My Top 10:
- Great Expectations
- La belle et la Bête
- Out of the Past
- Gentleman’s Agreement
- This Happy Breed
- Brighton Rock
- Ride the Pink Horse
- Green for Danger
note: After only having seven in the great year of 1946, I have a full list of 10 and a couple more besides (see below).
Oscar Nominees (Best Screenplay):
- Gentleman’s Agreement
- Great Expectations
note: The winner, Miracle on 34th Street, was an original script, which also won Best Original Story.
I have reviewed the film twice already. The first time was part of my Best Picture project. The second one was when I wrote about the novel as one of my Top 100 Novels. I will repeat here what I said there. I have seen 19 feature film adaptations of Dickens novels and this is, by far, the best of them. The only one that is really close is Lean’s version of Oliver Twist. It is the best partially because of the way that Lean cuts through the narrative and finds the story at the core of it (more on that below), and partially because the film is just so well made. The direction, the script, the fantastic cinematography, the sets, the acting, all of it combine to form a film that is not only widely considered a classic, but was considered one from the minute it was released. It only manages to win the Nighthawk in this category, but that’s not because of the quality of the film, which would have won a lot more a year later, but because of having the bad luck of being up against La Belle et la Bête.
I first read this book in Freshman Honors English. It took a while because I really couldn’t get into it for a long time. But then, once Magwitch has been revealed, the last 100 pages seem to fly by. The coincidences, which bog down a book like Oliver Twist, seem to organically grow out of the story itself. As I wrote in my original review of the book, this and Barnaby Rudge are the only times where the coincidences work with the story rather than a desperate attempt to make things fit together.
I have continually come back to this book over the years because it is so good. Over the years it has continually moved up in my estimation and it eventually passed A Tale of Two Cities on my ranked list of the Dickens books when I spent a year reading them all.
This film is an interesting contrast against the Jane Eyre of 1944. That film began with a page of a book and the first line of narration, yet, bizarrely, it wasn’t a line from the actual book – it was something the filmmaker made up. This film also opens with a page of the book, but it is the actual text of the book and the film begins with Pip’s opening line of narration from the novel itself. It was a good sign that this film was going to be true to the book.
This is because of how Lean approached the screenplay, as he would mention later in interviews:
Choose what you want to do in the novel, because it’s going to end up a mess. Choose what you want to do in the novel and do it proud. If necessary, cut characters. Don’t keep every character and just take a sniff of each one. When we were going to do Great Expectations, we thought that we were completely incapable of tackling such a master as Dickens, and so we looked around and asked, ‘Who really is an expert at Dickens?’ There was a lady novelist called Clemence Dane in London who had also written several plays, and she was sort of a Dickens expert. She did a script, and it was absolutely awful because she did just what I’ve said. We said, ‘It’s not good.’ And I said, ‘Let’s have a go.’ I got the book and quite blatantly wrote down the scenes that I thought would look wonderful on the screen. What I did was try to join up those scenes and write links between them. Of course you have to have a narrative. (David Lean Interviews, p 72)
That is not just a director’s recollection – the biographies of Lean agree with his memory of how he went about it: “He went through a copy of the novel and chose which episodes would be in the film and which would be bypassed. He ruthlessly jettisoned any episode that did not clearly advance the plot.” (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips, p 105) By approaching the film this way, it manages to be a faithful adaptation, one that makes use of as much of the book as possible, but also know what to leave aside. That includes some of the more ridiculous coincidences that do mar the book a bit (including the connection between the man who ruined Miss Havisham and the convict that brings about Magwitch’s downfall).
“Though Lean and his coscriptwriters agreed that they would employ the ending of the story that Dickens published in the novel, they were not satisfied with the manner in which they had dramatized it in the screenplay. Kay Walsh offered to give it a try. Walsh thought that, when Pip returned to Satis House, he would hear voices from the past. She also was convinced that since Miss Havisham had had such a pervasive influence on her, Estella would repeat the pattern of Miss Havisham by proposing to life a life of neurotic withdrawal. She therefore came up with the following ending, which Lean used in the film.” (Beyond the Epic, p 118)
How you feel about the ending of the film is probably tied up with how you feel about the ending of the novel. The novel had a more downbeat ending when it was first serialized, but in the published book it was given a more upbeat ending. The first is probably the more realistic ending but the second feels more right for Dickens and is the one I tend to prefer, so I am just fine with how the film ends.
Directed by David Lean. Adapted for the Screen by David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan with Kay Walsh and Cecil McGivern. The titles “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens is the only mention of the source.
I reviewed this film once already, but really didn’t say much about it. It is one of the most beautiful films ever brought to life, where statues move, where tears turns to diamonds, where love is found between a beauty and her beast. Through a bizarre coincidence I am writing this review while watching the film, just over a half hour after Thomas finished watching the Disney version. They both come from the same source, they are both absolutely brilliant, and yet they are so very different. A more disdainful critic than myself might condescend to say that one version is for children and one for adults. But I think this film is easily accessible to children (more so if they speak French and don’t have to read the subtitles), and that the Disney version continues to delight no matter what age the person watching it is.
This film is a triumph of the director. I say that in part because of the visual look of it, which comes from Cocteau’s vision. This is meant to be, in part, a dream world, where magical things can and do happen, and the intrusion of real life upon that world isn’t supposed to happen. When it does, terrible things come to be – the Beast falling in love and then wasting away from that love, a man who is killed and inherits the beast’s pain (and fur) because of his greed.
But I also say that it is a triumph of the director because this film is so incredible and the leads really aren’t all that great. They do precisely what they need to do – be beautiful and saintly and be beastly, but with a heart hidden somewhere beneath. Many people prefer the Beast to the man that he becomes – Marlene Dietrich, sitting with Cocteau at the premiere, called to the screen “Where is my beast?” when he first turns human. We have no need to see the man behind the mask, not just because he is played by the same actor who has been playing the cad of the story, but because the beast has humanized him far more than becoming human actually does. It is not the intrusion of reality that we want – we want to stay in the dreamland in which Cocteau has placed us, where a magic glove can take us where we need to be, where a beauty can save her father, save the beast, and save the family, and all without sacrificing a bit of her virtue.
“La Belle et la Bête” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1756).
Like many fairy tales, of course, there are multiple versions of this tale. But the Beaumont tale is probably the most famous – it appears in the Norton book to the right and is specifically the version listed in the credits of this film.
Though it is a charming tale, with both romance and fantasy, there is an element of prescriptive morality about it as well. Maria Tatar explains it in the introduction to the story in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales:
The version of ‘Beauty and the Beast best known to Anglo-American audiences was penned in 1756 by Madame de Beaumont (Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) for publication in a magazine designed for girls and young women and translated into English three years later. Showing signs that it is intended as a vehicle for instructing children about the value of good manners, good breeding, and good behavior, this ‘Beauty and the Beast’ concludes with a flurry of commendations and condemnations. Beauty has ‘preferred virtue to looks’ and has ‘many virtues,’ and she enters a marriage ‘founded on virtue.’ Her two sisters, by contrast, have hearts ‘filled with envy and malice’ and are turned into statues that symbolize their cold, hard essence.
But it is easy enough just to read the tale for a nice little romance, in which the beauty falls in love with someone for something deeper and someone who deserves to gets to life happily ever after.
Most of the film comes straight from the story, with some added embellishments from Cocteau. The statues don’t move in the original, but since the sisters are turned into statues to await the time when they have repented of their behavior, it seems to naturally flow from the story. The glove is present in the original story, even if it isn’t used in quite the same way. Unlike most Disney films which come from fairy tales, this film stays quite true to its original source.
Note: Though it didn’t have any information that was directly pertinent to this review, if you are interested in this film (and you should be because it’s brilliant), Cocteau actually kept a diary while making it.
histoire, paroles et mise en scène de Jean Cocteau. d’après le conte de Me Leprince de Beaumont.
I have reviewed this film once already. In that review I stressed the fact that it has a relatively small number of votes on the IMDb and a lower rating than I think is appropriate. In fact, I have always thought of this film as under-appreciated. It gets very short shrift in Inside Oscar given that it received five Oscar nominations, all of them in major categories. In fact, I think it is the best American film of this year – the four films I rank above it are French, British, British and Soviet. One interesting thing about it though – I always forget that Robert Young is the lead character. I think of Mitchum and I think of the great supporting performances and Young just kind of vanishes every time I think about the film. It’s not a comment on his performance – he’s just overshadowed on the screen.
The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks (1945)
This is, I’ll be honest, kind of a mess of a book. It is especially difficult to get through if you come to it having already seen the film, and this is one of those books that I would surprised at this point if anyone hasn’t come to it already having seen the film. If you come from the book, you would probably be expecting a murder mystery. If you know something about the book already, you would come in expecting a murder mystery involving the murder of a homosexual. The problem is that the mystery part of the story doesn’t actually begin until page 154 of a 238 page book. What this is, much more, is a character study. But the study of the character goes kind of all over the place. It’s hard to keep track of when this character is going nuts inside his own head (which is a considerable portion of the book) and when things are actually happening in the book. If you handed me this book I would say that this writer probably wasn’t going anywhere with a pseudo-Faulkner type narrative married to a bit of a pulp mystery. But somehow Richard Brooks would not only became an important film-writer and director, he would actually do a fairly good job of taking literary works and finding the narrative in the story, with film adaptations ranging from Dostoevsky to Tennessee Williams to Sinclair Lewis to Truman Capote.
This book probably has some importance for its subject matter alone – the murder of someone simply because they are gay and because the killer himself has simply internalized all the hate that he can handle and he’s going to kill someone and being gay is on the list of things he hates. I’m not the only one who thinks the book is important while flawed: “Despite the novel’s awkward characterizations and sometimes painfully sententious prose, it deals powerfully with many subjects that were taboo in Hollywood.” (More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts by James Naremore, p 114) It concludes with a bizarre scene where both the villain and the “hero” kill each other with bayonets. The film, of course, with the Production Code in place, was never going to be allowed to bring that story to the screen, so it’s interesting where the filmmakers would go with it.
The film almost didn’t get made at all. Joseph Breen was having none of this novel and RKO wasn’t thrilled with producer Adrian Scott’s idea to make the film. But Gentleman’s Agreement was already in the works, and by making the victim Jewish instead of gay, the producers realized they could bring the idea of a prejudicial killing in a story to the screen while keeping the basic framework of Brooks’ novel.
Of course, the basic reason the man is killed isn’t the only thing changed from the book. Much of the drinking is toned down, the basic bigotry of Robert Ryan’s killer is done more through his actions and his tones rather than any specific language and the “hero” of the story certainly wasn’t going to end up dead, killed as well by the killer. For a lot more on how a novel that was not very good ended up being a film that has been under-appreciated for far too long (in spite of the Best Picture nomination at the Oscars) can be found on pages 114 to 123 of More Than Night.
One of the key things, of course, in turning the mediocre book into the great film is by dropping most of the first part of the book, beginning with the murder and going through the motions of a mystery while dropping most of the angst that covers the first half of the novel.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Screen Play by John Paxton. Adapted from a Novel by Richard Brooks.
I have a unique appreciation for this film. It’s not that it’s not appreciated already – it’s been a favorite of film noir fans from almost the minute it was released and the Mythical Monkey rates it as the top of 1947, so in a sense he rates it higher than I do. Roger Ebert called it the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all-time and it inspired one of his most entertaining lines: “There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.” So this film is well-appreciated, but I come at it from a different angle. The name of the screenwriter and author of the original novel, Geoffrey Homes, is a pseudonym for Daniel Mainwaring, a screenwriter and novelist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and whose daughter Dani is a family friend. Conversations that I had with Dani about her father contributed to reviews I wrote of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Front and Guilty by Suspicion.
This film is great fun to watch. It has everything you would want in a film noir. It has that subdued lighting (as Robert Mitchum, the star of this film once said: “The high-priced actors like Cary Grant back at the studios got all the lights. So ours was lit with cigarettes.”). It has a first-class villain (Kirk Douglas, who will be turning 99 soon, one of the all-time great actors to never win an Oscar in one of his first major film roles). It has Robert Mitchum, who had already starred in Crossfire and is one of the most perfect actors for noir. It has a girl absolutely to die for (literally in the case of some of the characters in this film, but she’s played by Jane Greer and this how the Mythical Monkey describes her: “the only femme fatale in the grand history of film noir I’d let shoot me”). It has an intricate plot that involves everyone trying to get one up on everyone else, double-crosses, more double-crosses, and in the end, you’re not quite sure who’s trying to double-cross who but you’re having so much fun you’re not even sure you care.
Out of the Past is not quite a perfect film, as much as I want it to be. A more careless viewer might get a bit confused and a lot of the minor parts are filled by actors whose performances rather bring the film down a bit. It’s not just that Jane Greer is so much more beautiful than Virginia Huston (though she is), but that her performance is so much more intriguing that you wonder why Mitchum would want to go back to the boring blonde (well, because he’ll end up dead if he sticks with Greer). Aside from the main three (who are all perfectly cast), the only good performance really comes from Dickie Moore as the deaf-mute, which is astounding, because he was a child actor in the Our Gang series and he was so bad as Oliver in the 1933 film version of Oliver Twist that I wrote “Dickie Moore is so appallingly bad as Oliver that you actually find yourself rooting for Bill Sikes.” But none of that can take away from one the great film noir classics.
Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes (1946)
I have two different copies of this book. One was given to me by Dani Mainwaring and the other I ordered when I worked at the Booksmith, glad to see it was still in print. Both of them, oddly, list the wrong death date for Daniel Mainwaring (he died in 1977, not 1978) and both of them are British editions. It does what good mystery books do – pull you in with a fascinating mystery, give you a worthwhile character and have a dame to kill for (or die for).
I use the word dame for a reason – if there is one thing about this book that is really pretty silly is that particular dame – Mumsie McGonigle. McGonigle is beautiful (“She was a slim, lovely little thing with eyes too big for her face and the serene look often seen on nuns. She wore a white linen dress and a hat of fine straw, as pale as her hair.”) and seductive (“There was a time when he would have been almost breathless waiting for her to come to him, waiting for her lips, her breasts and her body.”). But she’s also bad news. She’s already put a bullet in her last lover’s stomach, she’ll bring this one all the way to murder and with her next one, it will all come crashing down.
None of that will keep Red Bailey at bay. He began as a private eye in New York, found her in Mexico on a job, fled to LA, and after she ran out while he buried the body (literally), he actually finds peace and love in the Sierra Nevadas. That’s actually where the story begins and we follow Red through a tight set-up where he manages to slip the noose, back to California, and into the final trap where there are just far too many people trying to kill him and luck can only last you so long. It’s not Hammett, but it’s a solid noir mystery just waiting to be made into a film.
Most of the film comes from the book. True, there are a lot of individual moments that are quite different and there are some things that are changed considerably. The first thing, which was a good change, is the change in name from Mumsie McGonigle to Kathie Moffat. But the biggest change in the story is that in the original source there are two different menacing figures in Bailey’s life – Whit Sterling, the crooked gangster back in New York, and Guy Parker, the crooked former LA cop who now is running some things in Reno. Combining them makes sense – it means that the girl has been come back to the man that she ran away from in the first place, rather than hanging on with a similar but different man.
There are other small changes (in the book, it’s New York where Bailey has to go to get out of his jam but in the film it’s San Francisco), but a lot of the story – the blackmail scheme, the double-cross when Bailey goes to do the job, the murder being covered up for, his return and hiding out, complete with the deaf-mute snagging a gunman with a fishing line (done just as well in the film as it was in the book) are from the book. One major change is that the murder being covered up in the book was actually committed by Bailey while in the film it was by Kathy trying to save him. The other major change comes at the end – in some ways I think I prefer the ending of the book, because it doesn’t try to wrap things up neatly with the woman left behind and doesn’t have the rather silly shooting down of Kathie in the car. In the book, we just have death coming from everywhere, because there’s only so long you can outrun it and we get that great last line: “He didn’t hear the gun when Guy shot him because he was dead.”
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Screen Play by Geoffrey Homes. Based on his novel “Build My Gallows High”. The IMDb lists uncredited writing from James M. Cain and Frank Fenton.
I have reviewed this film once already. It works very well with what it does mainly because of Gregory Peck. You can find severe criticisms over Peck’s performances in Spellbound (from Truffaut and Hitchcock) and Moby Dick (almost any book on John Huston), but some roles Peck was simply the perfect fit for and this is one of them. He has righteous indignation and he has it all the way through. His performance, really all the performances, so masterfully directed by Elia Kazan, are part of what make this film, as unsubtle as it is, still stand up as well as it does.
Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Hobson (1947)
“Gentleman’s Agreement had been serialized in Cosmopolitan in late ’46 and early ’47 and had been acquired by Fox prior to publication in book form, which occurred while the film was still shooting. It became an immediate best-seller – I-can-read moral seriousness presented in slick magazine style, easily translatable to the screen.” (Elia Kazan by Richard Schickel, p 157)
Schickel is not wrong on this count. My feelings on reading the book would be similar to my feelings on the film – I would have been more impressed with it when I was younger and gave more credit for a film’s message that I believed in. However, there are two things that make this different. The first is that, while I read this for the first time several years ago, it was after I had grown past the point of admiring something just for its point-of-view rather than for how artistically it presents that point-of-view. The second thing is the more important one and the one that is more problematic for the novel. In spite of the film being essentially a liberal message picture, it is still a first-rate film, with great direction, some very good acting in several roles and a very solid script. The book doesn’t have that quality of talent involved. Hobson’s story is the kind of thing you read when you’re a teenager and looking for a book with a message. This not a book of real literary merit and it really creaks along. Perhaps I am too familiar with this film at this point, but the moments that really are more painful to go back to, the real “message” moments really seem to stand out more starkly in the book, with Hobson not being an artful enough writer to overcome that problem.
For the most part, the book is right there on the screen. It had been over five years since I had last seen the film when I started reading the book (not since I wrote my review of it back in 2010), yet so many of the scenes came vividly to life in my memory just from reading the book. I could hear Peck talking to his son or talking to his mother.
There are changes, of course. The biggest change over the course of the book is the elimination of the pain-in-the-ass sister, who has gone on to live in a rich suburb of Detroit and worries about what her brother’s scheme is going to do to her reputation. She’s one of the least subtle things about a very unsubtle book and her arguments with her brother and mother are repeated in other scenes and it was a good move to cut her out.
The ending of the film combines the actual ending from the book but adding a scene in which Dave talks to Kathy. The book limits itself to Phil’s point-of-view and so that scene is one we never see in the book and Hobson herself suggested the idea to screenwriter Moss Hart, as detailed on pages 159 and 160 of Schickel’s Kazan book.
Directed by Elia Kazan. Screen Play by Moss Hart. The only mention of the source is in the title: Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement. The IMDb lists “uncredited screenplay revision” from Elia Kazan, which is supported by Schickel’s biography.
I have seen a number of films made in the U.K. during the war and only a few are in color: Henry V (patriotic), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a different kind of patriotic) and This Happy Breed. This is patriotic once again, but this patriotism of a different kind – of the home front during the years between the wars and the decision to make it in color says something about how important this production was. By being made in color, this film offers a bit of realism that wasn’t really there in most of what was going on in British film at the time. It’s a stark reminder that David Lean, whether you think of him for films like the Dickens adaptations, or the Coward collaborations or the epics, Lean was a masterful director human emotions and the way that people are ruled by them.
Coward’s plays didn’t always make for great films, sometimes because they were a bit too stagey, sometimes because they were too much designed to please the upper classes about whom they were often about and sometimes just because people couldn’t find the right note to film them with. This film works though, in a lot of ways that the film version of Cavalcade, in spite of the Best Picture win, doesn’t. Part of it is the family – this family just simply feels real and when we follow them through the years it really does feel like we’re following the family rather than just popping in during important events. But part of it is in the performances. The performances are marvelous and part of the shine in them is obvious simply if we look at them in comparison to other Lean films. Robert Newton is the easiest there. He’s a caring father, a hard-working Brit whose children matter to him and wants to do right by him and this is worlds away from the brutal performance he would give as Bill Sikes in Lean’s Oliver Twist just a few years later. Celia Johnson gives the best performance in the film as the mother watching over her clan, but one who has no problems turning her back on the daughter that runs off with a married man. Though this film was released in the States after Brief Encounter, it was actually made the year before, and Johnson, who looks so bright and cheerful and has a romantic air about her in that film is so good here as the mother put upon by the world and trying to maintain her happiness in spite of the blows that keep coming her way. John Mills is perhaps the most similar to some of his other Lean performances – his youthful approach to his roles is what allowed him to play this role and Pip even though he was already in his late thirties and his young sailor here is reminiscent of the one he played in In Which We Serve. Kay Walsh though, is understandably the object of his desire as the young carefree woman who won’t be settled down in the suburbs, a performance that doesn’t really prepare you for the darkness in her Nancy in Oliver Twist to follow.
Lean would become famous for these types of films and then later would be denigrated by some critics while piling up awards. His greatness was that he could do both of these kinds of things, and that his human dramas and his epics are just as equally moving.
This Happy Breed: A Play in Three Acts by Noël Coward (1942)
This is quite a long play. It comes in at over 200 pages and like Coward’s Cavalcade, covers a long stretch of time for the British. Cavalcade covered the first part of the 20th Century – from the Boer War to the start of the Great War. This isn’t a sequel – the first play covered the upper classes while this is much more a play of the working class, which is perhaps why I so much prefer it – but it does kind of serve as a follow-up, following one British family over the years from the end of the Great War all the way until the final summer before war erupted again. This family is much more interesting than the one in Cavalcade and it’s a solid play that was a hit starring Coward, who got a lot of heat for not being “working-class” enough, though that was where he had originally sprung from before he emerged as the favorite playwright of the richer families of Britain.
“In writing the screenplay for This Happy Breed, Lean realized that the play, which took place in the single setting of the Gibbonses’ dining room, had to be opened out for the screen. That is, the film could and should present more incidents, spread out over more settings, than was possible within the confines of the proscenium arch of a theater stage. Accordingly, Lean decided to portray in a series of montages various national events that in the play took place offstage and were only referred to in the dialogue.” (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips, p 66)
That is exactly what this film does. It is another great example of opening up a play, and yet, it does it while cutting a considerable amount of the play. As I mentioned above, the play itself runs over 200 pages, but the film run less than two hours. Lean was devoted to the telling the same story, the story of two families who live next door to each other, over the course of a generation, but not limit itself to the stage moments. In the play, we jump right from the opening scene in 1919 to the Christmas scene in 1925, but the film provides a break in the middle, with many of the characters visiting the British Empire Exhibition, scenes that get the film outside the confines of the house and also showing the characters developing in their relationships before we have the Christmas scene where things start to get a bit more dramatic. Lean is also able to get contextual information across about events like the General Strike of 1926 before we learn the context from the dialogue and it certainly helps those of us who didn’t live through those events.
Perhaps the most well-known decision was actually one to keep a scene similar to the play. When the parents are told of the death of their son and his wife, we don’t see it. Just as it was done off-stage in the play, we see their other daughter go outside to tell them, and with a record still playing and the sound of children playing outside, we only slowly see the parents come back inside, the grief etched on their faces. Lean makes the right decision not to let us intrude upon their grief – it’s only the scene that is necessary, not the words.
Directed by David Lean. Adapted for the Screen by: David Lean, Ronald Neam, Anthony Havelock Allan. Listed in the titles as Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed.
This is a rather bit of forgotten film-making from the great Elia Kazan. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that Kazan would win his first Oscar for Best Director for his next film which was released in this same year: Gentleman’s Agreement. But it’s also because this is very much a film of its time – a detailed pseudo-documentary, complete with a voice-over that makes it sound a bit like a newsreel. It is one of those true stories that sticks fairly close to the facts and reminds us that justice sometimes does happen. It would be a bit old-fashioned if not for the direction of Elia Kazan.
This film, of course, is designed to say something about the man at the center of it – the prosecutor who thinks something is worse and does his own investigation and discovers that none of the circumstantial evidence adds up to anything. But really it’s a testament to the strength of the judicial system when done right – that by being obsessed with the truth, rather than our own pre-conceived notions, we can find justice from injustice. A priest is murdered on a Connecticut street and a suspect is caught and all sorts of evidence looks towards his guilt, even if he claims (initially) that he didn’t do it, only to confess just to stop the interrogation. It turns out he didn’t do it, of course, but we need to follow the signs to reach that conclusion and the only reason that happens is because the prosecutor is less than convinced and does the investigation that the police really should have done. It’s the first courtroom drama to perhaps hinge on the fact that we have no idea who actually committed the crime, only that we won’t watch someone hang for it who didn’t actually do it.
This all seems hokey, and with Dana Andrews, not to most emotive actor ever, in the lead role, it could have been quite boring. But Kazan’s direction and the editing keep it crisp and clean. There are also strong supporting performances from Lee J. Cobb (as a cop) and Arthur Kennedy (as the suspect). It’s not a great film, but guided by Kazan, it is a very good one.
“The Perfect Case” by Anthony Abbot (1946)
“This story was not quite as fresh as the movie pretended. It had actually occurred in 1924 in Bridgeport, not Stamford as the movie pretended (the former city had refused permission to shoot in its streets). The ‘underlying property’ was a Reader’s Digest article entitled “The Perfect Case,” which was, in turn, a condensed version of a piece that had appeared in 1945 in the Rotarian magazine. Its pseudonymous author was ‘Anthony Abbot,’ a pen name employed by Fulton Oursler, a Digest staffer who was later the author of The Greatest Story Ever Told, a best seller that became a source for George Stevens’s excruciating life of Jesus.” (Elia Kazan by Richard Schickel, p 142)
The story itself didn’t pretend at all. It’s quite clear on the date and location in the first sentence: “The murder of a Bridgeport priest in 1924 is a classic in the ethics of man-hunting.” Schickel is correct in that the story was originally in Rotarian and then was condensed into RD. I can’t imagine why it was condensed. The original version appears in Abbot’s These are Strange Tales, a 1948 collection of his short tales and with generous margins is still only runs 9 pages. It’s a straightforward tale of what happened – the murder, followed by the trial, in which the prosecutor explained the 10 steps that pointed towards the man’s guilt, followed by his refutation of all 10 points and the freeing of the suspect, with a little coda of how the suspect eventually was able to get a better grip on his life. It is exactly the kind of little historic tale you would have expected to find in such magazines at the time.
The story itself is quite short, basically giving the background of the murder and the confession, then leaping right into the trial and the ways in which the prosecutor laid out the case then systematically took it apart. The film itself goes more slowly, covering all the events, and even when the trial is taking place, keeps flashing back to the various aspects. That’s how a nine page story becomes an 88 minute film.
The one thing that is completely added for the film is a subplot involving the prosecutor’s wife and some land that needs to be sold and a blackmail scheme that ends in a suicide in the courtroom that has nothing to do with the actual trial itself. None of that was in the original story and I have no idea as to whether any of it was real or if the filmmakers decided a subplot was necessary to keep the film moving a little and pad out the time.
Directed by Elia Kazan. Screen Play by Richard Murphy. Based Upon An Article by Anthony Abbot, Published in The Reader’s Digest, December, 1945.
I have reviewed this film once already. At the time that I first wrote about this film it was the only film version of the book (they were filming the second version as I wrote it) and it was unavailable on DVD and extremely hard to find. That, at least, has been fixed. Months after I reviewed it, it was released on DVD, and though it is a very bare bones release (it doesn’t even have subtitles), at least it is readily available. You still can’t get it from Netflix, but I got it from local library without a problem. So, you should track it down, because while the later version is solid, it’s still considerably inferior to this one.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
I came to Graham Greene slowly. First, there was the Modern Library list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, which listed The Heart of the Matter, so I read that. Then came the film adaptation of The End of the Affair, so that was next. Both were phenomenal, so moved on, next to The Quiet American, and then to Brighton Rock, which I have vivid memories of reading over Super Bowl weekend in 2002. Like the books I had read before it, I loved it, and it would eventually end up on the My Top 200 list of all-time.
For a man whose complete works are nothing if not dark, this is probably the bleakest. Is it a portrait of evil? I write this with that on my mind because I saw Black Mass yesterday and there’s no question that that film is a portrait of evil. There might have been something to redeem Pinky, the young punk who does not hesitate to kill, or to hate, with the full knowledge that he is damned for it, but that something was probably Rose, the young girl that he marries, not because he loves her, but because she can not then be compelled to testify against him. Perhaps no other portrait of such an un-redemptive character brings such a measure of what is going to come next for the character. It’s not that Pinky ends in death. It’s that he ends in damnation. He is Catholic, a firm believer and he has no hope that there is anything for him but flames. He even tries to take Rose with him, convincing her to go out in a double-suicide. In the end, it is perhaps even worse what happens to her.
I wrote in my review of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter that there might not be any author whose choice of religion (he was not raised Catholic, but became one by choice as an adult) so informs their work. That’s how you end up with paragraphs like this:
In the world outside it was Sunday – she’d forgotten that: the church bells reminded her, shaking over Brighton. Freedom again in the early sun, freedom from the silent prayers of the altar, from the demands made on you at the sanctuary rail. She had joined the other side now for ever. The half-crown was like a medal for services rendered. People coming back from seven-thirty Mass, people on the way to eighty-thirty Matins – she watched them in their dark clothes like a spy. She didn’t envy them and she didn’t despise them: they had their salvation and she had Pinkie and damnation.
What to do when faced with certain damnation? Rose has made her choice out of a deluded notion of love and the hope that she wouldn’t end up alone. But Pinkie has chosen hate and he will pull her down with him if he can:
This road led nowhere else. It was said to be the worst act of all, the act of despair, the sin without forgiveness; sitting there in the smell of petrol she tried to realize despair, the mortal sin, but she couldn’t; it didn’t feel like despair. He was going to damn himself, but she was going to show them that they couldn’t damn him without damning her too. There was nothing he could she wouldn’t do: she felt capable of sharing any murder. A light lit his face and left it; a frown, a thought, a child’s face. She felt responsibility move in her breasts; she wouldn’t let him go into that darkness alone.
Even when faced with a chance to do something for good, something that will cost him nothing, he can not bring himself to do it. There is a little souvenir place where you can say a message that will be put on a record. Pinkie lashes out at her in the message, a permanent record that he has nothing left in himself that is even worth saving, and that she has been deluded from the minute she met him. And that is what we are left with in that final haunting last line, as she heads home to listen to what she thinks is a message of love: “She walked rapidly in the thin June moonlight towards the worst horror of all.”
This could have been a simple little thriller, what Greene would later label his “entertainments” to keep them classified separately from his more serious novels. But it is the religious beliefs that these characters share, those moments when they must reflect on the greater things around them, that makes into so much more, into a truly great novel, Greene’s first great novel and a harbinger of what was to come.
“In the novel, Pinkie’s need to break the cycle of family poverty gives him the courage to fight the fear of eternal damnation which inhibits his efforts. In the film, popular cinema’s conventional logic of representations ensures that, once Pinkie is shown as a bully, he must end as a coward, snivelling in abjection as he is cornered by Brighton’s finest . . . The same conventionalising logic that evacuated sympathy for Pinkie, and cast him as a cowardly ‘young scarface’ (the film’s American title), also operated to convert Ida from a character in which her author never really had any interest or belief, who was primarily an incarnation of Pinkie’s fate, into a righteous heroine carrying the weight of audience identification.” (“Purgatory at the end of the pier: imprinting a sense of place through Brighton Rock”, Steve Chibnall, in The Family Way: The Boulting Brothers and Postwar British Film Culture, p 138)
That’s a bit of a critical reading of the film, of course, and though I come from a literary graduate program, it’s not the way that I tend to look at films. Still, it’s a valuable bit of interpretation for a film version of a book where religion plays such a primary role.
“When the Boultings bought the rights to Graham Greene’s novel for £12,000, they also bought the rights to Frank Harvey’s stage adaptation. The importance of this should not be underestimated, because the way in which the stage play concentrated events into a small number of locations – in particular the Palace Pier – would be significant in the construction of the screenplay.” (Brighton Rock, Turner Classic Movie British Film Guide, p 22-23) I have never read the play, so I can’t know precisely how much of the play is used in the film. But since a play has a limited number of places that it can make use of, it certainly would have given Greene some ideas of how to adapt his novel.
“Greene’s screenplay ruthlessly jettisons his novel’s preambles to the wedding of Pinkie and Rose: the proposal, the stag night at a road house, Rose’s sacking from Snow’s, her discovery of Spicer’s death fall, and the purchase of her parent’s consent to marriage.” (Brighton Rock, p 88) Yes, all of that is certainly condensed. Even though Brighton Rock is not a particularly long novel, the film is quite short and so to get all that action into such a short amount of time, things were obviously going to be cut and those were natural places to cut, to focus primarily on Pinkie’s menace.
Which makes it interesting, of course, that one of the worst things Pinkie does in the book – making the horrible record of his hate on the phonograph for her to listen to – is truncated. In the book, those haunting last lines make us realize precisely what is going to happen when she gets back. But in the film, the record has a scratch and so it gets stuck on his opening bit, where he talks about love, before he flips it and makes his horrific declaration of hate. Instead, Rose is allowed to finish with a scrap of hope, something the last line of the novel makes so hopelessly clear will never be a part of her life again.
Directed by John Boulting. From the novel by Graham Greene. Screenplay by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan.
The first time I watched this film I had to find it on YouTube. I considered writing about as my under-appreciated film of 1947 when I did my Year in Film, but I went with Brighton Rock, partially because I wanted to stress the unavailability of those early black-and-white Graham Greene adaptations. But, just like Brighton Rock, this has become much more readily available since I first saw it. This one is even better – it’s not only available from Netflix, but it has a Criterion release and has finally gotten some real appreciation.
I watched this film the first time because it was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor. That nomination went to Thomas Gomez as the man who runs the carousel, and it was an important nomination because he was the first hispanic to be nominated. But when I did my own awards, I instead went with Art Smith. It turned out to be the only Nighthawk nomination for this film, but it did earn four other Top 10 finishes (Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Gomez, Art Direction). It’s a really a nice little film that was left out in the dark for far too long.
This is the story of Gagin, a man whose friend has died working for a gangster. Now Gagin has tracked the gangster to a border town at fiesta time and he’s determined to get his revenge. Gagin is played by Robert Montgomery, who also directed the film. I’m not a big fan of Montgomery – he was very good in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but I didn’t really go for him as the romantic guy in so many 30’s films. Montgomery had turned to directing earlier in the year with his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, a gimmick film that relied on his point-of-view. But here he has a surer hand on the direction and he gives what might be the best performance of his career as a man who is single minded about what he wants, kind of a precursor to the character that Lee Marvin will later play in Point Blank.
Complicating all of this are a couple of things. First, there is the G-man who is in town to also get Hugo and wants to sit back and watch what Gagin is going to do. He’s played by Art Smith, and his is the best performance in a film that actually has several of them. He brings an element of humor to all of his dealing with Gagin and though he’s determined to get his man, he’ll also sit back and watch how Gagin’s going to go about it first. There is also Gomez. Gomez runs the carousel in town where Gagin hangs out (though are no hotel rooms because of the fiesta) and where Gagin goes for help after he is severely beaten by Hugo’s goons. Gomez is also the father of Pila, the hispanic girl that Gagin falls for (and she, most assuredly for him) and who risks herself to protect him.
It’s great that Criterion has released this film. That’s part of what Criterion should do – find the films that have been over-looked for too damn long and make them readily available, with booklets that help inform the casual viewer and commentaries for the more serious film fans. This is definitely a film that serious film fans shouldn’t miss.
Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes (1946)
This is a serviceable little thriller. It’s the story of Sailor, a man who has been working for Sen, a Senator from Illinois. He has ended up being short-changed on his money and even framed for a murder. It’s the money that really bothers him and he’s determined to get it out of Sen, so he follows him down a little border town at fiesta time and we follow Sailor through his machinations of making certain he gets his money, his revenge or both. It’s not a bad book, but it is fairly forgettable.
This is a good example of an adaptation that takes the basic premise from the book – in this case, a man comes down to a border town at fiesta time looking for a powerful man, wanting his revenge – and then dumps almost everything else about the story. The powerful man is changed (he’s a businessman and criminal, not a Senator), the reason for the revenge is changed (Sailor, renamed Gagin, wants revenge because his friend has been killed while working for Sen, who is now Hugo) and even the circumstances of the other man who has been watching both of them has been changed (Retz, instead of Macintyre, is working to get Hugo behind bars). In that sense, it reminds me very much of a typical Hitchcock adaptation.
Directed by Robert Montgomery. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. From the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. The IMDb lists uncredited writing from producer Joan Harrison.
This makes five films out of my Top 10 Adapted Screenplays in this year that have had a Criterion DVD release. Though not every film ever released by Criterion is worth watching (that’s as much a dig at Godard as it is at Armageddon), it still is a good sign for my list that the premiere DVD company is looking fondly on the same works that I am. Criterion is actually how I first saw this film, back in 2007, when they added it to their library.
I don’t quite know what I was expecting. Perhaps a little of what I got. This is a murder mystery – a man dies on an operating table and, at a party, a nurse claims that it was murder. Then, the nurse is killed. This would seem like the basis for a noir film, especially if it was made in America. But there is that British sensibility at work. And, more importantly, there is the presence of Alistair Sim that keeps it slightly off-kilter. Sim was a great character actor, one of those rare breed of British actors who never feel the need to come to Hollywood and try to conquer the world. You can see him in a variety of films, but the best ones to look at are A Christmas Carol (he is, for me, and a lot of other people, the definitive Scrooge), Hue and Cry (the first Ealing Comedy) and Stage Fright (an under-rated Hitchcock film where he plays Jane Wyman’s father in a delightfully droll performance).
Sim plays the detective who is assigned to come investigate the case. “My presence lay over the hospital like a pall – I found it all tremendously enjoyable,” he says in a voiceover and that seems to sum up both his performance and the way he brings a level of comedy into the film. He is strange and the hospital staff has no idea what to think of him. He does eventually manage to make his way through the case and a final murder is actually averted. But it’s really less about the case itself than about the wonderful way in which Sim comes into the middle of it, makes kind of a bollocks of the whole thing, and yet you manage to keep smiling as you wonder what the hell he’s going to do next.
Green for Danger by Christianna Brand (1944)
This is really a rather forgettable little mystery. It brings together a military hospital, the Blitz, the radio propaganda that the Nazis were flinging invisibly across the water and the death of a postman. It gets a bit too tied up in its own plot and really, the title makes you focus a bit too much on what will be the eventual cause of death and kind of gives it away. If you love the film, you might try it. Otherwise, I’d really recommend giving it a pass.
“Like most such novels, Brand’s book thrives on false leads and complications within complications, often hinging on the minutest (and least filmable) of clues; in reducing it to a ninety-minute movie, Sidney Gilliat provides an object lesson in the elimination of technical detail, backstory, subplots and unnecessary characters, leaving him with a quite austere emotional drama that does not sacrifice any of the book’s certified moments of high drama.” (“Laughing While the Bombs Fall” by Geoffrey O’Brien, in the Criterion DVD booklet)
I would absolutely agree with that. Gilliat really manages to make a quite enjoyable little film out of something that I found difficult to plow through in spite of it only being 250 pages. But I don’t know if the key thing was in the script or the casting. Either way, it is the combination of the performance by Alistair Sim with the way the character is written that provides such a strong dose of off-kilter humor. And it is that humor that really makes the film work. Granted, with Trevor Howard and Leo Genn, it would probably have worked at least decently even without the humor, but Sim really takes the film to a much better level, and at least part of that must be the lines that were written, it would seem almost perfectly for Sim.
Directed by Sidney Gilliat. From the Novel by Christianna Brand. The Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Claud Gurney.
Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10:
- Crisis – Ingmar Bergman makes his directing debut and it’s a solid, but depressing film. It’s based on the play Moderhjertet by Leck Fischer.
- The Bishop’s Wife – You can read a film review of this film here. It’s based on the novel by Robert Nathan.
(in descending order of how good the film is)
- The Crab with the Golden Claws – The first filmed version of a Tintin book covers one of my favorite of the books very faithfully with stop motion. It’s also quite good.
- Song of the South – Based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris and not any more problematic than many other films widely available. You’ve probably never seen the whole thing, but the animation parts of the film (about 25 minutes) are wonderful.
- Nightmare Alley – Low-range ***.5 disturbing noir film with a rather effective Tyrone Power, adapted from the novel by William Lindsay Graham.
- Fun and Fancy Free – The last of the ***.5 films on this list and the third animated film – the scripts for these films weren’t as good as the films themselves. The first part of the film is based on the Sinclair Lewis children’s story “Little Bear Bongo” and the second part on the classic Jack and the Beanstalk.
- The Fugitive – Yet another very good Graham Greene novel given the big-screen treatment. This is adapted from The Power and the Glory, which is very much worth reading. The film is quite good as well, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford.
- The Long Night – More Henry Fonda. This is based on the French film Le Jour Se Lève, which was my #3 Original Screenplay for 1940.
- Odd Man Out – James Mason as an IRA leader in this Carol Reed adaptation of the F.L. Green novel.
- The Unsuspected – A Michael Curtiz film starring Claude Rains and based on the novel by Charlotte Armstrong.
- Black Narcissus – Deborah Kerr is very good but I think the film is just a mid-range *** which makes me different than a lot of people who think it is a classic. This Powell / Pressburger film is based on a novel by Rumer Godden.
- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – An early Joseph L. Mankiewicz film, adapted from the novel by R.A. Dick.
- Nicholas Nickleby – A solid Dickens adaptation (of one of his better books) but nowhere near as good as the Lean films. The first sound version of the book though there had been two silent ones.
- The Late George Apley – Ronald Colman stars as the uptight Boston brahmin who has to cope with his children falling in love with falling in love with people not from Boston. One of them is from Worcester, which is funny to me, since I work in Worcester. It was a well-regarded novel by John P. Marquand and then a play by George S. Kaufman.
- The Sea of Grass – The third of Elia Kazan’s films from 1947, this one a mostly forgotten one starring Hepburn and Tracy. It’s based on a novel by Conrad Richter who would later write The Town which would (undeservedly) win the Pulitzer.
- Ramrod – It’s got Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake but make no mistake – this is no Sullivan’s Travels. It is a decent Western though, based on some short stories by Luke Short (whose Station West will be covered in the next year).
- Dark Passage – By far the least regarded of the four Bogie / Bacall films, it’s based on the novel by David Goodis. This film is connected to the next one in that both use point-of-view cinematography that is just a gimmick and is really distracting.
- Lady in the Lake – Robert Montgomery’s strange directorial debut. It’s an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel, but done from the character’s point-of-view.
- The Woman on the Beach – Jean Renoir’s nice film is adapted from the novel None So Blind.
- Deep Valley – Ida Lupino stars in the adaptation of the novel by Dan Totheroh.
- So Well Remembered – In spite of the presence of John Mills and Trevor Howard, we’re a long way from the early James Hilton adaptations – this novel and film aren’t as beloved.
- The Man I Love – Raoul Walsh directing Ida Lupino in a film with gangsters should be better than this film adapted from the novel Night Shift by Maritta M. Wolff.
- Forever Amber – The book was supposedly the best-selling novel of the 40’s, selling over three million copies, and it was banned in 14 states. The film is quite tame and really quite boring.
- Down to Earth – A sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan but without Claude Rains or wit.
- Mourning Becomes Electra – Eugene O’Neill’s play is dour to begin with but this film, in spite of two good lead performances, is even more so.
- Life with Father – The play was a big hit and it was though this might win William Powell and overdue Oscar but he’s no more than good and he lost to Ronald Colman.
- Green Dolphin Street – Lana Turner and Van Heflin don’t make for very good drama in this adaptation of the novel by Elizabeth Goudge.
- The Macomber Affair – We’ve hit **.5 here. When I watched this on TCM a couple of years ago, my cable described it as “Hemingwayesque”, which shows how dumb those people are. You should read the original “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, one of Papa’s best stories.
- Mother Wore Tights – Betty Grable and Dan Dailey in a Musical based on the book by Miriam Young.
- Cass Timberlane – By far the weakest of the nine Sinclair Lewis novels I’ve read and it doesn’t make for a very good film.
- The Egg and I – The original book was a best-seller and this would spawn a film series (Ma and Pa Kettle) but that doesn’t mean this film is particularly good, in spite of the ridiculous Oscar nomination.
- The Foxes of Harrow – On the one hand, the novel, by Frank Yerby, marked the first book ever written by an African-American to be purchased by a Hollywood studio. On the other hand, it made a relentlessly mediocre film.
- Tarzan and the Huntress – One of the last Weissmuller Tarzan films. Only the characters come from Burroughs.
- Daisy Kenyon – Another mediocre Otto Preminger film, based on the novel by Elizabeth Janeway.
- The Lost Moment – I loathe Henry James novels but they usually make for good films. This one, adapted from The Aspern Papers, is an exception.
- The Paradine Case – The novel by Robert Hichens becomes one of the least compelling Hitchcock films.
- Born to Kill – Robert Wise does noir, but he doesn’t do it very well. Based on the novel by James Gunn, who would later become a big early television writer.
- Sinbad the Sailor – Sinbad was a Middle-Eastern hero who would eventually end up in 1001 Nights (including Burton’s translation). Several films would follow this one, thankfully, most of them better. This is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. trying to do what his father did so well.
- Fear in the Night – Now we’re into the bad films. This is **. It’s based on the story “Nightmare” by Cornell Woolrich. This is one of a number of bad films I watched because TSPDT had it on their 13,000 initial films list.
- The Farmer’s Daughter – Not the worst film of the year, but it’s close. It’s based on a Finnish play. It also contains the worst performance to ever win Best Actress at the Oscars.