Tag Archives: film noir

Screening Classic Hollywood: “I Want to Live!” (1958)

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve been wanting to watch I Want to Live! for quite some time now, if for no other reason than that it’s referenced twice in The Golden Girls (always a solid reason to watch a film, IMO). Well, I did, and I have to say, I was enraptured from the first scene to the last.

The film centers on Barbara Graham, a woman accused of murdering an elderly widow. When she is convicted by the court, she must do all she can to try to save her own life, not just for her own sake, but also for her son’s.

From its first canted shots, I Want to Live! wears its noir-ness on its sleeve. It has an almost morbid fascination with the lurid and the macabre, whether that be the seediness of the underworld or the minutiae of the execution that occurs at the film’s conclusion. As with any noir, there is a palpable sense of unease that saturates the film, a sense that not all is as it should be, that we in the audience are looking in on a dark world, a sinister place of crime and death.

A significant source of this unease is the way in which the sound design and the camera work in sync to convey this sense of a topsy-turvy, uncertain world of criminality and vice. In one early scene, for example, the frantic editing combines with the ecstatic music to conjure up an almost ecstatic embrace of the sensational. This is a world where the excitement of the underworld is always tinged with menace, whether that be from the cops or from its own denizens.

At the same time as it is a noir, it is also very much a melodrama. Though Barbara tries to find happiness and fulfillment in the domestic bliss of marriage, it turns out to be something far more unsatisfying. Her husband is both physically abusive and a drug addict, and her dire financial straits lead Barbara right back into the world of crime and deceit that proves to be her undoing. Though she might be a murderer, the film invites us to feel for her by showing her as both a devoted mother and a woman wrongly accused by her criminal compatriots. And, in keeping with melodrama’s obsession with time (see the work of Linda Williams for more on this), it is always/already too late for Barbara to be saved, despite the ever-present hope of a reprieve from the governor. The last few moments of the film are an agony to watch, as time slowly ticks down until the fateful execution. By the end, the film has utterly convinced us that Barbara is the victim of her own story.

Though she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Susan Hayward owns the screen, portraying a woman who’s tough as nails and yet has an inner softness. Hayward manages to capture Barbara’s swings between fierce independence and vulnerability, between strength and despair. The brilliance of Hayward’s performance in this film comes from her ability to embody the two poles of femininity that are such a key part of postwar film noir, the femme fatale and the good girl, sometimes in the same scene. She has some of the sharpest lines of the film–her waspish tongue gets her in trouble more than once–yet she can also deliver lines filled with tearful pathos, the anguish of a mother parted from her child, the terror of a victim going to her own death.

Fictional it may be, but I Want to Live! makes an eloquent case for the abolition of the death penalty. Just as importantly, it also exposes the ways in which both men, and the institutions that they dominate, care more for headlines and public affirmation than they do about the actual pursuit of justice. By the end, we come to see Barbara as a woman ensnared by these systems–particularly the press–and her ultimate defeat at their hands gives the film’s message just that extra bit of bite that makes it truly effective.

All in all, I very much loved I Want to Live!, and it definitely deserved its Oscar nominations.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950)

I’ve been on a bit of a grand dames of Classic Hollywood lately (inspired in part by the book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and so, when I saw that this film starred Joan Crawford, I knew I had to check it out.

Personally, I’ve always been more of a Bette Davis acolyte, but like any self-respecting homosexual, I’ve also had a longstanding respect for Joan Crawford. All of her considerable talents–as both an actress and a star–are on dazzling display in The Damned Don’t Cry.

Crawford stars as Ethel, a woman unhappily married to a brutish laborer (Richard Egan). After the unfortunate death of their son, she finds that she yearns for something more than the life of a housewife, and so she sets out to achieve that. Beginning as a model, she gradually gets sucked into the sinister world of organized crime, falling in love with an abandoning milquetoast accountant Marty ( ) in favour of crime boss George Castleman (David Brian). When he sets her on one of his underlings who is planning to overthrow him, the stage is set for a final, heart-rending catastrophe.

The Damned Don’t Cry sits at the confluence of two important postwar phenomena: the growth of film noir as a body of films and the height of Crawford’s talent in Hollywood. One sees the influence of the former in the film’s interest in Ethel’s plunge into the world of crime, wealth, and sin, and the latter in the shadows of Mildred Pierce that hover in the background of the film. Like Mildred, Ethel cares deeply about her son (for the brief time that he’s in the film), but also like Mildred she yearns to better herself. We cheer for her, even as we know that she’s heading for a fall.

In no small part our affinity for Ethel stems from Crawford’s performance and her presence as a star. There’s just…something…about Joan’s eyes that seem to capture the camera. They just seem to dominate her face, conveying the anguish and conflict that Joan’s heroines seem to so insistently suffer. The Damned Don’t Cry is no exception, as Ethel attempts to carve out a destiny for herself, even in the face of the many men who attempt to put her in the box they think she belongs in.

If Davis managed to own the latter half of the 1930s and early 1940s and all the female empowerment that came with that era, Joan could be said to embody the contradictions of postwar femininity. On the one hand, she is a woman of extraordinary strength, able to manipulate and command the men around her. On the other, she is extraordinarily vulnerable, yearning to do almost anything to out of the prison of domesticity. As a result, she stands as the exemplar of what happens to a woman who dares to desire a life outside the home, even as she also represents and makes visible the very allure of that escape.

Of course, Crawford’s star shines all the brighter because she’s surrounded by men who are either cold and unfeeling (her husband and her father) or rather hapless and ineffectual (Marty, the CPA who falls under the sway of her feminine charms). She’s the type of woman who can convincingly stare down and emasculate even the most sinister of crime bosses, holding them in that stony gaze while she rains down insults and cuts through the bullshit with which they surround themselves. As a result, she becomes something of a composite of both the femme fatale (that reliable staple of the noir world) and also the hard-boiled noir hero, full of steel and smart remarks but with a good heart that allows her to be led, almost despite her will, into the darkness.

The Damned Don’t Cry is a very strong noir. It manages to do some new-ish things with the noir formula, while also making the most out of its star. True, the male members of the cast are mostly window-dressing, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially when you have someone like Crawford. The dialogue is also quite snappy, though it lacks the electric charge of other noir films.

So check out The Damned Don’t Cry. You’ll be glad you did.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Perhaps no genre is as synonymous with the 1940s as the film noir, that dark and seedy body of films that peeled away the veneer of respectability that other genres such as the musical presented to reveal the rottenness beneath American culture.  This is certainly the case with the 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the most iconic and justly famous noirs.

The film follows Frank Chambers (John Garfield) as a drifter who ends up working at a diner for its chubby but likable owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful (and much younger) wife Cora (Lana Turner).  Cora and Frank immediately become attracted to one another, and they soon hatch a plan to murder Nick and run away together.  While they succeed and manage to elude the law, they soon begin quarreling with one another, and after an unfortunate accident claims Cora’s life, Frank becomes ensnared in the legal system once again, though this time death is his sure reward.

As always, the femme fatale emerges as the film’s most compelling and most contradictory figure. As always, one cannot entirely blame her for her decision to run away with another man.  Her husband is hardly am interesting man, and while the film never says so explicitly, one can guess that an even younger Cora probably married Nick in order to gain a small measure of financial and domestic security.  Frank, on the other hand, represents all that is dangerous and exciting in the world (and thus everything her husband is not), even if he is also substantially less respectable.

While there are some who deride Lana Turner as one of the Hollywood stars who had more looks than talent (and there’s no denying that the camera does love her), she does bring a peculiar sort of dynamism and emotional volatility to Cora.  This is a woman who is clearly a great deal brighter and ambitious than her husband, and who has grown frustrated with the domestic life that has entrapped her.  All of this is ample material for Turner to utilize, and she does so to full effect.  Just as importantly, Lana is also infinitely more interesting than her co-star John Garfield, who is a serviceable but also rather bland hero.

Thus, for the sophisticated and resistant viewer, the fiction that Frank spins around his motivations reads as just a little too pat, a little too assured to be entirely true.  The film never wants us to see this, of course, content to grant him the status of a morally dubious male antihero.  Yet Garfield does not have the same sort of authorial and narrational assurance of a Humphrey Bogart, for example, with the effect that we (or at least I), don’t find him to be all that convincing when he consistently takes such pains to paint himself as the victim of someone else’s manipulation.  Like so many other noirs, the entire film is told from his point of view, but that doesn’t mean that we, as the audience, necessarily have to believe everything that he says.

And then, of course, there is the disconcerting fact that Nick is one of film noir’s most boring and plodding husbands, even worse than Phyllis’s husband in Double Indemnity (who was more angry and seething).  Like those other husbands, however, he does not seem to know, or care, that Cora may have desires of her own that exist beyond the confines of the domestic world in which she is currently entrapped.  He is amiable enough, but we’re not invited to feel particularly sorry for him when he is struck down.  In the film’s representational scheme, he is the outward sign of the internal emptiness that always seems to afflict the post-war world’s sense of itself.

Like the best noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice allows us to indulge our own worst natures, the things about ourselves, both individually and collectively, that we would like the world to believe either don’t exist or remain in control.  While the film ultimately punishes its evil doers–the law being, ultimately, the postman of the title–the inexorability of the law remains cold comfort.  But then again, what did you expect from a film noir?

Score:  9/10