See the bottom of the page for a list of all films mentioned in this review.
This is a terrific book. No, it is more than that. It is one of the best books of film writing I have ever read. Anyone seriously – or even casually – interested in film criticism, in Hollywood, in movie art, in postwar cinema, in how movies think or in really, really good writing needs to read this book. More than once. More than twice.
I know of no one who writes about movies with anything like the sustained, detailed attention to everything in the frame that James Harvey has. He follows the traces of movement in the movies he writes about – physical movement, affective movement, the movement of thought – through the minutiae of expression, gesture, action, framing, cutting… everything. Nothing is missed or glossed over. And from these fragments he makes broad patterns – the broadest, biggest patterns. He senses what is important and he is able to make us sense it too. You could say that his is the culmination of a kind of American film writing that people know best from the work of Pauline Kael or Manny Farber, but I think that it is more than that. It is something apart, so good that it defies imitation – like Duke Ellington’s music or Giotto’s painting. In the future people interested in the movies will read James Harvey, and then, much later, they will sense his influence somewhere deep inside other good writing – there and everywhere and gone again as soon as you think you have grasped it.
From its title you know that this is a book about love in the movies and loving the movies in the ’50s. It is also, you can tell from the cover that shows Jimmy Stewart embracing Kim Novak, about Hollywood movies. But all that can fool you too. A flight attendant told me that she would buy a copy of the book I was reading because she loved those old movies, “you know, like Butterfield 8 and Picnic and Love is a Many Splendored Thing”. She did name three Hollywood movies about love from the ’50s (not something I would expect from too many film academics), but I hadn’t the heart to tell her that none of them were featured in the book. This is more a book about film noir and its influence than a book about “melodrama”. In fact, the kind of film academic who would think that Vertigo, Psycho, Touch of Evil, Johnny Guitar and Written on the Wind were Hollywood movies from the ’50s would be on the money where she was not. And, oddly, the kind who would think that Christmas Holiday, Out of the Past, The Reckless Moment, and In a Lonely Place were Hollywood ’50s movies would be too.
When you look at the table of contents you see the names of all those movies (and maybe you wonder where exactly the ’50s begin). But you also see the names of the sections of the book: “The Women”, “The Men”, “The Movies”, “The Moviemakers”. And some other names – Betty Grable, Doris Day, Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Janet Leigh, Clift, Brando, James Dean, Nicholas Ray, Robert Siodmak, Orson Welles, Douglas Sirk, Ross Hunter. Other movies too: The Big Heat, Bitter Victory, Imitation of Life. Now you know a lot more about what Movie Love in the Fifties is about. You don’t know that there are interesting discussions of Love Me or Leave Me (!) and There’s Always Tomorrow and Kim Novak and Barbara Stanwyck and Elia Kazan and A Star is Born (you won’t like what he says!) and…and… But you might decide to get this book on the basis of these names alone.
Or you might decide to read some of the introduction.
It says that the movies dealt with in the book represent
a special kind of achievement…a conservative countertrend to the ‘revolutionary’ new subject matter [of “racism, drugs, teenage rebellion”]…almost a new kind of Hollywood movie, establishing…a different relation with its audience, subverting at times just those securities in the audience – the reliance on narrative logic and linearity, on psychological realism, on the invisible camera and the self-effacing filmmaker that the ‘classical cinema’ of the big-studio hey-day had so carefully built up. The postclassical movie, instead of foregoing or disguising the genre, emphasised and aestheticised it, using the familiarity not to reassure but to astonish and even discomfit us (p. x).
If you are of my academic generation you might be reminded a little of the Cahiers du cinéma editorial board or Peter Wollen (or Viktor Shklovsky). But put in a more interesting way, don’t you think?
In the next paragraph there are claims that at least some of the moviemakers who interest Harvey are “lyric artists” and “formalists”. And a phrase that amounts to a secret handshake, “the termite artist”. In the paragraph after that, he is talking about “epiphanies…often a fleeting scene or detail that carries such a sudden pressure of meaning and beauty at once that you almost think it could implode the movie screen”. Frisson, punctum, the touch. (And you notice, with a bit of trepidation, that his examples are all visual. It’s OK; he’s better – far better – than that).
Here is a kind of summation:
this book is meant to be about…the experience of these movies. What I set out to do here is to help you to see them better – to experience them more deeply and sharply and richly…The method that I mostly use here is to follow the movie as it moves and changes and makes its points in front of us, as we experience it, not so much as we think and talk about it later (p. xi).
Makes its points.
Can I show you how this book moves and changes and makes its points? I am not sure. I do know that I want to quote big hunks of it at you and I do know that while I was reading it (again) for this review I kept on thinking about this bit or that bit. So what I am going to do is to try to tell you something of how I thought my way through it. That means I’ll start at the beginning and go on to the end without too much leaping forward or looping back. But it also means that, in this very long review, I’m almost inevitably going to miss out this bit or that bit which I really should have included (like the wonderful description of “the big romantic scene” in Johnny Guitar).
Criticism is almost always “thinking and talking about the movie afterwards”. This is, if you will, the experience of criticism or its inescapable condition. And Harvey’s criticism is, inescapably, also that. But if I can anthropomorphise in the manner of a Francophile, criticism desires another condition – the condition of the very experience of which Harvey writes. This also is an inescapable, and determining, condition of the experience of criticism. (Tim Groves has explored some of the implications of this condition in his “Cinema/Affect/Writing” article for this journal.)
We think and talk about an experience which we desire. But the experience of thinking and talking that we have tends to overcome the one we desire – mostly, I suppose, on the perfectly pragmatic grounds of the impossibility of attaining that desire. Sober critics then, eschew the madness of cinema, of (re)writing the cinema – ejecting their desire so as to place it at a distance. They label criticism of Harvey’s sort, which attempts to convey experience, “impressionistic”, meaning it is unscientific, vague, based in feeling.
But there is nothing vague or emotive about what Harvey does, grounded, as it is, in the closest observation of what happens on the screen (scientific then, not to say fetishistic). When he tells us what, say, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is feeling during her first encounter with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), we recognise immediately that these feelings are once and twice removed. They are what we experience as her feelings and also what we experience as Neff’s feelings of her feelings. I have no doubt, as I read what Harvey writes, that passages like these do not record James Harvey’s “impressions”, but the very experience which I have when I see this scene, the core experience of it, if you want, or the experience we can all agree upon before some of us launch into more esoteric realms of interpretation.
One could be forgiven for thinking that “of course” what Harvey is doing must be what David Bordwell does under the name of “poetics” – also presumably a base before interpretation. But this is not the case. The trouble with narrative analysis, even so comprehensively and filmicly sensitive a narrative analysis as Bordwell’s, is its level of generality, is its tendency, no, its compulsion to assert the experience of criticism (thinking, talking) as the equivalent of the experience of the film. Bordwell substitutes criticism’s impossible object, “a text”, for the impossible object of “a film experience”. Poetics longs for the text as I have said film criticism longs for the absent experience. But the text will never, and can never, be made present, represented, whereas the film experience has been and can be (just not now) (Show it again, Sam). Poetics can only gesture towards the text which lies before, beneath, and after – but can never appear. Harvey’s criticism, by contrast, describes what has been and will be – precisely the film’s appearing, its realisation.
Yet it won’t do to overemphasise the contrasts in what are, in many significant ways, convergent strands of thinking and talking about a film. Bordwell is always most persuasive when he begins with specifics – shots or sequences, fragments, from which he constructs entire universes piece by piece. It is just that Bordwell’s object is never the film experience but something else – a form or structure or machine. Not, if you will, how it is working but how it works. He is satisfied to have discerned the works, to have exposed them, to have explained them. Harvey proceeds more dialectically. He evokes the specifics of the film experience in order to display a generality (blonde heroines, for example) that will make us see the specific film anew.
And I think he does something even more radical than that. I think James Harvey makes us recognise what we always already knew/experienced of the film. It is not the film but our experience of that is made new. Suddenly we recall what it is that we think and feel (what we sense) when we see that scene, that character, that “epiphany” – and we are at once pleased with our new old acuity and struck that we never before recognised the significance of that experience.
This is phenomenology, of a sort. And I suppose that the reason I think Harvey’s book is so immensely valuable is that I am (still?) a phenomenologist of a sort myself, convinced that experience is what we ought to be thinking and talking about in the humanities (which is what Hans-Georg Gadamer says in Truth and Method), that art expresses nothing (which is what Hannah Arendt says in a footnote in The Human Condition), and that there is, indeed, a human condition and we are in it.
Gadamer and Arendt are often thought of as “conservative” philosophers, and certainly there is a strong sense of wanting to conserve the best products of the past in their respective ideas of art and culture – a conservatism that Harvey (and I – and you, I hope) share. Sometimes the turn to “experience” and away from “expression” marks a turn away from social and political issues – which might also be considered conservative. But Harvey does not use “experience” as a way of avoiding those issues. Instead, his analyses show how his experience and ours intersect and interact with the social and political points that movies make.
At one point, following a brilliant chapter on Bitter Victory he uses his personal experience of life in an army camp as a kind of summation of the ’50s as well as a way of suggesting why Nick Ray’s film had such an effect on him when he saw it so many years later. In doing this, of course, he is fulfilling his promise “to help you see them better”, which is also, as I understand it, an intimation of a revolution in seeing. The last thing he wants is for us to see these movies as we in our historical circumstances always already see them. He hopes that we will see them anew, to see in them truths concealed by circumstance. This is hardly a conservative attitude towards the past – and it may even be a deconstructive one.
“We’re all involved with each other one way or another” (The Reckless Moment)
(The Women/The Men)
The first chapter of Movie Love in the Fifties, ten pages long, is called “Noir Heroines”.
Another title for it might have been “Women in film noir”, but that title would lead you to expect a stilted, academic exposition of the topic. Instead, the method here is much different from what we have been used to in the (mainly academic) writing around Hollywood films from the ’40s and ’50s. What is being described is the character usually called “the femme fatale” in that writing. But not only are those particular words absent in this chapter, the whole idea of Harvey’s description is to show simultaneously how each character in each film differs from the others (by directing our attention to specifics of appearance and behaviour) and how they belong together (they are liars; they are deadly & so on). Noir heroines are singularly plural beings.
This is an extraordinary achievement in film criticism (perhaps in any criticism): to affirm specificity and generality – token and type – in the same words. Writing what some of us might call “difference”, Harvey puts into practice something most of us merely assert.
But this achievement goes way beyond the simply academic and a long way towards the new kind of seeing based on experience that Harvey wants for us. For it is surely the case that any general typing of the women in film noir will be based precisely on the specific observations Harvey makes and will arise in the instant that these experiences impinge upon us. That is, in our experience the token and the type are simultaneous, general and specific takes place at once.
Although this section is about “The Women” (which is also the title of a 1939 movie starring Rosalind Russell), Harvey begins it with a quote about women stars and men directors. Thus, the older academic mode of writing might want to say, this section is really about women viewed by men or a man’s idea of a woman.
But that is not what Harvey’s writing asserts. He describes collaboration (at times, as in the case of Doris Day or Marilyn Monroe, something that exceeds a director’s intention entirely), moving from the specifics of the star’s performance to the experience of the film. And at the same time, he rarely discusses the women in these movies without also discussing the men who are their counterparts. More than the academic construct of “the couple”, what Harvey sees anew for us is the constant interchange that always is at stake in questions of gender. Thus, on the most obvious level, there is no Kathie (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past without Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Whit (Kirk Douglas) and even Fisher (Steve Brodie), just as they cannot exist without her or without Meta (Rhonda Fleming)…and so on. Each, finally, is a facet of the plural fiction that gender always is – all the same thing in the very breath in which each is separate, unique, opposite (no a without not-a).
The identity of the women in these films is thus always a mixture of feminine and masculine (star and director, the couple, the women in men’s eyes and each in the eyes of their own sex too). Harvey understands better, it seems to me, than most who write specifically about the question of gender, the singular plurality of our recognition of masculinity or femininity – how, then, gender is written, always contingent, opportunistic, evanescent, never fixed or essential. Better than Plato’s Aristophanes too.
He doesn’t stop with actors and directors, as you might think. In the Out of the Past chapter, for example, he describes how Roy Webb’s score and Frank Fenton’s (uncredited) dialogue make this movie so fine (not to mention “camerawork”, “editing”, “the song”, clothes, light and so on). Throughout the book writers, cinematographers, producers, composers, costuming and art direction are, directly and indirectly, always given their due. No movie, no scene, no character is allowed to flood out the nest of termites on the screen. Here again, the method is always show the plural at the same time as the singular: token and type together.
For example, in Psycho you are shown how the character of Marion (Janet Leigh) makes the character of Norman (Anthony Perkins) more authoritative and mysterious by the way she looks at him, what she says, how she holds herself, at the same time as Marion herself is made more open and vulnerable by the way that Norman behaves towards her. But later in the movie, Harvey argues, Norman loses some of his power and mystery – and so does the movie – at least partly because Marion’s replacements, Sam (John Gavin) and Lila (Vera Miles), are “not only unappealing but relatively characterless” (p. 102) – underlining that what we perceive as a singular character is always the result of collaboration and context. (In this case, a collaboration that exceeded the vision of the film’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, who wanted the “relatively characterless” Miles to play Marion). That is, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are as important to our understanding of Marion as Alfred Hitchcock is. This kind of perception is, among other things, exceptionally sophisticated figural criticism – and one can profitably read Movie Love in the Fifties and its predecessor, Romantic Comedy, as key contributions to that very important, and mostly overlooked, critical tendency.
Perhaps Harvey’s fullest exposition of the plural nature of gender is The Big Heat, which is treated as a film “about conflicts between men…where it’s women who settle things” (p. 115). That is, “what we took for Bannion [Glenn Ford] battling Lagana [Alexander Scourby] turns into Debbie [Gloria Grahame] defeating Bertha [Jeanette Nolan]… In the pervasive corruption, the almost holocaustal menace of the world of this movie, women are seen as primary victims. And yet, it seems, it’s only the ones we make victims who can – finally and just possibly – save us” (p. 116). A confusion in which active and passive, hero and villain, get mixed up with masculine and feminine, each standing for the other in an endless series of refractions which are a precise intellectual equivalent of the hall of mirrors in Lady from Shanghai (Ah, yes, Mr Frischberg, I thought you’d come…).
All this is shown in lavish detail over eight chapters of “The Women” and with writing that stops your breath and makes you want to shout. And all over again but anew in the next section, called “The Men” (which is also the title of a 1951 movie, starring Marlon Brando).
The trajectory of “The Men” section moves overtly from (1) types (confident patriarchs of the old school like John Wayne giving way to the vulnerable, boy types of the ’50s like Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean) through (2) the effect of the Method on the movies and on acting in the movies (Judy Garland in A Star is Born and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris) to (3) In a Lonely Place (in which Bogart’s violent madness is somehow understood even to the point of sympathy) and (4) male stars and their directors (James Dean with Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan) – which segues nicely into (5) Nicholas Ray (Bigger than Life and The Lusty Men), finally winding up with (6) Bitter Victory (in which one might say that Curt Jurgens, a patriarch of the old school, opposes Richard Burton, playing a more vulnerable ’50s hero).
But that is not it at all. I have made it all seem pedestrian and simple. In the first place, this section marks Harvey’s explicit introduction of a subtheme that has a great deal to do with understanding the rest of the book: the ideas of “authenticity” and “phoniness” articulated in and by the Holden Caulfield character/narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Harvey’s take on these ideas is maybe not what you would expect – particularly since this section tends to present everything deadpan. He is particularly good about Brando’s rejection of acting and Nick Ray’s pose of l’artist maudit – quintessentially phoney attitudes adopted in the name of authenticity. These ideas have already been at work underground in “The Women” section. (Who would ever call Doris Day, Kim Novak or Gloria Grahame, all performers whom Harvey admires one way or the other, “authentic”?). And they are a key element of the case that Harvey is going to make for considering the artful, artificial, “stylised” movies in this book the real art of Hollywood in the ’50s.
And if the collaborative, plural nature of stars and types is foregrounded in the organisation of this section, at the same time the extremity of what these types do onscreen is stressed in the analyses herein – the movement to madness, breaking out and breaking up. Reading about these excessive moments, you might be struck by how this kind of hysteria is not what is at issue in the section on “The Women”. The type of women Harvey discusses there are involved always one way or another with taking control (this is one reason why The Big Heat is the last film dealt with in that section). But the masculine type that interests him is losing control – which is one reason he finishes this section with Bitter Victory, in which all pretense of masculine control is left in tatters).
Discharging My Responsibility
I think you ought to know that I have met Jim Harvey (once) and that I have admired his writing since sometime in the late 80s, after Romantic Comedy was published. For awhile we corresponded, but as I got more into the Internet and he did not, all that stopped. When Movie Love in the Fifties came out I tried to get people to organise some kind of Big Internet Event to celebrate it in this journal, but circumstances conspired to thwart those plans. I was pretty sure the book was going to be good because I had read the Bitter Victory essay in an earlier form in The Threepenny Review and thought it was the best thing he had done. I am saying that I am prejudiced, but I am saying it here hoping you have already been persuaded that this book is as good as I believe it is.
And, you know, no one’s perfect.
Is Mildred Bailey really a contemporary of Doris Day, as Harvey seems to be saying on page 53? Bailey died in 1951 and her best years were before Day’s, Another singer he lists, Dinah Washington, did her best work after Day had done hers. Rosemary Clooney and/or Peggy Lee would have been more appropriate choices. (And where, for Pete’s sake, is Ella Fitzgerald?)
It’s not “Robert Alton” but John (p. 105) – a mistake repeated in the index. (I imagine he has had this pointed out more than once already).
The 1932 quote from Stark Young which is on page 146 and repeated in the Conclusion is not sourced in the bibliography. It seems to be from an essay that appears under the title “Greta Garbo” in the American Film Criticism anthology edited by Stanley Kauffmann. (A full citation can be found in the References section at the end of this review.)
And, say, just what print of Bitter Victory did he see? He raises the point about different versions of this film explicitly in his brief history of its lamentable history when he refers to the many different severely cut and re-edited versions released, but does not say which of these he actually saw (or where). (I know that the only version I ever saw was on late night television sometime in the 60s or 70s). Only the print shown at Venice is allowed as “the original version” (p. 193; not a term that actually makes much sense in thinking and talking about movies).
And, yes, I had to look up “tchotchkes” (p. 384) – and so will you.
So much for that friendship.
About the time I was getting into “The Movies” section I began to realise that the rather high falutin’ phenomenological stuff I had been thinking and writing about could be accommodated in another frame, and one that Harvey himself might acknowledge (I imagine he wouldn’t be much interested in late-model phenomenology). The alternative frame is “performance”. Put most directly, Movie Love in the Fifties is about the performance of stars, the performance of ensembles and of scenes, and most of all about the performance of a movie.
This frame has a decent history in film academia, but I am going to cite only one example, Richard Maltby and Ian Craven’s excellent textbook, Hollywood Cinema. Outside of film writing, I have found ideas that seemed to illuminate performance to me in some of the work of Richard Bauman, Henri Bergson, Kenneth Burke, Gilles Deleuze, Florence Dupont, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, Richard Poirer, and Victor Turner.
The argument of “The Movies” section has to do with how the films discussed in this book began to deploy the devices of art cinema (becoming “movies” more than “stories”) within conventional stories and genres.
This kind of filmmaking was, from the point of view of the studio bosses anyway, “European”. It had roots during the late ‘teens and twenties in Sweden and Germany, and from there had made its way to France and, to a limited extent, England even before the coming of sound. (Italian, Russian and Soviet practices, which were very interesting, did not have much direct impact on Hollywood, but had some indirect influence through Germany and France).
From the early ’20s it was Hollywood studio practice to cherrypick European talent – eg. Ernst Lubitsch, Maurtiz Stiller, Viktor Sjostrom, Jacques Feyder – and perhaps most egregiously and notoriously, F. W. Murnau, who was imported in order to give Fox Studios the status of one of the majors by a studio head who publicly denigrated his best known work, The Last Laugh, during the time that the director was making Sunrise – the film that achieved Fox’s ambition.
Many of the most enterprising American directors, like John Ford (Four Sons, The Informer), Howard Hawks (Scarface), Josef von Sternberg (The Last Command, Underworld, An American Tragedy), King Vidor and Clarence Brown experimented with or adopted “European” devices like expressive angles, shadows, showy cuts, compositions, camera movement. But after a brief fluorescence in the early ’30s, it seems to me that these tendencies were pretty actively discouraged until Citizen Kane (1941).
Yet during the ’30s another wave of European migrants arrived in Hollywood. Most of these were fleeing Germany (Fritz Lang, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Douglas Sirk). Some came from France (Jean Renoir). But the most important one, Alfred Hitchcock, came from Britain. A few of these directors managed to make some “art films” (Lang’s Fury and You and Me; Renoir’s The Southerner and Diary of a Chambermaid) – but most were moved quite deliberately into B pictures and/or other genre work. Among these imports, Hitchcock is notable for having avoided B pictures altogether, but at the cost of becoming typed for all time as “the master of suspense”.
Harvey says “the noir movie look was not French but German” (p. 251). This is pretty true, but perhaps not in the way you might think. In fact much of the noir look is closer to the best known French films of the thirties, like Pepe Le Moko and Le Jour Se Leve than of German forerunners of the noir mode like M. However, according to such authorities as Dudley Andrew (Mists of Regret) and Colin Crisp (The Classic French Cinema), the look of “French poetic realism” was in its turn strongly influenced and even crafted by German directors (Siodmak, Pabst, Ophuls), cinematographers (Eugen Schüfftan, Curt Courant), and editors (Jean Oser) – and especially by set designers born in Russia (Lazare Meerson, Georges Wahkevitch, Léon Barsacq) and Hungary (Alexander Trauner).
When Harvey describes Robert Siodmak’s career (his extraordinary popular successes from Cobra Woman in 1944 through The File on Thelma Jordan in 1950 – and especially Christmas Holiday, to which he devotes an entire chapter), he is also charting the rise of the arty European style. In terms of Harvey’s argument, it is no coincidence that none of the films Siodmak made in the actual ’50s is discussed. Unlike Hitchcock or Nick Ray, for example, Siodmak was not able to adapt that style to the civil code style increasingly favoured by studios and (apparently) audiences alike.
Other directors, including Ray and Sirk (to whom Harvey devotes chapters) as well as Vincente Minnelli, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Ida Lupino, Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, Phil Karlson, Joseph H. Lewis and Robert Aldrich, did adapt. In the process they forged an “American art” style – seemingly straightforward and even transparent while upon closer examination “making its points” cinematically and formally, with composition, lighting, cutting and the adroit use of music, dialogue and sound effects.
In Orson Welles’ films, Harvey claims, there will often be a seemingly unimportant moment which “has a generalising force that outstrips the specific ones, seeming almost to detach itself from the character, to be less about explaining or describing than recognizing him in some inspired, unexpected way: the way a single marginal image or turn of phrase can bring a poem to life for you. It’s the sort of coup that prompted Truffaut to describe Welles as a lyric artist attempting to be a narrative one – a poet trying to write prose, and failing” (p. 304). He argues that one of these moments occurs when, at the very end of Touch of Evil, Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) says of Quinlan (Orson Welles), “He was some kind of a man…what does it matter what you say about people?” – which he compares to “Death of a Salesman‘s bad writing” (p. 309; you do got to love them cojones, don’t you?).
Welles, then, is an artist of “epiphanies” (and if you need more convincing, read Harvey’s exquisite description of the famous opening scene of The Magnificent Ambersons).
On Nicholas Ray: “He thought of himself, with reason, as an artist beleagured and often defeated by constraints – by the studios, the audience, the system, and so forth. But it seems unlikely he could have functioned even so well as he did without those constraints…he was stimulated by those limits too – his gifts and energies focussed by them, as they might never have been otherwise” (p. 328). In his brief accounts of the production histories of various Ray movies, Harvey continually points out how Ray himself often seemed to be bent on sabotaging his own projects by exploding his talents outwards, obsessively rewriting, fiddling, muddying the waters. A lot of his movies, like Welles’, seem to exist mainly because he was contracted to finish them.
By Harvey’s account Welles, Ray and Robert Siodmak at least, did not really understand what they were good at. To that extent, all of Harvey’s appreciative, interpretative analyses of their films are deconstructive.
On Douglas Sirk: “It seemed as if he was showing you not only another way of connecting to his audience but also to his formulaic materials, a way not only of turning threadbare trash into interesting art (plenty of filmmakers had done that before) but of doing that and still leaving it trash somehow. For me, it was almost like a new idea of what an artist might do, of how he might speak to you” (p. 337). No doubt for Sirk as well.
Describing Sirk, Welles, and Ray, Harvey manages to mention how their apparent understanding of what they were doing sometimes changed in different accounts given to different people at different times – that is, in line with the circumstances and expectations of those accounts. As I understand it, that kind of opportunism (all too common in moviemakers of that generation) would mark them as phonies in Holden Caulfield’s book. It is important to recognise that Harvey merely notes the discrepancies. And moves on.
Now for some movie writing. First I want to show you how Harvey handles description: how he writes it and how he makes it work in the ways he interprets the films. But this review is, as I have said, more about what I thought about when I was reading this book than about the book itself – so mainly I want to show you what Harvey’s movie writing made me think about.
The Reckless Moment
Over the course of his movie Ophuls shows Lucia (Joan Bennett) going through, in and out of, a variety of public settings – a hotel lobby, a bank, a pawnshop, a post office, a cocktail lounge, and so on. He omits establishing shots, so that we enter these places with her. And she is accompanied, for the most part, by ambient sounds alone (there is hardly any musical underscoring in this film, even at the big moments), often intricately layered, with traffic and bustle and snatches of overheard conversation. But he’s never more intent on her than in those moments when she’s moving around her house, especially those times when she is between rooms and encounters: on the stairs, in the hall, on the way to the door, walking and thinking, then setting her face for the next question, the next lie, the next intrusion on her thoughts – on the stairway landing calling up to quiet the children, then lighting a cigarette, gathering herself together over it, while a distant banjo (David in his room) thrums tunelessly in the distance. It’s extraordinary how absorbing these moments (there are a great many of them throughout) always are – when “nothing happens” except Lucia’s walking and thinking and pausing. The intensity of her concentration, along with her isolation on the screen, draws you in irresistibly (p. 236).
I am so convinced by this passage that I think that the distant banjo in the distance must be deliberate – artistry I do not (yet) fully comprehend.
More of the good stuff. Nagle (Roy Roberts) is dead, killed by Donnelly (James Mason), who has been wounded in the process, as Lucia watches. It is a horrible, tragic repetition of the horrible, tragic thing that began the film.
He stops her in the doorway, taking her by the arm. They are both moving like sleepwalkers now. “I’ll get help”, she protests, “you’re bleeding.” But he holds on to her in the doorway, her back against the outside wall, her face turned toward the house and the call to the police – she doesn’t move. Then he turns to go back to the body – he has to get rid of it, he says – and she pulls him back by the lapel of his coat and puts her hand inside it again. He presses his hand on hers over the wound. This choreography of clutchings and pullings and turnings-away is very powerful. It’s not only the first time that Lucia touches Donnelly, it’s the first time she’s touched anyone in the movie – except the corpse at the beginning.
They lean against the wall and he holds her hand to his chest. And as he talks – about his misspent life, his regrets, his feelings for her – she begins to sag beside him, her head hanging, in shame and sorrow, sinking lower and lower as he goes on. It’s not love they’ve achieved (there was never much hope or question of that) but complicity. And the unresisting way Lucia now accepts their intimacy – like the direct way she put her hand on his wound – reminds you of what’s appealing about her in spite of everything, as well as what’s sort of awesome: her matter-of-factness in the face of enormity. But she is also someone who lives more than half-averted from her deepest, strongest feelings: just as she is so poignantly now with him, outside the doorway – both holding on and turning away at once. (pp 240–241)
But Harvey does not stop with this description of the performance of the narrative climax of the movie. Instead, he takes an unexpected turn, like a tracking camera suddenly turned aside from where you had been expecting it to go. For the next paragraph introduces a passage of “deconstruction” in which Lucia’s relation to Donnelly is compared with her relation to Sybil (Frances Williams), her black maid. “Lucia has a more reciprocal human connection – in some ways a deeper and more genuine one – with her maid and her blackmailer than she does with her family” (p. 242) – but this relation is also “half-averted”, hardly acknowledged. And Harvey charts the movement of Lucia’s figure from the background of the shot at the beginning of the movie to the foreground at the end, when she drives the car for both of them because Lucia can no longer trust herself at the wheel.
Something else is being set up here – but we will have to wait for it.
This critical move is deconstructive in so far as the parallel – which seems to me to be there, indubitably – may not have been consciously intended by the film’s authors. Yet neither Harvey nor I would think of it as a mistake, or a slip, either. Instead, I would say that the parallel does appear to be intended by the film, as though it could not be escaped – determined, then, by cultural or social forces endemic to the particular historical circumstances of this movie’s production, many of which we still share with those times and that place.
Pages 267–271 of Movie Love in the Fifties describe the beginning of the first roadhouse sequence in Christmas Holiday with exquisite detail. This is a piece of writing I would quote in full if I dared. It is so good – so accurate, so evocative, so detailed, so pertinent – and so beautiful. What Harvey says about what appears on the screen here might also be said of his writing of it: “The whole scene is like an inspired jazz riff, teasing and playing the familiar ‘melody’ – the introduction/entrance of the star (Deanna Durbin)…(it’s the kind of moviemaking that makes you feel smarter)” (p. 271).
But I told you before that I wouldn’t be quoting too much of Harvey’s thick description because I like writing about thinking better. So watch (again), while the camera veers unexpectedly as it thinks.
First he talks about Christmas Holiday‘s overt theme: “The idea that innocence can be culpable is an insight that’s at the heart of noir itself, though rarely so clearly stated as here…in this film it’s more stated than enacted” (p. 277). So this is not a movie that demands our attention for having contributing anything very original to the roster of noir insights – or for having said the old things particularly well. Apparently everyone knew Herman Manckewicz’s script had problems, and apparently Siodmak was not allowed to try to solve those problems. “The ‘problems’ are less with the flat, sometimes bathetic dialogue…or the stock characters…than with the script’s failure to develop the themes that it touches on” (p. 277). Bad dialogue. Flat characters. Ideas instead of meanings. Harvey doesn’t even like Somerset Maugham’s original novel. What’s left?
If this old movie works in the end – as I think it does – it’s not because its heroine’s character makes anything much more than the most minimal sense required, but because she becomes an essential part of that powerful aestheticising strategy that Siodmak has imposed on the production…But it isn’t until this ending that she’s transformed by it: each glimpse of her, each moment, each gesture and cut becoming a kind of ‘accompaniment’ to the musical exaltation [of, first, Irving Berlin's “Always”, then the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde]. And we ‘believe in’ that transformation of her in the end because Siodmak has involved us in the process that arrives at it, in all those ‘musical numbers’ that have led us up to it (p. 282).
Harvey then makes the point that the range of the music in this movie is “richer and more suggestive than the movie’s writing ever is” (p. 282) – and that the music is “all about coping and transcending in different ways” (p. 283). Makes you wonder if Christmas Holiday was one of the movies shown in Paul Anderson’s little cinémathèque before they started shooting Magnolia. (I don’t think so, do you?).
So “in the end Christmas Holiday is not so much a movie about a doomed and tragic love – though it takes such a love as given – as it is a film about the power of a ceremony or a concert or a terrific song or even a night sky to transfigure your experience” (p. 283). And, by extension, this movie may be taken as an example of the transforming power of what Thomas Elsaesser once called “foregrounding vision” – or, put in another way, this film is doing something that, perhaps, only a film can do. Harvey doesn’t make such a grandiose claim, of course – but it seems to me that someone might. Maybe even me.
Written on the Wind
The inanimate objects in this movie are not portentous, as they usually are in Hitchcock. What they are instead is intensely present. Like that yellow roadster, or those ceaselessly nodding oil pumps (like grazing pterodactyl heads) that often turn up at the sides of the screen in exterior shots. The things in the movie get your attention even when they don’t seem to be calling for it (p. 346).
Those inanimate objects are later glossed as magical projections of Kyle (Robert Stack) and Marylee’s (Dorothy Malone) yearning for childhood. Big toys then – and, I would say, actually animate things. What happens with them sounds something like what happens in poetic realism, where the film’s vision animates everything in the scene by making it figural – only, it seems to me, Harvey’s detailed observations give specific, finite substance to the general claims most critics make about the transforming power of classic French mise en scène. Once again I think we are dealing with something that only the “arts of the screen” can do – because I think that the articulation of time plays a crucial role in achieving this sort of animation. And if this be Deleuze, then make the most of it.
Finally (for now at least), look again as Harvey’s critical vision extends and grounds our experience of a sequence and a character we all thought we knew pretty well already.
And the views of Marylee (as her father [Robert Keith] toils upward) in more and more furious motion – her Totentanz – become more like mere glimpses, fractured and discontinuous, of her grinding butt or flailing limbs, body parts in motion and streaming red fabric, bursting out and onto the close-up low-angled camera; in one quick view of her, full-length but headless, she seems to be rushing bacchante-like right at it. And reaching the tip of the stairway, Jasper staggers, pitches back, and tumbles to the bottom…In her room, Marylee falls backwards onto a couch, the music crescendoing, as she scissor-kicks her legs in the air under the swirling red chiffon, holding her hands over them like a puppeteer. While old dad lies dead below.
All this is apparently telling us – fairly loudly – that Marylee is not just a nympho (her usual designation in descriptions of the film) or a tramp or a spoiled rich girl, but a seriously bad person…But then the pure outrageousness of the sequence really undercuts that point, making it impossible to feel such a conventional moral judgement of her…The scene is too thrilling, too much fun to watch: the audacity of it can make you laugh out loud with satisfaction and pleasure…What you feel instead is a kind of collusion with Marylee’s recklessness – and her ruthlessness. She’s not afraid – unlike Kyle – to “kill” the dad, or to dance on his grave.
But – she makes you nervous, all the same. She inspires apprehension, just as Kyle does…Marylee is hell on her family, but she’s no femme fatale. Far from it…She’s sort of indomitable. But like her brother, Kyle – though in a different way – she seems very “exposed (pp 252–253).”
“You never asked” (Imitation of Life)
“Making its points”
Besides concentrating on Sirk (with chapters on him, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life), “The Moviemakers” section also features a chapter on Ross Hunter (which is really about what Hunter did to/for Sirk and vice-versa). That chapter, in turn, features analyses of There’s Always Tomorrow, Tarnished Angels (the latter not even a Hunter production) and All That Heaven Allows. And in it there is that word “tchotchkes” (p. 384).
It also contains an extremely good short appreciation of Barbara Stanwyck’s work, including this observation:
Movies in general – unlike plays, where the performer never has to endure a close-up – are necessarily about the people who are in them. Sirk’s talent wasn’t just his skill at directing actors, but knowing better than most directors how to make a movie out of them, whether the screenplay or production helps or not – out of what seem to be the actor’s deepest qualities, giving not just a personal vision of his stars but (in the broadest sense) a moral one (p. 391).
That movies are inevitably about the people in them is one of the things Harvey has been pointing out to us all through the book (perhaps most obviously in the case of Deanna Durbin in Christmas Holiday). It is why he puts sections about “The Women”, “The Men” and “The Movies” before this one about “The Moviemakers”, of course.
He goes on to discuss Sirk’s work with Rock Hudson in the terms he has set for how that director worked with actors in general, in which he implicitly contrasts Sirk’s pulled-back, toned-down handling of actors with Ross Hunter’s penchant for ever more lavish, impossible sets. “You could make a case that the oddities of that movie [All that Heaven Allows], and the entertaining excesses of Magnificent Obsession, are a kind of response to the fundamental imperturbabilities, the unyielding depthlessness, of their leading actors” (p. 392–393).
Harvey never once suggests that there could be a subtext about Hudson’s sexual preferences in those films – although to me it sometimes seems that there might be. I used to think that the Hudson Universal movies all contained a moment of revelation (an epiphany of sorts for the viewer) in which Hudson was surprised or embarrassed (in Written on the Wind it occurs when he has to dance with Dorothy Malone). This was before I knew that he was gay. Many of the Sirk movies deal explicitly with the Hudson character’s inability to perform his love for the woman who attracts him, coupled with a certain hysterical isolation from others. His tragic attractions to an older woman (All That Heaven Allows) or the wife of his best friend (while being loved by that man’s sexy sister – Written on the Wind) or the wife of a doomed parachutist (Tarnished Angels) are like sardonic misapplications of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” – presumably the sort of thing that would have amused Douglas Sirk.
In many ways, [Sirk] was the ultimate (to borrow Manny Farber’s term again) “termite artist”. More, I think, than any other of the ’50s filmmakers in this book (p. 391).
The last film analysis in the book is of Sirk’s Imitation of Life. It contains a parallel discussion of John M. Stahl’s 1934 version of the same title, which Harvey appreciates too, if not quite as much as he does Sirk’s. This is fortunate just now, because Universal’s “Franchise Collection” has issued a double DVD of both films which you really ought to get. And because the Stahl version is more than pretty good, and mighty peculiar to boot (2).
Harvey’s discussion of the Sirk version, centred on Juanita Moore’s performance of Annie, keeps on coming back to the contrasting performances of the four women (Moore, Lana Turner, Susan Kohner, Sandra Dee), who together make a household in which men really have no place. So in this case the performances are discussed as (power) relations between women – the plurality is female.
But, as you have learned to expect by now, character performances, no matter how elegantly described, eventually give way to the performance of the movie itself. Here again, as in the case of Christmas Holiday, Harvey’s cool wording may mislead you for a moment about what it is that he values. He says that Sirk’s version “reproduces all the dramatic highlights of the Stahl film, and even many of their details…but always in an inflated, hyperbolised way” (p. 404) and goes out of his way to point to “its unrelenting flamboyance and obvious falsities and Hollywood gloss” (p. 407). But you couldn’t be fooled, could you? These are positive traits, not negative ones.
Harvey never mentions Bertolt Brecht, although he certainly knows more about Brecht than I do (although not, I imagine, more than Douglas Sirk). I think that maybe he doesn’t want to rake up a rather well-worn cliché about Sirk’s direction. But the Brecht thing really is pertinent here – and elsewhere in Sirk’s work). The deliberate emphasis on genre conventions in Imitation of Life does act like as Brechtian distanciation – like a written title in a play or a sardonic song that comments on the action (something that actually happens in Sirk’s 1937 Zu neuen Ufren). It points to the irony and mordant satire of the film; it tells you to think about what is going on, not simply to sit back and let it wash over you.
Ironically, the part of Sarah Jane in Sirk’s version is played by Susan Kohner, whereas Fredi Washington, who really could have “passed”, played the cognate role in 1934 – a strange instance of retrogressive casting to which perhaps Harvey does not pay sufficient attention. I know that when I first saw Imitation of Life, Kohner’s casting made me uncomfortable. I think I doubted the movie’s sincerity. Now I think that Kohner’s casting is of a piece with the other uncomfortable things in it – a warning not to understand this film too quickly.
One might go on from here. In David Bordwell’s original typology of shot motivation in classical narration (“The classical Hollywood style”), “artistic motivation” is characterised by intermittent appearance. It is specifically not something that is used “constantly through the film” (p. 23). But Harvey’s book is at least partly about how that kind of shot motivation does occur throughout some Hollywood movies and how recognising that it does helps to make sense of some of the most interesting (but still “classical”) ’50s movies, like Sirk’s. He even thinks that this is what makes “movies” of them (and so do I). I think that films like the ones Harvey talks about actually present a Janus-like “double text”, one face of which reads like any other movie, while the other rubs against that reading. I also think that this is what the politique des auteurs intended to teach us (and, yes, deconstruction after that), and was lost in translation.(O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again). Too hard, probably.
So for Harvey, when the movie makes its points, it is not likely to be quite the same as when the story makes its points. The story is about imitation (Earl Grant instead of Nat Cole singing the title song, photography, acting, “passing” – not art, but artifice). But as the movie reaches its climax, “Annie, you realize, stands for something you don’t quite understand or apprehend – for something dimly perceived perhaps, but clearly opposite to the emptiness and sterility of the white characters lives. Even they know that” (p. 421). And by the end, “Annie’s funeral has become so resplendent, visually and aurally, that it comes to seem almost the equivalent of Dietrich’s ‘What does it matter what you say about people?’ – seeming in the end to have as little to do with the character of Annie as with that of Mahalia Jackson. But of course quite unthinkable without either of them…” (p. 421)
This too is racism – but the inevitable racism of making a figure: that is, of dealing in tropes – which is what films do and what critics perforce must do when they discern those figures. In the process the singular becomes the general rather than the plural. Annie and Sarah Jane are “othered” by the film, albeit in a positive way that amounts to a criticism of the audience’s racial misperception. It does not help that when the film is ready to pluralise Annie it does so with such an overwhelming, iconic figure as Mahalia Jackson, who simply absorbs Annie, Sarah Jane, black people (and, I think, Jews), music, feeling and virtue itself into an ideal – an absolute – a voice that would never dream of passing for white.
Mirrors play a big role in Sirk’s movie – as I guess you would expect. And they often show us what the characters themselves cannot see. But at one big moment Sarah Jane looks with us at herself in the mirror while she yells at her mother, “I’m white, white, WHITE!” And she is – in the mirror and, as I have said, in Real Life (as Susan Kohner). But of course she isn’t white in the movie. In the movie she is really what we cannot and could never see in a movie – she is black. The point of this might be that there is really no such division: no black and white. It is all in the mind. But I don’t think so. I think that there could be no movie without that division at its base. I think the point of Imitation of Life is that racial difference is absolute, fundamental – destiny (which is what Annie certainly thinks it is). Like many, many movies, this one is about what is invisible.
I don’t think one can legitimately say the same thing about Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment. In the first place, it seems to me that the determining figure in that film is not one of race but of gender. There is one strong and intriguing parallel between it and Imitation of Life: the active household in both is made of white and black women (Lucia’s son in The Reckless Moment is, along with his absent father, totally passive and totally ignorant, playing that banjo far, far away). Yet Sirk’s film insists on the racial division in the house (so much so that it is easy to ignore its gendered community – harder in Stahl’s version). Imitation of Life is, without any doubt whatever, about racial division – apartheid. In The Reckless Moment, on the other hand, Sybil is above all a “woman-in-the-house”, not “black” (this is the point of the matter-of-fact way in which she helps Lucia in the end). Moreover, the figure of “woman-in-house” is explicitly plural in this movie: what Lucia does, she does for or because of or with her daughter and Sybil; each needs the others and can only be properly understood in a plural relation. Only Annie acts that way in Imitation of Life. The other women resolutely ignore her and each other until they have to pay attention (usually when there is a crisis). And it is also the case that singular plurality is precisely what Sirk’s intellectualising, “symbolic” cinema strives against in all of its characters, not just in Imitation of Life. For Sirk, everything is a type – absolute, and ultimately invisible. For Ophuls everything is a token – finite, and clearly visible.
The films and filmmakers I’ve talked about the most in this book…have in common…some qualities that I’d like to call moral: a certain impersonalism and refusal of self-pity, a respect for a kind of final mystery in their characters and in their materials, a commitment to what Stark Young…calls “that distance in art that style requires”. Because, against the odds of their time and place, these moviemakers were stylists – however subtly or covertly (p. 424).
In order to best describe what it is that he values about these movies, finally Harvey has recourse not to a film but to a novel, Nabokov’s Lolita – and specifically to its description of Lolita’s tennis serve. This he calls Humbert’s “movie” of her, “A movie that transcends ordinary seeing – that sees instead a kind of essential Lolita, even a truer and more real Lolita: a ‘soul’ rendered through ‘style’ and ‘an essential grace’.” And then, “In one way or another, this sort of exalted seeing is what movies at their best both ask from us and give us. It’s what makes some of them seem even better with time.” (p. 427)
This needs more glossing than Harvey has the time (or inclination?) to do at the end of 427 pages of wonderful criticism. However – be warned: my gloss is very likely not what he would say at all. Only what I think.
And what I think is that Lolita is an entirely fictional being. After all, only fictional beings have essences or even, I would suggest, “souls”. That is, what we can see in “movies at their best” is not what we can see merely by opening our eyes on the life that is before us. Rather it is what art or philosophy (or, indeed, love or religion) can show. This is very important seeing, maybe the most important seeing – but it is hard to argue for its importance in a culture like ours that pretends to be founded on the absolute truths of “reason” and “science”. The “exalted seeing” that Harvey values is nothing if not finite and plural (at the same time that it is infinite and absolute). The vision that each movie (each philosophy, each love) offers is distinct, each different. In the enlightened terms of Occidental culture, this is democracy gone mad, logic leading to no resolution, a market without a sale: Babel, entropy. Or, as James Harvey might say, a seriously bad situation.
But when I think more about this kind of seeing, thinking now without James Harvey’s help but with the help of Jean-Luc Nancy’s book about the cinema, The Evidence, I find myself moving away. Because I think I agree with Nancy when he says that the sense of a film “is neither narrative nor teleological, or repetitive. Perhaps it is not really a “meaning” at all, or perhaps it retains of “meaning” only the “sense” of directed significance: we follow a path, or we look for a way. Somehow the way itself is the truth” (p. 54). For Nancy this following or looking is his title: “the evidence of cinema…the existence of a look through which a world can give back to itself is own real and the truth of its enigma (which is admittedly not its solution), a world moving of its own motion, without a heaven or a wrapping, without fixed moorings or suspension, a world shaken, trembling, as the winds blow through it” (p. 44).
And, of cinema’s images: “existence resists the indifference of life-and-death, it lives beyond mechanical ‘life,’ it is always its own mourning and its own joy. It becomes figure, image. It does not become alienated in images, but it is presented there: the images are the evidence of its existence, the objectivity of its assertion” (p. 76).
the most properly distinctive property of cinema and, perhaps also that which can be least distinguished, the most indistinguishable property of the enormous flow of films throughout the world, is the linking, the indefinite sliding along of its presentation. Where does it slide indefinitely? In a certain way, toward insignificance (insignifiance) (there where the other arts appeal to an excess of signifiance). Towards the insignificance of life that offers itself these images, always in movement, going toward no mystery, no revelation, only this sliding along by means of which it leads itself from one image to another (exemplary, subliminal, banal, grotesque or naive, tampered with, sketchy or overloaded)…Cinema is marked by the heaviest and most ambiguous of signs – myth, mass, power, money vulgarity, circus games, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. But all that is carried off in an endless movement (défilement) to such an extent that evidence becomes that of a passage rather than some epiphany of meaning or presence. Cinema is truly the art – in any case the technique – of a world that suspends myths. Even if it has put itself in the service of myths, at the limit, it finishes by taking them away, it carries off all epiphanies of meaning and of immobile presence into the evidence of movement. A world that links by going from one film to the next and that learns thus, very slowly, another way of producing meaning (p. 78).
I do not think that I am so very far away from James Harvey when I read and think about what Jean-Luc Nancy has to say about the cinema. I do not deny the power of those “epiphanies” about which Harvey writes so eloquently, nor do I deny the meanings in movies which Harvey discerns so elegantly. It is just that I sense that these moments, these meanings are, themselves, in motion, moving away, sliding and linking – sensing then, rather than resolving into anything fixed or absolute. The movies retreat. Surrounding and overwhelming and sliding and retreating in the same instant. Never in the same movie twice, always already in the same movie. The important thing, the most important thing about the movies is their insignficance – the exalted seeing of their insignificance.
Coda: The ’60s and My ’60s
James Harvey also calls the ’50s filmmakers he praises in his book “mannerist” . This term suggests that maybe the movies he calls movies were coming to an end in the ’50s. I hadn’t noticed that when I remarked to him on the phone that since his first book (Romantic Comedy) had been about the ’30s and ’40s and this book was about the ’40s and ’50s, maybe his next book would be about the ’50s and ’60s. He paused (out of courtesy for my feelings, I am sure) before telling me forcefully that Hollywood made almost no decent movies in the ’60s.
I thought surely he must be mistaken, and after we hung up I went to Andrew Sarris’ American Cinema where there is a chronological appendix. Here are some of the ’60s films I like from that chronology and my memory, chosen with Jim Harvey in mind (and in accordance with the principles of selection with which he begins Movie Life in the Fifties):
1961 – Underworld USA
1962 – Two Weeks in Another Town; Hatari!; Carnival of Souls
1963 – Charade
1964 – The Killers; The Tomb of Ligeia
1965 – Bunny Lake is Missing; Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!
1966 – What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?; Flight of the Phoenix
1967 – Point Blank; The Honey Pot
1968 – Night of the Living Dead; Madigan; Skidoo; Petulia; The Party; Vixen
1969 – Zabriskie Point; Downhill Racer; The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
No westerns, no musicals – just like his book (and even though there were some pretty good westerns, at least, in the ’60s). And I have deliberately left off most, but not all, of the movies that I like but that I think Jim Harvey would not. Yet surely his point is made. The ’60s were not a good time for Hollywood movies. Is this because a new cycle was beginning? Are some of these movies (Night of the Living Dead and Vixen, for example) the primitive phase of what would blossom into a new classicism in the next decade or so?
I ask this because there does seem to me to be a tendency not to have a clear sense of Hollywood movies after the ’50s, as distinct from a clear sense of trends or of specific titles and moviemakers. You might say that this is true of world cinema in general after the seventies. That generation following the Nouvelle Vague which some call “New Cinema” seems to be the last of something, or the first to sense that there was always only repetition. It is a little like music after the twelve-tone system or painting after abstract expressionism or writing after Joyce. C’est le fin du cinéma, je vais le relire.
It is not that there are no movies any more with that exalted seeing of which Harvey speaks – no great movies, no candidates for the list of ten best movies of all time. Only people whose vision has failed believe that kind of crap. It is, rather, two things. The first is that only a very few Hollywood moviemakers seem to have taken on board the lessons in how to make real movies that those ’50s films teach us. (I don’t want to make a list of names here – simply to make the assertion.) But, then, as Harvey points out more than once in Movie Love in the Fifties, there never were a terrible lot of them anyway. The second is the failure of critical film theory and critical film history to come up with a typology that would at least make a stab at identifying some of the elements of the kind of moviemaking that Harvey analyses and celebrates (and he is not the only one, of course). This would mean asking stupid questions, like “what is art?” and “what is style?”. Perhaps most stupid – and painful – of all, it would mean asking “what do I like and why do I like it?” It would mean letting go of the certainties of narrative, political and psychoanalytic criticism and venturing into a shifting, insecure hall of crooked mirrors where impossible ideas like taste, culture, intuition and feeling are endlessly reflected. And where the question, “But which of us is the real duck, Mr Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”, is a matter of life and death.
Movie Love in the Fifties, by James Harvey, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001
Click here to order this book directly from
Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Cinema, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999.
David Bordwell, “The classical Hollywood style, 1917–60”, in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985, pp 1–84 (esp. pp 19–23).
Colin Crisp, The Classic French Cinema, 1930–1960, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993.
Tim Groves, “Cinema/Affect/Writing”, Senses of Cinema, no. 25, March–April 2003.
Richard Maltby and Ian Craven, Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995.
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Evidence of Film: Abbas Kiarostami, Yves Gevaert Publisher, Brussels, 2001.
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, E.P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1968, pp 295–300.
Stark Young, “Greta Garbo”, in American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane, ed. Stanley Kauffmann with Bruce Henstell, Liveright, New York, 1972, pp 268–272. (Originally in The New Republic for September 28, 1932.)
All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
An American Tragedy (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)
Bitter Victory (Amère Victoire) (Nicholas Ray, 1957)
Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)
Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960)
Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)
Charade (Stanley Donen, 1962)
Christmas Holiday (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir, 1946)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, 1969)
Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965)
The File on Thelma Jordan (Robert Siodmak, 1950)
Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1966)
Four Sons (John Ford, 1928)
Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)
Hatari! (Howard Hawks, 1962)
The Honey Pot (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1967)
Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934)
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
The Informer (John Ford, 1935)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Le Jour se lève (Marcel Carné, 1939)
The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964)
The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann) (F. W. Murnau, 1924)
Last Tango in Paris [Ultimo tango a Parigi] (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor, 1955)
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (Henry King, 1955)
The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952)
M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
Madigan (Don Siegel, 1968)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)
Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, 1954)
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
The Men (Fred Zinneman, 1950)
Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)
Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968)
Pepe Le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)
Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)
Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)
Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder, 1969)
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)
Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)
Skidoo (Otto Preminger, 1968)
The Southerner (Jean Renoir, 1945)
A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)
The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1958)
There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman, 1964)
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)
Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)
Underworld USA (Sam Fuller, 1961)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Vixen (Russ Meyer, 1968)
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (Blake Edwards, 1966)
The Women (George Cukor, 1939)
Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
You and Me (Fritz Lang, 1938)
Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1969)
Zu neuen Ufren (A New World) (Douglas Sirk, 1937)
- I am extremely grateful to Fiona Villella for making this long, self-indulgent review possible. Harriet Margolis, Rick Thompson, Deb Verhoeven and Jake Wilson provided crucial help and support of one sort or another. I am very grateful to them too. This was written for Peter – and, always, Diane.
- One of the peculiar things about Stahl’s version of Imitation of Life is the assured manner with which it demonstrates (liberal) white paternalism. This is perfectly explicable, given the historical circumstances of the United States in 1934, but unnerving nonetheless. There are a few moments in the movie, however, that trouble its serene attitude. My favourite is an exchange between Bea (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah (Louise Beavers). Bea: “Peola’s smarter than Jessie.” Delilah “Yes’m. We all starts out that way. We don’t get dumb ’til later on.” Louise Beavers’ performance of Delilah is quite extraordinary. She embodies the “Mammy” stereotype she herself did so much to create, but with such awareness (such “distance”, James Harvey might say) that one is always drawn to wonder just what lies behind it, what her real life is. Stahl’s film, however, never does ask that question, so central to Sirk’s. It is also surprisingly cool and discreet at times. The camera turns away from the grown-up (and presumably dumber) Peola (Fredi Washington) at moments of heightened emotion, allowing Washington’s vibrant, cultivated voice to tell us what she has made of herself and forcing us, thus, to interiorise what we cannot see. On the other hand, Washington is crudely made up and lit “black” – emphasising her lips, flattening her cheeks and nose – as though the film cannot bear to show us what it asserts about “passing” – that, after all, it works.