Pre-Code Stanwyck: Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)

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Night Nurse is a Pre-Code black comedy that’s primarily of interest for its display of just how much Hollywood could get away with in the early 1930s. It follows Lora (Barbara Stanwyck) through her nurse’s training, as she faces poverty, medical horrors, an overbearing matron, and one-track mind student doctors, all with the help of roommate Maloney (Joan Blondell). After graduating, her troubles grow exponentially as she comes to suspect that the children in her care are being slowly starved by their wealthy mother’s chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable).

This film is better enjoyed for its standout moments than as a whole. Part of this is because it has two fairly disjointed sections, the first of which resembles a series of sketches. Another part is that the dialogue is repetitive and often uninspired, and the directing unremarkable (perhaps the sometimes-brilliant Wellman felt uninspired too). The plot gains traction in the second section, but the film has the unmistakeable aimlessness of many early Talkies.

Night Nurse can be truly appreciated, however, for just how far it takes its lack of censorship. Much of it would be impossible to show within just a few years, from its occasional attempts at cynical realism to its frequent sexual humour. Ribald lines abound, and Lora and Maloney seem to be perpetually stripping down to their underwear. In one scene, Lora is almost raped and then slugged unconscious by her seeming rescuer. Bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon) is something of a hero, and by the film’s end he’s getting away with murder for the greater good.

The film also has a reasonably nuanced take on women – more so than many later Hollywood films, at least. Lora uses her looks for her own benefit, but only on a doctor, as Maloney has warned her that this behaviour is wasted on the students, who have no money for the time being and won’t marry nurses in the end. Lora’s no hard-hearted Lily from Baby Face, however; she does want to help people, and truly cares about her job, even though she’s seen the worst of what happens behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the children’s mother is a useless lush who can’t do much more than shriek “I’m a dipsomaniac!” when criticised. Post-Code, motherhood was more likely to be venerated and sexual opportunism punished.

Stanwyck doesn’t peform with much subtlety here, but she does manage to show her burgeoning ability to be both sympathetic and tough. She also has what is arguably one of her best all-time scenes, in which she tries to persuade the children’s mother that one of the girls is on the brink of death. When the mother’s boyfriend (also Lora’s attempted rapist) gets handsy again, Lora responds by punching him to the floor and scaring him enough that he crawls behind the bar. The mother won’t wake up even after Lora drags her across the carpet and drenches her with water. Lora growls, “You mother,” and goes off to save the kid herself.

Gable was not yet an established actor and feels a little odd in the role of a heavy. He’s menacing enough though. His introduction is one of the film’s most unintentionally funny scenes, with the camera dollying in on his face as he barks, “I’m Nick – the chauffeur!” The camera then dollys in on Lora, who knows him by reputation, as she gasps, “Nick – the chauffeur?!”

Night Nurse is not the most enjoyable or well-made of Pre-Code films. Beyond being of historical interest, it does have its moments. Nonetheless, anyone who only wants to watch one early Stanwyck film, or even one Pre-Code, would be better served by watching the even blacker, franker Baby Face.

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Nights at the circus: Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

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It can sometimes get difficult to pin down whether or not a movie is a film noir. Nightmare Alley has the right kind of feel – it occurs primarily at night, has a (mostly) cynical attitude, and involves a protagonist who makes one dreadful mistake. His sense of identity and mental stability are also shaky at best. However, the film’s characters and settings are, mostly, quite atypical. Our lead is Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a circus tagalong who hits paydirt when he uncovers the secret code that medium Zeena (Joan Blondell) uses to fake her clairvoyancy. Stan gets help from sideshow girl Molly (Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and beautiful assistant, and psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker), who feeds him information about her wealthy clients, but both of them betray them in their own ways.

The real mindfuckery Stan experiences doesn’t happen until the third act, and prior to this, Nightmare Alley seems less like a noir than a character study. We know Power can play oversized characters, but this is a juicier role for him. He gives us hints that Stan’s charming exterior, used to great effect during his performances, hides his inner fragility. We can see the cracks before he shatters. Close to the end, Power goes from horror to despair to acceptance in just a few seconds. It’s a great moment.

Power is backed by three highly capable women in this film. As the fraud who believes in her tarot cards, Blondell was well into her progression from comedian to character actor. As the “good kid”, Gray was seeing her career on the rise; she featured in this film and Kiss of Death in 1947 and Red River in 1948. As the closest woman to being a femme fatale here, Walker was trying to recover from a driving accident that saw her condemned by the public. She performs with such a sense of control and self-possession that it’s a great pity her career would soon be over.

Does Nightmare Alley qualify as a noir? The fact that it steers clear of familiar trappings and character types, and involves little direct violence, undercuts an affirmative answer. The tacked-on upbeat ending also disturbs the tone, but this wasn’t unusual for the time. It’s better, perhaps, to say that Nightmare Alley is a distinctive film – and that this makes it an easy one to recommend.

Overvaluing ambiguity: The Escape Artist (Brian Welsh, 2013)

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In The Escape Artist, a three part TV miniseries, David Tennant plays Will Burton, a barrister who has never lost a case. Burton can defend anyone, no matter their crime, but a single lapse in politeness towards his latest client, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), leads to tragedy. Soon Burton’s fiercest rival, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) is defending Foyle for the murder of one of Burton’s family.

TEA appears to be a quality production. It has a slick and polished (albeit subdued) look. The pace is fairly slow, but maintains a sense of tension that makes the serieseasy to watch. This means that the story’s problems only become noticeable afterwards, upon reflection.

The series squanders almost every opportunity available to it, largely because, aside from Foyle, the characters’ motivations aren’t well established. Does Burton work for criminals because he truly believes they all deserve a good defence, or does the challenge just serve his own ego? Does Maggie hate Will, or just want to better him? The answers to these important questions remain unclear. The story’s moral aspect stays muddled, just as potential plot points, such as the differences between English and Scottish law, go unexplored.

Ultimately, TEA is trying to achieve ambiguity. Maybe Foyle, though disturbed, is not a murderer. Maybe Will’s accusations and further responses are unjustified. The series leaves the viewer with something to ponder after the conclusion. Combined with plot holes and dead ends, however, the overall effect looks like nothing other than bad writing.

Tennant, as could be expected, delivers a strong performance. Kebbell lifts his role higher than the standard TV psycho, but this is solely because of his acting – the character just isn’t interesting. Meanwhile, the series wastes Okonedo’s talents, as well as Ashley Jensen in the role of Will’s wife. None of the supporting cast and characters leave a lasting impression, rather like The Escape Artist itself.

Coogan’s revenge: The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom, 2014)

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Five minutes into this followup to 2010’s The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are discussing the merits of sequels. This conversation turns out to be not just a typical Winterbottom post-modernism,  but also a shifting of blame. Of course you’re not going to like this as much as the original. What did you really expect? The Godfather Part II?

This miniseries-turned-film follows the same formula as the first: Coogan and Brydon (playing versions of themselves) drive through some beautiful scenery and periodically eat beautiful food. They jab at each other’s weak spots, engage in ever deteriorating and escalating bouts of impersonations, and occasionally overcome (or compensate for) their petty natures by connecting with art and history.

If there’s a significant change from the first film, it’s that Coogan doesn’t come across as so sad and lonely here. The Trip ended with him alone in his London apartment while Brydon, seemingly the less successful man, returned home to his wife and child. This one ends with Coogan spending time with his son and planning their future, while Brydon ponders whether or not to continue the adulterous relationship he’s started. Brydon is now the one who’s aiming for a part in an American film, but he also seems far more mean-spirited and insecure.

For the most part, The Trip to Italy is bland and unexceptional. The recurring Alanais Morrisette songs during driving scenes don’t lead to any good jokes, which is a big problem if you’re not a fan of her music. There’s no sense of increasing tension between Coogan and Brydon, and the abrupt ending is emblematic of the film’s lack of direction.

Great comedic bits are few and far between, though they are notable. The impressions are nowhere near as funny this time around, but a slip up during Coogan and Brydon’s inevitable approximations of Michael Caine does lead to laughs (perhaps because it feels accidental). Another moment fits into the character developments of the film: while regarding an encased Pompeii victim, Brydon self-aggrandisingly launches into his small man in a box routine, and Coogan walks away in disgust. Our exasperation at Brydon pays off; Coogan’s expression when he returns and realises that Brydon is still going, without an audience, is priceless.

Any potential for a sequel to The Trip lay in making use of the real life changes in Coogan and Brydon’s careers. Coogan had two successes in 2013, making a return as Alan Partridge (a role he seemed tired of in The Trip) and also producing, writing, and starring in the Oscar-nominated Philomena. Incorporating this into the film could have expanded the ruminations on self-worth and true achievement seen in The Trip. The Trip to Italy does tip our opinions of Brydon on their head, but doesn’t work hard enough at making this much more than an uncomfortable surprise.

The original Trip miniseries was superior to the film, and yet the film still felt stuffed with excellent jokes. That’s not the case here. Anyone new to the sequel would have to be better off trying the miniseries version, because the film is scarcely worth the time.