The Woman in the Window (1944) & Scarlet Street (1945)

These two films by Fritz Lang star the multi-faceted Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett (perhaps best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend), and character actor Dan Duryea. Lang was a half-Jewish refugee from Austria who fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s. Growing up w/ German cinema, Lang was “concerned w/ symbolism and good and evil existing w/in one character” (as Barbara Bordwell McGrew, former film instructor at Burlington College explained). Double Indemnity (where Edward G. Robinson played a fine supporting role), Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Phantom Lady were all successful noir films released in 1944. “This led the way for more dark, mature stories to be told in Hollywood,” Eddie Muller (host of Noir Alley on TCM) commented.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Mild-mannered Gotham College professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) and his two close friends (a district attorney and a medical doctor) become obsessed with the portrait of a woman in the window beside their men’s club. After dinner and drinks at the club, his friends head off to a burlesque show. Wanley decides to read for a while and seems to doze off. Late that night, he meets the woman, Alice Reed (Bennett), while admiring her portrait, and ends up in her apartment. While they chat and drink champagne, a man bursts in and misinterprets the situation. This intruder lunges at the professor and a fight ensues where the other man is killed. In order to protect his reputation, Wanley agrees to dump the body and help cover up the killing.

The Woman in the Window is considered to be one of the most significant movies in the film noir genre. It’s a film has many key noir ingredients: man meets woman and finds his life turned upside down, shady characters, a killing, shadows and darkness, and an atmosphere heavy w/ suspense. At its core, the film is about the dangers of stepping out of one’s normal life. The cast is very strong; Robinson, Bennett and Duryea to re-team with Lang the following year. As on reviewer on IMDB noted: “The Woman in the Window seems to say that evil only lives when people look hard enough for it – practically a ‘film noir’ rebuttal.” The ending (which some liked, yet modern audiences may think a bit cheesy) had to be that way b/c of the Production Codes of that time.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a bank cashier who is given a gold watch by his boss for 25 years of honest service. Chris is kind of an Everyman who is respected by his peers, yet has a boring life w/ his loud/shrewish wife in Brooklyn. Chris has a love of beauty and painting (which he does on Sundays). One rainy late night, he sees a young, beautiful woman being beaten by a man on the street in Greenwich Village. He stops the villain and saves this (supposed) damsel in distress. In no time, he falls desperately in love w/ this woman- a struggling actress named Katherine March (Bennett). Kitty (her nickname) gets to know more about his inner life and starts making demands (w/ tears, saying how she is so poor). As Chris talks re: his love of art on their dates, Kitty assumes that he is wealthy.

According to Ben Mankiewicz on TCM, when first released, local censor boards in New York, Milwalkee and Atlanta banned this film entirely, for being “licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community.” Though this may seem tame to (modern) audiences, there are themes of dominance and submission in this film. Chris’ wife, Adele, bosses him around at every turn. On the other hand, Kitty, allows herself to be abused (emotionally and physically) by her fiance- Johnny Prince (Duryea). Her friend/roommate, Millie, keeps telling Kitty that he is no good, but she doesn’t listen. In her mind, this is “love” and Millie “doesn’t understand.”

Scarlet Street is compelling and unpredictable; Lang truly knows how to keep the audience hooked, even in quiet moments. “The film is full of irony throughout (ironically made by a non-American),” as one reviewer wrote on IMDB. The audience is never able to guess what’s around the corner. The movie is packed with stand out moments, but the ending is terrific. The atmosphere that Lang creates draws you in, as do the fine actors (esp. Robinson as the anti-hero).

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Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in once scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).

Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!



Lured (1947) starring Lucille Ball & George Sanders

In this film noir (directed by Douglas Sirk), a serial killer in London is murdering young women he meets through personals columns of newspapers. He announces each murder to the police by sending them a poem. Research carried out by Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn) reveal that the killer’s verses are strongly influenced by Baudelaire who saw a link between beauty and death. After a taxi dancer disappears, her concerned American friend/co-worker, Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball), comes to Scotland Yard (the police), looking for answers. Sandra came from NYC to dance in the chorus of a London show (which closed early). After speaking w/ Sandra (a fiesty, sarcastic, and pretty young woman), Inspector Temple is impressed. He quickly enlists her to answer personal ads, in hopes of luring the killer. Sandra is given a police ID and a small handgun!

There are moments of humor in this movie (which is a remake of a French film). Boris Karloff adds humor to this (rather dark) tale, giving a brief performance as an insane dress designer. Officer H.R. Barrett (George Zucco) is the veteran cop assigned as back-up for Sandra; he and Ball make a fun team w/ good chemistry. While waiting for her mystery date at the opera, Sandra meets sauve and wealthy Robert Fleming (George Sanders). I think Sanders is fun to watch in ALL his roles, MOST notably in All About Eve. In no time, Robert and Sandra develop feelings for each other; she becomes less guarded and he drops his playboy ways. The streets are NOT safe; Sandra is put in danger more than once. Who is the killer? Could it be Robert?

[1] This is a very enjoyable film. What you get here is a lot of talk and character studies. Lured is a good, old-fashioned mystery yarn. The killer is painfully obvious about halfway through, but the actors go through the motions with obvious relish. 

[2] For a serial killer film, this one must rank as the most reserved and dignified ever made. No blood nor gore, just urbane and sophisticated dialogue throughout, and especially from the killer…

[3] The emphasis in making this film was clearly on producing an upbeat thriller which has many of the characteristics of a routine whodunit (e.g. numerous red herrings) and judged purely on this basis, it is very successful and entertaining.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews


Thoughts on a few South Asian diaspora books

Books I’ve Recently Read:

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Synopsis: 1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity… In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.

Don’t start this book if you’re in a bad (or down) mood; it’s not going to cheer you up. I liked a few of the stories, but some of them seemed too far-fetched or pandering to the exotic image of India. I don’t think men will enjoy this book much; the males in this collection are either terrible or impotent (as in unable to improve the lives of the women and girls in their lives). There is also no mention of the religious (mainly Hindu/Muslim) strife before (or after) Partition; this seemed odd to some of my book club. 

Streets of Darkness by A.A. Dhand

Synopsis: The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. 

This (page-turner) is written by a pharmacist (he kept his day job) who grew up in Bradford, England. If you’re looking for literary, descriptive book re: desis in the UK, this isn’t the book for you; look up Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie instead. This is mystery w/ some desi flavor and interlinked characters who inhabit a city in decline (joblessness, drugs, religious strife, and white power). One of the best threads is the loving marriage between Harry (who was raised Sikh) and his wife (a nurse of Pakistani Muslim heritage). This book may be tough to find (for those in the US, as I learned from those in my book club); it’s available from UK sellers on Amazon. Dhand has already sold the rights to this book (and its sequel), so it will eventually be made into a TV show. 

Books I’m Currently Reading:

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald 

Synopsis: Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, bags heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. Demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s history reveals cross-racial affinities below the surface of early twentieth-century America.

This book is full of statistics, so it’s not a fast read. I’m in the middle of it now, and will keep on reading. It’s very educational, so I highly recommend it to anyone in the desi diaspora. I wanted to read it a long time ago, but didn’t get around to it. One of my acquaintances, an actor-turned-teacher, Alauddin Ullah, is featured in the book; his father came to East Harlem about 50 yrs ago from Chittagong (now a mid-sized city in Bangladesh).  

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Synopsis: In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child–a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 

I’ve only read a few chapters of this (nonfiction) book, but the topic is very interesting, so I will keep on reading. At the start of the story, Nordberg gets to know Azita, a female parliamentarian in her mid-30s, who has turned her fourth daughter into a boy (Mehran).