Posts tagged ‘glenn ford’

March 30, 2011

french postcards

by Megan Abbott

I’m freshly back from the Quais du Polar, a crime fiction and film festival in Lyon, France. The entire time, glued to the side of my wonderful French editor, Marie-Caroline Aubert (a glorious redhead who was once the translator of no less than Donald Westlake), I felt too lucky by half.  Which I was.

Trust me: to say I felt more than a little like an imposter is not false modesty. In every room, I knew far less than everyone else. After all, the French know noir. I had to keep my game on for conversations well into the night about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox’s complicated romance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the particular genius of Deadwood and why I must see the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. Much like a Frenchier, larger version of NoirCon.  (Thankfully, my knowledge of Rip Torn apparently did exceed everyone else’s.)

Perhaps the highlight of the visit for me–other than a new appreciation for what felt like 24-hour wine drinking–was a trip to the Institut Lumiere (English here), a museum, archive and theater dedicated to preserving and celebrating French filmmaking, with special focus on Auguste and Louis Lumière – inventors of the cinematography and among the very first filmmakers. As part of the Quais du Polar, they were screening films noirs and I introduced The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s nasty 1953 movie starring Glenn Ford as an honest cop and Gloria Grahame as the “kept woman” of a vile gangster (memorably played by Lee Marvin).

I admit, while I always liked The Big Heat, it was never in my upper pantheon, though its female star, Gloria Grahame, is indisputably my favorite noir actress, occupying a powerful position in my imagination. No slithery Ava Gardner vixen, no ethereal beauty like Gene Tierney, she is more minx than siren, more pixie than femme fatale. And yet. And yet she is a crackling presence, a hot, messy, complicated one. There’s just no one like her.

Somehow, she seems to embody everything I love about the genre—its heady, sticky mix of desire and rage, sordidness and yearning, the aching sense that something went wrong somewhere and now there’s no saving us.

On the one hand, tucked in that pouty lip of hers, curled in that slippery, cooing voice lies all the genre’s fleshy pleasures.

On the other hand, in that haunting way her face can arrest itself, her body skittering into itself to protect itself, lies all the heartbreak of the genre. She carries them both: lust and loss, shallowness and depth.

So, in preparation, I rewatched the movie. And I’m so glad I did. It felt like a different movie than the one I’d remembered as a well-done but rancid bit of ’50s noir thuggery. I’d missed all its complexities, and much of its, well, beauty. [Potential spoilers ahead]

First, it’s a movie populated by interesting women—strong, even brittle, experienced yet perpetual victims. Victims of their own sense of inutility (their worth seems only to be defined by their smooth, shiny surface).

But victims most of all the peerless brutality of the men around them. And I’m not just talking about the “bad guys.” The hero, Glenn Ford’s, carelessness with his wife echoes of the more obviously cruelties of the thugs in the film—over and over again, fire destroys women in this movie, fires ignited by men.

As some critics have pointed out, The Big Heat upturns the classic noir paradigm of the femme fatale enticing men to their death. Here, driven by his complicated mix of knightly ideals and dangerous masculine bravado, Ford is the fatal man, responsible in part for the destruction of every woman in the film.

But I will admit, my largest pleasures in the film are not analytical ones. They’re visceral. When I first saw The Big Heat as a young girl, the thing in it that mattered most was the gleaming sight of Gloria Grahame in her mink.

The creamy pelted garment becomes a key motif in the film. Late in the story, Grahame tells a fellow fur-cloaked woman,  “We’re sisters under the mink.”

The mink coat signifies prestige, material success. But also a kind of animalism, and a kind of enslavement. The mink comes to mean everything, and risks swallowing Grahame whole.

Midway through the film, all the characters converge at a nightclub called The Retreat. It’s a pivotal moment, when Grahame makes a key choice, a brave one.

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

What strikes me most about the scene is the way Grahame, perched on a bar stool, wears her mink, casually draped off her lovely white shoulders. It seems to drip off her, skating across her pearly arms. She wears the mink not like a skin, but merely something she’s trying on, part-way, because she feels she should, but it just might slip off at any moment so she can reveal the real Grahame beneath.

In a scene late in the film, when Gloria has risked her skin for the greater good and is taking charge, she wears the coat tightly bound, clasped at the neck. The fur has become hers now, and she wears it like a powerful armor

Gloria Grahame’s personal life was often chaotic and mostly unhappy. She brings those shadows to all her characters, and the yearning too. We see that here. It makes us yearn for her, on her behalf.

In the film’s most famous scene, Grahame’s shiny surface is ruined forever—but, when writing the introduction, I started to think about it instead as a purification, a baptism. After, she is transformed, born again. In a genre supposedly without heroes, she is a hero.

February 11, 2011

bar nothing

by Megan Abbott

Last night, I had the sublime experience of visiting the famous cine-paradise, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York—a place I’d heard about for years and always wanted to visit. Invited up there by Head of Cataloging and Access at the Eastman’s Motion Picture Department Jared Case, I got a sneak peek at many of the facility’s wonders, including more gorgeous Hollywood studio stills, posters, press books and other archival items.

A distinct highlight was a glorious and haunting painted plaster mask made of Marlene Dietrich’s face, so delicate and exquisite I could barely look at it. I had always believed those cheek bones of hers were mostly Hurrell-lit fantasies. As it turns out, those planar majesties were god-given.

The occasion of my visit was to introduce a screening of Gilda (1946), and it became the first time I ever saw it on a big screen—a gleaming print that swathed us as if beneath Gilda’s gloved fingers.

I first saw it as a young girl, age nine or ten, on television, and I remember being so enraptured. It seemed so glamorous—the glittering casino, the evening gowns and tuxedos, the exotic Buenos Aires locale.  Beautiful Rita Hayworth, handsome Glenn Ford, their grand romance.

And, like everyone else I was transfixed during the famous scene of Gilda, in that iconic black dress, doing her the famous gloved strip tease to that lowdown tune, “Put the Blame on Mame.”

I remember watching her in that strapless dress, tight as a second skin, and wondering how she could keep it up—the aerodynamics of it—it seemed to signify to me the magical properties of womanhood.

I remember distinctly thinking, This is what life is.

Later, I saw the film again in college—and it was a revelatory experience, but of a different kind.

I sat there, waiting for that childhood rapture—waiting to slip into the sumptuous, romantic movie again.  What unfurled instead  was this dark, tortured world.

And I had this realization that Gilda isn’t the center of the film at all, but is this glistening object. Much like the openly symbolic cane Ballin Mundson (George Macready) carries (which he calls “his little friend), she is something to be passed between the two men, Ballin and Johnny whose deepest feelings are, of course, for each other.

I saw for the first time the dark, nihilistic thread (or zipper) through the satin center of the movie.

In this way the movie became even more fascinating, richer….I felt like I had grown into it. And it had showed me about adulthood, just not the adulthood I’d imagined. It presents a world of complexity, where feelings are never simple and every happy-ever-after has a price and none of us precisely know ourselves or what we’re capable of.

Love, in Gildaor, perhaps more correctly, desireis about power, powerlessness, control and lack of control. We see this through the movie’s obsessive, self-conscious voyeurism—everyone seems always to be watching each other, spying through windows and blinds, peering around corners, through masks. Rarely every touching.

So much of the movie seems summed up in Johnny’s breathless voiceover in our ear, confessing, as he leaves Gilda, his old flame, with husband Ballin, his new one:

“I wanted to go back up in that room and hit her. What scared me was, I-I wanted to hit him too. I wanted to go back and see them together with me not watching.

I wanted to know.”

As slick and big-studio a noir it is, it’s noir to the rotten core. Because love here is a curse, a burden, and a weapon (cane, whip, glove). Love is about pain.

Love and hate, desire and contempt are not opposites at all but are in fact utterly inseparable. Or one and the same. As Ballin famously tells Gilda,

Hate can be a very exciting emotion….There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.

It’s chilling when he says this line. Later, when Hayworth’s Gilda echoes that line, in a desperate whisper, it may be the sexiest and saddest moment I’ve ever seen in film….

The postscript here: Watching it a few weeks ago in preparation for the intro at Eastman House, a whole new shimmering layer peeked through for me, though. One that never loomed so large for me.

Yes, I admit enjoying an added appreciation for actors I’ve come to love, such as the delicious Joseph Calleia as the understanding cop, Obregon. But most of all I saw in Hayworth’s performance what I’d missed before, its pathos, her awareness that she matters less as a person than as a totem these men wield to show their power, their loyalty, their complicated feelings towards each other

Even the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease scene now seems so different to me. Preceded by a musical number where she is precise, formal, ebullient, and quite feminine, in this number she is ballsy-burlesque, skittering, raggedly, by the end into something quite like desperation. Until it is that.

“Put the Blame on Mame” is, after all, a song about how a woman is to blame for the great Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, everything—just as Gilda’s beauty becomes the excuse for every act of depravity and control in the movie…a fantasy projection, not a real woman.

It’s all the more poignant given Hayworth’s tortured personal life, exploited by her father, her husbands, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia. I hesitate even to quote the much-overquoted Hayworth line, reflecting on her own sad romantic history, “Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me.”  But this time it seemed so clear that Gilda herself might say the same thing.

So in the end, watching it at age nine or ten, I think I was in fact getting a peek into the adult world, its beauty and its dark seams too.

Spoiler-alert: people, especially noir aficionados, always talk about the ending as being the one blemish on the movie, that the production code demanded we learn that Gilda wasn’t the promiscuous adulteress that Johnny—and we—are led to believe.

But, “happy ending” aside (who, after having watched them tear at each other for 110 minutes, really believes these two will go onto a happy life together?), I love that Johnny is wrong. That we learn Gilda is innocent of the charges. Trapped between two men who cannot reckon with their own desires, she is the great beating heart of the movie.  Guilty of nothing, of everything.

Big thanks to the whole gang at Eastman House, especially Jared Case.

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