Category: Melodrama

La notte (The Night, Italy-France 1961)

Giovanni and Lidia

For many cinephiles, Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the directors most identified with the concept of ‘European art cinema’, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. His career started early as a writer and then director in the 1940s when neo-realism was beginning to develop. In the 1970s he worked outside Italy for Hollywood (Zabriskie Point 1970) and for European producers, but with American and British players in The Passenger (1975). Antonioni had a 60 year filmmaking career but it is perhaps the three films he made between 1960 and 1962 which are most responsible for the art cinema designation. L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse are films which share the same director, writers and various crew members. They each star leading Italian and French actors and Monica Vitti appears in all three films. She also leads in Red Desert in 1964 – a film sometimes bracketed with the other three films, although it is in colour. The key terms to describe these narratives seem to be alienation, isolation and existentialism. Put crudely, in La notte critics see the decay and possible collapse of the marriage of two intelligent (and wealthy) people reflected in some way by their responses to both the kind of society they encounter (and are part of) and the buildings and technologies of the new world of affluence for the haute-bourgeoisie whose interest is aroused by a writer’s celebrity. I’m not saying this is a ‘wrong’ reading, but there seem to be several other ways of thinking about the film. On the Wikipedia page for the film, the following statement appears in the introduction:

The film continues Antonioni’s tradition of abandoning traditional storytelling in favour of visual composition.

This is a helpful observation but it also potentially misleads. Antonioni doesn’t abandon traditional storytelling, but he does place more emphasis on cinema’s unique capacity to tell stories through setting, camerawork, editing, music etc. as well as dialogue. He doesn’t deploy the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in terms of pacing or the linear ‘drive’ of the narrative. But he does utilises stars. The elements of a story are all there but they are presented in a way that some audiences will perhaps find off-putting and unsatisfactory – or the story itself will not be of enough interest. A film is an art object, preserved like amber, and must be seen in its context of production and reception. Many of us will read it differently today than audiences did in 1961. But others will attempt to read it as timeless because ‘great art’ doesn’t age. These differences are interesting for me.

In the clinic, Tomasso (Bernhard Wicki) has Giovanni’s new book, but it’s perhaps Lidia he is most keen to see.

Time and space

The setting of La notte is contemporary Milan. The narrative involves a married couple, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) who first visit a dying friend in a swish modern private clinic – more like an up-market hotel or apartment block. They leave and drive through the streets, arriving at a party being given in Giovanni’s honour on the occasion of the publication of his latest novel. A greeting suggests it is still morning when they arrive. Giovanni is the centre of attention. Lidia becomes bored and wanders out to walk among the lunchtime crowds. It’s a warm summer’s day and she enjoys observing people. Eventually she hires a cab and ends up in the district where she lived with Giovanni when they first married. It is a more open area, perhaps on the edge of the city? Giovanni goes back to their apartment in the centre and falls asleep on his day bed. Later, Lidia rings him and he collects her. She wants to go out in the evening and they visit a night club and then move onto a party outside the city given by a very wealthy industrialist. Giovanni is again the centre of attention and Lidia feels marginalised. Later at the party, Giovanni spends time with the industrialist’s daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti) and Lidia leaves for a short time with a man from the party. At dawn Giovanni and Lidia are together again and they wander out onto the private golf course on the estate. They admit to each other that their marriage is facing a crisis. The camera moves away from them and the film ends.

Lidia at the reception with an image of Giovanni over her shoulder

It occurs to me that Antonioni’s choice of locations in his three films is very similar to De Sica’s choices for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy-France 1963). I suspect it was a popular headline around that time. De Sica told three stories featuring the same actors playing a couple in Naples (‘Yesterday’), Rome (‘Today’) and Milan (‘Tomorrow’). Marcello Mastroianni is the man and Sophia Loren is the woman. Antonioni chooses Sicily for L’avventura, Rome for L’eclisse and Milan for La notte. My impression is that at this time, the differences between Italian regions and especially between ‘South’ and ‘North’ were very great. They still are to some extent I think. One of the best indications of this is developed by Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a film also set in Milan and a film which I thought about while watching La notte, especially when Lidia is on her own on the outskirts of the city. I also thought about Fellini’s La dolce vita (Italy 1960). OK that is set in Rome but it’s the helicopter that is the link. It appears a couple of times in La notte with that angry buzzing sound somehow proclaiming the modern city. It also suggests on the one hand  surveillance of the population if you are working class or the freedom to take to the air if you have the money. Thinking about that helicopter now – i.e. as it flies over my house – I’m aware that, apart from its use for real emergencies, it also signifies a polluting object, something that would not occur to anyone in 1961.

One of the carefully composed framings (which I have had to crop) of Lidia on the streets of Milan

Lidia finds the old Milan . . .

. . . and finds herself close to where she and Giovanni were first together

Time – story time, screen time, narrative time – is important in La notte and as part of Antonioni’s approach to his storytelling. The narrative time, the time covered by the events on screen, appears to be about twenty hours, from 10.00 am through to around 6.00 am the following morning. The actual screen time is just over two hours but the full story time is several years. How long have Giovanni and Lidia known Tommaso, the man dying in the clinic? Was he Giovanni’s friend first or Lidia’s? Given the books displayed at the publisher’s launch party, Giovanni has been writing for a long time. But the sequence in which Lidia returns to the area in which they first lived suggests that although she comes from a wealthy family, the young couple might have had a relatively ‘normal’ early married life during the 1950s when Milan was growing as an industrial centre. These ‘inferred’ events give a rather different perspective on the behaviour of Giovanni and Lidia at the industrialist’s party.

Composition: what do we think should fill the space to Lidia’s left?

In an essay on the Criterion website, Richard Brody discusses Antonioni’s focus on architecture and his “irrepressible delight in the oppressive and desolate forms of technological modernity”. It is certainly true that as I watched the film, I was most conscious of cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo’s framings and compositions Milan’s architecture. The credit sequence begins with a slow descent down the walls of a high-rise building and there are many later images when we see the couple framed in interesting ways, by internal and external features of the various buildings they visit. Brody also refers to the industrialist’s claim during his party that he always sees his businesses as works of art – and that is conformed for us not only by the modernity of Milan’s architecture but by the abstract patterns of the industrialist’s house and grounds. Brody argues that: “The city of the living future is utterly alien to nature”. His suggestion is that what is inferred isn’t only the past but the future as well. The relationship between Giovanni and Lidia seems trapped between what has been lost and what is to come.

At the party, Giovanni’s sees Valentina and joins her for the game she has invented to play on the chequerboard floor

How do we read this careful composition?

Stars

Both Mastroianni and Moreau were well-known actors in Europe in 1961. Were they ‘stars’? Moreau had certainly been in many films, some of them notable successes by this point, especially her films for Louis Malle, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Les amants, both in 1958, but she hadn’t yet achieved the string of notable performances throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. She does present a strong star persona in La notte. She doesn’t say much and she often appears quite solemn, but I feel like I could watch her walking through streets for a long time, marvelling at just how she moves, how she holds herself, even simply how she wears her costumes. She was only in her early 30s when she made this film but she seems older. The narrative depends to some extent on Monica Vitti’s youthfulness by comparison. But Vitti was actually less than four years younger than Moreau. I did notice that in the contest about who sported the thinnest spaghetti straps on her little black dress Vitti did win. I think what really interests me here is the extent to which our readings change over time. Do we now feel much more for Lidia and the way she seems to be pushed out by Giovanni’s celebrity? Looking back, Moreau and Mastroianni were of equal status but he is the agent of the narrative. Moreau as Lidia does get screen time on her own and she acts in ways that reveal things about herself as well as commenting on her relationship with Giovanni. She also introduces aspects of a critique of Italian bourgeois society in 1961. Mastroianni is a beautiful man but in many roles he appears weak and vulnerable. Although as Giovanni his actions structure the events of the day – the couple go to the book launch and the party where he is a significant figure – he seems to be being manipulated and played with, especially by Valentina and her father.

Givanni and Lidia leave the party to walk across the private golf course

The ending of the film is quite shocking in some ways. I’ve outlined the events of the film but I won’t spoil the conclusion by describing it in detail. What intrigues me is that watching the film in 2022 I want the film to be about Lidia and I’m not so interested in Giovanni. I’m conscious about the way Giovanni’s talent is being possibly wasted but it is Lidia I want to see breaking free. Is this because so much emphasis is now placed on the agency of the female character? Is it because of Moreau’s performance or is it that this is always how the film has been read? I can’t remember what I thought when I first saw the film as a young man 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve seen several more films featuring Moreau or Mastroianni since then. Does that mean I read La notte differently now? Perhaps it is because Antonioni is less interested in the conventional modes of storytelling that he opens up the space to think about how these men and women behave? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but I did enjoy watching the film and I’d like to visit Milan.

La notte is currently streaming on MUBI and BFI (subscribers only).

Women’s Prison (US 1955)

(from Dr Macro’s collection)

I was prompted to look for this film (I found it online) after a comment on my post about Benedetta. It was suggested to me that the idea of a ‘nunsploitation’ picture was closely related to the women’s prison film, a genre that began to develop particularly in the 1950s as the American film industry – and film audiences – began to change. Films about women in prison offered an emotional hotpot of female only communities placed under pressure. Such films can be traced back to the silent era, gradually developing in pre-code Hollywood but then being restricted to approved stories of rehabilitation during the studio period. In 1950 Warner Bros released Caged and United Artists released So Young, So Bad. These two studio releases signalled the start of a move towards harder narratives and the establishment of a more defined genre repertoire. Women’s Prison in 1955 was one of the first films to focus entirely on the prison community with all the criminal activity and judicial procedures prior to incarceration being omitted.

The women assemble outside their cells for morning roll-call

My choice of this title is simply because it is Ida Lupino’s last cinema release for a major studio in which she takes the lead role. She would continue acting in TV dramas and independent cinema releases until the late 1970s but at this point, still aged only 37, she remained able to command the screen and to ‘carry’ the film. Why was the only recognised female director in Hollywood at the time  prepared to star in a ‘women in prison’ picture? The answer is simple economic necessity. The attempt to distribute the films produced by Filmakers, the company owned by Lupino and her second husband Collier Young, was proving unsuccessful and in January 1955 it moved to find another major distributor for future product. It was also in trouble with the Screen Actors Guild  because it had sold a film (Never Fear, 1950) to television without paying residuals to the actors involved. Lupino needed to find extra income. Women in Prison was made by an independent, Bryan Foy Productions, but it was distributed by Columbia. There was a strong supporting cast with Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter as the featured inmates and Lupino’s then husband Howard Duff playing opposite his wife as the potential good guy. Lupino herself was the manic and sadistic superintendent of the women’s half of a state prison in which the overall governor ran the men’s half. The two communities were physically separated but the possibility that an inmate could cross over to the ‘other side’ would become an aspect of the plot. The writers Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur were experienced in a range of genres as was director Lewis Seiler and DoP Lester White. Ida Lupino could at least be confident that these guys knew what they were doing.

Deputy Sheriff Green (Lorna Thayer) delivers Helene (Phyllis Thaxter, left) and Brenda (Jan Sterling) to the prison at the start of the film

Wikipedia has an interesting page on the ‘Women in Prison’ genre and unsurprisingly there is a scholarly interest in the genre from feminist film academics. Women’s Prison arguably brings together several familiar elements of the developing repertoire and establishes a new direction for the genre which takes off in the mid 1950s and then rapidly expands in the 1970s. Ida Lupino herself appeared in a TV movie in 1972, Women in Chains in which she is the lead, again as a tyrannical chief warden. Women in Prison opens in a classical manner with the arrival of two young women as new prisoners. Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) has been inside before for passing fake cheques and she knows what to expect. Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) is a middle class woman convicted of manslaughter having caused the death of a child in a road accident. She is already traumatised and clearly unlikely to get through the brutal treatment in which, as a new inmate, she is to be kept in solitary for the first few days. Brenda will attempt to support Helene but we are quickly introduced to two other characters who will also be central to the narrative. Cleo Moore plays the voluptuous 1950s young woman found in many exploitation films of the period and Audrey Totter plays the wife of a convicted criminal who has refused to betray her husband and has been convicted of possession of a weapon. He is being held in the adjacent men’s prison and the plot involves his attempts to to get into the women’s prison and visit his wife. There are two other notable supporting players. Juanita Moore, one of the few African-American players to feature in a variety of roles in Hollywood in the studio period (i.e. not only as a music star or as a servant) is part of an all-black quartet in one of the cells. This segregation is not commented on. Moore would have her biggest role as the mother in Douglas Sirk’s hit melodrama Imitation of Life in 1959. Vivian Marshall plays a stripper who is able to perform impersonations of film stars and this will also provide a key plot device in the film.

A strong ensemble cast includes (from left) Phllis Thaxter, Adelle August, Vivian Marshall, Audrey Totter, Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling

Jan Sterling and Audrey Totter in the prison laundry

The whole cast of inmates performs well as an ensemble which also includes the female warders, one of whom is played by Mae Clarke (who had a grapefruit pushed into her face by Jimmy Cagney in 1931’s Public Enemy). This leaves the central tussle between Lupino’s Amelia van Zandt as the superintendent and Howard Duff as the prison doctor who appears to be both general physician and psychologist. He will attempt to stop the harsh treatment of Helene but will be overruled by the superintendent. Lupino is genuinely terrifying as the sadistic van Zandt. She wears tight-fitting costumes complete with a studded leather belt to which are attached her master keys. By contrast all the female inmates are dressed in drab and poorly fitted uniforms. This would change in later examples of the genre with the opportunity to show prisoners in skimpy costumes and stages of undress being exploited as the production code was eased in the 1960s. Women’s Prison concentrates on the ensemble and the interweaving stories which build to an ultimate confrontation with van Zandt.

Ida Lupino as the sadistic superintendent tries to get information out of Joan Burton (Audrey Totter)

The superintendent clashes with the prison doctor (Howard Duff) over the impact of her treatment of the prisoners

Women’s Prison in the Columbia ad in Motion Picture Herald for February 1955

I found the film very entertaining and Variety‘s reviewer seemed to share my view. The January 20 1955 trade show screening report concludes that this film is a “good entry in the programmer market”. This raises the question of the ‘B’ picture designation. Ida Lupino has been tagged with the designation of a ‘B’ picture director and, in the 1950s, a ‘B’ picture actor. The film scholar Annette Kuhn published a book on Lupino’s directorial work in in film and TV which was given the title ‘Queen of the Bs’. I’ve not read the book but I suspect that the title has been applied by other commentators rather glibly. I think that Variety‘s comment here refers to the studios’ double bill practice in the early 1950s. Columbia distributed Women’s Prison as an 80 minute feature which could be paired with one of several other Columbia pictures, but it was also promoted in the trades alongside Columbia’s A releases. Variety shows the film being booked with films such as Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954) with Glenn Ford and The Violent Men (1955), a Western also with Glenn Ford. Masterson of Kansas (1954), also a Western, was another picture from the previous year which was paired with the prison film. Women in Prison was the lead on these double bills and was performing well in cinemas. Box office for the film was ‘good’ in New York, ‘sock’ in Philadelphia and ‘sturdy’ in Chicago. Cleo Moore was recognised as a draw when she made a personal appearance. Columbia also had a Korean War picture, Bamboo Prison (1955) which was in a double bill with Women’s Prison and the this did very well in Philadelphia. In New York the film did good business as part of a vaudeville programme. In several locations Women’s Prison lasted two or three weeks.

Generally the film is referred to as a melodrama in the trades and there is also a sense in which it is viewed as a ‘social problem’ melodrama. Although the closing sequence presents exciting action, the real thrust of the narrative is for the women to expose the incompetence and and dangerous behaviour of the superintendent towards the inmates. The promotional material for the film hints at more in terms of sensationalist exposure than is actually delivered. What we get is a well-made drama and a worthy entry in Lupino’s long list of credits.

I’d like to acknowledge the detailed blog post by ‘Monster Girl’ (Jo Gabriel) on Women’s Prison which is well worth a read and offers a woman’s perspective on the genre. Here’s an early scene from the film when the two new inmates meet Juanita Moore who explains that she’s called Polyclinic after the hospital she was born in!

The Best Years of Our Lives (US 1946)

The sailor, the flyer and the soldier, heading home

It’s close to time for Sight and Sound‘s decennial list of international critics’ ‘best films’. I’m not very keen on these lists but they seem to amuse a lot of cinephiles. I’m intrigued as to what criteria the selected critics use for their personal choices (i.e. outside of the guidelines they are sent by the journal) and why they end up with mainly the same kinds of films from the same directors. I’ve seen the majority of the 250 films on the 2012 list and I’ve enjoyed many of them. Indeed, many of my favourite films are on the list. But what about those that aren’t? How come, for instance, that The Best Years of Our Lives is not on the list and, as far as I can see, no films by William Wyler, the German émigré director who arrived in the US in 1920, aged 18 and was active in Hollywood from 1925 to 1970. Second only to John Ford in Best Director wins at the Academy Awards, Wyler directed some of Hollywood’s ‘biggest’ pictures such as Ben Hur (1959) as well as Westerns, musicals and melodramas and films notable for the performances of stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a box office winner in 1946 in both the US and  UK and was duly recognised with seven Academy Awards. Unlike many films rooted in a specific historical moment, the film still works just as effectively in 2022 as it did in 1946 and in the early 1970s when I first watched it. What makes it so special?

Outline

Three demobbed servicemen find themselves thrown together on a flight back to their home town, aboard a military aircraft in 1945. Lt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a navigator/bomb aimer. Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was with the US Army and Homer Parrish was a seaman below decks on a US carrier in the Pacific, but has spent time in a military hospital. They return to rather different family situations. Al returns to his family and his secure job in a bank. Fred visits his parents before trying to find his wife and Homer moves back in with his parents and wonders whether his marriage to the girl next door will eventually go ahead. The narrative follows the next several months as each of the men discover that ‘civvy street’ has changed since they’ve been away and the war is rapidly being forgotten as people try to focus on the future. The men might aim to go their separate ways but chance means that they soon meet again at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). Before he sees his wife again, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). This creates a slightly different structure in the sense that Fred has two relationships in the narrative. In broad terms, the narrative gives roughly equal space to all three stories, though perhaps Fred ‘s actions evoke more issues, partly because of his attraction to Peggy and therefore his role in Al’s story as well.

Fred with Al’s daughter Peggy

Commentary

The origins of the film are in a novel, written in blank verse and titled Glory to Me, by MacKinlay Kantor in 1945. The independent producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights but then asked playwright Robert Sherwood to write a screenplay which extended MacKinlay’s narrative and changed it significantly (to MacKinlay’s dismay). MacKinlay had been a war correspondent in Europe and he used his own experiences as well as interviews with US servicemen to inform his story about three veterans who return to their Midwestern home town in 1945 and face problems in returning to civilian life, both as workers and family men. The titles of the novel and the film are ambiguous I think. Which were the ‘best years’ of these lives – the years spent away in the war or the years coming to terms with post-war life? Hollywood films are usually optimistic, so presumably it’s the latter. The novel’s title actually refers to a line in a popular gospel hymn by Charles H. Gabriel. The phrase is used repeatedly to refer to the moment of arriving in heaven to see the face of Jesus Christ which will be ‘glory to me’. The suggestion might be that reaching home in ‘Boone City’ should be like reaching heaven, but actually it means facing a series of difficult problems for each man.

One of Al’s problems is a propensity to drink too much but Millie is there to hold him up

I haven’t read the novel but from various reviews (e.g. on ‘Good Reads’) it seems clear to me that the film is much ‘softer’ in presenting the problems than the novel. Other changes might have been the result of the usual Hollywood politics involving actors and contracts. The most significant change is that Fred, who in the novel is a still a young man in his early 20s, is played by Dana Andrews (aged 37 when the film was released). The age difference is most pronounced when Fred is forced to consider returning to work as a ‘soda jerk’ in a drugstore after his three years away. It’s ludicrous that Andrews could have been a soda jerk at 33 but somehow the actor and Wyler as director manage to create a narrative in which we suspend disbelief. But actually the ages of actors and characters are out in several cases. Fredric March who plays the bank clerk Al, called up when he was 38, was in reality 49 when the film was released and Teresa Wright, playing his daughter Peggy, who we assume to have been an older teenager when he left for war, was 28. It’s worth pointing out that Hollywood has always been fairly relaxed about the real ages of stars in comparison with their characters. Even so, the disparities here do raise questions in a film about a specific time period of a few months in the second half of 1945.

Homer struggles to be comfortable with Wilma. In these scene Wilma comes round to find him cleaning his rifle, a potentially clichéd symbol of his masculinity but carried through by the performances. She helps him into his pyjama jacket.

The other significant change arguably improved the film’s impact. The novel’s Homer suffers a form of paralysis which affects his control of his arms, but for the film the non-professional actor Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an accidental explosion while training troops, was cast. Russell’s prosthetic ‘claws’ make a clear visual statement and his ‘natural’ performance enhances the representation of a wounded soldier – although in the film he is a seaman working below decks on a carrier. The top-billed star of the film is Myrna Loy who plays Al’s wife Millie. Loy had been in films since 1925 but had become a major star following the success of The Thin Man in 1934. Her relaxed relationship with her co-star William Powell and their well received comic scenes together would later help to ‘humanise’ the scenes between Al and Millie. Loy was also quite well-known for her wartime work in Hollywood for the Red Cross and the Naval Auxiliary canteen and this too added to her public reception in The Best Years of Our Lives. On the other hand, she had just turned 41 when the film came out, meaning her character would have had her daughter at age 13!

Fred with his wife Marie

There are three other significant roles for women in the film. Virginia Mayo plays Marie, Fred’s wife, not too pleased to see him back and Gladys George is Fred’s stepmother Hortense. Cathy O’Donnell as Homer’s pre-war girlfriend Wilma was a new contract player for Sam Goldwyn and a few years later she would make a big impact in Nick Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (shot in 1947). Her Goldwyn contract  was matched, at least in terms of working on Goldwyn’s independent productions, by several others in the film’s cast and crew. Although the film is clearly focused on the three men who return from war, I think it is the female roles that make the film stand out. That’s possibly because the film is a melodrama at heart. It is through their interactions with the four women that the men’s problems are brought to light. Without the women these men might really struggle to find their way after being institutionalised in the forces.

Fred’s father reads out the citation for a medal his son has won and Hortense listens . . .

Fred wanders through the graveyard of bombers waiting to be scrapped

One of the interesting factors about the film’s reception is the way that aspects of the film ‘speak’ directly about the same concerns that underpin many of the films of the period later recognised as films noirs. For instance, Fred experiences the sense of humiliation and unfairness that might drive a traumatised veteran towards crime or violence. The novel that was the basis for the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), a celebrated film noir melodrama, has a central character who is a flyer experiencing a well-paid life in the USAF in the UK with good pay and status who finds it impossible to return to a mundane job without a high salary and status On the other hand, Al finds it difficult to to follow banking practice and wants to make loans to people whom he feels are deserving. Milly is the sensible and loving wife who understands her husband and keeps him on track. She has also passed on her values to her daughter. The film works best within the slightly heightened sensibility of the melodrama. A juxtaposition of scenes cuts between Fred’s father reading his son’s medal citations which Fred has left behind as he seeks to move on and Fred himself wandering through a graveyard of military aircraft, including the B17s in which Fred flew. The one scene that didn’t work well for me is when Al gifts his son the mementoes of his time in Japan. It’s a stiff performance by the young actor playing the son, but perhaps this is what Wyler wanted? Either way, the son doesn’t figure much in the remainder of the film – his sister is much more important.

Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus enables photography to create a narrative (see below)

Samuel Goldwyn may have been an independent but he hired quality personnel  and facilities. The leading players in The Best Years of Our Lives all give solid performances and the creative team includes Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Toland became well-known established in Hollywood during the 1930s and in 1940-41 his work for John Ford and Orson Welles was widely discussed. He was known for his use of deep focus and innovative lighting. He had worked with Wyler on three previous films and although the photography of The Best Years of Our Lives was not overtly expressionist there were particular scenes which became classic study texts. One was the scene in Butch’s Bar when Al has been giving Fred a stern talking to about his ‘friendship’ with Peggy. Fred says he will phone Peggy and break off their relationship and as he leaves the bar he notices the phone booth by the door and goes in. (see the image above.) As he is dialling, Homer arrives and invites Al to listen to the new piano piece he and Butch have worked out. Butch sits at the piano with Homer and they play a duet. Al stands by the piano and admires Homer’s playing with his prosthetic hands. After a few moments he turns to look at the phone booth where Fred is speaking to Peggy (or at least we presume he is). Because of Toland’s camera set-up he can show this movement in deep focus from Homer in the foreground all the way back to Fred in the booth in the top left quadrant of the image. The other aspect of the shot is the low angle and effective lighting which feels natural rather than staged. It’s also impressive that Fred is framed in the window of the booth and not obscured by the position of a customer at the bar. This shot must have required very careful blocking and a long time to prepare for the shoot. Toland took his time. He was expensive but the results were impressive. The film topped the box office for 1946. While Toland’s work contributed to a realist aesthetic enabling the audience to put together aspects of the lives of the characters – the three men are linked visibly here – the music in the film composed by Hugo Friedhofer was a more conventional score for a melodrama, serving the narrative and reinforcing the emotional power of the film. The score won one of the seven Oscars awarded to the film.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film but it had lost none of it’s power when I watched it again. It tells a universal human story about separation from loved ones, about the trauma of war and the struggle to reconnect in a way that is engaging for a wide audience. It’s nearly 3 hours long but never drags. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to give it a go. In the UK it is available to rent/buy on Amazon download. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the early scene when Al and Fred drop off Homer for his homecoming:

Michael Walker 1942 to 2022

Michael at Il Ritrovato with friend Ogawa Sawako in 2014

If you are fan of the British-based Movie magazine you will have read some of Michael’s articles: if you are a regular or frequent visitor to either Il Cinema Ritrovato or Le Giornate del Cinema Muto you will likely recognise Michael: you may well have enjoyed his passionate and detailed discussions of both mainstream and art cinema: and you may well have read one or more of his major books on distinctive aspects of world cinema.

Michael sadly died earlier this week. For some years he had suffered from a rare disease which affected his lungs; a Covid infection was too serious for him, even with hospital treatment.  He will leave behind many friends who feel the loss and acquaintances who will not again enjoy his critical analyses, his humorous anecdotes and, notably, his generous hospitality.

Michael was born into a Yorkshire family close to Robin Hood’s Bay. After grammar school he went to Oxford University, studying science. But he quickly became keen on the movies and the varied types of film on offer in a university town; a happy provision that I enjoyed a few years later. When he moved to London he at first lived in a communal household: later he settled in Herne Hill: another famous but earlier resident was Ida Lupino, an actor and filmmaker that we both admired. Michael became a regular at the National Film Theatre; a venue that he attended and enjoyed throughout most of his life. He soon also joined the people involved in the journal Movie, launched in 1962. This was a journal with a fresh take on cinema and strongly influenced by the French theories on film and their engagement with the idea of auteurs and an emphasis on the study of mise en scène.

An early publication was a collaboration with Robin Wood (who introduced Michael to the Movie circle) on Claude Chabrol (Studio Vista, 1970). I remember Michael telling me that during the writing of the book he was offered the opportunity to go to France and interview Chabrol in person. Michael reckoned he was packed and ready to go in twenty minutes; a feat I could never emulate.

Michael was a frequent contributor to both the journal and to the several Movie book collections on Film Noir and on The Western. One of his major piece was on ‘Melodrama and the American Cinema’ in issue 29/30. He analyses a series of generic variations on melodrama, starting with the films of D. W. Griffith. An important aspect of the article is the treatment of the ‘Melodrama of Protest’; a genre to which Britain’s Ken Loach has made an important contribution. Sadly these days it is not that easy to access copies of the print editions of the journal; our local University library has only a few copies out of the three dozen issues.

Michael also moved into teaching in Further Education at the Isleworth Campus of Hounslow Borough College, (since 1993 West Thames College). He was based in the General Studies Department where I was fortunate to spend a teaching practice for a Certificate of Education training. The General Studies Department was a lively and stimulating staff group. Michael taught A level Film Studies. With his usual attention to quality and detail he had a basement room converted into a mini-cinema, with its own projection box. Wednesday mornings the two year student groups would gather to watch the week’s study film. The most memorable screening for me was Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life. This is a modern classic and the director a favourite of the Movie group. It does have a celebrated emotional climax; on this occasion the soundtrack was almost drowned out by the responses of the audience.

After retirement Michael was able to attend both Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, which for a few years moved to nearby Sacile. Both these archive festivals offered splendid but demanding programmes; for most years on 35mm prints. Apart from the films there were frequent meal breaks where there were lively discussion on the films, the filmmakers and some of the critical questions people raised. Michael was always fully involved in these discussions with a long and varied experience of cinema from all round the world. In 2018 he contributed an article on the classic Leave Her to Heaven for a volume on ‘John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ (John Libbey 2018) which accompanied a major retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato. And he contributed a review of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto to an online edition of Movie, including the interesting history of the festival. He was still able to attend in 2019 despite his illness, after which both cinema and social intercourse suffered from the pandemic and lockdowns.

Retirement also enabled Michael to bring together his years of viewing, critical discussion and research in a series of impressive books on film. The first addressed Michael’s long-term interest in motifs and later their companion concept tropes as well as his enthusiasm for Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) studies all the Hitchcock films and a variety of motifs across the titles: predictably ‘Blondes and Brunettes’ and ‘Handcuffs and Bondage’: ‘Dogs and Cats’: intriguingly ‘Food and Meals’: and ‘Keys and Handbags’: among an extensive selection. The book also enjoyed appendices of material on the films and indexes that enabled cross-referencing by either title or motif.

The next book addressed contemporary films as ‘Modern Ghost Melodramas’ (Amsterdam University Press, 2017). Among the topics was ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ dealing with the Japanese Ring / Ringu cycle (1998 and 1999). He also discusses the Hollywood remake which he thought was pretty good. There is the ‘gothic strain’ with The Gift (USA 2000): there is one of my favourites, Dark Water / Honogurai mizu no soku kara as ‘Ghosts in the Women’s Film’: and some major film artists such as Jacques Rivette’s Historire de Marie et Julien (France 2003). It is an extensive study over 400 pages.

The most recent work deals with Michael’s longest and most intense study, film endings. Endings in the Cinema (palgrave macmillan 2012). The study is of endings as such and explores in particular the motifs and tropes found in concluding sequences. The sub-title presents the emphasis ‘Thresholds, Water and the Beach’. An index offers titles that include one for every year since 1942, the beach ending filmed on location being a somewhat modern phenomenon. Friends would advise Michael if they saw a film with a beach ending. He had a problem with one year, 1976. Happily a mutual friend, John, came up with The Eagle has Landed, which is also a canine ending.

Writing the books helped him to keep going as his illness developed. He was working on fresh studies: a contemporary subject ‘modern female spies’: and a long-standing interest ‘persecuted wives’. But he has left a rich legacy of books and articles on a wide range of films and cinemas. He also leaves his friends with many memories of screenings and festivals: of stimulating conversation on movies: and a number of wry moments and tales which still raise a smile.

The Clouded Yellow (UK 1950)

This is an important film for several reasons but it has suffered distribution problems and has perhaps not been as celebrated as it deserves. Its first claim to significance is that it was the production that launched the partnership of Betty Box as producer and Ralph Thomas as director – a partnership that lasted into the 1970s and which proved to be the most consistently profitable for the Rank Organisation, especially during the period of the ‘Doctor’ series of comedies in the 1950s. Betty Box had begun her career in wartime training films and then joined her brother Sydney Box at Gainsborough Studios where she ran the small production base in Islington. After a number of successful popular films, including the Huggett family comedies, Rank decided to ‘consolidate’ its empire, closing Gainsborough and re-focusing solely on Pinewood as its production base. The plans to make The Clouded Yellow were caught up in the closure procedure. Having already committed to The Clouded Yellow as a project when it was passed to her by her brother, Box decided to go ahead with the production using her own money to ensure the film was completed. The film was then released by Rank through General Film Distributors, but appears to have been picked up by Columbia in the US. It was scheduled as an Eagle-Lion release in the US but Rank wound up that company before the American release date in November 1951. A DVD did finally appear in 2008 but only in a cut version. Finally in 2010 a full 91 minute DVD became available in the UK. With PAL speed up that does equate roughly to the original 95 minute running time. Even so, there did seem to be a few frames missing in the version I watched.

Trevor Howard in 1950 was at the peak of his early fame

The first shot of Jean Simmons in the film as she turns to see Trevor Howard

The second key feature of the production is the script by Janet Green, her first for a film production. She had been a stage actor and had written a play in 1945. Her work was distinctive and as well as thrillers her scripts often picked up on social issues such as racism in Sapphire (1959) and persecution of ‘homosexual’ men in Victim (1961). There are flaws in the script of The Clouded Yellow but it still convinces as a tightly-plotted work with some original features for a British film in 1950. Betty Box in her memoir tells us that Eric Ambler worked on the script when Green was unavailable. As well as Green as a writer, Betty Box also had Geoffrey Unsworth, one of the most distinguished cinematographers of all time as her DoP. She also had a stellar cast, headed by Trevor Howard at the peak of his early fame as a leading man and Jean Simmons (British actress of the year in 1949) in her last British picture before her move to Hollywood. There were several notable players in the supporting cast, including Kenneth More and others like Geoffrey Keen who would become well-known in 1950s and 1960s cinema.

The noir scenes in Newcastle

Outline

David Somers (Trevor Howard) arrives back in the UK from a foreign trip, passing through customs at the airport without a passport. He’s a British agent now seemingly disgraced because of his failure on a mission. His boss suggests he should ‘retire’ and find a quiet job. Somers eventually takes up a temporary job cataloguing a collection of butterfly specimens for Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones) a collector in Hampshire. The ‘Clouded Yellow’ is a ‘migratory European butterfly’ often seen in Southern England and less commonly across the whole of the UK. Jess Fenton (Sonia Dresdel) seems very concerned about the mental state of her niece Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) who had lost her parents when she was a young child. Somers befriends Sophie and when she is suspected of murder, he attempts to smuggle her out of the country (something he presumably did as part of his time as a British secret service agent). The chase that ensues involves scenes in London, Newcastle, the Lake District and finally Liverpool.

Kenneth More in an early and untypical role as Willie

Commentary

The film is structured partly by the choice of location which in turn influences the use of genre conventions. The opening of the film and the beginnings of the chase are set in London and mainly in the West End/Whitehall area familiar from many films. The country house in Hampshire offers a very different environment and this section of the film does suggest the gothic romance of something like Jane Eyre or its Val Lewton conception, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Somers is sent from a London office London and eventually finds himself in a large house where a young woman is seemingly kept under close scrutiny and may be under some form of ‘control’ by her guardians. Although the house is ‘light and airy’, there is still a sense of ‘disturbance’ and one fateful night the young woman goes walking in the grounds.

The large numbers of police comb the fells in the Lake District

The sequence in Newcastle includes a chase at night and this may be the basis for the suggestion that this is a film noir, such is the depiction of the city. It is also in Newcastle that we get a sense of Somers’ network of contacts, but also that he is under close surveillance by his former service colleague Willie (Kenneth More) who has been assigned to find him (to protect the prestige of the service). The Lake District footage involves a different aesthetic, reminiscent of some American crime stories in which scores of police in cars, on motorbikes and even with the aid of a helicopter (unusual for 1950) scour the hills around Ullswater. The framings become characterised by very long shots of the police on hillsides and big close-ups, especially of Jean Simmons fearing capture.

This American poster makes the link to Hitchcock and Reed

The film’s denouement in Liverpool includes two distinctive elements. Somers’ contacts involve members of Liverpool’s Chinese community, the oldest in Europe and located close to extensive docklands in 1950. The docklands themselves and the warehouses and railway network necessary to move the huge tonnage of goods provides the spectacular setting for the finale. The entire chase sequence from London via Newcastle and then the Lakes has prompted many reviewers to cite Hitchcock’s 1935 romance-thriller The 39 Steps as an important influence. That film was made by Gainsborough as were other Hitchcocks such as The Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Along with Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), these titles were used in promoting the film. Placing The Clouded Yellow alongside Hitchcock is justifiable but there is a difference in the sense that any romance between Somers and Sophie is only hinted at rather than exploited as potentially erotic. Jean Simmons plays Sophie as young and Howard is her protector. She was actually 21 while he was 36.

Newspaper puns?

Somers’ motivation is presented by the script as the ‘freeing’ of a young woman from a trap. Depending on your point of view, the script is either clever in the way it weaves the symbol of ‘entrapment’ through the narrative or possibly ‘over the top’ if you don’t like melodrama. Sophie is known in the press reports as ‘the Butterfly Girl’. We’ve already noted that the Clouded Yellow butterfly is a migrant, just like the contacts Somers has in Newcastle. In another strand, Somers reacts very strongly to the odd-job man at the Hampshire house (played by Maxwell Reed) who traps rabbits to sell. C. A . Lejeune in The Sketch magazine (December 1950) described the film as “Lively, extravagant melodrama and don’t bother your head about the symbols”. The Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in November 1950 thought it “not excitingly enough made to compensate for its improbabilities and clichés”. But these rather silly statements by esteemed critics didn’t stop the film being successful and pleasing many audiences. It repaid Box’s faith in her decision to back it with her own money and established her partnership with Thomas at Pinewood.

Somers and Sophie with their Chinese contact in Liverpool

I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Clouded Yellow for the second time with a better print than on my first viewing and I think I appreciated it more. As well as the performances by Howard and Simmons and the photography by Unsworth, what distinguishes the film is the location footage for the chase sequences. Although more films were being shot on location at this time, few made such extensive use of authentic locations with Howard and Simmons expected to traverse real streams and climb on real hills. There is a nice press release from mid-1950 pointing out that  Jean Simmons survived her scenes in the Lakes but twisted her ankle on the set at Pinewood. If you are a train or bus enthusiast I recommend the film highly. But we could do with a Blu-ray, please!

Here’s a short extract from the noir sequence in Newcastle:

Road House (US 1948)

This is a strange film. It has flaws, especially in the script, and never seems quite sure what kind of film it is. Nonetheless it entertains and pleases audiences, mainly I think because of the performances of its four leading players. Top of the bill is Ida Lupino and she holds it all together with Richard Widmark at his most manic and Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm in more conventional roles. William Donati, Lupino’s biographer, tells us that the project was taken to 20th Century Fox by Lupino’s new agent Charles K. Feldman who had bought the rights to the story ‘Dark Love’ for her. He successfully sold the project to Fox with a significant fee for Lupino as the lead.

Ida Lupino as the Queen of Road House

This was a crucial period in 30 year-old Ida Lupino’s career. She’d left Warner Bros. in 1947 after a seven year contract during which time she’d often been suspended and loaned out to other studios, but had appeared in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance trying to arrange her own work. She was also about to re-marry and Donati notes that both she and Collier Young, her new love, had thought that ‘Dark Love’ was the right story. I haven’t managed to find the original  ‘Dark Love’ story. I’ve read elsewhere that it was a short story rather than a novel and it isn’t mentioned in IMDb’s credit list. Instead there are six writers listed with Edward Chodorov as producer and solo writer of the actual screenplay. So, I guess he’s responsible. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, another refugee from Warners who had worked with Lupino on Deep Valley, her last Warners picture in 1947. Donati suggests that Lupino had asked for Richard Widmark who had been a sensation, nominated for an Oscar, in his first screen role as ‘Tommy Udo’ in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was under contract at Fox and the other two leads were the studio’s choices.

The four leads of Road House pose for a promo

As the title implies, Road House features an out of town venue comprising a bar lounge and a ten-pin bowling alley owned by ‘Jefty’, Jefferson T. Robbins (Richard Widmark). The setting is somewhere in the North of the US, close to the Canadian border. The film opens with an almost documentary sequence of the venue’s operations behind the credits and then cuts to the manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) opening the door to find a strange woman in his office. She’s playing solitaire and smoking with one stockinged leg draped over the edge of Pete’s desk. This is Lily (Ida Lupino) – a seemingly sharp ‘broad’ who isn’t very impressed with Pete. He eventually discovers that Jefty found her in Chicago and offered her a six week stint singing in the bar. It’s a great opening and despite a strange and not very attractive hairstyle, Lupino commands the picture from the start. She’s the star and her performance proclaims the fact. All the other three leads in Road House are older than Lupino but she exudes maturity and presence in her performance and Widmark and Holm were relative newcomers to film work (both were experienced stage actors). Cornel Wilde was more experienced after several years as a lead player, playing opposite Ida Lupino in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) and opposite other female stars such as Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. But in this opening sequence he seems slightly awed by Lupino.

Jefty, Susie and Pete in a deep focus composition

The innovation in this film is that Ida sings. She’s a jazzy, bluesy singer with a low gravelly voice. She’s called ‘no voice’ both by the characters in the film and commentators on the film but somehow she ‘performs’ the songs in a darkened room with her cigarette smouldering on the piano (and burning it!). (See the clip below.) The piano playing could be dubbed (but I know Ida composed music, presumably she could play the piano). However, it’s quite believable that the audience in the bar is mesmerised. Two songs were released as singles I think – ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and ‘Again’, specially written by Lionel Newman for the film. Lupino sings four in all. Lily is a hit with the punters and with both Jefty and Pete. In her earlier Warners film The Man I Love (1946), Ida was dubbed as a nightclub singer, so her singing here is a clear benefit of being a freelance – though I guess it might have had to be negotiated.

The narrative offers us a struggle between Jefty and Pete over Lily’s affection

The film has three main sections. I’m not keen on the idea that Hollywood narratives always have three ‘acts’ – usually they have more in my readings. But in this film once Lily is established she becomes a softer character and it seems clear that we are heading into a classic triangular mating ritual in which both men will eventually want to marry her. Celeste Holm’s Susie, the cashier at Jefty’s, is the character squeezed out by Lily’s arrival. Lily seems to change quite dramatically once she has established herself. I believe in Lupino’s performance but I found the change abrupt. Much worse though is the plotting of the events which lead to the film’s climax, which don’t make too much sense, although I suppose they work on a kind of symbolic level. Perhaps if the film’s generic identities were a bit clearer it would be easier to understand.

‘Over-determined masculinity’ with Lily framed beneath the stag’s head

Road House is often discussed as a film noir. Ida Lupino is also often described as a star of film noir, as well as the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953). 1948 is certainly ‘peak noir’ in terms of the numbers of films with noir lighting and mise en scène and doomed characters trying to deal with the immediate post-war world. However, I’m not sure that Ida was ever a femme fatale as such in her studio pictures. Road House was photographed by Joseph LaShelle who had worked at Paramount on two classic Otto Preminger pictures, Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), both of which have noirish elements. ‘Jefty’s’ operates mainly at night and the latter part of the film is shot on what appears to be an extensive studio set of a forest at night. The film is certainly plausible as a noir in terms of lighting. The main problem for me is that the story assumes Jefty and Pete have been friends for a long time. Jefty comes from a wealthy family and has the capital whereas Pete lives above the bar. There is no attempt to invoke the war so the typical film noir scenario of men returning from war with problems doesn’t enter into the discussion. On the other hand, Lily is an ‘independent woman’ who could be in a film noir narrative. I think this is really a romance melodrama that eventually morphs into an action drama. Rather than the usual ‘significant objects’ of a film noir mise en scène, the predominant images of the final section are concerned with an over-determined masculinity as Jefty and and Pete battle over Lily. This is introduced in the early scenes of the film when Lily notes the stags heads in the bar and the office of Jefty’s. She even stays at the only hotel in town, which is called ‘The Antlers’.

Whatever genre categorisation is appropriate, Road House proved to be a popular film (Monthly Film Bulletin called it ‘slick entertainment’) with over $2.3 million in distributor rentals for 20th Century-Fox, the second most successful studio of the year in the US. 74 years later the film still has its fans and for many of them this is a film noir classic. It’s also a film in which Ida Lupino revels in being at the centre of the story. It does make you wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had put her in a similar film back in 1942. Here’s that first scene at the piano: