Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

Much ink has been spilled over Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated relationships with his leading ladies.  But it’s a topic of endless fascination, so let’s spill a little more, shall we?

There is speculation about the exact nature of the sex in Hitch’s long marriage to his wife Alma, but we can only say with certainty that theirs was not a passionate love.  Hitch was a lonely man, isolated by his intense desire for requited love and his inability to find someone to provide it.  (It’s doubtful he could have accepted it if anyone had ever offered it; alas, it seems no one ever did.)  

He loved Ingrid Bergman first, and through deft skill and an uncommon tenderness, she managed to reject his amorous overtures and shaped his schoolboy crush into a lifelong friendship.  In the case of Tippi Hedren, he developed a dangerous obsession that crossed a red line and marred his legacy.

Sandwiched between Ingrid and Tippi was Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that allowed Hitchcock to mold her into his image of the perfect woman.

Twenty-four year old Grace Kelly had made only three films when fifty-four year old Hitchcock saw her in Mogambo, John Ford’s film set in Africa that featured a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Kelly.  She hadn’t yet made much of an impression on audiences or critics (though after she caught Hitch’s eye she was a surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Mogambo), but Hitch was convinced she could be the star he’d been searching for ever since Ingrid Bergman left him in 1949 to make films in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.

Hitch felt Grace Kelly had a mix of elegance and sexuality that he could exploit with his camera.  While Marilyn Monroe embodied the blonde bombshell who put her sexuality right out there for anyone to see, Hitch called Grace Kelly a “snow-covered volcano,” a woman who kept such tight reign on herself that men went mad imagining what was beneath the white gloves, prim hats, and perfect dresses.

Hitch nurtured this image of Kelly through the three films they made together.  Though she occupied a singular place in his heart, there were never any romantic interludes between them.  Hitch satisfied his desires by taking extreme interest in the clothing she wore in his films, dressing her like a doll, and being infinitely patient with her on set, which was not his usual way with his actors.

After seeing her in Mogamo, he convinced MGM to loan her to Warner Brothers to star in his picture Dial M For Murder, based on the stage play of the same name.

The plot for the film starts off rather simply and then becomes increasingly complicated in the second half.  Grace Kelly plays Margo Wendice, a woman having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Unbeknownst to her, her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has discovered the affair.  Worried that she will leave him (and take the money that he lives the high life on), Tony blackmails an old schoolmate to murder her.

I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago in college, and I remembered nearly every moment of the grisly attempted murder scence, still shocking despite the lack of gory effects that would be employed today.  The rest of the film I had utterly forgotten.

After watching it again, I am convinced that in twenty more years I will still remember the attempted murder scene, while having again forgotten the rest.

Swann (the killer) has entered the apartment while Margo (Kelly) is sleeping in her bedroom.  He hides behind the thick curtains just behind the desk.  When the telephone rings (her husband calling to lure his wife to her death), Margo staggers into the room half asleep in nothing but her nightgown.  As her husband listens on the other end of the line, Swann wraps a scarf around Margo’s neck and attempts to strangle her.

But Margo (who is often quite passive in the rest of the film) puts up unexpected resistance and fights Swann.  In the struggle, Swann throws her over the desk and bends over her as she moans and he pulls the scarf tighter.

The scene is quite clearly choreographed to mimic a rape, and we see shots of Kelly’s bare legs as she struggles.

In a moment of inspiration, Margo reaches behind her head, remembering the scissors from her mending basket she’d left on the desk.  She finds them and plunges them into the killer’s back.  He falls, taking her with him as the scarf is still wrapped around her neck, and as he hits the floor the scissor blades imbed themselves fatally into his back.

I challenge you to watch the scene without flinching.

After realizing she has killed her attacker, the gasping Margo staggers onto the back patio, drawing in large breaths of air and pulling the scarf from her neck.

The scene took over a week to shoot, and years later Grace Kelly spoke of the difficulties and awkwardness of doing take after take that left her exhausted and bruised at the end of each day.  But she wanted to please Hitchcock (and that desire alone pleased him immensely) and eventually the scene was shot to Hitchock’s satisfaction.

Watching the film today, it is noticeable how Kelly reaches behind her head for the scissors.  She lets her hand flail around for a long time, which strikes a bit of a wrong note as she should be rummaging on the surface of the desk for the scissors.  Before she takes the killing blow, she holds the scissors up for a moment so the audience can get a good look at them.

But Hitch, of course, had his reasons.  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, a new special effect the movie industry was testing out to compete with television.  To audiences in 3-D glasses, it would appear that Kelly was reaching out of the screen to them, and that the deadly scissors were inches from their face.

Hitch hated the idea of 3-D, which he correctly predicted would be a short-lived gimmick, but Warner Brothers insisted he use the technology.  The 3-D cameras were large, slowed down filming, and prevented Hitch from doing certain shots.

In fact, the release of Dial M for Murder was delayed for nearly a year until the run of the play completed, and by the time audiences saw it the 3-D craze had already passed.  Most people saw it the way we do today, in two dimensions.

After the attempted murder, the film gets a little bogged down in plot.  Since his wife has survived, the husband shifts his plan to convincing the police that she deliberately killed the man because he was blackmailing her over her affair.  It nearly works, until her lover and a clever detective save her from death row with sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes—and Columbo—proud.

For Hitch, who was never all that interested in the storyline of Dial M and who hated the 3-D filming process, the main joy of the film was working with Kelly.  Throughout the process he had his mind on his next film, one that would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece by film scholars and audiences alike.

It was the story of the ultimate voyeur who has a beautiful woman do his bidding.

It was the story of movie making itself, spiced up with murder.

Kelly would star in it, of course, no matter what he had to do to once again pry her away from MGM.

Now all he needed was the right leading man.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Tainted Love and Daddy Issues

“What’s wrong with Ellen?” her husband Dick, perhaps with a little buyer’s remorse, asks his mother-in-law.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen.  It’s just that she loves too much.”

Too much indeed.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Let’s rewind an hour or so, to the start of Leave Her to Heaven, when the opening scene’s picturesque technicolor setting on a lake is juxtaposed with Alfred Newman’s ominous opening score.

Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.

The film then takes us to the first meeting between Dick Harland and Ellen Berent.  On a train to New Mexico, Dick finds himself staring at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and reading his new book.

When she notices, she stares right back.  The intensity and length of the stare is uncomfortable to both Dick and the audience.  Eventually, she breaks the stare and transforms into a charming and attractive woman, explaining that she was staring because Dick looks so much like her father.

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is off with this woman.

By coincidence they are vacationing together in the same home, and he discovers that she is with her mother and adopted sister Ruth to spread her father’s ashes.

The warning signs continue flashing—it’s clear Ellen was unnaturally attached to her father.  She alone spreads the ashes with a possessiveness that should make Dick’s blood run cold.  Ruth mentions that her their mother adopted her because she was so lonely, despite having a husband and daugher.  Ellen stays out all night in the desert after spreading her father’s ashes and her family is unconcerned.  Her presence stifles the air in the room.

And she has her sights set on Dick.

If only he’d taken a second look at Ruth, who is not quite as pretty as Ellen but clearly the better choice.

But he doesn’t look, and he’s married to Ellen before he knows what hit him.

Though outwardly happy, Ellen has a sinister aura we can’t quite put our finger on.  She comes on strong, then backs away.  Though she grew up wealthy, she insists they hire no cook or maid because she wants to be the only one to take care of her new husband.

In another woman, it might be romantic.  With Ellen, it feels like a gathering storm.

She’s not calculating in the traditional sense.  Not at first, anyway. She hasn’t married him for his money (she clearly has more), doesn’t want him to commit a murder for her, or rob a bank, or any of the other dirty deeds that femme fatales of the 1940s lure their patsies into doing.

She isn’t a street-wise, cold-hearted dame.

She’s insane.  Truly, madly, deeply insane.

Why did she marry Dick?

Because he looked like her father.

Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?

Because she wants Dick all to herself.

Whoever said jealousy was a green-eyed monster had obviously met Ellen Berent Harland.

She’s jealous of Dick’s friends, of his work, and most of all, of his sweet-natured, disabled younger brother Danny.

In the film’s signature scene, Ellen is out in a boat on a lake following Danny while he swims.  He’s overtaken by a cramp and Ellen realizes this is her opportunity to eliminate her main rival for Dick’s affection.  Donned in a fabulous white coat, dark sunglasses, and blood-red lipstick (the impact maximized by glorious technicolor), Ellen calmly watches Danny drown, not moving an inch when he cries out again and again for her help.

Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Gene Tierney sinks her teeth into the role, infusing Ellen with a malevolence that grows ever more malignant.  Murdering Danny unleashes a reign of terror that destroys her marriage, her sister Ruth, husband Dick, and ultimately, herself.

Her revenge against her husband for an imagined affair with her sister is pure madness.

And genius.

Tierney was often underrated as an actress as critics focused on her beauty, but she gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award in Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, she was nominated.  But it was a year of stiff competition and she ultimately lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, an Academy decision I endorse.

Leave Her to Heaven is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it one of my personal favorites.  There is no doubt, however, that as Robert Osborne said while introducing it on Turner Classic Movies, it is, “One of those movies that, once seen, is almost impossible to forget.”

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Remake Rumble: Waterloo Bridge (1931) vs Waterloo Bridge (1940)

In the Remake Rumble, I’ll throw one (or more) versions of the same film into the ring and let them fight it out.  I’ll discuss the good and the bad, and end with the ultimate judgement of the best version.  Judgements can be appealed through well-reasoned arguments in the comments section.


In this inaugural edition of the Remake Rumble, Mae Clark and Vivian Leigh spar for the best portrayal of the doomed dancer-turned-prostitute Myra in their respective adaptations of Robert Sherwood’s World War I play Waterloo Bridge.

I first watched the original 1931 version nearly a year ago when I was writing about the pre-code films.  At the time, the story interested me, but I had my hands full writing about the deliciously remorseless up-to-no-good dames in Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932).

But over the past eleven months, Waterloo Bridge stayed with me.  It’s the kind of movie Universal (and Warner Brothers) liked to make in the dawning days of sound—cheaply made films about the dregs of society who view the world with a jaundiced eye but somehow manage to hang onto their dignity in an indifferent world.

Such a person is Myra, the American chorus dancer in London who falls on hard times and resorts to prostitution to keep a little food on the table and a little gas in the lamps of her dirty flat.  Her quick fall from grace is symbolized when an admirer who sees her dancing in the chorus sends her a fresh, white mink that is the envy of the other dancers.  Only moments later, we flash forward to her fall from grace—the mink, now tattered and seedy, is her uniform when she walks the streets.

During an air raid on Waterloo Bridge (where Myra is trolling for a client), she meets Roy Cronin, an American soldier on leave.  In her flat after the raid, she and Roy share a loaf of bread.  Roy takes in the squalor of her flat and offers to help her by paying her rent.  He does not realize Myra’s profession despite all the obvious signs.  He’s earnest and naive, and his charity insults Myra.

She throws him out, then invites him back.  Like many soldiers of the time, Roy fears his life may be short and wants to live while he can.  For a man like Roy, that doesn’t mean a romp with a cheap London whore.  He wants to save Myra from her bad luck.

He wants to marry her the next day, before his leave is over and he has to head back to the front.

Much of the rest of the film is Roy’s almost pathetic insistence that Myra marry him.

Roy comes from a wealthy family.  He can take care of her financially, she can live with his family while he is at war.  Myra’s friend Kitty gleefully points out that if he dies in the war, she will receive his pension.

And she genuinely cares for Roy.

It’s her way out.

And yet Myra refuses.

Again and again she refuses, quite violently.  

I will admit, I didn’t quite understand why the first time I watched the film.  It struck me that she hated him, that she wanted him to leave her alone.  But this time, it sunk in.

It’s not pride:  Myra despises herself.  

If a good man like Roy married a soiled woman, it would humiliate him and his family.  Even if he can’t see it, Myra can.

I also think—though it’s not directly spelled out in the film—that Myra can see that in the long run, they would never work.  He would grow to hate her.

She’s a fallen woman, lower than dirt.  But to trap Roy into a marriage?

That’s a line of self-respect she cannot cross.  And she cannot bear to tell him the truth about her, to lose the love she sees in his eyes.

If he was a mark, she would take him for all she could.

She can’t marry him because she loves him.

And turning down her own happiness, her own salvation, is a kind of torture.

Marrying Roy is the ultimate poisoned apple, and Myra, already fallen, refuses to take the bite.

The last twenty minutes of the film is brisk and searing.

Roy has taken Myra to visit his family, and to press his marriage suit.  Roy’s mother is kind to Myra, but makes it clear that she does not approve of the marriage.  In the middle of the night, Myra goes to see his mother and admits to her what she cannot admit to Roy:  she is a prostitute.

The mother is kind but in full agreement that Myra must leave immediately.  

Before she goes, she tells his mother, not in defiance, but as a way of making his mother bear witness to her sacrifice, “I could marry him, if I wanted to.”

“I know, my dear.”

“I just wanted you to know that.”

“Yes, I know , Myra.  You see I happen to know you’re rather a fine girl.”

“Fine?  I’m not.”

Roy tracks her down one last time, and having promised both herself and his mother to push him away, she tells him she hates him, that she is laughing at him.  At this, she throws her head back, anchors her joined hands on her forehead, and lets out a maniacal laugh.

The first time I watched, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, overacting on Clark’s part.  But I see it differently now—as a primal scream of agony, a plea to god to quit tempting her.

She ultimately agrees to marry Roy before she sends him back to war—a promise I don’t believe she ever intended to keep.

But we will never know, as Myra is killed in an air raid on Waterloo Bridge, a crowd surrounding her unseen body and the mink sprawled across the ground.

A scant nine years later, MGM remade the film with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, perhaps the hottest stars in Hollywood in 1940.

Though key aspects of the story remain the same, MGM and the strictly enforced production code wash away much of the grime of Myra’s tale.  

Universal and Warner Brothers were the studios that made cheap films showcasing society’s underbelly, but MGM was filled with big budgets, glamour, and fairy tales.

Waterloo Bridge (1940) spends nearly three-quarters of the film laying the groundwork to make sure Myra doesn’t lose our sympathy when she descends into prostitution. 

Vivien Leigh’s Myra is a ballerina, not a chorus girl.  She meets and falls in love with Robert Taylor’s significantly more dashing and charismatic Roy Cronin.  

Taylor’s Cronin takes her out to a romantic dinner, where the orchestra plays with candles burning.  They dance to Auld Lang Syne, and as each section of the orchestra drops out, they extinguish their candles until Taylor and Leigh are waltzing in the dark.

It’s an enchanting scene, establishing the love between them in a way the original film never does.  The two have a chemistry that Clark and Douglass simply lack.

Taylor’s Cronin comes across as romantic and in charge.  His marriage proposal is one from a man who knows what he wants and is confident he will get it, where the original Cronin often comes across as desperate.

Because the MGM version insists that Taylor and Leigh fell in love before her fall into prostitution, the plot then has several contrivances as to why they cannot marry before he must go back to the front—first, the reverend tells him there can be no marriages after 3 pm, and then the next day Taylor is called unexpectedly—and immediately—back to the front before the wedding.

Thus, when Taylor’s Cronin is killed in the war, there’s no pension for poor Myra, who was fired from her job as a ballerina for missing a performance to be with Cronin.

The film documents Myra’s descent—she and roommate Kitty grow hungry, then Myra grows sick when she learns of Cronin’s death.  Unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty begins hitting the streets.  

When she learns the truth, Myra is aghast:

Myra:  “You did it for me.”

Kitty:  “No, I didn’t.  I’d have done it anyhow.  No jobs.  No boys who want to marry you.  Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last.”

Myra:  “Kitty, you did it for me to buy me food and medicine.  I’d sooner have died.”

Kitty:  “No, no you wouldn’t.  You think you would, but you wouldn’t.  I thought of that…but I wasn’t brave enough.  I wanted to go on living.  Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you.  We’re young and it’s good to live.  Even the life I’m leading, though, God knows it–I’ve heard them call it the easiest way.  I wonder who ever thought up that little phrase.  I know one thing–it couldn’t have been a woman.  I suppose you think…I’m dirt.”

And Kitty is right, at first.  Myra does turn to prostitution.  

Until Cronin shows up alive, after a year in a German prison camp.

And thus Leigh’s Myra is finally at the predicament that Clark’s Myra faced almost immediately—should she marry a man knowing what she is?

Like Clark, Leigh tells Roy’s mother the truth.  This mother is more shocked than the original mother and wants to take the night to think things over.

Leigh cuts right to the heart of things when she says, “I could make you understand.  But it wouldn’t help me.”

And in the end, she too dies on Waterloo Bridge, but this time she isn’t a casualty of fate.  She could pursue a life of prostitution when she thought Roy was dead, but now that he’s alive she can’t live with or without him.

She steps deliberately in front of a convoy of Red Cross trucks and lets them run her down.  Instead of the mink, we see her good luck charm on the street beyond the crowd surrounding her unseen body.

So which version wins the rumble?

In many ways, these two films can be seen as a study in pre and post code film, similar to Red Dust (1932) and Mogambo (1953).  

The 1940 version seems like it should be the better film.  It has bigger stars with better chemistry.  Leigh’s greatest accomplishment is that while this film was made only a year after Gone With the Wind, she doesn’t once make you think of Scarlett O’Hara in her portrayal of Myra, a feat I would’ve believed impossible.

There’s no doubt it’s the better romance.

And yet….

Waterloo Bridge is a gritty story, and the 1931 version allows more of the grime to show.  You can practically feel how dirty Myra’s flat is, how desperate and low class she is as she strikes matches across the wall to light her cigarette and pinches money from Roy to run the gas lamps for a few more minutes.

She’s a desperate, cynical girl.  She’s a prostitute through and through, and her selfless moment with Roy is her salvation.

In the 1940 version, Vivien Leigh’s Myra is never allowed to become a prostitute, not in her bones.  She’s a woman who works as a prostitute, but the script keeps reminding us that she’s “not really” this woman.  They’re so worried about keeping the censors off the case and the audience’s sympathy with Myra that the plot is filled with contrivances.  Her suicide at the end is as much about herself as it is her love for Roy.

Through no fault of Leigh, her Myra is just not allowed to be as interesting as Mae Clark’s version.

In the 1940 version, we never see Leigh engaging in acts of prostitution.  In her first time, we see only the back of her head, and hear the man’s voice without seeing him at all.  

In the freewheeling 1931 version, when a john asks Clark’s Myra what she’s doing, she gets right to business and says, “Oh, just looking for a good time and wondering where the rent’s coming from.”

You could never get away with a line like that in 1940.

The 1931 story is briskly paced, jaded, and rough around the edges.

Just like the heroine of its story.

And so to my surprise, and perhaps yours, I am awarding the 1931 Waterloo Bridge the victor over its better remembered (and more beloved) 1940 remake.

Also, Robert Taylor broke Barbara Stawnyck’s heart when he cheated on her with a younger woman and is thus dead to me.

Not that I would let a thing like that cloud my judgement.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Brief Programming Note

Just a brief note that Wednesday’s Golden Age of Hollywood blog will be delayed until Thursday. I’m working on something a bit different, and I’ll do my best to make it worth the wait.

Next week we’ll be back on schedule.

Happy watching…

Indiscreet (1958): Ingrid’s Triumphant Return

Despite delighting audiences with her work in such classics as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), Casablaca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), and Notorious (1946), Ingrid Bergman was banished from Hollywood when her extramarital affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini became public.  

Because of the pure and innocent characters she played onscreen, the public felt betrayed.  Becoming pregnant with Rossellini’s child added fuel to the fire.  In a fit of manufactured hysteria that would be right at home in today’s political climate, democratic Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced her on the senate floor as “a powerful influence for evil”, and that she had “perpetrated an assault upon the institution of marriage.”

“People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint,” Bergman said later.  “I’m not.  I’m just a woman, another human being.”*

She ran off to Italy and spent the next seven years making Italian films in between marrying and divorcing Rossellini.  (And having three children with him, including actress Isabella Rossellini.)

In 1956, she filmed Anastasia in Europe for Twentieth Century Fox to test the waters.  Her Academy Award win for the film paved the way for her return to Hollywood.

Though Anastaisa revived her career, it was her next film, Indiscreet, that endeared her once again to American audiences.

Off-screen friends Bergman and Grant

She paired up for the second and final time with her Notorious co-star and good friend, Cary Grant.

Notorious is the better film, of course, but it has more tools in its arsenal—an inherently tense premise, life and death stakes, and the master of suspense in Alfred Hitchock behind the camera.  

Indiscreet, by contrast, lives or dies solely on the chemistry of Bergman and Grant.  Not their individual talents, which are unquestioned, but how much the audience believes they are besotted with one another.

The film more than lives.  It thrives.

The premise of this romantic comedy is simple—Bergman plays Anna Kalman, an actress in her early forties (as Bergman herself was) who has given up on love meets Cary Grant’s diplomat Philip Adams and finds the man she has been missing.

Philip is handsome, considerate, and fun.  The rub?

He’s married, of course, and he can’t divorce his wife.

He tells Anna this right off the top, and so she goes into their relationship with her eyes wide open.

When a romantic comedy falls flat, it’s nearly always because the filmmaker is in such a hurry to get to the relationship’s roadblock that he neglects to show us what the two leads see in one another and why their relationship is worth saving in the face of that inevitable roadblock.

Indiscreet doesn’t make that mistake.  It strolls along at a pleasant pace, letting us see how and why Anna and Philip fall in love.  There is a cozy conversation at a restaurant table that goes on so long they miss the ballet.  There are late night conversations, and a great split screen showing them saying goodnight over the telephone in their respective beds.  Eventually, we see her cooking breakfast for him, the first nod that their relationship has reached sleepover status.

We know why Anna loves Philip—he’s charming, discrete, considerate, and so obviously her perfect match.  We know why Philip loves Anna—she’s beautiful, beloved by her fans, confident but not clingy, and has a great sense of humor.  She takes what Philip can offer but doesn’t ask for more.

When Philip is ordered to New York for five months for his work with the United Nations but Anna must stay in London to star in a play, she shows the first signs of strain.  In a heartbreaking scene, Anna beseeches Philip to leave his wife and marry her.  She apologizes, but it’s too late—she’s shown Philip that no matter how perfect their relationship seems, it is humiliating to be a mistress and not a wife.

And now, finally, when we’re fully invested and having a ball watching Cary and Ingrid flirt and play, the bomb is dropped.

On-screen magic

Philip isn’t—and never has been—married.  It’s a lie he tells his prospective lovers because he believes he’s not the marrying kind and doesn’t want to give them false hope.

The reveal of this fact to Anna—by her sister, and not Philip himself—has her shouting, “How dare he make love to me and not be married!”

The film’s comedy comes in the second half, when Anna pretends not to know of Philip’s deception and plans his comeuppance.  Watching Anna secretly seethe behind Philip’s back at a party while he dances and drinks and generally has a grand old time is the highlight of the film.

Her plan goes badly, of course—she convinces him she’s been seeing another man just as he decides he’s the marrying kind after all—but it all turns out right in the end.

It’s the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood has given up on—it doesn’t have two leads who are constantly bickering until the final reel, doesn’t substitute sex for romance, and doesn’t have to cut down a strong woman by making her a klutz. 

It’s a love story of two mature adults—Ingrid with the first hint of lines on her face, Cary with silver in his hair—but youth doesn’t hold a candle to the charm these legends exude with every breath.

And even at forty-three and fifty-seven, Ingrid and Cary look damn good in technicolor.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

*Quote from Notorious:  The Life of Ingrid Bergman, by Donald Spoto

Laura (1944): Seduced by a Corpse

Off the top, a three-part disclaimer:  

  1. You should watch Laura.  It’s only the seventeenth (out of sixty-eight) films I’ve given the designation of Timeless.
  2. If you think you might ever watch it, don’t read this review.  It’s impossible to write about Laura without spoiling it, and it’s got a killer twist.  Go watch it, and come back when you’re finished.  I’ll wait.
  3. If you’ve already seen it or you know you’ll never watch it, proceed.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I don’t consider myself a film critic.  To be a good film critic, you need a dispassionate air.  You examine a film objectively, and situate it in its time and place in the history of film.

I do some of this, of course.  But I don’t write objectively.  I let my personal opinion color everything.  I play favorites and gloss over the faults of my idols.  

The films I truly despise?  The ones that bore me to tears?  I don’t write about them at all.

I’m a fan, first, last, and always, and not much different from the kid I was at ten years old watching these black and white films with my mom on Turner Classic Movies.

Three films in particular hooked me and launched a lifelong love affair with classic cinema.  Watching them as an adult, I wonder exactly what fascinated me, why I wanted to watch Bette Davis in black and white more than Saturday morning cartoons. Three quarters of the story went over my head, I’d never heard of a director, and I didn’t know anything about the lives of the stars.  

The first film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  I danced around the house singing the Baby Jane Hudson song while my mom and dad roared with laughter.  Second was To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I saw what Bacall saw in Bogie’s craggy lived-in face.

The third?

Laura.

The film is a textbook example of classic film noir.  There are a lot of different definitions of noir, but as we’re fans and not critics here, suffice it to say that film noir refers to both a cinematic style influenced by the Germans and a cynical tone influenced by an American audience disillusioned by World War II.  There’s often a hardboiled detective ripped straight from the pages of a 1940s mystery novel and a femme fatale—a woman who slinks across the screen like a black widow spider, using her sexuality to lure in and destroy the men she sees only as marks.

Laura has both.  Or does it? 

The film opens as a standard whodunnit—Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt.  Someone blew the beautiful young woman’s head off with a shotgun.

McPherson has a collection of suspects—fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who needs her money and may have learned she was considering calling off the wedding; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), the older woman who loves Shelby but cannot compete with Laura for his affection; and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the powerful older man who took Laura under his wing and scares away any man who desires her.

All speak of Laura in glowing terms, but we get the most from Lydecker.  By his accounting, he took an interest in the young aspiring career woman and opened doors for her.  He taught her how to dress, introduced her to the right people, and cultivated a beautiful swan from—if not an ugly duckling, at least an inexperienced one.

As is typical of many film noirs, the plot is so bonkers that it should ruin the film but doesn’t.  McPherson allows Lydecker and Shelby to tag along as he searches Laura’s apartment and questions witnesses.

McPherson also spends an inordinate amount of time in Laura’s apartment, seemingly without any reason but a desire to paw through her things and stare at the large painting of her hanging over her fireplace.

It’s clear poor McPherson has fallen under the spell of a dead woman, and about halfway through the film he gets drunk and falls asleep beneath Laura’s portrait.

[…dangerous spoilers ahead…this is your final warning…turn back now…]

He awakens to find the dead woman standing in the doorway, obviously mistaking him for an intruder and threatening to call the police.

Laura’s got an unconvincing story about staying in a remote cabin with a broken radio and having no idea that she’d been presumed murdered.  The body wearing her dressing gown with her face blown off is identified as Diane Redfern, a woman having an affair with Laura’s fiancé.

Suddenly, she goes from victim to prime suspect, but that doesn’t stop the sparks flying between Laura and Detective McPherson.

At one point McPherson makes a show of arresting her in front of a roomful of people.  He takes her to the station and interrogates her under bright lights.  Angry, humiliated, and confused by her feelings for him, Laura lashes out.  But it’s an elaborate ruse by McPherson to smoke out the real killer.  Laura convinces him of her innocence, and McPherson rightly begins to worry for her safety.

In the end, there is only one person who could’ve tried to kill Laura.  Shelby doesn’t have the stomach for it, and Ann Treadwell wouldn’t go to the trouble.  It’s Lydecker, the older man who has everything but the thing he wants most.  Realizing Laura would never desire him sexually, he decides that if he can’t have her, no one will.

McPherson saves her before Lydecker can finish the job he started, and detective and mistaken murder victim presumably ride off into the sunset together.

It really shouldn’t work.

But it really, really does.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

The Other Love (1947): “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner.  Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.

Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love.  Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.

In Dark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk.  It is a brutal moment of reckoning.

For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly.  It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.

On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room.  Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated.  She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.”  That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.

Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking.  While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.  

She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face.  Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.

Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.

Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal.  Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question.  She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.

She can never have too much exertion.

Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.

After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village.  By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner.  Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.

Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.

Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters.  (Editor’s note:  There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper.  Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)

The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.

His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.

But her job is to live.

Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable.  For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play.  As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.

Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.

She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village.  Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.

We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk.  But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.  

Death stalks her.  Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium.  And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.

For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control.  Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.  

“Oh, please, God, no. Not now.”

She lays her head on a table.

“Oh, please, God, no,”  she says.  “No, not now.”

Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.

In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades.  The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.

At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come.  She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.

Reader, I hated this ending.

In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor.  Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.

Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance.  It felt like surrender.

I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live.  I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.

Exist, yes.  But not live.

Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.

I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.  

She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.  

Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Notorious (1946): Hollywood’s Longest, Sexiest Kiss

Cary Grant.  Ingrid Bergman.  Alfred Hitchcock.

Combine any two and you’ll find a good film.  Indiscreet (Grant and Bergman).  Spellbound (Bergman and Hitch).  North by Northwest (Hitch and Grant).

But only in 1946’s Notorious do you get all three.   

The title refers to Bergman’s character Alicia Huberman, the cynical daughter of a convicted German traitor with a reputation for hard drinking and easy virtue.  

T.R. Devlin (Grant) is a government agent who offers her a job as an American spy who will infiltrate a group of Nazis that once associated with her father.

Neither Devlin nor Alicia know the exact nature of their assignment when they head down to Brazil.  While awaiting their instructions, they begin a passionate love affair.  Alicia is head over heels, but Devlin is more reserved as he considers her checkered past.

Hitchcock showcases the depth of their passion in one of his most famous scenes, an extended kiss that outsmarted the censors and was all the sexier for its restraint.  In 1946, the censors still insisted on putting their fingerprints all over Hollywood’s films.  “Scenes of passion” were severely restricted and kisses could not be too long.  To get around this, Hitchcock shot Bergman and Grant interrupting their short kisses with conversation.  They talk over dinner plans, they touch faces and ears, then stay glued to one another as they cross the room to answer the telephone.  They never kiss for more than a few seconds, but Hitch manages a three minute scene that was absolutely sensational for its time and still holds up today.

It is after this scene that Devlin gets his devastating orders—Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s and an older man who once lusted after her.

It is here that the cat and mouse game between Alicia and Devlin begins.  She wants him to intervene with his superiors, to insist that she is not the kind of woman who would sleep with a man she does not love.  Except that before him, she was exactly that kind of woman.  Devlin wants her to refuse the assignment to prove her love for him.

There is passion but not yet trust between them, and neither expresses their wish to the other.

Alicia accepts the assignment with resigned stoicism, and the deeper she delves into Sebastian’s inner circle, the more she and Devlin mistrust their love.

Devlin must force the woman he cannot admit he loves into the arms of another man, and Alicia goes because she sees helping America as redemption for her past.

Hitchcock ratchets up the tension when Alicia must steal a key to the wine cellar and pass it off to Devlin during a party so he can search for evidence of a Nazi weapons stockpile.

The plot thickens further still when Sebastian’s mother catches onto Alicia’s deception and begins slowly poisoning her.  

Will Devlin rescue her before it’s too late?

It’s a sin to spoil the ending of a Hitchcock film but this one satisfies as much as any he ever made.  

Notorious is the most romantic of Hitchcock’s films.  Unlike Rebecca, the hero and heroine are on equal terms with one another, and are perfectly matched—or will be, if they can only learn to trust one another in love as well as work.  

It’s been a long time since I first watched Notorious in a film studies class in college, and I’d forgotten just how damn good it is.  Not an inch of fat to cut, or a single false note.  It draws you in from the opening scene and doesn’t let you go until the final credits.

No matter how addicted you are to your smartphone, you won’t even glance at it until Hitchcock releases you from his tale of suspense and romance.

When I wrote about Rebecca, I posited that I was looking forward to the Netflix remake, as I’d long thought that as good as it was, it was ripe for a modern take unshackled from the strictures of the production code.

The Netflix remake was not the movie I wanted, and it made me think that Hitchcock’s films are so good they can’t be bettered.

That’s certainly the case with Notorious, which would entail filling Hitcock’s, Ingrid Bergman’s (who really runs away with the film) and Cary Grant’s shoes.

Who would dare even try?


Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Swing Time (1936): Dancing With the Real Stars

Every expert has gaping holes in his knowledge.  High school English teachers who’ve never read Hamlet, wine connoisseurs who’ve never tasted Veuve Clicquot, TV critics who’ve never watched Breaking Bad.  

They’re not frauds.  There’s just too much for anyone to watch, read, and do it all.

And me?  I had the audacity to dub myself an “amateur classic film historian” without having seen a single Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration.

No longer.

Swing Time is a frothy confection that goes down smooth and doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.  Astaire and Rogers do all the work for you.  It is the fifth of the ten movies they made together, and the one that made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. 

Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer and gambler who must earn $25,000 to regain the approval of his future father-in-law after he is late to his own wedding.  Broke but confident, Lucky and his friend hitch a train to New York, where they immediately meet Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a local dance instructor.

Lucky immediately falls in love, and soon he is doing everything he can to not earn $25,000 and a ticket back to his forgotten fiancé.  Penny eventually returns his affections, and a series of contrived plot twists keep them temporarily apart before the inevitable happy ending.

The plot is silly and merely an excuse to get Fred and Ginger dancing.

No one is complaining.  Not me, and not the audiences of 1936, who were well acquainted with the particular charm that is Fred and Ginger on the dance floor, so much so that the film set an all-time record for opening day ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall.

After their first nine films together (made over a six year period; the tenth was a reunion made a decade later), Ginger moved on to more dramatic roles and eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle.  Fred kept making musicals and found new dance partners—Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Bremer.  Some may have had superior technique, but all paled in comparison to his collaborations with Ginger.

If you want to understand their enduring magic, you don’t need to watch all nine films.  You don’t even have to watch all of Swing Time.

Less than a quarter of the way into the film, Fred’s character is pretending not to know how to dance so that Ginger’s Penny will teach him.  After his bumbling around, she declares him a hopeless case and advises him not to waste his money on lessons.  Overhearing this, her boss fires her on the spot.

To save her job, Fred promises to illustrate how much he’s learned in just ten minutes with Ginger.  She’s annoyed and skeptical, but he leads her into the number “Pick Yourself Up” and they glide and tap around the dance floor in perfect sync.

Except for two quick flash reaction shots of Ginger’s boss (unusual in an Astaire/Rogers number, but absolutely necessary for the plot), it’s all one long take.  

The filmmakers—and Fred and Ginger—are confident enough to let the dancing stand for itself.

No close-ups of their feet or faces, no cuts to cover a misstep.  Fred and Ginger go out there and tap dance their hearts out.  It’s full of joy, and fun, and whimsy.

For us.  For Fred and Ginger, it took an exceptional work ethic, a persistence for perfection, and dozens upon dozens of grueling takes.

Their genius is that you don’t see the labor.  You see charisma, originality, and a magic that goes beyond technical mastery into something that can never be duplicated.  

Despite their long careers apart, the two are first and forever linked together.  There is a combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page (an honor not showered upon such famous Hollywood screen duos as Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.)

So it was no surprise that when Fred Astaire won an honorary Oscar in 1950, it was Ginger Rogers who presented it to him.

And when they were announced at the 1967 Oscars as the “undisputed king and queen of the musical” no one disagreed.

No one ever will.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Hedy Lamarr: Cursed by Beauty

Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Hedy Lamarr’s life is one too strange for fiction.  At twelve, she won her first beauty contest.  She began her film career in Austria, starring in the film Ecstasy when she was only eighteen.  The film was little more than pornogrpahy, and the controversy stirred up by Kiesler appearing completely naked and portraying an orgasm became something of an albatross when she later wanted to be taken seriously.

At nineteen she became a trophy wife to a possessive Austrian arms dealer who tried to buy up and destroy every Ecstasy movie print and succeeded only in driving up demand for the film.  In 1937, with Europe on the brink of war and her husband selling ammunition to the Nazis, Kiesler fled him and Austria.

In London she met studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was looking for cheap talent among the Europeans hoping to get out of Dodge before the bombs started dropping. Kiesler fit the bill, and the MGM contract was the Jewish actresses’ ticket to America.

Rechristened as Hedy Lamarr and promoted by Mayer as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Lamarr started her American film career in Algiers (1938) opposite Charles Boyer.

In Ziegfeld Girl, 1941

She starred in a string of MGM films that, like Algiers, are not well remembered today.  She’d gone from trophy wife to trophy actress—her roles emphasized her beauty, and she was treated mostly as a gorgeous decoration.

After a long day at the studio, Lamarr did not socialize.  She spent evenings in her little laboratory at home and invented things.

That’s right—Hedy Lamarr, who was never given anything more interesting to do on screen than wear a heavenly crown, showcase clothes, and whip Samson (as Delilah) had an extraordinary intellect.

She helped her friend Howard Hughes solve an aeronautics problem by redesigning the plane’s wing to function more like a bird’s wing.  She invented a dissolvable coca-cola tablet that could be added to water.

By this time, the United States had entered World War II.  More than anything, Lamarr wanted to help America defeat the Germans.  She felt that the key to breaking Germany’s back was to destroy its U-boats.

Torpedoes were the weapon of choice against submarines, but they were difficult to control once launched.  The best known way to control them was by radio, but the enemy could often easily jam the radio waves controlling the torpedo and knock them off target.

If you could make a torpedo that couldn’t be jammed, you could succeed against the U-boats.

Hedy Lamarr, “the world’s most beautiful woman” had an idea how.

Together with musician George Antheil, Lamarr developed a secret communication system whereby the torepo and the ship could communicate through constantly changing frequencies that were nearly impossible to jam.  Called “frequency hopping,” Lamarr got the idea from the new radio station dials.

Hedy Kiesler Markey’s (aka Hedy Lamarr) Patent

By 1942, Lamarr and Antheil had received a patent for their frequency hopping idea.  They donated their patent to the National Inventors Council, put together to develop ideas to help America win the war.  Lamarr considered quitting Hollywood and joining the council to play her part in the war.

Can you guess what happened next?  Did the U.S. military put Lamarr’s technology to use?  Did American torpedoes designed by a starlet sink German U-boats?

Of course not.

This is Hedy Lamarr’s life in 1940’s Hollywood, not one of her films.

The military dismissed the patent and filed it away in a cabinet in the back of some dusty room.  The Navy rejected it outright and told Lamarr that if she wanted to help the boys she should utilize her real talents.

Hedy Lamarr had invented a way to sink U-boats.

And the Navy told her to sell kisses for war bonds.

Lamarr did sell war bonds, an astounding twenty-five million dollar’s worth in ten days.  

Selling war bonds

Lamarr kept acting, but her heart wasn’t in it.  

Photographers complained that despite her beauty she was difficult to shoot because she seemed unable to convey emotion through her eyes and had only one expression. 

Perhaps it was because Lamarr herself believed, “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

She gained a reputation for being temperamental and difficult onset.  The vapid roles bored her.

The Hollywood history book on Hedy Lamarr is that she was beautiful but not a particularly good actress.  After watching her films, I think the truth is that we’ll never know if Lamarr was a good actress, because she never got a role juicy enough to truly test her.

Though Lamarr cursed her beauty for this, she shoulders some of the blame.  All of the great Hollywood female stars of the studio era (Crawford, Stanwyck, Davis) fought tooth and claw to avoid bad roles and secure good ones.  They understood that for things to happen they had to make them happen.

Lamarr had her chances—Warner’s wanted her for Casablanca but MGM refused to loan her out.  She made fatal career mistakes—passing on roles in Laura (1944) and Gaslight (1944).

Ingrid Bergman became a legend off Lamarr’s bad judgement.

She had a decent ten year run, ending with Samson and Delilah in 1949, her last good film.  She made roughly thirty films, forgotten to all but the most ardent cinephiles.  

She went through six husbands.  Divorces and excessive spending left her broke.  She cursed her looks but despaired as she aged and lost them.  She tried to recapture the past with increasingly excessive plastic surgery.  She became a punchline, mocked and ridiculed by those who had once worshipped her beauty.

Later in life she was arrested twice for shoplifting.

How was a woman to compete with the “world’s most beautiful woman” when that woman was her younger self?

As Robert Osborne says in the 2017 documentary Bombshell:  The Hedy Lamarr Story, “the only thing that would have solved the problem is if she’d died young.”

Hedy Lamarr is gone, and her films have mostly faded.

But her invention lives on.

Though they were not used in World War II, the U.S. military eventually found Lamarr’s patent in that dusty filing cabinet, and by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis her torpedoes were in wide use.

Today, her frequency hopping techniques serve as the foundation of modern day GPS systems, WiFi, Bluetooth, and cell phones.

Hedy Lamarr’s invention impacts everyone of us everyday.

This is her legacy. More important than any film.

In 2014, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In 2017, her story was finally told on film in Bombshell:  The Hedy Lamarr Story.

The tragedy of Hedy Lamarr is that while she had the heart of a Renaissance woman, her uncommon beauty locked her into the narrowest of paths.

Lamarr’s beauty opened many doors, but none that led to happiness or satisfaction.

She had great beauty but lacked the charisma of the greatest actresses.

She had an extraordinary mind but lacked wisdom.

And we all owe her a debt of gratitude.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.