Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat is a movie made during World War II, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Not surprisingly, then, it is a propaganda piece that illustrates the danger of appeasement because Germans are just plain evil.

The movie begins with a passenger ship being sunk by a German U-boat, which would ordinarily be evil enough, but just to rub it in, the captain of the U-boat gives orders to fire upon the lifeboats, after which the U-boat itself is sunk.  One lifeboat manages to survive, and one by one it is populated by British and Americans of all walks of life.  Finally, Willi (Walter Slezak), a German, is pulled aboard.  Some, such as a Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the engine room and is appropriately macho, wants to throw the German overboard, while columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), radioman Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) (i.e., a woman and two weak men, appeasers all) argue successfully that they should let the German stay.

As the movie progresses, we see that while the British and Americans share what they have with the German, he conceals from them that he has a flask of water, some food and energy tablets, and a compass, by which he tries to steer them away from Bermuda and toward an area of the ocean occupied by German ships.  He further conceals that he was the captain of the U-boat.

Of particular interest is Gus Smith (William Bendix), who has been wounded in the leg.  When we find out that he loves to dance, we know right then his leg is doomed.  Sure enough, it becomes gangrenous.  As it turns out, Willi was a surgeon before the war and says that he can amputate.  We almost get the sense that he enjoys the idea of removing Gus’s leg, much like the sadistic doctor in King’s Row (1942), who unnecessarily amputates the legs of Ronald Reagan.  Gus does not want to have his leg removed, because he is afraid that he will lose Rosie, the girl back home whom he loves.  He fears that she might not want to marry him if he comes back without one of his legs, especially since she loves to dance as much as Gus does.  To make matters worse, Gus has a rival, Al Magaroulian, whom Rosie used to date and who is also a good dancer, even though fallen arches have kept him out of the war.  Gus is afraid Rosie will go back to Al if he has his leg removed.  But eventually he relents, and Willi performs the surgery with no better anesthetic than brandy.

Later in the movie, while everyone is sleeping lethargically from dehydration, Gus catches Willi sipping a drink of water from his flask.  To keep Gus from telling the others about the water, he pushes Gus overboard.  When the others awaken from hearing Gus’s cries for help, they realize Gus has drowned, and they ask Willi why he didn’t do something.  Willi does not, of course, tell them that he pushed Gus overboard to keep him from talking.  Instead, he tells them that Gus voluntarily jumped overboard and that he thought it would be best not to do anything about it, saying, “You can’t imagine how painful it was to me.  All night long, to watch him turning and suffering and nothing I could do for him….  The best way to help him was to let him go.  I had no right to stop him, even if I wanted to.  A poor cripple dying of hunger and thirst.  What good could life be to a man like that?”

But the survivors soon realize what actually happened and find out about the water and food that Willi has been concealing.  They attack Willi, both the men and the women, forcing him overboard and to his death.  But one person does not take part in the attack.  It is Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), an African American.  Presumably those who made the movie did not want to offend audiences in the South by showing a black man taking part in the killing of a white man, even if that white man is a Nazi.

Shortly after that, there is another sea battle, and it becomes clear that they will soon be picked up by an Allied ship, but not before they pull another German aboard who proves to be just as bad as Willi, though he is weak and soon overpowered, leaving the survivors to wonder, “What are you going to do with people like that?”

Yes, German Nazis are evil, but are we all that good?  Consider Willi’s justification for letting Gus drown.  The lie that Willi thinks will be an acceptable justification for “allowing” Gus to drown is actually repugnant to the other survivors, who listen to his words in horror.  And we who watch this movie are likewise repulsed by Willi’s callous remarks.  But now let us ask ourselves why those who made this movie (writers John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling, and director Alfred Hitchcock) put this into the story.  We cannot say it was to show that Willi was evil.  We already knew that before he killed Gus.  With a slight reworking of the script, Gus could have been saved by Kovac, after which the German could have said Gus would have been better of dead.  Alternatively, if a murder was needed to really drive home the point, it was not Gus that had to be murdered.  For example, it could have been Canada Lee that saw Willi sneaking a drink of water and who was then murdered by Willi and thrown overboard.  Willi could then have tried to justify why he didn’t save Canada by saying, “Like the Jews, Negroes are inferior.  They are better off dead and the world is better off without them.”  That would definitely make it clear just how evil Willi is.

One could come up with other ways of dramatically showing how evil Willi is, but there is no need.  The point is that those who made this movie had a special reason for killing Gus off beyond making it clear that Willi was evil.  They did it to make those in the audience feel better, believing that the audience would have been uneasy if the movie had ended with Gus still alive in that lifeboat.

Sure, Rosie might have not cared about Gus’s leg, marrying him anyway because she truly loved him.  In a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Hollywood could make sure that things would turn out that way.  In that movie, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) agrees to marry Homer (Harold Russell) despite the fact that both of his forearms have been replaced by prostheses, and despite the fact that her parents want her to break off the engagement.  But in real life, we know things do not always work out that way.  Rosie and Gus were not even engaged.  Instead of being like Wilma, Rosie might have tried to put a good face on the situation for a couple of months and then broken up with Gus and gone back to Al Magaroulian.  Since this movie is limited to what happens in and about that lifeboat, Hollywood could not guarantee a happy ending for Gus and Rosie, leaving the audience with dark forebodings as to what will happen when Gus gets back home.

And so, rather than leave the audience suspecting that Rosie would desert Gus, which would have been depressing, those who made this movie killed Gus off, allowing the audience to leave the theater feeling much better about the movie than if Gus had lived.  You might even say that Gus’s death was necessary for there to be a happy ending.  But does that not imply that those who made this movie were essentially in agreement with Willi when he asked, “What good could life be to a man like that?”  And if they were right in their assessment of the audience’s reaction to an ending in which Gus is still alive, then does that not imply that the audience at that time felt the way Willi did?

Of course, there is a big difference between committing an actual murder and merely writing a story in which a man is murdered, between saying a man is better off dead and saying that the death of that man makes the story better.  And so, whereas Willi was guilty of murdering Gus, those who made this movie were only guilty of supposing that the audience would like it better if Gus were killed off before the movie ended.

Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

“Let’s see,” you are saying to yourself, “which Hitchcock movie was Saboteur?”  That was the one where the bad guy is hanging from the Statue of Liberty until he loses his grip and falls to his death.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, the bad guy’s name is Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd).  The movie begins in an airplane factory during World War II.  At the end of the day shift, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and his friend Ken Mason are heading to the counter where food is served when they bump into Fry, who spills his mail on the floor.  Barry picks it up to give it to him, but Fry is surly and unappreciative.  As Fry walks off, Barry sees a hundred-dollar bill that was left behind. Remembering the name he saw on the envelope, he finds Fry to give it back to him, but Fry takes the money without saying anything in the way of thanks.

Suddenly, fire breaks out where the planes are painted.  They all rush to that area.  Fry hands Barry the fire extinguisher, but Mason takes it from him and runs toward the fire.  We see Mason being consumed in an inferno.  It turns out that the extinguisher was filled with gasoline.

When interviewed by the police, Barry tells them what happened, but when it turns out there is no record of a Frank Fry working at the plant, they suspect that it was Barry that started the fire and knowingly handed Mason the gasoline-filled extinguisher. Barry gets away before the police can arrest him.  He decides he must find Fry to prove that he exists, thereby clearing himself of the charge.

It is a familiar trope, the innocent man eluding the police so that he can clear himself by bringing the guilty party to justice.  Has anything like that ever happened in real life? I doubt it.  But no matter how unrealistic that may be, it works quite well in the movies. And while on the subject of what is not realistic, I must say that there was absolutely no reason for Fry to hand Barry the extinguisher. Whoever got there first would pick up that extinguisher himself, there being no need for Fry to make sure that it happened. He should have been heading for the exit while everyone else was preoccupied.

Along the way, in his search for Fry, Barry has to kidnap Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) because she thinks he is the saboteur, and she would otherwise go to the police. “You look like a saboteur,” Pat says to Barry accusatively. Inasmuch as Barry is played by Robert Cummings, what are we to make of this remark?

First of all, there is reality. We all know that as a general rule, saboteurs do not have a distinctive look. Now, inasmuch as World War II had just broken out, I suppose that if Barry had been Japanese or German (someone with blond hair and a slight accent), her remark would have been appropriate. But Barry does not appear to be either German or Japanese.  (No, I didn’t forget about the Italians, who were also one of the Axis Powers. But even in World War II, Hollywood always portrayed Italians as patriotic Americans, even if they were gangsters.)

Second, there is typecasting. A movie producer might call up Central Casting and say, “We’re making a spy movie. Do you have anyone who looks like a saboteur? If so, send him over for an interview.” And then they might send over someone like Norman Lloyd.

Or they might send over Alan Baxter, who plays Mr. Freeman, another saboteur. Baxter often played sinister characters, but in this movie, he is also effeminate, presumably a homosexual.  When this movie was made, explicit references to homosexuality were forbidden by the Production Code, so movies had to be content with queer flashes.  Believing Barry to be a fellow spy, Freeman talks to him about his family:

Freeman:  Sometimes I wish my younger child had been a girl.  In fact, my wife and I argue over a little idiosyncrasy I have.  I don’t want his hair cut short until he’s much older.  Do you think it’d be bad for him?

Barry:  I don’t know.  It might be.

Freeman:  When I was a child, I had long golden curls.  People used to stop to admire me.

Barry:  Things are different nowadays.  A haircut might save him a lot of grief.

Back when this movie was made, anyone who appeared to be a homosexual was either a weakling or a villain, both of which apply to Freeman.  In any event, when asked to send over someone that looked like a saboteur, Central Casting might send over Normal Lloyd or Alan Baxter, but they would not send over Robert Cummings.

Because neither reality nor typecasting would make anyone say of Robert Cummings that he looks like a saboteur, it is odd that Pat would say that he does.  Furthermore, she has a very good reason for thinking he is a saboteur, which has nothing to do with his looks. When she first met him, she saw that he was wearing handcuffs, and she realized that he was the fugitive the police were looking for.

Actually, it is precisely because Barry does not look like a saboteur that he is able to avoid the police. Earlier in the movie, Barry is arrested.  After he bolts from the police car when it had to come to a stop, he jumps from the bridge into the river below. The truck driver that had earlier given him a ride recognizes him, and he misdirects the police so that Barry can escape, giving Barry an “OK” hand signal. Now, why would he do that? I would have helped the police by pointing out where Barry was hiding. All we can conclude is that the truck driver figured Barry did not look like a criminal, so he helped him escape.

Barry takes shelter in the house of a blind man, Philip Martin.  It is here that Pat makes her entrance into the movie, because she is his niece.  When she arrives at her uncle’s house shortly after Philip and Barry have become acquainted, she sees the handcuffs that her uncle already knew about on account of his acute hearing. She says he should have turned Barry in to the police. Her uncle accuses her of being cruel. He assures her that Barry is not dangerous. And besides, he argues, a man is innocent until proven guilty. (That’s a nice piece of circular reasoning:  since he hasn’t been proven guilty, he is innocent; and an innocent man shouldn’t be turned over to the police.)  Now, because Philip is blind, he obviously cannot be coming to these incredible conclusions simply on account of Barry’s looks.  However, he can hear the sound of Barry’s voice, and by virtue of that kind of appearance, Philip tells Pat that he can see intangible things like innocence.

Pat pretends to go along with what her uncle wants, which is to take Barry to a blacksmith to get the handcuffs off, but she tries to take him to the police instead. That doesn’t work, however, and after some complications, they find themselves in the company of some circus freaks. Some of them want to turn Barry over to the police, who are inspecting the circus trucks, but the deciding vote belongs to the bearded lady, who blathers about how fine it is that Pat has stuck with Barry through his difficulties, and therefore they must be good people; much in the way, I suppose, that we know that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were good people on account of the way Bonnie stuck with Clyde through his difficulties too.  It makes about as much sense as when earlier a man and a woman saw Barry kidnap Pat, dragging her into a car against her will, and the woman said, “My, they must be terribly in love.”  Apparently, Barry doesn’t look like a rapist or a serial killer either.

What these three instances—that of the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady—have in common is that appearances, in one form or another, make people decide to thwart the police and help the fugitive. Toward the end of the movie, Charles Tobin (Otto Krüger), one of the villains, says of Barry that he is noble, fine, and pure, and that is why he is misjudged by everyone. But save for the police, who are simply going by what evidence they have, Barry is not misjudged by others. The point of this mistaken remark is to show just how much evil foreigners underestimate Americans. The idea is that Americans, being basically noble, fine, and pure, can readily see the goodness in others, which is why they are willing to help a fugitive from justice escape from the police: they can just tell from Barry’s appearance that he is noble, fine, and pure.  Of course, Otto Krüger is of German descent, which is why he was selected to play this part.

There is one point in this movie where Barry’s appearance works against him.  He and Pat end up at a charity affair being given by a Mrs. Sutton, a wealthy woman that is also one of the spies.  It is here that the conversation with Tobin occurs.  Barry and Pat manage to escape onto the dance floor, where there are a lot of people that do not realize that Mrs. Sutton and Mr. Tobin are spies.  But when Barry tries to tell one of the guests that “the whole house is a hotbed of spies and saboteurs,” he is dismissed out of hand.  You see, it’s a formal affair, and as the guest points out to Barry, who is just wearing a suit, “You’re not even dressed.”  It all goes to show that ordinary citizens like the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady are the real backbone of this country, while the snooty rich are more concerned with maintaining their privileges over the rabble than in protecting this country from the enemy.

There is a scene where Fry and his fellow saboteurs try to sink a ship as it is being launched.  It appears that Barry has thwarted him.  But later, while Fry is in a car, he looks out the window and sees a ship lying on its side in the water.  As long as that shot was going to be in the movie, Hitchcock should have let it appear that Fry was successful in his second act of sabotage.  Instead, we find ourselves wondering, “Well, did he sink that ship or not?”

That he might have sunk that ship led to objections on the part of the War Department, and Hitchcock said that the Navy opposed having this scene in the movie because it made it look as though they failed to do their job in protecting that ship.  So, while the government is printing posters that say, “Loose lips sink ships,” that same government doesn’t want us to think that ships actually get sunk.

This is followed by a scene in which Fry, in his effort to escape, runs into a movie theater.  Just as he starts firing his gun, someone in the movie starts firing his gun, making it difficult to tell which shots are real and which are part of the movie.

So, what with Pat’s initial reluctance to believe that Barry is innocent, the man at the ball refusing to believe Barry because he is not formally attired, and this scene in the theater, there are some gestures in this movie toward the message that appearances can be deceiving.  But overall, the casting works against this message, reassuring us that you can tell just by looking who is noble, fine, and pure on the one hand, and who is base, gross, and adulterated on the other.

If this movie had been intended to alert Americans of the danger of enemy agents in their midst during World War II, it would have cast against type, letting Otto Krüger, Norman Lloyd, or Alan Baxter play Barry, the innocent man, and letting Robert Cummings play one of the spies.  Then the movie would have driven home the point that you cannot tell by a person’s appearance whether he is good or evil.  Let’s imagine Norman Lloyd playing the role of Barry, the innocent man.  In such a movie, Pat’s remark that Barry looks like a saboteur would make sense, and the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady would be suspicious of Barry instead of trusting. Finally, when the married couple see Barry dragging Pat into the car, they would immediately call the police.  Instead, the movie seems intent on assuring the wartime audience that they can just rely on appearances, which is a much more comforting notion.

Hitchcock complained about being forced to use Robert Cummings in this movie, thinking him wrong for the role, on account of his comic face.  Given this insistence on the part of Universal that he use Cummings in this movie, Hitchcock should have turned this fait accompli into an asset by making him be the saboteur.

Perhaps it was in reaction to the simplistic casting of that movie that he decided to make Shadow of a Doubt the next year, in in which appearances, instead of being dependable, turn out to be deceptive. In this movie, Joseph Cotten plays Charles “Charlie” Oakley, a man who murders rich widows. Needless to say, audiences in 1943, watching a movie about a serial killer, would have expected to see someone like Laird Cregar in the role of the killer, not Joseph Cotten.

As we watch the opening credits, the music we hear is “The Merry Widow Waltz,” played with just a hint of discord, while we see good-looking men dancing with older women.  The music is from The Merry Widow, an operetta about a woman who has inherited a lot of money from her deceased husband.  It was composed in 1905, and it was based on a play first performed in 1861.  The idea of a merry widow was the exact opposite of what was expected in those days.  In Gone with the Wind, after Scarlett’s first husband has died, she is miserable; not because he died, for she never loved him, but because of what she realizes is now required of her:

She was a widow and her heart was in the grave.  At least everyone thought it was in the grave and expected her to act accordingly….  Not for her the pleasures of unmarried girls.  She had to be grave and aloof….  The conduct of a widow must be twice as circumspect as that of a matron.

“And God only knows,” thought Scarlett…, “matrons never have any fun at all.  So widows might as well be dead.”

… Widows could never chatter vivaciously or laugh aloud.  Even when they smiled, it must be a sad, tragic smile.  And most dreadful of all, they could in no way indicate an interest in the company of gentlemen.  And should a gentleman be so ill bred as to indicate an interest in her, she must freeze him with a dignified but well-chosen reference to her dead husband.  Oh, yes, thought Scarlett, drearily, some widows do marry eventually, when they are old and stringy.  Though Heaven knows how they manage it, with their neighbors watching.

It must have been a great comfort to men in those days to know that in the event of their death, their wives could never again be truly happy.  And it must have been a comfort to married women as well, for they would have fumed at the idea that should some other woman happen to become a widow, she would be free once again to enjoy the pleasures of being single.

And if a merry widow should also be rich, like the one in the operetta, that would only add to the feelings of resentment, for it would bring to mind the idea of a husband who works hard, accumulates a sizable fortune, and then dies at an early age; after which, the wife, having gotten her hands on all that money, foolishly squanders it on some good-looking young man that will flatter her with attention.

Solon said that you should count no man happy until he is dead, for it is only then, in the words of Aristotle, that he is “beyond the reach of evils and misfortune.”  But as Aristotle goes on to say, we may even be reluctant to say that a man had a happy life if, after he dies, he is dishonored in some way. Though Aristotle does not give this as an example, yet the idea that a widow might fritter away her deceased husband’s entire fortune on some silly gigolo could be just the sort of thing Aristotle had in mind. In fact, the thoughts a man might have of his wife cavorting in this manner after he is dead might just drive him to an early grave.

I remember my mother telling me that the reason a man might be reluctant to buy life insurance is that he can’t stand the idea that his wife will spend all that money on some boyfriend.  And, as a matter of fact, six months after my father died, my mother got herself a facelift.  Another woman I knew had for years chafed under her husband’s insistence that they buy used cars only, drive them until they dropped, after which he would buy another used car. But when he died, she put him in the ground, and then went right out and bought herself a brand new luxury automobile.  “I earned it,” she said.  I’ve always thought of that line as being the divorced woman’s mantra, but I guess it works for widows too.

And then there was the suggestion of sexual license.  As they used to say in the days before the sexual revolution, once the pie has been cut, there’s no harm in helping yourself to another piece. Therefore, it was expected that a widow might more readily give in to her passions than would a maiden of younger years. In Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho Marx becomes president of a college, where his son, who has been in that college for twelve years, is “fooling around with the college widow.” Groucho tells him he’s ashamed of him, saying, “I went to three colleges in twelve years and fooled around with three college widows.”  Now, a college at that time might have denied admission to a divorced woman, a shameful status in those days.  But a widow was more to be pitied than censured.  Her innocence had to be presumed by those considering her admission to a college, even if suspicions lurked to the contrary; for her knowledge of the delights of sexual intimacy would no doubt leave her lusting for more.

In a lot of the Marx Brothers movies, Groucho would pursue some rich widow for her money, and more often than not, that widow would be played by Margaret Dumont.  She was in her late forties or fifties when these movies were made, and she had a matronly appearance.  Moreover, she was little bigger and taller than Groucho.  This made them a comic couple.  But in Horse Feathers, the college widow was supposed to be a threat to campus morality on account of her being sexually desirable and accessible, for which reason the role was played by Thelma Todd.

These negative attitudes toward widows are harbored by Charles Oakley.  Later in the movie, while sitting at the dinner table with his sister and her family, he compares women in a small town with those in the big city:

Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it’s different. Middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working, and then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the best hotels every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.

The weakest parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes that involve the detectives, none of which make any sense. They want a picture of Oakley so they can show it to witnesses to see if he is the Merry Widow Killer. All they need to do is bring him in for questioning and take his picture, not to mention putting him in a lineup. Failing that, they could have photographed him when he walked right toward them at the beginning of the movie. Furthermore, they had previously told his landlady that they wanted to talk to him, so why didn’t they talk to him right there on the street?  After he walks past them, they follow him. What for? Do they think that by following him, they will catch him in the act of killing another widow? I could go on, but what would be the point? Suffice it to say that everything involving these detectives is not just unrealistic, for every movie is that to some degree, but distractingly so, and to an extent that interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the story. And it is a shame, because with a few changes in the script, they could have been left out entirely.

It is the rest of the movie, the parts where the detectives play no significant role, that the movie really engages us. When it begins, it is clear that Oakley has just killed another widow, after first getting his hands on her money. But it is not the money he cares about. He hates these women, and it gives him great satisfaction to kill them. But now, thoroughly sated from his recent murder, he is weary, listlessly lying in bed, with some of the money carelessly allowed to fall on the floor. He finally decides to visit his sister and sends her a telegram, ending it with “and a kiss for little Charlie from her Uncle Charlie.”

This “little Charlie,” his niece Charlotte Newton, (Teresa Wright), is first seen lying supine in bed in a way that matches her uncle when we first saw him.  At first, she too is listless, as her uncle was, but she suddenly decides to send him a telegram, inviting him to come for a visit, right after he has sent her mother a telegram saying that he is coming.  On my own, I would never have thought of these scenes as indicating anything other than an affinity between an uncle and his niece.  However, several critics have noted that these matching bed scenes are a suggestion of incest. Young Charlie’s fascination with her uncle is a little unsettling in this regard. She places importance on the fact that they both have the same first name, at least in the diminutive form, and she is convinced that they are alike, that they have a special connection between them, a common fancy of someone in love. And she acts like a girl in love.

When her uncle arrives, Charlie let’s him sleep in her bed.  Now, don’t get excited. She moves to the room of her precocious, younger sister Ann, where there is an unused twin bed.  But if subliminal desires of incest are being suggested in this movie, her letting Uncle Charlie sleep in her bed is another hint.

That evening, he gives young Charlie a ring, not realizing it has an engraving on the inside, “T.S. from B.M.” Later, she reads in the newspaper that the initials of the deceased husband of a recently murdered widow were “B.M.” Both “T.S.” and “B.M.” are abbreviations for expressions involving feces, “tough shit” and “bowel movement” respectively, which is a way of suggesting something foul associated with the emerald ring. The ugliness hidden underneath beauty is the theme of this movie.

In a similar way, the town where young Charlie lives is one of those warm, wholesome towns, representing the goodness of America.  But Uncle Charlie says these appearances are deceiving.  Later in the movie, after young Charlie has figured out that her uncle is the Merry Widow Killer, he says the rest of the world, including the town where she lives, is no better than he is:

You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town.  You wake up every day and know there’s nothing in the world to trouble you.  You go through your ordinary little day.  At night, you sleep your ordinary sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams.  And I brought you nightmares.  Or did l?  Or was it a silly, inexpert, little lie?  You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind.  How do you know what the world is like?  Do you know the world is a foul sty?  Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?  The world’s a hell.  What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie.  Use your wits. Learn something!

And what Uncle Charlie says of the world applies to young Charlie herself.  As the movie keeps emphasizing, and as young Charlie keeps insisting, she and her uncle Charlie are very much alike, “like twins” she tells him. The idea that her uncle is her evil twin comes to mind, but she has her dark side too, as becomes clear later in the movie. Because young Charlie is played by Teresa Wright, a wholesome-looking young woman, rather than an actress whom we might see playing a femme fatale in a film noir, the contrast between her innocent appearance and the evil that emerges from within her is stark.

Earlier in the movie, while young Charlie is still blissfully unaware that Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Killer, she is so psychically in tune with him that she starts humming “The Merry Widow Waltz,” while setting the table for dinner.  But she can’t seem to remember the name of the melody. Ann says, “Sing at the table, you’ll marry a crazy husband.” This may be another incest hint.  Young Charlie is pleased when some of her friends think Uncle Charlie is her beau.  And as Uncle Charlie is crazy, perhaps he is the man she unconsciously wants for a husband.

Instead of just letting her recall the name of the waltz, Uncle Charlie purposely spills his wine just as she is on the verge of uttering it.  Later, when he sees an article in the newspaper about the Merry Widow Killer, he tears that section out.  Discovering this, she concludes that there must have been something in the paper he wanted to conceal, though she imagines it to be of minor importance. She tells her uncle she knows a secret about him, referring to something that must have been in the newspaper, and reprising an earlier remark she had made:  “I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there’s something nobody knows about.”  She thinks the secret is something wonderful, but he becomes alarmed, charging at her and grabbing her wrists so hard that he hurts her.  His guilty behavior arouses young Charlie’s suspicions, causing her to go to the library, where she finds the article mentioned above.  This leads to his downfall. Had he not done these things, she might never have suspected anything at all.

Murdering widows for their money appears to be quite remunerative, inasmuch as Uncle Charlie deposits $40,000 in the bank (over $650,000, adjusted for inflation).  As he is leaving the bank, he is introduced to another rich widow, a Mrs. Potter.  She has come to the bank to get some money so she can go shopping. “There’s one good thing in being a widow, isn’t there?” she says laughing.  “You don’t have to ask your husband for money.”

When young Charlie figures out that her uncle is the Merry Widow Killer, she does not turn the ring over to the detectives and tell them what she knows, because she is afraid it will hurt her mother to find this out about her brother.  Many of those same critics that noticed the theme of incest have also argued that the relationships in this movie constitute an allegory of sexual abuse within a family, one in which a girl feels she cannot tell her mother that her father is molesting her.  Only instead of the daughter not wanting her mother to know the truth, too often it is the mother that does not want to know the truth when her daughter tries to tell her.  Here too, on my own, that would never have occurred to me, but it does seem to resonate, now that it has been brought to my attention.

And so, instead of telling the detectives, she tries to get Uncle Charlie to leave town, hinting at first, but then becoming more insistent.  He quickly picks up on the fact that she knows.  It is then that he makes the remarks about widows quoted above.  Young Charlie defends them:  “But they’re alive. They’re human beings.”  Uncle Charlie replies:

Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human, or are they fat, wheezing animals? Hm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

While all this has been going on, young Charlie’s father, Joseph (Henry Travers), and a next-door neighbor, Herb (Hume Cronyn), who lives with his mother and is always coming over while the Newton family is having dinner, enjoy discussing the murder mysteries they have read in books. Joseph thinks the best way to kill someone is by hitting him over the head with a lead pipe, but Herb objects to that form of murder because then you don’t have any clues.  Joseph says he doesn’t want any clues, of course, but Herb has confused getting away with a murder in real life with committing a murder that would make a good mystery.  As a result, he prefers exotic poisons.  The fun they have discussing murder mysteries unnerves young Charlie, who is trying to deal with the real murders committed by her uncle.

At the same time, the detectives have confided in young Charlie that her uncle is one of two suspects they have been investigating.  They are pretty sure her uncle is their man, but out of consideration for her mother, they agree to arrest her uncle out of town, if Charlie can get him to leave soon.  But then, the other suspect ends up being killed when, in the act of fleeing from the police, he runs into the propeller of an airplane. Uncle Charlie and young Charlie overhear Joseph and Herb talking about it.  Herb says they had to identify the suspect, who was all chopped up, by his clothes.  “His shirts were all initialed,” Herb says, “‘C,’ ‘O,’ apostrophe ‘H’.”

We have already seen that the initials on the ring were abbreviations for feces, so I wondered if these initials were supposed to have significance, especially since the dialogue gives them emphasis. That is, the scriptwriter could simply have had Herb say, “They identified him by the initials on his shirts,” without specifying which initials they were.  But other than the fact that “C” and “O” are also Charles Oakley’s initials, and “CO” is the symbol for carbon monoxide, which soon comes into play, not much comes to mind.  I suppose the “H” could stand for Hitchcock, another cameo of a sort.

One might also ask why the scriptwriters chose this form of death for the other suspect, one that involves mutilation.  The reason is that had he died, say, by being hit by an automobile, the detectives could have photographed him, thereby allowing his picture to be shown to witnesses for identification.  And so, this absurd idea that the detectives cannot photograph Charles Oakley against his will, unless they are sneaky about it, is being applied to this other suspect as well.

Once Uncle Charlie hears that the police have called off the investigation because they think the Merry Widow Killer is dead, he is delighted.  But then he remembers that he had all but admitted to being the killer when young Charlie confronted him.  He sets out to murder her to make sure she doesn’t talk.  His first attempt is by loosening part of a step on the stairway she often uses, but she catches herself when it gives way. The second attempt is with carbon monoxide, by trapping her in the garage with the motor of the family car running. Fortunately, Herb hears her screams and alerts her family to her situation.

Notwithstanding young Charlie’s plea that these widows are “human beings,” in the end, she cares more about protecting her mother from any unhappiness than she does the lives of Uncle Charlie’s future victims.  She insists that he leave town, with the threat of giving the ring to the police, even when she knows who his next victim will be, the Mrs. Potter mentioned above, the rich widow he met in town.  In fact, Mrs. Potter is sitting right there in the living room of young Charlie’s home, and she will be leaving on the same train as Uncle Charlie. This would have made young Charlie an accomplice to his next and subsequent murders had he simply left town as she wanted.  We can imagine her reading in the newspaper about his murders of widows in the future, but still remaining silent, her mother’s feelings being more important to her than the women being strangled by Uncle Charlie.

In another scene, she tells him, “Go away, or I’ll kill you myself.” And so she does. The scene in which she pushes him into the path of the oncoming train can be understood as merely the accidental result of her effort to get away from him, and it would have been an act of self-defense in any event. But what happens matches what she says she would do. Of course, there is no way her dark side is anything like that of her uncle, the reason being that her uncle had a head injury when he was young.  He skidded on his bicycle and was hit by a streetcar, much in the way he has now been hit by a train.  It was this earlier accident that allowed his dark side to flourish, instead of being held in check the way it is for young Charlie.  Or the way it is for the rest of us, for that matter.

Still, I wonder what she told her mother when they scraped Uncle Charlie’s body off the railroad tracks.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Alfred Hitchcock made The Lady Vanishes at a time when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was trying to avoid war with Germany. Chamberlain’s efforts are now derisively referred to as appeasement, which is often alluded to when someone counsels peace and diplomacy rather than war. Although Hitchcock was always more interested in entertaining us than anything else, this movie comes across as a cautionary tale, warning England of the dangers of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.

The movie begins in the fictitious, Germanic-sounding country of Bandrika, which is ruled by a dictator.  A bunch of people trying to get back England by train are forced to stay in a hotel on account of an avalanche.  Eventually, the snow is removed and they get on the train.  As the trip progresses, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) notices that Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared from the train.

Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), a couple of passengers who did see Miss Froy on the train, pretend not to have seen her, because they figure nothing really bad could have happened to her, and they do not want the train delayed, lest it cause them to miss the cricket match they hope to see when they get back to England.  From time to time, we see them reading about that cricket match on the back pages of the newspaper, while the serious political news on the front page is ignored. They represent the dangerous complacency of the British people.

All the foreigners on that train act suspicious and untrustworthy, and all seem to be part of a conspiracy to deny the existence of Miss Froy and pass off another woman as a substitute. As the foreigners seem to be either Germanic or Italian, they represent the followers of Hitler and Mussolini, whom the movie is saying cannot be trusted.

But as the danger becomes undeniable, the British passengers all start pulling together, even the spy posing as a nun, since she is of British origin. Thus the movie is optimistically saying that once the British people are shaken from their complacency, they will rally together and defeat the foreign aggressors.

The one exception is Todhunter (Cecil Parker). Though he is British, yet he wants to surrender to the soldiers trying to get control of the train. He is derided as being a pacifist and compared to Christians who got thrown to the lions. When he insists on surrendering on his own, getting off the train waving a white handkerchief, he is contemptuously shot, and falls to the ground muttering words of bewildered protest. So much for pacifism.

When we first meet Miss Froy, obviously an old maid, she comes across as whimsical and sentimental, boring Charters and Caldicott with her talk about the beautiful country. As she parts from them, she remarks that we should not judge a country by its politics, noting that the English are quite honest by nature, implying that the British government sometimes is not (and that means the government presided over by Neville Chamberlain, of course). The implication is that the basically good people of a country can be betrayed by their government, but that the goodness of ordinary folk will ultimately prevail. Because Miss Froy is the last person you would expect to be a spy, her example implies that the rest of us have no excuse for not doing our part. If a little old lady can risk her life in the fight against evil enemies, dodging bullets as she runs across the countryside of a hostile nation, we all are capable of making at least some small contribution ourselves.

But entertainment always comes first in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, so none of this anti-appeasement propaganda gets in the way of a good adventure story.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

In Foreign Correspondent, a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, American correspondent Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), under the pseudonym Huntley Haverstock, is sent to London to cover the impending European war.  He meets with Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party.  It turns out the Fisher has an attractive daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), with whom Haverstock eventually becomes romantically involved.  Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) is an important diplomat who disappears and then appears to be assassinated.  Haverstock, Carol, and another reporter, Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), team up and try to figure out what is going on.

The importance of Van Meer consists in the fact that he is one of the two signatories of an important treaty between two countries.  What makes the treaty really special is that it has a secret clause, known as Clause 27, so secret in fact that it is only known to the two people who signed the treaty, because it was never written down.

Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin” as being “what the spies are after, but the audience doesn’t care,” and Clause 27 is not only the MacGuffin of this movie, it is the worst MacGuffin ever.  Whether one is talking about a treaty, a contract, or any other kind of agreement, the whole point in writing it down and having people sign it is so that there is no question as to what was agreed to. Anything not written down can be denied later, especially if there are no witnesses, as is the case with this oral agreement between the two signatories. I guess we are to assume that the two diplomats trust each other so much that an oral agreement and a handshake will suffice.

This raises the question as to how anyone other than the two signatories knows of the existence of Clause 27. The spies know about it, as does ffolliott, so I guess the two signatories must have announced that they had signed a treaty with an unwritten clause. It seems to me it would have been better to keep not only the content of the clause a secret, but its existence as well.

To find out what is in Clause 27, the spies kidnapped Van Meer with the idea of torturing him until he talked. But to keep the world from knowing that Van Meer had been kidnapped, they got a man who looked like Van Meer to take his place so he could be assassinated. Presumably, the impostor did not know about that part of the plan.

If the world thinks Van Meer has been assassinated, then that means that as far as everyone else is concerned, only one person knows what is in Clause 27. Van Meer might have trusted this other fellow, but can we expect the country he represented to honor a secret clause whose content is known only to the diplomat of the other country and take his word for it? So with Van Meer’s faked assassination, it would seem that the clause has just become worthless. Or maybe the spies were planning on releasing Van Meer after he spilled his guts saying, “Fooled you. Van Meer is alive after all, but you still have to honor the secret clause that we now know about.”

Moving right along, if I had been Van Meer and the spies started torturing me to tell what was in Clause 27, I would have just made up something. After all, it’s a secret, so how would the spies have known the difference?

But enough of this. The point of the MacGuffin, as noted above, is to give the spies something to pursue that the audience is not expected to care about. But that’s just the problem. Maybe we are not supposed to care about what the MacGuffin is, but we sure are supposed to care about what makes the MacGuffin important. Over and over again, we are continually being prodded with a preachy message about the need to take a strong stand against Germany. In short, this is another of Hitchcock’s propaganda films, the first one being The Lady Vanishes (1938). This is why Fisher, the leader of a pacifist organization, actually turns out to be a Nazi spy. You just can’t trust those peaceniks. The problem is not with the message per se, but with the enervating effect of propaganda. Who wants to watch a movie and be lectured to? Of course, there are enough good scenes in the movie, especially the one in the windmill, to make the movie enjoyable overall, but it is somewhat spoiled by the warmongering.

Haverstock agrees to get Carol to go to the country with him so that ffolliott can make Fisher think his daughter has been kidnapped and thus arrange a prisoner exchange for Van Meer. The pretense is that Haverstock needs to hide from the spies, who are trying to kill him, because he knows who they are. When Carol and Haverstock get to Cambridge, they get a room at a hotel.

Ooh la la! One room for the two of them! Even if it is just for the afternoon, it sounds very cozy, and Carol seems just fine with it. But then ffolliott calls Haverstock and tells him he needs more time to talk to Fisher, and so Haverstock will need to keep Carol there overnight. Haverstock agrees and makes an arrangement with the hotel for another room for Carol. Carol overhears this and is appalled.

Now, I know that things back then were different regarding sex, but I cannot figure this one out. The very fact that Haverstock is getting a separate room for her indicates that his intentions are honorable. But the woman who was just fine having one room for the afternoon is outraged that he would get a separate room for her for the night. I guess she thought that the second room was just for appearances, and that he was planning on slipping into her room later that evening, just the sort of thing a man might have on his mind while hiding from spies who want to kill him. Since they were hiding from the spies, she should have figured that something had come up necessitating a longer stay. The reasonable thing for her to do was go up to him and say, “Why are you getting another room for me so that we can stay overnight?” But not much else in this movie makes sense, so there is no reason for this scene to be any different.  Carol leaves in a huff, arriving back home just in time to spoil ffolliott’s plan.

War breaks out before the spies can extract the content of Clause 27 from Van Meer, who winds up in a coma, and so we never find out what was in the clause or whether it mattered.  Fisher, Carol, Haverstock, and ffolliot get on a plane heading for America, which is shot down by a German destroyer.  When the floating wing of the downed plane is unable to support everybody, Fisher redeems himself by getting off and drowning.  Presumably the idea is that pacifists like Fisher that conspire with the enemy out of a misguided desire for world peace are not really evil, they are just confused.