Ceremonial links between The Godfather  and The Searchers

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe Unversity, Melbourne, Australia

Ethan Edwards storms out of a funeral to begin the pursuit of his nieces in The Searchers (1956). Both The Godfather and The Searchers feature disrupted ceremonies. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At first glance, The Godfather (1972) would seem to have little or nothing to do with The Searchers (1956). One is a gangster film, and the other is a western. One is filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona, and it is set after the American Civil War, while the other is set in urban New York after the Second World War. The films were made more than a quarter-century apart, in radically different genres, by two exceptionally talented but different directors. John Ford was politically conservative with a pro-military stance, while Francis Ford Coppola was highly ambivalent about the role of the military and his films are more left-wing. Yet it is striking how much Coppola was influenced by John Ford, particularly with The Searchers (1956), when he came to make his gangster epic.

The most obvious comparison between the films is the closing scene. When Ethan Edwards rides up to the homestead at the end of The Searchers to return his niece, it is set in bright sunshine. Ford then shoots the final scene from a fixed camera – presumedly from the darkness inside the house. The heavy black edges of the door enclose the film’s last shot. The audience looks out to the desert and sees the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house to gain entrance into the community. Ethan Edwards stands at the door to consider his next step for a moment. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards to the doorway. Upon arrival, Debbie is greeted warmly and walked through the door with the Jorgensen family to rejoin the community. After they enter, Edwards takes a hesitant step but then halts when a couple, Martin Pawley and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway – and onto an inevitable marriage  – with a sure integration back into the community. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to it. The door closes, and he is barred from entering a community that has reunited.

The use of the door also features at the end of The Godfather (1972), but the underlying relationship is quite different. The new Godfather, Michael Corleone, has just completed a deadly and systematic series of assassinations to avenge his first wife, father, and brother. In a bold series of moves, Michael retakes his father’s empire, crushes his enemies, and solidifies himself as the most powerful mafia don in the country. The last murder is a gruesome and protracted garrotting of his brother-in-law Carlo, which he witnesses without emotion as he settles the “family accounts.” Following the murder of Carlo, his wife Connie – who is Michael’s sister – confronts Michael about the death. She screams at him while he remains unemotional. The scene takes place in full view of Michael’s second wife, Kay. After Connie has been escorted away, Kay demands to know if it is true that he killed Carlo. In a rare burst of anger, Michael slams the desk and then settles down, permitting Kay to ask one question about his business – or rather criminal – affairs. Michael lies to her face about the murder, and a wave of relief spreads over Kay’s face, but after she leaves the room she looks back at Michael, who meets his henchman, and she realises he is a murderer. Looking directly at Kay, his bodyguard Al Neri walks to the door, nods at Kay, and closes it. This scene leaves Kay outside the inner workings of the Corleone Family. In Godfather Part II (1974), the scene is almost repeated, except Michael goes one step further and closes the door in Kay’s face denying her contact with her children as well. Despite being Michael’s wife, Kay has been exiled from the family in the same fashion as Ethan Edwards. [1] While Edwards makes his own decision, Kay has little or no choice. Of course, in Ford’s universe, the community is central and supportive. In The Godfather, the family is evil at its core. In Ford’s film, the community exists in the darkness of their rooms – a shade from the fierce sunlight. In Coppola’s reworking, Kay is in a sunny room, while Michael is in the moral gloom of his office.

Another link between The Godfather and The Searchers is its use of ceremonies. The film critic Danny Peary has pointed out that rituals are disrupted at every turn in The Searchers. The arrival of Sam’s rangers disrupts Ethan’s homecoming. In turn, Edwards storms out of a funeral to pursue his captured nieces. Edwards shoots a dead Comanche in the eyes to destroy his burial. A wedding is called off when Ethan returns to the community.[2] Throughout the film, ceremonies are wrecked, cut short, or abandoned. The film is in sharp contrast to earlier ones by John Ford, such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), where ceremonies bring the community together.

The same disruption is also evident in The Godfather, but in different terms. At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations continue. Vito seems to move seamlessly between dealing with his business and enjoying the wedding. The opening sets up the idea that the work of the Corleone family never stops. Even a momentous occasion such as his daughter’s wedding does not distract the family head from his duties.

At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations for Connie and Carlo continue. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Indeed, the only ceremony that does not involve mixing family events and the criminal enterprise of the day is Michael and Apollonia’s wedding in Sicily. Michael is allowed one short period of marital bliss before Apollonia is killed in a bomb explosion. Business discussions interrupt even the burial of Vito Corleone. At the gravesite, Michael Corleone agrees to arrange a meeting with his rival Barzani to ensure peace between the mafia families. In the final ceremony, bursts of violence punctuate the christening of Michael Corleone’s nephew as his enemies are systematically cut down while as godfather to the infant he rejects: “Satan and all his works.”

The films have other parallels. The film critic Jim Kitses observed that The Godfather was part of a set of films from the 1960s which “allegorise a fallen nation in flawed protagonists.”[3] Kitses sees a predecessor to Michael Corleone in the mercenaries of The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah. Jitses could look further back as The Wild Bunch had strong and clear links to The Searchers. Charles Bramesco wrote: “John Ford’s The Searchers had set the deconstructive ball rolling in 1956 by uncovering a wounded reactionary soul beneath the leathery, commanding exterior of the cowboy archetype, a pop-cultural revisionism that Peckinpah extended to its most extreme conclusion.”[4] Like Ethan Edwards, Michael Corleone is out to destroy those who have injured his family. Unlike Edwards, Corleone is unemotional, cold, and calculating. Initially, Corleone is bright and happy and not part of the criminal enterprise. The shooting of his father Vito by Vincent Sollozzo, combined with the foiled attack on his father at the hospital, wrenches Michael Corleone from an outsider to central participant – and eventually crowns him as family head. His clothes become darker, as does his character.

In more general terms, the similarities between Michael Corleone and Ethan Edwards reflect yet another Herculean anti-hero, capable of great deeds but destructive to the family they are trying to protect. The theme became more pronounced as the series of Godfather films continued. Both Godfather Part II and Part III deal with the further unraveling of the family, as Michael seeks to protect it. In the trilogy’s final episode, Michael hands over control to his nephew Vincent Mancini, warning that he can head the Corleone family, but he must give up any prospect of family life. The two cannot co-exist. Like Ethan Edwards, Mancini must walk away from a chance of domestic family life. Edwards turns his back to the audience and returns to the desert to live much like the Comanche corpse earlier in the film; Ethan is fated to “wander forever between the winds.” For all his power, achievement, and efforts, Corleone loses his family and dies alone in a foreign country. Both figures are outcasts.

[1] The similarity is mentioned in discussion on the Internet Movie Data Base at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049730/movieconnections/ accessed on 28 February 2022. Such similarities have been made noted by other commentors. Among others see Wes D. Gehring, Gehring Lost & Found: Selected Essays. N.p.: BearManor Media, (n.d.).” “What Does the Final Shot of “The Searchers” Mean?,” https://the-take.com/watch/what-does-the-final-shot-of-the-searchers-mean, accessed on 28 February 2022. Zachary Cruz-Tan, “Hollywood Retro Film Festival – The Searchers,” https://hookedonfilmwa.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/hollywood-retro-film-festival-the-searchers/.

[2] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, London: Delacorte Press, 1981, 313.

[3] Jim. Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 202.

[4]Charles Bramesco, “The Wild Bunch at 50: the enduring nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s western,” The Guardian,  18 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/18/the-wild-bunch-at-50-sam-peckinpah-enduring-nihilism-western, accessed on 28 February 2022.

Hollywood Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Professor Wexman does not lack ambition in her newest book Hollywood’s Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship, which outlines an impressive range of objectives. First of all, she wants to show how the Guild created the idea of directors as artists. She moves on to how directors adopted the image of charismatic leaders and then how they are recognised. Wexman then looks at how the Directors Guild of America (DGA) – which was initially called the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) – constructed a narrative about the famous meeting on 22 October 1950. Finally, Wexman examines the legal aspects of the Guild with its ownership rights.

Full review published in Film and History on:


James Bond and the Herculean menace in film and TV

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The actor Daniel Craig delivered a Bond for the 21st Century, but his character has its roots in Greek mythology. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

James Bond is a figure that has dominated world cinema for close to 60 years. Underneath the character’s surface charm was a killer with a steely edge. Sean Connery was a marvelous Bond, but his style seemed out of touch in the more jaded politics of our time. The more light-hearted approach of Roger Moore was never going to resonate with today’s audiences. In the latest movie of the series and Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond, No Time To Die, the creators have looked back to Greek mythology for inspiration – directly or indirectly  –  particularly the figure of Hercules.  After saving the world from yet another evil menace, Bond must decide if he returns to society or dies on the spot. If Bond does choose to return, he will almost certainly destroy his partner and their child.

This dilemma places him in the Greek mythological tradition. Hercules was an illegitimate son of Zeus and despised by Zeus’s wife: the Goddess Hera, who hated Zeus’s infidelities and did everything she could to destroy Hercules – who was a physical manifestation of them. According to one story, after victory in a war, Hercules’ return to his home was shattered by tragedy. Hercules’ wife Megara and their children were about to be murdered by Lycus. Defending his family, Hercules slew Lycus with an arrow. Hera then cursed Hercules to fall into a state of delusion and rage. Hercules shot his children with arrows, believing them to be his rival’s sons and not his own. As Hercules was about to kill his adopted father, Amphitryon, Zeus’s daughter Athena intervened and knocked Hercules unconscious. Upon awakening Hercules realised his crime and was suicidal.

For his misdeeds, Hercules was obliged to become the servant of Eurystheus who imposed the famous twelve labours: the slaying of the Nemean lion; the killing of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna; the capture of the  Arcadian stag; the capture of the wild Mount Erymanthus boar; the cleaning of the Augean stables; destroying the monstrous Stymphalian man-eating birds; the capture of the mad bull that terrorized the island of Crete; the capture of the man-eating mares; the taking of the girdle of Hippolyte from the queen of the Amazons; the seizing of the cattle of the giant Geryon; the bringing back of the golden apples kept at the world’s end by the Hesperides; and the fetching up from the underworld of the triple-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of its gates. Each of these labours was a monumental demonstration of the strength and cunning of Hercules, but none could erase his familial crimes.

Literary scholar Eugene Waith wrote: “[Hercules]… is a warrior of great stature who is guilty of striking departures from the morality of society in which he lives.” That is the fundamental dilemma of Hercules, and it has proved irresistible to a significant number of writers. In The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (1962), Wraith explored plays written in the16th and 17th Centuries that re-interpreted or reworked the Herculean myth for its time.[1] Wraith identified seven plays: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine;Chapman’s Busy D’Ambois; Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; and Coriolanus; and Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe and All for Love. Reworking the figure of Hercules is not restricted to these two centuries. Richard Rowland tracked depictions of the Demi-God through to the War on Terror initiated by United States President George W. Bush.[2]

The figure of Hercules remains a common one in popular film. Dating back to Marvelous Maciste in 1915, Bartolomeo Pagano is usually depicted as a Hercules-like figure, utilizing his massive strength to achieve heroic feats that ordinary men cannot. The idea can be seen in many films through to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he appeared in Hercules in New York (1970). In these films, Hercules is a super-muscular heroic figure. Most Hollywood or other cinematic depictions of Hercules highlighted his strength and heroism, downplaying the tragic roots of his feats – he was a straightforward hero. In recent times, a bleaker image of Hercules has emerged. In a 2014 version, Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson, is haunted by the death of his wife and children.

One of the first figures who presented the strength of Hercules, Marvelous Maciste, was a popular figure in world cinema from 1915. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

The critical elements of the Herculean figure are some tragedy or tragic event in his past, which he tries to seek redemption by heroic deeds. He is haunted by a past injustice and can never be reconciled to God or man. The western was the main stamping ground for films with this character: the haunted figure redeemed by violence. But one figure dominates over all the rest – it was the character developed for John Wayne in the John Ford film The Searchers. Ethan Edwards rides out of the desert to visit his brother on his Texan ranch. He had fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War and was unapologetic about his involvement at any level. He is menacing and antisocial, and his presence causes great unease at the Edwards farm. Several hints show that he has slept with his brother’s wife – or wanted to – and the passion lingers.

The tortured vision of Hercules is evident in many Westerns, but it is clearest in John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

While staying at the farm, the Comanche Indians pull a ruse to get the area’s men to chase them for cattle theft. While they are out hunting the thieves out in the desert, the main body or tribe attacks the ranch. Killing all in the household, aside from the two young women who the Comanche keep as future brides, the raiders escape into the broad lands of the desert. The men follow them, but they are brushed off by the vastly superior numbers of the Indians. Edwards and Martin Pauley agree that they will continue to follow them to bring back the young women. As the trip continues, they track down the older girl Lucy who has presumedly been raped and possibly murdered by the Comanche Indians. Edwards is distraught: “I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands, I thought it best to keep it from ya.”[3] Some critics note that Wayne repeatedly pushes his knife into the ground while speaking. These actions represent how you clean a knife after a hunting kill. There is a subtle hint that Edwards may have killed Lucy, possibly out of mercy, or perhaps to cover her shame as being violated by the Comanche. If so, we have the Herculean figure in full flight.

As the search continues, Edwards develops a pathological rage against Debbie – who may or may not be his daughter – vowing to kill her. Edwards seems to be furious that his niece – or daughter – could have had sex with the men from the Indian tribe. Edwards’s violent racism is on clear display, and in one scene, he looks at two white girls who are returned from a separate tribe to the community with a face of pathological hatred. His rage against Debbie, played by Natalie Wood, looks unstoppable.

At the same time, as a Herculean figure, Edwards is capable of incredible feats of strength and courage. He tells his companion Marty: “Injun [sic] will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then, he quits. Same way when he runs. It seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as a turnin’ of the earth.”[4] Yet, we also know that he plans to kill her when he finds her. This quote shows the dilemma of the Herculean figure, who is capable of great acts, but underpinning it, is a tremendous urge to destroy themselves and those close to them.

Yet Edwards does not kill Debbie. When he finds her, Edwards says she looks like her mother and holds her gently as he rides her home – apparently purged of his demons. The heavy black edges of a door enclose the film’s final shot. The audience looks out to the desert and sees the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house to gain entrance into society. Ethan Edwards stands momentarily at the door, considering his options. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards to the doorway. Upon arrival, Debbie is greeted warmly and walked through the door with the Jorgensen family to rejoin the community. After they have walked through the opening, Edwards takes a hesitant step but then halts when a couple, Martin Pawley and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway – and onto an inevitable marriage. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to the door. The door closes, and he is stopped from entering a community – he has rejected it in any event. The Herculean figure has no place in the community. [5]

At a point earlier in the film, Edwards had shot out the eyes of an Indian corpse, cursing him to walk between the winds for eternity. He tells the disapproving Reverend, who remonstrates that it means nothing to those practicing the Christian religion, “But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.”[6] As he walks away from the doorway, the wind picks up, and the wind picks up the dust that swirls around him.  It appears that the curse he had inflicted on the Indian had now returned to haunt him. Like James Bond in No Time to Die and the Herculean figures, he will destroy the community if he stays.

Several characters have followed in the path of Ethan Edwards, particularly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a war veteran who rescues a young woman from gangsters, while flirting with the idea of being a political assassin. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Searchers has influenced many films. Several characters have followed in the path of Ethan Edwards, particularly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a war veteran who rescues a young woman from gangsters while flirting with the idea of being a political assassin. Bickle totters between being a psychopath and a hero.

Ciro played by Marco D’Amore (Centre.)

The figure is not confined to the cinema. In the epic Italian TV series Gomorrah, Ciro, played by Marco D’Amore is a violent gangster who strangles his wife in a fit of rage. Yet Ciro is also capable of great heroism in freeing an Albanian woman from forced prostitution.

The figure is not confined to men. among several candidates, an exemplary one is in the TV series Marcella (2016 – 2021), where Marcella Backland, played by Anna Friel, is a former London Metropolitan Police Service detective.  She decides to return to work after her husband says he is ending the marriage. Marcella resumes her investigation into the cold case of three unsolved Grove Park murders from a decade earlier, as it appears the serial killer responsible has returned. [7]

A shattered image of a detective. Marcella continues the tradition of Herculean heroes who are destructive to those around them, and capable of massive feats of courage.

The audience finds that Marcella has blackouts for unknown reasons in the first season. She has a disastrous relationship with her husband, a poor one with her children, a drinking problem that often results in physical violence. Despite these dreadful interpersonal relationships, she is a brilliant detective who can solve an incredibly complex murder case.

Marcella is after a serial killer of children in the second season. One with links back to her own family, and she endangers her children in the course of the investigation. Marcella must deal with a wretchedly complex and demanding case. Her former husband Jason is now engaged, putting their children in the middle of a custody battle that quickly becomes ugly. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counselling to help her remember what happened during them,  discovering that she accidentally killed her newborn baby and blotted it out of her memory. At this point, the Herculean motif is repeated firmly. Marcella must face the simple fact that she is a more than capable detective but a poor parent. Accepting this sad reality, she eventually signs the papers allowing her husband and new wife to take care of their children.

At the end of the second series, Marcella thinks about suicide but then walks away from the police force. The Herculean hero has no place in any society and even her home. By the third series, she has disappeared from society. Picked up off the street, Marcella assumes a new identity as an undercover officer. Considered dead and with no links to the community, she appears perfect in this new role, where she can redeem herself for her destructive acts against her family.

The Herculean hero continues to fascinate writers in the 21st Century, and will do so as long as film, books and plays are written or performed.

[1] Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. United Kingdom: Columbia University Press, 1962.

[2] Rowland, Richard. Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2016.

[3] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[4] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[5] Some sections of this blog have appeared in https://cinemahistoryonline.com/2021/03/10/news-of-the-world-and-the-searchers/

[6] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[7] https://www.mysterytribune.com/anna-friel-returns-in-uk-noir-thriller-series-marcella-season-three/

Andrew Dickos, Street With No Name. A History of the Classic Films Noir, The University of Kentucky Press, 2021. (review)

Geoff Mayer

The Glass Key directed by Frank Tuttle. Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it and why the contours of the larger noir canon in particular are so imprecise. Many of the features associated with noir – the use of voice-over and flashback, the use of high contrast lighting and other ‘expressionistic” devices, the focus on mentally, emotionally and physically vulnerable characters, the interest in psychology, the culture of distrust marking relations between male and female characters, and the downbeat emphasis on violence, anxiety, death, crime and compromised morality – were certainly real ones, but they were separable features belonging to separable tendencies and trends which traversed a wide variety of genres and cycles in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood. [i]

What is film noir? Steve Neale (above) argues it is not a film genre. Essentially, he maintains that it is a discursive critical construction. Yet today, film and television producers and advertisers assume that its core qualities are self-evident as they attempt to exploit its appeal as a marketing strategy for their products, both narrative and non-narrative. It is assumed that the general public now shares the conventional perception of noir. They see it as emanating from those 1940s Hollywood melodramas that deployed, even intermittently, high contrast chiaroscuro lighting that projected deep shadows accompanied by unstable camera set ups that thematically envelope, or trap, the actors within the frame. This visual imagery was often accompanied by a bleak view of American society, especially in the immediate postwar period, that challenged the Hollywood happy ending.  This perception of noir developed for more than forty years. Scholars and film buffs such as Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward promoted the idea, arguing that not only did a “noir cycle” exist, but it was a “self contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form. In short, it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.”[ii] Silver, with James Ursini, summarised the view of many when they claimed that if “observers of film noir agree on anything, it is on the boundaries of the classic period which begins in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ends less than a score of years later with Touch of Evil.”[iii]

Andrew Dickos shares Silver’s position, not Steve Neale’s.  Dickos ends his book by dismissing the complexities of discussing film noir raised by James Naremore in his excellent study, More Than Night. Film Noir In Its Contexts,[iv] by concluding that in conceptualising “classic film noir” “one may almost be forgiven for forgetting that to recognize the film noir as, above all else, a screen genre.”[v] Naremore’s nuanced study, on the other hand, points to the inherent paradox involved in any study by noting that “film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past.”[vi]

Dickos, in his 2021 ‘updated edition’ of his 2002 book Street With No Name, rejects suggestions that film noir is a movement, a cycle, a visual style, a tone, or a mood. It is, he asserts, a genre. Yet this is difficult to verify for, unlike the classic Hollywood genres such as the western or the musical or gangster film, “film noir” as a description of a type of Hollywood film is never mentioned in-studio documents as the term was unknown in the United States until, at least, the mid-1950s. In fact, it was nearly another two decades before it was commonly used.  The lack of the term can be verified by a perusal of 1940s Hollywood trade magazines that now routinely label these movies as film noir. The films were described as “private detective melodrama in the hard-boiled manner” (Out of the Past), or “blood-and-thunder melodrama with psychological overtones” (This Gun for Hire) or“mystery melodrama with a psychological twist”(My Name is Julia Ross).[vii]  But never “film noir.”

Dickos, to his credit, points to the shifts in the application of the term when he notes that “film noir” has mutated into categories such as “teen noir” and “femme noir” along with generic hybrids such as “western noir,” “horror noir” and “tech-noir.” [viii] He also points to the continuing popularity and influence of the “classic American Film Noir” on other film cultures, including Scandinavia, Japan, Latin American, and South Korea.”[ix]

In Street With No Name, Dickos argues that “film noir [is) … a body of work conforming to generic standards.”[x] To support this view, he points to the “stylistic distinctiveness that transformed the conventions of the crime and private eye dramas into those peculiar to the noir.”[xi] The ramifications of this, according to Dickos, was a “technique that finally transformed a style into a new narrative expression.”[xii] Its “distinctive visual style” reached its apotheosis, Dickos argues, in the hands of “notable noir filmmakers, usually in collaboration with their cameraman.”[xiii] In this regard, he cites Otto Preminger and Joseph La Shelle, Anthony Mann and John Alton, Robert Siodmak and Woody Bredell, and Robert Aldrich and Joseph Biroc. In many ways, this highlights Dickos’s real interest throughout the book on the celebration of selected “auteurs” and the development of particular themes. To provide a conceptual framework for this idea, he consistently argues that film noir constituted a “genre status,”[xiv] characterised by  a range of “structural elements of noir narrative.”[xv] These elements are:[xvi]

  • an urban setting or at least an urban influence.
  • a modern, twentieth-century setting.
  • a lack of comic structure (the notable exception according to Dickos is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity).
  • a denial by its main characters of conventional social and domestic happiness through unattainability or refusal.
  • an assertion of individuality as defined by the killing of someone in defiance of modern social mores and law.
  • the iconic representation of the features mentioned above by a definitive star of the screen or through a striking performance by a less recognized screen star or actor.

Dickos then proceeds to compile a list of “conventions of the film noir [that are] ensconced in its narrative structure, which make it distinctive yet are not exclusive to the noir.”[xvii]

These are:[xviii]

  • the femme fatale or her counterpart,  the homme fatal.
  • active/sexual and passive/nonsexual characters.
  • the use of voice-over narration and the flashback – usually from the male point of view.
  • frequent use of portraits.
  • telephones.
  • temporary amnesia, plus nightmares or daydreams.
  • cars as indispensable devices of escape.
  • apartments or bungalows.
  • art and its collection suggesting corruption, effeteness, and a European sensibility.
  • the inclusion of nightclubs and lounges, neon signs, cigarette lighters, trench coats, hotel rooms, both cheap and elegant, pool halls, boxing rings, gyms, guns, and smart fashion.
My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is one film that evades Dickos’s taxonomy. Courtesy of the Mayer collection.

This attempt at generic taxonomy is brave on  Dickos’s part as such attempts, even with more clearly defined genres such as the western, are always subject to contradictions and film outriders that its precise boundaries. Hence,  it is relatively easy to cite films generally classified as noir that evade most of these attributes. For example, My Name is Julia Ross (1945) or Ivy (1947) or So Evil My Love (1948), the last two films set in 19th Century England.

Dickos hints at a more sophisticated approach in his preface to the updated edition when he refers to film noir as “Melodrama narratives … cast in a noir haze.”[xix] This notion is intriguing, and it is a pity that the “updated edition” never explores this idea.  The main reason for this lapse is that the 2021 “updated edition” is the same book published in 2002. The only change is a two-page (new) preface replacing the seven-page preface in the 2002 edition. In fact, the 2002 book provides better value as the hardcover edition is printed of high-quality paper which showcases the excellent selection of images in a much better way than the 2021 edition.

The rest is this review is, by necessity, a review of the 2002 book – as nothing has changed. At least the publishers should have taken the trouble to disguise this a little better. For example, the index to the 2021 edition notes that Double Indemnity is supposedly mentioned on pages xiii and xiv. The trouble is that there are no pages xiii and xiv in the new edition – only in the 2002 edition. If one compares the 2021 edition with the 2002 edition, it reveals that both editions are identical –  the text is exactly the same, and the images are the same.

While Dickos mentions Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La Bête Humaine in his section on French cinema in the 1930s, he fails to extend this by discussing the Hollywood remake sixteen years later of Renoir’s film, titled Human Desire. Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

Some brief comments on the 2002/2021 books. Dickos’s study, while not a comprehensive history of film noir, includes a valuable discussion of German Expressionism in the period from 1919 to 1933, along with trends in French Cinema in the 1930s. He sees these film cultures providing the genesis of what became known as “classic American film noir” a decade later.  However, even here, one suspects that Dickos is more interested in celebrating the virtues of selected European “auteurs” than providing a comprehensive outline of the precursors of American film noir. For example, the section on “German Expressionism and the roots of Film Noir” gives Dickos a licence to trace selected German and Hollywood films directed by Fritz Lang. But there is a notable and strange omission. While Dickos mentions Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La Bête Humaine in his section on French cinema in the 1930s, he fails to extend this by discussing the Hollywood remake sixteen years later of Renoir’s film, titled Human Desire. –  Even though it was directed by Fritz Lang, who is one of the directors singled out for comprehensive discussion of both his German films and his Hollywood films. And despite the fact that Human Desire featured two actors – Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place) and Glenn Ford (Gilda) – often considered as iconic noir actors. This omission is a pity as the basic plot of Human Desire is archetypal noir – a sensual woman (Gloria Grahame) attempts to seduce a seemingly naive train driver Glenn Ford to murder her abusive husband, played by Broderick Crawford. What makes this film especially interesting is the battle between the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, and Lang over the presentation of the femme fatale. Cohn wanted a familiar, stereotypical image of the fatal woman who sexually manipulates a gullible male into committing murder. The commercial advantages of this association between sex and murder were self-evident to Cohn.  However, Lang, and screenwriter Alfred Hayes, resisted this simplistic presentation. They proceeded to show a mature, complex presentation of this stereotypically familiar character by transforming her into both seductress and victim. She is a sensual woman who is also a victim of physical abuse from her husband and sexual abuse as a teenager. Along the way, Lang and Hayes also emasculated the seemingly attractive male victim (Ford) by presenting him as vacuous, cold, and lecherous.

A valuable aspect of  Dickos’s book is his acknowledgment of the important contribution by Cornell Woolrich in considerations of film noir and, specifically, the shifts in the Hollywood crime melodrama in the 1940s. Although Dickos groups Woolrich with more traditional writers of hard-boiled fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Woolrich was not interested in police detectives, private eyes, or continuing characters. Instead, his focus was on traumatised victims, not hard-boiled heroes. In his two dozen-plus novels and more than 200 short stories and novelettes,  Woolrich’s protagonists were mostly ordinary people trapped in a hostile universe, a world ruled by chance and fate.  His stories, as Frank Krutnik notes, were characterised by “tortuously passages of masochistic delirium.”[xx] Dickos captures this facet of Woolrich’s fiction when he writes:

Cornell Woolrich wrote of people caught in circumstances, arbitrary and destabilizing, that provoked fear, often terror, and the feeling of utter helplessnes in the face of it. No writer describes this interior world more vividly than he, and the psychology of Woolrich’s characters, often facile in itself, is complicated by the subtle modulations of impending dread, of that sinking feeling that always anticipates doom.[xxi]

Dickos ends his impressive overview of Woolrich’s fiction by cursorily lumping together more than fifteen film adaptations with an inaccurate comment that they were “compellingly transcribed” Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

However, Dickos ends his impressive overview of Woolrich’s fiction by cursorily lumping together more than fifteen film adaptations with an inaccurate comment that they were “compellingly transcribed”[xxii] to the screen. Unfortunately, the Hollywood adaptations of The Black Curtain, renamed Street of Chance by Paramount, Phantom Lady, Black Alibi, renamed The Leopard Man by RKO, Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, renamed The Chase, “And So to Death,” also known as “Nightmare,” which was filmed as Fear in the Night, “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” and I Married a Dead Man, filmed as No Man of Her Own by Paramount, were generally emasculated by Hollywood screenwriters and producers. They often imposed a moral closure to stories that refused to endorse a sense of justice in an arbitrary world.[xxiii]

The other omission in Dickos’s study, which weakens the book’s claim to be a “History of Classic American Film Noir,” is the treatment of Double Indemnity. While the film is mentioned intermittently throughout the book, mostly in connection with “Barbara Stanwyck’s signature role as Phyllis Dietrichson”[xxiv] and its use of voice-over narration and flashbacks, the film played a significant part in convincing the major studios that it was financially viable to embark on the production of big-budget crime melodramas featuring morally flawed protagonists.  For example, James M.Cain’s novella Double Indemnity was published in 1936, and his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934. Although MGM purchased the rights to The Postman Always Rings Twice in March 1934 for $25,000, Hollywood censor Joseph  Breen warned the studio not to go ahead with an adaptation. Similarly, following the publication of Double Indemnity in Liberty magazine, interest in the screen rights were expressed by MGM, Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, and Columbia. Again,  Breen opposed any adaptation. However, after Paramount executive Joseph Sistrom purchased the rights for $15,000, the studio submitted a treatment to Breen, who rejected it.

The treatment of Double Indemnity is an ommission of the book. Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

Nevertheless, Billy Wilder persisted, especially after Raymond Chandler was hired to assist him to develop a screenplay from Cain’s story. The critical and commercial success of the film was a landmark moment in the history of Hollywood cinema. The film marked a major challenge to censorship practices at that time as the 1930 Production Code stipulated that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.” Wilder and Chandler changed that. Double Indemnity’s critical and commercial success resulted in a veritable flood of submissions to Breen’s office for similar films – including one from the most conservative major studio, MGM, to finally adapt The Postman Always Rings Twice. Fred Stanley, writing in The New York Times in 1944 after the release of Double Indemnity,  highlighted the importance of the film in initiating a dark, “red meat” cycle involving “certain types of storied sordidness and ultra-sophistication.”[xxv]

Dr. Geoff Mayer is a former Head of School, La Trobe University and Chair of the Cinema Studies Department and the author of Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland, 2021).        

[i] Steve Neale,  Genres and Hollywood (London, Routledge, 2000), 173-174.

[ii]  Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds.), Film Noir. An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style New York, The Overlook Press, 1992) 1.

[iii] Alain Silver and James Ursini, “Introduction,” in Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader (New York, Limelight Editions, 1996) 11.

[iv] James Naremore, More Than Night. Film Noir In Its Contexts (Berkeley, University of California Press,  1998).

[v] Andrew Dickos, Street With No Name. A History of the Classic American Film Noir (Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky, 2021), 282.

[vi] Naremore, 11.

[vii] See Steve Neale, ‘Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term “Melodrama” in the American Trade Press, the velvet light trap, Number 32, Fall 1993, note 28, page 78.

[viii] Dickos, x

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Dickos, 4.

[xi] Ibid., 5.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., 6.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] See Ibid., 6 -7.

[xvii] Ibid., 7.

[xviii] See Ibid., 7-8.

[xix] Ibid., x.

[xx] Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street. Film noir, genre, masculinity (London, Routledge, 1991) 41.

[xxi] Dickos, 99.

[xxii] Ibid., 103.

[xxiii] See Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland, 2021) 228-243.

[xxiv] Ibid., 157.

[xxv] Quoted in Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout. World War 11 and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) 97.

Different visions of Hitchcock

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Each of these works provides some insight into Hitchcock, who continues to fascinate both critics and historians. With these recent publications and reissues, it is clear that interest will continue to grow. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The continuing stream of books on Alfred Hitchcock over the past few years underlines the immense popularity of this seminal director. The ‘master of suspense’ directed more than 50 feature films over six decades, and Hitchcock continues to create academic and cinematic interest 40 years after his death. Any reasonable list of the top ten directors in cinema history will almost certainly include him. The University Press of Kentucky has become a minor Hitchcock production line with several books published or re-published over the past few years. These cover a broad range of approaches to the director and cinema, from academic theorists to more grounded film critics and historians.

First released in 1995, Paula Marantz Cohen’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism gained polite reviews, and just over 25 years down the track, it is being re-released in paperback. Cohen is a respected academic whose work has also been widely referenced by many scholars working on Hitchcock. This book extends her ideas in her earlier work, The Daughter’s Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-century Domestic Novel, published in 1991. Despite her literary focus, Cohen had written on Hitchock as early as 1969, when she looked at Alfred Hitchcock Presents’s TV series. In 1994, she wrote a paper called “The Ideological Transformation of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” into Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,”  which is the starting point for this more extensive work.

First released in 1995, Paula Marantz Cohen’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism gained polite reviews, and just over 25 years down the track, it is being re-released in paperback.

The book has an intriguing premise that Victorian values shaped Hitchcock, and the views were reflected in his cinema. She is focused on the literary sources of Hitchcock’s films. In the opening chapters, she employs Hitchcock’s comments to Francois Truffaut that he basically used the essential plot ideas of the novel and then created his cinematic version of it. She often takes issue with this point, arguing that Hitchcock drew a lot of his material from novels. Given her focus on 19th Century literature, it is interesting that she neglected to mention the extended discussion with Truffaut concerning Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Hitchock says the book was too dense, with every sentence carrying meaning, and he could not convert it into a film. Hitchock’s relationship with novelists is hardly unique. It is difficult to point to any significant director of Hollywood’s classical era who did not often use books or plays as a basis for their films. Under the studio system, the rights for the books were often highly contested and bought because they were bestsellers, with a ready-made audience. How they converted these works to cinema is an exciting field of study.

Having set up this framework, Cohen argues that Hitchcock eventually moved away from Victorian or novelistic values later in his career. Given Hitchcock’s English origins and the time of his birth, it was inevitable that his work would reflect some measure of Victorian values. Extending this idea, Cohen argues Hitchcock wrestled with: “[T]he two faces of Victorianism: the feminine legacy of feeling and imagination associated with the domestic novel and the masculine legacy and hierarchy – the world of the schoolyard – associated with institutions.” (3) This idea is intriguing, but some points raised by Cohen are debatable. For example, are these ‘two faces of Victorianism’ solely confined to the 19th century?  Can it also be argued that 19th Century fiction represented female concerns and the twentieth-century film focused on the male gaze? The evidence presented by Cohen is that literary and film theorists have decreed it so, but is it accurate or only true to an extent? Cohen makes these broad statements – and does not consider alternate possibilities – then uses them as a base to analyse Hitchcock’s cinema.

In doing so, the book often gets lost in a raft of theoretical positions. Given Cohen’s broad – or close to freewheeling – theoretical approach, which encompasses feminism, psychoanalysis, and family systems, it is hard to think of any significant classical-era director that wouldn’t fit her criteria to some degree. Take, for example, John Ford’s Rio Grande, which has the main character deciding between his family and the military traditions of the cavalry. Does this mean that Ford and all directors of this vintage shared or were attracted to the same type of dilemmas? Cohen never lifts her gaze to look at the wider studio system.

In presenting her case, Cohen often seems to be reading too much into simple scenes. For example, in the American version of The Man Who Knew Who Knew Too Much, she describes a scene where Jimmy Stewart has difficulty sitting at a table to eat some food in the Arab tradition. Stewart is quite tall, and the actor awkwardly places himself on the floor. The scene is a minor comic one in a tense thriller. Hitchock often juxtaposed comedy and suspense. Cohen sees the scene as depicting “two perspectives on masculinity.” Aside from being impatient with the customs of ‘other “less civilized” peoples,’ Cohen further sees: “The wife’s behavior, as it differs from his in this context, merely supports the conventional doctrine of separate spheres in which women concern themselves with trivial and domestic matters, men with issues that are really important (as a surgeon, he is, after all, confronted with matters of life and death on a daily basis.).” (117) That is quite a leap from someone finding it difficult to get their long legs under a small table. It is almost as if Cohen is attempting to drag too much meaning from the scenes. You can practically hear Hitchock’s dismissive response: “It’s only a movie.”

While it is a provocative approach, Cohen’s basic concept that Hitchcock moved from the Victorian to the post-modern is not entirely convincing. Other views have developed greater resonance. Around the time of the publication of Cohen’s book, Jane Sloan introduced her extensive Alfred Hitchcock bibliography arguing that Hitchcock was a “sponge”  who was “eager to adapt the point of view that would sell, and open to any idea that seemed good.” Sloan’s view of Hitchcock appears to have gained greater traction over the years and has been employed by many film critics such as Charles Barr (1999), Murray Pomerance (2004), Thomas Leitch (2011), Mark William Padillia (2016), Edward White (2021).

The cover of Hitchcock and the Censors, features the shower curtain from Psycho.

Another approach to Cohen is shown in John Billheimer’s Hitchcock and the Censors, also published in 2019 by the University of Kentucky Press and recently reissued in paperback. The book shows the constant struggle that Hitchcock had with the censors over his long career. Film directors had to deal with a raft of controls, and Hitchcock strained against the restrictions at every turn, trying a series of highly inventive moves to circumvent the Production Code. Billheimer details Hitchock’s struggles with the censors with his films from the 1930s through to the 1970s. Even though the Production Code was for films from the United States, British studios wanted an American release to boost profits and had to submit to the same restrictions. As early as 1934, the Production Code forced changes to a shootout in the conclusion in The Man Who Knew too Much. Billheimer shows how Hitchcock wrestled with complaints about sex, violence, and even the flushing of toilets in Psycho (1960).

When controls relaxed, Hitchcock presented more and more graphic depictions of sex and violence. In 1972, when the limits of the Production Code were lifted, he gave full vent to depictions of sexual violence in Frenzy (1972). Some critics designated the graphic rape scene as the most repulsive scene of Hitchcock’s cinematic career. This approach suggests that Hitchcock’s restraint had nothing to do with rejecting Victorian values. Hitchcock had been kept on the leash until the later part of his career. Billheimer concluded that: “Hitchcock had every reason to be pleased with the critical and box office response to Frenzy. Freed from the restrictions of the Production Code, he made the movie he wanted to make, from a story he selected personally.” It is a solid counterpoint to Cohen’s approach.

Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, written by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr provides new insights into the director.

One aspect of Cohen’s work that has been quoted frequently is her belief that “to study him is to find an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema.” The expression is mentioned in Phillip French’s foreword to Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, written by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, again published by the University of Kentucky Press in 2015. The introductory chapter also repeats the idea. 

Charles Barr has a long pedigree of publishing in English cinema with a particular focus on Hitchcock. Alain Kerzoncuf has published several pieces on Hitchcock, including Hitch and the Remakes. The stated aim of Kerzoncuf and Barr is “to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way […] providing solid data about a wide range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material” (2). The book is clear and focused in its aims and delivers a fascinating survey of Hitchock’s forgotten films. 

The book is aimed at the Hitchcock fanatic, and they are well served. The authors track down many of Hitchcock’s forgotten films, providing an interesting assessment of the movies and shorts to help reassess Hitchcock’s broader career. The writers range widely to discuss the alternate ending for Murder! (1930), highlight a virtually unknown film on the cotton industry in Let’s Go Bathing (1931), or a section cut from The 39 Steps. The authors are careful with their conclusions, using evidence from several sources to back their views. They are also scrupulous in citing other writers when presenting their judgments. The book is at its best when it compares some scenes of these minor or early films with the later canonical works. You get a sense of the director developing his skills and ability – no matter how minor the film or show may be. The book is backed by meticulous research that adds to understanding Hitchcock’s place in cinema history. It is astonishing how much material they find.

The book often takes the form of notes, as if it were a compilation of material – almost a series of blogs. However, in those notes is a host of valuable information about Hitchcock, beginning with the films he made before The Pleasure Garden (1925) when his directorial presence began to be felt. This opening section is a fascinating glimpse at the development of Hitchcock. Like all period historians, Kerzoncuf and Barr have to grapple with an incomplete record. Still, they have produced a book that sheds new light on a director by looking at the lesser films, documentaries, and TV shows. When cross-checking many movies listed in the book with the standard biographies and critical works, it is clear that Kerzoncuf and Barr have revealed many films that have been neglected or completely ignored. They have opened new avenues of research and discovery for people interested in the director. While Billheimer saw Hitchcock’s career essentially beginning in 1934 with the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cohen is focused almost exclusively on American films, Kerzoncuf and Barr show he had a long history in the British film industry before he came to prominence.

The only caveat to the publication of these books is that reissues should contain some updating or a new introduction to discuss the books and their impact on Hitchcock studies. Every author reconsiders their books to a greater or lesser degree, and it would be good to know how their ideas have developed.

And then there were many – origins and impact of Agatha Christie’s seminal novel

Kevin Brianton,

Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

The template for many whodunnits. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In 1930, a clever whodunnit called The Invisible Host was published. The husband-and-wife team of Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow wrote the book. The couple had worked as court reporters and had even met while covering a murder trial.[1] The novel enjoyed some popularity, and it was adapted to be a 1930 Broadway play, The Ninth Guest, by the prolific playwright Owen Davis, who also staged it. In a long career, Davis wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, and this one ran for 72 performances at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre.[2] Building on this modest achievement, a film version was released in 1934, also called The Ninth Guest. The film was only a second feature of little note from Columbia Pictures. Yet despite its minor profile, its impact can certainly still be felt in the movies and detective stories right up to the present day. The book, play, and movie disappeared without a trace, but it would open the door for other works.

Some critics have noted the book’s similarities with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was published in 1939 – almost a decade later.[3] In both novels, a disparate group of guests arrive at a place where they are informed all will die – and one by one, they do. To begin proceedings, an anonymous murderer announces over a speaker to the assembled guests that they will be killed for various crimes. Each guest has some secret that has marked them for murder. The ninth guest in the Manning and Bristow novel is death.

The Ninth Guest contains many elements of Agatha Christie’s novel. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The two stories indeed contain similar plotlines and devices which were employed in the film versions. In The Ninth Guest, a voice comes from the radio, announcing that the guests will die unless they outwit him. In the 1945 version of And Then There Were None, a record is placed on the phonograph, where a recording from a Mr. Owen announces their crimes and fate. This similar starting point is followed by a rapid build-up of bodies.

It is no disrespect to say that Christie produced a far better work. Her plots are amazingly intricate and remotely plausible, while The Ninth Guest lurches into the just plain silly. And Then There Were None was eventually ranked 19th in the top crime novels of all time by the Mystery Writers of America.[4] Even with the gap in quality, what is clear is that Manning and Bristow created one of the most influential ideas in entertainment history. Christie may well have developed it independently, but it is clear that Manning and Bristow got there first. Of course, the husband and wife did not invent the idea all on their own. The plot has its origins with the locked room murders of the nineteenth century whose distant ancestor was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1844.

Christie certainly read and was inspired by another early locked-room mystery in Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907. The book has been made into a movie three times in France, but Hollywood has never made a version except for one in 1919. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

It remains a matter of conjecture if Christie had read the book or seen the film before writing the novel. She certainly read and was inspired by another early locked-room mystery in Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907. She had her fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot even praise the book; “And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – ah, that is really a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach! There were criticisms of it, I remember, which said it was unfair. But it is not unfair, my dear Colin. No, no. Very nearly so, perhaps, but no, not quite. There is the hair’s breadth of difference. No. All through there is truth, concealed with the careful and cunning use of words. Everything should be clear at that supreme moment when the men meet at the angle of the three corridors.”[5]

Christie had experimented with the basic idea of a murder in a closed space with limited suspects in several of her novels. Her 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express, places the murder on a train. In Death in the Air, published in 1935, a man is killed on an airplane flying between France and England. In the 1937 novel Death on the Nile, a woman is shot while sailing down the Egyptian river on a cruise boat.  The critical elements of the novels are a range of characters, each with their secrets and motives, and physical boundaries prohibiting escape. No one can enter this shut-off world, so it is a closed box. This basic setting for a murder mystery remains a popular idea. One of the most recent examples has been the BBC crime series Vigil, where a murder takes place in a nuclear submarine – a mile beneath the sea. The detective is lowered into the submarine from a helicopter to solve the crime. Despite its high-tech premise, with its threat of nuclear meltdown and superpower conflict,  the setting has all the essential elements: an enclosed space; and a limited number of suspects of whom one is the murderer. 

Christie took the plot to the next level by having every character killed. How can there be a murderer if everyone is dead? The story defies any sense of logic to make a solution appear impossible. Then having created an impossible problem, Christie then disentangles it. While extremely popular, none of the previous novels ever succeeded as well as And Then There Were None. Whatever its origins or influences, the novel remains one of the most successful whodunnits of all time, as it has sold an estimated 100 million copies.[6] And Then There Were None is also Christie’s most adapted novel with at least ten films.

The novel’s impact has been enormous, and it constantly reappears in a vast range of works in various forms. Other writers immediately incorporated some elements into many other movies, such as Murder by Invitation (1941), directed by Phil Rosen, where relatives are invited to a house to gain an inheritance, and the murders begin. Some other films have reworked the premise in highly original ways. The Usual Suspects (1995) took the idea of a group being put together and murdered one by one and gave it a twist. In this film, an unknown figure calls together a group of criminals to commit one robbery or face death. Like the preceding films, The Usual Suspects presents a disembodied voice over a speaker that threatens the group with retribution. The criminals are given no choice; they will either be killed, or someone close to them will be murdered. When the killer is revealed, the solution would do credit to Christie herself. 

The Usual Suspects (1995) took the idea of a group being put together and murdered one by one and gave it a twist. image courtesy of eMoviePoster. Image courtest of eMoviePoster.

The original novel was also notable for Christie stepping away from her detective Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple using their logic and intuition to solve the crime. The killer gets away with it. When the BBC reworked the book as a miniseries in 2015, writer Sarah Phelps was shocked by its brutality. Phelps noted that it resonated with the time: “You can see it as a game; it’s a very, very clever plot. It’s a plot that you can tell someone delights in having pulled off, this extraordinary piece of sleight of hand conjuring. Still, within that, when you read it as a novel – rather than read it as an escalating series of tricks – it’s rather extraordinary. I was really surprised and interested by the fact it was published in 1939, just as war was gathering in Europe. It seems to be one of those books really about the time it is set in; it tells you more about the world than it would do if it attempted to address the complexities of the world.”[7] 

In the mid-1940s, such an approach was unacceptable to the Production Code in the United States. Rene Clair’s 1945 film and other versions were often based on the play, which had a more optimistic ending with a couple escaping the murderer – even Christie could not write a play where everyone dies. A stage with no characters is a difficult challenge for any playwright. Moreover, audiences in late 1945 had lived through a protracted conflict and welcomed some light-hearted entertainment. It was a murder puzzle where no one really got hurt. Seventy years later, when Phelps returned to rework the original book, she included its darker ending. It may be well a reflection on our times that we favour a bleaker interpretation.

[1] Theriot, Billie. Gwen Bristow: A Biography: With Criticism of Her Plantation Trilogy. Canada: Picasso Publications, Incorporated, 1998.

[2] Owen Davis, The Ninth Guest: A Mystery Melodrama in Three Acts. United Kingdom: French, 1932. Box office details at https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-ninth-guest-11139.

[3] Alison Flood, “And then there were two: novel thought to have inspired Agatha Christie gets UK publication,” The Guardian, 17 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/sep/16/the-invisible-host-inspired-agatha-christie-gets-uk-publication. The original UK title for And Then There Was None was Ten Little Niggers a clear racial slur, and it was printed as Ten Little Indians in the United States.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Top_100_Crime_Novels_of_All_Time

[5] Quoted in Wikipedia entry, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mystery_of_the_Yellow_Room

[6] Ed Grabianowski, “The 21 Best-selling Books of All Time,” Howstuffworks, https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/21-best-sellers.htm.

[7] Sarah Phelps, “Adapting Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ for BBC One,” BBC Writers Room  17 December 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/entries/8010ddc5-83eb-418c-9cf3-95cb6cfc8709.

Rising in righteous anger: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Drop (2014)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

A figure that constantly re-occurs in American cinema is an even-tempered man – it is almost always a man – brought to the end of his tether, who reacts in righteous anger against a vile enemy. The plot usually concerns a series of provocations, and a final last straw, before a cathartic episode of violence, where the enemy is left dead, and order is restored. Various westerns have used the plot. It is based on a long lineage, with the American writer Richard Slotkin arguing that the myths developed from early American history represented “Regeneration Through Violence”.[1]  

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance is one of the great screen villains. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

The character is central to director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). An even-tempered lawyer Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart, is on his way to make a fortune in the west. In the opening scene, Stoddard is savagely beaten and left for dead. Recovering from the attack, he recongnises his attacker as Liberty Valance, but there is no law here to stop him. Stoddard is pushed beyond breaking point by Valance, who is played with malevolent glee by Lee Marvin. Yet Stoddard still believes in the law, but the power on the frontier belongs to those with guns and the ability and inclination to use them. After endless provocations, Stoddard must pick up a gun to fight Valance. His showdown with Valance leads him to being celebrated across the territory, and it forms the basis for a successful political career.

The idea of the frontier holds a strong grip on the American imagination. As the United States grew towards the west, the idea of a better life on the frontier took hold. But in no short time, the frontier as a physical entity disappeared, the land became settled, and towns and cities were erected. The frontier was no longer dangerous. The wild frontier in Shinbone begins to break down, and all that is left of the town’s origins is unreliable myths about its origins. When Stoddard and his wife Hallie leave Shinbone at the end of the film, Hallie tells him: “This country used to be a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. You helped to make it.” The town of Shinbone becomes a settled and civilised community, almost unrecognisable from its violent origins. The shootout helps heal the community and allows the town to grow under the rule of law.

The savageness and the violence of the frontier would return with a vengeance to the decaying cities. The shift can be seen from one of John Ford’s westerns, Fort Apache (1948), set on the western plains, providing at least partial inspiration for Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), where urban decay has caused crime on a massive scale. These inner-city areas appear lawless, with the police barely holding the line. Other films would follow in its footsteps. While Ranson Stoddard was not entirely a ‘righteous man,’ as his career is built on a lie, Bobby Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy, is even darker in The Drop (2014). Bob Saginowski appears to be a passive man working as a quiet barman at a neighbourhood bar in a rough working-class area of Boston. Little by little, we learn that Saginowski is not as harmless as he appears. Both he and his cousin Marvin Stipler, played by James Gandolfini, were low-level gangsters who lost out to a violent gang of Chechen mobsters. The cousins now work for the Chechen gang, who occasionally use their bar as a ‘drop’ for money for their various unlawful enterprises.

The Drop is a savage reworking of the themes in the Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Bobby finds a battered pit bull pup abandoned in a rubbish bin on the way home from work. In rescuing the puppy, Saginowski meets Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, and she guides him on how to take care of the injured puppy. Bobby keeps the dog while beginning to form a relationship with Nadia. Saginowski is threatened by Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a former abusive partner of Nadia. Deeds had injured the dog and left it to die where Nadia would find it. Deeds has a reputation on the street as a killer, and he finds various ways to intimidate Saginowski, demanding money for the dog and terrorising Nadia. Deeds eventually threatens to kill Nadia to get the money from the drop.

At which point, Saginowski shoots him twice in the face and yells at his corpse: “Go out for a dinner still dressed like you’re in your living room. You wear those big, you wear those big hippity hoppity clown shoes, and you speak to women terribly. You treat them despicably. You hurt harmless dogs that can’t even defend themselves. I’m tired of you, man. I’m tired of you, you embarrass me.” The righteous man had responded to the threats and taunts, and ‘nobody’ will hurt Nadia anymore.

Both Stoddard and Saginowski would win the woman in their respective films but at a cost. In rising in righteous anger, both have lost something. Unlike Stoddard, Saginowski is no innocent thrust into this position.  In the twenty-first century, the righteous man has become far murkier. A practicing Catholic, Saginowski believes he is damned for previous crimes – including a previous murder – for eternity. He ponders his fate: “There are some sins that you commit that you can’t come back from, you know, no matter how hard you try. You just can’t. It’s like the devil is waiting for your body to quit. Because he knows, he knows that he already owns your soul. And then I think maybe there’s no devil. You die… and God, he says, Nah, nah you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.” Yet to survive in their respective worlds, they must make an impossible choice between violence or death or flight. The eruption of righteous anger taints both Saginowski and Stoddard.

Like Stoddard, Deeds is credited with a killing he never committed. For the slaying, Stoddard is given political glory, while Deeds gains street credibility. In other ways, Saginowski represents an amalgam of Stoddard and the figure of Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, who is the man who really shoots Valance in an act of cold murder. Unlike Doniphon, Saginowski faces his tormentor directly and shoots him in self-defence. But a decade earlier, Saginowski had also shot a man who posed no threat to him. Similarly, Doniphon shoots Valance from a darkened alley, giving the outlaw no chance to defend himself. The Drop is a savage updating of the themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The frontier may have moved to the inner city, but the dynamics of the film have remained largely the same.

[1] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Vitagraph America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

Kevin Brianton

Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Andrew A. Erish is a historian who is not interested in the latest fashionable cinema or the trendiest director. Instead, his focus has always been detailed archive work of the origins of cinema. In doing so, he dismantles some of Hollywood’s most cherished legends. For example, his first book on Colonel William N. Selig was a riposte to those considered that D. W. Griffith or Cecil. B. DeMille had “invented” Hollywood, and he delivered detailed and grounded evidence to support his case.[1]

Erish has now produced a second book on similar terrain, and in this work, he wants to re-establish the reputation of Vitagraph, which he calls America’s first great studio. In his introduction, he argues that: “Unfortunately, if Vitagraph is mentioned at all in the histories, documentaries, and textbooks, it is usually in conjunction with its affiliation in the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), better known as the odious Trust. By virtue of its membership in the MPPC, Vitagraph has been mischaracterized as being the product of unimaginative, short-sighted engineers who produced a primitive form of cinema solely in the pursuit of quick profits that ceased the moment those better-known, more talented and intelligent showmen took over the industry.”[2] Erish argues that Paramount, Fox, Universal, MGM and Warner Brothers took over the American motion picture industry from Vitagraph and history was written by the victors. Not only was Vitagraph their predecessor, but its techniques would also even predate the cinematic mastery of D. W. Griffith, and its impact was immense.

To achieve the goal of re-establishing Vitagraph, Erish did what an astonishing number of film historians fail to accomplish: he sat down and watched the films. It is no small task. The studio would run until 1925 and produce about 3500 movies, and it is estimated 700 survive in some form. Then having viewed all accessible prints, increasingly available on the internet, Erish then backs his viewings up with detailed archival research. The end result is a detailed and fascinating revisionist history.

Erish is certainly not a historian who recycles information, and his treatment of secondary sources is exemplary. For example, movie memoirs are notoriously inaccurate, and many historians would have lifted material from Vitagraph’s founder Albert Smith’s memoir Two Reels and a Crank published in 1952.[3] However, Erish does not take anything for granted and sees the book as being entertaining than accurate. It is a sound decision, as Smith worked with film publicist Phil Koury to produce the work, and Koury’s books are not renowned for their accuracy. His account of his working with Cecil B. DeMille is also highly entertaining with a mine of information, but it needs to be treated carefully. [4]

Erish takes the reader into the world of early cinema when short films were shown for a few cents in shops on street corners. Vitagraph Studios was established in 1897 by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, who as young men wanted to make it as entertainers, but never quite achieved great or lasting fame on the stage. The book’s opening section deals with the massive impact of Thomas Edison on the development of motion pictures. The story of the young men finding “Thomas Edison’s Latest Marvel, the Kinetoscope,” which implants a business idea, is almost straight from the novelist Horatio Alger. They certainly had Alger’s character’s thrift. As Erish points out: “One of Smith’s appointment calendars, though printed for the year 1896, has pencil notations indicating that he used it instead for 1897—an example of his thrift in the face of poverty.”[5]

Initially, filmmakers could show people getting off a hansom or getting their shoes shined. One of the first successes of the company was literally a flag-waver. Following a clash between Spanish and American troops, a film was made of a Spanish Flag being pulled down to be replaced by the Stars and Stripes. It lasted thirty seconds and was a smashing success. This film paved the way for more extensive and longer films. But interest in these simple films quickly faded. Instead, people began to be more and more demanding. Vitagraph was more than equal to the task. By 1907, Vitagraph was producing a film every week.

The book highlights some forgotten chapters such as Bobby Connelly. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Following its success, it would branch into other areas as time progressed, including a series of Shakespeare plays, drawing the wrath of one censor who warned about a cinematic production of Macbeth: “The stabbing in the play is not predominant. But in the picture show it is the feature. . . . You see the dagger enter and come out and see the blood flow. . . . Shakespeare is art, but . . . not [as] adapted . . . for the 5-cent style of art.”  The tension between theatre and the rising force of cinema was immediately evident. Theatre would decline in impact, and it was this 5-cent art that was going to transform the entertainment world, and Vitagraph would play a central part.

Vitagraph would become one of the pioneers of this new form of entertainment. In 1906, it developed the studio system, and its films would become more complex and artistic. In 1907, it would create The Mill Girl, which Erish sees as highly important for cinema’s developing craft, arguing:“The complex construction of The Mill Girl was successful because Albert Smith trusted the growing sophistication of the audience for which it was made. It serves as a prime example of Vitagraph developing fundamental cinematic language in the pre-Griffith era.”[6] It is a bold statement bolstering his view that Vitagraph should get greater attention in film history.

Erish has a comprehensive knowledge of the era and its films. For example, when he compares Fantasmagorie (1908), considered to be the first animated film, he argues persuasively it owes a great deal to one of Vitagraph’s early films. Erish demonstrates a strong and clear grasp of the subject derived from deep and prolonged study. In addition, almost every chapter contains ideas and original comments about the films. Some of its cinema have entered film history for various reasons, and Erish fleshes out some of their impact. For example, A Florida Enchantment (1914) is considered to be the first film depicting lesbians. A Vitagraph film Black Beauty was the first film that the future director Ingmar Bergman ever saw in Stockholm in 1924 as a little boy. He could recall the film decades later, and no doubt, it played some role in his influential career.

Larry Semon’s work for Vitagraph is highlighted in the book. Buster Keaton paid tribute to his comedic films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

By 1908 Vitagraph employed close to two hundred full-time “painters, machinists, costumers, carpenters, lab technicians, editors, and sundry other specialized workers.” It would produce hundreds of films. In 1915, Vitagraph employed 1200 people, but the various legal battles with other parties and other circumstances eventually ran against the company. The Birth of A Nation, directed by D. W Griffith, rewrote the rules of the American film industry. Like all other studios, Vitagraph worked hard to create a rival in The Battle Cry of Peace, but they could not compete with the popularity of the Griffith epic. Unlike Griffith, Vitagraph released The Cambric Mask (1919), which would not provide a favourable description of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the First World War, business in Europe fell off a cliff as Vitagraph’s staff in Paris were conscripted into the war effort. However, when the conflict concluded, the company reached into new markets across Asia, becoming an international organsation. Eventually, the studio was not competitive against the newer studios, which employed fair means and foul to impede the growth of their long-established rival. Finally, in 1925, Vitagraph was bought out. The corporate historical revisionists such as Paramount head Adolph Zukor, who had long wanted Vitagraph destroyed, started to airbrush the studio from film history.

The Battle Cry of Peace was an attempt to cover the same ground as The Birth of A Nation. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster,

Of course, not all historians have followed the official story and some have done excellent work. Erish does pay tribute to the work of Anthony Slide, who wrote a short history in 1976 and then teamed with Alan Grevinson to produce a longer version published in 1987, which Grevinson further revised in 1993.[7] Charles Musser has recognised the contribution of Vitagraph in the first volume of History of American Cinema and elsewhere.[8]  Eileen Bowser also gave the studio respectful coverage in the second volume of the series.[9] Erish cites both extensively. While their work is important, it now clear that Vitagraph has found a suitable champion. Erish has demonstrated that the studio is far more crucial in American cinema history than previously considered. What is evident on almost every page is the deep knowledge that Erish possesses about early cinema and his overwhelming enthusiasm for it. While it is a demanding and detailed read, it is a fine piece of historical research as well as a testament to a largely unsung part of American cinema.

[1] Andrew A. Erish, Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

[2] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 1.

[3] Albert Smith and Phil Koury, Two Reels and A Crank, New York: Doubleday, 1952.

[4] Phil Koury, Yes Mr DeMille, New York: Putnam, 1959.

[5] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s first Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 10.

[6] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 47.

[7] Anthony Slide and Alan Grevinson, The Big V, A History of the Vitagraph Company, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1987.

[8] Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. History of the American Cinema; v. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 253 – 254.

[9] Eileen Bowser. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

The haunted figure returning to a town: The Dry and its antecedents

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Alan Ladd in Shane (1953), where a drifting gunfighter arrives at the homestead and tries to settle down. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

It is a simple plotline where a traveller appears on the horizon and arrives at a remote town.  The wanderer may be returning to the town or arriving for the first time. At the end of the film, the traveller leaves the town having faced the past or resolved present tensions or both.  The image appears again and again in films up to the present day. It is a standard way to start many films – particularly in westerns.  While the start may be similar, the scene opens up a wealth of stories. After their work, they cannot stay and must move on. In each of these films, the central figure leaves a town that is changed by their presence. The highly regarded Australian film, The Dry (2020), is the most recent example, but it is mainly seen in American westerns.

A central example is Shane (1953), where a drifting gunfighter arrives at the homestead and tries to settle down.  Giving up his shady past, Shane works hard for a family establishing a farm. Hoping to leave a lifetime of violence, Shane must deal with his demons while protecting a town and the family from its violent enemies. While Shane begins to fit into the community, he soon realises that he cannot stay if he is to defend the community. Once Shane has defeated the town’s enemies, he must leave as the gunfighter cannot silence his torments. He leaves, saying to a young boy that idolises him: ‘Joey, there’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.’[1] Shane was a highly popular and influential film, and it was itself derivative of any number of westerns, which told the story in different ways. The ideas run through many of Clint Eastwood’s westerns in High Plains Drifter (1973), where the gunfighter was pure vengeance, and of course, Pale Rider (1985), which was essentially an update of Shane.

In The Man Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart cannot esacpe the lie of his past and must leave Shinbone.

John Ford provided a variation on the theme in The Man Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where Senator Ranson Stoddard returns to Shinbone after a long absence. Stoddard comes back to honor the memory of Tom Doniphon, who died a drunken and broken man. His return sparks the local newspaper editor’s interest, who does not accept his initial stories about the reasons for returning. After a while, Stoddard reluctantly reveals the real story behind the shooting of the loathsome Liberty Valance. The killing of the despised outlaw in self defence propelled him on to a great political career, but it was based on a lie. In telling the story, Stoddard returns some dignity to the figure of Tom Doniphon, who was a far more heroic figure than the town drunk. Stoddard has finally told the truth, perhaps looking for some dignity for his former friend and a release from the burden of living a lie. In Ford’s western universe, even when  the truth is told, it is better to ‘print the legend.’

Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear-cut attacks on the McCarthyite era’s politics. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The scene is not confined to westerns, and the films often had political and social messages. Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear-cut attacks on the McCarthyite era’s politics.  John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, is a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  He aimed to give a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years, and the townspeople were uneasy with his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’ 

The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno, a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said: ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[2] The film has strong political undertones. Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  Eventually, Macreedy defeats Reno, uncovering the truth of the past. The medal is given to the town to begin its healing after the ravages of Reno. Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, one of the petitioners for Joseph L. Mankiewicz and produced by Dore Schary, who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.[3]  The declaration signalled an anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls on 24 November 1947.  The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.[4]  They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that they were not a communist.  This declaration meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation.  The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs. Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[5]  It was clear that these events impacted the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

It seems to be a world away from the Hollywood Westerns. Yet The Dry belongs to this group of films, which have essentially the same basic plot. The individual has some tortured relationship with the town and left for various reasons – good or bad. In The Dry, Aaron Falk is a Federal Police Officer who returns to his hometown in rural Australia, suffering from a year-long drought. Falk is to attend his childhood friend Luke’s funeral. Luke is thought to have killed his wife and son and then committed suicide. Played by Eric Bana,  Falk does not want to return to the town, as he left under a cloud, suspected of killing his teenage sweetheart Ellie Deacon. Even though he wants to stay only a day, Falk immediately suspects that something has been missed in the investigation. Linking with the local police, Falk tries to prove that Luke was innocent and deal with the past accusations.

This investigation is conducted against the backdrop of the town’s pent-up rage spurred by the ongoing drought. Despite these obstacles, by the end of the film, Falk has resolved the town’s problems – aside from the drought – and is ready to move away. In an almost classic sequence at the end of The Dry, Falk walks away from the camera towards the horizon. Falk is almost riding off into the sunset like Shane or Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. In Bay Day at Black Rock, Macreedy takes the train, as does Ranson Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard says to his wife that he would like to return to the town in their retirement – his wife agrees wholeheartedly but realises it is a pipe dream when the conductor says: “Nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” They realise the western myth will not leave them alone. Like the others, these figures have resolved the tensions of the town and need to move on.

The nameless gunfighter becomes a force of revenge in High Plains Drifter (1973). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Shane Listing on IMDB, accessed at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046303/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu, accessed on 15 April 2021.

[2] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman.

[3] Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1969, p. 154.  Alogn with Schary, producers Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wagner opposed the declaration.

[4] Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p. 332.

[5] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975,  700-716.

In charge: Women CEOs in American cinema

A distant ancestor of the recent women CEO films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The upcoming film Bad Blood depicting the rise and fall of Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is creating strong interest. The film is based on her company’s collapse, which at one point, was worth more than $9 billion. The company’s forunes were based on flawed technology, blatant lying and sheer gall. After whistleblowers exposed it, Theranos collapsed. At one point, Holmes was the world’s youngest billionaire, and her personal and corporate disintegration was sensational news. Such a story is too enticing for Hollywood film executives.

While Bad Blood is based on a true story of corporate greed, some recent fictional creations explore the same territory. I Care A Lot (Prime) and a limited TV series, The One (Netflix), also share a theme of a strong and highly capable woman leading an organisation. Whatever the strengths of these CEOs, they are also both deeply flawed.

The movie I Care a Lot (2020) was written and directed by Johnathan Blakeson. The film stars Rosamund Pike as a court-appointed guardian who seizes older people’s assets for her own financial benefit. She identifies and targets a vulnerable or isolated older adult. With the backing of corrupt medical and nursing home officials, she locks them away from legal or family support.

Pike plays Marla Grayson, a scammer who makes a living by convincing the legal system to grant her guardianship over elders that she argues cannot take care of themselves. To do so, she ensures they cannot contact any outside support, or she targets those with little or no family support. This guardianship causes great distress to some remaining relatives. Grayson strips away their assets and milks them until they die – when they are cashed out. The business is highly immoral, but the film is a black comedy demonstrating that the clever and ruthless can exploit the most vulnerable. Marla Grayson has few redeeming features, but she is utterly fearless after she goes a step too far in imprisoning a relative of the mafia. Her fight with the mafia is the spine of the film.

While I Care A Lot is positioned in a remotely possible real-world, The One is a TV series that takes some basic scientific ideas and then stretches them to the limit of plausibility. A brilliant scientist Rebecca Webb develops a business using her DNA-based matchmaking service.  You can find ‘the one’ which is your soulmate or your one true love. Webb is a driven businesswoman who will not even flinch at murder. Webb, played by Hannah Ware, seems unstoppable with her business ready to float on the stock exchange, and billions are to be made – until a body is found in the Thames. The evidence points to Webb being the murderer of her co-founder.

One common thread in these shows is that women CEOs contain some form of deep-seated flaw. For Grayson, it is her absolute indifference to the pain and suffering she creates among the elderly and their relatives. In Webb’s case, it is her ability to lurch suddenly into violence to get what she needs. Whatever the strengths of these women in business, they are also both deeply unsound.  It raises some interesting points about the depiction of successful women – does the entertainment industry prefer women to have serious shortcomings when they are successful?

The portrayal of flawed women acting as CEOs has a long tradition in Hollywood. A distant ancestor of these films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Despite the success, her daughter remains ungrateful and destructive. Mildred Pierce cannot see the evil she is fostering pandering to her daughter’s every materialistic need. Her drive for money makes her blind to the consequences. In each of these depictions of successful businesswomen, there is a deep flaw embedded in their character.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sideline his family, and destroy all he touches. Indeed, the evil CEO is almost a stock figure in American fiction. In response, in the 1950s, the ultra-conservative ideologue Ayn Rand, in her Screen Guide For Americans, specifically said that industrialists should not be smeared.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sideline his family, and destroy all he touches. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rand was partially correct as the evil corporate magnate/cattle baron/landlord is a familiar enough figure in American cinema. After her testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947, Rand wrote the guide in November 1947 to eradicate communism from the screen.[1] The 12-page leaflet said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man should not be smeared; that failure and the collective should not be glorified; and that communist writers, directors, and producers should not be hired.[2] The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand bragged that the arts section of The New York Times had printed it in full; however, it was only mentioned in summary in a small article.[3] What Rand would make of the current crop of depictions of CEOs would send her spinning in the grave.

One other trait in these recent films is a downtrodden male counterpoint to the female CEO in The One and I Care A Lot. One aggrieved male seeks violent revenge on the female CEOs, and despite their success, the women can be cut down by their attacks. In I Care A Lot, the aggrieved man wears a red baseball cap like the ‘Make America Great Again’ caps worn by former President Donald Trump supporters. Trump was elected as a ‘wrecker.’ In an era where Trump supporters have stormed the Capitol building, these films reveal a savage undercurrent. The films also show an underlying male rage against female success.

[1] Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia : Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005) 176.

[2] Ayn Rand, ‘Screen Guide For Americans, The Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideals.’ https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupid?key=olbp26775/ (accessed January 8, 2020).

[3] Thomas F Brady, ‘Alliance Group Issues Screen Guide for Americans’, New York Times, November 16, 1947. Rand’s memory may have confused The New York Times with the anti-communist newsletter Plain Talk in November 1947, which did print it in full.