The Great Escape
Directed by John Sturges
I saw this for the first time on the big screen, at a packed showing at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. It’s meant to be seen large. It’s meant to be seen with other people, a cheering crowd. When I watch it on my TV at home, it feels like it can barely fit into the screen. And Steve McQueen is such a movie star, with such charisma, he also should be seen LARGE. As compelling as Steve McQueen is (naturally, he doesn’t even have to do anything, just show up), it is the surrounding cast that really makes this film for me. James Garner! He is so gorgeous, first of all, like inhumanly gorgeous, and his character is always thinking, always scheming. His face rarely shows the thoughts/schemes. He’s a manipulator (I love the scene with the innocent German guard whom he bamboozles, EASILY), and he’s the kind of guy who can get things done. If you are going to be escaping from prison, you’d be lucky to follow the lead of a guy like that. Charles Bronson is marvelous as the tunnel-digger who is afraid of small spaces. When the light goes out in the tunnel, on the night of the escape, leaving him in pitch-black, you can hear him start to whimper, and hyperventilate, and it is truly frightening. It’s frightening on multiple levels. Bronson just seems like such a strong guy, he couldn’t be afraid of much, right? When he finally tells his buddy, “Ever since I was little, I have been afraid of small rooms …” his eyes gleam with panic. It’s a powerful performance. Donald Pleasence is terrific as the forger who is basically blind. I love the first scene between him and Garner in their barracks room. Two such different men, but a bond forms. The opening sequences of the film are great: they don’t waste any time getting down to business. Every single man in that camp is a flight risk. And they don’t even hide it! They are let off the trucks, and they immediately, as one almost, start walking around scoping out the fences and the guard positions. One of the reasons why the film works is the sense of cooperation and ingenuity in the group. There really aren’t that many power struggles. Even McQueen’s character, who is a loner (of course), isn’t at odds with the other guys who are putting together a more elaborate escape plan. Or, he is, they’re afraid if he fails it will mess up their escape, but in general, this is a movie about working together, about every man having his job, about every job being essential to the success of the escape. The guy who’s putting together all of the outfits for the men to wear, uniforms, civilian clothes, dyeing them with shoe polish, etc. Very important. The forger putting together documents. The guys digging the tunnel. Figuring out a way to get rid of all the dirt. (Stephen King had clearly seen The Great Escape when he wrote Shawshank!) An entire military operation is being carried out right underneath the guards’ noses. My favorite scenes are the various scenes of signals being given, taps on walls, guys singing Christmas carols outside to hide the noise of banging inside … I thrill to plots of this nature, and have since I was a little kid: plots that involve sneaking around, lying, masquerading, and elaborate trompe l’oeil charades to hide what is ACTUALLY going on. Then, of course, we have the whole sequence post-escape, as they all flee and try to make their own way. McQueen charging over the green hills on his SS motorcycle is certainly a sight to behold. What I’m about to say will feel like a nitpick, but it’s actually a huge problem for me: when the 50 escapees are rounded up by the Germans and are let out of the truck and told to walk back to the camp … Richard Attenborough and his second-in-command, have a moment where they talk. And Attenborough says something like, “Even though we all got caught … I still am very proud of what we have done. In a way, I have never been happier.” Ugh. It still bothers me. It’s not Attenborough’s fault, he says the line fine, it’s the script I have a problem with. The feeling that he had “never been happier” is already quite evident throughout the film, and also is really besides the point. Who the hell cares? It’s not about his personal happiness. It ruins the sentiment of what is a pretty awful moment. I want to mute that line every time it comes. It feels to me like a batter who is clearly swinging for a home run, and he wildly misses the ball. But other than that, there’s nothing really wrong with this movie. I could watch Steve McQueen sit on the floor in “the cooler” bouncing a baseball off the wall for 20 minutes straight.
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
This is one of my favorite Joan Crawford performances. She was in the middle of an amazing run (one of many in her career). She went from Mildred Pierce to Humoresque to Possessed to Daisy Kenyon. To anyone who does not “get” the whole Joan Crawford thing, and how fucking good she really was, watch those four films back to back. Those are four distinct characters. Her walk is different in each, her demeanor, her posture. Even the way she talks, where she places her voice on the register. The character dictated to her how she would play it. She was that suggestible to material, something I don’t think she gets enough credit for. She was one of the great Persona Actors in our past, and yet the variety she was able to bring out, the details, the sense that you are meeting four separate distinct women in these four films. Amazing. Yes, her hair and her eyebrows remain somewhat the same, but that’s just a detail. Don’t let it sway you. There are so many great performances in Crawford’s career, and here in Possessed she is both heartbreaking and also frightening. The opening scenes are stunning. You first see Louise (Crawford) walking down a city street (clearly not a set, this is an actual location), and it’s either dawn or dusk. The camera is placed low, almost at street-level, and she walks towards the camera, and her entire body language tells you: Something is wrong. But it’s subtle. It’s not until you see her in closeup that you realize: Oh my God, this woman is totally out of her mind. She wanders the streets, stopping passersby, asking, “David? I’m looking for David …” And I just want to point out some body-language stuff to look for, because that is what great performances are built on, ALWAYS: the details. She walks, and her shoulders are hunched, her back swayed, it is not an attractive look. One look at her and you can see that she is hunched into a circle of private pain. Her whole body tells you that story. Her walk is hesitant, almost shuffling. She doesn’t appear to even know that she is moving. Her hands lie slack, at her side. So what you are seeing, immediately, is a woman in a private space of pain out circulating in public. You know, when you go out in public, you normally are aware that that requires a different kind of energy than the energy you have alone in your own bedroom. It’s part of the social contract. We all understand the rules. In the first scene, Joan Crawford’s body language tells literally this woman’s entire history, before we know even one thing about her. Brava. Eventually, she is institutionalized, and a kindly doctor and his assistant think she may be schizophrenic, and in some kind of traumatic coma. (The obsession with the mind and psychoanalytic practices is all over the film. And it’s an extremely compassionate examination of what it means “to be mad”. At one point, late in the film, the doctor explains to Louise’s husband, “Sometimes in the brain – and we don’t know why yet – wires get crossed.”) Crawford is always “on point”. She is exquisite physically, her work with her hands, her posture, her facial expressions – this is a well thought out character – but there is an aspect of this character that is totally out of control. And she gets the confusion of that, the terror. What is it like when you cannot rely on your own mind’s perceptions? What she sees before her seems so real, and yet it is not, it is a nightmare-fantasy playing out before her eyes. Crawford doesn’t “overdo” anything, and when she finally gets to the point in the story where she did the horrible deed, she starts thrashing in the bed, screaming, “DAVID” over and over and over at the top of her lungs, and it is GUT-WRENCHING. This woman is a genius. I am sick of her being associated with the book written by her wretched ingrate of a daughter. But enough of that. The movie is told in multiple flashbacks, artfully and sensitively done. Van Heflin is wonderful, just wonderful, in his complex role as David Sutton. Sutton and Louise are having a relationship, which, all things considered, seems more like a Friends With Benefits situation (for him, I mean – for her, it is much more serious). She tells him that she has never really understood what it means to care about things until he came into her life. Uh-oh. Crawford is so good at suggesting the underlying fragility of Louise, the sense that she has placed all of her eggs into one David-Sutton-shaped basket. Van Heflin is so good in those opening scenes. He is concerned for her, he tries to warn her off, without being cruel. “I don’t love you like that, you know that.” He suggests that maybe it would be good to not see each other for a while. She is crushed. I’ve been there. It feels like the rug is pulled out from under your feet, revealing the abyss of space. Like: wait … I thought we were on the same page … but … how can you not feel the same way … oh no … oh no …. Louise works as a nursemaid in a nearby lakehouse, for a querulous bedridden woman. When the bedridden woman drowns one night, things start to go even more south. Every time David shows up at the house, you can see Crawford quiver with physical pain. She tries to put on a good face. But she falls apart. This woman is DAMAGED. But how does a personal heartbreak turn into madness that requires institutionalization? Possessed examines that. There are some scenes that play out, horrifyingly, and you realize later that Louise has imagined it all. She hears voices. She sees things. She ruminates, going over and over and over the points that hurt her, deepening the hurt, deepening the trench she is in. Crawford is fearless. When she finally breaks, she looks a wreck. She lies in the hospital bed, frozen with trauma and pain, with little makeup on her face, her hair a mess. But it’s not condescending, as often happens when actresses/actors “play mad”. It’s, as I said, deeply empathetic. Louise was fragile from the get-go. Her breakup with David Sutton was not what made her the way she is. She already was on a bad path. David Sutton is practical enough to tell her that she shouldn’t make a big deal out of it, he’s no good, he wishes she would be mad at him, hate him, after all he deserves it. I hate that line from men, I hate it with a white-hot passion, but in this case he’s right. Louise would do well to hate him for using her in the way that he did. David Sutton probably could tell early on that she was “too into him”, and he was “just not that into her”, but she was an easy lay, and fun for a while. I mean, that’s what we see in the first scene between the two of them. It’s painful to watch. Possessed has a pretty complex plot, involving murder inquests, and sudden marriages, and angry step-daughters, but at the white-hot center of the film is Crawford’s remarkable performance.
One last thing: After the death of the bedridden wife, the remaining family (plus Louise) move to Washington. She tells us this from her hospital bed. Joan Crawford’s exhausted voice: “So then we moved to Washington …” Her face starts to fade out, and another scene fades in, showing a gleaming car pulling up in front of a mansion.
This last time watching the film, I saw that and I thought: “…. why are they moving to Graceland?”
Three on a Match
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
One of my favorite films, and I am still amazed, every time I see it, that it is just over an hour long. Really? That much ground covered in 63 minutes? Well DONE. It makes up for every bloated three-hour movie I’ve ever seen, where I am cutting scenes AS I am watching the film. Three on a Match is remarkably concise, its structure is superb. There are three main characters that we need to track: Mary Keaton (played by Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis). They all went to public school together as children and re-unite as adults. The film starts with newsreel footage and actual newspaper headlines, giving us a sense of the time and place (this device continues throughout the film). It’s the 1920s, when they are kids, and we get their characters straight away. Mary has blonde ringlets, and swings upside down on the rings on the playground, revealing her bloomers. When she is told that her bloomers are showing, she calls back, “I don’t care!” She skips class to go smoke cigarettes with boys. Okay, character established, got it. Vivien is a rich girl, in a frilly dress, who is popular and a little bit snotty. She judges Mary for showing her bloomers, and also “tells on her” in class later when the teacher asks where Mary is. Okay, character established, got it. And then there’s sweet-faced little Ruth, who is a serious student, the head of her class, and friends with Vivien. She says to Vivien, during their grade-school graduation ceremony, “I’m just so worried about Mary. What is going to happen to her?” So we understand her compassion. After school they go their separate ways, and all of it makes sense from what we have already learned about them: Mary goes into a life of petty crime and is thrown into a state-run reform school. Once she gets out, she starts working as a dancer in various Broadway shows, a showgirl. Vivien went to a finishing school, and then married a prominent New York lawyer, lives in a mansion, and has a small son. And Ruth went to business school, still lives with her mother, and has a job as a secretary. Through a chance circumstance, they all run into each other again, and go out for lunch. During that lunch, they light cigarettes (“three on a match”), and talk.
Mary, as battle-scarred as she may be, seems the most lively, and both she and Ruth say that it must be wonderful to be rich, like Vivien. But Vivien opens up about her boredom, and says: “Something must have been left out of my makeup …” a fascinating line, which is prophetic. Vivien is a character that resists easy answers and classification. What is it: she married too young? She didn’t get to “live it up” for a time before settling down? She got sick of being a “good girl”? It could be all of those things, or none of them. Her behavior in the film is often appalling, and yet she’s the dark center, she really is. And her final act of martyrdom and courage never fails to catch my breath in my throat. When it comes down to it, finally, she knows what she has to do. SHE may have gone off the rails, but she will not allow her son to pay the price for HER behavior. Ann Dvorak is miraculous in the role. Watch the transformation. She is hooked on cocaine by the end of the film, and when it is denied her, she starts climbing out of her own skin. Almost literally. She looks wild, untamed, and desperate to the point of explosion. A classic junkie. That’s withdrawal we are seeing. Again: to go through the transformation Dvorak goes through in 63 minutes of film (and less: because 10 minutes or so it is during their childhood, where child actresses play their younger selves) is no small feat. Vivien is elegant, cold, and uneasy. Something is wrong with her, she knows it. It’s not her husband’s fault (the absolutely marvelous Warren William). But watch her cringe back when he goes to kiss her. It’s just awful. The film is totally open about the nature of her rejection of her husband. There’s no euphemism here. They come back from a party, her husband goes to say good night to their little boy, and she, in a panic, races around her room, changing into her nightgown and leaping into bed to feign sleep when he comes in. It’s a painful scene. He knows she’s faking. He probably assumed that they would come in, cuddle up, make love, yadda yadda. Husband-wife stuff. He kisses her, and her whole body recoils. The film is a masterpiece of structure, considering (or maybe because of) the amount of ground it covers. Joan Blondell is wonderful and human and wise-cracking, but also tender and smart. Bette Davis doesn’t have much to do, and she is given the “let’s watch girls change their clothes” scene, de rigeur in pre-Code films. You kind of feel for Davis, as she sits there in her slip rolling on her stockings, playing this kind of nothing-ish part. I imagine I can hear her thinking, “One day I will be a STAR, you hear me??” Oh, and Humphrey Bogart is great in a small part as a thug. He’s quite scary. But Ann Dvorak steals the show. It’s a portrait of dissolution, neglect, self-annihilation, and drug addiction that is decades ahead of its time. She doesn’t phone that shit in. She really goes there.
Imogen Smith wrote a great piece about Ann Dvorak, don’t miss it. Imogen writes, about Three on a Match:
You would never guess from this film that Bette Davis would wind up the best known of the three actresses, or that Humphrey Bogart would become a beloved icon, while Ann Dvorak would sink into obscurity.