Hitchcock on Catholic Guilt: “I Confess” (1953) starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, & Karl Malden

German refugees, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas), work as caretaker and housekeeper at a Catholic rectory in Québec City, Canada. While robbing the house of a lawyer (who he sometimes works for), Otto ends up killing the man. Racked w/ guilt, he heads to the church where Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is up late. Otto confesses to murder; he says he wore a cassock that night as a disguise. After two schoolgirls come forward as witnesses, the police question all the local priests. Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) suspects Fr. Logan from the start, sensing that he’s hiding something. It turns out that the deceased was blackmailing Ruth (Anne Baxter), who grew up w/ Logan and loved him before he went off to fight in WWII. She loves him still, though is married to a politician.

Fr. Logan: I never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock (who was raised Catholic) told a New York Times reporter in August 1952, that he chose Québec for filming because “in no American city do you find a priest walking down the street in a cassock.” This movie was based on the 1902 play “Nos deux consciences” by Paul Anthelme, a journalist. In the play, the priest and his lover had a baby, and the priest was hanged at the end. These elements had to be removed from the movie b/c of the Hays Code. I Confess was banned in Ireland b/c it showed a priest having a relationship w/ a woman (even though it took place before the character took orders). The screenwriter (George Tabori) wanted the script to be a subtle dig at the McCarthy hearings, as it centered on a man unable to tell the truth when questioned by authorities. Tabori found that Hitchcock only wanted to make a thriller. Peter Bogdanovich noted that this is a favorite of French New Wave directors.

Hitchcock created detailed storyboards for each scene, as was his custom. He couldn’t understand Clift’s Method acting technique; he became frustrated after the actor blew take after take, failing to follow instructions. Tension occurred over Clift’s insistence on having his acting coach (Maria Rostova) by his side. Hitchcock found that Clift didn’t listen to him at all. Karl Malden, who was friendly w/ Clift, found the process difficult. Clift would immediately turn to Rostova for feedback after each scene. Clift was drinking heavily also; he’d come on-set hungover (which wasn’t unusual for leading men in Hollywood’s Golden Age). As a closeted gay man, I’m sure he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders.

This isn’t your typical Hitchcock- it lacks the sly humor, memorable music, and (of course) the suspense he was known for. However, it’s atmospheric, moody, w/ a thread of foreboding running throughout. French is spoken a bit by supporting characters. There are towering old churches, crosses and crucifixes of all styles, marble statues, and houses of Parliament. There is a flashback section that’s quite engaging, where you see a lighter side of Clift and Baxter. I liked Clift and Malden together; they project very different energies. Malden famously played a priest in On the Waterfront; fans of The West Wing know him as President Bartlet’s priest. Baxter has her hair dyed blonde (which I thought was distracting) and wears some stylish outfits, thanks to Orry Kelly.

[1] Forced into complicity with the murderer, Father Logan behaves as though he is guilty despite his innocence…

[2] The movie is a somber psychological drama, and the story of a forbidden love, and perhaps a Christ allegory (the priest has to suffer for another man’s sins- he has to bear his own cross).

[3] When the camera sweeps up to a full screen view of Clift’s face and you see those glowing, brooding eyes, you fall under their collective spell.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock on Family Life: “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) starring Teresa Wright & Joseph Cotten

[1] Joseph Cotten is the perfect charming monster.

[2] As for Teresa Wright, she finds some good notes as well in playing off of Cotten… …those kids are just the right icing to the cake the film cooks up.

[3] One of my favorite elements in the movie is the ongoing dialogue between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn, avid mystery readers who are constantly discussing the best ways to murder each other. Apart from being a bit of comic relief… it also demonstrates how lightly people think of murder and murderers… until they encounter them face-to-face.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Young Charlie: We eat and sleep and that’s about all. We don’t even have any real conversations. We just talk.

Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is bored w/ her uneventful life, living in Santa Rosa, CA, w/ her family. She knows exactly what they need- a visit from her well-traveled/sophisticated Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), her mother’s younger brother. Out of the blue, they receive a telegram from Uncle Charlie announcing that he is coming to visit. Uncle Charlie creates a stir as the new man in the small town, dressing stylish and charming locals. Young Charlie begins to notice some odd behavior on his part. Two strangers, Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Saunders (Wallace Ford), come to interview the Newton family, saying they were chosen for a national survey. It turns out that they are (undercover) detectives!

Uncle Charlie: The whole world’s a joke to me.

Uncle Charlie: I guess heaven takes care of fools and scoundrels.

One reason Sir Alfred Hitchcock considered this to be his favorite movie was that he loved the idea of bringing menace to a small town. Hitchcock believed that the expensive and sturdy, but weathered and worn, look to the house would give the suggestion that the Newton family could be anyone, an average American family in any American town. Edna May Wonacott (book-loving/chatty Ann) and Estelle Jewell (Young Charlie’s friend Catherine) were locals of Santa Rosa, where the movie was filmed. Many of the extras were also locals of the town. The story is lightened up by the patriarch, Joseph (Henry Travers), and his eccentric neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn- in his first movie).

Young Charlie: We’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else. I know you. I know you don’t tell people a lot of things. I don’t either. I have a feeling that inside you there’s something nobody knows about… something secret and wonderful. I’ll find it out.

In his interview with François Truffaut in 1967, Sir Alfred Hitchcock said the dense, black smoke coming from the train that brings Charles to town was a deliberate symbol of imminent evil. Some viewers may have missed his cameo; he is playing cards on the train w/ his back to the audience. The waltz tune is Franz Lehár’s “the Merry Widow;” the nickname of the killer is the Merry Widow killer. Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), mentions that he’d had an accident on a bike as a boy; his personality changed after the accident (getting into mischief). I learned that Collinge wrote the romantic scene in the garage between Young Charlie and Graham.

You can watch the movie (for free) on YouTube!

“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, & Marilyn Monroe

Doc: One way or another, we all work for our vice.

This much-loved and critically-acclaimed crime drama (released June 1st 70 yrs ago) barely broke even at the box-office. MGM only earned $40,000 according to studio records and Louis B. Mayer hated it. Critic Thom Andersen noted it as an example of “film gris,” a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director and Screenplay. Since its release, it has been remade three times and its realistic storyline copied in many films. There is an ensemble cast- something rare in the 1950s.

Emmerich: …crime is only… a left-handed form of human endeavor.

Director John Huston first met actor Sterling Hayden in DC, during a protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of “subversives” in the film. Huston said: “I’ve admired you for a long time, Sterling. They don’t know what to make of a guy like you in this business.” Huston was honest with Hayden about his chance for the lead role. Hayden landed the role of Handley, his first major starring role (over the objection of MGM chief Dore Schary). Hayden’s gritty performance proved naysayers flat wrong. According to Huston, Hayden didn’t have anything to worry about: “The next time somebody says you can’t act, tell them to call Huston.”

Dix: Why don’t you quit cryin’ and get me some bourbon?

When an intelligent criminal, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), is released from prison, he seeks a $50K investment from bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to recruit a gang of specialists for a $1M dollar jewelry heist. Doc is introduced to lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) who offers to finance the operation and buy the gems immediately after the burglary. Doc hires the safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and Dix Handley (Hayden) who will serve as the hooligan. Handley’s loyal girlfriend, Doll, is played by Jean Hagen. Marlyn Monroe plays Emmerich’s mistress, Angela; she was unknown when the film was made and plays a small role. Monroe regarded this as one of her best performances.

[1] The multi character interplay sticks in the mind…

[2] The mastermind of the heist is not such a bad guy, the getaway driver loves cats, the safecracker has a wife and young baby, the “hooligan” is a misplaced sentimentalist who only wants the old farm his family lost…

[3] Hayden, with his big body and tough demeanor, was perfect for film noir. He is a legitimate tough guy, nobody to fool with.

[4] Stylishly photographed in stunning black & white by Harold Rosson, The Asphalt Jungle has joined the ranks, alongside “The Killers” (1946) and “Out Of The Past” (1947), as the finest noir ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Clash by Night” (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, & Marilyn Monroe

The title derives from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach (1867):

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mae: What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.

Directed by Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets’ play, Clash by Night, had a short Broadway run from late 1941 to early 1942. The cast included Robert Ryan as Joe Doyle (the character who is Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend in the film), Joseph Schildkraut as Earl Pfeiffer, Lee J. Cobb as Jerry Wilenski, and Tallulah Bankhead as Mae Doyle. Wow, how cool would it have been to see Cobb (one of Hollywood’s best character actors) perform live!? The production revolved around a Polish family on Staten Island, NY, before the US gets into WWII. In the original play, Jerry (the cuckolded husband) kills Earl (his wife’s lover) in their climactic fight; Hollywood (of course) had a different idea.

Earl: Jerry’s the salt of the earth, but he’s not the right seasoning for you.

Mae: What kind of seasoning do I need?

Earl: You’re like me. A dash of Tabasco or the meat tastes flat.

This was one of Monroe’s starring roles, she was under an acting coach (who worked for 20th Century Fox where Monroe, then only 25, was on contract) and wanted her on the set. The coach would stand behind director Fritz Lang and tell her when a scene was good enough. When Lang (known for his difficult personality) realized this, he demanded the coach leave the set. After Monroe complained and wouldn’t act w/o her, Lang allowed the coach to return, on the condition that she not direct Monroe. The actress was loaned out to RKO Pictures for this film; she shows a lot of potential here (brightening up the mood of the story).

Jerry: I like you – you know that.

Mae: You don’t know anything about me. What kind of an animal am I? Do I have fangs? Do I purr? What jungle am I from? You don’t know a thing about me.

The film noir drama is set Monterey, CA, a town where almost everyone is connected to the commercial fishing industry. After 10 yrs, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home, feeling tired, bitter, and depressed. Her macho/judgmental younger brother, Joe (Keith Andes), wonders what she’s been doing w/ her life. Mae fell for a married politician who died; she has nowhere left to go. Joe’s spunky/beautiful 20 y.o. girlfriend, Peggy (Monroe in an early supporting role), takes a liking to Mae. After a short time dating, Mae decides to marry a fisherman, Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a naive/optimistic bear-like man who feels “safe.” Of course, she isn’t in love w/ Jerry (and he knows that). After a year of domestic life and having a baby girl, Mae feels stifled. She has an affair w/ Jerry’s friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a film projectionist who is recently divorced. Jerry finds out about their betrayal- he could explode w/ jealousy and anger!

Earl: Mae – what do you really think of me?

Mae: [coolly] You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a new love affair – but he doesn’t know which.

Earl: [stung] You can’t make me any smaller. I happen to be pre-shrunk.

There is some great scenery- the ocean waves breaking on the beach, seagulls flocking, seals playing on rocks. We see the rough-and-tumble lives of blue-collar people; Peggy works in a fish cannery while Joe works on Jerry’s boat. People in this community fight loudly and drink heavily (drowning the disappointments of their unfulfilled lives). Jerry’s Sicilian immigrant father drinks b/c he can’t get any work at his advanced age. His bachelor uncle, Vince, also drinks and avoids responsibility.

[1] The power of “Clash by Night” lies… in the no-nonsense acting of Stanwyck and Ryan, tough as nails, but raw at the core. They have an animal eroticism together between them that sparkles like fireworks, but they are also, alas, quite self-pitying.

[2] Stanwyck has never better than she is here, and she dominates the film, vanquishing such heavyweight co-stars… …she is magnificent in this movie, which seems almost to flow from her. As her simple, trusting husband Paul Douglas is almost as good; and Robert Ryan nearly steals the show as a sadistic loser who is somehow magnetic, pathetic and yet highly observant, all at the same time. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I heard about this movie from a film noir group on Facebook; you can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon. It has some fine/memorable dialogue, which is why many people watch classics. Stanwyck (who was going through a divorce from actor Robert Taylor) inhabits her conflicted character; she is rarely at ease (note her body language, esp. in the early scenes). This is the type of role usually given to an anti-hero man in Hollywood. Instead, Mae is a conflicted woman who must choose between Jerry- the nice guy (security/respectability)- and Earl- the bad boy (danger/uncertainty). Though these are middle-aged people, they are not quite settled in their minds. Mae and Earl expected much more from life; they are drawn to each other like magnets. Jerry is content to be the breadwinner, husband, and father. The younger couple project a different energy in their scenes, but soon we realize that Joe would be a controlling husband (and perhaps diminish Peggy’s spirited personality).

Odets was born/raised in Philly and came from Jewish heritage (Russian and Romanian). He dropped out of HS to work as an actor. He was understudy on Broadway in 1929 to the young Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Warren F. Lawrence. Odets became one of the founding members of The Group Theatre, which became one of the most influential companies in the history of the American stage. They based their acting technique (new to the US) created by Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method (or Method Acting). From working in the theater, Odets developed a great love of language, and was inspired to write his own plays. His socially relevant dramas, popular during the time of the Great Depression, inspired the several generations of playwrights: Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, and David Mamet.

“The Narrow Margin” (1952) starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, & Jacqueline Wright

Once in a while a low-budgeted film from Hollywood gives off an unmistakable aura of big-time talent. The screenplay is taut, direction swift and performances crisp and clever. Continuity is paceful and tense, with a touch of glib humor…The New York Post

…pungent performances and inventive direction… the cramped train settings are put to striking dramatic effect through expert camera work and cutting. Refreshingly, there are convincing sound effects and no hammering musical score…The New York Journal-American

...Charles McGraw never relaxes his grim tension in a highly effective performance as a vigilant cop…Marie Windsor, a sultry beauty seething with vicious evil…The other girl is Jacqueline Wright, who cannot be described further without spoiling one of the surprises in the story…The New York Times

This is a B movie (check it out on YouTube for $3.99) shot in just 13 days w/ a mere budget of $230K in 1950, but released by RKO Pictures in 1952. Director Richard Fleischer decided to use a handheld camera; this was one of the first films to do that. To save money, the train sets were fixed to the floor and the camera was moved to simulate the train rocking. When a mobster’s widow decides to testify in front of a grand jury and provide names in a racketeering case, she is forced undercover. Two cops reach Chicago to escort her to LA; the mob are on their trail almost from the start. Several shady/gun-toting men are on the train attempting to make sure the widow never reaches her destination.

Brown: Well, what kind of a dame would marry a hood?

Forbes: All kinds.

Howard Hughes screened it in his private projection room; the film stayed in that room for more than a year b/c he forgot about it! Hughes loved the film, but thought he could improve it by removing the scenes w/ Det. Sgt. Brown (Charles McGraw) and Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) and reshooting them w/ Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. However, Hughes sold his interest in RKO before he could carry out this plan. This was Windsor’s breakout part; most casting agents said she was “too tall, too voluptuous, and just too sexy” for any role besides “the other woman”. She was a former beauty queen from Utah who eventually became known as “the queen of the Bs” (as she could very convincingly be the femme fatale). Fans (incl. TCM host Eddie Muller) love the hard-boiled dialogue between McGraw and Windsor (considered some of the best in noir).