The first time I can remember being in a cinema was when I was taken to see “Tommy the Toreador”, a musical-comedy, poor music, worse comedy, starring a British rock & roller, Tommy Steele. A forgettable film but I was in a big dark hall with Mum, Dad & lots of other people, the screen was massive & there was ice cream…I’d be back. In the early 1960s I tagged along with the big boys to the Saturday morning children’s matinee, a manic, juvenile, sugar-rush flash-mob, where the management often had to stop the main feature & tell us to chill the fuck out…or else ! That was great too. In the school holidays we saw “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Zulu”, “It’s a Mad, Mad World”, a long list of good ones & a longer list of mediocrity. It was at home, in the living room, on a rainy Sunday afternoon that I first saw the timeless classics from a Hollywood golden age. Black & white movies on a small black & white TV that made me forget that I would rather be outside playing football & introduced me to the potency of well-made popular cinema. This week, for the first time in 50 years, I watched one of those films which left such an impression & I was not disappointed.
“It Happened Tomorrow”, a fantasy comedy, is not a title often mentioned when the great films of the 1940s are recalled. It was the storyline, a man receives tomorrow’s evening paper today, which intrigued & fired the imagination of my young self. The potential for advantage & for complication held an instant appeal. The film stars Dick Powell, a popular lightweight crooner who was, in 1944, looking to expand his range. In the same year he hit big in “Murder, My Sweet”, the first movie portrayal of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. I’m sure that I noticed Linda Darnell in the female lead, one of “Look” magazine’s 4 most beautiful women in Hollywood that year (my vote was for Gene Tierney). Jack Oakie, a veteran of 87 films, leads a cast of character actors who do that thing that they do. In modern cinema “ensemble” playing often involves little more than pulling in familiar faces to deliver a couple of lines (see the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar”). These supporting players worked at it as a job. It was the assurance & charm in the tale-telling that lodged “It Happened Tomorrow” in my memory. Back then I knew very little about the great film directors of the century of cinema. I know more now.
In the 1930s Rene Clair established a reputation as a pre-eminent French film director. There was a trilogy of movies, including “Le Million” (1931), which gained international success. These early “talkies” were marked by an original & creative use of the new technology (singing flowers ?). His portrayal of working-class Paris was perhaps nostalgic & romantic, though no more than Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s. His lightness of tone was later criticized by the New Wave but that’s what some of those directors (Truffaut, Demy) & French cinema does better than anyone. In 1940 he found himself stranded in New York when France lost World War II. Stripped of his citizenship by the Vichy government, Rene went to Hollywood. There are 4 American films directed by Clair & 3 of them are worth a viewing. “I Married a Witch” (1942), a darker, fantasy forerunner of the 1960s TV series “Bewitched”, is deft & devilish, 19 year old Veronica Lake casts a spell as the bitch/witch. “It Happened Tomorrow” is not even the best film of 1944 but it is a charming, funny example of a fine director & of the popular entertainment that the Hollywood studio system did so well. The final madcap 30 minutes bring to mind Capra, the Marx Brothers & Preston Sturges, good company to keep.
“The Big Heat” (1953) is another film that knocked me over as a teenager & this ridiculous trailer does not do it justice. It’s a tougher than tough revenge flick, an upright, obsessed cop looking to avenge the death of his wife & to put the bad guys where they belong. This movie prepared me for the hard-boiled fiction of Jim Thompson, the neon-lit night of Edward Hopper’s paintings, cinematic experiences like “Point Blank”, “The Godfather””, “Goodfellas” & “Reservoir Dogs”. Glenn Ford, an actor of limited range, is Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, more driven than Dirty Harry. Vince Stone, a gangster capable of extreme, stunning violence, is scarily played by Lee Marvin while Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh, his moll, an unforgettable doxie with the moxie, put me on to beautiful women who are mad. bad & dangerous to know (yeah, thanks for that Gloria !). I knew that this movie had a heart of darkness before I knew what film noir was. I knew that this lean, mean classic was the work of a master, back then I just didn’t know who that was.
Fritz Lang left Germany for Paris in 1934 on the day that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels informed him that one of his films would be banned & offered him the position as head of the studio UFA. Lang, an Austrian with a Jewish mother, knew the score. His Expressionist silent films “Dr Mabuse the Gambler” (1922) & the futuristic, dystopian “Metropolis” (1927) were ambitious & ground-breaking. “M” (1931), his first film with sound, is a Kafka-esque, microscopic study of a child murderer, played by Peter Lorre, another artist who got out of Germany in 1933. It established Lang as a master of cinema & 80 years on his reputation has not dimmed. He directed over 20 films in Hollywood. Often stymied by the strictures of genre & studio demands he struggled to equal his earlier work. When, as with “The Big Heat”, he had appropriate raw materials, he was an alchemist, turning celluloid into gold.
Fritz Lang directed 2 films in 1944. “Ministry of Fear” stars Ray Milland as a patient newly released from an asylum dragged into the paranoid world of espionage after guessing the weight of a cake correctly. They (Grahame Greene) don’t write ’em like that anymore. “The Woman in the Window” features Edward G Robinson, the Original Gangster star of the 1930s, as a university professor smitten by Joan Bennett, Lang’s choice of femme fatale in 4 of his films who finds only trouble back at her Fabulous Forties pad. In 1946 the film & others of the time with similar themes were released in postwar France & were dubbed “film noir”, a somewhat vague tag even then, anyway Lang had been making movies like these since “M”. “The Woman in the Window” is a psychological thriller, a melodrama, a now-maligned categorisation, it’s dark, tense & the supporting cast, particularly Raymond Massey & Dan Duryea, do their thing.
Audiences in those pre-TV days expected romance, fantasy, beautiful people & a good story from their movies. They were cinema-literate, they knew how films worked & there were directors like Clair, Lang & others with the imagination & ability to illuminate even subvert these conventions. When this is successful then you get a work that still affects some 70 years later. “The Woman in the Window” is on the Y-tube, the whole film. It would not be a waste of your time to get on over there.