A Night in Casablanca (1946)

A Night in Casablanca

Background: From vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the Marx Brothers were on of prewar America’s premier comedy acts. By 1946, however, they had been out of the movie for five years; the brothers only reunited for this film to pay off Chico’s gambling debts.

A Night in Casablanca is more remembered for a publicity stunt than for the film itself. After Warner Brothers allegedly threatened the Marxes with legal action over the word “Casablanca” in the title, Groucho responded that they had advertised themselves as “Brothers” long before Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner.

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Plot Introduction: Shortly after World War II, Nazi officer Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) escapes to North Africa with a cache in stolen art. Hiding out in the Hotel Casablanca, Stubel kills three consecutive hotel managers in order too keep a secret. This creates a job opportunity for Ronald Kornblow (Groucho), an unsuspecting hotelier who quickly becomes Stubel’s next target. Valet Rusty (Harpo) overhears this plot and teams up with Kornblow and shifty camel driver/part-time bodyguard Corbaccio (Chico) to bring the Nazi to justice. A few comedy bits and musical interludes later, the trio faces off with Stubel in a rear-projection action sequence involving a plane racing down a runway.

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My Thoughts: The above plot summary was actually hard to write because Marx Brothers movies are never about plot: what story there is only exists to link comedy routines, sight gags, and musical numbers together. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo will adopt silly character names but inevitably play themselves. Even though the boys (especially Groucho with his receding hairline) are getting a bit long in the tooth, A Night in Casablanca is cut from the same cloth as their previous efforts. (The penultimate Marx Brothers movie is also the penultimate film of director Archie Mayo; I’ll be taking a look at his last in a few weeks.)

At times, this works very well. My favorite scene involves Chico attempting to figure out Harpo’s incredibly convoluted charades. Groucho’s older brothers remain fantastic musicians, providing two more highlights with their piano and harp playing. (I’m fascinated by Chico’s flashy vaudeville-style performance on the keys.) Sig Ruman (who I remember playing a somewhat similar role in 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be) makes for a fun, over-the-top villain: if you ever find yourself in the 1940’s, never trust a German with a dueling scar.

Although I have a few qualms with Nazism and Marxist zaniness in the same film, A Night in Casablanca mostly works on a conceptual level as well. I like the idea of setting the Marx Brothers loose in the land of golden age Hollywood exoticism. The best films in the brothers’ ouvre are always about them turning orderly worlds upside down – high society in Animal Crackers (1930), international diplomacy in Duck Soup (1933), the theater in A Night at the Opera (1935.) Unleashing them in the romanticized North Africa of Casablanca  or Pépé le Moko seems like a worthy continuation of this theme.

Unfortunately, A Night in Casablanca feels tired much of the time. All the comedic element – Harpo’s slapstick, Groucho’s one-liners, Chico’s ridiculous puns – are there, but none feel as sharp as before. The manic energy of classic Marx just isn’t there: Groucho throws out many zingers but very few of them actually land. Everyone’s just going through the motions.

Although released by United Artists, the film has many of the same problems that reviewers identify in the late Paramount Marx Brother films; I’ve already mentioned the thin story (script by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee.) This film is very short (85 minutes), but it devotes a good quarter of its running time to mostly irrelevant subplots, like a pair of bumbling Casablanca cops in fezzes and pith helmets. Just like the Paramount films, A Night in Casablanca attempts to counterbalance the trio’s craziness with a pair of young lovers, in this case American-accented French pilot Pierre and his girlfriend Anette. This story goes nowhere. I know it’s a concession to Middle America, but the impulse is wrong: I watch Marx Brothers movies for the Marx Brothers, period.

I really like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but their second-to-last film just isn’t up to par.

Ps. Until the end credits, I thought that Chico’s character was called “carpaccio,” which would be very much in the tradition of silly Marx Brothers names.

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Bedlam (1946)

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Background: Released in May, Bedlam is the third and final collaboration between two of Hollywood’s masters of horror. Boris Karloff, I believe, needs no introduction: when you think of Frankenstein’s monster, it’s inevitably his iconic take on the character that comes to mind. Val Lewton, on the other hand, has kind of faded away from public consciousness. That’s a shame, because Lewton wrote and produced some of the best and most atmospheric horror films of his era. (Kirk Douglas’ character in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful is based in part on Lewton.) Unfortunately, Bedlam would prove to be the producers’ final film, as he suffered from health issues and ultimately died at the young age of forty-six in 1951.

Besides Lewton and Karloff, the film also features three other major contributors to ’40s RKO horror: cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, composer Roy Webb, and director/editor Mark Robson (the latter would graduate to more “prestigious” films and garner two Oscar nominations.)

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In 18th century London, Apothecary General Sims (Karloff) is the abusive head of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum. Besides his regular salary, Sims makes extra money by exploiting his “lunatics” as a freak show for wealthy Londoners. An inmate dies during one of these performances, leading Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) to campaign for asylum reform. Afraid of losing his position, Sims has Nell declared insane by a kangaroo court and imprisons her in the asylum. After a harrowing experience in Bedlam (a corruption of “Bethlehem”), Nell escapes and brings about better treatment of the mentally ill while Sims is put on trial by his former victims.

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Horror films come from many sources: books, mythology, video games, other films (quick: name a ’70s/’80s slasher that hasn’t been remade in recent years), man’s fear of technology and of himself. Very rarely, however, do films in this genre have roots in fine art. One of those rare cases is Bedlam, which claims to be based on the 1733 William Hogarth painting you see above. (The artist is given a writing credit on a film released almost two centuries after his death.)

For those not studying art history, Hogarth is probably best known for his sequential prints that many see as important precursors to modern comics. (My teenage self was haunted by his The Four Stages of Cruelty.Bedlam (script by Robson and Lewton) is supposedly an adaptation of the painter/engraver’s most famous work, A Rake’s Progress. Despite this claim, the film’s only real connections to A Rake’s Progress is its meticulous recreation of the painting as seen above and a few Hogarth prints used to link scenes.

Instead of Hogarth’s tragic tale of a man’s self-destruction, Lewton and Robson build their film’s plot around a thinly fictionalized version the notorious Bethlehem Royal Hospital. (Hogarth’s protagonist is only committed to the asylum in the 8th and final installment in the series.) This is probably a good idea because the then-active Production Code would have never allowed a faithful adaptation of A Rake’s Progress to be released.

Besides, asylums can be some of the creepiest places in fiction and are a perfect environment for a horror movie. Cinematographer Musuraca does very good work replicating the shadows of Hogarth’s painting with low-key lighting in the film’s interior scenes. Also contributing to the sense of atmosphere is the film’s sound design (by Hollywood veterans Terry Kellum and the aptly-named Jean L. Speak) which stands out in an era marked by flat, monaural sound recording. In one key scene, a roomful of “loonies” repeat words they hear over and over again; the echo sounds truly eerie and unnerving.

One would expect that Karloff – as the head of this madhouse – would play a cackling mad scientist-type, as he played this role again and again in his film career. Instead, the script gives him a very different (and somewhat more interesting) character to play. Apothecary General Sims is a shameless social climber who thinks of himself as a poet and spends much of his time flattering his social superiors. Rather than a diabolical villain, Sims comes across as just a pathetically self-serving man. Karloff’s performance is strong, especially during a chilling monologue where he compares inmates to various animals.

Considering the film’s historical context, I wonder if this character was intended to be a Nazi analogue. The parallels are definitely there: the Apothecary General incarcerates both political prisoners and the mentally ill in his hellish facility, subjecting the latter to cruel and dangerous “jests” for his and others’ amusement. (One of these “jests” involves killing a man by covering his entire skin with gold paint; I wonder if Ian Fleming saw Bedlam.) When he finally has to face his victims, Sims’ explanation for his actions is basically “I was only following orders.”

Regardless of whether his character was intended to be read in this way, Karloff plays and awesome villain and his scenes in the asylum are clearly the best parts of the film.

Unfortunately, our heroine isn’t committed until about halfway through Bedlam and the action outside of St. Mary’s is not exactly compelling filmmaking. Anna Lee, an actress I’m not familiar with, doesn’t do anything interesting with a badly underwritten character; both she and the script do a poor job of communicating her fairly generic character arc (from haughty society girl to ardent social reformer) to the audience. Much of the film feels like an typical  Hollywood period piece, which I guess is a compliment of sorts, as Lewton worked with much lower budgets than your average costume drama. To the credit of all involved, this b-movie never looks cheap.

The film’s lack of a strong protagonist is compounded by another equally noticeable problem: Bedlam kind of compromises its own message in order to work as a horror film. Although the film’s obvious message is that the real “lunatics” are those running the asylum, it’s conflicted between advocating for better treatment of the mentally ill and exploiting the mentally ill as something scary. The scenes at St. Mary’s are filled with the usual tropes of insane asylums in fiction: deranged inmates speaking gibberish, hands reaching out of cell bars to grab passers-by. The film’s finale involves the inmates getting their revenge on Sims, giving him a fate straight out of Poe.

While a decent movie, I wouldn’t say that Bedlam offers the best introduction to Val Lewton’s ouvre. I’d give that title to 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie, which remains an eerie and unnerving experience to this day.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Background: First published in 1934, James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was so controversial for its sex and violence that it was banned by the city of Boston. Although MGM optioned the book shortly after it came out, it took twelve years for the Motion Picture Production Code to loosen up enough for an adaptation to be made. By that time, Cain’s novel had already inspired two other film adaptations: the French Le Dernier Tournant (1939) and the Italian Ossessione (1943). Incidentally, the latter (an unauthorized version directed by Luchino Visconti) is considered by many to be a pioneering work of Italian neorealism.

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Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) hitches a ride to a roadside diner/gas station whose owner – a jovial Greek man named Nick (Cecil Kellaway) – immediately offers him a job. Frank accepts, but he’s less interested in the money than in Nick’s much younger wife Cora (Lana Turner.) Frank and Cora begin a passionate relationship and decide that Nick’s presence complicates things too much. After one failed attempt, they succeed in killing the Greek in a staged car accident. With the help of a cunning district attorney (frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Hume Cronyn), the two get off with only six months of probation for Cora.  Nick’s death, however, solves nothing, as Frank and Cora have to deal both with guilt and with their growing mistrust of each other.

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I read James M. Cain’s novel for this review and – regardless of how I critique the 1946 film adaptation – I strongly recommend it. Simply put, it’s a quintessential American crime story, a cornerstone of hard-boiled fiction (and thus film noir), an engrossing yarn that never lets up for a second. I’m particular impressed by Cain’s economical writing style: in only 100 pages, he creates a sleazy, cynical world and brings it to its only logical conclusion. He does so much with simple, declarative sentences. There’s not a wasted word, and Cain’s ability to get inside the heads of morally ambiguous characters makes this eighty year-old book seem strikingly modern.

In short, the book’s adapters have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, the filmmakers (journeyman Hollywood director Tay Garnett and producer Carey Wilson) get something fundamental absolutely right: this movie’s cast is fantastic. John Garfield is such a perfect fit for Frank Chambers that I can’t imagine any other actor in the role (I haven’t seen the 1981 version with Jack Nicholson.) The man just looks a drifter: hard living is written all over his face and he can be both approachable and vaguely menacing at the same time. I’m toying with the idea of giving out Oscar-style awards for this year and Garfield will definitely be a candidate for Best Actor if I do so.

Someone else I’ll have to give serious consideration to is Cecil Kellaway as Nick, who completely embodies the blissful ignorance of Cain’s character. The Greek is the only innocent character in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the only one not trying to screw everyone else over; he’s too consumed with ouzo and the day-to-day running of the diner to notice the two lovers plotting against him. (There’s a fun half-suspenseful, half-comedic sequence where he almost catches on.) Cain’s novel is almost like a Greek tragedy, with every character possessing a fatal flaw: while Frank’s is lust and Cora’s is ambition, Nick’s is merely stupidity.

Completing the triangle is Lana Turner in her most famous role. On a DVD special feature, USC film professor Richard B. Jewell describes her introduction (the camera pans from a tube of lipstick rolling on the floor to her legs; cut to the look on John Garfield’s face) as one of the great introductions in film history, and I have to agree: one can totally understand why Frank Chambers would kill for her. Although she’s a tad shrill and over-acty in the “dramatic” scenes, her onscreen chemistry with Garfield is a major asset for the film. The biggest challenge facing any film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice is convincing the audience of Frank and Cora’s passionate affair; this is made even more difficult for the 1946 version by the constraints of the Production Code.

Fortunately, Garfield and Turner completely sell it, using body language and subtle movements (he lights her cigarette) to communicate their relationship to the audience. In the spirit of Cain’s novel, the film tells us all we need to know about them and how they feel about each other in fifteen minutes.

After the Greek’s murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice turns into a legal thriller. I’ve seen this structure in multiple crime films of the era and it’s often a problem: both Dial M for Murder and Double Indemnity (1944, another Cain adaptation) become much less interesting after murder has been committed. Fortunately, this film manages to avoid that pitfall by with black humor. Fully embodying Cain’s characters, Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames play opposing attorneys who treat Frank and Cora’s trial like a game, placing bets on the outcome and finding legal loopholes to piss each other off. (Cronyn plays a somewhat similiar comic relief character in the 1943 Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt.) Their unabashedly unethical behavior prevents the film from sagging in the middle.

The film’s strong cast gets plenty of support from behind the camera. First, George White’s editing impressed me, especially during Frank and Cora’s failed attempt on Nick’s life. He uses increasingly quicker cuts from Frank acting as a lookout to oncoming cars on the highway in an almost textbook example of how to edit a suspenseful scene. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch’s script stays mostly faithful to the original book, and even includes my favorite line from it: Garfield was born to say, “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.” The score (by George Bassman and Erich Zeisl) is very noticeable, but it does effectively underscore dramatic moments. Although Sidney Wagner’s cinematography isn’t remarkable, it is good, solid, functional camerawork that never distracts. Finally, I’ve already given director Garnett an indirect compliment by mentioning the cast’s uniformly good performances.

There are a lot of good things in this adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I strongly recommend it, but I can’t help but feel like it misses something from Cain’s novel. I think that something is Cain’s writing itself: so much of the novel’s urgency comes from it being narrated by Frank Chambers, and Cain uses his memorable writer’s voice to bring that character to life. I guess something stemming from the writing itself is inevitably lost when a great book is translated to film. I mean, just imagine it going the other way: how could someone translate great cinematography or excellent performances into prose?

Abstract aesthetic thoughts aside, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a solid film that you should definitely check out.

Shoeshine (1946)

Sciuscia posterBackground: Released in April, Shoeshine was only the second non-English film to win an Academy Award. (The first was the now-forgotten 1944 Swiss film Marie-Louise.) The Italian neorealist film won a special Academy Award and received another nomination for its screenplay: AMPAS cited “the high quality of this motion picture, brought to eloquent life in a country scarred by war” as “proof to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity.” Shoeshine inaugurated a series of honorary Oscars for foreign films that evolved into the modern Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

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Plot Introduction: Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale (Franco Interleghi) are two impoverished youths struggling to get by in post-war Rome; Pasquale is orphaned and sleeps wherever he can. They earn a meager living by shining allied soldiers’ shoes and dream of saving enough to buy a horse. To earn some more money, the two friends accept a job from Giuseppe’s older brother that involves selling stolen blankets. After they witness a robbery, the two are interviewed by the police and accused of stealing the blankets themselves. Refusing to inform on the real criminals, the boys are separated and  incarcerated in a nightmarish detention facility as they await trial. Pasquale is subjected to intense questioning and eventually breaks down, informing on Giuseppe’s brother and causing the two former friends to turn on each other.

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My Thoughts: For a neorealist film made in occupied, post-Mussolini Italy, Shoeshine begins in a disarmingly innocent way. The very first shot is of kids on horseback racing down country lanes, laughing and having the time of their lives. There is no sign of the war or of fascism; the sun is shining and the scene in totality feels almost pastoral.

Throughout its first act, the film’s Oscar-nominated script (by noted screewriter Cesare Zavattini, Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, and Cesare Giulio Viola) keeps a light touch, even when it addresses topics like poverty and juvenile delinquency. Although they live in harsh conditions, Giuseppe and Pasquale are not portrayed as just victims of circumstance; they have enough street smarts to fend for themselves. (In fact, living on the streets is shown in a much more positive light than life as a ward of the state.) It is undoubtedly tragic that 12 year-old boys have to hustle for money, but Shoeshine doesn’t dwell on how bad they have it. Instead, both specific scenes (a dryly comedic encounter with a fortune teller) and the general feel of the dialogue (Giuseppe: “Whoever invented the elevator is a genius.” Pasquale: “Tell me about it. I slept in one for three months.”) seem akin to Mark Twain’s tales of youthful misadventure.

The otherwise bleak Shoeshine begins this way for two important reasons. First, it allows the viewer to empathize with the protagonists instead of simply pitying them; I would be completely unengaged by a film about the terrible things that befall two hapless victims. By giving them goals and an agency of their own, the script makes the two friends relatable. Comedy, I think, is one of the best and most efficient ways to reveal character – the exchange I quoted above tells you all that you need to know Pasquale’s sardonic worldview.)

Second, this taste of fresh air and sunshine makes the juvenile facility seem even more confining. Make no mistake about it: twenty minutes in, Shoeshine completely abandons the trappings of a semi-comedic coming-of-age tale and becomes unbelievably sad. The ensuing story, which is essential about the boys losing their friendship and their individuality while incarcerated, is truly moving. While watching it, I was constantly reminded of another fantastic film about juvenile delinquents, 1959’s The 400 Blows; Shoeshine is like that Truffaut film plus the utter hopelessness you’d expect from a country that just lost a world war.

It’s a testament to all involved that this never becomes maudlin. The film’s matter-of-fact storytelling works much more effectively than a more theatrical telling of the story would. Shoeshine exemplifies the neorealist aesthetic through its lack of artifice: Zavattini et al’s script never verges on melodrama, D.P. Anchise Brizzi’s cinematography never draws attention to itself (for a film in this style, “unobtrusive” is a compliment), director Vittorio de Sica gets nuanced and very natural performances out of young, unprofessional actors. At only 93 minutes, the film has very few wasted moments. While it doesn’t quite reach the canonical heights of de Sica and Zavattini’s next collaboration, the seminal Bicycle Thieves (1948), Shoeshine is the first really excellent film I’ve covered in this retrospective.

There are some flaws, however. One of them stems from the basic plot itself: a story about confinement will inevitably feel a bit repetitive. As good as the film is, I wouldn’t exactly describe Shoeshine as “entertaining.” Secondly, while the script does a great job of connections the audience to the protagonists, it fails to give several subplots (the criminals the boys get mixed up with, Giuseppe’s mostly absent family) a satisfying conclusion. Finally, Alessandro Cicognini’s score is too noticeable at times. During a few moments (I’m thinking of an early scene where the protagonists are fingerprinted), it straight-up distracts from the moment with its traditional Hollywood-style underscoring of “dramatic” events. This doesn’t fit in at all with the film’s low-key aesthetic and even occasionally detracts from it.

Despite these flaws, Shoeshine remains compelling because its central story (the boys’ imprisonment) works both literally and symbolically. In 2014, you can appreciate it as simply a character-driven drama about individuals struggling against a system. As in The 400 Blows, this is a universal theme that resonates with people from many different backgrounds.

In light of its time and place, however, one could easily read Shoeshine as an allegory for fascist Italy. The juvenile facility is run like a totalitarian government: abusive administrators (one of whom remarks, “We’re running a jail here, not a daycare center.”) demand obedience from their young prisoners, withholding food and threatening corporal punishment. The only educator we see is rote memorization of multiplication tables where the “teachers” berate the students for being ignorant when they get a question wrong.

The fascist undertones are strongest in the interrogation scene where Pasquale is cruelly manipulated into giving up information; the sequence is absolutely chilling. Importantly, the authority figures are not portrayed as one-dimensional villains. Instead, they use these extreme measures because they fear that failure will result in police higher-ups using the same methods on them. The system dehumanizes all involved and paranoia is everywhere. This is the film’s indictment of fascism, that systems like this turn best friends into bitter enemies.

Crisis (1946)

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Background: Described by the Criterion Collection as “a traditional portrait of provincial innocence versus urban corruption,” Ingmar Bergman’s directorial debut was based on a Danish play and co-produced by Bergman’s mentor, Victor Sjöström. (A fine filmmaker in his own right, Sjöström directed a fantastic silent, 1921’s The Phantom Carriage.) The production faced many challenges, some stemming from its director’s inexperience: Criterion quotes Bergman as recalling that he “knew nothing, could do nothing, and felt like a crazy cat in a ball of yarn.” Bergman did finish the film, however, and would go on to become one of cinema’s most celebrated directors.

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The Plot: Nelly (Inga Landgré), 18, has been raised since infancy by a foster family in an idyllic Swedish small town. One day, her innocence is shattered: Nelly’s biological mother Jenny (Marianne Löfgren) arrives in the village, intent on rebuilding her relationship with her daughter. Jenny asks Nelly to come and live with her in the big city, an offer that the young woman initially refuses. Jenny, however, is accompanied by Jack (Stig Olin), a well-dressed would-be gentleman who claims to be her stepson. Jack and Nelly begin a romantic relationship that causes a scandal in the small town, forcing the young girl to move in with Jenny. Life in the big city leads to tragedy for both mother and daughter.

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Crisis has an elemental, oft-told theme: a young person leaves everything they know and goes out into the big world, only to discover that “there’s no place like home” and returns, older and wiser. It’s a great through-line for a coming-of-age film.

The execution, however, leaves something to desired. Crisis is the kind of film referred to in the ’30s and ’40s as “women’s weepies,” full of melodramatic plot complications and possessing an often distractingly over-the top score. My cynical 21st century eyes can’t help but see the basic plot – girl leaves home to live with her  biological mother; both mother and daughter become involved with a mustachioed fop who may or may not have a dark past – as akin to a stereotypical soap opera. It doesn’t help that the screenplay (adapted by Bergman from Leck Fischer’s play) fails to properly flesh out any of the characters. All of them are one note: young Nelly is naive, her foster mother is a no-nonsense country wife, her real mother is what we would call a “cougar” nowadays, small town boy Ulf is defined only by his attraction to Nelly. Like many mediocre films, Crisis is more generic than archetypical.

There are, however, some flashes of brilliance. Whenever the film leaves its stagey interior scenes, Bergman and cinematographer Gösta Roosling show a knack for both landscapes and cityscapes. (An early romantic interlude by a brook is particularly well-shot.) Bergman’s theatrical background allows him to block scenes well, with many employing overlapping action in the same shot.

The most memorable scene in Crisis comes about a third of the way through, when all of the major characters attend a formal ball in the unnamed small town. After waltzing to Strauss’s Blue Danube, the foppish Jack lead’s the villages young people in a much wilder dance to some very un-Swedish jazz music. All of the town’s upstanding citizens are scandalized by this “devil’s music,” predicting how their future counterparts would react to rock and roll, heavy metal, and hip-hop. Unfortunately, very little of the film is as relatable as this. All in all, Bergman’s debut is much more historically important than it is entertaining.