Tag Archives: The Killers

‘Reunion in France’: Mein Kamp

Lopsided Triangle: the Duke, the Dutchman and the Box Office Poison

Lopsided Triangle: the Duke, the Dutchman and the Box Office Poison.

Last week, a bout of insomnia drove me out of bed late one night and into the living room, where I turned on TCM and hoped to find some nicely soporific picture that would lull me back to sleep on the sofa. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a plush French Resistance melodrama called “Reunion in France” (Metro, 1942). I found it so hilariously ludicrous that I abandoned all hope of getting a good night’s rest, and instead, laughed my head off for the next hour, then ordered the DVD as soon as the picture was over.

“Reunion in France” is a camp melodrama — make that Camp with a capital C — and it brims with patriotism and propaganda, high dudgeon and low comedy: the adventures of a feckless Parisian socialite, Michele de la Becque (Joan Crawford), who returns to newly-occupied Paris after a long vacation on the Côte d’Azur, to find that her wealthy fiancé (played by Dutch actor, Philip Dorn, who doesn’t sound remotely French)* has turned Quisling. The shock of her lover’s transformation radicalizes Michele on the spot. His cooing rationalizations enrage her. She scowls, she snarls, she sneers, but she can’t budge him: he’s too much in love with his wealth and position. So she breaks off their engagement and goes to work as a shop assistant in the atelier of Mme Montanot (Odette Myrtil). Mme Montanot is the couturier who, till Michele’s sudden loss of social position, has always designed her dazzling gowns. As in dozens of pictures before this one, Crawford once again finds herself working behind a counter, selling expensive shit to spoiled bitches. Enter recently shot-down RAF flyboy, Pat Talbot (John Wayne) of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who’s on the lam from a Kraut Stalag. Pat and “Mike” (as he insists on calling the now penniless, but still elegant Mlle Michele de la Becque) meet cute one night after she closes up shop. Quicker than she can say “Je suis pressé, monsieur,” she finds herself helping him to outwit a Nazi spy (the reliably egregious Howard da Silva), after which they set up house temporarily. While he’s holed up in her flat, she connives to get him out of France and back to his comrades. This includes a lot of fancy double-agent footwork on her part, which requires her to play pattycake with a few Nazi Scheißkerle and, harder still, to keep a civil tongue in her head. And all the while she’s tricked out in an amazing assortment of furs, jewels, shimmering gowns and astonishing hats. Crawford was still considered box office poison when this picture was released; her next picture for Metro (“Above Suspicion” with Fred MacMurray) would be her last before she was released from her contract.
* The accents and languages deserve special mention. Since it’s a Hollywood picture and the action takes place in Paris, English stands in for French. Fine. But the accents are all over the international map. Odette Myrtil, who was born in Paris, speaks her lines with a Parisian accent; most of the other Frenchies are played by Americans and Brits, who speak with their normal accents. This makes the Dutch-born Philip Dorn something of an oddity: though he pronounces the name “Martin” in the French manner, he sounds neither French nor Dutch when he speaks English (i.e., the stand-in for French): he sounds like a damned Jerry. Then there’s John Wayne, a Yank in the RAF. Is the English he speaks to Crawford supposed to be French? It’s hard to believe, but that seems to be the case. And finally, we have the Krauts (most of whom are played by Germans, Austrians and Czechs), who speak to the French characters in English with heavy German accents, but among themselves, they snarl away in German — without benefit of subtitles.

The complications keep coming at you: car chases, executions, double-crosses. I won’t go into it all: it’s got to be seen to be believed, and possibly seen more than once to follow all the nuttiness. It’s one of the weirdest camp pictures I’ve ever seen — and highly enjoyable. I haven’t tried this yet, but I make no doubt it’s even better if you precede it with a meaningful cocktail hour, to loosen you up for the zaniness. I’m happy to report that, despite all the odds against him, John Wayne is really very good in a nutty, atypical part. He has so much presence and male authority that even Crawford seems to pay attention to him. It is a bit strange, however, to hear Big Duke Wayne comment intelligently on women’s fashions.

Joan Hears Die Meistersinger

In this clip, Michele has just returned to Paris, where she (and we) get the first intimations that her formerly patriotic fiancé has taken up with the Jerries.

First we see those Nazi hats . . . et alors, mon dieu, le Wagner maudit! Can the end of the world be far behind? Crawford is all a-tremble at the sound of Die Meistersinger, but now she must face a room full of Nazis, where she’ll deliver some of her own zingers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marc Connelly (and one of George S. Kaufman’s first collaborators) co-wrote the screenplay. The head screenwriter was Jan Lustig. I’d like to think they were kidding (after all “lustig” is German for “funny”), but it’s impossible to know.

Jerries, Meet the Jerries

That’s John Carradine as the cadaverous menace; he’s one of the few American actors who play a Kraut in the picture. Natalie (Lovey Howell from “Gilligan’s Island”) Schafer is another. Her performance is hilarious camp. I only wish she had more to do.

Kraut Swine Go Shopping

These next two clips are like “The Women” with a cast of Krauts. The ugliness, obesity and barbarousness of German womanhood provide much of the fodder for low comedy in this flick — just look at them: they’re all built like gasoline trucks and have the manners of lady wrestlers. Even their sesquipidelian surnames are the subject for ridicule. God, I love it! Check out the surprise cameo in this clip.

That’s la jeune Ava Gardner as Marie the salesgirl. My God, how gorgeous she is! Yet it was another four years before she was cast in a role that got her career going (“The Killers,” 1946, where she was on loan to Universal).

Joan Seeks Employment

I especially like the overhead shot from the balcony where we see the beefy Hausfrauen shoving and shouldering their way up to the merchandise counter; seen from above, they look like a drift of swine rooting for truffles. Throughout the picture, the Kraut women are presented as extravagantly bad-mannered.

I’m partial to Odette Myrtil, who was a fashion designer as well as an actress. I first saw her in “Dodsworth,” in which she gives a lovely, subtle performance in a small role — also as a couturier. She has more to do in this one; she’s charming and very poignant. And, of course, we learn that she’s also a member of the Underground, who sticks it to the Krauts every way she can, always with a sweet smile on her lips.

Mendelssohn ist Streng Verboten!

More amusing propaganda in this scene. The violinist is playing the famous melody from the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. The Nazis have forbidden the playing of Mendelssohn, but see how the foxy fiddle-player outwits the Krauts.

I cannot explain it, but it always makes me laugh when Joan Crawford talks about music. She’s got another great musical moment (with Hollywood’s feinste Nazi Teufel, Conrad Veidt) in “A Woman’s Face,” and “Humoresque” is full of howlers. But the combination of Crawford, French Resistance, Nazis and Hollywood is almost unbearably wonderful. That ubiquitous Nellie of Golden Era Hollywood, Henry Daniell — the queen I love to hate — is also on hand, but has, alas, not much to do.

Lancaster and Gardner in ‘The Killers’

Original Poster.

Re-release Poster.

The first thing to know about “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers” (Universal, 1946) is that it looks great. Ironically, director Robert Siodmak and his cinematographer, Woody Bredell, created one of the best looking film noirs by insisting that absolutely nothing should be shot for beauty or glamour. As much as possible, scenes were shot with natural light — eyes are often hidden in shadows because no fills were used to make the actors more photogenic. On her first day of shooting, Ava Gardner appeared on the set in full Metro-style glamorous makeup. Siodmak told her to go scrub it all off: “Please, you are going and washing off and bringing back face alone!” For years afterwards, Woody Bredell praised Ava Gardner as the first adult actress he’d ever photographed without makeup. “All we did was rub a little Vaseline into her skin for a sheen effect.” “The Killers” has the deepest blacks and intensest whites and as few halftones as possible — it’s as close to true black and white as Hollywood ever managed. From the first shot to the last, it’s a pleasure to look at. The opening titles are over a car racing down a suburban New Jersey road at night. At the end of the titles, the opening shots look like this:

Here comes trouble: William Conrad through one door, Charles McGraw through the other.

Here comes trouble: William Conrad through one door, Charles McGraw through the other.

The Icemen Cometh: McGraw and Conrad

The Icemen Come: McGraw and Conrad.

Hired guns Charles McGraw and William Conrad menace lunch counter man Harry Hayden.

Hired guns McGraw and Conrad menace counterman Harry Hayden.

Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” is scarcely a dozen pages long and consists almost entirely of dialogue. The first reel of the picture (i.e., the first twelve minutes) is a reasonably strict adaptation of the story, minus the racist epithets. Charles McGraw and William Conrad are such implacable, terrifying bad guys, they don’t need to sound like Klansman to add force to their brutality. They show up at a diner in a suburban New Jersey town (Brentwood in the picture; Summit in Hemingway’s story), throw their weight around, then announce they’ve come to kill a man known as the Swede; when the Swede doesn’t show up by 6:00, they go to his boarding house and gun him down in his bed. The Swede is warned before they arrive, but he has given up. When they come, there is no struggle — just explosive gunfire. (The passivity of Conrad’s and McGraw’s faces as they fire again and again is scary as hell.)

Conrad and McGraw finish their business.

Conrad and McGraw finish their business.

That’s it. It’s extremely taut and tense. At first, the set-up made me so jumpy, it took several viewings before I could enjoy the style of the cinematography and the efficiency of the story-telling, which I now admire tremendously. I also admire Harry Hayden’s completely realistic performance as the nervous counterman, George. Hayden had a long and mostly uncredited career; he rarely got the chance to do much, but every now and again, he landed a nice little part that let him show his skill. I think he’s perfect in “The Killers.” (He’s also very nice in a small part in “The Rains Came.”)

Mark Hellinger, who produced the picture, fancied himself Hemingway’s great pal. Pal or not, Hemingway demanded fifty thousand smackers for his twelve-page story and got thirty-eight, making it the highest price ever paid for movie rights to a short story. Hellinger promised Hemingway he’d tell the press he paid the original asking price. In the end, he advertised that he paid seventy-five Gs for the story. To write the screenplay, Hellinger first approached John Huston, but since Huston was still in uniform and had outstanding contractual commitments to Jack Warner, he recommended his writing partner, Anthony Veiller (son of Margaret Wycherley — who later played Cagney’s cagey old mother in “White Heat”). Veiller agreed and got full credit, but he split the pay fifty-fifty with Huston, who was heavily involved in the writing, which took two months. Most of it was written at Huston’s rooms at the Weylin Hotel on 54th and Madison and at Wycherley’s flat at 10 Perry Street in the West Village — and, since Huston was involved, at many saloons in between. Their approach centered on a single question: “What could bring a man so low that he would surrender himself to violent death?” What they ended up with is a lot of fun, but I think it’s going much too far to say that it’s a great script. Frankly, I don’t think their script does a great job of answering their own question.

John Miljan as Jake the Rake; Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins.

John Miljan as Jake the Rake; Ava Gardner as bad, dangerous Kitty Collins.

The structure of “The Killers” mimics the multiple narrator idea that Herman Mankiewicz used so effectively in “Citizen Kane,” but it’s not as cleverly constructed. In “The Killers,” the mystery to be solved is why anyone would want to kill the Swede (Burt Lancaster); we find out through a series of dovetailing flashbacks.

The Swede's funeral. I have a weakness for indoor rain scenes. Edmond O'Brien, Sam Levene and Virginia Christine are in the left foreground.

The Swede’s funeral. I have a weakness for indoor rain scenes. Sam Levene, Edmond O’Brien and Virginia Christine are in the left foreground.

Individually, each scene works well enough and there’s plenty of snappy patter; taken as a whole, however, the story feels attenuated, even somewhat preposterous. Moreover, unlike “Citizen Kane,” all of the various narrations are in complete agreement with the others. Everyone in the picture — the dim-witted chambermaid, the jilted girlfriend, the cop, the small-time crook, the gunsel, even the hophead on his deathbed — has a perfect recollection of events that took place six years earlier, before World War II interrupted their lives. They all remember accurately, and they all tell the truth. This is quite a problem in a picture that’s supposed to be about moral ambiguity. That’s why I think the best idea is to accept the picture as flashy, trashy entertainment and not as anything so earnest as social criticism. There’s plenty to like without taking it seriously.

Burt Lancaster in his debut role. This is our first good look at him. Is it any wonder he became a star?

The Swede, moments before his murder: Burt Lancaster in his debut role. This is our first good look at him. Is it any wonder he became a star?

This is the picture that introduced Burt Lancaster to movie audiences and finally gave Ava Gardner something to do with herself. That’s enough for me. The two stars got along well together. Ava genuinely liked him; years later, a French interviewer asked Lancaster how it felt to kiss Ava Gardner for the first time. Lancaster replied, “I got an erection!” His bulge was so noticeable, in fact, that the entire crew, including Ava, cracked up at the sight of it.

Here’s the scene where Burt Lancaster first meets Ava Gardner. (I apologize in advance for the commercial that precedes it.) Ava does her own singing. She’s way better than any of the voices Metro hired to dub her. Speaking of commercials, if you can tear your eyes away from Ava, the woman who arrives with Lancaster is Virginia Christine. She’s best known as Mrs Olson on the Folgers Coffee commercials, a gig that began in the mid-60s and lasted for 21 years. It only seemed longer. (Sorry:  this clip appears to be incompatible with the iPad.)

A few words about the music. It’s one of Miklós Rózsa better efforts. I can almost always identify a score by Rózsa: it’s the one that sounds like a bummer — especially the stuff he wrote for biblical epics. This one’s certainly not breezy, but for once it’s more dramatic than it is sullen. It also features a very famous musical phrase that Walter Schumann used for “Dragnet”: DUM duh-dum DUM! When that theme became a hit on the pop charts, Rózsa’s music publishers filed suit, claiming that Schumann had been at the session the day Rózsa recorded the theme. The case was settled out of court: both composers and their publishers shared the music royalties every time “Dragnet” aired.