Marked Woman (1937)

The Mark of the Squealer

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

“I think I’ll be a big help to your business” says Mary “Dwight” Strauber (Bette Davis) as she foreshadows to Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) the new owner of the clip joint known as Club Intimate. Mary is the alpha female with a mother instinct among her group of friends who all work as nightclub hostesses for Mr Vanning. None of them think highly of the work they do (but state it’s still better and more profitable than working in a factory for 12 and a half per week) as they accompany male patrons until the early hours of the morning (also that piece of music which plays 18 minutes into the film during a montage in the nightclub, it sounds similar to Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse). The theme of female solidarity runs throughout Marked Woman as the group console over the fear of getting old and are seen walking down the street in unison several times in the film. Mary also attempts to keep her sibling Betty (Jane Bryan) away from the gangster world and on track to a more respectable life. This plot element would be recycled in another Warner gangster picture from the same year, Kid Galahad and also involving the same cast member, Jane Bryan.

Marked Woman gave Humphrey Bogart an early career opportunity to play a hero during this pre-stardom period in his career (of when he could look oddly boyish) in which he was often cast as the villain. Bogart plays David Graham, the young, idealistic lawyer who “can’t be bought” and like Elliot Ness and the Untouchables are determined to bring down the cities top crime boss. Despite the disclaimer, at the beginning of Marked Woman which asserts that the story is fictitious, Marked Woman is loosely based on the real-life crime-fighting exploits of Thomas E. Dewey, in particular, his conviction of New York crime boss Lucky Luciano (of whom Eduardo Ciannelli bears a resemblance to) via the testimony of numerous call girls in Luciano’s prostitution rings. – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Hollywood makes being a lawyer look like one of the coolest professions ever.

Marked Woman is criminal justice 101. Everyone and their mother know Johnny Vanning commits every crime and murder in the city and they can’t do anything about it without any witnesses to come forward and testify in court. Witnesses are either threatened or killed off, politicians are bought out and unscrupulous lawyers take advantage of every technicality in the law. A later Bogart film, The Enforcer (1951) explored similar subject manner but Marked Woman does it in a superior manner. Following the conviction of Vanning, Marked Woman concludes with the group of friends walking down the courthouse steps and into the mist, once again walking in unison as they did throughout the film. The lawyer gets all the praise and attention from the press whereas those who risked the most are forgotten about and walk into the night with no personal gain or future prospects. 

Kid Galahad (1937)

Thugs With Dirty Mugs

The plot of Kid Galahad is routine fare in this gangster/sports picture but is executed with the top-notch craftsmanship. With Michael Curtiz directing (complete with one of his trademark shadows) and three cinematic icons carrying the picture, you know you’re in safe hands. Kid Galahad is one of the better early attempts to capture boxing in a film, there’s no sped-up footage although the fight scenes are quickly edited and the knockout during the titular character’s first fight occurs off-screen. It wasn’t until Gentleman Jim that cinematic boxing was filmed to a more realistic degree.

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Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart would play foes a total of five times, with Bogart getting the short end of the stick in four out of five of these pictures. In these pairings Robinson would play the redemptive character while Bogart would be a plain old scumbag. There’s a fun rivalry dynamic with the two as competing boxing managers but along with their other pairings, this is by no means a complex role for Bogart. His part as the not so threateningly named Turkey Morgan is a two-dimensional bad guy but with Bogart, it’s no less engaging. Likewise, I much prefer this more endearing and playful Bette Davis to high end, sophisticated melodrama Bette Davis she would go onto to portray starting with Jezebel. I also have to ask where the studio trying to make a sex symbol out of Davis in this film? I can’t recall another film in which she exposed this much skin.

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“You think you’re cute? You’re pants are too long to be that cute.”

Kid Galahad was made three years into the production code and it is interesting to consider how gangster films from this late 30’s period would have differed had they been made a few years earlier. The aesthetics are much cleaner than if the movie had come out during the code but more significantly is the film’s moral content. Although a gangster picture, Kid Galahad is somewhat of a Middle America morality tale. The film highlights a clear divide between the urban world of the mob and its lavish parties to the innocent and simple world of the countryside. Despite his path in life, Nick (Edward G. Robinson) tries to keep his sister ( a much more wholesome relationship than that featured in Scarface) and mother far away from gangsters (or mugs as he calls them) by housing his mother in the country and sending his sister away to a convent. Even the boy-scout bellhop turned prizefighter (Wayne Morris) desires to become a farmer when he leaves the prizefighting world behind. I suspect much of this stems an effort to disown the gangster lifestyle in favour of a more conservative one to fall in line with the production code.

The Black Watch (1929)

Heart of Darkness

The Black Watch marked John Ford’s first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film’s dialogue is delivered at a snail’s pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film’s pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots – a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals – ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.

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The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy’s novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (“the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce”) sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.

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One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani – Goddess to the natives (“others have been sent to take her out but never returned”). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander’s line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.

The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn’t have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn’t referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam’s (and Abrahamic religions’ as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult’s racial undertones raises many questions. I can’t deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?

Madigan (1968)

Bad Cops, Bad Cops

Madigan is my kind of cop movie. Everything about it feels so quintessentially classic. All the tropes are there from the officer who doesn’t play by the book, police corruption, guys in suits who show off their identification, one-liners galore and all this aided by the aura of cool which film-noir icon Richard Widmark brings to the screen – plus is there a more cop name than Madigan?

Many of the men in Madigan wear suits and fedoras with this being the late 60’s and the final days in which it was common for working men to do so; although there is a sense of New Hollywood creeping in with the film’s villain appearing in that 1970’s mould along with various snippets of once-taboo subject matter. Madigan is also one of the best uses of location in film; I haven’t seen another film in which the grit and grime of the New York streets have been captured so vividly in this neo-realistic record of NYC in the late 1960’s.

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11 Days Already! Hooray!

The opening credits of Madigan are a fantastic montage of New York in the early hours of the morning. This should come as no surprise as director Don Siegel had been a montage editor before becoming a director. I could happily have this movie playing in the background just to listen to the music as the score by Don Costa itself is one of the most underrated film scores I’ve heard; it’s so motivating and makes you want to go and kick some ass.

Much of my appreciation of Madigan is due to the film’s aesthetics. The film’s main plot and many subplots are good if not entirely exception, primarily the tension between Henry Fonda as the commissioner who “likes the book” and spends his day at superficial social events to promote the image of the force and works from behind a desk versus the unethical Madigan trying the catch crooks on the street. Siegel would go on to do better in Dirty Harry three years later but dam does Madigan have some fine aesthetics.

The Squall (1929)

Because She’s Homeless, She’s Homeless

As Hollywood was making its transition from silent pictures to talkies, 1929 is left as a year full of oddities and curios. The Squall is a 100% talking picture and is one of the more watchable talkies from 1929. While watching The Squall or any other talkie from 1929 one must take into account the movie was presumably filmed with a camera in a soundproof box. It’s evident the actors in The Squall have been heavily coached by diction experts and instructed to say their line as clearly and enunciated as possible – a scenario which anyone who has watched Singin’ In the Rain will be familiar with. Likewise, none of the actors turn their heads when speaking to avoid going off-mike nor at any point do any of the cast simultaneously walk and talk.

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So while none of the performances in The Squall bar one certain screen siren are anything to write home about, the production values are surprisingly very high. The Squall was directed by famed Hungarian-British producer and director Alexander Korda. I can only speculate if the director’s heritage is the reason why the film takes place in Hungary whereas the play the film is based on is set in Granada, Spain. The sets and costumes are very detailed in this upper, middle-class Hungarian farm from what I assume is around the turn of the century. Complete with grand windmills, herds of animals, farm equipment and some nice miniature work, the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere. Just as significant in an unusual move for films right up until the early 1930s, is the use of a music score throughout the entire picture, suitably a heightened and melodramatic one to accommodate the sound effects of blustering storms.

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However, the real reason to watch The Squall and the film’s saving grace is the one and only Myrna Loy in the overacting triumph of her long and varied career as the scruffy, barefooted gypsy girl Nubi. The gloriously, melodramatic performance sees this seductress manipulate three men in the same household as she tears the once idyllic Lajos family apart. Particularly pathetic is the son Paul (Carroll Nye), an utter simp who buys jewellery for Nubi from money he stole from his parents. I can watch Myrna Loy in just about anything thus I can easily buy into the destructive charm of Nubi as she over emotes in broken English and always referring to herself in the third person – even in one early scene as Nubi proclaims “no more!”, it appears as if Myrna Loy is trying to hold back her laughter. The contrast to the vampish Myrna Loy is the purity and innocence of a wide-eyed Loretta Young as Irma, a mere 16 years old at the time.

It should come as no surprise for a film as melodramatic at The Squall to play big with its use of symbolism and metaphor. The film’s opening shot features a Christian cross overlooking the farm and during a dinner the family has near the film’s beginning, the grandfather states that squalls are the work of God that he “gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky”. Nubi, of whom arrives at the family home during the midst of a storm, takes advantage of the Christian principle of sheltering the poor and homeless only to wreak havoc – an evil spirit if there ever was one.

The Best Man (1964)

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

The Best Man can be boiled down to one simple reality; politics is a phoney sham in which image matters over actual policy – I mean who knew right? The Best Man is a look at what goes on behind closed doors away from the pomp and flair of the convention arena. This stands in ironic comparison to the dignified slideshow of all then 36 US presidents over the opening credits.

The Best Man is a film which doesn’t hold much appeal beyond the politics geeks like myself, although does offer a lot of insight to sink your political teeth into. Writer Gore Vidal clearly knew his political insight and this really comes through in the writing. Every other line of dialogue brings up thought-provoking talking points of political insight (“No girls in the white house” – did Vidal know something about JFK?) as two presidential candidates fight for the endorsement of a former president (Lee Tracy) in this dirty game of chess.

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No party is mentioned in the film although it is more than likely the party featured are the Democrats due Vidal’s ties to the party and with the play in which the film was based on being widely recognised as a parallel to the 1960 Democratic convention. Another hint this is the Democratic Party is the southern influence present at the convention (Democrats still dominated the south in the 1960s) from the brief shot of a woman in the convention waving a confederate flag to the former President positively referencing the confederacy.

Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) is a more conservative democrat running on an anti-communist platform from the days when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans existed. The man wants to lower taxes, increase military spending and is for state’s rights. Reportedly the ethically dubious and ruthless character was based on Richard Nixon – he even goes as far blackmailing the former president for the endorsement.

The liberal counterpoint to the conservative and strong-minded Cantwell is the liberal William Russell (Henry Fonda); a candidate tainted by extramarital affairs, a nervous breakdown and a demonstrated inability to take decisive action. It is even hinted that Russell may be an atheist based upon his comment regarding human’s animal descent only for one of his advisors to state, “No mention of Darwin, before The Garden of Eden was the world”. The Best Man does offer some comic relief however in the form of Ann Southern as Mrs Gamage, a loud-mouthed, feminist type, pestering Russell that he doesn’t appeal to the female vote.

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“Russell’s Got Muscle”

Eventually, Russell, against his will blackmails Cantwell with info outing him as a homosexual. The word homosexual is not used as first but it’s more than apparent that’s the accusation levelled against Cantwell (“What we called when I was a boy, a degenerate”). The film does, however, drop the word homosexual later on, surely one of the earliest films to do so. The Best Man was itself released on an election year and one of several political movies to be essential viewing for anyone running who is for office.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Communists, Communists Everywhere!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Manchurian Candidate is one of few films to really portray communism as a sinister force, compared to many other films which even if they don’t portray communism in a favourable light, they fail to go the whole hog. In the director’s commentary for The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer states the film is a response to Joseph McCarthy but goes into no details regarding this or any of the political themes present in the film but rather talking about the technical aspects of the film. With all due respect to the highly talented director, this leads me to believe he is not fully aware or interested in the thematic significance of this film he directed.

From one angle it appears The Manchurian Candidate, whether intentionally or not is a validation of McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist. The Manchurian Candidate shows communism infiltrating the higher echelons of US society, all the way up to brainwashing a candidate for the US Presidency and his wife while at the same time making anti-communists look like a bunch of paranoid loons. However, one of the major characters in the film, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) is a cartoon-like version of Joseph McCarthy – a puppet of his wife Eleanor Iselin Is of whom is secretly a communist infiltrator (as revealed in a twist near the film’s end) passing as a rabid anti-communist. Not the brightest tool in the shed, Senator Iselin keeps giving the media different numbers on how many communists are in the Defence Department and eventually settles on 57 – being the only number he can remember in a clever reference to Heinz tomato ketchup. At the end of the day, it appears The Manchurian Candidate is trying to have its cake and eat it too in taking down both communism and McCarthyism all at once.

Well in the interest of advancing an agenda one is hamstrung by the fact that the communists in the film are using methods which are science fiction as brainwashing (mind control) does not actually exist in the real world. As Jon Mixon of Slate.com sums it up:

There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.

Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn’t, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.

Many people don’t do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don’t really believe the group’s core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.

Protagonist Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) does not fall under that category but really is an individual who’s mind has been put under the control of others, making The Manchurian Candidate is a borderline science fiction movie. That said, if brainwashing was real is there any reason to believe The Soviet Union of Mao’s China would have not taken advantage of it? You can decide.

It’s Angela Lansbury who steals the show as quintessential highly controlling, domineering mother Eleanor Iselin, who has a tendency to call anyone she disagrees with a communist, even when they are a Republican (rings a bell in the modern-day culture war). The movie doesn’t state if the Iselin’s are Republicans or Democrats. The regular appearance of bust and portraits of Abraham Lincoln in their home as well as people (including Mr Iselin) dressed as Honest Abe at their party may hint to them being Republicans. However, there did exist a conservative, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party back then so their party allegiance could go either way.

Laurence Harvey is an actor with a real dignified aura to him (and in comparison to Sinatra, it’s clear who the superior actor is). Raymond Shaw is real a snob and sour puss, “not loveable” as he memorably describes himself. He even almost turns into Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when becoming drunk and ranting about Christmas with his mid-Atlantic accent. Likewise, I feel the casting of Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s love interest Eugénie Rose Chaney to be a determent to the film, not out of any wrongdoing by the actress, but for a minor part which only has a small bearing on the plot, having a major actress cast in the part comes off a waste. Angela Lansbury and even the portly, comic-looking John McGiver play roles of far greater significance yet are billed lower – an unknown actress would have been better suited to the role. The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the earliest films to feature black actors in which their race has no bearing on the plot with the desegregated military present in the film and James Edwards in the small but memorable role of Cpl. Allen Melvin.

Frankenheimer directed some of the most visually striking black & white films ever made with Lionel Lindon providing the cinematography for The Manchurian Candidate. Those dreams sequences are a master class in editing and set design (not to mention the unease that comes from having a gun directly pointed at the audience). Also observe how the murder of Mr Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), is very similar to the murder of Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. The scenes from both movies take place at night in the victim’s bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both are wearing a robe, have a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds and both are about to be murdered. I can only guess this scene really stood out for Ridley Scott.

The Manchurian Candidate is fascinating if imperfect political thriller. One has to suspend their disbelief when watching the film, no more so than when Shaw just happens to be in a bar when the bartender in a conversation with patrons just happens to say the trigger phrase “play a little solitaire” – a remarkable coincidence to say the least. The film’s climax is the blueprint for the political, conspiracy thriller in which a sniper plans to take out a candidate in a convention arena amongst all the electioneering apparel and giant posters and the candidates, and all this one year before the untimely demise of JFK.

The Conversation (1974)

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I Always Feel Like, Somebody’s Watching Me 

The Conversation revolves around just that, a conversation between a man and a woman which is secretly recorded in San Francisco’s Union Square by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and his team as a paid job for a private interest. Watching The Conversation decades after the fact, it’s surprising to see that such long-range microphones which can record conversations from afar and even in crowded places existed, let alone were commercially available in 1974, while it’s also of great interest to watch the process depicted in the film of editing together the audio from different sources without the aid of a computer screen. It goes without saying that in a post 9/11, post Edward Snowden world, The Conversation is more scarily relevant than ever.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the personification of a paranoid man in one of the most effective portrays of a crisis of conscience in film. If you’re in the business of spying on people, it’s difficult to believe people are not spying on you, even to the point that the man can’t even bear one of his neighbours delivering him a present on his birthday. Unlike an Edward Snowden, Harry Caul does not work for the government but the movie hints that he has been hired by them before. Harry’s assistant Stan (John Cazale) even speculates the tapes Harry is editing could be for the Justice Department or the Internal Revenue. However, the most “out there” moment in the film comes when Harry’s associate Bernie (Allen Garfield) states:  “Twelve years ago, I recorded every phone call made by the presidential nominee of a major political party…I’m not saying I elected the President of the United States, but you can draw your own conclusions.” Francis Ford Coppola had been writing The Conversation since the late 1960’s however it’s not determined whether the Watergate scandal had any influence on the film’s development, but you can draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps the most unsettling section in The Conversation is the surveillance convention – a convention where the subterranean world of wiretappers come together to showcase their Orwellian recording technology with the pomp and flair of any business expo. As Martin Stett (a certain young Harrison Ford) sinisterly sums it up, “It’s a convention of wiretappers, ah excuse me, surveillance and security technicians”.

Ah yes, let’s talk about the young Harrison Ford in the supporting role of Martin Stett. Perhaps I may be biased being a huge Harrison Ford fan but he leaves a huge impression in this small but significant part in which he does have a surprising amount of screen time for this early stage in his career. According to Coppola on the director’s commentary track, the character was Ford’s own creation. Originally no more than a cameo, the character’s role was expanded as much as possible when Ford fleshed it out, turning the character into an implied homosexual with his campy checkered tie and sweater, in an implied relationship with the company director played by Robert Duvall. Martin Stett is like a predecessor to the 1980’s yuppie and is one scary looking dude when he lingers in the background – even his voice over the phone is unsettling. I’m unable to discover whether or not more footage of Ford ended up on the cutting room floor. However included on the Blu-ray release of The Conversation is an early screen test from 1972 in which a young and dashing Ford plays the role of Mark, which a part which would eventually be portrayed by Frederic Forrest.

Being a film about sound itself, The Conversation couldn’t be a more ideal match for the editing and sound design talents of the great Walter Murch. Like his work in Apocalypse Now, the sound effects are as memorable as the music, particularly that audio distortion noise that repeats during the film’s titular conversation. Likewise, the eerie, ragtime-esque music score courtesy of David Shire shows what you can do with just a piano – the ideal accompaniment to the gritty 70’s look amongst the film’s oppressive yet striking architecture and a slightly drab-looking winter San Francisco (The Conversation is one of those film’s set during Christmas which has no bearing on the holiday). Even the camera acts as an eavesdropper with the film’s use of voyeuristic shots.

“We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you.”

The Last Flight (1931)

Party Animals

The Last Flight is one of the more unique movies to come out of 1930’s Hollywood (possibly in part due to the film being directed by German newcomer to Hollywood, William Dieterle). It didn’t hold my attention on first viewing with its surprising plotless structure but the odd nature of the movie made me want to give it another try. The Hemingway like Lost Generation film follows a group of Great War veterans leading a shallow and hopeless existence as they spend their nights drinking and partying in Paris while making no attempt to properly readjust to civilian life (“Well there they go, out to face life, and their whole training was in preparation for death”) – A tale which would be repeated throughout cinema with various wars.

The film is entirely driven by the rapport between the characters and the listlessness that covers their lives. Along the way, they met a metaphorical representation of their damaged states in the form of Niki (Helen Chandler). The first scene with this character really confused me on first viewing as it sounds like she’s saying she is holding a man’s “tea” rather than his “teeth”. Why the men would get so excited over this? It’s not clear if Nikki is a ditsy dame, constantly inebriated or just nuts. She doesn’t mind just standing and holding the teeth of a stranger who wants to go out back and fight and even keeps turtles in a hotel bathroom.

I do love the exquisite Paris nightlife circa 1919 as presented in the film with the suits and the drinks, you really get a sense of the all the good (if pathetic on a deeper level) times they have (even if it’s never explained how they fund their drinking adventures). Allow me to express my inner grumpy old man when compared to modern nightlife.

Richard Barthelmess gave some of the most memorable performances of the pre-code era, having the ability to convey the look of a damaged man as seen in the role of Cary Lockwood, the most sensible one of the ecliptic group. Likewise, there’s also Frink (Walter Byron) and his sexual misconduct (“He is a member of the wandering hands society and has a grouping good time”), in which the men are shockingly tolerant of his behaviour as they call him out and criticise his actions but never expelling him from the group. Even after an attempted rape on a train the men only tell him to apologise and to never get out of line again.

The Last Flight reuses footage at the beginning from Barthelmess’ previous war film, The Dawn Patrol; both are based on stories from John Monk Sanders and make for a great double feature. – The Last Flight is a film for a patient viewer but one which holds many nihilistic rewards.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

The Great American Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

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The Great American Movie

So it’s about time I finally got around to reviewing the big cheese itself, the towering achievement of American cinema, those four glorious syllables – Gone With The Wind.

Gone With the Wind testament to how much filmmaking had changed in just 10 years from the beginning to the talkie period. From the astounding cinematic shots such as the long take of the bodies of fallen soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta to those red Technicolor skies which I could stare at all day and huge matte paintings which are hard to distinguish from real sets – it’s a world to get lost in (I can even ignore the very clear continuity error at the beginning of the film when it goes from dusk back to early evening to dusk again). Even those opening titles themselves are breathtaking, let alone for a time when opening titles where a basic on-screen title card.

Gone With the Wind is a film with a fascinating history as it’s backdrop. The pink elephant in the room however for many modern viewers is the troublesome historical image of the American South both pre and post-antebellum, whether just or unjust. The emphasis on the Wilkes family marrying their cousins doesn’t help things but the real but the real point of contention is the dreaded “R” word, racism. To dismiss Gone With the Wind as a racist film is such a reductive argument, especially when certain commentators liken it to The Birth of a Nation, a film which shows black members of the House of Representatives eating fried chicken. To actually watch Gone With the Wind and study it closely, the way the film examines the racial issues is more 3 dimensional than popular critique contends.

Gone With the Wind is told from the point of view of slave owners who don’t see anything wrong with owning slaves (nor is it ever made clear if the plantation owners start paying their former slaves following the end of the war). The slave owners are a product of their time which the movie doesn’t pass judgment on. Only one line of dialogue in the film deals with the question of morality when it comes to slavery in which Ashley responds to Scarlett’s use of prisoners for labour which implies Ashley sees nothing wrong with slavery providing the slaves are treated well;

“Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labour and misery of others”

“You won’t so particular about owning slaves”

“That was different; we didn’t treat them that way

I find by far the most interesting aspect the portrayal of race in Gone With The Wind is the stark contrast between the black carpetbaggers (northerners who came to the south following the war who were perceived to be exploiting the local populace) and the recently freed slaves who are still childlike, dim-witted and happy to help out their masters of whom they are dependent on. The first black carpetbagger seen in the film features a sharply dressed, liberated northern black man traveling with a white accomplish but more significantly, in a scene not long after this Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) sneers at a pair of African-American carpetbaggers who are wearing fancy suits, smoking cigars and laughing. Mammy, who just had to beg for money along with Scarlett, sneers at this black men having the time of their lives. While the phrase is not used in the movie, these individuals would be referred to in many quarters as “Uncle Toms”, perceived sellouts to their black brethren. The appearance of independent, well to do black men from the North goes against the narrative of Gone With The Wind being a racist film. I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy of Gone With the Wind or how well it portrayed the time and place it depicts but there’s too much nuance within the film’s depiction to simply shout “wasis!” rather than having a more productive conversation or what the film did or did not do right. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, “A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

The film’s opening prologue and the scenic shots of Tara could be seen as Confederate propaganda with its Utopian presentation of a world alongside the opening prologue which reads;

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”

Yet if there’s any authorial or filmmaking intent to propagate Confederate lost cause mythology (historical revisionism that the Confederacy’s cause during the civil war was a just and heroic one) is countered by much of the film’s content. There’s no explicit condemnation of slavery or the confederacy but does the movie have to do this? The biggest Uncle Tom in Gone With The Wind in Scarlet O’Hara herself for doing business with the northern carpetbaggers in order to save Tara and rise above poverty. What makes Scarlett O’Hara a character I can empathize with? By many accounts, I shouldn’t as she’s bratty, entitled and manipulative, yet you can’t help but admire her desire to survive and make better of herself despite what onlookers might say (her gumption as Margret Mitchell describes it). Scarlet is shown to have little interest in the southern cause (as does Rhett Butler). This is memorably symbolized in the shot in which war has just been announced as everyone runs frantically through the foyer of Twelve Oaks and Scarlett angrily walks by them as if they aren’t even there. Really the one cause Scarlett is dedicated to is that set of her family of Irish immigrants who came to America and accomplished the American Dream of owning land (“Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for”).

Gone With The Wind is one of few films in which every character, no matter how minor is significant in their own way, with Star Wars or The Ten Commandments being one of few other films which achieve this. Now if only I could do without Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), one of the most cowardly, unlikeable characters ever – and that nails on chalkboard voice! Thankfully Scarlett gives her a good slap.

Then there’s my boy, Rhett Butler; the cinematc embodiment alongside Han Solo and Indiana Jones of masculinity and individualism (and what an introductory shot!). Men want to be him and women want to be with him. A man out for himself and a realist doesn’t really believe in the Confederate cause and is by far the most self-aware character in the film. In a defining scene Rhett points out how the south isn’t equipped for war while the other southern gentlemen are blinded by illusions of grandeur and he’s not afraid to call them out on it, while remaining a gentleman the whole time and removes himself from the meeting after the other gentlemen feel insulted by his comments. Even when Rhett joins the Confederate Army near the end of the war as he describes himself as having a weakness for lost causes, he’s still self-aware of how foolish his actions are. Just before Rhett leaves Scarlet at the carriage after escaping from Atlanta, the film treats us to what I consider the greatest kiss in film history with its layers on intensity; melodramatic dialogue, sweeping music, and the blood-red sky.

Rhett’s actions do however lead to one scene which gets many viewers in a tussle; Rhett’s drunken marital rape of Scarlett after she refuses to have sex with him. Not to mention Scarlett is seen the following the morning have enjoyed the experience! I don’t believe however the film at all rewards or gratifies Rhett for his actions and subtlety condemns it. Not only does Rhett show remorse for his actions the following morning, but the rape is also the final act which leads to the destruction of a marriage which was already on shaky ground.

Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes who is in many ways the counterpoint of Rhett Butler as the tender, effeminate, proud southerner (with a transatlantic accent, go figure). Ashley is a romantic who is crippled by his nostalgia for the old south. Ashley spends most of the film listlessly adrift through the harsher realities of the reconstruction era. Unlike Scarlett, he has no goals or ambitions for the future. All he can do is remember the elegance of his life as it once was and wish that he could return to those old days.

Rounding out the film’s four main cast members is Olivia de Havilland in her undersung performance as Melanie Wilkes, crossing the line of being saintly without ever being sickly. Did she know about Scarlett and Ashley or not? Was she really a saint, or just naive, or perhaps exceptionally wise? Scarlet is the sister Melanie always wanted with each of them possessing qualities the other lacked, especially during their bond over joint survival during and after the war. Scarlett saved Melanie’s life and Melanie kept her cool under fire in a way that earned Scarlett’s private (though reluctant) admiration. She also did not hesitate to do hard work she never would have had to touch before the war. She was, therefore, more valuable to the family’s survival than Scarlett’s two sisters. The speculative question of whether Melanie knew about Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley. Perhaps Melanie knew she could trust Ashley while seeing that Rhett was the right man for Scarlett by trying to promote their relationship.