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Tag Archives: Film Noir

What Does Kathie Moffat Want?

jane-greer

Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat…contemplating murder

The first time I saw Out of the Past, I had never seen a film noir before and was not aware that I was watching one of the quintessential films of the (dare I called it?) genre. And the film did not make much of an impression on me at the time.

It was Double Indemnity that really got me going and after many years I thought it was time that I gave Out of the Past another chance. I enjoyed it much more this time. But one question still tantalizes me. What does Kathie Moffat, the femme fatale played by Jane Greer, really want?

Generally, femme fatales have pretty specific goals. Phyllis Dietrichson wants money. Brigid O’Shaunessy wants the Falcon (and money). Mrs. Grayle wants to be free of her past so she can go on enjoying money and men. But what is Kathie’s overarching goal?

This is a puzzler, because she behaves in such a contradictory fashion. She shoots gambler Whit (played by Kirk Douglas) and steals $40,000, running off to Mexico. When she is tracked down by private detective Jeff (Robert Mitchum), instead of giving him the slip, she hangs around and starts an affair with him. She even returns to American and hides out with him in shady places (not something I could ever imagine Phyllis Dietrichson doing – she’d have skipped town and gone to South America). When Jeff’s former partner shows up and tries to blackmail them, she shoots him and Jeff suddenly realizes that she’s not as innocent as he had believed (he believed that she did NOT steal the $40,000).

Now without Jeff, she returns to Whit, who she seems to not like very much. When Jeff comes back into their lives, she tries to have him framed for murder and later just plain murdered. Finally, when backed in a corner by Jeff AND Whit, she shoots Whit and blackmails Jeff into going away with her, saying that she always did find him a kindred spirit. When Jeff betrays her, she shoots him, too.

So, what are her motivations? Money? Doesn’t seem to be her main one. She stole that $40,000, but she seemed perfectly willing to stay in hiding with Jeff instead of dashing off to greener pastures. Their scenes are played like a romance movie. She’s always coming out of the sunlight, moonlight, headlights, running in the sand in her bare feet with her hair down like a woman renewed while Roy Webb’s romantic score romances away.

jane_greer-328125519_stdShe says she’s afraid of Whit (assertions one has to take with a salt flat), but Whit’s attitude towards her is more one of possession than the bedazzled fascination of Jeff, so perhaps there’s some truth to what she says. But after all her running and hiding from Whit, even shooting Jeff’s partner when he threatens to tell Whit about them…she just returns to Whit and tells him everything about her and Jeff?

My sister’s theory is that she doesn’t have a specific goal; she’s living in the moment. She gets tired of Whit’s overbearing ways, so she shoots him and takes enough money to cover expenses (gambling and clothes and such). She’s attracted to Jeff, so she hangs around. She shoots Jeff’s partner, because he threatened her in the moment. Jeff loses his illusions about her, so she goes back to Whit. She kills Whit and has Jeff in her power – why not take him along with her?

It all seems rather unpremeditated. The only consistent thing I can see is that she likes to be in charge (and who can blame her). Still, it make Kathie Moffat a bit of an enigma and prevents her from seeming like a total force of evil. She’s mostly reacting to the moment and she doesn’t come off as any worse than anyone else. She’s a sociopath, but…I don’t know. Somehow, I found myself kind of on her side. Maybe it’s Robert Mitchum. Maybe he’s just too cool for me. Somehow, I rarely find myself firmly rooting for him in any of his films. It’s not that I dislike him or think he’s a bad actor. It’s just that I never quite make the leap towards being fully, emotionally on his side.

But what about you? What do you think Kathie Moffat really wants?

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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Pitfall (1948) and Raymond Burr

Poster - Pitfall (1948)_09Two words to describe Raymond Burr in Pitfall are menace and ooze. He oozes menace, but he also just oozes. You almost shudder whenever you see him. When Lizabeth Scott’s Mona tells Dick Powell’s Johnny that she’s “seen some weird ones in [her] time, but that one frightened [her] half to death,” I believe her.

I grew up thinking of Raymond Burr as the upstanding Perry Mason, so I was mildly surprised to discover that before his career defining TV show, he often played villains in film noir. And not just villains, but nasty villains. Creepy, brutal, hulking, psycho villains. His MacDonald in Andre De Toth’s Pitfall is one of his nastiest.

Pitfall is something of a downer, even for film noirs. Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) is an insurance agent who must reclaim for the insurance company all the items that a man named Smiley (Byron Barr) bought for his girlfriend using stolen money. Johnny is bored with his life, his wife (Jane Wyatt), but mostly it seems with himself. When he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), the girlfriend of Smiley, she snaps him out of his funk by demanding he not just be an insurance automaton, but a human being with sympathy. They embark on a brief affair, until she discovers that he’s married. She’s deeply hurt, but is too nice a person to make a stink about it and all seems to be over.

Except there’s MacDonald (Burr). He’s a private detective who was hired by Johnny’s company to find out what Smiley did with the stolen money and he’s decided that he’s in love. Mona is not interested, but MacDonald is not put off. He stalks her and when she threatens to go to the police, he threatens to tell Johnny’s wife about the affair. Once again, Mona is simply too nice a person to want to ruin Johnny and asks Johnny what she should do. But instead of telling Mona to go to the police, he says he’ll take care of it. He’s too scared to tell his wife or own up to his own actions, even though his wife knows something is wrong. His continued refusal to admit what he’s done causes Mona’s life, as well as his own, to spiral out of control.

Amazingly, everyone’s gut instinct seems to be to cover up. Johnny tells a friend of his what he’s done and his friend advises Johnny not to tell his wife (never mind that keeping Johnny’s secret is giving MacDonald leverage over Mona). Even Johnny’s wife’s initial reaction when she finally finds out what is going on is to demand Johnny not tell the police. In a telling scene where Johnny’s son has a nightmare, Johnny thinks it’s caused by the comic books he reads and tells him the secret to not having bad dreams is to essentially only look at nice things (ignoring the fact that his son is probably picking up on the unspoken tension in the house).

this scene never actually occurs in the film

this scene never actually occurs in the film

But MacDonald is a menace that cannot be ignored, covered up or dealt with by oneself. Johnny tries to play the tough guy and frighten MacDonald away, but MacDonald is not really deterred by that. He’s not deterred by anything. He honestly doesn’t seem to appreciate how repulsive he is to others, especially Mona. He really believes that if he can get rid of the men in Mona’s life then she would go away with him (as Princess Leia said, “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain”). He’s a cunning man at exploiting people’s weaknesses, but in many ways he’s completely obtuse.

Of course, if everyone had simply gone to the police, the film would have been over halfway through and a lot of heartache, violence and betrayal could have been avoided. Dick Powell is possibly at his least sympathetic in this film, with his tendency to feel sorry for himself and his inability to deal with things squarely (like telling Mona he’s married, telling his wife what is going on – as his wife tells him, “either it’s a marriage or it isn’t” – and the way he tries to save his own skin and leaves Mona with few options in dealing with MacDonald). He covers one lie with another and betrays so many people, there’s no way he can ease his conscience by the end. He’s just going to have to live with himself. It’s an excellent performance.

I really like Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall, too. She’s often compared with Lauren Bacall, but in this film she is warmer, more vulnerable, and looks like a person who has been kicked around a lot by life and other men. But she’s also a thoroughly nice, sympathetic person and she ends up being the real victim of the film.

In the case of Raymond Burr, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role better, being sleazier, slimier, more sure of himself. When he visits Mona’s workplace where she models gowns and makes her model several for him, your skin crawls. There is no ambiguity about his character – he is pure evil. Ironically, he used to work with the police force and likes to position himself as being “in” with the police, but at the same time a simple call to the police probably would have solved everything. Is he meant to be symbolic? The dark side of the system (government, authority)? Moral rot? A presence that boredom, fear and insecurity allows to assert itself? Whatever he is, Raymond Burr makes him one of the creepiest villains in film noir.

This post is part of “The Great Villain Blogathon.” My thanks to Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings for hosting! Be sure to check out all the other villainous posts, here.

villain-2016-anderson

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Movies

 

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Gilda (1946)

3505-1946-gilda-usa-6074169550I might have to re-watch Gilda, because when I watched it last week I was so busy trying to figure it out that I didn’t give myself any space to enjoy it. But it was so different from what I was expecting; it’s like two movies blended together.

Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a scrappy gambler, drifting in Argentina during WWII (the fact that he isn’t at war says something about his character already – practically every American male of his age was in uniform at the time). He is nearly mugged, but is rescued by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a wealthy and mysterious man who runs a casino. After Johnny visits the casino and gets caught out in a little cheating, he convinces Ballin to hire him and works his way up to become Ballin’s right-hand man.

Johnny thinks he’s got a good thing going and is extraordinarily loyal to Ballin, but his world is upset when Ballin returns from a trip with a wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda used to know each other very well and she immediately sets out to torment Johnny and make him jealous. To make things worse, Ballin has a few things up his sleeve that he is not telling Johnny, like certain dealings with ex-Nazis (WWII is now over). There is also a policeman (Joseph Calleia), who is watching Ballin.

In relation to Gilda, I had most often heard that it was about the intensely heated love-hate relationship between Johnny and Gilda. As Gilda tells Johnny at one point, “I hate you so much; I think I’m going to die from it.” Johnny likewise is always telling her and Ballin that he hates her. Why? This isn’t clear. Evidently they had an affair, but he abandoned her. It made my sister think of the story in the Bible (2 Samuel 13) where Amnon rapes his half-sister, Tamar, and than hates her for it. But it’s clear that Gilda is still crazy about Johnny.

George Macready. Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford

George Macready. Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford

But this isn’t what the first half of the movie is about. This is dealt with in the second half. In the first half, Johnny seems to have a huge hero-worship/crush on Ballin. He even has a key to Ballin’s house, which he returns when Ballin unexpectedly marries. He thinks Ballin tells him everything and seems just as hurt that Ballin married as he does that Gilda is trying to make him jealous. He never questions Ballin’s highly questionable ethics and goes out of his way to spare Ballin any concern over Gilda, who is definitely not being faithful to him. He even admires Ballin’s pseudo-fascist purpose of ruling the world and does everything to protect him from the police and others.

I think Johnny’s trying to be Ballin. After Ballin supposedly dies (he fakes his death), Johnny takes over the business, including the business with the ex-Nazis. The thing is, he’s really in over his head and he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t have Ballin’s sagacity or knowledge or education. He’s just a scrappy guy who knows how to get by in life. It’s not even clear he fully understands what kind of a man Ballin is; what the consequences really would be if Ballin succeeds in his (somewhat fuzzy) goals. For a while, I thought the film was going to be about how Johnny tries be like Ballin and discovers how far short he comes.

But the film never develops any of this. Instead, it turns to the relationship between Johnny and Gilda. After Ballin supposedly dies, Johnny marries Gilda. It’s clear she always loved him and thinks their going to be happy now, but Johnny rather cruelly marries her just so he can control her. He stays completely away from her and uses his power and men to prevent her from going out with other men (her main means of getting back at people), even having her followed everywhere. He puts a picture of Ballin in their house, which she considers in bad taste (not “decent,” is the word she uses, which he uses to mock her with, since she is not “decent”).

So, why is he doing this? Supposedly because he was driven crazy by her infidelities. He’s certainly obsessed with the fact that she’s a tramp. But Johnny says (in a voice-over) that he’s doing it to make her faithful to Ballin in death, even if she couldn’t be faithful to him when he was alive. Before Ballin’s supposed death, Ballin saw Johnny and Gilda making out, so perhaps Johnny feels like he betrayed Ballin, too.

looking far happier than they ever do in the film

looking far happier than they ever do in the film

Unfortunately, I thought the ending of the film was kind of a fizzle. Johnny has gotten himself in so deep, trying to run Ballin’s business, and goes too far in his persecution of Gilda. And he gets of scot-free. He never seems to have to face up to the enormity of what he’s done, what kind of a man Ballin really is, or how cruelly he’s used Gilda. She even tries to leave him and get a divorce, only to have him use another man to trick her into coming back, where he refuses her the divorce. She’s on her knees begging him to let her go and I almost hated him. But instead, the policeman fixes everything and Johnny faces no consequences and the policeman even manages to fix up Johnny’s love life with Gilda so that they can be together. It even turns out that Gilda was never really cheating on him or Ballin at all – that was just an act to make him jealous.

It seemed to take all the steam out of the story. The script turns Ballin into a slightly deranged, jealous husband at the end, instead of the cool and calculating man he always was before. Ballin is an interesting character. He tells Johnny that he’s “mad about” Gilda, but it’s hard to see that he really is. He seems to go out of his way to make Johnny and Gilda spend time together, even though he knows instantly that the two of them have a past. He even makes Gilda his heir and Johnny the executor of his will, ensuring they will continue to spent time together. He’s like a puppet-master, always watching them. He also seems to frequently be shot in shadows or be off screen entirely (in one shot, his head is cut off by the camera), though we hear his voice. The camera will be fixed on Johnny or Gilda, but we hear his cold voice interrogating them, like a god who’s slightly amused by the doings of the little people.

By far the most sympathetic person in the story is Gilda. I’ve heard her role described as that of a femme fatale, but most of the time she’s being controlled or abused by the men in the story. I don’t think she makes a very convincing hardcore femme fatale anyway (like in Blood and Sand, she just doesn’t have the steel her soul like Barbara Stanwyck and others), but she does vulnerable and broken extremely well and as Gilda, she had all my sympathy. Even the famously sexy dance, “Put the Blame on Mame,” where she does the tantalizing strip tease while removing only one glove, is still a performance filled with pathos, because she wants to hurt Johnny so much that she’s willing to expose herself as a tramp to do it.

tumblr_mdaih2KMet1r0rezxo1_1280She seems to be looking for a man she can trust. After she flees Johnny, she finds another man who purports to love her and says he can help her get a divorce and will take care of her. The relief on her face as she talks about how she thought she could never trust a man again is so sad, because we know the man is employed by Johnny. At this point I was rooting so hard for Johnny and Gilda not to get back together at the end. I was hoping that Johnny would get taken down and be revealed as “the peasant” that the janitor, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) always said he was. Incidentally, Uncle Pio seems to be the only person Gilda can act normally with. She smiles, thanks him and generally seems relaxed, like she’s not putting on the act she is always playing for Ballin and Johnny.

It’s a sensational performance by Rita Hayworth, one of the best I’ve seen her give. But because of the ending, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Below is a clip of Hayworth performing “Put the Blame on Mame,” though that is not her singing.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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