Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maybe she was alright, and maybe Christmas comes in July...

World War II brought about a lot of disruptions and restrictions to which Hollywood had to adapt. The end of the war, however, brought about its own set of challenges. With the troops overseas, filmmakers had grown used to targeting a fragmented audience -- the men on the front lines, and the women on the home front. As soldiers returned home, Hollywood led the way in helping America adjust to a reunified peacetime society. Films became more violent to attract the male audiences who were fresh from combat, and female characters exemplified the American woman's return from the workplace back into the home. 1947's Dead Reckoning is a prime illustration of how Hollywood transitioned into the postwar period.

Dead Reckoning is clearly aimed at soldiers returning from war. The main male character, Captain Warren "Rip" Murdock (Humphrey Bogart), is a former soldier. Fitting with noir conventions, he refuses aid from his superiors in Washington, acting more as a lone detective as he tries to clear the name of his fellow soldier, Johnny, who had enlisted under an alias after having been accused of murdering the husband of his lover, Coral "Dusty" Chandler (played by Lauren Bacall look-alike Lizabeth Scott). In keeping with censorship rules regarding the portrayal of the military, it is immediately revealed that Johnny is innocent -- we can't have the audience doubting the virtue of a man in uniform, after all. The film then unfolds as a whodunnit as Rip tries to determine who framed Johnny.

There are several elements throughout the film that point to a marked change in censorship compared to earlier noirs. For example, Martinelli, the owner of the club where Dusty works, is portrayed as a gangster. This marks the return of a genre and character that had been banned during the war as "unAmerican." Here, the mobsters are German, with Nazi weapons; American audiences at this time were seeing newsreels of the liberated concentration camps, leaving a lasting and powerful impression of the atrocities committed by the defeated enemy. In particular, Martinelli's right-hand man Krause is portrayed as positively sadistic, doling out brutal beatings set to music. The excessive violence was a means of reaching audiences who had been desensitized, either by combat or by footage of its aftermath.

One of the most radical differences between wartime and postwar films noir is the portrayal of gender roles. Earlier films featured independent working females holding down the fort while the men were away. At the end of the war, Hollywood needed to convince women to give up their independence so that men could regain their jobs in the face of massive unemployment. From a modern perspective, this film is not at all subtle in its pursuit of that goal. Rip and Dusty have a recurring conversation about a woman's place -- which, according to Rip, is in a man's pocket until he's ready to pull her out again, and then only to look pretty. After resisting, double-crossing, and even trying to kill Rip, Dusty dies wishing that he could pick her up and put her in his pocket. Taken in its historical context, this could be seen as a warning to the women in the audience who balked at surrendering their independence: repent or die.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially as he's walking out of your bedroom...

The impact of politics on the film industry is a subject I find fascinating, particularly during and immediately after WWII into the Cold War. The more I learn, the more I want to know, and the more I want to watch films from that era so that I can try to pick apart what was going on behind the scenes in terms of censorship and government regulation. I've talked before about movies that were made at the beginning or during the height of the war, but once the end of the conflict was in sight, Hollywood faced a new set of challenges in the transition to the postwar era. In my Film Noir class, we've been discussing these challenges and how they are exemplified by films such as The Big Sleep.

As the war drew to a close, Hollywood had to appeal not only to the largely female homefront audience, but now to the men returning from overseas as well. Heroes gave way to anti-heroes, including Humphrey Bogart's hardboiled detective Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by an ailing but wealthy veteran to figure out who is blackmailing his wild young daughter, Carmen. The case is over with rather quickly, as Geiger, the blackmailer, is killed right under Marlowe's nose. But the detective is unsatisfied with this resolution and digs deeper, much to the chagrin of General Sternwood's older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who does everything in her power to throw Marlowe off-track as he finds himself investigating not only Geiger's case, but the disappearance of Sternwood's employee Sean Regan, who was alleged to have run off with the wife of Geiger's landlord, Eddie Mars.

Though Marlowe was hired to extract Carmen from a potentially dangerous situation, he soon switches his focus to Vivian; this is the result of early screenings of the film for troops overseas, who wanted to see Lauren Bacall's role expanded after the success of her pairing with Bogart in To Have And Have Not. I haven't seen the earlier version, but I thought that Vivian was the more interesting sister and I was glad when the narrative shifted towards her shady dealings instead of Carmen's drunken mix-ups. Still, both sisters' troubles are a lot to pack into one movie.

The violence in this film is very overt and hands-on, targeted at the many men who were readjusting to life after combat. Marlowe gives Carmen a couple of hard slaps to get her to come to when he discovers her in Geiger's house with his newly-dead body, and he himself is beaten bloody more than once, not to mention multiple murders that occur as Marlowe attempts to solve the riddle of Geiger's slaying. Additionally, Marlowe is presented as someone that other men would want to be; women throw themselves at him throughout the film, with the exception of Vivian, who eventually admits her attraction to him. It seems there is no woman that Marlowe couldn't have, but Vivian still holds her own as a classic femme fatale. Courting both male and female audiences was a daunting task at this time, but by cultivating strong women and men of action in his characters, Howard Hawks walked the tightrope well.