Essential: HUNTED (1952)

Part 1 of 2

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Dirk Bogarde and Jon Whiteley

TB: Dirk Bogarde said HUNTED was his personal favorite of all the motion pictures he made, and it’s easy to see why it was such a special experience for him. I think he does a remarkable job, and nearly all his scenes occur with young Jon Whiteley. Whiteley was a novice to moviemaking but he’s a natural. Thoughts on their working relationship, and the relationship between their two characters, Chris and Robbie?

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JL: I saw at least one documentary on Dirk’s career but did not know what films were his favorites. It is a different kind of role for a leading man of romantic films at this early stage of his career, so I can understand why he liked it. Later, of course, he took on equally curious and sometimes sinister roles for Luchino Visconti and others in the more “international” period of his career. No, he does not look like the killer type, but that is based on how stereotypical killers are portrayed on screen.

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JL: Jon Whiteley is a natural, as is Hayley Mills (who will be discussed next week). However this is the only role I have seen him in. I have not seen THE SPANISH GARDENER. He reminds me of the two most famous on-screen Oliver Twists. Not Jackie Coogan, but John Howard Davies and Mark Lester. Obviously these boys contrast from spunky Hayley who is a bundle of energy and has little trouble taking care of herself. The character of Robbie constantly needs somebody’s personal care.

Chris and Robbie

TB: On screen the relationship between Chris and Robbie evolves considerably. At first, Chris is a bit rough with Robbie (not unlike the boy’s abusive adoptive father). But gradually Chris softens. It’s an unusual sort of redemption story. Would you agree?

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JL: The way Chris grabs Robbie by the arm and drags him about reminded me of the way both of my parents were with me. They were very impatient with me, even though they weren’t criminals on the run like Chris here. That is why the key scene with the boarding house lady (Jane Aird) is so important. She notices he has been through abuse and we, the viewers, know it is not on account of Chris.

TB: We do not get too much of Robbie’s backstory.

JL: From what we gather, Robbie was playing with matches and burned his stepmother’s curtains but thinks he burned down the house. Believing he is a criminal at the tender age of seven, he is running away…and winding up with another criminal that he discovered standing over a corpse. Chris is a sympathetic character we find ourselves oddly rooting for. We do not see the murder take place and are not entirely sure if it was partly an accident and partly a result of Chris getting caught up in his passions, but murder is still murder and his running away is not helping his case.

Fugitives

TB: The premise doesn’t seem like it would generate strong box office. We have a violent killer running off with a troubled boy. Initially, nobody they meet seems to suspect them of being fugitives. But things do get more difficult for them when Chris makes the front page of the newspaper. Do you find them being able to take off so easily a realistic thing?

JL: You say he is a “violent killer” but that is major problem here for me. We don’t see how the murder is committed and whether it was done in cold-blood or more accidentally. He does appear dazed and upset when we first see him as if he is trying to process what had happened. We also don’t see Chris particularly “violent” during the rest of the movie.

TB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris does not exhibit violent tendencies after the murder.

JL: Regarding whether or not the police was too slow in responding (testing our sense of realism here), what I found particularly interesting were all of the scenes of bombed out buildings that hadn’t been rebuilt after a war that ended six or seven years ago. It sent a message that Great Britain still had plenty of “rubble” to sort through and that it was rather easy for certain criminals to get a head start in their escapes.

Two lost souls

TB: I read a comment in a user review on the IMDb that I think is worth bringing up. A reviewer said “They are two lost souls traversing the countryside together. They are two people of different ages teaming up for a common cause.”

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TB: Do you agree with this? At what point, do we take the rose-colored glasses off and say you know what, this is really a story about child abduction? I think society in late 1951 when this movie was filmed, obviously was very different from society now. It would be a tough sell to make this film today and try to market it as a feel-good buddy film. Also I think people would automatically assume he abducted the boy for sexual reasons. It wouldn’t seem so innocent now. What’s your take on that aspect of the film?

JL: On the surface, it seems like Robbie has been kidnapped as a witness to a crime and his step-parents are with the police trying to find him. Yet Robbie wants to stay with Chris. It is not like Chris is mean at him at all.

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JL: We do not know all of the plot details right away, which makes the story all the more interesting. For example, we are merely teased early on who the corpse is in a newspaper Chris reads, but much later find out, after confronting his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), that he was her boss whom she may have been having an affair with. Likewise, we only much later learn, as they are staying at a boarding house, that Robbie has bruises on his body that did NOT come from Chris. No, home is not a happy place for him to be.

TB: How do Chris and Robbie relate to one another? They form a rather strong bond in a short period of time.

JL: Chris can relate to Robbie’s lack of family love. His own brother refuses to take them in, although he was still nice enough to feed them, because of his “reputation with the community.” These two are outsiders who have nobody but each other. They bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in THE DEFIANT ONES) while on the run, even if running is not the best option for seven year olds who happen to get sick… and, as a result, Chris must make the ultimate decision in the dramatic climax aboard a herring boat.

Postwar poverty and the influence of Italian neorealism

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and discuss the overarching theme. Or at least one of the main themes, which is postwar poverty. HUNTED conveys a sense of gritty realism and there’s very little sentimentality, except in a few key scenes. Robbie doesn’t smile until halfway into the story. And he doesn’t laugh until near the end. But then he gets sick, so his sunny disposition doesn’t last long. There really isn’t a lot of joy in this movie. Any specific thoughts on that?

JL: I saw a lot of similarities to the Italian imports, the neorealism of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini and future Bogarde director Visconti. One key smiling scene of Robbie eating pasta with Chris and his brother reminded me of a similar scene in the pessimistic THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which topped the Sight & Sound poll the same year this film was released to theaters and was a benchmark of sorts that many “artistic” film-makers were imitating.

TB: Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue to discuss HUNTED and what makes it so special.

Please be sure to join us for Part 2…

Part 2 of 2

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More about Italian neorealism

TB: Okay, we’re back to continue our discussion of HUNTED. When we left off yesterday, we had been discussing how the film’s director (Charles Crichton) was probably influenced by Italian neorealism. Anything else you’d like to say about that?

JL: This film is quite similar to other thrillers of the period that made great use of locales, but NOT in a tourist “pretty travelogue” sense. The Italians were presenting their country warts and all. The Brits and Yanks were impressed enough to do the same, but we do get some lovely countryside later on.

TB: Yes, good point.

JL: I am not sure if Visconti’s OSESSIONE had much of a release in the U.K. by this time and whether or not Chris Crichton and cinematographer Eric Cross saw it before doing this one. My guess is that they had only seen THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a gargantuan international box-office smash.

Memorable scenes

TB: A few scenes stand out to me. Meaning I thought they were expertly staged and acted. Number one, I loved the scene where they jump off the old bridge on to the train. It’s a nail biter.

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TB: Also, I consider the scene where Chris tells Robbie the bedtime story to be very memorable. It’s a clever way to use to reveal some of Chris’ backstory. And I think the scenes at the end are particularly effective– the part where Chris turns back the boat, and when he carries a very sick Robbie off the boat.

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TB: Did these scenes affect you, too? Or were there other moments that stood out for you in HUNTED?

JL: The train scene was great, but we get a lot of those in these types of films. I also liked all of the shots of gulls at the end.

TB: There’s a lack of background music in many of the scenes. This helps us focus on what the characters are saying and thinking. Did you notice this?

JL: Yes, there were scenes with no music but I didn’t notice it as particularly unusual, but that is an interesting perspective.

Camera work

TB: What are your thoughts on the way it was filmed?

JL: There were some great opening shots done from a small boy’s eye level. The first part of the movie showcases Robbie’s point of view; lots of low angle shots, close ups of horses startled in the city streets and adults looking down at the viewer. Later, when the emphasis shifts to Chris the adult lead, the camera compositions change.

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TB: Yes. I hadn’t considered the different vantage points, in terms of how the characters were photographed.

JL: All of the earlier shots focus on Robbie’s point of view with the camera angles presented accordingly. Also we don’t see the actual crime committed but come into the aftermath scene just as Robbie does. Therefore, we can understand why he becomes attracted to Chris and does not fear him as a murderer.

TB: The camerawork seems to change when they reach the boarding house. There are group shots, from more of an omniscient point of view.

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JL: There are also some very nice Hitchcockian set-pieces too, including the all-important railroad track narrow escape scene. One particularly good scene earlier in the movie predates Cary Grant at Grand Central station in Hitch’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Chris tries to get quick cash on a coat but the pawnshop owner gets suspicious and gets on a phone in the next room. While he pretends he is only calling a potential buyer rather than the authorities, Chris knows better. Outside the window, a cop is questioning Robbie why he isn’t in school. Like Cary’s Roger, he is not waiting around to find out what happens next.

The film’s conclusion

TB: What about the end of the movie?

JL: Love those shots of gulls flapping past herring boats, symbolizing Chris’ need to literally… fly away.

TB: The final sequence of HUNTED is very visual. The long tracking shot at the end where he brings Robbie up from the boat while the crowd and the police are swarming along the dock is certainly memorable. And things are left unresolved in a way– will Robbie go back to live with his adoptive parents, or will he be placed in a new home? What will happen to Chris and his wife?

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TB: Also, will Chris’ brother ever acknowledge him? There are a few plot threads dangling, which makes us wonder what happens next. It’s a great movie, and it gives us so much to consider.

HUNTED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT (1956)

TopBilled wrote:

Personally I think Sloan Wilson’s life is much more interesting than the film. Wilson served in WWII and after he was discharged, he had a high-profile job in the corporate world. Like the main character, Tom Rath (played by Gregory Peck), he graduated from Harvard, was married, lived in the suburbs with his wife and had three children. Those experiences shaped the “fiction” of Wilson’s bestselling novel upon which THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT is based.

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He had written a previous book, just after the war, that detailed his days in combat. Probably writer-director Nunnally Johnson consulted the earlier material when constructing the flashback scenes. At any rate, Tom Rath was Sloan Wilson’s alter ego; and I read somewhere that he wanted Montgomery Clift to play him, not Gregory Peck. Nunnally Johnson may have preferred Clift as well, since he was said to have problems with Peck’s interpretation of the role. But I think Peck does a decent enough job, and so does Jennifer Jones (whom I ordinarily do not like) as well as the rest of the star-studded supporting cast.

The book and the film function as commentary about American conformity. We’re talking conformity in the corporate sector as well as a life of conformity in suburbia with all its trappings and “values.” Conformity and prosperity are supposedly synonymous. The two co-exist and feed off one another. But at what cost?

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Tom Rath may be dressed in a sharp looking suit (a symbol of his success), but he is seemingly unhappy with the demands of his job. Plus there are various domestic crises that arise while he’s away at work. Added to this is the fact he’s still suffering from PTSD. We see quite a few haunting flashbacks of his time in battle. Many of these memories occur while he is on the train each day, commuting to and from the office.

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The flashbacks were a major criticism of reviewers who first saw the film in 1955, feeling they were a bit excessive. Again I think these extended wartime scenes may have been inspired by Wilson’s earlier book, which explains why this seems like two movies put into one.

Another criticism is the fact that there are numerous subplots and it would appear none of Wilson’s writing was cut. Perhaps Johnson and the folks at 20th Century Fox were just too enamored with the material to whittle it down into anything less than a two-hour running time. While I do believe all the plots support the main theme and are therefore relevant, I am sure some editing would have helped. It doesn’t have to be an overblown opus.

I guess the subplot involving Tom’s illegitimate son in Europe, by an Italian woman (Marisa Pavan), is the strand I find most interesting. The book clearly states that Tom had already been married to wife Betsy before he went overseas and cheated on her. The movie dilutes that sort of adultery and suggests he was not yet married to Betsy when he went abroad and fathered a child without telling her. 

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Sloan Wilson wrote a sequel in 1984 called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II. This publication was not a bestseller and hasn’t been adapted. In the mid-80s there was much interest in depicting conflicts about Vietnam in books and on screen. In the sequel, Wilson advances the drama to the year 1963. He has Tom Rath’s twenty year old Italian son come to Connecticut to look him up, before going overseas to serve in Nam, where he is then killed. 

The sequel also chronicles the end of Tom and Betsy’s marriage. Tom leaves Betsy and their grown kids, when he takes up with a younger woman in the days following JFK’s assassination. These events mirror the end of Wilson’s own marriage, and his remarriage to a second younger wife. In 1963, Wilson had even published a book about a corporate executive who fell for a 17 year old  beauty. As I said, I think Wilson’s own life is much more interesting than anything that is captured on screen.

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Jlewis wrote:

We have now come full circle in our month long tribute to office dramatics. Our first two features were tied by the presence of June Allyson, both in supporting roles but dominating all of her scenes. The second and third had Van Heflin, first as support and then as the star.

THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT, adapted by Nunnally Johnson from Sloan Wilson’s best selling novel, is connected to our first, EXECUTIVE SUITE, by the great Fredric March, a much-admired-in-his-lifetime Oscar and Tony award winner who has sadly been overshadowed by the competition in the more recent collective movie fan consciousness since his death in 1975.

In this one, he is just a supporting player with Gregory Peck taking center stage, but he still knows how to take advantage of his roles without chewing the scenery.

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During the first fifteen minutes, I am struck by some interesting tidbits of interest. Gregory Peck plays Tom Rath, a World War II veteran who, like many of the Greatest Generation, saw so much death and destruction that he now wants…as America enters another year of Eisenhower post-Korea War tranquility…contentment in a peaceful world full of life. This is where all of those Baby Boomers come in; he has three of them that appear to be post-war births: Janey Roth’s Portland, Sandy Descher’s Barbara and Mickey Maga’s Pete.

This seems to have been the major theme of the fifties: children, suburban life and creating an idealized family oriented life that previously felt lost by the economic depression and conflict, even though most failed to question if such an ideal ever existed in the first place.

In contrast, his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones) isn’t too happy playing her kitchen-confined role, comparing it to…a graveyard! She feels “dead” spiritually, attacking her husband for lacking the “guts” he displayed a decade earlier when they married and his not acting more “alive.”

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Perhaps she is waiting for The Feminine Mystique to get published since she needs to turn her aggression outward into something more creative. As one daughter has the chicken pox, the other questions “is she going to die?”… as if all little girls feel like they are destined the same graveyard fate as Mommy, who briefly gets sick as well.

Little Pete dresses up as a soldier as if he is reminding Pop of his more courageous past, while addicted along with his sisters to shoot ’em up westerns on TV. They are all eager to see who “gets killed” next as their daddy makes a melancholy flashback to his violent life before all of this domestic bliss.

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The title is a bit confusing. Gregory Peck’s Tom doesn’t wear much gray flannel on screen; mostly navy-ish black and brown. It may partly reference a war time experience highlighted by the key line of “If I do not get that coat, I will be dead,” which is symbolic of his life post-war and is also focused on acquiring things. An enemy soldier is brutally stabbed by him in the name of duty.

The flashbacks of the war all focus on death and procreation. His buddy in many key scenes here, who meets up with him in New York later, is Sgt. Caesar (interesting name for a wartime movie) as played by Keenan Wynn. The two of them hook up with Italian girls and we are lead to believe that Caesar is only into the one night stands while Tom seeks full romance, wooing a Jennifer Jones lookalike named Maria (Marisa Pavan). Later we learn that Caesar actually marries his date while Tom and Maria separate after she tells him she is pregnant.

It appears certain scenes may have been edited out either for time considerations or fifties censorship, since we don’t get a clear picture as to why these two broke up. Tom doesn’t mention that he is engaged to a woman back home…and even possibly married. I also wondered at first, but learn otherwise in the final climax towards the end, if Tom’s more in love with the woman and child he lost than the wife and three children he has currently. In a nutshell, the whole Maria being pregnant story becomes The Great Secret that Tom must later confess to his wife.

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I must mention right away that Bernard Herrman supplied the music score and he presents much ominous buildup echoing his later Hitchcock film VERTIGO. Note how the music changes as Tom observes a plane over the New York horizon that, again, brings us back to a wartime flashback (cue plenty of footage recycled from 20th Century Fox’s wartime color documentary THE FIGHTING LADY). This is a grim pic that needs such orchestration in certain spots and restraint in others. We hear no music over the all-important scene when Tom refuses to accept the fact that a fallen soldier is dead by an accidental hand grenade.

Inevitably this film morphs into a war veteran psychiatric drama that reminds me in certain spots of both SPELLBOUND, featuring Peck and profiled by us on this thread before, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES that features Fredric March. Oh…back to March. His character, Ralph Hopkins, is only in the second half of our film, appearing after the 58 minute mark. I was a bit confused about his occupation.

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Apparently he is both a TV executive and semi-doctor-of-sorts who wants to promote mental health services. His rebellious daughter (Gigi Perreau) elopes and shocks both him and his wife (Ann Harding) in one of those side stories that was probably more important in the original printed page than on screen. His wife accuses him later of being “married” to his job, something that Betsy worries that Tom is. A bigger point of the story is that Tom reminds him of his son, who died in combat. Again, death is the major theme here.

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The movie is quite episodic. We see Tom trying to balance work with home life, while also developing a friendship with his new boss Ralph. Meanwhile Betsy is trying to get him to agree to moving the family to her grandma’s house for a change of atmosphere. (The place is called Dragonwyck, the title of another novel which the Fox studio made into a hit movie…and also located in Connecticut, if set a century earlier.)

This brings about surprise struggles with the grumpy caretaker (Joseph Sweeney) who claims he’s the one who inherited it. Lee J. Cobb is at his most boring playing Judge Bernstein who sorts this mess out for Tom and Betsy as well as assisting them again after The Great Secret is revealed towards the end.

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The climax of all climaxes happens when Caesar reunites with Tom at the TV network offices and reveals that he married Maria’s cousin and Maria had Tom’s child shortly after marrying a man who, again, died…like so many characters in the story…and are struggling financially in post-war Italy. Thus, Tom must confess The Great Secret to his wife and, no, she does not take it well at first. She hops into their car and drives away from him and the family in a state of anger, eventually running out of gas and getting picked up by the cops.

OK. This all gets soapy dramatic, but I must make a confession here. I really like Jennifer Jones here, giving a pretty believable performance that suggests that she as the actress off screen might have dealt with similar situations in her own life as either the wife in question or “that other woman.”

It is not so much the issue that Tom was sexual with others (since this may or may not have been before they were married), but the fact that he kept it a secret for all of these years and she has suddenly lost all trust in him. Alas…in true Hollywood happy ending fashion, it is settled quickly. The noble wife accepts what happened after soul searching, forgives him, then assists him in getting the judge to help them finance a boy in Italy who is not hers. I wasn’t convinced by Peck’s performance here in swaying her his way.

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A number of familiar faces cover minor characters here, but I tend to feel that they aren’t terribly important to our main story except as colorful background enhancement. Arthur O’Connell plays co-worker Gordon, interesting mostly for that set of golf clubs always within reach of his corporate desk (that being his “family” he must occasionally sacrifice for working hours) and Gene Lockhart as boring Bill Hawthorne who shares the long train rides with Tom from Connecticut to The Big Apple.

Connie Gilchrist is a delight in her few moments on screen as the hired maid supervising the kids by being noisier than they are. Too bad Roy Glenn, famous in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER as Sidney Poitier’s daddy, doesn’t get screen credit for his bit role as a “colored” sergeant. I am also curious about the snide Brit executive go-between with Ralph and Gordon who gets plenty of key lines despite no billing. The imdb.com site reveals many others who appeared in cut scenes that were filmed but not used, probably because the running time was too long.

As hinted in my commentary, I think the main problem with this movie is that the story was way too expansive for just one movie. Several characters, including Ralph, were not terribly well fleshed out and the most important story arcs, like that of Tom and Maria’s separation, were not presented well in detail. Much is glossed over due to time restraints and maybe this story demanded a lengthier treatment of GONE WITH THE WIND proportions to satisfy viewers.

THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Interview: Little Orphan Shirley

A great interview for you today. Little Orphan Shirley has come by the studio.

TB: First, Shirley, tell us what it was like working on the Fox lot in the 1930s.

LOS: Well, yeah, it was great. I had my own bungalow there. I had really great costars. And I got to force people to eat my vegetables. If they didn’t eat my lima beas, then I’d just get them fired. It was great. Jane Withers ate a lot of vegetables on the set of BRIGHT EYES. But of course she took it out on me on screen.

TB: I see. While doing my research, I learned that you were up for a role in GONE WITH THE WIND.

LOS: It’s true, I was. David Selznick thought maybe he should make Scarlett a little girl. But when Margaret Mitchell found out, she put her foot down and vetoed my casting. But it was alright. I had already done THE LITTLE COLONEL. People don’t realize that Bette Davis as Jezebel, and myself, we were the first ones to successfully have slaves in the movies. People remember Vivien Leigh for this. But Bette and I were the trailblazers.

TB: I recently watched THE BLUE BIRD (1940) and I must say I didn’t care for it very much.

LOS: Oh that’s okay. I didn’t care for it either. In fact I tried to get out of doing it. I think the script had me doing something with a bird that was blue, right? It was just all very uninspired. I was lobbying for John Ford to put me in THE GRAPES OF WRATH around that time.

He had already directed me in WEE WILLIE WINKIE. But the front office said no, I couldn’t go to California in a jalopy. Nobody would believe buy me as a victim of the Dust Bowl. I told them that if they put me in the movie, I could maybe tap dance while picking grapes with Henry Fonda but still they said no. Instead I had to do that dreadful bird movie and I know I would have been happier as a Joad, even if I had to be poor and bury my granny in the desert before we go to California.

TB: Some of the scripts they gave you were very formulaic. You were always playing the same type of character, weren’t you?

LOS: Oh yes, without a doubt. I used to get all excited when a new script was sent to me. I’d start reading it with one of my drama coaches and be really happy. Until I got to page 20. That’s always when they killed off my mother. Then around page 35 they’d kill off my father. If you watch REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, you will see that I am not crying because I’m an orphan. I’m crying because I am being typecast.

TB: You poor thing. But at least some of your teenage roles in the mid-40s were better. You were able demonstrate a bit more versatility.

LOS: Definitely. That’s after I left Fox and went to work for David Selznick’s company. But still he didn’t put me in any films that had me going to bed with anyone. My only bedroom scenes were in my early movies and those involved me and my teddy bear.

TB: Well, you performed those scenes beautifully.

LOS: Thank you. There’s a nice photo of Teddy in my autobiography.

TB: Speaking of your autobiography, I was shocked to read that your parents had spent most of the money you made, on themselves, and that they didn’t put it in a trust for you.

LOS: Oh yes, I detail all that in the book. My parents saw me as Shirley Incorporated, just a daughter that brought money to them. If only I could have been an orphan in real life, I would have had a better childhood. I would at least have had a happy ending. And I might not have married John Agar.

TB: You and John had a child together, didn’t you?

LOS: Well yes, but I was still playing virgins on screen at the time. So my first child was more of an immaculate conception. We did ADVENTURE IN BALTIMORE and it was an adventure keeping my pregnancy a secret.

TB: What was it like after your movie career, when you went into politics?

LOS: It was a lot of fun. I got to travel to all kinds of interesting places and sing The Good Ship Lollipop. By that point, my dear friend Jane Withers was doing Comet commercials. But I was out there in the world making a huge difference. On one of my goodwill tours, I visited an orphanage. And you know what, I just felt right at home. They had a meal for me in my honor, and they were so nice they didn’t even serve any vegetables.

Essential: Play for Today- The Other Woman (1976)

The synopsis for this 71-minute episode of Play for Today is written thusly on BritBox:

Kim, an angry young artist, disrupts the lives of Robin & Niki when a love triangle is formed between the three of them.

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I suppose you could call this an openly bisexual version of JULES AND JIM with a bit of GEORGY GIRL thrown in. Though that might be stretching it. The actress who plays neurotic Kim, Jean Lapotaire, is quite good. She essays the part convincingly. Since Kim is the central character, she appears in almost every scene. We observe her life with Robin (Michael Gambon), an older rich gentleman who functions as a benefactor/sugar daddy out of love; and we also see Kim’s life with a sexy model named Niki (Peter Sellers’ widow Lynne Frederick), with whom she has an affair on the side.

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At one point Kim leaves Robin’s home and moves into Niki’s apartment. But Kim’s main preoccupation is her art. Since her painting means the most to her, it is imperative that whether she lives with Robin or with Niki, she has an extra room for her supplies and a place for her latest subject to sit so she can paint them. In Niki’s cramped place, Niki of course is her subject. They have a lot of sex.

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However, they end up having an explosive fight. As a result, Kim leaves Niki and goes back to Robin. What I like about this particular drama is how messy it is. It is not neatly compact, there is no easy solution; and you have to think about the characters and the predicaments they experience.

Niki is experimenting with her sexuality and when she thinks she is a lesbian, she lets Kim move in and mentor her sexually. This mirrors how Robin mentors Kim, because Kim has sex with him in a submissive way like Niki is submissive with her. We can never be sure where Kim is happiest– as the user or as the used. Though she makes a thorough bungling of both relationships. 

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Ultimately Kim returns to Robin. After the big fight with Niki, it is learned that Niki also went back to men and decided to get married. There’s an amusing sequence when Niki is on her way to the church where her bridegroom is waiting. The limo gets stopped by Kim. Kim pulls Niki out of the car and asks if she’s going to like being married to a man. She kisses Niki passionately in the middle of the road. But it’s really a kiss goodbye, since Niki soon returns to the car and continues proceeding towards the church.

I should also mention that there is a subplot where Kim tells Niki earlier in the story that she once was married. Apparently she had a son too, and lost him. This all comes full circle at the end because a painting that Kim finishes is of a Madonna. I guess we are to believe Niki will also become a mother in her new marriage. But will she find lasting joy, or will she turn out to be a messed up bisexual like Kim?

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Essential: PATTERNS (1956)

TopBilled wrote:

It’s Friday evening as I watch PATTERNS on YouTube. I’ve seen the film about five times now.

I am thinking about things that happened at work today. The top executive in our office, a man who has been at the company for 18 years, announced he’s leaving on December 4th. The company was sold/taken over a year ago and there have been gradual changes in the past twelve months, but losing our executive is a huge change. One of my coworkers believes it’s because he is not attuned to the newer direction of our business.

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Unlike what happens with Ed Begley’s character in the movie, our executive is leaving on friendly terms. But he’s still leaving. I don’t think people leave on bad terms much these days, because there are financial incentives to keep people in line if their contracts are bought out. They want good references for the next big job. Plus if the door can be left open, maybe they’ll be back in the future.

Related to a shake-up at the top of the ladder, there are rumblings felt along the middle rungs and lower rungs. In addition to being told the executive in charge of our office was leaving today, I also found out my department is being restructured. In December I will be “cross-trained” to learn other processes across various departments as well as take on new responsibilities in my own department. Several new people are being added to our team in the next six weeks. You wouldn’t even know a pandemic is going on, since business is thriving and there is all this new energy and direction.

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I guess I am blessed because we are prospering and I should not complain. I don’t feel stress the way Van Heflin does in PATTERNS, but I do feel the need to make my mark in a substantial way that is for the good of the company and those who work alongside me.

I try to have personal relationships with as many people as I can at the office, because I believe I can learn valuable things from others if I am open to them. Patterns is a great word when you think about it, because there are rituals or processes that get repeated daily as well as long-term. Ritualistic events define our productivity. We all have a place within this environment.

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Jlewis wrote:

Our previous two films discussed are tied together by the presence of June Allyson. PATTERNS, in turn, follows WOMAN’S WORLD with Van Heflin as the connecting star. It is more famous today, however, as a key TV drama turned theatrical movie that was famously scripted by Rod Serling in his pre-Twilight Zone days. In this case, the writer is an even bigger star than the faces appearing on screen or the director, Fielder Cook.

Cinematic adaptations of small screen one-shots featured in such anthology series as Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90, this story broadcast live on the former initially on January 12, 1955, were very much in vogue thanks to the Oscar winning MARTY and probably reached their peak in popularity soon after this one with 12 ANGRY MEN.

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Hollywood liked these adaptations because they were cheap, often done in black and white just like the small screen originals but usually with at least one big star involved to get people to pay for tickets after previously seeing the same story presented for free.

Here we get Heflin instead of Ernest Borgnine or Henry Fonda, plus a roster of less familiar but well-crafted character performers: Everette Sloane (famous in CITIZEN KANE but more familiar to the public at the time for his outstanding radio work…and featured in the TV version of Patterns); Ed Begley (who also appeared in the TV original as well as the already mentioned 12 ANGRY MEN); Beatrice Straight (mostly a stage success apart from her Oscar win in NETWORK later, again playing the wife of the lead star); and Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s Mommy in THE GRADUATE a.k.a. “Say hello to Mrs. Robinson” but she looks so much older in her dress-code here as Marge the secretary-in-trouble that you would think the other film featured her daughter instead).

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I saw this one before, years ago, and had forgotten some key details of interest. Right after the opening credits, I noticed a surprising number of working women present, instead of merely being housewives or being related to the company boss/owner. Yes, most are secretaries like Nina Foch’s Erica in EXECUTIVE SUITE but it is still nice seeing so many of them together on screen. I should also comment on all of the Big Ben sounding “gongs” that suggest time is of an essence here; everybody is punctual and demanding on screen, most notably Everette Sloane’s Walter Ramsey.

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Heflin plays Fred Staples, a newcomer to the corporate life and our set of “outside eyes” to this universe. Ed Begley’s William Briggs is the first male colleague on Fred’s new job that he meets and the friendliest; he too comes from a small town (Altoona, Pennsylvania vs. Fred’s Mansfield, Ohio) but has had more experience with the city rat race.

Shortly after all of the friendly discussions, we get a sense that these two are in some sort of competition with each other even though Fred does not see it this way in the beginning.

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One advantage that the newer movie adaptations had over their “live” TV originals was more creativity and flexibility with camera angles and cinematography overall. I like Boris Kaufman’s work here in conveying emotional depth by merely showing how close or far away the performers appear on screen. For example, one key shot in the final few minutes shows Fred’s wife Nancy (Beatrice Straight) standing against a side of the corporation’s wall as if she feels like she does not belong in such a foreboding place, as Fred approaches from the distance after making his pact with the Devil, so-to-speak.

Earlier in the film, right after a hostile board meeting when William argues with Walter about the laying off of innocent employees as a struggling sub-company is re-organized, we get a shot of them being cordial afterwards but Walter cozy-ing up to Fred in the background with a worried looking and showing-his-age William in deep-focus foreground, isolated.

This theme of being pushed out in favor of youth and vitality is suggested by William’s former (now Fred’s) secretary Marge Fleming in a key speech with Fred. He does not take her seriously at first. But head boss Walter confirms it later after a party at Fred’s new home (furnished, of course, by the company that has high expectations for him).

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All of this throws Fred into the dilemma of either helping out the friendly underdog or helping himself up the ladder of success. As the saying goes, what…and who…goes up must, at some point, come down.

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There is also a biblical theme of the sins of the fathers being passed to the sons…or maybe something a bit different that I merely mix up with this theme. I do have a strange way of interpreting many of these films.

Walter’s father started the company and Walter the son has run it financially well since his passing. Yet he has lost his touch with humanity, being less caring of employees than his father was and currently William, whom he is eager to move out to pasture like a retired race horse. He also sees William as a relic of a bygone era (like the Stanley Steamer) that is no longer needed in this colder, more disciplined “pattern”-istic world.

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The movies of the fifties have a cynical view of capitalism with, as discussed earlier by righteous William Holden’s Don Walling in EXECUTIVE SUITE, too much emphasis on the almighty dollar rather than The Almighty. A couple Twilight Zone episodes that the Saturnian-minded Rod Serling personally worked on shared similar story ideas about too much discipline, ambition and structure destroying the human spirit, echoing the way fascist governments often run things. “The Obsolete Man” episode of season 2 reminds me of PATTERNS despite its sci fi futuristic setting with Burgess Meredith’s Romney resembling William as one who does not fit in such a cut-throat world but is willing to die on principal regardless.

Walter may not be as evil as some political dictator, but the clever camera work does often show actor Everette Sloane half shadowed (often above the forehead), half lit…more often than the other two key stars, who are presented that way mostly when debating their consciences. Walter has no conscience but is quite comfortable living in both the “dark” and “light” sides of life. Begley’s William does teeter towards the dark when he loses himself and needs Fred to sustain him. When plotting out loud some sort of revenge on Walter, his hands are lit by a lamp below as if he is some sorcerer trying to conjure a curse.

The dialogue does get preachy at times. Also over acted at times, with Sloane’s Walter constantly in a state of rage. A few key lines of his could be viewed by some viewers as anti-religious and this may have been Serling’s intention.

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Walter tells Fred “You walk out here with a halo because you spoke your mind? What do you do then? Go to work for some nickel and dime outfit run by nice people?” I particularly like his earlier line of “I just happen to feel that the atmosphere of a large corporation can’t be constantly cathedral like” (which Nancy hears as she enters the room and reacts in surprise); this line stands out to me due to so many early shots of the business interiors involving high arches and marble, suggesting a knock-off of St. Peter’s in Rome. Predictably Walter is always looking ahead or looking down rather than up.

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William is presented as the polar opposite of Walter: the sacrificial lamb, scapegoat or some sort of motif reference to Christ himself sacrificing for the “sins of humanity” (cue a casual comment about him “carrying the cross”). Like the married-with-kids characters in our previous films this month, we know that William is “good” because he established a domesticated home life and, despite being a widower, he still has a supportive teenage son Paul (Ronnie Welsh) who likes baseball just like Allyson and Holden’s son in EXECUTIVE SUITE.

In a rather ominous foreshadow scene, Paul visits his dad’s workplace at night and thinks it resembles a morgue full of “dead” people…without realizing his own dad is there! Fred is married too but no kids and his wife constantly acts as his Jiminy Cricket “conscious,” questioning him if he should go along with Walter’s plan to replace William. Walter, of course, has no wife on screen and, therefore, no contented domesticated life to suggest he is a “whole” person in a 1950s sense.

The closing… spoiler alert…is quite unique, not like the traditional “happy” ones that viewers expect. Fred decides to not beat the villain but join him, agreeing to continue working after “good” has died but also bargain with Walter, who does not expect anybody to like him anyway, to always stand guard that he will continuously hate him and will bring him down accordingly when that time comes. The closing “The End” is presented over a nighttime shot of New York City in stark silence, suggesting an ominous silent world without any soul…

PATTERNS may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: Play for Today- Coming Out (1979)

To be honest, I have no idea when the phrase ‘coming out’ was first applied to gay liberation. Since this episode of the BBC’s Play for Today was produced at the end of the 70s, I expected the story about one man’s coming to terms with his sexual identity to be a bit dated. And it is. But it is also timeless.

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What we have is a 69-minute teleplay written by James Andrew Hall, and while the story revolves around lead character Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), we see how interwoven his life is with three other gay men. We start with Lewis having moved into a new home on a rainy afternoon, and he’s by himself. The story then flashes back to cover recent events in Lewis’ life. We quickly learn that in his previous residence (a modest apartment) he was cohabitating with younger lover Richie. Richie is portrayed by the very handsome Nigel Havers who for years on British television has specialized in playing cads. 

Lewis and Richie have a crisis, because Lewis is a workaholic and this leads to Richie cheating on Lewis. Richie uses Lewis for food, a bed to sleep in and new clothes. Lewis is Richie’s sugar daddy; and Richie is Lewis’ boy toy. Adding to all this is the fact that Lewis has an alter ego of sorts, using a pseudonym known as Zippy Grimes. As Zippy he writes spicy romance novels, books that detail the exploits of lustful heterosexual characters. 

Since Lewis does not have a healthy relationship with Richie, and since he has to remain in the closet so he doesn’t alienate his straight female readers, Lewis feels hemmed in. Lewis ends up sleeping with a young black male prostitute to unwind on the side. This is ironic, since he’s mostly faithful and it’s usually Richie who does the cheating.

Meanwhile there is a unique subplot where Lewis is doing research about gay men for a nonfiction piece that he is writing. At one point he visits a woman whose son recently came out of the closet. During the conversation, she says her son admitted he had his first same sex experience and liked it. She then admits that her son is a Catholic priest. 

In the next part Lewis is back in his office, and he talks with a maternal old secretary about what’s on his mind. He is still struggling with his own identity and with how to resolve issues that are cropping up in his relationship with Richie.

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Everything comes to a head later that evening when Lewis and Richie go to dinner at the home of two friends, another gay couple. The problems in the other couple’s relationship are more pronounced, and during the meal, Lewis finds out that Richie’s latest fling has been with one of the men in the other couple. Lewis and the other guy’s partner take all of this in, caught somewhat off guard at the confessions which occur at the dinner table. Although they both sort of expected their partners to be playing around, they did not exactly think their partners were playing with each other! It’s amusing and sordid at the same time.

After the meal, Lewis and Richie go home where Lewis gives Richie the cold shoulder. Lewis then decides they are over and breaks up with Richie. He never admits his dalliance with the prostitute, and he acts like he’s been more of an ideal partner than Richie could ever be. The story comes full circle, because the next day we see Lewis moving into his new home, alone, without Richie. He starts to write an article he calls ‘Coming Out’ where he tells his nonfiction readers that he’s straight writer Zippy Grimes but a homosexual.

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I found this to be a very effective installment of Play for Today. Yes, to some extent we have stereotypical gay men in stereotypical situations. At least for the time. But what strikes me about it all is how much James Andrew Hall puts into the dialogue.

I’ve been with straight men, straight-identified men, bisexual men, gay men and asexual men. But I don’t think I’ve ever lived so much in the gay scene. Hall is a writer who has lived it, to such an extent, that he cannot turn out a single line of dialogue without revealing particular attitudes that men exhibit in this subculture, per 1979 reality. I felt like I was learning new jargon, not just British slang but gay slang.

Also I was learning just how isolated these men are in terms of their own behaviors and how when four of them are alone together in a room at dinner, it all flows out so candidly. These men could not have this sort of melodramatic conversation in public. If they did, they’d probably be judged or shamed; or they would feel like they are playing to an audience who see them only as gays, not as men with real struggles specific to their needs and the dramas that envelope them within their milieu. 

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In some ways it’s a “pure gay” version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a bit of Dorian Gray vanity tossed in for good measure. Watch this provocative episode of Play for Today on BritBox and see what you think. Of course, I should put an important question to you. Does watching ‘Coming Out’ make the viewer want to come out more or does it make him want to retreat back into the closet? I suppose it depends on what he’s coming out of and what he’s going into. 

Play for Today: Coming Out may currently be streamed on BritBox.

Essential: Play for Today- Spend Spend Spend (1977)

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This particular episode of the BBC’s Play for Today series is on YouTube. It won a BAFTA award after it was initially broadcast. It is based on the life of Vivian Nicholson. Vivian was a lower class British woman whose husband won a large sum in a 1961 betting pool (sort of like a sports lottery). You can read about her online since she has a wiki page. She’s famous for an answer she gave a reporter about what they would do with all the money…she said “spend spend spend!” 

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And spend spend spend is what Vivian did. By the late 60s she was broke again and widowed. She had a few more marriages and her colorful life made her fodder for the tabloids. When the BBC commissioned the script for this installment of Play for Today, she had just written an autobiography about her rags to riches to rags story. Parts of her autobiography are used as the basis for this drama.

If you read the IMDb reviews someone says they went to a special screening of “Spend Spend Spend” in the early 2000s and Viv was in attendance at the theater with some of her family. I guess it was a way for them to recall what had happened to her. To review her (more than) 15 minutes of fame. She was still remembered by Brits when she died in 2015. 

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If you watch “Spend Spend Spend” you may come away with it, feeling what I felt– that money is certainly the cause of trouble for a lot of people. Not only for those who don’t have any, but also for those who have plenty. The tale is decidedly anti-capitalist, because we are led to believe that Viv might have been happier being poor. At the end, she returns to her old run-down neighborhood where she and her husband had lived before he won all the money. She’s very emotional, nostalgic even. Experience taught her the good life is what they had when she thought they had a bad life.

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This story resonates with me, because I had a relative who went through something similar. My uncle Greg barely finished high school, had trouble holding down jobs (blue collar jobs) his whole life…he had a series of destructive relationships with women and was aimless. He lived in poverty for years. At one point, in 2013 he was operating a forklift at a warehouse in central California and someone on the job site sexually harassed him (a male). 

Greg ended up suing and he won a large settlement against the company. Over a million dollars. He met a new woman, moved back to the midwest, bought a huge home and burned through all the money within two years. He soon lost the home, the girlfriend left him, and he wound up living in a low-rent apartment. In 2018 he died from hepatitis, caused by infections from intravenous drug use (used needles were found in his apartment after his death). He was a drug addict, something our family couldn’t discuss until he died. He was so poor at the end that he had gone on public assistance, and a person who was trying to help him rehabilitate, paid for his headstone. He is buried next to my grandparents. 

Like Viv Nicholson, my uncle had no understanding of money. It did not bring him happiness during those two years he had suddenly become wealthy. He just went back to how he had lived before. I hope he’s at peace now.

Essential: WOMAN’S WORLD (1954)

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TopBilled wrote:

It’s a pleasant way to spend 94 minutes. There are reviews on the IMDb where users discuss who comes across best, out of the seven main stars. Not sure it’s necessary to compare the performers but I did like June Allyson very much. She is playing a comedic character and I think she always does well with lighter material.

Like EXECUTIVE SUITE, which we reviewed last week, a top executive (in this case a general manager for an automotive company) has passed away and must be replaced. Unlike the previous film, three outsiders are brought to New York to be considered for the position.

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These are men selected by the owner (Clifton Webb) and they come from different parts of the country– Philadelphia (Fred MacMurray and wife Lauren Bacall); Dallas (Van Heflin and wife Arlene Dahl); and Kansas City (Cornel Wilde and wife June Allyson). Each man demonstrates a specific regional attitude, and brings his own experiences and sensibilities to the business. Meanwhile, each man’s wife has her own merits and shortcomings.

The women are being evaluated along with the men. Since this is technically a woman’s picture marketed by 20th Century Fox, we have scenes with the women bonding but of course the men bond, too. I like how the couples are mostly quite friendly with each other even though the stakes are high. What works for me is that we get to learn some of the backstory of each couple. My favorite sequence is the one where Bacall and MacMurray return to the Italian restaurant where they first dined after they were wed. MacMurray is often a bit stiff in his movies, but he appears relaxed with Bacall. When his character’s ulcer flares up after they return to the hotel, we get a nice tender moment between them.

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One wife (Dahl) is labeled a handicap. But all three women do function as slight handicaps for their husbands. Dahl is openly flirtatious and obviously unfaithful behind Heflin’s back. Bacall is about to divorce MacMurray unless he focuses on their family and his health. Allyson is clumsy with no social graces, and she lacks understanding about corporate life. But of course, despite these handicaps, the women are also just what the men need in order to be happy.

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Probably if this were remade today, one of the women would be an executive, with the husband a stay-at-home dad. Also one duo would probably be an African American couple or a same sex couple. There was an interesting comment in the reviews I read online where someone said, referencing Webb’s real-life homosexuality, that while he may have spurned Dahl’s advances he probably would have been willing to give Wilde the job if the hunky exec slept with him. 

Marilyn Monroe was supposed to play the part taken by Dahl, and I wonder if she had been in the film, if that role would have become more comedic. I don’t see Monroe being able to portray a serious vamp like Dahl does.

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Bacall was originally set for her role, then it was given to Jean Peters, before Bacall returned to the project. She conveys the right amount of sass and elegance, so it’s a bit difficult to imagine Peters doing as well with it. Allyson was always attached to the project, probably because of her work in EXECUTIVE SUITE back at home studio MGM. Allyson gets to share scenes with Heflin and Dahl, both of them former MGM contract players now freelancing. (Allyson and Heflin had both appeared in THE THREE MUSKETEERS several years earlier.)

It was obvious to me that Allyson and Bacall enjoyed working together. They seem very chummy on screen. Finally, I should mention that while the film focuses on cars, clothes, fine dining and ritzy estates, it is a multiple character study. Something the studio did well. In fact I would rank WOMAN’S WORLD up there with other 20th Century Fox multiple character studies like A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN and ALL ABOUT EVE.

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Jlewis wrote:

At first I was expecting a feminist picture that was ahead of its time and, yes, WOMAN’S WORLD is ahead in certain respects. Just not so much in a feminist way. According to the Sammy Cahn opening title song, performed by the Four Aces (and they did other 20th Century Fox title songs like “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Love is a Many Splendored Theme,” either on the soundtracks or in Billboard charting versions), “it is a woman’s world when she falls in love.” Her husband is still the key to her happiness and success. In case the message isn’t clear at first, that final lyric line spells it out: “It is a woman’s world, but only because it is HIS.”

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Gifford…read Gif-FORD…is the largest car company this side of General Motors, headquartered in New York instead of Detroit, which our lovable snooty Clifton Webb as Ernest Gifford has inherited from his father. Three rival business executives arrive to take a potential CEO position, each with a wife whom Ernest observes as part of his screening process: the Baxters (Cornell Wilde and June Allyson), the Talbots (Van Heflin and Arlene Dahl) and the Burns (Fred MacMurray and Lauren Bacall).

The first two couples are happy and “in love”…or at least the first genuinely is and the second pair is good at pretending. The third is older and more cynical, especially with Bacall’s wisecracks, but you sense that they are in love too, if in a more reserved way. Bacall’s Elizabeth Burns later develops an older sister relationship with June Allyson’s Katie Baxter that is enduring, helping her shop for the right outfit in her first big city experiences. Oh…we learn later that the Burns, like the Baxters, have kids while the Talbots do not…and you know what that meant in 1954 society: something is “questionable” about their relationship.

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Although few eyebrows would rise today, it must have been shocking for viewers back then to hear sweet and wholesome June Allyson discuss, point-blank, about “being pregnant all the time” just ten minutes into the movie. Remember that only two years earlier, Lucille Ball was forbidden to even suggest such a word! Then again, that was television, while this was the Big Screen where taboos were gradually being broken; recently other words like “virgin” created an even bigger ruckus when heard in THE MOON IS BLUE. Not surprisingly, Ernest Gifford takes a special interest in Katie as the unpredictable and tell-it-like-it-is wife of the trio when her innocent hiccups interrupt a speech of his.

Another, more important, speech is made by Bacall’s Elizabeth to Dahl’s Carol as the key theme of our picture. After Carol comments that they are “living in a man’s world,” Liz responds: “You know…if you and Mr. Talbot had children, you might realize that a man like your husband would be working more for his children than for you. You wouldn’t mind that because they would be your children too. You knew you gave them to him. That is why, Mrs. Talbot, that it isn’t a man’s world. It’s a woman’s world.” She then echoes spinster (unmarried, no kids) Katharine Hepburn in the yet not released SUMMERTIME: “Have a cookie, Cookie.”

In the end, the man who gets the job is the one most willing to give up his wife for part of his life and we kinda figure out which one before the end. The other two husbands are way too conflicted in balancing home life with career. In the end, the “losing” couples are happy since they never lost anything to begin with.

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This has a rather Mankiewicz feel to it, reminding me a bit of A LETTER TO THREE WIVES; that film also focused on three couples with Bacall’s character mirroring jaded but maternal Ann Sothern’s and Allyson’s “Plain Jane” resembling Jeanne Crain’s who was also self-critical a lot and needed reassurance at times. However Joseph L. Mankiewicz was not involved, but merely inspiring its structure. There were, rather surprising for me to learn in my homework, no less than five writers adapting the Mona Williams’ magazine “novelette:” Claude Binyon, Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay, Mary Loos and Richard Sale. Miraculously the film does not feel disjointed in any way. This team worked quite well together making sure that they stayed consistent in keeping the flow of the story going.

Also a bit surprised to learn that there were a lot of cast changes leading up to its May-June filming period, with Gloria Graham, Eleanor Parker, Glenn Ford and even Charlton Heston involved with it at some point. Fred MacMurray did look distracted in his role, as if he was only belatedly added and not all that prepared, while Bacall (in one of her best performances of the fifties) doing more of the work to make him look good as her husband on screen.

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Van Heflin also stood out to me as rather good in his limited role; like Bacall, he is good at playing himself essentially.

Director Jean Negulesco is one of those familiar directors I recognize based on his “shortie” work before he graduated to features, among these his classic Warner Bros. “Melody Masters” that showcased fascinating editing and camera angles (i.e. one 1940 reel with Henry Busse and his Orchestra is shot mostly in shadows). The CinemaScope format does not allow him to be too-too creative here with his camera crew (Joseph MacDonald getting key credit here), but there are a few interesting shots you don’t often expect in the early widescreen affairs like the occasional camera pans from window to window at the hotel with the Burns and the Talbots to contrast their marital situations.

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20th Century Fox was making all of its travelogue shorties in Scope by this time and, quite often, the features of the period (another good example is THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN) would break from “story” and go into “travelogue” mode; thus, we see Elliott Reid’s Tony Andrews (Ernest’s nephew) telling the wives “There’s the New York Public Library…there’s the United Nations Building…” as they and viewers swoon over the huge screen visuals.

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It is interesting how much more great NYC footage is featured here than in the previous year’s Scope spectacular HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE as the studio camera crews were getting increasingly sophisticated with their on-location filming. For example, we see MacMurray walking by Central Park and Allyson outside of Macy’s, assuming they are the real locales and not backlot stand-ins.

The visuals, including some nice art design work in the car dealer headquarters, are what makes this film more interesting to me than the story, which does not amount to much. I also enjoy the country mansion where the climactic dinner meeting is held. No doubt that same building was leased before in other movies that required an England-ish estate. Was it used in the earlier Fox film CLUNY BROWN? I have to check the images. They may be different.

Over all, it is a pretty good, if hardly great, all-star ensemble piece.

Essential: EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)

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Jlewis wrote:

During the Great Depression, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boasted “more stars than there are in heaven.” Their motto was still semi-true by August of 1953, when EXECUTIVE SUITE started filming, but only a few like Louis Calhern and June Allyson getting billing on this marquee were under any special contract with the studio by this time.

Hollywood actors were all hopscotching from company to company as freer agents ever since the Olivia DeHavilland “clause” was finalized a decade earlier. For example, Allyson was gradually ending her association by this stage; she had previously made THE GLENN MILLER STORY for Universal-International and would soon move over to Fox for an upcoming review film of ours.

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The story is fairly simple in this one, but with plenty of interesting characters. Avery Bullard he president of a prominent furniture company called Tredway dies suddenly of a heart attack. Intriguingly we do not see his face but are presented his daily routines on his final day from his point of view, an interesting cinematic trick of the innovative director Robert Wise and cameraman George Folsey.

Apparently everybody he comes into contact with in our opening scenes are very cordial (and all talking to you the viewer who is experiencing all of this in his position), suggesting that he is well liked by all. Yet, right away, we learn that others are eager to take advantage of his misfortune: his death is observed from a neighboring building by the greedy investment banker George Caswell (Louis Calhern, a veteran star since the silent era who was at his peak prime at middle age here despite only being around less than three more years) who decides to cash in on on this stroke of bad luck.

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Right away, the news of his death (halted temporarily due to his missing wallet and identification) brings out both the best and worst of the company’s top board members and employees. Frederic March’s “scheming” Loren Shaw decides to micromanage the company for quick profits, overstepping the dedicated “good” elderly friend of the late Bullard, Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) and working in cahoots with Caswell. Paul Douglas plays the very “gray” Josiah Dudley, vice president of sales who has an ongoing affair with secretary Eva (Shelley Winters in an interesting, if ultimately unimportant, role), among many other 1950s “sins.”

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William Holden is the “good guy” Don Walling, who has tried desperately to improve the quality of the product under Bullard’s management and, of course, he is the handsome face here whom we viewers all root for to win out in the end. Barbara Stanwyck (good friend of Holden off screen, this being another of their co-star screen films) plays the daughter of the company’s founder and heir who occasionally has the last word.

Her story is complicated due to a doomed relationship with Bullard. Rounding out the key figures on display, Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger) simply wants to retire, while Nina Foch (most famous for her starring role in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS but nominated for an Oscar here) is the highly sympathetic secretary of the late Bullard who is caught in much of the action here.

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As mentioned, Holden’s Don Walling is the major “good guy” whom we root for, not that any of the “bad” ones are really that bad since Holden kinda-sorta wins them over in the end too. He is shown married to June Allyson’s Mary, as supportive of her hubbie as she is in THE GLENN MILLER STORY. The “good” characters have settled home-lives, like Pigeon’s Alderson (his wife played by Virginia Brissac). Note too, that he fits the Eisenhower Era’s “ideal” with a beautiful, if Spartan, suburban home and a cute pre-teen (Tim Considine) who loves baseball.

Contrast them to the “are they still bachelors at their age?” characters like Shaw and Caswell…and the cheating-on-his-wife “weakling” (per Walling’s words) Dudley. Walling is also the one we see actually socializing with the workers under him, trying to maintain confidence that they will still have jobs despite the drastic maneuvers taking place. This does not mean that you have to have a settled family life in order to relate to The Common Folk, but it is the popular message of mainstream Hollywood in 1953-54 trying get over all of the HUAC blacklisting of the past six years and sprucing up its image in much the same fashion it did twenty years earlier when the Production Code went into effect.

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Apart from it being as much of a fascinating time-capsule of that decade as PSYCHO, I don’t really have a lot more to say about this film apart from it being very well made with good acting all around, plus it being ahead of its time in presenting corporate greed. Like other early Robert Wise films, it is filmed economically despite the big names in the cast, in black and white with modest production values (but with the usual Cedric Gibbons touch in art direction).

A few interiors of the headquarter offices have an ominous Gothic look to them, suggesting they were recycled from one of Metro’s “medieval” period pieces. Yet, it holds a record in that studio’s history (per Wikipedia) for 145 planned speaking parts initially (but fewer resulting on screen). The dialogue more than the story, much of it written by the all-familiar Ernest Lehman and adapted from Cameron Hawley’s novel, is the primary selling point. Plus we have so many familiar faces on screen that it is easy to keep track of everybody.

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A few good speeches give this film its Oscar worthy prestige, being that it was nominated in several categories but not winning anything in the end. Examples include Stanwyck’s Julia Tredway reminiscing her failure to make a name for herself despite being heir to the company her father built. “What have I ever gotten out of them but loneliness and sudden death?” She is speaking of both her father and ex-romantic partner since, as we all know, a woman without a man is an unhappy woman in the 1950s according to Hollywood. (We know nothing of Foch’s Erica Martin so.. she may be a contented lesbian for all we know!)

Then there’s the climactic (or is it really?) board meeting with Holden versus March, allowing the “good guy” to promote the growth of a company through better product rather than a quick buck a.k.a. “grabbing for the quick thing.” Also note the church-like stain glass behind Holden when he gives his speech, almost like a preacher.

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TopBilled wrote:

I agree the film is a time capsule of 1950s prosperity. If we want to call it that. But I think it could have just as easily been made in the late 40s or early 60s since it reflects postwar concerns before the countercultural revolution. A revolution which would have involved the children of our main characters, played by William Holden and June Allyson. It’s interesting to watch the film and try and guess what happened to these people ten and twenty years later.

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Allyson was right at home with these domesticated parts which is not a slight but rather a compliment. My favorite scene in the movie is when she’s playing catch, since she gets to show off some of her tomboy qualities. But yet we do know that she is in every sense a consummate wife and “business” partner in the marriage. She anchors her husband and her support gives him a competitive edge over the other men at work.

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Much has been made of the film’s sterling cast. I would argue that this is maybe a case where a motion picture is “over”cast. Some of the roles could have been played by unknowns trying to prove themselves at the studio. They didn’t all have to be established stars or well-known character actors. Speaking of the character roles, I am sure that if Frank Morgan was still around he would have played the part taken by Louis Calhern. And if L.B. Mayer had still been calling the shots and Lewis Stone was still alive, Stone would have had Dean Jagger’s part. In some respects, it’s a tailor-made vehicle for studio contractees who might otherwise have been idle or between projects at the Lion.

I think Barbara Stanwyck was cast, not because she was pals with lead star Holden, but because Wise and producer John Houseman remembered her searing portrayal of BABY FACE. Back in 1933 she was a gutsy young social climber stepping on people to move up the rungs of the corporate ladder. At this point, two decades later, she has fully arrived. This character may be an heiress, but she has a certain amount of chutzpah. Such savvy keeps her at the top in this Fortune 500 jungle, traits Julia Tredway would have certainly had in common with her precode counterpart. When I watch the film I sort of fantasize that it’s Babyface with a name change and that she is the same character.

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If we go with that thought, then where did all her scheming in her younger days bring her? She doesn’t seem to be very happy in this environment. And perhaps she is not fulfilled, certainly not in the way June Allyson’s character is fulfilled. She might even be a frustrated lesbian, flirting with Holden, but actually in a secret affair with Nina Foch’s character. Okay, I think you can see how I am brainstorming for a remake!

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I do love how the story builds to that big boardroom scene at the end. But the ending is still a bit too predictable for my tastes. I would like to have seen some sort of upset or some sort of vague resolution that allows us to think about the characters’ fates the way we can with the way PATTERNS ends. Incidentally, we will be reviewing PATTERNS later this month. So be sure you don’t miss it.

Essential: THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1962)

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THE L-SHAPED ROOM stays with you long after viewing. It is all quite memorable– the story itself, Bryan Forbes’ direction (and the changes he made from Lynne Reid Banks’ original novel) plus Leslie Caron’s performance. She should have received an Oscar.

There are so many remarkable scenes. My “favorite” part is the brief montage where she’s walking down the street after taking the pills (to induce an abortion), then collapses. One time I collapsed in public, after drinking too much wine, and this is exactly how it is…where there are these little jumps in time, losing consciousness and going down. Afterward, I felt disoriented and slightly embarrassed, which Caron experiences on screen.

I haven’t read the book yet, but in the original story Jane the main character has a boy. Not sure why Forbes felt the need to switch the child’s gender to a girl in the film. Banks wrote two more books about Jane raising her son, so there is a trilogy.

I think the second-best performance after Caron’s is Cicely Courtneidge emoting as an over-the-top over-the-hill music hall performer. She plays it with the right combination of gusto and vulnerability. She is both repulsive and endearing.

Less effective is American actor Brock Peters. He’s a highly competent performer but miscast. While he nails the beats of individual scenes I don’t think he brings the right amount of pathos to it. I felt Johnny, his character, should have been a bit more tormented about loving Toby and having to witness Toby’s relationship with Jane right under his nose.

In some ways Jane is a protagonist and an antagonist. She’s definitely a catalyst in all their lives, and they are catalysts in her life. Interestingly, daily routines continue as “normal” after she has the baby and leaves.

The final scene where she goes back to retrieve her belongings and meets Jane II, the new boarder in her old room– has echoes of the final scene in ALL ABOUT EVE. Though we are told that Jane II has no intention of interacting with the other boarders, we know she will get drawn into their lives and they will get drawn into hers, just as we had seen happen to Jane I.

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Essential: PSYCHO (1998)

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Jlewis wrote:

While it is not an exact scene-for-scene duplicate of the original, it is close enough. Director Gus Van Sant admitted in an online video interview that he knew well ahead of time that his great experiment would hardly win the critics’ approval. A few famous fans can be found who actually favor this over the Hitchcock version, including Quentin Tarantino, but this is otherwise more famous for the number of “worst of 1998” polls it ended up on, in addition to the endless hostile reviews on the IMDb.com site. It did manage a small profit, so neither Universal nor the director suffered all that badly in the end.

So…how bad is it?

Well…no movie utilizing essentially the same script as a well-regarded masterpiece can be all that bad. Needless to say, I did not think it was terribly good either.

I think my biggest issue, apart from the cast, was the director’s decision to update the setting from December 1959-January 1960, both the filming period and setting of the original, to July-August 1998, a filming period that is way too obvious on screen despite the original introductory date of “Friday, December 11” retained in the opening scenes. Everybody is wearing their summertime best (Anne Heche with an umbrella at the car dealership) and there’s no holiday décor anywhere that I noticed (but I can be corrected here).

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Only a few modifications were made, resulting in a curious hybrid that looks quite “retro.” A Volvo gets its trunk open by key instead of the more advanced method of the time, so that the original script is still followed closely. William H. Macy as Arbogast wears practically the same clothes as Martin Balsam, long out of fashion for decades. Trying to remember how many phone booths were still operating in 1998, but I sense that they are present here simply because the 1959 script demands them. No computers prominent. On the plus side, there was a conscious effort to note inflation: $400,000 is stolen instead of $40,000.

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The original film is a time capsule for me of the way things were back in the fifties. Overall, this updating felt like a nineties setting but with performers thinking they are living in the fifties.

A couple of things I liked…

Although Anne Heche was nominated for a Raspberry, I did not find her all that terrible as the doomed Marion. Apparently she only belatedly saw the original with Janet Leigh during production time and pretty much played it her own way…which did not please the critics but still made her rather interesting to lil’ ol’ me.

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At least her performance was a bit different than the other actors and actresses who all tried too hard to match the originals. For example, I felt that Vince Vaughn was desperately mimicking Anthony Perkins in a fashion reminding me of Harpo mimicking Groucho in the famous mirror scene in DUCK SOUP.

When Marion debates on running off with the money in her room, we see birds settle on branches outside. (Birds subliminally get her on to her quest with destiny.) This is a fun fore-shadowing of both the stuffed birds and live ones in an aviary that her sister Lila would see in the Bates fruit cellar.

Oh…the fruit cellar where Mrs. Bates resides in the end. It is an aviary with live birds in a mini-zoo, a rather ambitious taxidermy “lab” and other interesting “stuff.” Sadly the director’s need to stick to the original script may not have allowed him to further pursue this very unique and imaginative take on the Bates home and Norman in particular.

The fact that Marion remembers to include her passport in her suitcase is important, making her stealing act more realistic for me than in the original. At least she is plotting to leave the country with Sam at some point. Now that I think about it, that may also have been Marion’s intention in the original as well even if it wasn’t spelled out like it is here.

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There was some outrage over Norman, um, pleasuring himself when peeping on Marion which I wasn’t at all disturbed by. After all, it adds a certain realism that Hitchcock couldn’t depict back in the Production Code era. (No, we do not see anything shocking, being that it is all merely hinted off-camera.) It also adds commentary to the Internet Age when an increasing number of people felt more comfort sexually watching “online” rather than connecting with other human beings. That reminds me…why didn’t this Norman add some updated video security system to his hotel so he does not need a peep hole?

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The not so good…

OK. To be fair, Vince Vaughn had to jump to this opportunity to play against the type of roles he was famous for, like WEDDING CRASHERS in which he’s the standard happy-go-lucky jock. This was as close to method acting as he could get at this point in his career. Unfortunately his delivery of the lines spoken by Perkins in the original are way too fast and monotone for my tastes. It is as if he is trying to memorize all of the material and forgot to add much feeling to his performance. “We have twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. Hee hee.”

Not that he is totally bad throughout. There are a few good moments that linger favorably on my mind, namely the shots of him looking like a lost little boy in the large all-gray room in the finale.

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Bizarre artsy decision: When Arbogast is killed, we get two “what in the world?” shots of an almost naked lady wearing a mask and a cow in the middle of the road. Makes me ponder if these are the two most pleasurable mental images this man enjoyed in that critical moment he dies…

Overall, it was a little…dull. Was this because I had seen the original too many times and was spoiled? Perhaps. Maybe I would think differently if this was the only PSYCHO I had seen. Yet little of the dialogue spoken sounded spontaneous and emotional; so many of the performers behaved like they had been rehearsing from the script way too much. Check out the “Making Of” video online: you see each actor and actress comment on the original performer in every interview, suggesting that they are thinking of the past performers more than the characters they are playing.

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Apart from the two leads and Macy, I liked all of the familiar faces selected for all of the supporting roles: the always feisty Julianne Moore as Lila, Viggo Mortensen as Sam (with an added Texas accent and a calypso-taste in shirts, but also exposing a bit more nudity on screen than John Gavin did), a very worried and tired looking Robert Forster as Dr. Simon Richmond, overdressed and stylish Rita Wilson as Caroline (but there’s nice video footage online of Pat Hitchcock visiting the set to socialize with Rita as she plays her role), and aging Chad Everett as Tom Cassidy.

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Granted, they all look as lost here as John Wayne and Susan Hayward did in THE CONQUEROR but just their faces are pleasing enough for me. There may be cult appeal for this film in the future due to this very fact.

In the final analysis…

It is an experiment first and entertainment second. I was thinking a lot about Andy Warhol. Van Sant decided to make a mostly scene-for-scene remake of a classic for much the same reason why Warhol decided to make a 485 minute “epic” of the Empire State Building. Simply because it hadn’t been done before and he wanted to oh-so-desperately. Nothing wrong with that. Perhaps, as more years progress and newer viewers become less knowledgeable of the harsh criticism this received upon release, it may be viewed as a cult-worthy experiment.

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TopBilled wrote:

I love your detailed analysis, Jlewis. When I was looking for photos to go with your review, it felt like 1998 again. I was remembering when I first saw this version. I don’t consider it a remake as much as a re-creation. I think it works best for those who have seen the original a million times and need another way to view it. An analogy would be if you’re Catholic (which Hitchcock was) and you’ve gone to mass a million times, but you just need a different priest in a different parish to go over the scripture with you.

Yes, this version feels like a religious experience to me. A form of communion with a classic. It’s like coming home.

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I think they were all slightly bogged down having to “imitate” the original and really couldn’t venture off the page too much. But because Anne Heche was not trying to be Janet Leigh Junior, she achieves a bit more originality. Incidentally, Heche had worked with Vince Vaughn in a low budget drama called RETURN TO PARADISE the same year.

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Gus Van Sant made it because he could. I wish someone would redo CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA and GONE WITH THE WIND, to show us that anyone can re-present a classic. It helps reframe the original and makes the original less untouchable. Nothing in movies should be so sacred that we cannot re-interpret it or at least make a facsimile of it. For our veneration. I think that was Van Sant’s unholy thesis…that we can co-opt something, sort of like Mother stealing Norman’s identity out from under him. (Jesus becoming Mary?) I would say that in itself is more shocking and disturbing than any gruesome shower scene.

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Van Sant wasn’t trying to make a commercial hit. Instead he was examining the realm of ownership and re-manipulation of source material. That is what’s so shocking about what he has done. I deem him a brilliant and ballsy filmmaker.

As for the story’s most violent moment, Van Sant does show Marion’s flesh being pierced, something Hitchcock could not do in 1960.

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And because he shoots it in color, the blood is of course red (not chocolate syrup) and the crucifixion is quite vivid.

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Despite this added realism, I find the motel bathroom stuff less interesting than the cellar scene that occurs up at the house. Maybe because Mother’s decayed corpse grabs me as a bit more horrifying.

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Norman Bates is now more sexual which I think is good for this particular story. He is able to experience new things in 1998. It helps that Vince Vaughn has an evil looking haircut. Unlike Anthony Perkins who comes across as a lost childlike man, Vaughn is the opposite. He’s a sexy man-child that gets off perversion. The difference is key.

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It was smart how Universal execs allowed Van Sant to make this version. The studio didn’t have to pay anyone for the rites since it already owned the story. This production basically had to break even. And if that is all it did, break even without making even one dollar profit, it still gave employment to all these people in front of and behind the camera. Or should I say in front of and behind the altar/alter.

It doesn’t matter if critics showered Van Sant with praise. 

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In the name of the mother, the son and the holy corpse. Amen.