The Long Night
Directed by Anatole Litvak
I saw this movie for the first time during my wintry month out on Block Island. I watched it in the teeth of one of the biggest storms I have ever experienced up close (you feel the weather way more out on an island), curled up on a giant couch, with Hope purring in my lap. The television in the little house where I stayed had TCM and I watched movies all day long. I had never seen The Long Night, and had not even heard of it. Henry Fonda, Vincent Price, Ann Dvorak (hello!), and Barbara Bel Geddes. How had I missed it? As long-time readers of my site will know, I had this whole thwarted “man in the mirror” project. I won’t go into it now. But watching The Long Night made me realize I needed to broaden my search for “man looking at self in the mirror” shots, because The Long Night is FULL of them. Henry Fonda continuously goes to the mirror in his dark room to stare at himself in a searching kind of way. Then the mirror is riddled by bullet holes, and Fonda stares at himself, his reflection all broken up, a perfect metaphor for his shattered personality.
The Long Night is quite a bizarre movie. It’s three different movies with three different moods. The majority of it is told in flashback (and we have two flashback-ees: Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes). We have a sort of gritty social realist film about the struggles of the common man. There’s also a gloomy noir with gleaming guns and black shadows. Then there’s a “backstage drama” section to the film, involving nightclubs, girls in garters, spotlights, and show biz. These worlds require three separate styles, which we get through the picture, so you have these gritty scenes in factories, with dirty men in Hazmat-ish suits, and chimneys in the background outside every window belching flame into the sky. (They apparently built small models of the factory to be placed in the distance that could be operated with buttons, so that the landscape out of the windows bristles with life and fire in the sky.) It takes place in a small town near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, a working-class town. The film opens with shots fired, and Vincent Price, shot, falling down the stairs of a tenement. Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) is the guy who shot him. The police are called, people rush to the scene, crowding around on the sidewalk below. Joe barricades himself in his dingy apartment, and waits out the long night of police siege. There’s a real feeling of tyrannical doom in the picture. There’s also an underlying message in regards to veterans returning from WWII. You could make the case that Joe Adams is suffering from PTSD, something people didn’t want to hear about (then or, in some cases, now). He is a lost man. You don’t know why he shot Vincent Price, although you find out. As Joe Adams holes himself up in his dingy dark room, with the police floodlights waving around in the night outside, he looks back over his life, and what brought him to this point. Strangely enough, it involves a nightclub act involving a magician (Vincent Price) and a wise-cracking showgirl (Ann Dvorak), and it seems very out of place in the gritty realistic atmosphere already set up, but no matter. Joe Adams is an orphan. He returns home from the war, and gets a job at a local factory. There he meets Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), who shows up one day to drop off flowers (she works in a nursery). In their first conversation, awkward and filled with yearning, they discover that they were both orphans, they even grew up in the same orphanage. Joe Adams attaches himself to her immediately. It’s a bit … too much.
You can sense that she likes him, but maybe his attentions are too insistent. They’ve barely kissed and he wants to get married. Henry Fonda is very very good at playing a leading man who is … slightly unstable in some un-nameable way. (I am thinking of Daisy Kenyon, from the same year, I believe.) And something is going on with Jo Ann. She has a secret. Barbara Bel Geddes is quite young here, and on the strength of this performance (and she is very very good), she was given a contract. She manages to convey the stinginess of this young woman’s emotional life and experience. She doesn’t know what love is, she has always wanted it, but she has been so starved of affection that she is really in the position of Prey. She is prey to the first predator that comes along. In this case, he is a traveling magician (the oily and appallingly disgusting Mazimilian the Great, played by Price). It takes a while to piece together what happened, because first we see things through Henry Fonda’s eyes, and it all appears to be a certain way, and then Barbara Bel Geddes tells her side of things, and we get a fuller picture. Vincent Price is fantastic in the role, and the scene where he forces himself on Barbara Bel Geddes is quite frightening. You know, he bought her tickets to a concert. Now she should put out. Watch Bel Geddes fight him off. It’s awful, it’s so real. And yet that is not a dealbreaker for Jo Ann, because here is a man paying attention to her, making promises, and finding her interesting. She has no critical thinking skills, her life has not prepared her to “vet” people properly. Bel Geddes is so good at suggesting the poverty of this woman’s emotions. Anyway, in the flashbacks, poor Joe Adams is suddenly caught up in the seedy underbelly of traveling show biz acts, and a showgirl and one-time flame of the magician, Charlene (played by the brilliant Ann Dvorak) takes a shine to Joe, who is really just following the magician around trying to figure out the hold he has over his girl.
Charlene is a world-weary comfortable woman, and she and Joe start hanging out. I don’t think we ever see them kiss, but in one scene when he goes to visit her, she’s standing in the shower, drying herself off, and he lies down on the bed, making himself at home. She walks around in a robe, pouring him a glass of beer, bringing out a pile of toast on a plate. It’s so deliciously seedy and realistic. And certainly sets up their situation a bit. Joe seems to show up whenever he feels like it, and then disappears. Charlene is a good sport about such things, but Dvorak is so good at showing the lonely cavern beneath her wise-cracks. The plot is so involved you may get a bit dizzy, going in and out of these flashbacks. And who would have thought that shooting a two-bit magician would bring out a SWAT team the likes of which is usually reserved for political terrorists? Henry Fonda is stellar in this sometimes strange material. Even in the love scenes with Bel Geddes, where he’s putting on an “Aw shucks, I’m harmless and innocent and happy” persona, you get the sense that he’s lying a little bit. Or pretending. He WISHES he could be innocent like that. There are no lines to suggest this, in those scenes. But Fonda is playing a lot of different levels there, I think. It’s awkward to watch him court Bel Geddes. It’s sweet, but it’s awkward, too. The film is gorgeous visually. It was a remake of a French film, and the special features has a frame-by-frame comparison between the two films. Definitely seek it out if you haven’t seen it.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
Please go read this conversation between my pals Odie Henderson and Steven Boone about Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”. It’s so great. The second I heard about this film, and that Oprah Winfrey would be a starring role in it, I was so excited. While Oprah certainly made a success for herself (understatement) in the world of talk show television, I have always missed her regular presence in films. Her “Sofia home now!” declaration in The Color Purple brought cheers to the audience and is the only moment of the film that I really remember now. Oprah Winfrey is a unique-looking woman, not really a leading lady, but too powerful to play back-up … I have really MISSED her acting. When she finished her show, there was some buzz that she was looking for a play to do, which also thrilled me. It made me think she was getting back in the game. Yay. And Oprah Winfrey, man, is something ELSE in The Butler. She exceeded my expectations. First of all, that is to her credit, and her talent. She is courageous, specific, and unprotected. Pretty unique when you think of her status as a public figure.
But it’s also a testament to the script, and how it “treated” this woman. It really just let her be. It let her reveal herself in small doses, it is not NEAT, it is not tied-up-in-a-bow-of-cliches. Yes, she always has a drink in her hand and a cigarette in her mouth. Yes, she is a bored housewife who is sometimes inappropriate at dinner parties. But that behavior feels motivated, feels like it comes from somewhere, other than “let’s have the marriage be in trouble so we can have some good husband-wife scenes”. Her character loves her husband and recognizes that he came from a terrible place that he cannot talk about. And yet being shut out of his life and his career at the White House leaves her all alone. She’s not included. So she drinks. And huddles over her sewing machine. Cigarette dangling. This really feels like a REAL marriage. It’s a fantastic performance, nuanced, deep, moving, and she has one of the most satisfying moments in the film when she kicks her son’s Black Panther rude bitch of a girlfriend (America’s Next Top Model fans will recognize her as Yaya, from Cycle Three) out of the house. I am talking mostly about Oprah, because I watched the film on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what she would do next. From the very first second she appeared onscreen, I relaxed, and got ready to enjoy the show. Oprah was here. SOFIA home now? OPRAH home now! She’s so good! But everyone’s good: Forest Whitaker is heartbreaking and also powerful as Cecil Gaines, in what is a deeply interior performance. Similar to Anthony Hopkins’ butler in Remains of the Day, Cecil has learned the art of serving while being invisible. There are deeper ramifications of this for his character due to his race, and how that invisibility factor plays out in black Americans’ lives. While it is fun to see all the white folks show up in cameos as the different Presidents (and they feel like “tokens”, which I think is kind of fun, a reverse of the norm where black people are usually the “tokens” in films about white history), the film is really about the split-personality-lives that African-Americans endure: one face for whites, another more relaxed face when you’re with your own kind and you can speak freely. The film is SO GOOD about that dichotomy, that reality. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are awesome as Whitaker’s more insouciant White House colleagues. It’s a powerhouse film, deeply uneven in some cases, swinging for the Grand Slam, and sometimes making it, sometimes not. I appreciated the attempt at all times. Not just because it “meant well” or anything insipid like that, but because it is a mainstream “feel-good” movie that is also madly entertaining, emotional, and melodramatic. As well as honest. Huh? Classic Hollywood used to make pictures like this all the time, without embarrassment or apology. It was what was known as “Show Business”.
Alongside the journey of Whitaker’s character, we have the history of the civil rights movement in mid-20th-century America, as embodied by the butler’s older son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo – who has to play a character who goes from 16 to 36. It’s a bit of a stretch, but he’s awesome in the role. He moves from the non-violent Martin Luther King movement to the more radical Black Panther movement, before getting out altogether and getting his masters in political science. The Butler, along with everything else, is a father-son drama. Lee Daniels is not messing around. He had all this shit to say about this era, so he put it ALL in the film. Somehow it works. And I can’t help but think (and Odie and Boone bring this up too) that if a well-meaning white director had made the film, he/she might have turned the “Cecil gets invited to attend the State Dinner” scene into a glorious triumph: Cecil finally allowed to sit with the whites he had served all those years, and the white hands reach across to the black, and hasn’t America come so far, and doesn’t Cecil feel so grateful to have been included? You can see the problem with that attitude, and it shows up in so many films about white-black relations. But here, that State Dinner is, yes, a momentous occasion (I was mostly happy for Oprah, who FINALLY got to “see where her husband worked”, and I felt the excitement of the moment through her reaction), but also a disturbing one. It stirs Cecil up. He says, in voiceover, “Things were never really right for me after that State Dinner.” Lee Daniels is very good at showing how that could be the case, and why. I went to see the film at a Tuesday matinee. It was packed with an entirely geriatric audience, people rolling in in wheelchairs, coming in with walkers. It was a totally mixed white and black crowd. I was the youngest person there by a good FORTY YEARS. I was sitting next to an elderly black couple, who spoke out loud at the screen, throughout, with responses along the lines of, “Oh no!” “Lord have mercy.” “Tell him!” It was exhilarating. But the entire audience was like that. It’s a film that demands reaction: laughter, tears, and also, more rarely, thought. I loved how the film ended. It was certainly quite inspiring, but Daniels was right to give us that button of humor, that quick flash of anger/impatience from Whitaker. The film faded out with me laughing, at the same time as tears were flowing down my cheeks. Seriously, now. Slam-dunk.
The Fugitive Kind
Directed by Sidney Lumet
In the famous 1957 profile of Marlon Brando written by Truman Capote (more on that here), Brando mused that he was afraid to ever work with Anna Magnani. Interestingly enough, it was about the stage production of Orpheus Descending, which would eventually become the film The Fugitive Kind. Tennessee Williams had wanted Brando for the role of Val in Orpheus Descending. Brando tells Capote:
“I had no intention of walking out on any stage with Magnani. Not in that part. They’d have had to mop me up.”
To add a layer of intrigue to all of this, I present The Elvis Theory, in regards to Orpheus Descending. Williams, post-1956, (in other words, post the Elvis Juggernaut) re-wrote the play, and changed the lead character from a general drifter-type into a more specific character: a wandering sexy guitar player who wears a snakeskin jacket, is treated like a “male stud” by every woman he meets, and is so proud of his guitar, which has an autograph from Leadbelly on it. There is all kinds of interesting evidence that Williams had Elvis in mind, for the re-write (not to mention his close relationship with Hal Wallis who, of course, had just signed Elvis to a contract at Paramount in 1956). All of this is neither here nor there, but adds layer and depth to the final film version. Anna Magnani plays Lady Torrance, the Italian store owner in a small Southern town. Maureen Stapleton had played the role to great success on Broadway, and she is in the film, too, but as the wife of the Sheriff, a nervous woman who spends her time painting horrid symbolic paintings. Marlon Brando plays Valentine Xavier, slouching around in a snakeskin jacket, guitar slung over his shoulder. Joanne Woodward is fantastic, and quite disturbing, as Carol, the “lewd vagrant”, one of those mad-woman yearning for connection and softness and understanding that Williams so excelled at. The second Xavier comes to town, every woman starts to prostrate themselves in front of him. He is used to it. He treats it all as … just reality. This is what happens to him, he can’t help it, he is even KIND about it. (Again, you can see why Williams may have written this with Elvis in mind.) And so Marlon’s worst fears are realized: he has to go toe to toe with Magnani. What I love about their scenes so damn much is that you can tell that she is so spontaneous, so in-the-moment, so committed to what she is doing, that it FORCES Brando to up HIS game. You can almost see it happening. Brando got bored easily. A lot of geniuses do. If he had to act with actors who were intimidated by him or in awe of him, he could easily ride right over them. But not with Magnani. She would act him off the screen and he knows it.
I love the moment when he reaches into his pocket to get his letter of reference to give her. It is crumpled up in its envelope, and it takes him forever to straighten it out and remove the letter. He even accidentally rips the side of the envelope which appears stuck together. Watch Brando during this bit of business. He gets embarrassed at how long it is taking for him to get that letter of reference, he smiles at her at one point, and he looks like an abashed 9 year old kid trying to say “The dog ate my homework”, but he knows that that kind of charm will not fly with this broad. It’s a brilliant and emotional bit of business. The script works better as a play than as a film, where some of its devices start to feel stilted or way too symbolic (when Conjurer Man comes in at the very end … you know, that would work much better onstage). But the acting is on fire, it really is.
One final note, about Sidney Lumet and his directing of Fugitive Kind. In an interview, years later, here is what he said:
Tennessee had always wanted Marlon to play the part and when Marlon said yes, no one else was even considered.
The funny thing is – years later, when I looked at the picture, I suddenly thought of Elvis Presley.
I began to wonder what would have happened to the piece without any of Marlon’s overt sensitivity or the profound implications that Marlon brings to any sentence he utters. What would it have been like if Val had had Presley’s simplicity, lyricism, and rather strange otherworldly quality? There’s a speech in the play that I doubt whether Presley could have handled from an acting point of view. In the speech Val talks about his mythical bird that has no legs and can therefore never come to rest and just hovers in the sky until it dies because there was no place for it to land. In content it evoked such a memory of what I felt of Presley when I watched him work: something otherworldly, unhuman (not inhuman), a kind of restless spirit that could never rest anywhere. As I say, I don’t know if he could have acted it, but the speech certainly reminded me of his personal quality when he performed. And I thought how extraordinary it might have been to hear it from someone exactly like that but totally unaware of his own separation from the rest of us. Would we have filled in all of the significance of that character because Presley himself would have been totally unaware?
Though the picture got mixed reviews and is a flawed picture but a very interesting one, as I look back on it now it would have been death to cast Presley. There’s snobbism in America that gets doubly vicious about its own.
Elvis was certainly the fugitive kind. So was Brando.