One of the great classics of Bette Davis, “Mr. Skeffington” is a very complex and interesting drama. It tells the story of a beautiful, but very selfish and pragmatic woman who marries an old, wealthy Jewish businessman to save her beloved brother from an embezzlement charge. The action happens in the years before and after WWI. When her brother dies on the front, Fanny decides to separate from her husband, even if they never divorce. She abandons their only daughter, who spends her childhood and adolescence with her father, in Europe. When Hitler comes to power, her father is taken to a concentration camp, losing all his fortune, while Fanny, now an old woman, cannot accept the fact that she is no longer beautiful. Her life gets complicated even more when all of a sudden her daughter returns to her house and falls in love with one of her mother’s “beaux”. In the end, Fanny realizes that Job Skeffington is the only man who truly loves her and destiny makes them reunite and spend the rest of their lives together. So, Fanny has the chance to admit her mistakes and to correct them, but again only for her selfishness, because she doesn’t want to remain a lonely, old and sick woman, as her daughter leaves her to marry the man she loves. The story is, as I said, very complicated. It covers several decades, and it’s incredible how well made Davis the transition from a lovely young woman to a painfully sick and decrepit lady. Claude Rains, one of her frequent co-stars (you should also see “Now, Voyager”) was excellent in the role of her husband, but Davis is simply superb. They both earned an Oscar nomination, but unfortunately didn’t win. All in all, these classical dramas of Bette Davis from the 1940s emphasize best her enormous talent. She was a professional and one of the greatest actresses of all time, together with Joan Crawford, her constant rival, who excelled, too, in this kind of dramatic roles.
Another wonderful screwball comedy – but somehow sinister, maybe because of the WWII that influenced the Noir style – “Arsenic and Old Lace” was directed by Frank Capra and it stars Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre among the big names. If it hadn’t been a comedy, I would have considered it a film noir, because the plot involves several unsolved crimes that were made by Mortimer Brewster’s family, including his old and apparently kind aunts and his Dracula-like brother. There are many unforgettable scenes and the film obviously criticizes the American traditional family – which is depicted here as a group of maniacs -, but also the classical love story, with happy ending. Mortimer doesn’t particularly want to marry Elaine, who is his most ardent lover, and he repeatedly avoids her, even more when he finds out that he is the descendant of a criminal family. The film is much more appreciated today than it was at the time it was released, because it is an unusual comedy that combines romance with crime. It is a black comedy at superlative, and for those who like this kind of productions, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is certainly a gem of a film, that will offer you a very pleasant time.
I recommend this week the definitive film noir in Hollywood history: “Double Indemnity”. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, this motion picture presents the story of two lovers who plan to kill the heroine’s husband for his health insurance. It was directed by Billy Wilder, who is one of the most appreciated filmmakers in Hollywood, and it earned seven nominations at the Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplany, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Music. “Double Indemnity” has all the typical aspects of the film noir genre: somber, dark mood, damp streets, a fascinating use of lights and shadows, a mysterious crime, a hard-boiled hero, and, of course, a femme fatale, played by Barbara Stanwyck. As a matter of fact, Phyllis, the character she played, is considered the definitive femme fatale in classic film noir history. She is the one who uses her sex-appeal to seduce and determine the hero – an insurance representative (MacMurray) to help her make the crime plan work to perfection. But their shameless and sinful behaviour is punished by the end of the film, as both of them lose control of their own destiny and kill or hurt each other. Death is the symbolical punishment used in most of the films noirs, as a result of the characters’ inner problems (frustration, hate, obsession, vengefulness, destruction, and even sadism) and needs (security, money, power and freedom, most of the times). The characters are tortured by their own self and by the suffocative city, which encompases a closed world, a trap without escape. I highly recommend you to watch “Double Indemnity”, as it is one of the most famous classic films in history, and, what is more, you will never get bored, because films noirs could never be boring, owing to their complex plots and fascinating characters.
One of the most interesting and complex film noirs I’ve ever seen, “Phantom Lady” brought to my attention a relatively unknown, but trully lovely actress: Ella Raines. She did a magnificent job here, as she played with great skill a very sophisticated role. Within 83 minutes, Ella Raines transforms herself, from a dignified and rigid secretary, into a femme fatale, a model and finally into a real woman, the future wife of the man she loves. To me, “Phantom Lady” is more like a Bildungsroman, because the leading lady changes both her looks and her behaviour on her multiple trips throughout the entire film. The heroine is obliged by circumstances to risk her life and to take some drastic decisions in order to save the life of her attractive boss, who is accused of murdering his wife, despite being innocent. Carol (Ella Raines) can’t accept the fact that he was sentenced to death and will be executed in a short time without even being guilty, and so she makes an investigation in her own way, supported by a police inspector. “Phantom Lady” is a fascinating story, which, as the titles says, involves an apparently phantomatic lady, who appears and suddenly disappears (only to be found by the end of the film), and whose testimony could save the life of the unfortunate accused. “Phantom Lady” has all the ingredients of a film noir: mysterious murders, femmes fatales, jazz songs, dark and damp streets, and a climax that will keep your attention alive. There is also a resemblance between this film noir and the expressionist silent film “The Hands of Orlac” in depicting the real criminal, whose hands appear to be ghostly white, as if they were a different entity that controls the man’s psyche. Renowned actor Franchot Tone does a masterful performance in the role of the murderer, but the real star is by far Ella Raines. The film was directed by Robert Siodmak, an expert of the noir style (see also, among others, “The Killers”). I highly recommend you to watch “Phantom Lady” because it is one of those good old films that will make you think about after seeing it for the first time.
You could find the film here
As we are celebrating this week Gene Tierney’s 93rd birthday, I thought it appropriate to recommend her most beloved film, a masterpiece among the film noir genre: “Laura” (1944). You will first get to see her superb painting and then you will want to see her alive. That is what I felt, the first time I saw the film. I said to myself: “Laura can’t be dead! Such an exquisitely beautiful creature couldn’t have been so cruelly murdered!”. But then, to my disbelief, she appears like a mirage next to her iconic painting and in front of the detective (Dana Andrews) who was supposed to investigate the murder – her murder. Because “Laura” is a major film noir, the twists and turns of the plot shouldn’t surprise you, but they do, because Laura turns from a victim into a suspect of the murder case! The real victim was, in fact, a model who resembled Laura. Apparently, Laura killed her because she was jealous of the model’s romance with Shelby Carpenter (played by the skilled actor Vincent Price), one of her former love interests. But things get even more complicated when Laura proves to be innocent and the real killer is still free, attempting to murder her – this time for good! You will get to see the sophisticated Clifton Webb play the role of Waldo Lydecker, the man who initially helped Laura to become a prosperous businesswoman. He pretends to be supportive when she is accused of murder, but he is also a very possessive man, who wants to have it all, or nothing! In the meantime, Laura becomes infatuated with the detective (a feeling that is mutual), and so here we have another intrigue, another love triangle in which the villain tries to keep his calm and cool nature, only to be revealed in the last five minutes of the film.
I love “Laura”. It is my favourite film noir, and you will love it, too, when you will get to watch it. The film was directed by Otto Preminger (famous for his film noirs) and it won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, in addition to the four nominations, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. All in all, “Laura” is a very interesting piece of history in Hollywood and happily it is still very well remembered even nowadays, after almost 70 years since its release.