How to get rid of a dead body?
And how to marry a witch — two classic American films by European directors
I have trouble being consistent with my themes, but, in general, this blog is about the things I like — film, literature, travel and conspiracy theories. So this is a post about film, for a change.
I have been trying to use a bit more my Criterion Channel, which is a bit expensive, so I have been watching a few noir movies and other classic Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1960s. More recent productions by Hollywood are mostly propaganda and do not interest me all that much.
There are two films from the 1940s that I watched recently that might merit further comment. The particularity of many of these movies of the 1940s is that, although they were produced by American studios, they were directed by European directors who were either escaping the war, the Nazis, or who had just migrated to the U.S.
The first film is “The Woman in the Window” (1944), by Fritz Lang. Lang is one of the masters of German expressionism, and the director of one of the best silent movies of all time, which is of course “Metropolis” (1927). He moved to the U.S. when the Nazis took power, and stayed for decades in the U.S.. While he never made any other film as impactful as “Metropolis”, he directed several good noir movies and even Westerns, and had a long career in Hollywood. He returned to Germany only in 1958, where he directed a sort of sequel or reboot to his Mabuse series, “The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse” (1960), which is an interesting film in its own right.
“The Woman in the Window” is, ostensibly, a noir movie, but I would argue that is really more an anti-noir, or a reverse noir. Let me explain. In noir movies, you usually have a male protagonist with serious character flaws who meets an even more flawed woman (“femme fatale”) and together they end up committing bad deeds. The classic example would be Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944). Man falls for sinful married woman, together they decide to murder her husband and run with the insurance money. Disaster and several double-crossings ensue.
Here, instead, the main character is a quiet university professor who doesn’t really do much of anything wrong, except perhaps accepting a strange invitation, and gets involved in a death that cannot be characterized as anything other than self-defence. The supposed “femme fatale” is also pretty angelic, almost naïve, at least for film noir standards. I’d argue that she’s closer to the archetype of the “whore with the golden heart” than to the “femme fatale” archetype.
The main character is played by Edward G. Robinson. He also appears in “Double Indemnity” as the insurance investigator, and he’s great there. He’s a very interesting actor, with unusual characteristics for a leading man. After all, he is short, not muscular, not very attractive. Now, Humphrey Bogart was also short and did not have a particularly beautiful face, but he had this tough guy persona which more than made up for it. Robinson is more the nerdy, weak, intellectual type. Here he plays a professor that approaches everything, even murder, cooly and rationally. The woman is beautifully played by Joan Bennet, and, if anything, she seems even more lost and confused under the circumstances than him.
If film noir is in general about bad people doing bad things, this is more about relatively innocent people who end up mixed in bad things, and totally out of their depth, due to people much worse than themselves.
Most of the film, therefore, and the main source of suspense, is really this: what would you, an average person, do if you suddenly had to get rid of a dead body? How would you do if you had to escape from the police and avoid being blamed for a crime? I am sure everyone has thought about these important questions at least once in their life…
There is a double or really triple twist at the end of the movie that further changes its meaning, but I won’t discuss it as I don’t want to give spoilers. Let’s just say that not everybody likes the ending. But I think it works for this particular film, exactly because it is not a “real noir”. I really liked the whole thing.
The second movie I wanted to briefly comment on is “I married a witch” (1942), by French director René Clair. Contrary to Lang, René had a short career in Hollywood, directing only four movies there, then going back to France after the end of the war.
There’s no way not to give spoilers for “I married a witch”, because the film is about exactly what the title says. Anyone familiar with the “Bewitched” series from the 1960s will immediately know the basic plot. I grew up watching “Bewitched”, and it’s incredible how much the producers of that series stole from that earlier film. In fact, it seems that the only reason they were not sued for plagiarism is that both the film and the series were produced by the same studio.
Veronica Lake plays the charming witch of the title, and she’s wonderful in the role. Lake’s story is the tragic, classic Hollywood story. She had a relatively short career before succumbing to alcoholism, several divorces and personal problems. She made perhaps only a dozen films, and of those, I’d say that only three or four are still worth watching today. Two are the noir movies she made with Alan Ladd as her co-star — “The Blue Dahlia” is my favourite — and another one is Preston Sturges’ screwball classic “Sullivan’s Travels”. But, to my mind, “I married a witch” is her best.
The story, if you take it literally, is pretty silly, and in the hands of another, less skillful director, would probably fail. But René Clair, perhaps because he’s French, brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the movie that elevates it beyond its own silliness. The gags work, the characters work, and the whole thing is as charming as a witch’s love spell.
Friedrich March plays the male counterpart. He’s not particularly memorable, but the role calls for someone who’s a bit more of a passive character, if not even a bit of a bumbling idiot, for Lake to have fun with. The “devil” father of the witch is played with gusto by Cecil Kellaway. I wasn’t expecting much from this movie, to be honest, but I ended up really enjoying it.
This is it for today. Next post is going to be about conspiracy stuff again, don’t worry.