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Craving Classic Hollywood: Billy Wilder

the-apartment-baxter

Very few directors have as many iconic films to their name as Billy Wilder. When the American Film Institute named its 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998, four of Wilder’s films made the cut, three in the top 50. Over the past few years I’ve seen those four movies, plus a fifth. In fact, Double Indemnity (1944) was the subject of my very first Craving Classic Hollywood post and continues to be my idea of film noir perfection. Most recently I watched The Apartment (1960).

I always had the impression that The Apartment was a rather zany comedy, perhaps associating it with Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). And yes, the premise has zany written all over it. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, is a low-level businessman who hopes to advance his career by letting executives use his apartment for trysts. Scheduling conflicts and awkward encounters with the neighbors naturally ensue. Baxter also hopes to woo spunky elevator operator Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. While both are fantastic comedians, there’s a deep sadness to each of their characters. Baxter is profoundly isolated, waiting in the cold for married men and their mistresses to vacate his apartment, and Fran happens to be in love with one of those married men.

the-apartment-cards

The dark side of The Apartment is actually mentioned in the first season of Mad Men. Joan is upset with Roger after seeing it because of the way Shirley MacLaine is “passed around” by the men. Watching the movie myself, I could easily imagine how it would feel a little too realistic for Joan’s character. Not only is Fran deceived by both of the men in her life, but the affair distresses her to the point that she tries to commit suicide. Looking back at the Wilder movies that I’ve seen, there are two other occasions when women attempt suicide over men. That’s what we in the world of feminist critique would call problematic.

Wilder often wrote about women wreaking havoc on the lives of men, such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is former silent-film star who is clearly mentally ill, so her attempted suicide is at least quite plausible. Fran Kubelik, on the other hand, seems self-possessed, if a bit glum. The most perplexing example is found in Sabrina (1954), which involves a suicide note played for laughs. None of the women succeed, and with the exception of Sabrina, the attempts are treated seriously. However, the fact that none of them succeed also frames it as an attention-seeking act. Not a particularly enlightened view of women, Billy.

the-apartment-phone

Underneath the veneer of comedy or glamour, there’s a cynicism to much of Wilder’s work. He takes on the Hollywood star machine in Sunset Boulevard and acknowledges the ugliness behind the womanizing businessman in The Apartment. Actors deliver great performances in his movies, and some credit must be given to his writing and direction. Setting aside the aforementioned problematic elements, Shirley MacLaine brings depth to a character who could have become a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In one monologue she describes kidding herself about dating a married man until “it all begins to look so ugly.” Lemmon’s performance has the physical comedy and nervous energy you would expect, but he also taps into Baxter’s loneliness in subtle and heartbreaking ways.

Although I’ve now seen the Billy Wilder Greatest Hits, there are many lesser classics if I really wanted to delve into his career. The Apartment fit perfectly into my 1960s reading and viewing theme of late. Despite his shortcomings, I would have to say that Wilder is among my favorite Classic Hollywood directors, perhaps second only to Hitchcock. It might be because he writes as well as directs, or because women wreaking havoc is not my least favorite thing to watch.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: All About Eve

Bette Davis, where have you been all my life? What kind of a fool was I that I had never watched one of your films until this weekend? Forgive me, Anne Helen Petersen, for I have sinned. It’s been two days since I watched All About Eve.

All About Eve 2

Rather than a Cinderella story, I would call this a Snow White story. All About Eve (1950) follows the rise of aspiring actress Eve Harrington. We know that she will rise because the first scene shows her winning an award for distinguished achievement in the theater, but we don’t yet know how she will accomplish it. Then the film flashes back to the beginning of her acquaintance with Margo Channing, a stage star played by the indomitable Bette Davis. Outside the theater of Margo’s current play, Eve approaches the playwright’s wife and confesses that she’s attended every performance. If that doesn’t scream “Beware of this crazy,” I don’t know what does, but Karen decides to introduce her to Margo instead. Anne Baxter plays Eve with enough quiet intensity to quietly creep me out.

All About Eve 1

And where to begin with Bette Davis? You would never call her pretty, both because she isn’t and because it’s too common of a word for her. All of her features are striking with a voice to match. Next to Bette Davis, Anne Baxter’s beauty looks absolutely commonplace. Eve is introduced to Margo mid-banter with her friends, and the classic one-liners and monologues continue throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, Margo is often shown in physically vulnerable states, such as removing her wig and makeup backstage or being woken up by the telephone. However, her confidence outweighs her vulnerability in those moments. As the film progresses, we see more of her glamorous side, but she also reveals her insecurities and volatile temper.

All About Eve 3

Now we arrive at Snow White. The conflict between Margo and Eve is that of a mature woman feeling threatened by a younger woman who shares her ambitions. Margo even refers to Eve as “so young and so fair” while accusing her boyfriend of admiring Eve too much. Or perhaps, who’s the fairest of them all? This conflict plays out again and again in our books and film. For example, an increasingly important plot point on Game of Thrones is Cersei’s fear of the prophecy that she will be replaced by another queen, “younger and more beautiful.” But does anyone really need a prophecy to tell them this? Every human is destined to grow older and watch the younger generations that come after them. Yet in the stories we tell ourselves, aging comes more quickly and mercilessly for women, whether you’re the Evil Queen or Margo Channing.

Apparently 1950 was the year that Hollywood wanted to come to terms with the fact that its stars would eventually fade. Sunset Boulevard, released in the same year, depicts a silent film star going bonkers in obscurity. Thankfully Margo Channing is spared that fate. All About Eve is brilliant in its script and performances, but also in its acknowledgement of what I stated above: the conflict between Margo and Eve will be repeated with Eve and the next generation of ambitious young ladies.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Ingrid Bergman

Until recently my only reference point for Ingrid Bergman was Casablanca (1942), and I suspect that many others share this limited exposure. Yes, playing Ilsa to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is an iconic role, and one that fits her steely Nordic demeanor. However, she was also the star of three Hitchcock films. In Spellbound (1945), she plays a psychiatrist trying to cure Gregory Peck’s amnesia and consequently solve a murder. In Notorious (1946), she’s hanging out with Nazis-in-hiding as a spy for the U.S. government.

Ingrid Bergman

In hindsight, it seems obvious that Ingrid Bergman would be an ideal Hitchcock heroine. She’s a visually striking woman with a sophisticated European air. Her persona is less delicate than Grace Kelly or Kim Novak, making her feel like a dame with some agency. That is, until it occurred to me that in all three of these movies, Ingrid Bergman is taking one for the team. By this I mean, she’s putting herself through emotional turmoil for the greater good or for the man she loves.

Okay, you probably know how Casablanca ends. Ilsa gets on the plane with her Super Noble Resistance Fighter Husband, even though Rick is actually her One True Love. Casablanca isn’t a Hitchcock film, but it sets the tone for Bergman as the sacrificial lamb. (Not to mention, her other roles include Joan of Arc and a nun.) Her characters tend to be introduced as ice queens, whether in the form of party girl Alicia in Notorious or unromantic doctor Constance in Spellbound. Well, prepare to have your cold heart thawed by love, missy.

Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Her Notorious character is particularly complicated for me. Alicia’s father is a convicted Nazi collaborator, and although the government knows that she refused to be involved in his treason, they pressure her into exploiting her family connections to work as a spy. Cary Grant basically calls her hussy but doesn’t stop her from using her wiles to woo a Nazi pal of her dad’s, now hiding out in South America. In other words, “Alicia, I want you to feel bad about your past behavior, but also please keep acting that way for the greater good. And I will probably still make you feel guilty about it.” This woman cannot catch a break.

At the beginning of Spellbound, a fellow doctor is teasing/trying to flirt with Constance about her disinterest in romance. In truth, she responses with self-effacing good humor. Maybe she’s just not that into you, Dr. Secondary Character. I’m not giving much away when I say that she falls in love with (amnesiac!) Gregory Peck, but that leads to risking her career in order to prove him innocent of murder. In the process she gets a lot of men implying that love has addled her judgement. Here again, her behavior is criticized when she prefers science to men, but criticized again when she values love over rationality.

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

This tension is common in Hitchcock’s female characters, and obviously I’m a bit obsessed with his portrayal of women. Making these connections gave me a newfound respect for Ingrid Bergman because she can play both strength and vulnerability. She may be expected to pay for the sins of others, but she takes an active role in the plot while doing so. I’m indebted, as always, to Anne Helen Petersen, whose very first Scandals of Classic Hollywood post was about Ingrid Bergman’s star image. Although my focus ended up being quite different from her post, I may never have watched these films without it.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Psycho

With its reputation as a classic horror film, I wouldn’t have thought Psycho was the movie for me. But as I continue my Classic Hollywood self-education, it seemed impossible to ignore one of Hitchcock’s quintessential works. And not unlike Norman Bates, I find myself obsessed.

Psycho Poster

My first reaction to Psycho (1960) was that it complicated my understanding of Hitchcock as a filmmaker, and by the end I was thinking that maybe it fit into that framework after all. As much as I love Cary Grant and James Stewart, it was refreshing to see a Hitchcock film without his usual stars. Marion Crane felt like a different kind of Hitchcock female, as the first act of the film is driven by her actions without the typical male voyeur. That is, until the second act and enter Norman Bates. The first scene finds Marion in a hotel room (!!) with her lover (!!!) wearing only a slip and white bra (!!!!!). I can only assume that showing a leading lady in a bra was scandalous in 1960, even though the huge pointy contraptions of the time seem modest by today’s standards.

Okay, so Marion’s lover isn’t married, but they can’t be together because he’s in debt and has alimony payments. Ah, romance! Then $40,000 cash crosses Marion’s path at work, and she seizes the opportunity. A Hitchcock trademark is imbuing a seemingly innocuous object with menace. One example is the key to the wine cellar in Notorious (1946), and the envelope of cash serves the same purpose in Psycho. Marion drives off to meet her boyfriend, only to find herself caught in a rainstorm and checking into the Bates Motel. But not before she’s shown in a black bra because now she’s bad, see?

Psycho Janet Leigh

Psycho is a study on how to achieve scares and suspense without resorting to gore. The famous shower scene is shot in such a way that the violence is frightening without showing much blood. It also made me realize that the power of blood is connected to its color because the image of a blood splatter is less disturbing when it’s gray rather than red. Apparently Hitchcock chose to shot Psycho in black and white partially to limit the gore. The viewer doesn’t lose the sense of horror, but the focus remains on suspense rather than disgust.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is a revelation to me. He has some of the hallmarks of an obsessive Hitchcock male, such as when he spies on Marion through a hole in the parlor wall, but he’s not trying to be Jimmy Stewart. The way his performance oscillates between earnest and awkward gives him a creep factor all his own. The film’s second act is the intersection of Marion and Norman, and their conversation in his parlor is a treasure trove of iconic lines. In the third act the focus shifts entirely to Norman and the people trying to figure out what’s happening at the motel. The story structure is brilliant in its simplicity.

Psycho Norman and Marion

In this interview Gillian Flynn mentions watching Psycho a lot when she was growing up. I mean, of course she did. At first I thought I recognized her penchant for flawed female characters in Marion’s agency and the cruelty of Mrs. Bates. Upon further reflection, I had to acknowledge that Hitchcock females are always deeply flawed, although Marion is stronger than average. Norman Bates is certainly unhinged by the women in his life, and what’s more Hitchcockian than that? Still, there’s something about Psycho that sets it apart, a sense of innocence corrupted that’s missing from his other stories of obsession.

You can watch it for the mesmerizing performances. You can watch it for the score that just won’t quit. Watch it to see Janet Leigh in a bra, for all I care. Often imitated but never matched, you just really need to watch Psycho.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Vertigo

During my CAMS class in college, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo twice. In fact, I watched it twice in one day as part of an assignment. My Classic Hollywood self-education has included watching other Hitchcock films for the first time, but Vertigo demanded a repeat viewing. This is my first experience with watching a movie and then being able to read a paper that I wrote about it three years ago. I expected a lot of overlap in my observations, but my focus was actually quite different each time.

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You don’t need me to tell you that Vertigo (1958) is a good movie. Next I’ll be asking if you’ve heard of a little film called Casablanca. There are visual references to Vertigo all over our culture, from the opening credits of Mad Men to Edward and Bella’s creepy forest confrontation in Twilight. (I probably never would have made that second connection without Professor Carol Donelan.) It’s the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, played to obsessive perfection by James Stewart, who is asked to investigate the mysterious behavior of an old friend’s wife. Enter the platinum-blonde mystique of Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster, entrancing Scottie with her frailty and desperation.

My response paper focused on perception as a major theme of the film. Our assignment was to link concrete details to the film’s meaning, which might explain why I wrote about point-of-view shots and two-shots instead of characters and relationships. Still, I was barely thinking about those details during my recent viewing. It was nice (if strange) to learn something from my past self. I even talked about the closeup of a woman’s eye in the opening credits, writing: “Film is an inherently visual medium, but these opening images encourage us to consider the visual experience of the characters, as well as our own.”

Vertigo Midge

These days I was obsessed with the women in Scottie’s life: hallucination-prone Madeleine and just-a-friend Midge. More specifically, I was obsessed with how differently they were portrayed and Scottie’s attitudes toward each of them. Midge is a thoroughly modern gal who doesn’t need Scottie to remind her to get her hat. (“I don’t need a hat!”) The woman designs undergarments, for goodness sake, which she can joke about with her male friend without blushing. In their first scene together, Scottie actually collapses into her arms while trying to master his fear of heights. Can you say gender role reversal?

Ah, but Scottie doesn’t want to be the one who swoons. He wants to be swooned upon, if you will, and Madeleine is certainly willing to oblige. This woman, polar opposite of Midge, doesn’t speak until 45 minutes into the movie. Scottie watches Madeleine, and the camera follows his gaze. Kim Novak is filmed as an object of beauty, something to be admired against the lush backdrop of a restaurant’s brocade wallpaper or a flower market. In this first nonspeaking section of the film, Madeleine’s closeups are usually in profile. Her beauty is admired in fragments, more sculptural than human.

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The fact that Scottie falls in love with an image or an idea, rather than a real woman, is a central conflict of the film. At one point, Midge paints her own version of the portrait that Madeleine (and by extension, Scottie) repeatedly visits at an art gallery, with her own face replacing the woman in the portrait. She presents it to Scottie as a joke, but he isn’t laughing. He doesn’t want Midge inserting herself into the let’s-be-crazy-together thing he has going with Madeleine. He is simply not interesting in objectifying her, and in this case that’s not a compliment.

This isn’t the first Hitchcock film where Jimmy Stewart poorly treats a woman who loves him in order to obsess over something else. In Rear Window (1954) he would rather spy on his neighbors than make out with Grace Kelly, from which we can safely deduce that this guy has problems. Both films position Stewart as the male voyeur, the photographer or the private detective. My current focus as a viewer, particularly with Vertigo, was definitely influenced by Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an essay we read for class. Mulvey discusses how the camera often mimics the male gaze, where women are the pleasurable object of his gaze, and misogyny ensues. However you feel about her theory, it’s fascinating to consider in the context of Hitchcock’s films.

Vertigo

Hitchcock’s world is not an ideal place to be female—or for that matter, to be Jimmy Stewart. But damn if it isn’t fun to analyze. If you stuck with me through this lengthy post, I thank you.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Audrey Hepburn

When I was a kid, I didn’t get Audrey Hepburn. My mom would rent me movies at the dearly departed Take Two Video, and when I wasn’t renting Grease for the millionth time, I found my way to My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I love musicals as a general rule, but My Fair Lady just irks me. Henry Higgins is the absolute worst, and Eliza Doolittle’s exaggerated Cockney accent is painful. As for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was probably too young to enjoy it.

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday (1953)

Then at some point in high school, I saw Roman Holiday on Turner Classic Movies and realized that Audrey Hepburn wasn’t always irksome. In fact, I liked her as Princess Ann because the character fit her regal demeanor so perfectly. And it doesn’t hurt to have Gregory Peck and his beautiful baritone sharing the screen.

Now, after watching several more of her films, I finally get it. She’s not just cute—she’s effervescent. Behind the posh voice and impeccable wardrobe is an actress who wasn’t afraid to use her image for laughs. Case in point, in Roman Holiday she sneaks out of the palace after being given a sedative to stop her “being a princess is no fun” outburst. When Gregory Peck finds her, she’s practically incoherent on a bench. He rather hilariously assumes that she’s drunk. So here’s the charming Miss Hepburn, presumed drunk and making absurd pronouncements to a stranger. Perfection personified! Equally hilarious is her baffled way of eating a sandwich while Walter Matthau explains her husband’s secret identity in Charade.

Funny Face

Funny Face (1957)

After watching even a few of Audrey Hepburn’s films, it’s impossible to ignore that she was usually cast opposite significantly older men. The most glaring example is Funny Face, a musical confection in which she stars with an almost-sixty Fred Astaire. The visual disparity is intensified by the fact that Hepburn looks twenty-three even in her thirties. I’ve tried to find an article about this pattern but to no avail. I suppose she was well-suited to play the ingénue characters, who usually have an older man to “guide” them. (Yes, that sentence made me throw up a little bit too.) In Roman Holiday, Peck’s character is very paternal toward her, holding her wrist instead of her hand and bossing her around. As much as I like the movie, it creeps me out when they finally kiss.

I said that Audrey is more than her impeccable wardrobe, but we need to talk about those clothes for a minute. When she wears her beatnik outfit in Funny Face, I want to wear black cigarette pants and a turtleneck all day, every day. In Charade she wears a series of monochromatic outfits in black, white, beige, or red. You just don’t see those matching sets anymore, with a dress, coat, and hat all made to be worn together. I love mixing colors in outfits, but Audrey is causing me to rethink my position. Girl looks gorgeous!

Charade

Charade (1963)

I like watching multiple movies with the same actor, especially spanning different points in their careers. As my Classic Hollywood education continues, I should have more opportunities to write actor-focused posts. That is, if Anne Helen Petersen hasn’t already done it.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Double Indemnity

Right around New Year’s, I decided to reconnect with my interest in film. With an ambiguous future writing project in mind, I set out to explore the world of Classic Hollywood. A Netflix DVD subscription was renewed (two at a time because I’m not messing around), and I was on my way.

But ambiguous future project aside, I would be remiss if I didn’t chronicle my adventures on the blog. I owe a huge debt to Anne Helen Petersen and her Scandals of Classic Hollywood posts on The Hairpin, as well as Carol Donelan’s Intro to Cinema and Media Studies class. They gave me a framework for understanding these movies and enjoying them on a whole new level. Most of the films I’m watching were recommended by one of these two sources.

Double Indemnity 2

I knew that I had to watch Double Indemnity (1944) after reading Anne Helen Petersen’s post about Barbara Stanwyck. Until now most of my Barbara Stanwyck exposure came from her playing the mom on The Big Valley (think Bonanza but with a matriarch), but as usual Petersen’s enthusiasm peaked my interest. Stanwyck as the femme fatale of a film noir sounded too good to miss. Double Indemnity is about insurance fraud . . . and murder! Stanwyck plays dissatisfied wife Phyllis Dietrichson, and Fred MacMurray is Walter Neff, the charming insurance man caught in her web.

The film was directed by Billy Wilder, also the man behind Sunset Boulevard (1950). I couldn’t help comparing the two films as I watched Double Indemnity. Both are narrated by the male lead from after the action is over, and you know from the start that things don’t turn out well for them. (William Holden is floating face-down in a swimming pool, and Fred MacMurray doesn’t look much better.) I assume this structure began as a way to satisfy the Hays Code, which required immoral characters to receive a comeuppance at some point in the film. If it’s clear from the beginning that the protagonist will come to a sticky end, it seemingly frees him up for all manner of questionable behavior.

Double Indemnity 1

And then of course there’s the femme fatale, getting the male lead into all kinds of trouble. Barbara Stanwyck fits wonderfully into this role with her throaty voice making her sound like Classic Hollywood’s answer to Scarlett Johansson. Stanwyck’s blonde wig is the butt of many jokes, but as a modern viewer I just saw it as some kooky 1940s hair. When she first appears at the top of the stairs in a towel, you can see why Fred MacMurray gets sucked in. But speaking of MacMurray, I was surprised by how aggressively flirtatious his character is with Phyllis. Aren’t femme fatales supposed to lore in their men?

But that’s the genius! Just like Walter, you don’t realize how conniving Phyllis is until it’s too late. (Maybe this is a typical femme fatale maneuver, but I’m novice enough to consider it a revelation.) As Phyllis and Walter put their plan in motion, her face is all thinly veiled triumph and red lips. The plot gets even crazier from there, but I won’t completely spoil it. It makes me wish more than ever that I had taken that film noir class during my last term at Carleton.

I’m discovering that to-watch lists are a lot like to-read lists. Once I get started, the list just keeps getting longer. For instance, Double Indemnity made me want to watch more Billy Wilder films and more Barbara Stanwyck. I guess that means more Craving Classic Hollywood posts in the future.

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