“Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.”
From 1931: «An American Tragedy» with Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. The first cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, it was eventually remade as a more famous film in 1951 starring Montgomery Clift, Shirley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor: A Place in the Sun.
But this version has much to recommend it. Except the sound. The sound is like what Singin’ in the Rain was parodying. Sound in motion pictures wasn’t yet refined, so everything in the pic, especially background noise, is loud and excruciating. In the courtroom scene when the D.A. pounds his fist on the bannister in front of the accused, the resounding thuds shook the walls. Meanwhile, whole sections of dialogue were hard to pick up. Just a quibble.
“A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.”
“An American Tragedy was remade in 1951 with Montgomery Clift in the role played here by Holmes but, while this version isn’t without its faults (which are due more to its age rather than any inherent flaws). it’s far superior to the Clift version, even though Griffith (or Eastman, as he was called in the later version), is a much more sympathetic character in the second movie. Holmes’s version is selfish and manipulative, and yet we never entirely lose some level of sympathy for him. Deep down he’s not a bad person, but he falls victim—like Roberta—to his own cowardice and weakness of character. These character flaws are gradually and painfully exposed during the trial, a lengthy sequence which was once one of the film’s strengths but which appears a little far-fetched and overacted today. The grandstanding acting style of Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless) and Irving Pichel is a real drawback which isn’t helped by the way Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay call upon them to almost engage in fisticuffs. Overall though, An American Tragedy stands up well for its age.”
Dreiser’s work, and therefore the two films, was based on the real life murder of «Grace Brown by Chester Gillette» in an upper New York lake on 11-Jul-1906. Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.
Both movie versions were faithful to the book and real life, as far as these things go. The real life event could stand the Erik Larson deep dive nonfiction treatment, to see how and where Dreiser departed from events. For the 1931 film, Holmes manages to make you want to both hug him and strangle him. Sadly, Holmes’ extensive career, including an appearance in the Our Gange feature General Spanky, came to an end thanks to World War II. He had just completed flight training in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was being transferred from Winnipeg to Ottawa, when the transport he was riding in collided in mid air with another aircraft over Ontario. He was only 35.
Well, there’s not any from the movie, really. These are from the book:
“Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.” “
An American Tragedy (book)
“And they were always testifying as to how God or Christ or Divine Grace had rescued them from this or that predicament—never how they had rescued any one else.”
“For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else—some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays—and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet which He does not control, because He does not want to control it.”
An American Tragedy. 1931. TCM. English. Josef von Sternberg, Hans Dreier (d). Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Irving Pichel, Frederick Burton, Clair McDowell, Charles Middleton, Arnold Korff. (p). John Leipold, Ralph Rainger (m). Lee Garmes (c).
“Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death.”
From 1949: «Thieves’ Highway». We weren’t really planning to watch, but were drawn in immediately. I think we had seen it before, but it’s been a long while. Glad we watched. Ironically, Valentina Cortese just passed away on 10-Jul of this year. Watching her performance here was fitting, and showed just how big of a loss was her passing.
Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death. Besides the fabulous Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte, it features Lee J. Cobb in a dress rehearsal for his role in On the Waterfront, Jack Oakie and Millard Mitchell, who would be seen six years later in the classic Singin’ in the Rain, as the movie producer R.F. Simpson.
“Nick Garcos comes back from his tour of duty in World War II planning to settle down with his girlfriend, Polly Faber. He learns, however, that his father was recently beaten and burglarized by mob-connected trucker Mike Figlia, and Nick resolves to get even. He partners with prostitute Rica, and together they go after Mike, all the while getting pulled further into the local crime underworld.”
“Like the movie’s rattletrap trucks lurching down the highway as they carry way-too-heavy loads, the characters in Jules Dassin’s brilliantly volatile Thieves’ Highway struggle under psychological and moral baggage until they can lay their burdens down. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this swift, fluid melodrama in 1949, after Brute Force and The Naked City. … it has a rich sensuality all its own.
… “All the symbols in this movie are rock-hard and understated. The white military star on Nick’s truck makes a mute, omnipresent comment on postwar disillusion. And each time you hear “Golden Delicious,” the image it conjures of Olympian delight contrasts sardonically with the perils of the road and the savage competition of the San Francisco marketplace.”
Michael Sragow, The Criterion Collection
(I love how Sragow introduces Nico: “Garcos … has sailed around the world without ever getting worldly.” HA!)
He then notes the inner workings of the film and places it in context:
“Dassin … is just as deft as Kazan in Boomerang! (1947) or Panic in the Streets (1950) at using real locations for knifelike verisimilitude, then catching their most far-out and surprising emotional repercussions.” … “Dassin begins scenes with compositions that border on cliché–whether of a cheerful Fresno suburb or the bustling streets and crowded pier-side haunts of San Francisco’s marketplace. But each time, he punctures the cliché with cascades of complex details emerging spontaneously from the conflicted drives of the characters and the life-or-death stakes of their situations.”
Sragow, writing 1-Feb-05, then notes something that is culturally a hot button right now: toxic masculinity:
“Under Dassin’s direction, Conte here minted a fresh leading-man archetype-a rough-edged, virile naïf, containing equal amounts of violent distrust and gallantry. And Mitchell brings deep-grained orneriness to Ed, a summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks, willing to rook others to satisfy his sense of justice. What gives this movie its charge isn’t just the physical danger of the road and the injustice perpetrated when fixers like Figlia use dirty tricks on truckers and buyers—it’s the psychological drama of men tossed off balance by want and need as they strive to achieve equilibrium.” … “Ed pulls Nick out from under his truck after Nick botches a tire change and gets his face buried in sand. When the older man bandages his neck, and these two finally forge a bond, Nick mutters that passersby might get the wrong idea.”
Pretty advanced for 1949, but like the ending, it gets set right: Nothin’ but manly man hetero stuff … 1949’s equivalent of “No Homo.”
And just so we’re clear that Conte/Mitchell and Oakie/Pevney are just no homo bros, in comes Rico to keep the men manly. Curiously, she’s rather butch, both in her toughness and her physical, trenchcoat-wearing appearance. In fact she’s sporting a short Italian haircut (which would be the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years), which accentuates her Italian “earthiness,” (also the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years). AND her character was originally named “Tex.” (See the paragraph about Hope Emerson below for more on this stuff.) Sragow sums it up:
“Played by Valentina Cortese with dazzling emotional clarity and erotic warmth, she’s at once this film’s beating heart and the center of its existential concerns–she dares Nick to trust his instincts and trust her, despite her shady deal-making and background.”
The review is also interesting because it delves into the writing:
“Bezzerides’ writing at its peak boasts a dynamic blend of iconoclasm and bitterness–an ideal combination for the intersection of kinetics and moodiness that is film noir. … “Bezzerides objected to several alterations to his book and deplored the casting of Dassin’s then-girlfriend Cortese in a role originally called “Tex.” But in movie terms, he was incorrect on every count–to use his phrase, the only truly “chickenshit change” was a studio-inserted scene in which cops berate Nick for taking the law into his own hands. Cortese’s sometimes comical, sometimes poignant, always live-wire oomph makes this proletariat adventure unique and gives it the ravaged soul and earthy glamour of a demimonde romance. No gal in movies has ever looked sexier or more good-humored drying her hair after a shower. When Nick says Rica has “soft hands,” she says she has “sharp claws.” She uses them only to play tic-tac-toe on his chest–a fitting game for a film in which one false move can turn ethical and commercial triumph into disaster.”
In a shorter review, «John Chard» agrees with Sragow, and adds that the chicken shit ending, tacked on to appease the Production Code’s moralists, is ridiculous:
“Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream. … Dassin and Bezzerides push a revenge theme to the forefront whilst deftly inserting from the sides the devils of greed and corruption of the California produce business. “The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the makers, both exciting and exuding the menace of the hard slog for truckers. … [once in San Francisco] underhand tactics come seeping out and the appearance of prostitute Rica (Cortese) into Nico’s life adds a morally grey area that pings with sharp dialogue exchanges. Real location photography adds to the authentic feel of the story, and cast performances are quite simply excellent across the board. “The code appeasing ending hurts the film a touch, inserted against Dassin’s wishes, and there’s a feeling that it should have been more damning with the economic tropes; while the fact that Nico’s father is more concerned about being robbed of money than losing the use of his legs – is a bit strange to say the least. However, from a graveyard of tumbling apples to the fact that more than money is stolen here, Thieves’ Highway is sharp, smart and engrossing stuff.”
John Chard, TMDb
Sharp, smart, engrossing … and for us LGBTQ+ viewers, chock full of forbidden fruit.
We loved this one. Having spent many years in the Bay Area, we could relate to much of the scenery and sensibilities and subtext.
And speaking of subtext again, worth noting is the appearance of the wonderful Hope Emerson, a career character actor with a long list of credits, including Adam’s Rib in the same year as Thieves’ Highway. In Adam’s Rib, she played a very talented gymnast in a courtroom, in a role that noted both how big and butch she was, in an era when that kind of thing was invisible. She is somewhat the same in Thieves’ Highway, minus the gymnastics, as a very tough female fruit buyer. Dassin pretty much broke the Code in multiple ways throughout the movie; although the Code had the last say with its smarmy cop platitudinal lecturing about not taking the law in your own hands, the weight of his film said, “Nuts to you!” to the Code.
A good pairing for this would be The Grapes of Wrath, which starts with starving Okies hitting Route 66 in search of fruit picking work. Follow that with Thieves’ Highway and you get a clear picture of what it takes to get an apple off a tree into the teeth of someone wanting to cheat a doctor a day.
Sadly, much is unchanged in this process, except the grower, the picker, the trucker and the distributor-to-grocery-stores are all corporate behemoths and conditions may, if anything, be worse than 1940’s Grapes of Wrath and 1949’s Thieves’ Highway. We’ve let much slide since Reagan, who married anti-New Deal propaganda with our generation’s laziness and produced massive rollbacks of workers’ rights (and the current occupant of the White House), and our grandchildren will have to fight three times as hard as their ancestors between 1870 and 1950 did for decency, living wages, respect, clean air, clean water, and safe working conditions. Whether they will do it remains to be seen.
Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos: [to Rica] “You look like chipped glass.”
Nick: “Hey, do you like apples?” Rica: “Everybody likes apples, except doctors.” Nick: “Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out.” Rica: “I don’t know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.”
Thieves Highway. 1949. TCM. English. Jules Dassin (d); A.I. Bezzerides (w); Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, Joseph Pevney, Morris Carnovsky, Tamara Shayne, Kasia Orzazewski, Norbert Schiller, Hope Emerson (p). Alfred Newman (m). Norbert Brodine (c).
“There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.”
From 1968: «Hot Millions». Some fun British fun from Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith.
True story. The very first time I ever went to a theater and saw a movie was in February 1968 at the Plains Theater in Roswell, NM. Which is sadly now the “International UFO Museum and Research Center” 1947 alien landing tourist trap and that’s upsetting and rather terrifying. But upsetting and terrifying is what my first movie experience was; my four-year-old self bawled all the way through it and I think my sister had to take me to the lobby.
The list of things that scared me was long in those days; well into my teens, I was pretty much scared of everything. No reason; I had a good childhood, wasn’t abused or anything. But movie theaters, especially high ceilings and balconies, terrified me. So did fire engines, police cars, motorcycles, Walt Disney, sirens, fireworks, Carlsbad Caverns, roller coasters, teachers and teenagers.
But what was the most terrifying of all was the first movie in a theater: Blackbeard’s Ghost, starring Peter Ustinov. It was a funny kid’s Disney movie, typical of the time, with Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Elsa Lanchester, Elliot Reid, Richard Deacon and Michael Conrad, in his pre-Hill Street Blues days.
And the worst scene was Ustinov as Blackbeard, riding a police motorcycle with siren blaring, invisible to everyone except Dean Jones. I really bawled at that. Even if it was about the funniest one in the movie. Sirens, invisible pirates, a huge theater, yeesh.
At any rate, Hot Millions is what we’re actually talking about here.
“A con-artist (Peter Ustinov) gains employment at an insurance company in order to embezzle money by re-programming their “new” wonder computer.”
“Today I would like to bow to another critic for my opening thought. Writing about Hot Millions in the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann observed that it didn’t make him laugh out loud, but at the end of the film he realized he’d been smiling for nearly two hours. That says it very well: Hot Millions, which is not a hilarious comedy, is a pleasant, warm one.
“The warmth comes because the characters are developed rather more than is usually the case in movies about (a) embezzlers or (b) eccentrics. The British comedy tradition accounts for these two genres quite completely; eccentrics are usually Terry-Thomas whistling through the gap in his teeth, and embezzlers usually try for a sort of efficient anonymity.
“This is not, I suppose, a great comedy. But Ustinov and Miss Smith act with a sort of natural appeal, and there are moments you will enjoy very much. Especially recommended for computer programmers, their accomplices and their molls.”
I personally don’t need my sides to split when I watch a “comedy,” but that’s just me. There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.
Carlton J. Klemper [talking about his corporation taking over the whole world]: “Yes sir! When the time comes, I may even put in a bid for all of England.”
Marcus Pendleton: }Hadn’t you better wait till it’s solvent?”
Prison Governor: “You should be in politics, not in prison.”
Marcus Pendleton: “Well, in a way, I was, wasn’t I? When they caught me embezzling at the Conservative Central Office.”
Prison Governor: “Yes, I could never understand why you chose that of all places.”
Marcus Pendleton: [after a pause, says sternly] “I’m a Liberal.”
Prison Governor: “Oh.”
Elderly Gentleman card player: [Irritated by all the talk] “If this keeps up, I shall violate a lifetime principle and play bridge with women.”
Patty: “What does he want?”
Patty: “What are they?”
Marcus: “Young female donkeys.”
Hot Millions. 1968. TCM. English. Eric Till (d). Peter Ustinov, Ira Wallach (w). Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Karl Malden, Bob Newhart, Robert Morley, Cesar Romero, Peter Jones, Ann Lancaster, Patsy Crowther. (p). Laurie Johnson (m). Kenneth Higgins (c).
“‘On Crimes and Punishments‘ was the first attempt to apply principles of political economy to the practice of punishment so as to humanise and rationalise the use of coercion by the state. After all, arbitrary and cruel punishment was the most immediate instrument that the state had to terrorise the people into submission, so as to avoid rebellion against the hierarchical structure of the society. The problem that Beccaria faced, then, was the simple fact that the elite had complete control of the law, which was a family business and a highly esoteric language that only the initiated could master. The path leading to the rational reform of penal law required a fundamental philosophical rethinking of the role and place of law in society.”
WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department is now requiring nearly all applicants for U.S. visas to submit their social media usernames, previous email addresses and phone numbers. It’s a vast expansion of the Trump administration’s enhanced screening of potential immigrants and visitors.
In a move that’s just taken effect after approval of the revised application forms, the department says it has updated its immigrant and nonimmigrant visa forms to request the additional information, including “social media identifiers,” from almost all U.S. applicants.
The change, which was proposed in March 2018, is expected to affect about 15 million foreigners who apply for visas to enter the United States each year.
Yes, we’re so scared we’re insisting on a lot more:
In addition to their social media histories, visa applicants are now asked for five years of previously used telephone numbers, email addresses, international travel and deportation status, as well as whether any family members have been involved in terrorist activities.
Just a few years ago, our leadership was saying:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 4-Mar-33
How refreshing. And he had Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, polio and the imminent deaths of 100 million human beings to worry about. We are no longer made of sterner stuff. We freak out over Twits (and their Twitterings) and have palpitations over words and clutch our pearls if someone is transgressive about … well anything.
Grow a spine Democrats! Listen to the dead man and stop fearing! Send tis administration packing by using the ballot box or Articles of Impeachment! Now!
“Many states whose sovereignty is threatened are now finally waking up to the danger. But is it perhaps already too late to do anything about the seemingly over-mighty corporations?”
Is corporate power absolute yet? Or just overwhelming? Maybe … it’s just … mestastizing? There’s a fascinating documentary over at Deutsche Welle:
“The Wallonia region in Belgium triggered a Europe-wide crisis in the fall of 2016 by refusing to sign the CETA free trade agreement with Canada, as millions of EU citizens took to the streets to protest against the agreement. The CETA negotiations had turned the spotlight on the system of private arbitration courts. … Many states whose sovereignty is threatened are now finally waking up to the danger. But is it perhaps already too late to do anything about the seemingly over-mighty corporations?”
“The film itself is fairly representative of the period and shows how far ahead of her time Garbo was … that she could shine in spite of rather stilted dialogue, in a non-native language shows just how great an actor she was at the height of her career. It wasn’t bad, and I might have another look under certain conditions, but I probably wouldn’t buy it for the DVD collection, unless Criterion gets hold of it.”
From 1937: «Conquest», which pairs Greta Garbo with Charles Boyer and achieves something sublime (Garbo) and ridiculous (the script). Boyer is convincing at least as Napoleon. It’s based on the true story of Napoleon’s advances, on the field and off, and his retreats, on the field and off, and the Polish countess who he conquers, as well as his illegitimate son.
“A [P]olish countess becomes Napoleon Bonaparte’s mistress at the urging of Polish leaders, who feel she might influence him to make Poland independent.”
In the context of what would happen to Poland just two years after this was filmed, it was timely stuff. And anything about Napoleon is pretty much guaranteed to be pass-the-popcorn high entertainment.
“The project had been in development for years, based on MGM’s dream casting on Garbo, as the Polish countess Marie Walewska, Napoleon’s mistress.
But they could not find the right leading man, within and without MGM. That changed after the Gallic actor Charles Boyer became an international star, thus deemed proper to play Napoleon.
“Tale, co-penned by Samuel Hoffenstein, Salka Viertel, and S.N. Behrman is too melodramatic to qualify as a genuine tragic romance and too fake to allow Garbo render a fully realized performance.
But it did not matter, as Garbo was then at the peak of her career, and MGM didn’t spare any money in making a lavish production, casting the film with numerous extras.
The scenes between Napoleon and his son (cute child) are fake and sentimental, and last farewell, when Maria fails to convince the emperor to escape with her, is ridiculous.”
Emanuel Levy, Cinema 24/7
He’s right, that ending is completely ridiculous, although «the boy, Alexandre Colonna Walewski, actually did exist», living until 58 years old and having an illustrious career in Polish and French politics, escaping Daddy’s continental conquest ambitions and confining himself to French legislative affairs.
The film itself is fairly representative of the period and shows how far ahead of her time Garbo was … that she could shine in spite of rather stilted dialogue, in a non-native language shows just how great an actor she was at the height of her career. It wasn’t bad, and I might have another look under certain conditions, but I probably wouldn’t buy it for the DVD collection, unless Criterion gets hold of it.
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “I shall send it up to you, invite you to my quarters.”
Countess Marie Walewska: “I have a husband, sire.”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “He’s four times your age!”
Countess Marie Walewska: “He has his dignity. He has his honored name. He has his pride. And so have I, sire.”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Now I understand. So, it is pride you have in common!”
Countess Marie Walewska: “That does not become a conqueror, sire.”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “When you have conquered, Madame, you may instruct me.
“When you have conquered, Madame …” is mee-rowr fabulous! (I said above some dialogue is stilted, and so it is, but these quotes are pretty damn good, especially the following exchange with the Countess’ dotty, skeptical old mother
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Who are you?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “I am Napoleon!”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Napoleon? Napoleon who?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Hmm? Bonaparte!”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte? What kind of name is that? What nationality are you?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Corsican by birth. French by adoption. Emperor by achievement.”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “So, you are an Emperor, are you? What are you Emperor of?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Emperor of France, madame.”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Hee, hee, hee. So you are Emperor of France. And my very good friend, His Majesty, King Louis Sixteenth abdicated in your honor, I suppose?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Well, he didn’t know it at the time but in a sense he did, madame.”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “This house is getting to be a lunatic asylum.”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “What were you before you became an Emperor?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “A corporal.”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “That’s what I thought. A soldier. Why do you say you were an Emperor?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “One can be both, Madame. Alexander was.”
Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Everybody who goes crazy thinks he is Alexander. Now, if Alexander went crazy, who would he think he was?”
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Napoleon.”
Conquest. 1937. TCM. English. Clarence Brown, Gustav Machaty (d); Waclaw Gasiorowski, S.N. Behrman, Samuel Hoffenstein, Talbot Jennings, Helen Jerome, Salka Viertel, Carey Wilson (w) Greta Garbo, Charles Boyer, Reginald Owen, Alan Marshal, Hentry Stephenson, Leif Erickson, May Whitty, Maria Ouspenskaya, C. Henry Gordon, Claude Gillingwater, Vladimir Sokoloff, George Houston, Scotty Beckett, Dennis O'Keefe, (p). Herbert Stothart (m). Karl Freund (c).