Monthly Archives: January 2017

They Live By Night (1949)


In 1934, the newly enforced Motion Picture Product Code declared that “sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” In 1949, a thirty-eight-year-old director from Galesville Wisconsin named Nicholas Ray released They Live By Night, his debut film. “If you prudes and authoritarians insist that I can’t make a movie where crime pays,” Ray, who was in his early twenties during Hollywood’s glorious “pre-code” golden age, seemed to say, “suit yourself. I’ll kill off my outlaw hero and leave his girlfriend sobbing over his bullet riddled corpse, but I’m going to make them both so young sympathetic, and romantic that there won’t be a dry eye in the house when I’m done.”

Ray, who’s probably best-known for his film Rebel Without a Cause, succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. Not only did the great French director, and film critic, François Truffaut declare They Live by Night Ray’s greatest film, Jean-Luc Godard went a step further. “Cinema,” he once remarked, “is Nicholas Ray.” I’m a stone-cold cynical, fifty-one year-old male who knows as much about doomed, romantic love as I do about Chinese calligraphy, a moralistic, secular Calvinist who lives up to the H.L. Mencken aphorism that “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” but even I was rooting for Arthur “Bowie” Bowers and Catherine “Keechie” Mobley, a twenty-three-year-old bank robber and his girlfriend played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, to get across the border to Mexico and live happily ever after. What’s more, during their love scenes, I didn’t feel like an outsider, a voyeur, at all. Even though I was always conscious of how different I was from both characters, I also felt that they somehow represented me on screen, that their dilemma was my dilemma.

The late English art critic and writer John Berger explains why. Living under capitalism, he argues in his essay Fellow Prisoners, means living in prison, not a metaphorical prison, but a literal one. “Those who have legal employment and are not poor,” he says, “are living in a very reduced space that allows them fewer and fewer choices—except the continual binary choice between obedience and disobedience.” In other words, while some of us are locked up behind bars, and the more fortunate among us have upper-middle-class jobs and five-bedroom McMansions in posh suburbs, none of us are really “free.” It’s only when we rebel, when we step outside the system of rules that define our society, when we become outlaws, that we become genuinely human. I was rooting for Arthur Bowers and Catherine Mobley because they, my “fellow prisoners” had, for a few brief weeks, become genuinely free, not because the found a way to “beat the system,” but because they discovered they couldn’t live without each other.

They Live by Night begins with a jailbreak. Chicamaw and T-Dub, two middle-aged bank robbers, and a much younger man, Arthur Bowers, who have taken a hostage and stolen his car, knock the man unconscious and plan to continue on to a “safe house,” a gas station owned by Chicamaw’s brother “Mobley.” Bowers, nick named “Bowie,” can’t walk. He’s sprained his ankle during the escape. They have to leave him behind in a hiding spot and come back later. The next morning, Mobley’s daughter Catherine shows up to drive Bowie to her father’s place. Distant at first, they soon begin to warm up to each other. Catherine can’t stand her father or his criminal brother, but she quickly learns that Bowie is different. Sent to prison at the age of sixteen for a murder he says he didn’t commit, he explains why he has difficulty talking to women. Since he hasn’t seen a woman from the age of sixteen to the age of twenty three, he’s never learned how. Essentially, he’s always been in prison, and he looks at Catherine like he’s looking at “freedom” for the first time.

What’s more, unlike Mobley or Chicamaw, Bowie doesn’t like living outside the law. His only dream is to get enough money for a lawyer so that he can turn himself in and clear his name.  After Chicamaw and T-Dub persuade him to go along on what turns out to be both a successful robbery and a disastrous escape – they succeed in stealing a large amount of money but have to kill a policeman to cover their tracks – Bowie discovers that he has enough money to live outside the system for as long as he wants, and the certain knowledge that sooner or later the police will track him down and kill him. Cops rarely let outlaws who kill cops escape. For a few weeks he’s able to live with Cathy in a way he’d never be able to live if he had a normal, nine to five job. They’re never apart. They don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. They are truly free, truly human, and yet both of them know that sooner rather than later, they’re going to be torn apart.

Cathy O’Donnell, who plays Catherine Mobley, is a great actress. Farley Granger, who plays Bowie, is a good looking young man, but he’s no James Dean. I think the contrast between her terrific performance and his conventional one, far from damaging the effect of the movie, enhances it. Catherine Mobley has no criminal record. There’s no reason for her to be on the run from the law. She loves Bowie, not because he’s an outlaw, but because he can dream of world where he doesn’t have to be, a world that doesn’t exist. For Bowie, Catherine Mobley is life itself. The now all but forgotten Cathy O’Donnell — I wonder how many people who know the name “James Dean” know the name “Cathy O’Donnell”? — puts in a performance that’s so strong she makes us believe it.

“In the nineteenth century, long-term imprisonment was approvingly defined as a punishment of “civic death,” John Berger writes. “Two centuries later, governments are imposing—by law, force, economic threats and their buzz—mass regimes of civic death.” It is significant that Nicholas Ray released most of his films during the height of the American Empire, and yet created men and women who were either rejected by “the system” or who voluntarily put themselves outside of it. Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause lives for that game of “chicken,” for that thirty seconds behind the wheel of a car just before it plunges off a cliff. Dixon Steele in In a Lonely Place finds love only after he’s unjustly accused of murder, then does his best to destroy the relationship he’s always wanted. Bowie Bowers and Cathy Mobley fall deeply in love, not because they have the chance of a future together, but because they don’t, and because we don’t.

In a Lonely Place (1950)


According to the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood the real difference between men and women is pretty simple. “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Nicholas Ray, who directed In a Lonely Place, would probably agree.

Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele – how’s that for a manly name? – a Hollywood screenwriter whose career has suffered because he’s gotten a reputation for being “difficult.” After he goes to Paul’s, a nightclub frequented by people in the film industry, we begin to realize why. Everybody wonders where he’s been. He doesn’t answer his phone. Mel Lippman, his agent, offers his a job adapting Althea Bruce, a best-selling novel, but he’s already decided that it’s trash. An old girlfriend tries to chat him up at the bar. He insults her. Nicholas Ray’s use Bogart is brilliant. In spite of his movie star charisma, Bogart had a morose, self-pitying quality that could often be alienating. The flip side of Bogart’s dour personality was the cranky independence that eventually transformed him into a symbol of the best side of American manhood. That too is on display at Paul’s. When Junior, an obnoxious film producer, bullies Charlie, a washed up, has been, alcoholic old actor, Steele punches him in the mouth. “Dick Steele” values friendship over kissing up to the powerful and well-connected.

Eventually, the middle-aged Steele invites Mildred Atkinson, a teenage coat check girl who had earlier expressed her admiration for the novel Althea Bruce, back home to his apartment to help him work on the script. It all goes pretty much the way you think it would. The educated, cultivated Dixon Steele tries to connect with the low-brow movie-going public as represented by Atkinson, but he just can’t fake it – she can’t even pronounce the book’s name – so he gives her twenty dollars for cab fare, and sends her on her way. He pours himself a drink, admires his Laurel Gray, his beautiful neighbor played by Gloria Graham, as she steps out onto her balcony in her nightgown, then goes to bed. The next day, he’s visited by Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai, an old friend from the Second World War. Even though he’s not under arrest, it’s “not a social call,” and Steele follows Nicolai down to the police station where he learns, more to our horror than his, that Mildred Atkinson was murdered a few blocks away from his apartment.

Nicholas Ray, we suspect, was familiar with Camus’ novel The Stranger, which was published in 1942, and Dixon Steele soon becomes the prime suspect in the Mildred Atkinson murder, not because the police have any evidence, or reason to believe he wanted her dead, but simply because Captain Lochner, the senior detective, thinks he’s weird. A normal person, Lochner argues, would have been horrified by the photos of the murder scene. Steele doesn’t seem to care. What’s more, he has a criminal record. Over the course of his career in Hollywood, he’s committed a number of assaults, none of which he’s ever done any jail time for, but all of which make it at least believable that he could have committed a murder, especially the murder of a young woman. Steele has a reputation for being a misogynist as well as a difficult, often violent loner. The only thing that saves him from being arrested is Laurel Gray. Steele remembers playing peeping Tom and, after the police call her down to the station, and ask her what she was doing at the time of the murder, she confirms his alibi. Dixon Steel was at home, with a drink in his hand, admiring Laurel Gray, who was being an exhibitionist on her balcony, while Mildred Atkinson was “in a lonely place” on the side of the road getting her head bashed in.

And there the movie might have ended. Yes, Dixon Steele is a violent asshole. No, he didn’t kill Mildred Atkinson. What gives In a Lonely Place its deserved reputation of being a great film is the way Nicholas Ray manages to make us, and Laurel Gray, doubt what was right in front of our eyes. After Gray begins a romantic relationship with Steele, Captain Lochner continues to pursue his vendetta against the psychically tormented Hollywood screenwriter. Ray’s ability to weave a nuanced, complex narrative is remarkable. It’s a dirty trick for Lochner to use Brub Nicolai to spy on Dixon Steele. They were in combat together. But then again, they were in combat together, and Nicolai knows that Steele is capable of killing. He’s done it in the war. Laurel Gray fell in love with Steele at first sight. There are some hints that Gray may have had a lesbian relationship with her older friend Martha – who feels pretty much the same way about men that Margaret Atwood does – but Steele, after all, is played by Humphrey Bogart and Laurel Gray “likes his face.” What’s more, she understands his personality, his creative habits, his need for isolation. Soon, they are living like a married couple. Steele has gotten over his writer’s block. Gray has found her place in life. Steele’s agent Mel Lippman is overjoyed. “Had he met you twenty years ago,” he remarks to Gay, “I never would have gotten my ulcer.”

Is In a Lonely Place a story about domestic violence or is it a story about how state persecution can destroy an innocent man? It’s both. As their relationship develops, Laurel Gray discovers that Dixon Steele, interesting face or not, is a violent, tyrannical misogynist who eventually brow beats into a depressed shell of her former self. Dixon Steele didn’t kill Mildred Atkinson, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have, and it doesn’t mean he won’t kill her. Before long, she’s no longer Steele’s lover, but, effectively, his prisoner, negotiating with his ego for her survival. When I first read Margaret Atwood’s remark — “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — I thought she was exaggerating. Now I’m not so sure. Dixon Steele is no cartoon, sexist villain. He’s one of us. Any American male can identify with his paranoia, his desire to be alone, his need for unconditional loyalty from his girlfriend in the face of state persecution. The only thing more heartbreaking than the way Laurel Gray betrays Dixon Steele is the way that you can’t help but think that he probably deserved it.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)


That Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which the twenty-nine-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder made in only two weeks on a budget of 260,000 deutschmarks (about $120,000 dollars), manages to tackle so many subjects in ninety minutes is a testament to Fassbinder’s genius. Germany’s fascist past, the distinction between inner and outer beauty, youth, aging, and above all racism, the story of the unlikely romance between Emmi, a German widow in her sixties and Ali, a Moroccan immigrant in his thirties, somehow manages to address them all. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is proof that making a great film isn’t about years of preparation or huge budgets, but about a director’s ability to translate ideas into images.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul opens with Emmi Kurowski, an elderly widow played by Brigitte Mira, ducking into an immigrant bar, supposedly to get out of the rain, but in reality because she was fascinated by the Arabic music coming from the jukebox. When Barbara, a hard, brassy-looking blond played by Barbara Valentin, suggests to Ali, the title character played by Fassbinder’s real-life boyfriend El Hedi ben Salem, that he ask the old woman to dance, it sets up a plot that keeps us guessing right until the very end. Fassbinder’s ability to make us question our assumptions by contradicting our expectations at every turn is remarkable. Why does Ali go through with it? Why does he offer to walk her back home to her apartment? Does Emmi invite Ali upstairs for a drink because she’s trying to be polite, she’s attracted to him, or both? Why does he accept? When the tall, muscular young man in his thirties puts his hand on the elderly woman’s wrist, and we suddenly realize that they just might sleep together, it’s a bit like stepping on a charged power line. It’s a jolt of electricity that comes out of nowhere and leaves you lying on the sidewalk, profoundly disoriented by a force that had you might have guessed had been there all along, if only you had looked more closely.

Fassbinder also plays with our expectations in a more low key, more sustained way. For the average person, going to the movies usually means spending a few hours looking at characters who on the whole tend to be better looking the than people you meet in real life. This is by no means limited to mainstream Hollywood. For his low-budget À bout de souffle Godard cast the ruggedly handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo and the beautiful, pixie like Jean Seberg. Hal Hartley cast the gorgeous Adrienne Shelley in his films about drab, suburban Long Island. This makes perfect sense. To be able to make a living as an actor, or even to get a part in a major, alternative movie takes a certain charisma, a charisma which, in our culture, is usually associated with good looks. Even a director like Robert Bresson, who never used professional actors, almost always cast people who would turn heads in real life. To look at Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, however, is a bit like looking in the mirror. Except for El Hedi ben Salem, who looks exactly the way you’d expect the object of a white, gay 1970s director’s lust would look like, all of the characters in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are ordinary, even drab-looking. What’s more, Fassbinder’s Munich is not the great city of Berlin in Wings of Desire, a cosmopolitan metropolis that envelopes its citizens in its own sublime, ethereal glow. It’s a nasty, pinched little corner of a profoundly conservative country with a racist, genocidal, not so distant past.

Emmi Kurowski’s Polish name, therefore, takes on an added significance. Even though she was a member of the Nazi Party – “wasn’t everybody?” she remarks – she still has an affinity for the outsider. Her first husband, who died twenty years before the action of the film takes place, was a Polish slave laborer who decided to stay in Germany after the war. I don’t speak German, but Ali’s thick foreign accent comes across even in the film’s subtitles, where he has the tendency to speak of himself in the third person, not out of arrogance, but out of an inability to properly conjugate German verbs. Why does Ali appeal to Emmi? That’s not particularly difficult to explain. Perhaps he reminds her of her own youth. Perhaps she sees something in his more traditional, immigrant Moroccan culture more appealing than mainstream German culture can offer. Perhaps she just likes his muscles. Unless you’re a racist, it’s easy to see why Emmi is attracted to Ali.

What’s more difficult for us to accept is why Ali would be attracted to Emmi. This isn’t supposed to happen in our culture. Good looking men in their 30s don’t date women in their 60s, and Fassbinder forces us to confront our own assumptions that physical beauty means spiritual beauty. That Ali sees something in Emmi that Barbara, who set up their dance to make fun of the old lady who had wandered into the bar, cannot, raises him as far above his drag surroundings as his good looks do. Yet when their relationship starts to break up after being subjected to the racist disapproval of their marriage by their neighbors and by Emmi’s half Polish children, Fassbinder digs even more deeply. Neither Emmi nor Ali is a saint. Emmi has a, typically German, authoritarian side that drives Ali back into the arms of Barbara, and Ali isn’t blind to the fact that Emmi is three decades his senior. In fact, he’s never quite so physically beautiful in one of the film’s cruelest scenes where he refuses to acknowledge her as his wife in front of his coworkers, who mockingly refer to her as “his grandmother from Morocco.”

It’s only in the last scene of the movie that we really understand the meaning of the title Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The virulence of the racism we’ve seen dramatized for the past 90 minutes has damaged Ali not only spiritually, but physically. As the film closes, we begin to suspect that Emmi will outlive her much younger husband, and exactly the way Brigitte Mira outlived El Hedi ben Salem, by decades.

Casablanca (1942): Pseudo Anti-Fascism, Real Sexism, Genuine Racism


Originally made to lend the war against the Nazis an air of Hollywood glamour, and directed by the ideologically baffling Michael Curtiz, who shortly thereafter would go onto make the openly pro-Stalinist Mission to Moscow, Casablanca might best be called a “pseudo-anti-fascist romance.” While it has aged better than most movies released in 1942, it is not a great, or even a particularly good film, certainly not one that deserves to be on the same list as Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, or Jean-Pierre Melville’s anti-fascist masterpiece, Army of Shadows. Its enduring appeal, most of which can be attributed to nostalgia for Hollywood’s “golden years,” also has a darker side. Casablanca is not only racist, sexist, and socially regressive, even for 1942. It obscures the real history of the French Resistance.

Let us, for example, look at Sam, the black night-club singer played by Dooley Wilson, and the historical context in which a real life Sam might have seen himself. In 1940, after Hitler had conquered most of western Europe, the Germans took 1,900,000 French prisoners, 10 percent of the total adult male population of France, back to Germany, where most of them stayed until the end of the war. Had it not been for black and Arab troops, Charles de Gaulle would not have had an army. Indeed, according to the BBC, “on on the eve of the Liberation of Paris, 65% of the Free French forces had been black Senegalese Tirailleurs.” There were also troops from Morocco, Algeria, and even Tahiti. As an African American in North Africa, Sam would have noticed the anti-colonial upsurge going on all around him, and would have probably considered himself to be part of it. This is not to say that every black American musician in Casablanca in 1941 would have been a revolutionary preparing to fight for Algerian independence, but he certainly would have had an opinion about it.

While there are a few indications that there might be something more going on with Sam than the dialogue reveals, an interesting early scene where a black woman sits next to the piano watching him play, seemingly oblivious to the Europeans all around her, Sam might be the only major character, and, indeed, the only character in Casablanca without a back story. He seems to have no existence outside of his relationship to Rick Blaine, to whom he has an extraordinary loyalty, right up until the end, when Rick and Louis go off to join de Gaulle’s troops in “Brazzaville.” Rick’s decision to put aside his apolitical cynicism, and to go off and fight for freedom, also seems to be a decision to leave his faithful employee, who is as much of a “gentleman’s gentlemen” and man servant as he is a musician, behind. Yes, Sam is a piano player, not a soldier, but the question remains. Was he with Rick in Ethiopia? Was he in Spain? Does the fight against fascism concern Sam at all?

Then there’s the behavior of Ilsa Lund towards Sam. Most people, even Casablanca’s most ardent fans, have traditionally been appalled when the 27-year-old Ingrid Bergman refers to the 56-year-old Dooley Wilson as “that boy at the piano.” In the famous scene where Ilsa tries to persuade Sam to play “Time Goes By,” a song about memory from a musician without a back story, she speaks to him as if he were a child she had to coax out of his shell. Sam, in turn, acts deferential and passive, behavior that might have made sense if they had both been in the Jim Crow South, but certainly not in North Africa at the very beginnings of the anti-colonial resistance against the crumbling French Empire. Ingrid Bergman is certainly a beautiful actress. Michael Curtiz also shoots her in an expert manner that’s been consciously echoed by Roman Polanski in Tess, Krzysztof Kieślowski in The Double Life of Veronique, and David Lynch in Blue Velvet, where he cast Bergman’s own daughter as the “damsel in distress” just so he could film her being abused by an American psycho. But Ilsa Lund’s casual racism makes it impossible for me to genuinely like her, even though her character is the moral center of the film.

Casablanca is as sexist as it is racist. Where only a few decades later, Jean-Pierre Melville would cast Simone Signoret as a dedicated French Resistance fighter in Army of Shadows, much more true to history than Casablanca, Ilsa Lund is reduced to the beautiful object who reflects the ideals of the men around her. “I’ve got a job to do,” Rick says to her just before she joins her husband Victor Lazlo on a flight to the United States. “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.” Really? Why not? In August of 1945, there were plenty of French women who picked up guns and joined the Liberation of Paris. There were women who fought in the Spanish Civil War. There were women who fought in Ethiopia against Italian fascism. By 1941, Rick would have seen plenty of women with guns.

Casablanca is basically a morality play where an American every man, Rick, debates whether he should join his good angel, Victor Lazlo, or his bad angel Louis Renault. Forget about Major Strasser. He’s a minor character. Louis is the real mustache twirling villain of Curtiz’s film. As beloved as Louis is, he’s also a brutal thug. He runs up a tab at Rick’s place and tears up the bills. He blackmails Rick into letting him win at roulette. He fucks underage, yes underage refugee girls. In a Martin Scorsese film, he would have been played by Joe Pesci. In Casablanca, however, he’s played by the suave British actor Claude Rains, and everything is forgiven, not only because he has a change of heart at the end of the film, but because he’s so quotable.

“I am making out the report now,” he says, referring to the murdered Signor Ugarti. “We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

War crimes are funny, aren’t they Louis?

I’m certainly not complaining that Louis is an entertaining villain. There’s no such thing as an entertaining melodrama without an entertaining villain. Victor Lazlo, on the other hand, is crushingly dull. Played by the 6′ 4” Paul Henreid, just about the only thing he has going for him is the fact that he’s tall. He’s supposed to be a Czech, and Henreid actually was from Austria Hungary, but there’s nothing very Slavic about him. He doesn’t seem particularly French either. He comes off more like “wooden Hollywood leading man from central casting.” It’s not only hard to imagine him leading a revolution on the strength of his eloquence. It’s hard to imagine him even getting laid. In real life, the 5′ 10” Ingrid Bergman might have picked him over the 5′ 8” Bogart, but I doubt it. Lazlo is exactly the kind of “nice guy” any woman would immediately dump for a bad boy like Rick or Louis. Even in the famous scene where he leads the patrons of Rick’s cafe in a thunderous performance of The Marseillaise to drown out a group of Germans singing Watch on the Rhine, the musicians won’t start playing until they get Rick’s permission. Can you imagine Charles de Gaulle, or Churchill, or Roosevelt, or Jean Moulin having to get a nightclub owner’s permission before taking over his band?

It’s possible that my failure to appreciate Victor Lazlo’s charisma might have something to do with the fact that I was brought up after the 1960s, when the anti-hero came into fashion, and replaced the traditional Hollywood “leading man.” But I don’t think so. Lazlo just isn’t a very well-written character. Ilsa Lund sucks up all of his goodness, a goodness that she was only supposed to reflect, not embody, and incorporates it into herself. That, of course, is what movie stars do. Everybody remembers Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Nobody remembers Paul Henreid. It also hints at a reactionary core at the heart of a superficially anti-fascist movie. Ilsa Lund, and Bergman, represent the ideal of “moral goodness as physical beauty and physical beauty as moral goodness.” While that makes for good cinema, it makes for bad politics. It’s an aristocratic, not a democratic ideal. It becomes especially reactionary in a movie as racist as Casablanca, one puts the Nordic Bergman up on a pedestal and relegates the black Dooley Wilson to the role of a sidekick. That’s not what anti-fascism was all about. As a matter of fact, it’s what fascism was all about.

At the end of Casablanca, the United States, Rick, and France, Louis, walk off into the mist of “beautiful friendship.” It’s possible to read their “beautiful friendship” in a lot of ways. Maybe Rick decided not to get on the plane with Ilsa because he and Louis both suddenly realized they were gay, and had been all along. But I think that would be a stretch. I’d much rather read it as a political allegory. In 1942, the United States had already entered the war in Europe against Hitler. To be more accurate, they moved a few troops into the Mediterranean and continued to let Stalin do the heavy lifting on the Eastern Front. Indeed, early in the war, Churchill, and Roosevelt, seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.

If I were to write the often discussed sequel to Casablanca, I wouldn’t cast Rick and Louis as the heroes. They’d be much better as villains. Here’s how it would go. Sam will be a volunteer fighting for Algerian independence. Louis will be the film’s Colonel Mathieu, the ex-French-resistance fighter become torturer. You have to admit he’d be great in the role. Rick, in turn, after having getting back his American passport, winds up joining the CIA. He becomes an adviser to Captain, now General Renault, and a specialist in counterinsurgency. Eventually they capture Sam, who won’t talk, however many bribes they offer him.

“Fuck you white man,” he repeatedly tells Rick. I hated playing the piano for you in that sleazy night club. And fuck you too, you rapist French bastard.”

Finally, Rick and Louis decide to torture him. They strap him to a waterboard and begin. Sam holds out. They persist. Sam still won’t talk. He’s determined not to give in. Eventually, however, he begins to weaken. Rick and Louis can both see it in his eyes. They know they’re close. With a little more persuasion, Sam will talk. They momentarily retreat to another room to discuss their strategy for breaking the ex-piano-player, now anti-imperialist revolutionary. Rick decides to dunk him one more time. Louis says OK. They go back inside. “I regret what I have to do,” Louis says. “I did enjoy your piano playing.” Rick smiles. “I hope I don’t have to break your hands,” he says. Finally, just before he has Louis put the rag back in Sam’s mouth, Rick bends over and whispers into Sam’s ear.

“So,” he says. “Are you going to talk, finally, or should I play it again, Sam?”

The Cheat (1915)


Though largely forgotten today, Sessue Hayakawa was one of the highest-paid movie stars of the silent-film-era. By 1922 he had made so much money he was able to start his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, which eventually netted him $2 million dollars a year, some of which he spent just before the beginning of Prohibition stocking the basement of his lavish mansion with (perfectly legal) alcohol. Not surprisingly, that made him a popular man in Hollywood. Hayakawa was also one of the best actors of his generation, developing a style of acting that combined Zen Buddhism with the Stanislavski Method, a technique that in many ways prefigured Stella Adler, Lee Strassberg, and the Actors Studio.

There was only one problem. California had an anti-miscegenation law that wasn’t repealed until 1947, and, as you’ve probably guessed by looking at his name, Sessue Hayakawa was Japanese. That meant he couldn’t play the romantic lead opposite a white actress. Had D.W. Griffith cast a Chinese actor opposite Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms he would have gone to jail. For a Hollywood director in 1915, therefore, there were really only two ways to use an Asian actor. The first, familiar from movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Sixteen Candles, would have been to have cast Hayakawa as asexual comic relief. The second, most notoriously exemplified in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, would have been to have cast him as a hyper-sexual villain, a dark exotic man who desired white women so intensely it turned him into a monster.

For his 1915 film The Cheat, Cecil B. DeMille chose a much more daring approach. While Hayakawa’s character, Hishuru Tori, superficially resembles the traditional ethnic rapist –The Cheat so offended the Japanese government that they successfully lobbied Paramount Pictures to have the character’s name changed to Haka Arakau and his nationality changed from Japanese to Burmese – the film made him a star and, more importantly, a major sex symbol. Like Rudolph Valentino, Hayakawa was the dark, exotic movie star the white Anglo Saxon Protestant girl next door wanted to fuck. The Japanese government read The Cheat far too literally. Not only is Cecil B. DeMille is laughing at California’s stupid anti-miscegenation laws, he put an interracial kiss on screen fifty three years before Star Trek did it in Plato’s Children.

The Cheat isn’t about rape. It’s about adultery. Edith Hardy, the heroine played by the popular forty-three-old stage actress Fannie Ward is no ingenue. Rather, she’s a bored housewife, a fashion plate and a spendthrift, much closer to one of the middle-aged party girls in Sex in the City than she is to Flora Cameron from Birth of a Nation. Neglected by her husband Richard, a Wall Street banker who has all their money tied up in the stock market, Edith does what I assume many rich, bored housewives did in 1915. She volunteers at a local charity. She’s the treasurer for the local Red Cross. She chases younger men. Hayakawa was twenty-five, almost two decades younger than Fannie Ward. She shops, spending so much money on clothes that she neglects to pay the servants. One day Jones, one of her husband’s colleagues on Wall Street remarks that Richard is too cautious in his investments, that if she gave him $10,000 dollars, he could double it overnight. Foolishly Edith believes him. She embezzles $10,000 dollars from the Red Cross, and gives it to Jones to play the stock market.The next day, of course, all the money is gone.

While DeMille has been hinting from the beginning of The Cheat, that Hishuru Tori/Haka Arakau and Edith Hardy have been having an affair, it’s never been made explicit. Perhaps Edith has simply been treating him like an asexual Asian mascot. Suddenly, Arakau sees his chance. He’ll give her the $10,000, but it will come at a price. She has to fuck him. I think even people in 1915 got the joke. $10,000 dollars is a lot of money for quick fuck, especially back in 1915, and had she gone through with it, Edith Hardy would have been a well-compensated sex-worker indeed. Surely a good-looking young millionaire like Arakau could do better than a ditsy, forty-three-old embezzler with a taste for $500 dollar hats and $1000 dollar night gowns. Arakau, however, like Edith’s husband Richard, is a capitalist. He’s a collector who defines himself by what he owns. After Richard’s investments conveniently pay off the next day, and he gives Edith the money she needs without asking any questions, Arakau won’t let her out of the deal. He wrenches her into an arm lock, and “brands” her with a special symbol that, like a dog pissing on a tree, he uses to mark off his possessions. That $10,000 dollars isn’t about sex. It’s about beating the white man at his own game.

By transforming Edith from a adulterer and a prostitute into a rape victim, DeMille has cleverly side-stepped California’s anti-miscegenation laws. Even though Arakau kisses Edith, grabs her by her breasts, and puts his hands all over her in the dark, DeMille can throw his hands in the air and plead that his film is intended to support, not transgress the anti-miscegenation laws, that it’s a warning to white women everywhere. Don’t make friends with that handsome Japanese millionaire next door. When Edith threatens to kill herself like one of the virtuous Aryan maidens in Birth of a Nation, Arakau just hands her a 38 caliber revolver. Go ahead, he says, laughingly – he doesn’t have a mustache or by this point he’d be twirling it – kill yourself. Arakau’s victory over the white race is complete. Of course Edit has no intention of killing herself, and he knows it. DeMille could have ended The Cheat right there, and it would have probably been more effective as a movie. It might also have gotten him locked up behind bars. Edith’s refusing to kill herself might have been interpreted as “consent,” so she shoots Haka Arakau instead.

Cecil B. DeMille was no Luis Buñuel. He was not going to end The Cheat with the explicit message that ruling class white women are amoral, self-interested whores who embezzle large amount of money from Belgian war refugees, then shoot their Japanese lovers through the arm to cover up their own crimes, but he’s clearly ventured into same territory as Viridiana and Belle du Jour. Suddenly, Richard, who up to now has been a neglectful husband, and, if you were paying close enough attention, the mirror image of Haka Arakau, is utterly transformed. He confesses to shooting Arakau, who has survived with a minor flesh wound, himself. The trial that follows is a circus. First Richard is found guilty. Then Edith rushes to the front of the courtroom, and rips off her top to reveal Arakau’s brand. The judge sets aside the jury’s verdict before the courtroom audience can form a lynch mob, and hang Arakau from the nearest tree, letting Richard and Edith live happily ever after.

We never find out what happens to Arakau after the judge has a bailiff lead him to safety. Does he go to jail for branding Edith? We don’t know, but largely owing to Sessue Hayakawa’s excellent performance, he remains a sympathetic character. Indeed, looking at Hayakawa next to Fannie Ward and Jack Dean,the actor who play’s Richard and Ward’s real life husband, is a bit like looking at James Dean next to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1956 film Giant. Hudson and Taylor were both traditional, wooden Hollywood movie stars. James Dean was a pioneering method actor. Similarly, Fannie Ward and Jack Dean were both stage actors and it shows. Jack Dean’s performance is so over the top there are times when you think he’s insane. Fannie Ward’s histrionics are almost as broad. Sessue Hayakawa’s calm restraint almost seems to belong in a different movie altogether, the much better film that DeMille could have made, had it only been legal. At times he almost seems to be meditating on just how ridiculous it is that so many white people project their own kinky sexual obsessions onto a man simply because he has darker skin.

Fire at Sea (2016)


Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, is the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. That doesn’t mean it’s very big. With an area of only 7.8 square miles, and a total population of only 6,304, it’s about a third of the size of my crappy little town in New Jersey. Mostly because it’s closer to North Africa than it is to Sicily, Lampedusa has also become a center of the European Migrant Crisis.

At the beginning of Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea, a sequence of title cards informs us that over the past twenty years, 400,000 migrants have landed at Lampedusa. They also tell us that in the attempt to cross the straights of Sicily to reach Europe, it is estimated that 15,000 people have died. Fire at Sea might best be described as “an experimental neorealist documentary.” Instead of a straightforward account of the human catastrophe that has unfolded in the Mediterranean over the past decade, Rosi has chosen to do away with the larger narrative altogether, to focus tightly on how the migrant crisis has affected, or has not affected, one twelve-year old Italian boy living on the Island.

Fire at Sea is the kind of movie you’ll probably either love or hate. If you like Ken Burns, you’ll hate it. If you like Chantal Akerman, you’ll love it. If you have no idea who Chantal Akerman is, you probably haven’t heard of it. The line for Rogue One is that way.

In any event, the film I kept thinking about while watching Fire at Sea was Chantal Akerman’s almost wordless film about the end of Communist Eastern Europe, D’Est (“From the East”). As Rosi’s camera follows Samuele, the twelve-year-old son of a Lampedusa fishing family, through a typical day on the island – it’s an unspecified, extended period of time but one gets the sense that most of Samuel’s days are pretty much the same – the film introduces a parallel narrative, the arrival of African migrants on makeshift, and usually unseaworthy boats from across the narrow straights of Sicily. The migrants not only live in horrendous conditions and die in great numbers, they’re still divided by class. One price gets you a spot on the roof of a typical migrant raft, where you can breath the fresh air and have a chance to swim for it if the it capsizes. Another price gets you a birth on the second level. It’s a bit more crowded, but you can still look out of the open windows. Most of the migrants pay to be crammed down below, where you not only have no chance of escaping a shipwreck, but you might die of suffocation, even if the boat makes it to Lampedusa in one piece.

We never find out who is making a profit off of transporting the migrants from North Africa across the straights of Sicily. We do see the day to day operations of the Italian Navy, who come off like well-intentioned, harried first responders doing their best to address a problem beyond their control.  Rosi’s style of filmmaking, emphasizing the purely visual over the narrative, tends to humanize the Italians and to deny the African migrants an identity as individuals. One of the film’s better scenes focuses on one of the Africans telling the story of his journey from Sub-Saharan African through Libya – which he hated – to Lampedusa, where his future remains uncertain. It made me wish Rosi had organized Fire at Sea the way Studs Terkel organizes his verbal histories, by staying close to the migrants, and recording their testimony, but I suppose you watch the movie you have and not the one you’d like to see, and the center of the movie isn’t the migrants, but Samuele and his family.

Does it work? To be honest, no, it doesn’t. While Rosi does film one shatteringly effective scene, a group of migrants who died of suffocation in the hold of a boat that made the crossing successfully, most of Fire at Sea is excruciatingly dull. Do we really need to see an extended take of Samuele’s grandmother washing the dishes, or long, lingering shots of the profile of a local radio disc jockey? I suppose Rosi is trying to set up a contrast between dull normality and the desperate situation of the very poor, but he would have done better had he followed Chantal Akerman’s example from D’Est, had he simply made Samuele and his family just a few more people in the crowd, and not the rock around which he builds his documentary. In the end, Rosi’s well-intentioned film winds up fetishizing a working-class Italian family, who, to be perfectly honest, just aren’t very interesting. Every second away from the African migrants feels like a loss. Fire at Sea, sadly, doesn’t tell their story, but it did make me want to see a film that does.

Night Nurse (1931)


Early in William A. Wellman’s seminal pre-code movie Night Nurse, a man walks into a hospital emergency room with a gunshot wound to his arm. Lora Hart, a trainee nurse played by Barbara Stanwyck, immediately recognizes him as a bootlegger, a first impression that’s confirmed when he begs her not to write out a police report. Even though she knows she could get fired for not reporting the incident to her supervisor, something about the man appeals to her, so she treats his wound, and lets him go without filing any paperwork.

After finishing her training, Lora Hart is reassigned from the emergency room to become the “night nurse,” essentially a home care aid, for Desney and Nanny Ritchie, two little girls who had recently been treated by Dr. Bell, Lora’s original mentor at the hospital. In the opening shot of Night Nurse, William Wellman had placed his camera behind the driver’s seat of an ambulance speeding through an unnamed big city. The result was both thrilling and profoundly disorienting. We were energized by the speed the ambulance was reaching, and yet we were also terrified that at any moment it might crash. One of the best qualities of Night Nurse is how William Wellman carries the aesthetic of the opening sequence all the way through the entire seventy five minutes of the film. When Lora reports to work for the first night, and she quickly realizes that the two little girls are being slowly starved to death, the effect is a bit sitting in the back of a car that just made a sudden turn. It snaps our heads back. “What the fuck?” we think. “Why would anybody want to starve to innocent little girls, and why would they hire a nurse to watch over them while they died?”

The key to the mystery, Lora Hart soon realizes, is Dr. Milton A. Ranger, Dr. Bell’s replacement at the hospital. While Dr. Bell was a kindly, if stuffy and ineffectual doctor, Milton A. Ranger, is incompetent and corrupt. Mr. Ritchie, the wealthy father of the two little girls has recently died, and Mrs. Ritchie, their mother, is a severe alcoholic who has come under the tyrannical control of Nick, their villainous, black clad chauffeur played by a very young Clark Gable. It’s too bad Gable didn’t stick to playing villains. He’s menacingly effective in the role of Nick, and we soon learn not only why he’s starving two little girls to death, but why he hired a nurse to witness the whole diabolical process unfold. Mr. Ritchie, knowing Mrs. Ritchie was an alcoholic, had left Desney and Nanny, not their mother, a rather extensive trust fund. The only way Nick can get hold of them money is to kill them off in front of a witness who will testify that the deaths were due to natural causes. He’s confident that Dr. Milton A. Ranger, with whom he’s agreed to split the profits, can keep the “night nurse” in line.

He didn’t count on Lora Hart. More importantly, he didn’t count on the decision Lora Hart had made earlier in the film. The imposing Nick – Clark Gable is 6’1” but he looks even taller – introduced himself to Miss Hart by punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious. She had refused to follow his instructions, and tried to report the whole bizarre situation to her superiors at the hospital. Nick is the kind of bully who thinks that the hierarchical,and profoundly sexist, organization of the typical hospital will protect him, that Miss Hart won’t dare question Dr. Ranger’s judgment. When she does just that, goes back to Dr. Bell, and pleads with him to intervene, he’s equally confident that he can cow her into submission. Poor Nick, of course, has no way of knowing that in the beginning of the film, Lora had earned the unquestioning loyalty of one of the city’s toughest outlaws, the bootlegger she helped keep out of jail, and who can now supply her with more than enough muscle to handle an upstart chauffeur.

If you haven’t seen this film, go out and see it now. It’s not that it’s necessarily a great movie – there are enough plot holes and inconsistencies to drive a truck through – but it not only features great performances by Stanwyck and Gable, it’s a fascinating document of what American culture was like at the height of the Great Depression, and in the last few years of Prohibition that would have been impossible to make only a few years later. Night Nurse pretty much violates every single rule of the “Production Code.” Outlaws and working-class probationary nurses and outlaws are morally superior to the ruling-class, who are mostly drunks who couldn’t care less if two little girls are being slowly murdered right under their own eyes, and to Ivy League educated physicians, who are either corrupt, money grubbing fiends, or kindly but ineffectual bumblers who are more concerned about following the letter of the law than doing what they know is right. Lora Hart is able to defy Dr. Milton Ranger and Nick, and to force Dr. Bell into saving the two girls, because she knows that “legal” doesn’t always mean “good.” Sometimes crime pays. Sometimes criminals are better people than the professional class that makes the law. Had Lora been a goody goody, both Desney and Nanny would have ended up dead, and Nick would have lined his pockets with their trust fund. Her early decision to let the bootlegger off the hook, however, insures that Night Nurse has a happy ending. The two little girls survive, and Nick gets “taken for a ride,” a fate anybody who’s seen the original Godfather knows is also a one way ride.

Does the bootlegger, whose name turns out to be “Mortie” tell Lora about what he did to Nick? Hell yeah he tells her. Lora and Mortie drive off together to live happily ever after, laughing all the way. Taking the law into your own hands and having your “boys” kill a man who would murder two little girls for their trust fund is not only morally justifiable, it’s a great joke. Nick not only got what he deserved. It’s hilarious.