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The October Man (1947)

It’s perhaps a bit late for October, but The October Man is worth seeing in any month. Like many films made in the post-WWII American and British film industry, it is a (British) psychological mystery/thriller, and stars John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and Kay Walsh. What makes it fascinating is not the mystery, though, but the exploration of how a character who is labeled “crazy” becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.

John Mills plays Jim Ackland, who, at the beginning of the film, is in a devastating bus crash that costs the life of the young daughter of family friends. He sustains a head injury and suffers from suicidal depression, blaming himself for the young girl’s death. He spends time in a hospital/sanitarium, but when he is released now must suffer, not only the after-effects of his injury, but also the stigma of having spent time in a sanitarium.

He gets a good job as a chemist and even begins dating the sister of one of his co-workers, Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood), but there is trouble at his cheap hotel. When his neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), who he knows slightly, is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, not only for everyone in the hotel, but also for the police. Everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that because he’s a “loony,” he must have been the one to kill her, despite the fact that his mental condition is described by the doctor as acute depression and that the only person he’s ever tried to harm is himself.

Initially, Jim emphatically denies having killed her, but soon he begins to wonder. Did he kill her after all? There is a moment of time when he was walking, lost in thought, and could he have had a blackout? The police believe so and interrogate him repeatedly and so persuasively that they actually begin to bring Jim around to their way of thinking.

It becomes fairly obvious, though, who killed Molly and the viewer is rarely in doubt that Jim is innocent. What is interesting is how all mental illness is lumped under one term – “crazy” – and therefore grounds for suspicion, despite a lack of substantial evidence.

John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and random character

In fact, the police seem to understand that they lack sufficient grounds for conviction and their tactics look less like investigation than an attempt to break Jim until he confesses, so certain are they that he is the guilty party. The situation is compounded by one overt lie from the real murderer and speculative gossip from the rest of the hotel’s guests. Jim is forced to wade through the wary guests to discover what they have been saying about him.

Jim is essentially set up, not so much by the murderer, but by the police. My sister was telling me of a book she was reading, which discusses how interrogators have to be careful – if they want the truth – because if they work on a person long enough (even an innocent person) that person’s story will gradually start to sound like what they want to hear. This is especially true for Jim, who is already emotionally fragile.

I have always admired John Mills as an actor and he is up to his usual excellent standards in The October Man. Always sympathetic and retaining his dignity, he definitely ready to break apart at any moment. He doubts himself and is tempted to escape, either by killing himself or returning to the sanitarium. The only thing holding him back is his fiance, Jenny Carden, and his wavering conviction that he did not kill Molly.

Joan Greenwood was hilariously wicked and seductive in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Kay Walsh remarkably sympathetic as Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. Their characters, however, are not fleshed out much in The October Man. Kay Walsh has the more interesting role, friendly and open-hearted, but also involved with a married man and pursued by another, mysterious admirer, and one actually regrets that we do not get to know her more, which makes her more than a convenient corpse.

If one is expecting a puzzling mystery, the film can be disappointing. However, if you think of it as an exploration of how the perception of mental illness can affect a person and expectations of that person, it becomes far more engaging.

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Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a tense post-WWII thriller that manages to both thrill and also explore the results of the belief that some people are stronger or better than others.

Post-WWII people were appalled at the widespread eugenics practiced by Nazis, culminating in the nearly unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. What made it so unsettling, however, is that such beliefs in eugenics had been embraced, though less aggressively, by many other countries and people. For me, Ethel Barrymore’s character embodies this position perfectly in The Spiral Staircase.

The story is an old dark house thriller. Someone is murdering women with disabilities in a small town set in the early 1900s (when cars and horses briefly shared the road). Helen (Dorothy McGuire), is a servant at the Warren mansion, on the outskirts of town, who has been unable to speak ever since witnessing her parents burned alive in their home (PTSD was another concern for post-WWII audiences). Everyone is concerned that she will be the next target and insists she stay safely inside the house. Except that the killer turns out to be one of the people inside the house.

It’s a stormy night, people come and go, but eventually it seems as if one-by-one the killer is neutralizing everyone until there is only Helen and the killer.

Ethel Barrymore plays Mrs. Warren, the owner of the house. She is the second wife of the now deceased Mr. Warren, a dynamic man’s man who despised weakness and only admired strength: physical endurance, the ability to hunt and shoot, etc. Mrs. Warren lives in the house with her step-son (George Brent) and her own son (Gordon Oliver), but agrees with her late husband that they are both “weaklings.”

She herself is a dynamic character, though now bedridden and with her mind wondering. But she remains fixed on one idea the entire night: the need to get Helen out of the house or to hide Helen, because she knows that the evil is within the house, not outside it, as everyone else supposes.

(Spoilers) I think what I admire about Ethel Barrymore’s performance is that she really doesn’t try to make her character sympathetic, though she does want to save (and ultimately does save) Helen. She’s wily and cunning, demanding, querulous and openly disdainful of people she despises. She also share’s her late husband’s views about strength and weakness, though she would never take it so far as to actually murder anyone. She is even appalled by murder.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

But she’s also complicit in the crimes. She believed the murderer was her son (as opposed to her step-son) and could not bring herself to denounce him. As a result, the murders went on. She only finally musters the strength of will to shoot (somewhat like you shoot a mad dog) the killer when she realizes that it is not her son.

(End Spoilers)  The the sheer power of Ethel Barrymore’s personality suggests what Mr. Warren must have been like…and what it would have been like to live in a house with two such people.

Power, I think, is the word for Ethel Barrymore in the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a man being stronger-willed then her…though her character clearly idealizes the late Mr. Warren as a man of power. But despite being bed ridden and with a wondering mind, she can suggest what Mrs. Warren would have been like when well. And one can see how her step-son and son might have been warped by it.

This post is part of “The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The rest of the posts about the three Barrymore’s can be found here.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies

 

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Othello – William Shakespeare

Plot Summary – Othello is a black Moor who has converted to Christianity and fought for Venice against the Ottoman Turks for well over thirty years. At the beginning of the play, he has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign, is at the same time angry that he has been passed over for promotion by Othello for the young and less experienced Cassio and plots to destroy Othello. Manipulated by Iago, Othello ends by suffocating Desdemona, believing her to be unfaithful to him.

Generally, when I have heard or read “Othello” discussed, professors and critics are primarily fascinated with the character of Iago, the villain who manipulates and destroys Othello. He often becomes, for these people, the main character, the one who drives the plot and possesses the most modern sensibilities with his cynicism, wit and amorality. The other characters are obsessed with virtue, personal honor, loyalty and military glory.

However, one of the aspects of the play that fascinated me is not so much Iago’s great genius – something that gets covered a lot – but Iago’s hypocrisy. Iago, a deeply twisted soul, has acquired the reputation of a good and honest man who tells it like it is. The kind of man everyone trusts and confides in. Even strangers confide in him and trust him.

Othello: “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings.”

We tend to think of hypocrites as being like Tartuffe or Elmer Gantry. Often religious hypocrites, often gratuitous. Tartuffe is so obviously a hypocrite that nearly every character – except the one who matters – sees through him. But Iago is so successful and subtle a hypocrite that it is almost never remarked on, even by critics.

Iago: “In following him, I follow but myself. Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end; For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In complement extern, tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.”

But his chief weapon is not his genius for understanding character’s weaknesses and exploiting them (though he does have a genius for this), but for being believed by those characters. It wouldn’t have mattered how well he understood their weaknesses if no one trusted him. He is able to plant little poisonous seeds into so many characters precisely because everyone expects him to speak the truth, no matter how painful it supposedly is for him to do so. As Othello says after Iago begins his campaign by implying that Cassio and Desdemona are in love:

“This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.”

Paul Robeson as Othello

Half Iago’s proof is his own word. The further “proofs” that Iago contrives are pretty flimsy, but he only needs a little something to seem to concur with his own word. Thus his scheme of stealing Desdemona’s handkerchief and planting it with Cassio. Not overwhelming proof. As the Doge  of Venice says at the beginning of the play when Desdemona’s father asserts that Othello must have used dark arts to captivate her, “To vouch this is no proof.”

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that there is a dichotomy in the play between Venice (law and order) and the Turks (uncivilized barbarians). Most of the play is set on Cyprus, an outpost for Venice, somewhat far away from the reassuring law of Venice. In Venice, everyone, including Desdemona, is allowed to state their case when her father complains to the Doge. In Cyprus, Othello does not investigate the matter, but merely believes.

Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife, speaks in defense of Desdemona and shrewdly divines that someone must be playing on Othello’s jealousy, but is discounted by Othello as “a simple bawd.” He does not believe Desdemona, either. He only trusts Iago, his ensign.

In some ways, Othello shares some parallels with General Ulysses S. Grant. Both great generals, saviors of the country they serve, but both indiscriminately trusting. Iago knows that “The Moor is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” This can serve one well as a general, who must trust his men, but is deadly in politics and relationships. Grant’s presidency was wracked with corruption and he lost his fortune near the end of his life because he trusted the wrong people. This trust in his soldiers, however, leads Othello to mistrust the words of others, especially those of the women.

The racial aspect of the play was less prominent than I expected. Othello is indeed an outsider, which makes him vulnerable, but although Iago makes a number of gross racial comments, most characters hold him in esteem and admire him. Desdemona says that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” In fact, Desdemona goes so far as to say – after hearing his stories of all that he had suffered and done – that she wished she could have been “such a man.” His reputation is one of greatness and dignity and his fall is mourned. He’s a bit like a colossus from Greek times – a man known for thirty years of upright implacability and honor, brought low by petty human jealousy.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in Books

 

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