseworthy, provided it was done by someone good-looking like Dana Andrews.  In other words, whereas we today we would regard Fred’s behavior as the result of his psychological problems, back when this movie was made, audiences probably thought what he did was healthy and clean.  In any event, the only thing that happens to Fred is that Mr. Thorpe, the store manager, fires him.

Speaking of Mr. Thorpe, in order to get a job working in that drugstore, which in many ways is more like a department store, Fred was interviewed by him. During the interview, we see Thorpe repeatedly using a nasal inhaler.  I have seen this in other movies, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), where Gary Merrill plays a gangster that is always using an inhaler.  In another movie, one I can’t recall the name of, we see a man furtively using an inhaler, suspiciously looking to one side and then the other. In all these instances, I always had the feeling there was supposed to be something sleazy about what they were doing, but I never knew why.  I thought to myself, “The guy has an allergy.  So what?”  Years later, I found out that inhalers used to have Benzedrine in them, so these characters are giving themselves a little amphetamine kick with each sniff.  Therefore, if you see someone using a nasal inhaler in a movie made in the 1940s or 1950s, you are supposed to have a low opinion of him.  When the interview with Thorpe is over, Fred tells him to “take care of that cold,” obviously being sarcastic.

I don’t know much about the military, but it seems strange that Fred, who grew up in the poor part of town, and who was a soda jerk before the war, became an officer; while Al, a bank executive, whose family lives in a swanky apartment, and who presumably had a college education, ended up as an enlisted man. I suppose such things happened.  But the purpose of writing the story this way was to emphasize the egalitarian nature of the war, where one’s social status as a civilian could be upended in the armed forces, and then upended again after the war.  It was also important that there be at least one officer among the three men, and at least one enlisted man.  Had all three men been officers, the movie might have seemed elitist; had all three of them been enlisted men, the movie might have come across as populist.  Moreover, while officers and enlisted men are not allowed to fraternize while in the service, the fact that these three men can be friends as civilians is a further way to emphasize American egalitarianism.

Anyway, all Thorpe is willing to offer Fred is a low-paying job as a sales clerk, who will be expected to work the soda fountain some of the time.  “The war is over,” he tells Fred, a common refrain in those days by civilians who were tired of veterans acting as if they were entitled to special consideration.

Al is much luckier.  Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), the president of the bank where he used to work, wants him back.  After offering Al a cigar, Milton talks about how hard it’s been getting good cigars during the war, and how business conditions are uncertain, owing to strikes and ruinous taxes.  But he offers Al a promotion to vice president in charge of small loans, explaining that he will be valuable to the bank, owing to his ability to understand the needs of the veterans returning home from the war.

That sounds good, but the first person to come to the bank asking for a loan is a veteran that wants to buy a farm, but who has no collateral.  The fact that he wants to buy a farm tells us that he should get the loan, owing to the myth surrounding the yeoman farmer and his basic goodness, the backbone of America.  At first, Al’s prewar habits of sound banking make him reluctant.  But then he sees Homer in the bank cashing his disability check.  This reminds him that a lot of veterans need help, so he approves of the loan.  But when it is reported to Mr. Milton, he reprimands Al:

We do have a desire to extend a helping hand to returning veterans when possible.  But we must all remember that this is not our money we’re doling out.  It belongs to our depositors, and we can’t gamble with it.

Al promises not to do it again.

As for his family life, Al has been married for twenty years to Milly (Myrna Loy), with whom he has an adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a son in high school.  He arrives home, somewhat unexpectedly, and so after the usual hugs and kisses, Milly calls her friend to explain why they won’t be coming over for dinner that night, saying, “Alice, this is Milly.  I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t be over.”  We see Al look at her with an irritated expression on his face.  But then Milly reverses herself, saying, “I mean, I’m terribly happy,” explaining that Al has just come home.  I see nothing wrong with her use of the word “sorry” in explaining why she has to break a dinner engagement.  It’s just a manner of speaking. Again, we have a situation that is hard to interpret all these years later.  Should we regard Al’s anger sympathetically on account of the trauma he suffered during the war, that he too is in denial about his need for rehabilitation?  Or is that just too twenty-first century?  One suspects that the 1946 audience thought Milly was wrong to use the word “sorry,” and that Al’s anger was justified.

The weakest parts of the movie are the drunk scenes, especially the one at a bar that is owned by Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael), who is Homer’s uncle.  He sells liquor, but he never lets Homer have any, lecturing him on the curse of drink.  He lets Homer have beer only, not the whiskey that Homer wants. However, Al and his family show up there on his first night since he got back, and so does Fred.  These two men get drunk. I think this is supposed to illustrate the way a lot of veterans tried to cope with their war experiences by turning to drink, but if so, they should have made it clear that this was a bad thing, just as Butch claimed.  Instead, as was the case with so many movies made in those days, their drunk behavior is supposed to be cute, and the scene is played for laughs.  It goes on way too long, and then it is followed by the obligatory hangover scene, which is played for laughs too.

At the beginning of the movie, when the three men first manage to get on a flight heading home, they pass over a graveyard of bombers, brand new, fresh from the factory, but no longer needed now that the war is over.  They are symbolic of the country’s attitude toward veterans, no longer needed.  Toward the end of the movie, Fred decides to leave town by catching a flight at the airport where all the junk bombers are.  While waiting for his flight, he climbs into a bomber like the one he used to fly, possibly reminiscing about a time when he felt useful and needed.  A foreman tells him to get out of the plane. Fred finds out from him that they are going to use the material from the planes for building prefabricated houses (houses for veterans, no doubt).  He asks for a job and gets it.

This is much better than the humiliating job he had at the drugstore because it is manual labor, which has the cachet of being good, honest work.  At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be regarded in the movies.  He tells Peggy, with whom he has fallen in love and will eventually marry, that he is now in the junk business, “An occupation for which many people feel I’m well qualified, by temperament and training.”

It is to be noted, by the way, that Fred is content with his situation, that he apparently has been “rehabilitated,” now that he has a good job and the prospect of marrying Peggy.  There is no scene, in other words, in which Fred seeks counseling for the mental problems that Marie was worried about.  It would seem that while the movie does acknowledge the stress that war can have on a man, even after the war is over, it is not something we need to worry about.  As long as a veteran is in good shape physically, his only real problems are economic, getting a job or a loan, and domestic, having to do with marriage and family.

The romance between Fred and Peggy began while he was still married, before Marie said she was going to get a divorce.  Peggy visits him at the drugstore where he is selling perfume and lotion for women, definitely a degrading job for a man by 1946 standards.  They agree to have lunch, which they do at a nearby restaurant.  It is Lucia’s, an Italian place where friendly people speak broken English with Italian accents.  It is easy to dismiss this as incidental, as it would be in real life. But this is a movie, and it would not have been filmed except with deliberation.  It really is interesting how many movies that were produced back then, both during and after the war, that went out of their way to show that Italians were basically good people:  those living in Italy were just misled by Mussolini, and Italian-Americans were always patriotic.  No need to have concentration camps for them as we did with Japanese-Americans. And, of course, it would have been out of the question to see Fred and Peggy eating sausage and sauerkraut at a German restaurant.

Gaslight (1940 and 1944)

A long time ago, I saw the 1944 version of Gaslight, and then, some years later, I saw the 1940 version.  But that was before the term “gaslighting” had become a part of our vocabulary.  Now that the week does not go by that someone does not use that word, I decided to watch both movies again.

The 1940 Version

The 1940 version of Gaslight begins with Alice Barlow, an elderly widow, working on a piece of embroidery, on which she has stitched the date, 1865.  A man sneaks up behind her and strangles her with a skein of worsted picked up off the table next to her.  It is late at night, and for over five hours, he ransacks the place.  Then he really becomes desperate and starts ripping open the furniture cushions.  He apparently has to give up and leave, for in the next scene, the maid is coming out of the door, screaming for the police, having just arrived around seven in the morning.  The newspaper informs us that the murderer got away with the Barlow rubies, worth £12,000. Converted to dollars, and adjusted for inflation, they would be worth about $1,500,000 today in America.

At this point, we could follow the events as they unfold in the movie.  And while that is a suitable method for summarizing most movies, perhaps the only one that makes sense in certain cases, with other movies there may be a benefit in reconstructing the events and their meaning, which can be grasped only after the fact.  As I watched this movie, I was perplexed at certain points, and even after seeing the entire thing twice, I found that much of it did not make sense.  Therefore, by pulling together bits and pieces gathered from different points in the movie, I shall try to make clear my misgivings.

The first thing that bothered me was that no one seems to have received the Barlow estate through inheritance.  After the murder, twenty years pass, with the house at 12 Pimlico Square still sitting there, complete with all the furniture and other possessions of Alice Barlow.  Now, I realize that probate can sometimes take a while, but twenty years is a bit much, even for the estate of someone that is rich.  Nor is there a word in the movie explaining this, such as a reference to relatives, possibly children of the Barlows, contending with each other in court for possession of the house, belongings of the deceased, or even what she might have had in the bank.  In fact, twenty years later, the house seems to be not only unoccupied, but unowned.  There is a sign in front of the house indicating the agent that is in charge of leasing the property for the estate, but no reference to an owner.

I belabor this point because the man that murdered Alice Barlow was her nephew, Louis Bauer.  In the absence of any reference to this woman having had children, Bauer would seem to be the most likely heir. Prior to the murder, Bauer was not a criminal, and the police never suspected him of that murder. Therefore, it would seem that all Bauer had to do was inherit the house and then resume his search for the rubies, as a bachelor, unencumbered by a wife.

Presumably, then, Bauer was not the heir to the Barlow estate.  So, he emigrates to Australia and gets married.  That doesn’t make sense.  Inasmuch as the house has remained unoccupied for twenty years, he could have stayed in London and, after things calmed down a bit, break in and look for the rubies again. With no fear of being interrupted, he could have leisurely searched the place whenever he wanted to and as often as he liked.  Again, he is not a suspect, and he is not a criminal as far as the police are concerned, so this move to Australia is completely unmotivated.

But he does move to Australia and get married.  For the next two decades, he remains there with his wife, until one day, we can only suppose, he gets to thinking about those rubies he could never find. He can’t afford to buy or even lease the Barlow house, so he decides that he should return to England, marry a rich woman, use her money to buy the house, move into it, and resume his search for the rubies.  Divorce in Australia was not easily obtained in the nineteenth century, so he figures he will just abandon his wife, change his name to Paul Mallen, and marry a rich woman in England while still having that wife in Australia.  It’s just too bad he didn’t think of all this twenty years earlier.  Then he could have legally married a rich woman under his real name right there in London.

Anyway, he executes his plan, marrying a rich woman named Bella.  After moving into the house at 12 Pimlico Square, Bella finds an envelope addressed to Louis Bauer. When she asks Mallen about this letter, he realizes he is in danger of being exposed. So, he figures he needs to make her think she is going mad, and then have her committed to an insane asylum where no one will believe anything she says.  He does this by periodically hiding something, then asking her where the hidden item is, making her think she unconsciously hid the item herself and then repressed her memory of having done so.

One item in particular that Mallen hides from Bella is a cameo brooch that he pocketed the night of the murder, which he gave to her as an engagement present.  The irony is that the brooch has a secret compartment, containing the rubies, along with the initials “A. B.” inscribed inside, which is the final piece of evidence that will convict Mallen of murder.

At night, under some pretense never given, he leaves the house.  Then, making sure no one is looking, he sneaks into the house at 14 Pimlico Square, which is right next door. He can do this because he holds the lease on this house and refuses to rent it out.  He goes upstairs and leaves through the attic window onto a balcony that is shared with house number 12, the one he lives in. That means he is able to cross over to the attic window of his own house, through which he enters, allowing him to once again search for those rubies. Once inside, he lights a gas lamp, which causes the lamp in Bella’s room to dim.  She notices that it has dimmed, and she hears him rummaging around upstairs.  No one is supposed to be up there because the upper two stories, which contained all of the Barlow household possessions, had been closed off.

This is all wrong.  Since Mallen has control of both houses, he should have had him and Bella move into house number 14.  Then there would be no need to go across the balcony and break into his own house.  He could just walk over to house number 12 and look around without causing suspicion.  The flame of the gas lamp in Bella’s room would not dim, and she would not hear noises coming from above.  And he wouldn’t have to worry about the maid and the cook hearing those noises either.  For that matter, he could be completely honest about going next door, telling Bella that since a rich woman used to live in house 12, he thought he would go over there and look around to see if he can find anything of value.

As a matter of fact, Mallen is completely unaware that he is causing the light to dim in Bella’s room, for Bella never says anything to him about it.  But she does say something about the noises to Elizabeth, the cook. Elizabeth agrees that the lamp is dim, but dismisses it as something being wrong with the pipes.  As for the sounds upstairs, they just happen to stop when Elizabeth enters Bella’s room, and they start right up again as soon as she leaves the room.  Had the timing been slightly different, Elizabeth would have heard the sounds too, which would have caused problems for Mallen.

By the time we meet Bella in this movie, Mallen has been working on her for some time, either making her think she is crazy, or driving her crazy, or a combination of the two.  Therefore, we don’t know what she was like before she met him.  At one point, he says she was normal when he first met her, but he is not a reliable source of information.  As a result, by the time we are introduced to Bella, she comes across as one of the weakest women in the history of cinema. When Mallen tells her that he is going to have her committed to a madhouse, she asks him, “Paul, did you ever love me?”  He replies, “I hate you.  You are utterly repulsive to me.”  And yet, when she finds out that he is Louis Bauer, who murdered his aunt, and who is trying to have her committed to keep her quiet, she stands by him, refusing to provide evidence against him, saying, “I couldn’t betray my husband.” Such sniveling!

There are three possible explanations for this.  First, maybe Bella was just a weak woman to begin with, easily manipulated.  Could Nancy, the parlor maid, who was a fast piece, have been so easily fooled?  That strains credulity. Second, maybe women in the nineteenth century were so completely dominated by their husbands that they could be more easily controlled.  Aside from the fact that there would be no gaslights in the twenty-first century, we wonder if this movie could be remade today, set in contemporaneous times. Or third, it may be that Bella was a perfectly normal woman, and that Mallen’s persistence just wore her down to the pathetic state we find her in when we first see her. But since we are not privy to what she was like before marriage, we just don’t know.

After they move into the house, they attend church the following Sunday.  Mr. Rough, a retired police officer, who now runs a livery stable, is taken aback when he sees Mallen. He tells his assistant, Mr. Cobb, that he has just seen a ghost. Then he remembers that the man was Louis Bauer.  Mr. Cobb tells him he is going under the name of Mallen, causing Rough to become suspicious.  They both begin investigating and ultimately find out what is going on.  There is a confrontation, leading to a fight, after which Rough and Cobb tie Mallen up.  As if the movie were not already heavy in melodrama, there is a scene in which Bella acts as though she would cut her husband loose, but she says that on account of her madness, she doesn’t realize she holds a knife in her hand.

Bella reveals the secret compartment of the brooch and the rubies that were hidden therein.  As Mallen grabs them, a policeman puts the handcuffs on him.  Suddenly, Mallen’s mind gives way to madness, the very madness he was trying to inflict on Bella.

The 1944 Version

This movie was remade in 1944.  Those who wrote the screenplay for this version apparently noticed some of the problems discussed above and made changes to eliminate them.  On the other hand, they introduced some new difficulties of their own.  The differences are many and some quite substantial.  It may be useful to organize these differences under headings.

Names and Places

Sometimes the scriptwriters of a remake will keep all the same names for the characters in the movie, but some, like this one, will give everyone different names just because they can.  Even the house has a different address, being 9 Thornton Square instead of 12 Pimlico Square.  So, let’s establish the identities before we begin:

Alice Barlow (elderly widow) becomes Alice Alquist (prima donna).

Paul Mallen, aka Louis Bauer, becomes Gregory Anton, aka Sergis Bauer, (Charles Boyer).

Bella Mallen becomes Paula Anton (Ingrid Bergman).

Mr. Rough sort of becomes Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton).

The maid and cook have the same names, Nancy and Elizabeth, with Nancy being played by Angela Lansbury.

The Jewels

In the 1940 version, the newspaper makes it clear that the police believe that the murderer got away with the Barlow rubies.  In the 1944 version, as far as the public is concerned, no one knows what the motive was for the murder.  Brian Cameron, who works for Scotland Yard, is informed by his superior, the commissioner, that Alice Alquist was given some jewels by someone of royal blood, though the public knows nothing of this.  The official theory is that the jewels were the motive for the murder, but this was hushed up by order of an “important personage.”  Cameron’s superior does not know whether the murderer succeeded in stealing the jewels.

In the 1940 version, the rubies are hidden in the one thing the murderer stole from the house, the brooch. In the 1944 version, the jewels turn out to be fastened to the dress Alice wore when performing as the Empress Theodora, presumably so that her lover could see her wearing those jewels when she performed. While we are supposed to be amused by this hide-in-plain-sight feature, it is hard to believe that it would have taken Anton that long to spot them.  The irony of the stones being hidden in the brooch that he stole the night of the murder in the 1940 version was better.

The Night of the Murder

In the 1940 version, the murderer ransacks the house for over five hours, tearing things apart, before he has to leave without having found the rubies.  He did, however, steal a brooch, not realizing that the rubies were hidden in a secret compartment.  In the 1944 version, the murderer broke the glass of a cabinet where Alice kept her most treasured possessions.  Though items were moved around as he searched for the jewels, he took nothing.  In particular, he does not steal a brooch. Anton does give Paula a brooch, saying it belonged to his mother, which he then hides as part of his plan to make her think she is losing her mind.  He says it belonged to his mother. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t.  But he did not steal it on the night of the murder.

Relationship to the Murdered Woman

In this movie, Alice is an operatic diva, murdered by Sergis Bauer, who was her pianist in Prague.  There is no reference to her ever having been married.  She had a sister who died giving birth to Paula.  Nothing is known about Paula’s father.  And so, Alice ends up raising her niece Paula, who was there the night of the murder.  It was Paula whom Bauer heard coming down the stairs, causing him to flee.  In other words, Paula inherited her aunt’s house, which was left unoccupied while she was sent to Italy to study the opera herself.

Bigamy

Ten years pass between the time of the murder and when Paula comes to know Bauer, going under the name of Gregory Anton.  Though not explicitly stated as such, it is easy to imagine that when Bauer accompanied Alice on the piano in Prague, he was already married.  We may allow that the difficulty of getting a divorce precluded the possibility of obtaining one, so he abandoned his wife and took up an assumed name for the purpose of marrying Paula and getting access to her house. He gets to know her by becoming her pianist while she receives singing lessons.

The House

Paula falls in love with Anton, after knowing him for only two weeks, and agrees to marry him.  On their honeymoon, he finagles her into a conversation about the house, getting her to tell him about it, as if he didn’t know. She makes the following remarks:

That house comes into my dreams sometimes, a house of horror.  It’s strange.  I haven’t dreamed of it since I’ve known you.  I haven’t been afraid since I’ve known you….  For years I’ve been afraid of something nameless ever since she died.  You’ve cast out fear for me…. It is true. I’ve found peace in loving you.

And so, her fears having melted away owing to the curative powers of true love, she is ready to move back into the house of her youth.  All of her aunt’s possessions are moved to the attic and boarded up. In this version, Anton does not control, through ownership or lease, the house next door. Instead, he breaks in the back of the house at 5 Thornton Square, which just happens to be empty, exits through the attic, walks across the roof, and breaks into his own house so he can search through the stuff that is in the attic.

The Noise in the Attic

In the 1940 version, to say it was bad luck that the noises stopped as soon as Elizabeth entered Bella’s room and started up again as soon as she left is an understatement.  In this 1944 version, nothing is left to chance concerning Elizabeth.  We have a scene early in the movie that informs us that Elizabeth is extremely hard of hearing, and thus is unable to hear those noises.  With Nancy, however, the movie still depends on luck. Paula is in her room with Nancy when the lights dim for the first time.  They discuss it, with Nancy being somewhat indifferent as to what caused the flame to lower.  But then she leaves the room, and right after she does, the noises can be heard from above.

The Weak Woman

This version gives us some idea as to what Paula was like before she was married, and some understanding of her mental state.  Since she was in the house when her aunt was murdered, and was just a young girl at the time, she would naturally be traumatized.  And so, moving back into that house could easily make her mentally unstable. However, she is a mouth-breather in this movie, so we have to wonder if her mind was weak to begin with.  And again, we have to wonder if Nancy, in this case played by Angela Lansbury, would not have been more difficult to bamboozle had it been her aunt that was murdered.

The Ghost

In the 1940 version, Mr. Rough says he has seen a ghost, figuratively speaking, when he sees Louis Bauer at church. When Mr. Cobb says Bauer is now going by the name of Mallen, Rough becomes suspicious, leading him to investigate.  In the 1944 version, it is Cameron who says he has seen a ghost when visiting the Tower of London, by which he means he has seen a woman that looks like Alice Alquist, a woman that fascinated him when he was just twelve years old.  The woman he actually saw, of course, was Paula.  His supervisor points out that there is naturally a family resemblance between Paula and her aunt, whose house she owns through inheritance.  In other words, there is absolutely nothing unusual about the situation at all. Therefore, Cameron’s suspicions are just a “feeling” he has, one that is completely unwarranted.

Tying Up the Murderer

In the 1940 version, Rough and Cobb are just private citizens, so it makes sense for them to tie up Mallen until the police arrive.  But in the 1944 version, Cameron and his assistant are the police.  Tying Anton to a chair so that Paula can pretend she is crazy and doesn’t know she has a knife to cut him free, and then untying him and taking him to the police station seems artificial and forced.

The Meaning of the Word “Gaslighting”

It is clear that the word “gaslighting” has shifted its meaning slightly from the movies that gave birth to it. In the movies, Mallen/Anton tries to drive Bella/Paula mad by hiding things and then making her believe that she was the one that hid them.  Today, when people use the word “gaslighting,” it usually refers to someone that is repeatedly saying things that are false in order to get us to doubt our own perceptions or judgment.  The act of hiding something and trying to make us think we have hidden it ourselves is absent.

Until I recently watched these two movies again, I thought that Mallen/Anton tried to make Bella/Paula think that she was hallucinating when she saw the gaslight dim.  And that would certainly conform to the meaning of the word “gaslighting” as we use it today.  Moreover, it would be the link between what happens to the gaslight in the movie and the meaning the word has recently acquired. But in neither movie does that happen. Mallen/Anton is completely unaware that the lights dim when he is in the attic, and Bella/Paula never mentions it to him.  Nor would it have made sense for him to deny it had she done so, for Elizabeth confirms the dimming of the light in the 1940 version, and Nancy does so in the 1944 remake.  It is the one thing that is not a part of the gaslighting Bella/Paula is subjected to.

Bertrand Russell once noted that a lot of people suppose that when a sentence is uttered, first you understand what the sentence means, and then you decide whether you believe it or not.  He disagreed with this.  According to Russell, the belief comes with the understanding, and an extra effort has to be made to disbelieve it.

If Russell is right, this could explain, at least in part, why we can become vexed when someone asserts something we disagree with.  In so doing, he is forcing us to believe, if only slightly and for a moment, something that we regard as false.  It is an imposition. That we have to make an effort, even if only in our mind, to reject what he says is irritating.

But suppose we have no strong views opposing what someone says to us.  With repeated assertions, we may come to believe what we are hearing for lack of the will to resist it.  In Scream (1996), Neve Campbell is upset about the way people in her town, including her friend Rose McGowan, believe all the rumors of her mother’s infidelity.  McGowan replies, “Well, you can only hear that Richard Gere-gerbil story so many times before you have to start believing it.”

Though seeing is believing, assertions to the contrary can make us doubt even our own perceptions. In A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Robert Morse is a womanizer who is schooling Walter Matthau on how to cheat on his wife.  One lesson is that if his wife begins to suspect something, Morse says he should “deny, deny, deny.”  But, Matthau responds, what if she knows?  Morse repeats, “deny.”  But Matthau persists, what if she really knows?  Morse is unmoved.  “Deny!” he insists firmly.  This is followed by a skit illustrating his point.  A woman comes home to find her husband in bed with another woman.  While she is throwing a fit, her husband and the other woman get dressed.  When the wife asks how he could do that, he acts as though he doesn’t know what she is talking about.   The other woman leaves.  He finishes making up the bed, continuing to pretend as if nothing has happened.  Then the husband goes into the living room, sits in a chair, lights his pipe, and starts reading the newspaper.  The wife looks into the bedroom, where no trace remains of the deed.  She then looks at her husband, who is reading and smoking, while sitting in his favorite chair. With resignation, looking helplessly into the camera, she says, “Charlie, what do you want for dinner?”

And so it is that we needed a word like “gaslighting,” even if its meaning does not perfectly correspond to the events in the movies.

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.

An Ida Lupino Formula

I never really cared much for Ida Lupino, either as an actress or as a director.  As for most of the movies she starred in, I can’t say that it was her fault that I did not think much of them, for her acting was fine, and I doubt that any other actress in her place would have made much difference.  As for the movies she directed, for some of which she also was a writer, her responsibility for their lackluster nature cannot be denied.  Nevertheless, when Turner Classic Movies decided to show a bunch of the movies she directed early in her career in that capacity, I decided to watch them.

The first one I watched was Never Fear (1949), which was just fair.  The second one I watched was Outrage (1950), and it too was just fair.  Neither movie on its own inspired me to write a review.  However, halfway through the second movie, I began to notice a structural similarity between the movies, which fascinated me.  Whether there is an Ida Lupino formula that applies to any of her other movies and whether that formula is significant in any way, I cannot say.

In Never Fear, Guy and Carol are struggling dancing partners.  In order to give her flowers, he has to steal them.  But finally, after a performance that he choreographed, their agent gets them a two-week engagement at a major night club.  They now have enough money not only for him to pay for the flowers he brings her, but to buy her an engagement ring and ask her to marry him as well, which is something she has been hoping for.  In Outrage, Ann and Jim are also in love.  When Jim gets a raise, he tells Ann they now have enough money to get married, something she has been hoping for.

Then tragedy strikes, and the woman in each of these movies ends up regarding herself as damaged goods.  In Never Fear, Carol is stricken with polio.  Guy still wants to marry Carol, but she pushes him away, telling him she won’t marry him, because things would never be the same.  In part, she does not want Guy to marry her out of pity, but she also has lost her sex drive.  She does not say this explicitly (this was 1949, after all), but much later in the movie, she makes a remark about how she finally feels like a woman again.  (Note:  when the doctor offers Carol a cigarette as she lies in bed, she refuses the offer.  This is taken as a sign that she is depressed.  Later, when she starts smoking again, this indicates that she is getting better psychologically.)  In Outrage, Jim still wants to marry Ann, but she pushes him away.  In part, she tells him he would never be able to forget that she had been raped, but she also now regards sex as something repulsive.

In Never Fear, Carol goes to a hospital and then to an institution for therapy.  There she meets Len, played by Hugh O’Brian, who has an even more severe case of polio than Carol.  He is a kind of spiritual figure.  At one point, the doctor that heads the institution says that Len has a special “power.”  In Outrage, Ann runs away from home without telling Jim or her parents where she is going.  She collapses on the side of the road and is rescued by “Doc,” so called because he is a reverend.  He takes her to a house owned by a married couple he is friends with, and they take her in.

In Never Fear, Guy keeps coming around trying to get Carol to marry him.  He has been trying to make a go of it selling houses, but she tells him to forget about her, to find himself another dancing partner.  They have a bitter argument and do not see each other for a long time.  Eventually, Carol begins to feel better about herself, and she has reached the point where she is able to walk with crutches.  She writes him a letter, hoping to make amends.  He shows up at her birthday party with flowers.  At first, she thinks they will be able to get married after all, but then he tells her that he took her advice.  He has another dancing partner, and they will be performing in Las Vegas soon, which is why he cannot stay long.  After he leaves, she throws herself at Len on the rebound, telling him they are alike, and that they will be good for each other (it is here she makes the remark about feeling like a woman again).  But Len knows she still loves Guy.  He tells her that she is just looking for someone to be comfortable with, and that is not enough for marriage.  In Outrage, we never see Jim again, because he does not know where Ann is.  She hopes that Doc will marry her, but Doc knows that she still loves Jim, and that they must go their separate ways.

In Never Fear, when the day finally arrives for Carol to leave the institution, she has progressed to the point where she only needs a cane.  As she walks down the street, she is apprehensive about facing the world alone (except for her father, with whom she will be living for a while).  But then Guy shows up with flowers.  It is clear that they will get married and live happily ever after.  In Outrage, a man starts making advances to Ann at a picnic, and she goes all flashback, thinking he is the man who raped her.  She hits him with a wrench.  It puts him in the hospital and she goes to jail.  However, the man does not want to press charges, and the judge agrees to let Ann go provided she receives psychiatric care for a year.  In other words, Ann receives professional care same as Carol, only hers is delayed.  Doc puts Ann on a bus back to her home where Jim and her parents are waiting for her.  And in case you were wondering, the rapist was caught.

In one sense, the ending of Never Fear was not far-fetched.  People who don’t dance tend to assume that dancing partners are lovers, but dancers know that very often they are not.  So, Carol would not have had any reason to feel jealous about Guy and his new dancing partner.  However, I still did not like what comes across as an artificial, tacked-on happy ending.  I would have preferred that Carol leave the institution knowing that she will have to face the world alone, except for the support her father could give her, at least for a while.  It would have given the movie a tougher, harder edge.  In fact, I was a little bothered by the way the movie portrayed Carol’s attitude as wrong-headed.  If she wanted to make a clean break with her past, that was her business.  In Outrage, on the other hand, the happy ending seemed reasonable and natural.