Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)


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Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a…

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Pre Code Confidential #23: Marlene Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount 1932)


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Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich  teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.

How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Razor’s Edge (dir by Edmund Goulding)


Oh, 1919!  What a year.  The Great War had ended, leaving much of Europe devastated.  American soldiers were coming home and, scarred by the horrors they had experienced, becoming members of a lost generation.  The Spanish Flu was infecting millions, on the way to eventually wiping out 3% of the world’s population.  It was a grim time so it’s no surprise that many chose to close their eyes and pretend like everything was fine.  Only a few people were willing to look at the world and say, “There has to be something more.”

The 1946 film The Razor’s Edge tells the story of one such man.  Before the war, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power, Jr.) was like most of his friends back in Chicago.  He was carefree.  He was wealthy.  He was engaged to marry the beautiful but self-centered Isabel (Gene Tierney).  But then he went off to fight in World War I and the experience changed him.  On the final day of the war, another soldier sacrificed his life to save Larry and Larry is now haunted by that man’s death.  No longer sure about his place in the world, Larry announces that he’s rejecting his former life.

Of course, that’s an easy thing to do when you’re rich.  Larry is lucky enough to have an inheritance that he can live off for a few years.  All of his former friends think that Larry’s just struggling to adjust to being back home and they expect that he’ll get over it soon enough.  Isabel’s uncle, Elliott (Clifton Webb), thinks that Larry’s acting like a total fool.  For Larry’s part, he no longer cares what any of them think.  He’s going to travel the world, seeking enlightenment.

While Larry’s searching, life goes on without him.  Isabel ends up marrying one of Larry’s friends, Gray Maturin (John Payne).  Larry’s best friend from childhood, Sophie (Anne Baxter), suffers a personal tragedy of her own and, when Larry next meets her, she’s living as a drunk on the streets of Paris.  Larry keeps searching for the meaning of it all.  He works in a coal mine.  He discusses philosophy with a defrocked priest.  Eventually, he ends up in the Himalayas, where he studies under a Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys).

It’s an intriguing idea and still a relevant one.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really work because Larry tends to come across as being a little bit full of himself.  I could imagine someone like Henry Fonda working wonders with the role but Tyrone Power seems totally miscast as Larry.  When you look at Power, you find it hard to believe that he’s ever had a bad day, much less a need to spend months hiding in the Himalayas.  He comes across as the last person you would necessarily want to take spiritual advice from.  The fact that Webb, Tierney, Payne, and Baxter are all perfectly cast only serves to enforce just how miscast Power is.  It’s a well-intentioned film with nice production values but it’s never quite compelling.

The Razor’s Edge was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  Interestingly, the film features Maugham as a character, played by Herbert Marshall.  Even more interesting is the fact that the film was apparently remade in 1984, with Bill Murray cast as Larry Darrell.  I’ve never seen the remake so I have no idea if Murray is an improvement on Power.

(Also, since I’ve been pretty critical of Power in this review, let me recommend Witness For The Prosecution, in which Power is much better cast.)

The Razor’s Edge was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another film about returning vets, The Best Years of Our Lives.

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)


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(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter…

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Heel with a Heart: Dan Duryea in THE UNDERWORLD STORY (United Artists 1950)


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Hollywood’s favorite heel Dan Duryea got a rare starring role in THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama in which he plays… you guessed it, a heel! But this heel redeems himself at the film’s conclusion, and Duryea even wins the girl. Since that girl is played by my not-so-secret crush Gale Storm , you just know I had to watch this one!

The part of muckraking tabloid journalist Mike Reese is tailor-made for Duryea’s sleazy charms. He’s a big-city reporter who breaks a story about gangster Turk Meyers spilling to the D.A., resulting in the thug ending up murdered on the courthouse steps in a hail of bullets. DA Ralph Monroe (Michael O’Shea )  puts the pressure on Mike’s editor, and Reese becomes persona non grata in the newspaper game. Seeing an ad for a partner at a small town newspaper, Mike gets a $5,000 “loan” from crime boss Carl…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE FLY (20th Century Fox 1958)


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THE FLY is one of those films you’re probably familiar with if you’re a horror/sci-fi fan. I’ve seen it many times, but was under the impression it was a black & white movie (probably due to early viewings as a young’un, deprived of color TV). So when I rewatched it again in glorious Technicolor, I was pleasantly surprised. This tale of science gone wrong has held up well, and its iconic scene of The Fly’s unmasking still manages to jolt the viewer (even if you know it’s coming!).

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The film’s framing device finds us witnessing Helene Delombre murdering her husband Andre by squishing his head and arm under a huge hydraulic press (and it’s a pretty gruesome demise), then calling her brother-in-law Francois to tell him. Francois is stunned, to say the least, and gets ahold of his friend Inspector Charas. They drive over to the Delombre Freres (the movie’s set in Montreal)…

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Devil in Disguise: ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952)


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I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been  hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:

An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return.  After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #14: The Letter (dir by William Wyler)


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After watching Break-Up Nightmare, I watched one more film that was sitting on my DVR.  That film was 1940’s The Letter.  I had recorded it off of TCM and, up until last night, I had never seen it before.  I’m happy to say that I’ve seen it now because it’s a great movie, featuring a fascinating mystery, feverish atmosphere, excellent supporting performances, and a ferociously brilliant performance from the great Bette Davis.

Filmed in a dream-like noir style by William Wyler, The Letter opens on a rubber plantation in Malaysia.  It’s night and the camera pans over the native workers all trying to sleep through the hot night.  Eventually, the camera reaches the big house, where the plantation’s wealthy and, of course, white manager lives.  (The contrast between the wealthy Europeans interlopers and the natives who work for them is a reoccurring theme throughout The Letter.)  A gunshot rings out.  A man stumbles out of the house.  Following after him is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis).  She is carrying a gun and, as we watch, she shoots the man a few more times.  She shoots him until she’s sure that he’s dead.

Leslie is the wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall, who also played Davis’s husband in The Little Foxes) and the man that she just killed is Geoff Hammond, a respected member of Malaysia’s European community.  When the police arrive, Leslie explains that Hammond “tried to make love to me” and that she was forced to kill him in self-defense.  Leslie is arrested for the crime and will have to face trial but everyone knows that she will be acquitted.  After all, Leslie and her husband are members are well-connected members of the upper, European class.

However, Leslie’s lawyer, Herbert Joyce (James Stephenson), has doubts about Leslie’s story.  He points out that she sounds just a little too rehearsed.  His suspicions are confirmed when his clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung), tells him about the existence of a letter that Leslie wrote on the day that Hammond was killed.  In the letter, Leslie orders Hammond to come see her and threatens to reveal the details of their relationship if he doesn’t.  Ong explains that he only has a copy of the letter.  The original is in the hands of Hammond’s widow (Gale Sondergaard) and she’s willing to sell the letter for a substantial price.

Not surprisingly The Letter is dominated by Bette Davis but, for me, the most memorable character is the outwardly obsequies but inwardly calculating Ong Chi Seng.  Sen Yung plays him with such a polite manner and a gentle voice that it’s actually incredibly shocking when he reveals his true nature.  And yet, even after he’s been exposed as a potential blackmailer, his manner never changes.  Meanwhile, Gale Sondergaard only appears in a handful of scenes but she steals every one of them with her steely glare.

In order to get the letter away from Ong and Mrs. Hammond, Leslie and Joyce have to convince Robert to give them the money without allowing him to learn the letter’s content.  But, what neither one of them realizes, is that Mrs. Hammond has plans that go beyond mere blackmail.

The Letter is an atmospheric melodrama that plays out almost like a fever dream and it also features one of Davis’s best performances.  It was nominated for best picture but it lost to another atmospheric melodrama, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Foreign Correspondent (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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Before watching a film like 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, it helps to know a little something about history.

Nowadays, when we think about World War II, there’s a tendency to assume that, from the minute that Hitler came to power in Germany and started to invade the rest of Europe, the entire world united against the Nazis.  The truth is actually far more complex.  The world was still recovering from World War I and throughout the 1930s, even as the Axis powers were growing more and more aggressive, respected intellectual leaders and politicians continued to argue that peace must be maintained at all costs.  Pacifism was such a popular concept that otherwise intelligent people were perfectly willing to make excuses for Hitler and Mussolini.  For five years, the UK followed a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany.  Even after war broke out between Britain and Germany, the U.S. remained officially neutral.  In the 1940 presidential election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt — running on a platform of neutrality — was overwhelmingly reelected over internationalist Wendell Willkie.

Foreign Correspondent, an American film made by a British director, opens before the start of World War II.  An American newspaper editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), is frustrated because none of his foreign correspondents seem to be able to understand the truth of the situation in Europe.  They all claim that there is going to be no war in Europe but Mr. Powers feels differently.  He also feels that the newspaper’s most celebrated and respected foreign correspondents are just a bunch of out-of-touch elitists.  Instead of sending another upper class academic, Mr. Powers decides to send a hard-boiled crime reporter to cover the situation in Europe.  Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) has never been to Europe and that’s exactly why Mr. Powers decides to send him.  In one of the film’s more clever moments, he does, however, insist that Johnny write under the more distinguished sounding name of “Huntley Haverstock.”

(Foreign Correspondent‘s pointed criticism of out-of-touch elitists repeating the establishment line remains just as relevant today as it was in 1940.)

From the minute the brash and tough Johnny arrives in Europe, he finds himself caught up in a huge conspiracy.  He’s been assigned to report on a group known as the Universal Peace Party and, since this film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, we automatically know that any organization with the word “Peace” in its name has to be up to something shady.  The Universal Peace Party has been founded by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who appears to sincere in his desire to avoid war.  Johnny meets and falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day).

From the minute that Johnny witnesses the assassination of distinguished Dutch diplomat Von Meer (Albert Bassermann), he suspects that things are not how they seem.  Working with Carol and a British journalist named Scott ffolliot* (delightfully played by the great George Sanders), Johnny discovers that Von Meer was not killed at all.  Instead, a double was assassinated and Von Meer was kidnapped by a group of spies.

But who are the spies?  After nearly getting killed by one of Fisher’s bodyguards, Johnny starts to suspect that Stephen Fisher might not be as into world peace as was originally assumed.  Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Johnny is now engaged to marry Carol…

Foreign Correspondent is a wonderfully witty thriller, one that has a very serious message.  While the film is distinguished by Hitchcock’s typically droll sense of humor (eccentric characters abound and the scene where Edmund Gwenn keeps getting interrupted before he can attempt to push Joel McCrea off of a tower is both funny and suspenseful), the film’s message was that America could not afford to stay neutral as war broke out across Europe.  As the all-American Johnny Jones says at the end of the film:

“All that noise you hear isn’t static – it’s death, coming to London. Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out, hang on a while – this is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”

Foreign Correspondent was nominated for best picture of 1940 but it lost to another far different Hitchcock-directed film, Rebecca.

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* Yes, that is how he spells his last name.  As he explains, his family dropped the capital name in his surname after an ancestor was executed by Henry II.  Since it was George Sanders doing the explaining, it somehow made perfect sense.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Little Foxes (dir by William Wyler)


Little_foxesThat Bette Davis was an amazingly talented actress is something that we all already know.

However, she has become such an iconic figure that I think that it’s easy to forget just how versatile she could be.  She was ferocious in Of Human Bondage.  She was poignant in Dark Victory.  She was majestic in All About Eve.  Even when she eventually ended up appearing in stuff like Burnt Offerings, she still managed to command the screen.  Of course, nobody played evil with quite the style and power as Bette Davis at her prime.  And if you ever have any doubt about that fact, I would suggest watching the 1941 Best Picture nominee, The Little Foxes.

Based on a play by Lillian Hellman, The Little Foxes is a dark Southern melodrama that takes place in 1900.  The once mighty Hubbard Family has fallen on hard times.  Brothers Benjamin (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) have inherited their father’s money and Oscar has made himself even more wealthy by marrying the poignant alcoholic Birdie (Patricia Collinge).  However, when Oscar and Benjamin decide that they want to build a cotton mill, they discover that, even with their own fortunes, they are still $75,000 short.

They turn to their sister, Regina (Bette Davis).  As quickly becomes obvious, Regina is a hundred times more intelligent and clever than either one of her brothers.  However, because she’s a woman, Regina was not considered to be a legal heir to their father’s fortune.  As a result, after his death, she was left penniless.  In order to survive, Regina had to marry the wealthy but sickly Horace (Herbert Marshall).  When Regina asks Horace for the $75,000, Horace refuses.  He wants nothing to do with either one of her brothers.

With the reluctant help of Oscar’s son, Leo (Dan Duryea), the brothers steal the money straight from Horace’s bank account.  Regina, however, finds out about the theft and schemes to blackmail her two brothers….

For the majority of the film, you are totally on Regina’s side.  Despite the fact that Regina is ruthless and obviously taking advantage of Horace’s weakened state, you find yourself making excuses for her.  Her brothers are both so sleazy and greedy and Regina is so much smarter than her idiotic siblings that the film occasionally feels like a dark comedy.  It’s fun watching her get the better of them and you find yourself assuming (and hoping) that Regina will somehow be redeemed by the end of the movie.

And then it happens.

Aware of both Regina’s scheme and the fact that she never loved him, Horace announces that he’s going to change his will and he’s going to leave his entire fortune to their daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright, in her Oscar-nominated film debut).  He also tells Reginia that he’s going to say that he lent Leo the money, which would make it impossible for her blackmail scheme to work.

It’s while they’re arguing that Horace suddenly suffers a heart attack.  And as Horace struggles to climb up a staircase so that he can get his medicine, Regina calmly sits in a chair and shows not a hint of emotion as he dies.  It’s such an unexpected and effective moment, largely because Bette Davis’s performance was so good that it kept both the viewer and Horace from realizing just how monstrous Regina truly was.

It’s hard to think of any contemporary actress who could so totally and believably embody a character of Regina Gibbons.  It takes courage to commit so fully to playing such an evil and hateful character.  Bette Davis had that courage and her performance alone makes The Little Foxes worth watching.