Sunday, October 05, 2014

Noir Film/Book Adaptations: "The Big Clock" (1948), "Gone Girl" (2014)

David Fincher film "Gone Girl" unfolds in voice-over flashback narration, the supreme film-noir device used by every doomed anti-hero searching for insight into his fate – from the philandering husband accused in They Won’t Believe Me to rueful, lovelorn patsy Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”). The bemusement is the tipoff that there’s something to be understood, in hindsight, even if it’s just a doomed man trying to make sense of his fate. What’s initially sustained in suspense and teased out is what and how Nick (Ben Affleck) is confessing. The question of whether Nick has killed his cool, smart, missing wife, Amy, plays out in public opinion using the now-familiar and garish visual grammar of the 24-hour news cycle of recrimination and amateur accusation.

Peel that layer off and this cinematic "Gone Girl" and its cohorts can only arise from the the pulp crime and cinematic noir tradition. The femme fatale? Dear reader, he unwittingly married her. Contemporary noir renditions such as The Guest, The Other Typist and Gone Girl work as well as they do because their plots and stylistic conventions play on reader/audience expectations, relying on fragments and tropes lodged in our collective cultural memory of film noir, like 1952’s Sudden Fear.

Like Cornell Woolrich’s early pulp writing, where the Depression figures as the economic catalyst, the 2008 recession sets Gone Girl’s events in motion. The desperation is less one of impending financial ruin than of domestic complacency and contempt. Nick is a powerless anti-hero in an adulterous mess, in part, of his own passive making – albeit faced with a (sociopath) wife who would rather mete out preposterous punishment than admit romantic failure and divorce. Source:

"She hovered over me for just a few seconds, then, Go-like, trotted down the hall, clearly not sleepy, and closed her door, knowing the kindest thing was to leave me alone. A lot of people lacked that gift:
knowing when to fuck off. People love talking, and I have never been a huge talker. I carry on an inner monologue, but the words often don’t reach my lips. She looks nice today, I’d think, but somehow it wouldn’t occur to me to say it out loud. My mom talked, my sister talked. I’d been raised to listen. So, sitting on the couch by myself, not talking, felt decadent. I leafed through one of Go’s magazines, flipped through TV channels, finally alighting on an old black-and-white show, men in fedoras scribbling notes while a pretty housewife explained that her husband was away in Fresno, which made the two cops look at each other significantly and nod. I smiled. I’d introduced Andie to noir – to Bogart and The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, all the classics.

Amy Elliott Dunne - Nine Days Gone: I am penniless and on the run. How fucking noir. Except that I am sitting in my Festiva at the far end of the parking lot of a vast fast-food complex on the banks of the Mississippi River, the smell of salt and factory-farm meat floating on the warm breezes. It is evening now – I’ve wasted hours – but I can’t move. I don’t know where to move to. At 5 o’clock, I begin driving north to the meeting spot, a river casino called Horseshoe Alley. It appears out of nowhere, a blinking neon clump in the middle of a scrawny forest. I roll in on fumes – a cliché I’ve never put to practice – park the car, and take in the view: a migration of the elderly, scuttling like broken insects on walkers and canes, jerking oxygen tanks toward the bright lights. Sliding in and out of the groups of octogenarians are hustling, overdressed boys who’ve watched too many Vegas movies and don’t know how poignant they are, trying to imitate Rat Pack cool in cheap suits in the Missouri woods. I enter under a glowing billboard promoting – for two nights only – the reunion of a ’50s doo-wop group. Inside, the casino is frigid and close." -"Gone Girl" (2012) by Gillian Flynn

The novel "The Big Clock" (1946) becomes a kind of dual race against time — what Nicholas Christopher, in his introduction to the 2006 New York Review Books reissue, describes as "the nocturnal hall of mirrors in which Stroud is hunter and hunted, suspect and witness, a man who is seeking to expose one part of the truth while suppressing another." Fearing, an accomplished poet, laces another theme deftly through the novel. The big clock is also the one that winds down the wasted hours of the working man. It's the big clock we're all trying, and failing, to outrace: the timekeeper of our own mortality. In the end, Fearing manages that rare and enviable feat: a page-turner that's expertly plotted and coiled tight as a watch-spring, yet whose narrative gears also serve as an affecting existential metaphor. Fearing's novel fell out of print until it was rediscovered by NYRB Classics and reissued as what it is: That rare noir masterwork that somehow both keeps you in suspense and unmoors you with its underlying fatalism. For despite Stroud's increasingly desperate efforts to prove his innocence, the big clock grinds relentlessly on. "This gigantic watch that fixes order and establishes the pattern for chaos itself," Fearing writes: "it has never changed, it will never change, or be changed." Source:

John Farrow's movie adaptation of Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock (1948), based on a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, is a near-perfect match for the book, telling in generally superb visual style a tale set against the backdrop of upscale 1940s New York and offering an early (but accurate) depiction of the modern media industry.

Told in the back-to-front fashion typical of film noir, it opens with George Stroud (Ray Milland) trapped, his life in danger, his survival measured in the minute-by-minute movements of the huge central clock of the office building where he's hiding. In flashback we learn that Stroud works for media baron Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), loosely based on Henry Luce, as the editor of Crimeways magazine. Janoth is a manipulative, self-centered megalomaniac with various obsessions, including clocks; among other manifestations of the latter fixation, the skyscraper housing his empire's headquarters has as one of its central features a huge clock that reads out the time around the world down to the second.

Twenty-four hours earlier, on the eve of a combined honeymoon/vacation with his wife, Georgia (Maureen O'Sullivan), that has been put off for seven years, Stroud was ordered by Janoth to cancel the trip in order to work on a special project, and he resigned. As the narrative picks up speed, in his depression, Stroud misses the train his wife is on and crosses paths with Pauline (Rita Johnson), a former model for Janoth's Styleways magazine, who is also Janoth's very unhappy mistress, and the two commiserate by getting drunk together in a night on the town. Janoth and Pauline quarrel, and the publisher kills her in a jealous rage, using a sundial that she and Stroud picked up while wandering around in their revels. Janoth and his general manager, Steve Hagen (George Macready), contrive to pin the murder on the man that Janoth glimpsed leaving Pauline's apartment, whom he thinks was named Jefferson Randolph -- the name Stroud was drunkenly bandying about the night before. He gets Stroud back to Crimeways to lead the magazine's investigators in hunting down "Jefferson Randolph," never realizing that this was Stroud.

And Stroud has no choice but to return, desperately trying to gather evidence against Janoth and, in turn, prevent the clues gathered by the Crimeways staff from leading back to him. The two play this clever, disjointed game of cat-and-mouse, Janoth and Hagen planting evidence that will hang "Randolph", while Stroud, knowing what they don't about how close the man they seek to destroy is, arranges to obscure those clues and, in a comical twist, sends the least capable reporters and investigators to follow up on the most substantial clues. Stroud can't escape the inevitable, or the moments of weakness caused by fear and his own guilt over his near-unfaithfulness to his wife or the inscrutable gaze of Janoth's mute bodyguard Bill Womack (Harry Morgan), a stone-cold killer dedicated to protecting his employer.

Milland is perfect in the role of the hapless Stroud, and Laughton is brilliant as the vain, self-centered Janoth, but George Macready is equally good as Hagen, his smooth, upper-crust Waspy smarminess making one's skin crawl. Also worth noting is Harry Morgan's sinister, silent performance as Womack, and sharp-eyed viewers will also recognize such performers as Douglas Spencer, Noel Neill (especially memorable as a tart-tongued elevator operator), Margaret Field, Ruth Roman, and Lane Chandler in small roles. Additionally, the Janoth Publications building where most of the action takes place is almost a cast member in itself, an art deco wonder, especially the room housing the clock mechanism and the lobby and vestibules, all loosely inspired by such structures as the Empire State Building and the real-life Daily News headquarters on East 42nd Street. Source:

The book has been adapted for the cinema three times. The first and most faithful was the film of the same title, a little gem by the team of director John Farrow and writer Jonathan Latimer. It boasts a terrific cast that is superbly suited to its role, most notably Ray Milland as Stroud as he was so often at his best as anti-heroes with a roving eye. Charles Laughton is simply perfect as the slightly campy Janoth, here made into a man truly obsessed with the minutiae of time, adding an extra layer to the story. The movie is narrated solely by Stroud and told in flashback with him literally trapped inside the huge clock that dominates the inside of the Janoth building – after an elegant shot sweeping us through the Janoth building late at night, we then go back 36 hours to see how he ended up on the run. Latimer adds a lot of his trademark humorous dialogue in the script. Source:

"It was five-thirty when I walked into the Silver Lining, alone. I had a drink and reviewed what I would have said to Roy and Steve Hagen, had they been present to listen. It did not sound as convincing as I had made it sound this morning. The bar of the Silver Lining is only twenty feet from the nearest tables. Pauline Delos was tall, ice-blonde, and splendid. The eye saw nothing but innocence, to the instincts she was undiluted sex, the brain said here was perfect hell. The face, the voice, and the figure registered all at once. We looked at each other across half the width of the room, and before I had quite placed her I had smiled and nodded. I said could I buy her a drink. She was blonde as hell, wearing a lot of black. I think we had an apple-brandy sidecar to begin with. It did not seem this was only the second time we had met. All at once a whole lot of things were moving and mixing, as though they had always been there. The attractions of the Delos woman multiplied themselves by ten, and then presently they were multiplying by the hundreds. We looked at each other, and that instant was like the white flash of a thrown switch when a new circuit is formed and then the current flows invisibly through another channel. She was smiling, and I realized I had been having an imaginary argument with a shadow of George Stroud standing just in back of the blazing nimbus she had become. It was amazing. All that other Stroud seemed to be saying was: Why not? Whatever he meant, I couldn't imagine." -"The Big Clock" (1946) by Kenneth Fearing

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Ray Milland's Noir Characters

Some actors are born noir: like Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum, who seem all too much at home in the shadowy, treacherous worlds of their films. Some actors achieve noir—like determined, hard-working Dick Powell—and some have noir thrust upon them.

Ray Milland belongs somewhere in the latter two classes, another amiable lightweight who proved surprisingly effective on the shady side of the street. He went on to play a choice selection of anxious, hounded noir protagonists, amoral seducers—even the devil himself. Ray Milland was born Alfred Reginald Jones in Wales in 1907. The passion of his youth was riding, and by 21 he was a member of the Royal Household Cavalry. He was accomplished at fencing, boxing, and sharp-shooting, but had to quit the guards to make a living after his stepfather cut off his allowance. In the early thirties he spent a few disappointing years in Hollywood, returning to England after being dropped by MGM. He would return in 1934 with a contract at Paramount, and spend the rest of the decade as a leading man in romantic comedies like Easy Living (1937) and Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942).

However, the first glimpse of his flair for vileness came as early as 1931, in the deliriously enjoyable James Cagney vehicle Blonde Crazy. Cagney and Joan Blondell play a pair of con artists who fleece their way through Depression-era hotel society. “That dirty double-crossing rat!” Cagney cries. Milland has only a few minutes of screen time, but we’re quite ready to buy him as a dirty double-crossing rat, because he’s a kind of anti-Cagney: suave, complacent, privileged, with a set of pearly whites perfect for lying through.

It was not until 1944 that Milland ventured into noir territory, and at first it was as an innocent and baffled hero (rejected by the Air Force, he was a civilian flight instructor during the War). In the beautiful, melancholy ghost story The Uninvited he is kindly and protective of the young Gail Russell, who is fatally lured by the spirits in her old family home.

Like The Uninvited, Fritz Lang’s 1944 Ministry of Fear (included in Dark Crimes: Volume 2 - TCM Vault Collection) is set in England; based on a novel by Graham Greene, it depicts wartime Britain as a place where vipers nest under tea-cozies. A network of Nazi spies infests a quaint village fete run by the “Mothers of the Free Nations;” microfilm of top-secret plans is hidden in a cake “made with real eggs;” a bomb is planted in a suitcase full of used books; a murder is framed in a parlor séance; and an arch-villain (Dan Duryea) poses as a Saville Row tailor, toying with a pair of fabric-shears. When we see Londoners in their pajamas going down into the Tube during an air-raid, the surreal vision implicates a whole nation in the practice of hiding evil and terror under a mask of normality.

Milland as Steven Neill is first seen from behind in a dark room as he watches the pendulum of a clock, waiting for the moment that will signal his release from an asylum where he was sent for the mercy killing of his sick wife. Milland is his usual smiling, jovial self, but we wonder: Is he really normal? Is he cured? When strange things begin happening as soon as he leaves the gates of the asylum, we wonder if the creepy not-rightness of everything might be his own projection onto the world.

Milland was initially hesitant about playing a tormented alcoholic in The Lost Weekend (1945), feeling he knew nothing about the sordid subject. He plays a frustrated would-be writer whose perfectionism prevents him from completing any project. As the movie goes along, Milland brings a more and more visceral quality to his character’s physical and emotional suffering. The little sob he gives when he discovers the bottle hidden in a ceiling light fixture; the glazed, haggard desperation of his face as he staggers up Third Avenue trying to find a pawn shop to hock his typewriter; the terrible humiliation when he’s caught stealing from a woman’s purse in a nightclub—we really feel these, and no less the laugh of pure elation as he settles in with a bottle, or the mellow grandiosity he wallows in when he can afford drinks at the bar.

Bars and booze cause trouble for Milland again in the much more enjoyable The Big Clock (1948). This rare workplace noir delves into the sinister side not of big business or politics or the law, but of an up-to-the-minute corporation ruled by efficiency, a media empire that is a world unto itself, ultimately feeding on its own energy. Based on a 1946 novel by Kenneth Fearing, John Farrow’s film feels remarkably contemporary in the 21st century, obsessed with time, work-life imbalance, and a merciless media that strips bare people’s lives. The office building in which most of the movie takes place is a brilliant noir setting, with its cavernous offices coldly decorated in cutting-edge International Style, its dark marble corridors, and the giant futuristic clock mechanism revolving at its center.

In a performance that mingles easy bonhomie with the new anxiety of his noir persona, Milland plays George Stroud, the quick-witted editor of Crimeways magazine, one organ in the massive Janoth Enterprises. In an opening voice-over, George presents himself as the archetypal noir everyman: “How did I get into this? I’m no criminal. I was a respectable citizen. When did it all go wrong?” Fittingly, George’s only actual crime is to lose track of time—he misses the train for a long-awaited family vacation because he’s busy drinking stingers with Pauline and holding forth in an elated, tipsy monologue about green clocks and the battle of man against time. As is always the case in good noir, there is a suggestion that George’s minor transgression represents a deeper subversive impulse.

While the movie dutifully presents George as devoted to his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), it also changes her from the book’s likeable mate to a nagging, suspicious spouse. Pauline, by contrast, is a witty, worldly dame. A convenient dissolve leaves it ambiguous whether anything “happens” between George and Pauline, but we root for him to miss his train for West Virginia. The Big Clock presents a totalitarian vision of corporate life—Janoth eavesdrops on his employees, controls all aspects of their lives, and is backed by a mute henchman (Harry Morgan, in a marvelous performance of wordless menace) sporting a black fascist-style uniform.

So Evil My Love (1948) represents, with Desert Fury (1947), the best work of English-born director Lewis Allen. Ann Todd, as a woman who is both prey and predator, achieves a miraculous blend of icy dominion and quivering subservience. Just as Mark spots her vulnerability and makes her (initially) his victim, Olivia finds her own victim in an old school friend, Susan Courtney (Geraldine Fitzgerald, all brittle nerves and threadbare prettiness). It is Mark who comes up with the idea of blackmailing the wretchedly married Courtneys, but once she gives in, Olivia takes an appalling pleasure in how easily she can manipulate her weak and foolish friend. She exults in having “the whip hand” over the icily powerful Henry Courtney, and when he counter-blackmails her with full knowledge of Mark’s criminal past, she seizes a chance to eliminate him. Mark, who had been planning to run away with Kitty (Moira Lister) once he got the blackmail money, is confronted by the realization that he actually loves Olivia and can’t abandon her.

The lovers have to pass through evil to get to goodness; their smirking and gloating are all gone, revealing a shaken sincerity. There is no simple path to reform or redemption, through a series of plot twists (starting with Kitty’s spiteful revelation) that are both genuinely shocking and densely ambiguous. Mark demonstrates how he has been changed by love when he agrees to forge some Rembrandts in order to get enough money to take Olivia away to America.

To become a better person, capable of love and compassion, he betrays his only ideal. In this film, feelings like love and guilt act like fevers or poison, getting under people’s skin and changing or destroying them from inside. Film noir is fundamentally expressionistic. The noir style externalizes inner states; shadows on the walls are projections of private fears or painful memories.

There is some debate over whether John Farrow’s Alias Nick Beal (1949) should be considered noir, but its contemporary version of the Faust story, with the devil pursuing the soul of an ambitious politician, merely gives explicit form to the forces of corruption and temptation that usually remain submerged. The eternal theme of the Faustian bargain is implicit in so many noir stories, in the moment where the protagonist takes that first wrong step, thinking that somehow he will be able to get the reward without paying the price. The Catholic Farrow’s ardent faith suffuses the film, but his Satan, like most from Milton’s onward, has far more style and charisma than the representatives of virtue pitted against him.

What makes Milland so effective is the chilling degree to which he appears genuinely inhuman. But it’s also something Milland does with his eyes, a way of tilting his head and rolling back his upper eyelids so the eyes have a creepy flat glitter like the pennies on a corpse’s face. You get the feeling that his skin would be icy to the touch —only he doesn’t like to be touched.

Dial M for Murder (1954), a role that firmly establishes his place among the classic movie villains. The film was originally released in 3D, but ironically its characters are strictly one-dimensional. Dial M seems to emanate entirely from Hitchcock’s coldly calculating side; it’s an impeccably cruel puppet theater governed by superficial plot mechanics. Grace Kelly’s falsely accused innocent is such a weakly helpless victim that it’s hard to care about her, while Robert Cummings’s supportive Other Man is a nonentity. By default, Milland as the husband scheming to murder his wife dominates the film, and he scores a perfect 10 on the hatefulness meter. But it’s a one-note performance: after gloating and smirking through all his vile machinations, he reacts to being caught with yet another chortle, denying us the satisfaction of seeing him suffer while also robbing the character of any nuance. Dial M manages to avoid any of the complicated ambivalence that a love triangle ought to produce—qualities amply on display in The River’s Edge (1957), in which Milland manages to burrow even deeper into the moral slime.

A sexy city girl, Meg (Debra Paget) is grossly out of place on the hardscrabble ranch where she lives with her husband, Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn). You can sympathize with Ben’s frustration at her incompetence and whining, but you also can’t blame her for being fed up with finding scorpions in her slippers and mud spurting out of the shower-head. When her former lover and partner in crime, Nardo Denning (Ray Milland), shows up and whisks her into town, she luxuriates in a hotel bubble bath. Seducing her into running away with him, Nardo plies her with dancing, cocktails, and flattery, all spread out on a bed of suave lies about his earlier betrayal. After Ben agrees to guide the lovers on an arduous journey across the Mexican border, the film strikes out into the wilderness, where the true characters of all three are laid bare and they find resolution and renewal.

This classical conceit brings the movie closer to westerns, with their journeys that test and reward both physical and psychological stamina, than to film noir, in which people driven into extreme settings are usually diminished and ultimately destroyed. But the accrual of deceit, betrayal, and manipulative power games gives the film a dark cast, spiked with mordant humor and brisk, streamlined pacing. Nardo Denning, who rolls into the movie in a pale pink Thunderbird (actually Dwan’s car), wearing a cream suit and burgundy ascot, is the apotheosis of all Ray Milland’s dirty double-crossing rats.

With his syrupy voice, darting eyes, and cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, he looks exactly like a man carrying a million dollars he stole from his best friend—which he is. His rival sums him up succinctly: “If you were on a desert island with that guy, and there was nothing but rocks, pretty soon he’d have all the rocks moved over to his side of the beach.” The denouement that follows feels contrived in some ways: for Nardo’s last-minute change of heart to be convincing we would first have to believe he has one—though it is filled with poetic justice and poetic imagery. The loss or destruction of ill-gotten money is something of a noir cliché (The Killing), but few examples are more striking than the beautiful shot of cash fluttering like leaves down a hillside, or a raven—omen of death—holding a crumpled $100 bill in its beak. Most powerful of all is the sight of Ben, who was willing to burn thousands of dollars to save his wife, wading into the river grabbing up handfuls of bills—until Meg shames him into dropping them.

Ray Milland was one of the old guard, a living relic from the studio system days. He didn’t hide his disdain for the mumbling method actors of the 1950s and 1960s. “They look and sound like bums,” he told one columnist, “and they would probably be bums if they didn’t get acting work.” He was quite vocal about the death of Hollywood, complaining to reporters about the end of glamour, and how the new generation of actors were just “whores” selling to the highest bidder. Milland never warmed to the modern actors, but he grew to enjoy the freedom offered by the new era. The demise of the studio structure also allowed him to pursue his real passion: directing. “Do you think I want to be an actor for the rest of my life?” he told the Associated Press.

Directing, he said, meant “I wouldn’t have to look at myself in a mirror anymore.” In 1950 he told Hollywood columnist Gene Handsaker that he’d begged Paramount to let him direct, but was told that he was paid a large salary to act, and that he shouldn’t make waves. But he found acting less appealing after winning his Oscar for The Lost Weekend (1945). “You’re always hoping the next role will be interesting,” he told Handsaker, “and it seldom is.” Milland’s philosophy about filmmaking was simple enough. “It is usually much easier to make a good picture than it is to make a bad one,” he wrote, “because the good one inevitably has the one indispensable element, a good story. When you have that, you don’t need stars, just good actors.” “Picture making isn’t always goofy,” he wrote. “Studio craftsmen and technicians can build anything, from a castle to a cargo ship. They can reproduce hurricanes and monsters, disembodied dreams and ghosts. They can turn ugliness into beauty, and make swans look like pelicans.”

Milland plays Baldwin, following a tradition found in noir, when soft-spoken family men have to fight when backed against a wall. At times Baldwin seems inspired by the barriers of civilization breaking down. Baldwin’s apparent love of chaos might’ve been a nice area to explore, but Milland only had about 90 minutes to play with. Besides, Panic in Year Zero (1962) is a potboiler, not a sociopolitical tract. Milland directs it as such, cranking up the suspense and keeping the pace brisk. Considering the film was produced by the AIP team of Sam Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, photographed by Gilbert Warrenton who had been working since the silent era, Milland did a lot with a little.

He’s helped by the presence of Jean Hagen as his wife (she once played a noir dolly in The Asphalt Jungle), and he also gets a solid performance from a pre-beach party Frankie Avalon as his son. Rather than the usual theremin music heard in this sort of film, Les Baxter fills the end-of-the-world scenario with a screaming horn section and syncopated rhythms that might have been right at home in noir. Panic in Year Zero may well be Milland’s best work as a director, just because of its sheer pulsating energy. Yet, the ending is strangely downbeat. One of the soldiers mutters, “There go five who aren’t radioactive,” suggesting the sort of upside-down world that could only happen in noir. The Les Baxter horns start screaming again, and Baldwin is shown driving his family back home along a dark, empty highway, to whatever remains of Los Angeles.

X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963) had more in common with H.G. Wells than James M. Cain, but this tale of a man who discovers a serum for super vision has a kinship with noir films like D.O.A. (1950), as Dr. James Xavier (Milland) races against time while his hyper-powerful eyeballs deteriorate. Harkening back to Tyrone Power’s character in Nightmare Alley (1947), Xavier ends up working with a crooked carny owner (Don Rickles), using his extreme vision to bilk customers. At the film’s end, goaded by an overzealous tent show revivalist, he actually plucks his own eyes out. There is a legend, possibly apocryphal, that the original script had Milland scream after blinding himself, “I can still see!” X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes still works remarkably well 50 years later, thanks to Corman’s breathless tempo, the florid cinematography of Floyd Crosby, and of course, Milland’s intense performance. He may be surrounded by lab equipment, but Xavier’s desperation is decidedly noir. It’s not a stretch to say Xavier owes a bit to Milland’s character in The Lost Weekend.

As he grows addicted to the eye serum, Xavier has occasional fits that recall the famous delirium tremens encounter with the bat. He can see right through us, right into the muck of our gross American ways, and he sees what he secretly may have suspected all along. He sees into people’s bodies and identifies illnesses, which in turn allows him to see the bumbling of our medical practitioners. He sees into the sleazy underbelly of carny life, and the overall crookedness of America. What he sees disgusts him, but he can’t stop looking. He’s the ultimate voyeur, and the entire world has become his “rear window.”

Noir was only one component of Ray Milland's long career, and a somewhat unlikely success for an affable, conservative family man who titled his memoirs Wide-Eyed in Babylon. But most of the roles for which he’s best known and most admired were on the devil’s turf, where he proved a narrow-eyed, remarkably adept navigator of the crimeways. -"The Noir Career of Ray Milland" by Imogen Sara Smith for "Noir City" magazine (Spring 2014)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"The Doctor Takes a Wife" (1940) - Analysis of the Screwball Genre

"The Doctor Takes a Wife" (1940) starring Loretta Young and Ray Milland, directed by Alexander Hall and scripted by George Seaton.

"The Doctor Takes a Wife" is a 1940 Columbia screwball comedy included in the Icons of Screwball Comedy, Volume 2 boxed set. It pairs Ray Milland and Loretta Young, and rather successfully too. The first thing you need for a successful screwball comedy is a plot that will set up the necessary misunderstandings and confusions. This one does that quite successfully.

June Cameron (Loretta Young) has just written a best-selling book on the joys of spinsterhood. At a hotel she runs into Dr Timothy Sterling (Ray Milland) and persuades him to give her a lift to New York. They don’t exactly hit it off at all but she needs the lift. When they stop briefly for her to send a telegraph they encounter a wedding party. By mistake the Just Married sign gets attached to the back of Dr Sterling’s car. This is spotted by an eagle-eyed reporter who is delighted to have stumbled upon such a scoop - here is the woman who has just written a book telling women they don’t need men or marriage and apparently she has just gone and got married!

Her publisher is initially aghast. If the public learns that June is married her book isn’t going to sell any further copies and he will be ruined, and June’s career will be ruined. If she denies it there’s the problem of the aforementioned half-dressed man in her bedroom. Then he gets a brainwave. There are more married women than unmarried women in America, so if the author of the book that extolled the joys of spinsterhood now writes a book extolling the joys of marriage it will be an even bigger bestseller.

All they have to do is to persuade Dr Sterling to go along with their newly-hatched plan to pretend that he and June really are married. Once the book has made a mint they can get a quickie divorce in Reno. Persuading Dr Sterling to co-operate will be the awkward part. But not as awkward as they expected. The good doctor, currently a poorly paid lecturer in neuro-psychiatry, is desperate for a professorship. And when the dean, who believes all professors of psychiatry should be married, hears of the marriage Timothy Sterling gets his professorship. So now he has a motive to go along with the pretend marriage as well.

Of course in a screwball comedy you just know that such an intricate plan will go spectacularly wrong. The problem is that Timothy wanted the professorship so he would have enough money to marry his sweetheart Marilyn (Gail Patrick). Trying to keep Marilyn persuaded that his marriage is not a real one while trying to keep the dean and his colleagues at the university convinced that he really is living in connubial bliss is enough to set off the necessary chain of craziness on which screwball comedy depends.

The second requirement for a successful screwball comedy is a screenplay that turns the potentially comedic situations into situations that are genuinely funny. George Seaton and Ken Englund’s screenplay fulfills that requirement very neatly. Having a director who can keep the pacing as tight as possible is obviously essential as well and Alexander Hall does that with ease.

The third necessary ingredient for screwball comedy success is two leads who can exploit all these other advantages and who have the right chemistry. Ray Milland and Loretta Young fulfill both these requirements with considerable aplomb. A screwball comedy needs two leads who start off hating and infuriating each other and they manage that extremely well. With all these ingredients perfectly combined the result is a delightful example of the genre.

Ray Milland and Loretta Young are both in fine form and the supporting players are more than competent. A romantic comedy needs to convince us that even though the two leads are both convinced that they want to marry other people they really belong together. This means that the characters they think they want to marry can’t be too sympathetic - the audience has to want the leads to end up together.

Reginald Gardiner and Gail Patrick do their bit in that respect - we can’t possibly imagine June will really marry the selfish and self-centred Johnny or that Timothy could seriously want to go ahead with marriage to the rather appalling Marilyn. Gardiner and Patrick make sure we won’t be on the side of their characters will still making them delightfully funny.

"The Doctor Takes a Wife" breezes along to its entirely satisfying conclusion and a great deal of fun is had along the way. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable example of a well-made and well-acted screwball comedy and it all works to perfection. The DVD transfer is exceptionally good. "The Doctor Takes a Wife" is highly recommended. Source:

The construction of romance as ideology in screwball comedies has to involve more than the mere use of the triadic deep-structure. Romance requires that we invest in the hope that a certain couple will achieve the bliss discussed earlier. In screwball comedies, this is done in part by casting. We cannot imagine Rosalind Russell in love with Ralph Bellamy in 'His Girl Friday.' We want her to be with Cary Grant from the moment they meet in his office at the beginning of the film. These films tell us early on who we are supposed to root for. The most sustained analysis of screwball comedy to date is Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness. Cavell claims to have noticed a previously unrecognized film genre, the comedy of remarriage, which he believes begins with 'It Happened One Night' (1934).

His central claim is that the comedy of remarriage shifts "emphasis away from the normal question of comedy, whether a young pair will get married, onto the question whether the pair will get and stay divorced, thus prompting philosophical discussions of the nature of marriage". Without going into the vexed issues of genre theory, Cavell does make a strong case for these films as a group that can profitably be studied together. Why did remarriage suddenly become a more important issue than marriage? Germaine Greer argues persuasively that Shakespearean comedy expresses a new, middle-class myth that linked romantic love and marriage. This myth having become widely accepted, the comedy of remarriage is very likely a response to what was perceived as a crisis of marriage. As Elaine Tyler May puts it, "During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American marriages began to collapse at an unprecedented rate. Between 1867 and 1929, the population of the United States grew 300 percent, the number of marriages increased 400 percent, and the divorce rate rose 2000 percent. The project of the comedies of remarriage is to reaffirm this romantic view of marriage in the face of the fact of its failure.

For one thing, only two of Cavell's seven comedies deal with characters who we actually see interacting as husband and wife for any length of time, and one of these, 'Adam's Rib,' is entirely atypical. That leaves 'The Awful Truth,' which Cavell calls "the best, or deepest, of the comedies of remarriage", and of which he says "it is the only member of the genre in which the topic of divorce ... [is] undisplaced," as the only pure example of the type. In the other comedies, remarriage is presented only meta-phorically, or, in the case of 'The Philadelphia Story,' as the conclusion to a story that takes place after the couple has been divorced. Secondly, each of the seven Cavell does not define "romance," but he accepts the view that romance deals in the fantastic, that it is less realistic than the comedy of manners.

He says of 'The Lady Eve,' "that Preston Sturges is trying to tell us that tales of romance are inherently feats of coney catching, of conning, making gulls or suckers of their audience".  As Cavell argues at the end of his chapter on His Girl Friday: It is a premise of farce that marriage kills romance. It is a project of the genre of remarriage to refuse to draw a conclusion from this premise but rather to turn the tables on farce, to turn marriage itself into romance, to find as it were a moral equivalent of the immoral. Cavell seems thus to contradict himself: comedies of remarriage tell us that romance is illusion and depict marriage romantically, but they can still tell us the truth about marriage. His claim that the comedy of remarriage prompts "philosophical discussions on the nature of marriage" is undermined by his own remarks about romance, but we are also led to wonder why, if these films are intended to prompt "philosophical discussions on the nature of marriage," they must deal with characters who are not married to each other.

What Cavell does not consider in 'Pursuits of Happiness' is that romance is more than simple illusion and more than a genre: it is a complex and tenacious ideology. As an ideology, romance obviously bears some connection to illusion, but there is a more important connection to the genre. The specific illusion that the screwball comedy constructs is that one can have both complete desire and complete satisfaction, and that the name for this state of affairs is marriage. But the other side of the romantic economy is that satisfaction is the death of desire. Romantic tragedies such as 'Tristan and Isolde' allegorize this in the literal deaths of the lovers. According to Juliet Mitchell, romance seeks an idealized object. The resistance by the woman to the man's claim upon her produces dialogue that is the verbal equivalent of foreplay, that is to say, teasing. I say foreplay, rather than seduction, because the result of the conversations is to increase desire on all sides without making the woman seem like a mere conquest.

The male side of the dialogue, however, is an odd form of foreplay. Rather than speaking seductively, the males in screwball comedies typically scold, lecture, admonish, or preach. In the codes of the screwball comedy, what this tells us is that the man cares, but it also mimics rational persuasion, something that corresponds to the presumption that the woman must choose her mate. In addition to its expression in verbal fireworks, romance is projected onto a pastoral vision of a place where the constraints and sins of civilization may be shed, and innocence renewed. It may be the island of Peter Warne's dreams, the landscape of the Lord estate, or the honeymoon place to which Walter and Hildy are bound at the end of 'His Girl Friday.' Romance demands not just on desire and affection, but also on isolation from the claims of everyday life, a setting far removed from everyday life: the forest, the ocean, a desert island, etc.

And yet in the Hollywood comedies I am discussing, most of the action takes place well within everyday settings. It is the purpose of each of these films to do what Cavell asserts only of His Girl Friday: to romanticize being at home, the everyday, even the black world. What distinguishes the suburbs, be they near Philadelphia or in Connecticut, is not their exotica, their isolation-though the latter is part of their attraction-but rather the luxury, the wealth, they represent.

The screwball films suggest that spunky, strong women are attractive, but that their submission is required for the romance to be consummated, for marriage to take place. In this sense, they are comedies of conquest, the woman being not like one more bird taken in the hunt, but like the duchy one wishes to annex. But for the marriage to occur, these films often ask us to believe that their heroines are changed utterly as a result of experiences described in the narrative. This change is often represented in a sudden reversal of the woman's repeatedly stated position or attitude, the most striking example of which, in this genre, is Tracy Lord's last minute acceptance of Dexter. We accept the happy ending in part because of the romance that has been constructed as erotic tension seeking to be relieved in orgasm. In this sense, the ending functions as a consummation of our desire as well. -"Mystifying Marriage" by David R. Shumway - Cinema Journal 30, No. 4, Summer 1991

By the 1930s the comic anti-hero had begun to supplant the crackerbarrel figure in American humor. Credit for the full description of this new type of character is often given to four New Yorker writers: Clarence Day, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and S. J. Perelman. At the same time the new comic figure was seen in American cinema as Leo McCarey's Laurel & Hardy. Unlike the crackerbarrel figure, the antihero is usually a childlike, leisure-laden urban type, frustrated by women and uninterested in politics. In a new century encumbered with confusing mechanization and soaring population, when the promise of the American dream seemed threatened by an increasingly irrational world, it became much easier to associate humor with a figure based in frustration. Thurber's and Benchley's works best exemplify the anti-hero; these two authors were most productive during this period.

Even when a basic workingclass job is allowed in the screwball genre, it can rarely be trusted to be what it seems. For example, the taxi driver (Don Ameche) so enamored of Claudette Colbert in Mitchell Leisen's 'Midnight' is actually a prince who drives a cab as a lark. To add to the confusion, Ameche also pretends at one point to be a baron.

In another Leisen film, 'Easy Living,' Jean Arthur's eventual beau (Ray Milland) works as a busboy in a food automat, but in reality he is the rebellious son of a millionaire father. In an irrational world, it is safest and most productive to behave irrationally. Unfortunately, the male of the genre has difficulty breaking with the tradition of rationality; he does not see why things cannot be pursued logically. This trait is best exemplified in Hawks's absent-minded professors, who are comfortable in academia but lost in the real world. Yet the dilemma goes beyond some cloistered naïveté of the professional scholar. It is a comic problem afflicting most males within the genre.

When these males begin to act strange, their behavior is seldom the eccentric pose of the female, but rather a full-fledged breakdown. The glossy window dressing of the 1930s screwball comedy helped make the first anti-hero feature film wave more palatable to an audience grounded in capable comedy characters. In today's catch-22-modern world, a genre devoted to topsyturvydom still seems to offer a number of valuable insights. -"Screwball Comedy: Defining a Film Genre" (1983) by Wes D. Gehring