Hot Little American Dream: Jean Harlow in The Girl from Missouri

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1930s movies have a lot to recommend them. Tight pacing. Earthy subject matter. Rapid-fire dialogue. But I particularly love 30’s movies because their women embrace the money-hungry, social-climbing American dream so honestly. Onscreen, working class dames likes Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck, didn’t have to play it soft or stupid: they could be hard-hearted and self-interested. It helps that in the early 1930s, Hollywood self-censorship was much looser. The Production Code Administration and it’s middle-brow moralism had yet to fully clamp down. Ruthlessness and greed onscreen didn’t have to be punished. Further, Great Depression was in full-swing. Film audiences were struggling and scraping. Sure, they liked frothy escapism a la Astaire and Rogers, but they also wanted some hardscrabble truth. Stories that reflected the dog-eat-dog world they were facing; they were tough enough to take it.

Sometimes the depression is right there on the surface (Baby Face, Midnight Mary) but even when it’s not, it’s burbling right underneath. There are no breadlines or flophouses in The Girl From Missouri (1934), but the depression-era desperation is still there. Choices, especially women’s choices, are slim. Take Eadie, the girl in The Girl From Missouri. She’s a working class gal running away from home for good reason; it’s rotten there. Her stepfather runs a chintzy nightclub and sends her out on the floor each night as a customer attraction. He’s basically pimping her out. Her youth is his meal-ticket.

Eadie’s a total depression baby. She’s got no connections, no education, and no nurturing family to give her a leg up. And even if she did, her choices wouldn’t be all that attractive. It’s 1934. At best, she’s looking down the barrel of struggling waitress or struggling man’s wife. So Eadie takes it on the lam. She’s young. She’s gorgeous. And she’s been poor. She’s ready to see how the other 1% live.

Eadie heads for New York and gets a job as a big city showgirl. Helpfully, the chorus line she works in has a sideline entertaining at wealthy businessmen’s parties. They aren’t quite strippers, but they aren’t just dancers (because: Hollywood). They wear baroque Busby Berkeley-style costumes and socialize with the fellas while intermittently doing dippy dance numbers. But Eadie’s not there just to be decorative. She’s got goals. While the rest of the girls are flirting or dancing, she’s stalking the head millionaire (Lewis Stone).

One of Harlow’s great strengths as an actress is her delightful way with putting-on “class.” In her early films, before she’d developed her comedic chops, studios occasionally tried casting Harlow as a refined society girl. It never worked. She was as bland as a cucumber sandwich. But as a blue-collar broad putting on society airs, she’s in her element. Traipsing through the party in a slinky gown looking for a bonafide millionaire, she applies her best Mrs. Astor airs, asking the butler if his MAHster is in his office. Eadie isn’t making fun of upper class ladies; she’s just trying to pass, but the put-on dignity of her delivery really plays up how phoney-baloney upper class hauteur is. Later, when she’s finally finagled her way into the tycoon’s office, (and is sitting on the his desk) she picks up an expensive trinket and compliments it- I just love art. When Mister Magnate tells her it’s a genuine Cellini, she has no idea who or what that is. So she says, with appropriate reverence, “I bet that cost a lot of money.”

Unfortunately, it turns out that that Eadie’s target tycoon is actually dead broke. He kills himself minutes after she scampers out of his office. But this only curbs her plan momentarily (and provides audiences another grim reminder of the power of the Depression-even the very rich aren’t immune ). She spots another candidate almost immediately, a genuinely-rich rich guy (Lionel Barrymore) who helps extricate her from the party without getting questioned by the police.

If Eadie sounds a bit ruthless, it’s because she is. She’s looking for the golden ticket, not love. But The Girl From Missouri is a comedy and definitely not out to condemn it’s platinum protagonist. It admires her. She’s got gumption, resilience and indomitable focus, the kind of all-American girl who’ll not only survive tough times, but trounce them. She’s a Horatio Alger cookie. And lacking bootstraps, she’ll pull herself up by her garters.

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It helps a lot that Harlow is so damn likeable. If she thinks it will get her through the door, she’ll play at being a lady, but once she’s in, she’s herself again—a sexy, red-blooded, all-American gold-digger. Fun and frank, she’s totally free of pretension and snobbery. Americans love the idea that we’re the salt of the earth almost as much as we love money and social advancement. Harlow’s unique persona unites these opposing qualities, projecting a perfect hybrid of greed and unaffected naturalness. Harlow laughs wholeheartedly when she falls down. She’s got little crinkles at the corner of her eyes when she reveals her megawatt smile. Her girlish, slightly nasal voice is equal parts tart and sweet, like lemonade. Man or woman, you want to take her to the ball game and buy her a hot dog. So it’s fun to watch the beautiful, forthright Eadie make her predatory climb to the top.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eadie’s most surprising quality: she’s holding out. Probably as a salve to the growing power of the censors, Eadie’s supposed to be a virgin, saving herself for (a very wealthy) marriage. It’s a weird story conceit: Harlow’s Eadie is so bold and overtly sexy, it’s hard to believe she’s never once “let the cat out of the bag.” But the conceit fits perfectly with the movie’s relentless focus on Eadie’s hunger for capital. The girl’s using market principles— keeping supply low, and building demand. It’s also a uniquely tidy solution to the whole virgin-whore dichotomy: Eadie’s selling, but her price is really high. So, we’re supposed to respect her in the morning.

The Girl From Missouri is a unique artifact, a studio’s attempt to keep giving audience sexy heroines while placating censors’ demands that actual pre-marital sex should never be glamorized. It replaces the girl who openly sleeps her way up the ladder (Baby-Face, Red-Headed Woman) and with the gal who uses the opposite strategy- conspicuously not sleeping her way up the ladder (all the while, advertising her product). Either way, such films admit that sex is often a gal’s best entree into to the American dream, especially when times are tough. By the 1940s, women using sex to gain security would be cast not as a lovable gold diggers, but as a destructive femme fatales, or shunted to the sidelines as hookers with hearts of gold.

So there’s something refreshing—and dare I say it— wholesome, about the The Girl From Missouri. Not wholesome because Harlow plays the maiden, but wholesome because the maiden is so frank about her reasons. And Harlow is so winning in the role that we neither look down on her greed nor pity her limited options—she’s not a villain or a victim. Just a determined babe making the best of rigged game.

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Three Faces of Lizabeth Scott: Queen of the Noirs

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This post is part of the Classic Movie History Blogathon Project. It’s hosted by the splendid Movies Silently (the silent era),   Once Upon a Screen (the golden age) , and Silver Screenings (the modern era). And sponsored by classic movie specialists, Flicker Alley. Click on the host links for links to all the posts! 

A sleek blonde with a strong-jaw and sleepy gaze, Lizabeth Scott was one of the queens of the noir genre. A film-nut friend of mine once said that he couldn’t decide if she was absolutely gorgeous or if she looked like a man in drag. I have a similar response. Lots of movie stars are “factually” pretty; but for me, Lizabeth Scott isn’t. Sometimes she’s gorgeous, but a moment later, she’s something else— Masculine? Homely? But you can’t take your eyes off her— pretty or not, she’s got glamor, fragility, sexuality. Like Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, Lizabeth Scott proves that you don’t need flawlessness to fascinate on film.

Scott was my first noir-heroine. In fact, she might be the whole reason I got hooked on the genre. The summer between 6th and 7th grade, back when PBS used to show old movies, they played “The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers” over and over again. And I watched it. Again and again. I didn’t understand all of what I was watching—I didn’t know why Barbara Stanwyck was so cold or why Kirk Douglas was so weak or what Van Heflin was up to most of the time, but I “got” Lizabeth Scott. Blond, husky-voiced and just out of jail, she’s an outsider, a nobody. Sitting on the porch of a beat-up boarding house with her suitcase, she’s got no money and nowhere to go. When sturdy Van Heflin strolls up, she crosses her legs in tentative invitation. She starts out cool, sultry. She’s been around the block. But by the time Heflin gives her a cigarette, a light, and the time of day, her face is friendly and eager. Like a stray who’s found a friend. She’ll follow him anywhere, if he’ll let her. Scott is by no means the star of the picture, but she packs a whole life story into her performance.

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Scott didn’t always play the bruised girl with a heart-of-gold. She played all kinds of noir women— sadistic, controlling, weird. I’ve watched a few Lizabeth Scott movies recently. Dead Reckoning, Too Late for Tears, The Strange Loves and Dark City. And I’m never disappointed. The noir universe wouldn’t be the same without her. She’s a live wire. June Allison with teeth. Lauren Bacall with a cruel twist. She’s a study in contrasts: a husky-voice with a childish warble, a chiseled face with sad wide-set eyes, elegant features that go off-balance and goofy with the slightest change in expression.

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Along with her weird-beautiful face, Scott was a fascinating actress, always showing you the contradictions in the characters she played. Ruthless and vulnerable. Childlike and cunning. Even when she plays someone basically deranged, she’s sympathetic. Take Too Late for Tears. It’s a b-picture filmed on drab sets with few cinematic flourishes. But thanks to Scott’s performance, it’s an electric movie. You can’t take your eyes off her. One night, hubby and bored housewife Liz are driving home late from a party and a suitcase flies out of a passing car and into their convertible. Liz opens it, sees all those greenbacks and, right there, she’s overcome. The money is HERS. No one’s gonna take it away from her. Her husband, sensibly, thinks the case should be left alone or turned over to the police, but wifey can’t let it go. She can’t. She’ll do anything. In defense of the suitcase, she goes from kittenish to stiff to reasonable. All the stops. When hubby relents, at least momentarily, relief absolutely floods her face. The way Scott plays it, her motivation isn’t mere greed. It’s need.

When people start dying because Liz won’t let the money go, you almost sympathize with her. Because you really get the size of her desire. Her dangerous little housewife is a great villain because she isn’t bad for the sake of it. She’s bad because she’s got that all-American fever—She wants things; she wants to feel like she’s somebody. And suddenly, thanks to the suitcase, that’s all within her reach. The trick with playing a baddie is that too make them interesting you’ve got to show they’ve got something real and human on their minds, that their drives aren’t so different—they’re just cranked up a few notches. Scott nails it.

Lizabeth Scott plays goodness and vulnerability just as viscerally. In Dark City, she plays a sad-eyed saloon singer sprung on troubled gangster Charlton Heston. He likes her, but he’s a bitter guy and won’t let her in too close. In her very first scene, Scott masterfully establishes her character’s loneliness and sensitivity. Heston drops by the saloon where she works and he gives her a stuffed bunny (It’s Easter-time). The rabbit doesn’t mean much to him, he picked it up as an afterthought. But for Scott, it’s major, “No one’s given me anything like this since junior high.” She embraces the rabbit and rubs it softly across her cheek. This woman is dying for tenderness. No-one’s made her feel like a cherished sweetheart in a long, long time. So the gift makes her happy, but at the same time, it just underscores her loneliness. If she had real intimacy with Heston , she’d hug him. But he’s stiff and distracted, not tender at all. So she touches her own face. It’s a short scene, but Scott packs it with gratitude and yearning. So good.

Noir more than any other genre, is about the tension between the American dream and its reality. No one played these tensions better than Scott. She was too smart, too unique, too sensitive to play the good little housewife or even the plain old ruthless bitch. Her women are always conflicted, stuck between bitter reality and driving desire. Scott was a master. Her characters are never just bad, never just nice. She was so much more than just a pretty face. RIP.

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No Way to Treat a Lady: Loretta Young

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This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. Be sure to check out other entries here, and here, and here!

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Despite a fair obsession with old Hollywood, I’ve ignored Loretta Young for most of my movie-watching life. I just didn’t think she mattered. Her movies don’t tend to end up on must-see lists. And more persuasively, (for me) she’s not celebrated as an aggressively tough or aggressively sexy figure, nothing fiery that could have made her a lasting icon. But after happening on some of her startlingly great pre-codes, I got interested. In her 1930s films, Young is phenomenal— tough, sensual, smart. That got me wondering what else I missed. And why nobody talks about Loretta Young anymore.

So I investigated. (Well, I read a bunch of stuff…)

Loretta Young had an extraordinarily long and successful Hollywood career. She began in silents, then carved out a stunning “talkie” career that took her through the wild pre-code 30s, the more elegant 40s, and on into the wholesome 50s where she was a major television figure for 11 more years (The Loretta Young Show). Hard to beat. But despite all her glamour, talent, and longevity, her name and image aren’t in the pantheon. She’s not remembered like Garbo, or Bette Davis. Or even Ava Gardner.

In The Star Machine, Janine Basinger reasons that this is in large part because in the 50s Young’s image became that of the ultimate lady. In her television show, Young presented herself as a grand dame, elegantly sweeping through a door and into America’s living room—the impeccable1950s hostess, smooth, refined and perfectly garbed. Even if her actual weekly roles varied in type and wholesomeness, they were always framed by Loretta playing Loretta, fluid and decorous, introducing her weekly teleplay. Not the kind of image that suits our modern fancy for the overtly sexy, or the fallibly neurotic. Furthermore, Young was openly religious, unafraid to claim her Catholicism as essential to her identity. In other words, she seems like a bore. An entitled square. No one (excepting perhaps Meryl Streep ) makes a career out of being a lady anymore. Hipness and edginess are nearly essential components to modern-day stardom. Or to reclamation and rediscovery. So it’s unlikely Young ‘s image will experience a major revival anytime soon. These days even fictional “ladies” are roundly dismissed or despised (Betty Draper, Sansa Stark)—  they seem cold and shallow or wimpy and victimized. Which is not entirely fair, given that holding it together and acting the lady was not only supremely difficult, but also an urgent survival skill for decades (centuries?) of women who wanted to achieve economic stability and social success.

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And boy, did Loretta Young ever work for it. Devout she may have been, but she wasn’t what you’d call sinless. At 17, and against the wishes of her strongly catholic mother, young Loretta ran off and married a much older co-star (Grant Withers). Not only did she brave the wrath of her family, she also received a fierce scolding from the family priest who told her that not only was she making a terrible choice personally, but that as a film actress, she had a serious responsibility to be a good role model for other young women. That’s some serious guilt. The marriage lasted less than a year. But Loretta wasn’t done sowing her oats just yet. In 1935, snowed in on the set of Call of the Wild, Loretta became pregnant by her very married costar, Clark Gable. Even if she’d wanted to, as a young catholic woman ending the pregancy wasn’t a comfortable option. But neither was having a baby out-of-wedlock, so with her mother’s help, Loretta managed not only to hide the pregnancy from the public and her very controlling employers, but to carry the baby to term. She then eventually staged an adoption of the infant girl, so she could raise the child without scandal. Whew! Talk about strength and determination. And consummate image management. So Loretta achieved her lady status the old-fashioned way. Through seriously hard work.

And she certainly knew something about the tensions between appearing ladylike while navigating the messiness of being fully human.

In honor of Loretta’s underrated acting chops and her undeservedly bland reputation, here’s a little tribute to one of her many excellent and sensitive performances, Cause for Alarm….A tight little noir that’s also a testament to the challenge of looking like a lady while being a person.

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 Cause for Alarm– The Unravelling of the Suburban Housewife

(If you haven’t seen Cause for Alarm, beware. There are plenty of spoilers ahead. Click the title below to view it on Youtube)

In aptly titled Cause for Alarm (1951), Loretta Young plays Ellen Jones, an ideal 1950s housewife. She’s  lovely without being sexy, totally devoted to the needs of others and (almost) perfectly contented doing housework. In fact, she’s so perfectly smooth that, at first, she does seem like a dull character, as if care-taking and housekeeping are the jobs she was born to do. She’s the template for all the perfect wives soon to appear on the small screen–Donna Reed, June Cleaver and the rest. The appealing textures that a 30s and 40s dame might have brought to such a role aren’t here. There’s none of the tough-girl humor of Ann Sheridan or the seething ambition of a Bette Davis. Young is the consummate professional and she plays the role in a a style that’s as perfectly pressed as her flowered house-dress. Great posture, custard-voice, and utterly solicitous.

But there is anxiety. Ellen’s husband (Barry Sullivan) is very sick. He’s got serious heart trouble. So sick that he can’t get out of bed. And while he languishes upstairs, Éllen tidies the living room and worries. While pushing the vacuuming, her thoughts are expressed in voice-over. She’s tired and unhappy, “even housework seems like drudgery” when there’s no one to appreciate it. She scolds herself for being too selfish, for not being cheerful enough, for not thinking enough of his needs. She’s nurse, maid, and mother all wrapped into a tidy flowered package. And she worries it’s not enough.

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But she’s right. It isn’t enough. Nothing will be enough for her invalid husband. He’s sick and getting sicker and, it’s twisting up his already troubled mind. He’s decided to blame Young for his illness, developing a paranoid fantasy that she and his doctor (an old friend of his, an old beau of hers) are having an affair and plotting to kill him. He’s written a letter to the district attorney, detailing the plot he imagines and Young has unwittingly mailed it for him. Once he knows it’s been mailed, he reveals his imaginings to her, then pulls out the gun he’s hidden beneath his pillow and threatens to kill her. She’s appropriately frightened and shocked, begging him to remember that she’d never hurt anyone, especially him. He can’t hear reason. But before he can shoot her, he crumples to the ground, anger and adrenaline bringing on a deadly heart attack.

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This is where the movie, and Young’s performance, really rev up. Her husband is dead on the bedroom floor. There’s a gun in his hand and a letter saying that she was out to get him is on it’s way to the District Attorney. Completely unprepared for this kind of crisis, she does everything wrong. And all the whipped-smooth perfection of her house-wife persona dissolves in the heat of her panic. Frantic and desperate, but also keenly aware of the image she’s supposed to project, the tension between her abject panic and her serene but slipping persona is utterly compelling.

First things first. She’s got to get that letter back. Leaving the dead man on the floor, she rushes out of the house. Looking frantically for the postman, he’s nowhere to be seen. She searches her memory, which way did he say he was going? Making a guess, she takes off in a rapid clip. She’s really breaking the rules now! You’d never see June Cleaver running, sweating, racing down the block. She carelessly bumps into a well-dressed couple, and barely stops to apologize. They glare at her as she dashes away, the wife looks huffy, even shocked. Any other day, Ellen Jones would stop to smooth it over. But there’s no time. She rushes on.

When she finally finds the postman, he’s impossible. He wants to make small talk, complain about his tired feet, the heat. She tries desperately to be solicitous and polite, but her panic keeps breaking through. I’ve got to have that letter back. It wasn’t finished. I mailed it by accident. He rifles through his bag, finds it, but he is reluctant to hand it over. Please, my husband is very upset. He really wants the letter back. The impossible postman says hold on— I though you said you wrote it? I can’t give you someone else’s mail. Ugh. Ellen keeps stumbling. Changing her story. And the stubborn postman keeps holding that letter, just out of reach. She can’t take it anymore. She grabs for it, he jerks it back and it falls to the ground. She’s really overstepped her bounds now, getting shrill and grabbing for the letter. The postman’s had enough. He bends down for the letter, stuffs it back in his bag, and walks on.

She’s failed badly and she knows it. But she can’t afford to give up. Chasing after him, she tries another tack. Apologetic and sympathetic, she touches him, trying to soothe him- I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking about your position….she’s even adds a touch of seduction, lowering her head, eyes big and soft. When she’s got his attention again, she plays the damsel. Soft-voiced and vulnerable, she reminds him that her husband is very sick and will be very upset if she doesn’t bring him that letter.

In this short tense scene, Young subtly and convincingly runs through all the approved 1950s approaches a woman might use to get what she wants— submissive politeness, flattery, helplessness and flirtation. And because she’s under so much pressure, we see the the verboten behaviors too—overt aggression, frustration, desperation, audacity. It’s an masterful, sympathetic performance.

Her new tactics don’t win her the letter, but they do get her a reprieve. The postman isn’t cruel, just a dull-witted rule-bound guy, a system guy. You run into them every day. So finally, he tells her look, why don’t you go down to headquarters and explain the situation to my supervisor. Maybe he can help.

It’s not what she wanted. But it is another chance. So okay. She’ll go down to postal headquarters. She races home to change.

Once home, she runs up the stairs but stops cold before opening the bedroom door—He is still in there. Here, the cinematography and setting work to underline her desperate position. Shot from below, Young is framed in the criss-crossing lines of the staircase railings- the orderly suburban home has become a threatening, unbalanced nightmare. And the sharp lines of the staircase railing remind us of the literal prison she’s desperate angling to avoid. Dead husband or not, she’s got to go into that bedroom.

She sidles in, carefully looking towards her closet and dressing table, and away from the dead man on the floor. The clock is ticking. She has to get to the post-office by 2:30 or the letter will be mailed. So she takes of her house-dress and sandals, hops into a little going-downtown day dress. She smooths her hair, plops on a hat and applies some lipstick to her lovely mouth, all the while giving herself a pep talk in voice over- you’ve got to stay calm, show them everything’s normal, act like any other housewife asking for a letter…. She stands up, smooths her dress, grabs her pocketbook and makes ready. On her way out, still carefully looking anywhere but the floor, she glances in the mirror over the wardrobe and there he is.

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She has to do something to make things look better, at least to her, so she decides to remove the gun –  hard to do from a clenched, dead hand. She has to force his fingers open and in the process the still cocked gun goes off. Bang. Her tidying up instincts aren’t helping her at all. Fortunately, when she peeps out the window, the only person who seems to have heard the gunshot is the cowboy-garbed neighbor boy, she yells down to him that it was just the radio. And being a lonely suburban kid immersed in his own imaginary world of six-shooters and indians, he takes her word for it.

Then, in her rush to see the postal supervisor on time, she pulls out of the driveway so carelessly that she almost runs down the neighbor boy on his trike. It’s a tight little movie. Every obstacle in her journey is the real stuff of suburban life. Nosy neighbors. Lonely children. Unwelcome relatives. Stolid postmen. Uncaring officials.

Cut to an establishing shot of the downtown post-office,an imposing stone building. Before she even enters, we know she’s in trouble. What can a fragile little housewife do in the face of an iceberg of authority like the postal system ( or the even more powerful legal system that’s threatening just over the horizon).

She does her best. Despite her obvious fear, she tries hard to play the concerned housewife. Smooth-voiced, ever-polite. And it starts to look like the official in gray suit he might give her the letter after all. But there’s a form to fill out. Her husband won’t have to come in, but he’ll have to sign it.

Seriously?! Passionately frustrated, Mrs. Jones does the kind of thing she’s probably never done before. She raises her voice. She gets almost shriek-y. She demands the letter. Her loss of control is her undoing. This stolid, gray-suited postal official won’t tolerate a hysterical, demanding woman.(You think of poor Betty Draper finally losing it and shooting the neighbors pigeons.) Emotions aren’t allowed. A woman like this negotiates the world through self-control and polite submission. Losing control is like taking off her girdle in public. So unbecoming. Additionally, the postal inspector has noticed that the letter is addressed to the district attorney. So, no dice, little woman. You just lost the game.

All the air goes out of the room. And out of Ellen. She’s been beaten. Her humanity got the best of her.

The energy of the movie totally depends on Young’s performance. She makes it rise and fall expertly. I didn’t quite believe, or relate to, or like, the confection-sweet housewife of her earlier scenes, but boy do I believe her undone housewife now. You’ve got to see the whole movie to appreciate the earnest sweetness of the early scenes.

The most poignant scene in the movie comes very near the end. As Ellen gets out of her car and walks zombie-like towards her front door, her next-door neighbor suddenly reaches out. She’s been there all day, a plain faced middle-aged woman in gardening gloves, alone in her front yard, trimming this, watering that, all the while eyeballing the curiously frantic exits and entrances of our heroine. Never saying a thing. But suddenly she stops quietly observing and speaks, “Mrs. Jones, I don’t mean to intrude….but I’ve been watching all day and I’ve had the feeling that you…that something was wrong. I know I haven’t been too neighborly…but…is there something I can do?” She means it. Her voice is warm, her eyes are sympathetic, her is posture open and inviting. But the camera tells the story. There’s defeated Ellen, alone by her front door, and in the next shot, there’s the kind neighbor, also alone, standing just behind a little white picket fence. The pretty, apparently civilized customs of middle-class life have kept them apart. And now it’s too late. Ellen’s voice-over is a gut-punchingly sad. As she puts the key in the lock, she thinks to herself wonderingly, “She could have been my friend….she could have helped me…”

Soon after going inside, her husband’s doctor, her old beau, stops by to check on his patient. She tries to send him away in order to protect him. He’s an old friend and he’s implicated too. She figures the police might show up anytime. But he won’t go and she ‘s too worn down to keep up an act. The dam bursts and she tells him everything. He tries to comfort her, but things are looking very bad.

Now, for my money, is one of the best ironic endings of all time. Here’s Ellen, back at home, hopeless and numb. In one day, her whole life’s been demolished. And the doorbell rings.

It’s the postman. He’s bringing the letter back to her after all. Not because he or his supervisor decided to have a heart. Nope. For the completely opposite reason. Insufficient postage. The postman feels awkward about the whole thing, so he rattles on about postal regulations, officiously explaining why sufficient postage is necessary and how he should have noticed how thick the letter was. Then he complains about his own small irony—not enough postage and I have to deliver it twice. Crazy business.

When the postman leaves and she closes the door, she clasps the letter bewildered. The system was going to thoughtlessly destroy her, but in the end, it just as heartlessly reprieves her. Because it doesn’t care about her at all. It only cares about itself, its rules. It’s a mundane kind of horrible. Like a Kafka story. This is the best we can hope for. That the system that grinds us will choke and spit us out.

Young plays this last scene beautifully. The crazy-making tension of the day, the ridiculous but deadly bureaucracy, then a sudden last second reprieve for no human reason. She laughs and cries simultaneously. Then sits herself forlornly in the rocking chair.

Now she’s in the hands of the dull but honorable doctor who’s loved her all along. But there’s no clinch. No Hollywood comfort. They just sit together and watch the letter burn

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The Girl From Manhattan (1948)

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Best known as the love-interest/straight woman in a series of Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, Dorothy Lamour gracefully held her own as the level-headed beauty in the midst of the two corny, hyper-kinetic showman. Lamour also had a lovely, romantic singing voice. And you can’t beat her stage name for old-fashioned romance: Dorothy Lamour! So she definitely deserves her place in cinema history.

But it’s probably not fair to ask her to cast her against crack scene-stealer Charles Laughton. In The Girl From Manhattan (1948). They share only one scene, but it’s a master class in what makes acting soar versus what makes it thud. Laughton’s performance as an ornery but ethical bishop is full of entertaining realism— he imbues every line with contrasting textures: imperiousness and sympathy, regret and mischief, judgment and wonder. Plus, Laughton is a virtuoso of stage-business— he’s always eating, drinking, shuffling papers, looking out the window. He’s involved in his world. Lamour, on the other hand, just stands there looking earnest and delivering every line with a tone of polite concern. A perfect a mid-century lady, and  about as dull as a pair of white gloves. Do something Dorothy!

But while The Girl From Manhattan fails as a showcase for Dorothy Lamour, it does have other stuff to recommend it: great character actors, lovingly crafted interiors, and a friendly, almost subversive little story. The basic set-up is simple. Dorothy Lamour’s lovable Uncle Homer (Ernest Truex) runs a beat-up boarding house full of eccentric, aging charity cases. One enters radio contests, another writes murder dramas, yet another is building a child-size steam engine in the basement, and so on. While each character actor provides their own convincing brand of starry-eyed obsession, former British stage actress Constance Collier is a standout. She brings real gravitas to her role as an aging performer who wanders about the house declaiming Macbeth or composing scenes for the melodrama she’s writing. Neither intrusive nor self-important, she’s just dignified and hopeful, an utterly likable grande-dame.

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While no boarder pays rent, each assures Uncle Homer that their various projects are about to hit the big time. But they aren’t jerks or schemers intentionally out to fleece Uncle Homer. They’re more like a little commune of erratic dreamers, depending on the one guy among them who happens to have real-estate. It’s a pretty ideal retirement community. Instead of staring off into space, waiting for soup and pills, each resident is energetically absorbed in their pet projects. Of course, there’s also some real anxiety behind their frenetic activity. They’re surviving right now, thanks to Uncle Homer, but the future is uncertain. Aging and quirky, they’re probably unemployable. Striking it rich would really mean something to them. Their pipe dreams are their retirement plans.

Into this this curious little community come two paying tenants. Dorothy Lamour, Uncle Homer’s niece, and George Montgomery, novice minister. Lamour is back in Pittsfield to visit Homer and make sure he’s doing alright. Montgomery’s back to find out if he can fill his deceased minister father’s shoes. Both of them left tiny Pittsfield after high-school, planning to make something of themselves. They’ve done alright. Lamour has a fair little modeling career going in New York, while Montgomery made All-American at Yale. But neither have really set the world on fire. And both seem a little lost, a little humbled.

At the boarding house, Lamour and Montgomery recognize each other from their high-school days and a nice little mutual crush begins to brew. Unfortunately, the unfolding romance is kind of prim and dull. The two stand on the boarding house porch and have polite little chats about how they used to see each other at the malt shop (to be fair, they do discover that Lamour once secretly helped him win a fight by smashing a jerky rival in the back while Montgomery hit him from the front. But even in this conversation, there’s no real spark). The couple’s blandness, however, doesn’t ruin the film because The Girl From Manhattan isn’t really about romance. And despite it’s slightly winking title, it really isn’t about Lamour’s big city ways. Lamour and Montgomery, whether they know it or not, have been drawn home because they’re needed—as straight-men. It’s time for them to pick up the mantle of social responsibility. That’s the sometimes boring task of mid-adulthood: You’ve got to be sane, concerned and responsible- especially when those around you are vulnerable and quixotic.

The great crisis in the film hinges on a creepy banker, Mr. Birch (Raymond Largay), who plans to foreclose on Uncle Homer’s boarding house at the end of the month and donate the land for the building of a new church (of course, he’s got a sly plan for making a bunch of money out of this seeming generosity). Homer and his troop are in trouble. If the foreclosure goes through, they’ll be out on the street in a matter of days. Homer braves the coming danger with denial-laced optimism, believing one of his tenants will achieve windfall before the bell tolls. The boarders do try their best. Ever-dignified Collier even tries selling treasured jewelry, but she can’t scrape up more than fifty-dollars—Unfortunately, Homer needs three-thousand, and needs it now.

Niece Lamour scrambles to help. She asks her New York modeling agency for a loan. No dice. Next she begs Montgomery to use his minister’s influence to change the church committee’s building plans, but he doesn’t have enough sway, or nerve, to persuade his parishioners. So she goes to the bishop (Charles Laughton), but he bounces the ball back to Montgomery, saying it’s a parish matter. In the meantime, Montgomery struggles with his conscience: Is he supposed to defy the community’s demand for a newer, more modern church? What will his bishop think? Can he risk going against the grain? Will anyone even listen?

Interestingly, Montgomery’s minister seems to stand less for any specific religion and more for responsibility and kindness. For him, it’s not dogma that matters, what matters is that a gentle, vulnerable (possibly non-churchgoing) community is protected.

Underneath it’s wholesome trappings, The Girl From Manhattan has a subtly rebellious heart. Our bland heroes are two wholesome, well-mannered, clean-living adults. But in standing up to the greed of a banker and the provincial, status-seeking church group in his sway, these two very nice, very conventional people make sure that sure a kooky group of artists, inventors and misfits can keep on living together happily. Rent-free.

(I caught this flick on Amazon Prime…)

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My Reputation: Barbara Stanwyck as Hausfrau

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From Femme Fatale to Hausfrau: Faces of Barbara Stanwyck

Probably the most potent images film fans have of Barbara Stanwyck are cool man-eater roles such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or fiercely competent, sexually confident charmers such as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve. But lately I’ve been exploring some of her less celebrated works and find these equally affecting. While Stanwyck’s ball-of-fire dames are electrifying, the actress also imbued more commonplace women with great nuance and energy, bringing both strength and vulnerability to portrayals of average women in extreme dilemmas (Witness to Murder, Jeopardy, Crime of Passion ) or everyday situations (There’s Always Tomorrow, My Reputation, Clash By Night). Regardless of the role, Stanwyck never stints. She’s thoughtful and subtle every time, making each woman, a complex being deserving of our respect. Even an apparently weak sister like Jessica Drummond in My Reputation is a loving, layered portrayal.

My Reputation’s Jessica Drummond is miles away from the kind of dynamic force I associate with Barbara Stanwyck. She’s meeker, blander and well, just more mundane- a timid, conventional housewife. She’s so meek, in fact, that it took a while for this film fan to accept that, yes, this is really Barbara Stanwyck and, yes, the character she’s playing is really every bit as nice and conventional as she seems. But once I adjusted to Stanwyck’s tepid new temperature, I was nearly as rapt by this portrayal of this buttoned-down suburbanite as I am by her more spectacular characters.

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There Isn’t Anything to Do

When we meet Jessica Drummond, her life is in turmoil. She’s just lost her husband to a wasting illness and now she’s unmoored and grieving. Both Jessica’s conformist normalcy and her extreme distress are neatly encapsulated in the film’s simple opening scene. A sympathetic housekeeper has broken with household routine and let the grieving Jessica sleep late. But when she awakens, Jessica isn’t soothed by the extra sleep, she’s upset. She hops out of bed distressed, a bit frantic that it’s already 10 a.m. But then Jessica slows down, remembering reluctantly that things are different now. She’s no longer on-call. She’s a widow. And since she isn’t “MRS. Paul Drummond” anymore, it really doesn’t matter if she sleeps in this or every morning because, as she says despairingly, “there isn’t anything to do after all.”

Not having “anything to do” becomes a major theme of the film. Illustrated in a series of unsettling scenes, it’s becomes clear that most of Jessica’s community expects her to do just that: nothing. Jessica’s imperious mother, still wearing widow’s weeds after 25 years, demands that Jessica efface her own youth and sexuality by wearing black garb too. At the grocery store, married friends engage her in gossip about the “bad” behavior of other single women, a warning that Jessica will have to comport carefully to remain in their good graces.

Further, Jessica’s two young sons are leaving home, heading off to boarding school in the footsteps of their late father. And though her large house is now nearly empty, Jessica retains a housekeeper (out of loneliness and loyalty), meaning there’s really nothing for her to do their either. Her only regular activity is the uninspiring, socially-approved volunteer work she does at the local hospital. Jessica’s life, once a whirl of parental obligations, wifely duties and social engagements is suddenly very lonely, very dull, and very circumscribed. When she does step out, as to a cocktail party with old friends, a friend’s husband gets her alone and makes an aggressive sexual overture, a further reminder that a single woman’s reputation is precarious and that staying home is her safest bet.

Jessica’s Journey

Jessica’s mother expects she’ll make widowhood her whole life. She’s worn widow’s weeds for 25 years and takes it for granted that Jessica will follow in her footsteps. Jessica refuses, but this isn’t an easy moment for her. Through Stanwyck’s cautious, sensitive performance we see just how painful it is for this woman to say no, to cause displeasure, to make any kind of wave. Softly but insistently, she tells her mother that society no longer requires such uniforms of widows. It turns out that this mild, people-pleasing woman has an unexpected reserve of will.

Though Jessica refuses the widow’s weeds, she does try her best to be a good girl. And it’s rough on her. When her sons go off to boarding school (their father’s alma-mater), there’s really nothing left. One evening, we watch her pace her large empty house until she can’t stand it anymore. In a fit of agitated loneliness, she rushes to the home of her best friend (Eve Arden). Dressed in dark skirt and jacket, reminiscent of the widow’s weeds she’d rejected, Jessica enters her Arden’s house and almost immediately begins to break down. Her confusion and loneliness are palpable when, instead of rushing to her friend’s open arms, she stands in front of a stuffed chair, holding tightly to its back and weeping, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I seem to be going to pieces.” Frantic, she moves farther into the room, standing in front of the fireplace, grabbing the mantle, still crying, “What am I going to do? Everything is closing down on me.” She then rushes from the mantle to the edge of an armchair, ”What’s the matter with me Jen? Why I can’t seem to stop this crying?” In these brief actions, Jessica’s isolation is perfectly drawn. She rushes from object to object, trying to wring from them the support and intimacy her community won’t give.

But fortunately, Arden isn’t typical of the Jessica’s clenched, repressive clan. Instead she’s a real friend, both truthful and affectionate. Embracing Jessica, stroking her, bringing her hot tea, Arden speaks frankly, ” You’re no longer Mrs. Paul Drummond, you’re Jessica Drummond. But your life’s not finished!..It makes me sick the way you’ve let everyone manage you your whole life…You’ve got to start being yourself for a change…. “

But Jessica doesn’t know how to be herself . She doesn’t even know where to begin. So Arden provides a direction. She invites Jessica to accompany herself and husband on a ski trip west. The prescription is exactly right. The trip provides Jessica the symbolic freedom she needs. Away from her pompous mother and “friends”, she starts to forge a fresh start. She relaxes, she plays, she explores.

Marooned on the slopes with a broken ski (she may not be an athlete, but at least she’s adventuring), she meets playful, outdoorsy George Brent and is soon letting her hair down, literally. Back at Ardens’ rustic lodge, having a cozy toddy by the fire, her piquant, unusual beauty is highlighted. Most noticeably, Jessica’s typically tidy, ladylike hair is suddenly loose and long. It doesn’t matter that loosened hair is a cinematic cliche, this shot of a gorgeous, stimulated Stanwyck packs a convincing visceral punch. She looks fresh and sensual. So happy and flush you wonder if this play-time in the woods is the first time she’s experienced something like real youth.

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But though Brent helps awaken Jessica’s dormant desires, their romance doesn’t solve her problems. Neither her crowd, nor her mother approve of him. Further, the relationship makes her two sons resentful and confused. And Brent doesn’t offer any magic solutions. So it’s all on Jessica to sort out. She’ll have to fight for herself and what she wants.

On paper, Jessica Drummond might not look like a captivating figure. If I’d been the casting director, I might have given it to a simp like June Allyson. But then, I’d never have wanted to see the movie. So thank goodness for Stanwyck, who unearths both the sensitivity and the strength in this ordinary woman. Stanwyck won’t let ordinary mean boring. In her hands, “ordinary” runs the gamut: failure, neuroses, sensuality, bravery. And it should. In the real world, “good girls” don’t have it so easy. But too often, sweetie-pie performances drain the life out of screen mothers, housewives, and assorted other “good girls.” We need broads like Stanwyck giving such women vigor and nuance, reminding us that ordinary women can be captivating and heroic. Especially when, like Jessica Drummond, they’re willing to trudge through the painful repercussions of choosing against the grain.

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Ginger & Jimmy: Fresh & Sexy Americana

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Vivacious Lady is Hollywood Americana at its best. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers at the height of their youthful beauty and adorability–Stewart lean and gangly, his face all elongated sensual planes, and Rogers lithe and streetwise, with soft blond hair and giant sentimental eyes. They meet at a nightclub. Jimmy’s kind of a square, not there to enjoy himself, but to recover an errant fellow professor (James Ellison) who drinks and likes showgirls. Ginger’s there cause she is a showgirl. With her own specialty number in which she wears a sweetly slinky gown and manages to look both knowing and milk-fed while singing of scrambled eggs.

Jimmy tumbles immediately and literally. He trips over a waiter while gaping at Ginger in the spotlight. After her number, she comes over and introduces herself . She’s his professor friend’s date. And they sit together at the cramped little nightclub table waiting for his friend/her date to return, Ginger tumbles too (but not so literally).They can’t help themselves. Ginger wants Jimmy because he’s tall and wholesome and woos her with wholehearted sweetness, while Jimmy sets on Ginger because he’s never seen anyone quite so glowing and blond and earthy-streetwise. She turns on all his lights. They fall immediately into up-all-night-never-wanna-be-without-you-again love.

So they get married. Like right away. And most of the rest of the plot consists of Jimmy looking for the moment, and the courage, to tell his stuffy parents that he’s married a showgirl. That doesn’t sound like the premise of a great film, but in the hands of this director (Garson Kanin) and these performers, it is. Because the moments between the characters are so lively and lusty and just plain fun. There’s a scene where Ginger cat-fights a stuffy debutante, a scene where the young couple goes down to the lake for some private make-out time and find all his students had the same idea, and a scene where Jimmy gets rip-roaring drunk and makes a beautifully passionate speech about how making one’s wife happy is even more important than being a tenured professor. Magically, throughout it all, the film maintains a tone that is neither high-falutin’ nor winkingly salacious. Instead, the film implies that this America- with its showgirls, intellectuals and hot jazz music-is a country of perfectly healthy, perfectly sexy high-spirits.

The best feature of this zippy little romance is probably it’s portrayal of the female proletariat. Ginger’s working-classness here is, well, classy. She doesn’t snap her gum or wear outré numbers and she’s not bubble-headed or grasping; instead she’s earthy and smart and hep. And not intimidated by Stewart’s university pedigree. After hearing the rundown from Jimmy- “My father is a university president, my grandfather was a university president, someday I hope to be a University president”- Ginger looks impressed but not in the least cowed. She amiably dismisses the news with a wry, “goodnight.” Blue collar girls here are snappy and pragmatic and know how to keep academic types from getting to big for their scholarly britches (In a brief but irresistible turn as a coat-check girl, Dorothy Moore quickly puts the young professor in his place. Jimmy self-importantly tells her that his father is president and he has to get him on the phone, Dorothy casually rejoins, “Oh….and what’s Roosevelt doing these days?”)

Vivacious Lady is pretty fond of its university types too. They aren’t (excepting Charles Coburn as Jimmy’s father, ) high-hatted, down-your-nose, tenure-obsessed bores; they’re just lovers of the arts and sciences. Jimmy the botany professor may start out a little stiff, but as soon as he encounters Ginger’s blue-collar daffodil, he’s a kick. His fellow instructor, James Ellison, is unpretentious, heavy-drinking and fun-loving too. But perhaps the best university-based character is Jimmy’s apparently fragile mother (Beulah Bondi), wife of the dean. Fluttery and faint-hearted at first, you assume she’s a dreary Victorian throwback. Soon, though, she sneaks a smoke and and compliments Ginger’s sexy stockings. It’s not too long before she’s dancing to jazz music and telling off her husband. The film has only two genuinely snooty characters- Jimmy’s fusty university president father and his arid would-be fiance (Frances Mercer) – and these two will get their comeuppance (In one scene, scrappy Ginger gives haughty old Frances a deserved trouncing that’s alone worth the price of the rental). In fact, the whole movie is a push to topple sterile, hidebound attitudes. It believes in a zing-y, scrappy, sharp, romantic, class-hybridizing America

I don’t know if American culture ever felt this open and new and optimistic, but this 1938 RKO movie sure makes you wish is was.

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Best Moment:

For plot reasons, Ginger is pretending to be a student in Jimmy’s class. He’s totally focused, looking through a microscope with a student, explaining the simple life forms. He doesn’t know Ginger’s there, but she’s sidled up, curious and admiring. She wants to know what he’s up to, but mostly just wants to be close to her handsome young husband. She whispers, “ I love you” in his ear— and his face transforms in boyish delight and sexy-mischief. He’s all hers. The lovebirds’ emotions flood the classroom. It’s that perfect early love state. All they want is closeness. In any room, all they are about is each other and they know it and it just delights them to be anywhere together in their bubble of celebration and desire.

A Caveat:

The movie’s only real weakness, and it’s a big one, is that it leans on stereotyped black servant caricatures for a little extra “comedy.” That it’s a common trope of the era doesn’t make it any less disappointing. A film with such a great attitude towards class-division among whites shouldn’t have such a lousy one towards class-division between blacks and whites.

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Working Class Heroine- Linda Darnell in No Way Out (1951)

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No Way Out (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is an unsubtle parable of age-old class and race tensions. But it’s executed so energetically and directly that it feels fresh and urgent. We sometimes assume that an old movie is no more germane to our modern lives than a manual typewriter. Quaint and intriguing maybe, but not very relevant. But as No Way Out reminds us, technological progress comes at a far faster rate than ideological. The movie’s cars and radios may be out of date, but the social forces that propel the characters are totally our own: disenfranchisement, class resentment, race-baiting, sexual threat, explosive violence. And the performances are first-rate: Sidney Poitier, Linda Darnell and Richard Widmark are gorgeous and totally human, absolutely recognizable as our neighbors and our selves.

Here’s the layout: Sidney Poitier is a young black doctor, anxious to prove his worth in the mostly white, mostly patrician medical establishment. Two white brothers, wounded while committing a robbery, are brought to his care. When one of them dies,  Poitier is faced with trying to absolve himself of a murder accusation lobbed by the resentful survivor (Richard Widmark). While this is a transparent set-up for exploring race tensions, the story that unfolds feels genuine and unpredictable. And the performances are sharp and stirring.

A very young Poitier plays his role with great solemnity and self-control. Given that the film was made in 1951, it’s hard not to imagine some similarity between Poitier’s position as an actor and that of the young doctor he plays. Both have to prove themselves in a hostile climate.  Though the Poitier character is never officially accused of wrongdoing, or even crummy doctoring, he spends the film defending himself against Widmark’s sleazy accusations anyway. He says he wants to prove to himself that he wasn’t careless or vengeful in treating an antagonistic white patient. But beyond this, it’s obvious how precarious his position is– hospital employees are already nervous about a young black doctor, already reluctant to take him seriously as an authority- so unless he can prove himself more honorable, more immaculate than the average intern, he may risk losing all he’s worked for. Further, he can sense creeping doubt in his white mentor (Steven McNally), the older doctor who has believed in him, and helped make a place for him in the hospital. The older doctor is a crucial ally he can’t afford to lose. Most urgently of all, he needs to clear suspicion in order to protect himself and his community from potential white vengeance.

Played with zeal by blonde, creepily boyish Richard Widmark, the dead man’s brother is the film’s antagonist. Intent on blaming Poitier for the death of his brother, Widmark refuses to admit  that illness was responsible. He prohibits an autopsy. But it’s obvious that, though grieving, Widmark’s resentment of Poitier isn’t really about a man’s death. What’s really got him furious is the humiliating dead-end of his own life. First a thwarted robbery and major injuries, next he’s on his way to prison. Finally, upon entering the hospital, he finds a black man in charge of him. For this failed, bitter white guy, Poitier’s higher status is a withering reminder that he’s got no one left to feel superior to. And he can’t accept it. He uses every trick at his disposal to terrorize Poitier, to prove to himself that he’s still some kind of top dog .

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Part of what makes No Way Out so effective is that Widmark isn’t a cartoon villain. He’s got human reasons. We know where his anger comes from. We don’t really sympathize with him, but we do get him. Without overdoing it, the movie lets us know that Widmark’s had a harsh life, that he’s swallowed plenty of degradation and been sneered at by those with creature comforts and influence. Feeling a cut above another disparaged group is his one paltry comfort. A comfort that seems ever more urgent as his failures and losses pile up.

The story is pretty compelling already, but when Linda Darnell enters the picture, it  gains its most nuanced human trajectory. Where Widmark is ruthless and Poitier has to be impeccable, Linda Darnell is torn-up and uncertain.  She enters the film when Poitier and McNally track her down in a shoddy, cramped apartment. She’s the ex-wife of the dead man. The doctors hope she’ll override Widmark and grant them the autopsy. But when they find out she’s divorces, they have to try another tack. They ask her to talk to her ex-brother-in-law, to try to make him see reason. But she doesn’t know or trust these men, so she’s not eager to help.

Darnell’s performance is really good. She’s carries herself with honest fatigue; her usually sultry beauty here just heavy and sullen, as if beauty is one of many old burdens she’d like to shed. You don’t have any trouble believing that she and Widmark grew up in the same grimy place because they’re both equally bitter, equally disgusted with the world. But unlike Widmark, Darnell isn’t totally unreachable.  McNally begins to win her sympathy when he mentions the roughness of the old  neighborhood, Beaver Canal, that  she shared with her ex-husband and Widmark. McNally talks down Beaver Canal and talks Darnell up, reminding her how far she’s come. And you finally hear some hope in her voice. She did get out of Beaver Canal and she’s proud. It was an ugly place and she wanted something better. But despite her shift in mood, she’s not fully on Poitier’s side yet.

Like everybody, Darnell has family ties, community loyalties, old feelings. So she wants to hear Widmark’s side of things. She gets dressed up (that fulsome Darnell beauty suddenly apparent again) and uses McNally’s business card to talk her way into visiting Widmark at the prison hospital. In a short scene with a prison guard, Darnell’s toughness and resourcefulness are established. It takes just a few moments–a bit of flirting, a subtle threat–and then she’s in the infirmary, alone with Widmark.

You can see there’s plenty of tense history between them. It isn’t thoroughly explored, but multiple layers are hinted at- guilt, desire, resentment, fear. She guards herself, reluctant to get to close and tries to ask some questions. She wants to know his side of the story; maybe she also wants to help the doctors.  But Widmark’s agenda is set, he isn’t going to let her in: he just wants to hurt Poitier. As they talk,  he observes her guarded but obvious respect for the two doctors, and works swiftly to change her tune. He wastes no time reminding her who she is, reminding her that wealthy doctors can’t be trusted, reminding her of a lifetime of being nobody. And just like that, she’s angry. It’s not hard to stir up old class antagonism.

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Darnell’s resentment feels so natural and earned, we get why she listens to Widmark. And we see again, this time filtered through a character far more sympathetic than Widmark’s, how fierce resentment can be for someone who grows up belittled, poor and shoved aside. She’s afraid of being used by the same people who’ve made her feel small all her life. So she’s not gonna give them the chance. It’s that ancient, ugly, human instinct: better to hurt than be hurt.

Soon she’s back in Beaver Canal, delivering Widmark’s lies and distortions, stirring up self-satisfied community rage against a black man. But thanks to the boys of the old neighborhood, her allegiance to Widmark doesn’t last long. These guys are a grim lot, sadistic and spiteful. Even more blatantly that Widmark, they treat Darnell as a pawn in some ugly game. Though she came solely to deliver a message, they insist she participate in the racial terrorism they’re planning. Further they’ve got unwelcome sexual demands. It doesn’t take her long to decide she wants no part of them.

But Darnell is really trapped. Though she tells them she needs to get to work, that she has a restaurant shift,  they tell her that’s too bad ’cause she’s staying. Using both threats and force, the boys make her another target of their torture. They’re revved up and she’s a plaything.

But Darnell is a smart cookie. She isn’t about to give up. It takes time, luck  and real resourcefulness, but she maneuvers out of their clutches. There’s wonderfully tense scene where she uses the heightened volume of a radio as a strategic cry for help. It’s exciting to watch such determined  resourcefulness, to see this thoughtful  heroine transforming everyday objects into tools for survival.   She eventually uses similar strategies  to help Poitier too. Because after her visit to Beaver Canal, she begins to figure out that she and Poitier are in the same boat. Because they want the same thing- a way out of this quagmire of poverty, hatred, and domination.

Darnell’s journey is one of the film’s great strengths. She’s a complicated female character. Tough, clever,  jaded, defensive. Beautiful too, but  she isn’t saddled with the standard motivations that movies usually give stunning women: she’s not seeking romance or a pot of gold. Instead she wrestles with group loyalty, self-preservation and urgent, intimate questions of right and wrong. Thoughtful and brave, she not only ends up not only fighting for herself, but eventually teaming up.

I won’t tell the rest of the story here, but it’s never less than gripping. The characters and performances are passionate, crafty, and brave. The various settings—bleak hospital ward, sinister junkyard, squalid apartment–  are authentic and meaningful. But perhaps most impressive is the film’s feminist, populist heart. Not only does the film offer a realistic portrayal of the financial desperation and class resentment that often underlie racial antagonism, but the movie makes a tough, bright working-class woman its struggling hero.  No Way Out isn’t a perfect film. It’s occasionally pedantic and preachy. But it mostly isn’t. Mostly, it just shows you what people are up against.

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