J-Horror cash-in: One Missed Call (Takashi Miike, 2003)

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I’ve done my best to question the first reaction I had to One Missed Call: that it’s not much more than a dull cash-in on the J-horror craze of the early 2000s. This questioning is based less on the film, and more on the fact that I want to give the genre itself the benefit of the doubt. The high-profile American remakes made repetition feel inevitable, and viewing black-haired, white-robed female ghosts as stale simply misses the cultural context of these type of spirits. Besides, enjoying a genre comes from appreciating how well a film uses its familiar elements and in recognising how it does something new. Post-Ringu, there’s still a lot to be done with technologically aided curses. But does this film manage it?

The plot of One Missed Call won’t surprise anyone who’s seen any J-horror at all: a curse spreads amongst a group of young people through their mobile phones. Each victim receives a phone call from themselves that gives a premonition of their final words and violent deaths. One woman, Yumi (Ko Shibasaki), tries to understand the curse and its origins.

The first hour or so of the film is hard to get through, not just because so much of it is familiar, but because Miike seems to be going through the motions. There’s no energy or sense of inspiration, and the grey colour palette adds to this. The deaths rely on questionable CGI and aren’t remotely scary. There’s also nothing interesting about the acting or the dialogue, and scenes drag on and on. Watching this emphasises just how well Ringu and Ju-On made a virtue of the mundane. Those films also managed to maintain tension in the lead up to their various death scenes, which were just as inevitable as the ones here.

As a viewer way ahead of the characters in understanding how the curse works, it’s impossible not to nitpick. One victim has an outright lame reason for speaking his final words, which is hard to believe, given that he had listened to his message multiple times and feared the curse. The cutesey, melodic ringtone that the curse uses is nowhere near as threatening as a traditional, piercing “ring, ring”. And why does the curse use one victim’s severed hand to dial the next victim, but later seems to use some sort of barely visible, ghostly force to accomplish the same task?

The film improves once it reaches a sequence in which a death is exploited and captured live on TV. Whilst the death is broadcast directly onto screens above Tokyo’s crowded streets, no one outside the studio pays much notice. The victim, realising no one can save her, says, “I’m all alone,” which is almost more horrible than what the vengeful spirit does to her.

One Missed Call’s derivative nature becomes more egregious, however, as its focus shifts towards motherhood, or, more specifically, to bad mothers. Abuse leads to more abuse, and breaking the cycle comes at a price. One Missed Call cannot, however, come close to depicting these ideas as powerfully as Dark Water. That film had an emotional impact that overrode its flaws, and it’s a little nauseating to see One Missed Call try something so similar.

One Missed Call has another decent sequence, set in a hospital, once it stops focusing so much on the curse’s mechanics. The lighting is markedly improved, the curse takes different forms, and the plot is no longer so predictable. The real question is whether or not the ending is going to be so bleak as the ones in other films of this genre.

The film concludes with some puzzling events that are unclear about which characters are dead, alive, possessed or at peace. It demands that the viewer think back through what they’re already seen. However, there’s not enough clues to come up with an answer that’s mentally or emotionally satisfying. This ambiguity may be a Miike flourish – but it’s meaningless if it doesn’t conclude a strong film. Thinking about One Missed Call leaves me feeling that it was not made with ambition or respect for the audience. It’s not entirely dull or without merit, but it is certainly a cash-in.

Rampaging through Tokyo: You’re Under Arrest! The Movie (Junji Nishimura, 1999)

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This film comes between the first and second seasons of the police-centred anime, and I struggle to think that even a committed fan would enjoy it. Even if they’re familiar with the characters, the film has, by its end, devolved into something so dull and so silly that it’s near impossible to like.

Officers Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa, traffic cops in Tokyo’s Bokuto precinct, are our protagonists. A routine inspection of an abandoned car leads to far larger consequences for them and for the city. The film starts reasonably well, looking like a standard police procedural that happens to be animated. I’m a sucker for anime depictions of mundane Japanese locations, and so was perfectly happy to enjoy the film for its aesthetics.

A TV series that gets turned into a film, however, needs to have high stakes. It may be for this reason that You’re Under Arrest! steadily gets more and more ridiculous. The Bokuto Station’s chief is arrested for having a connection to the man who seemingly devised plans for a terrorist attack on Tokyo. Some terrorists attack the station to get the plans, and before you know it, their violent threats have brought Tokyo to a standstill.

Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa are weirdly attached to their patrol car and even take it along on a boat when they pursue the bad guys through Tokyo’s waterways. Things get more confusing here as they try to trap the terrorists between themselves and a larger ship, which involves raising a bridge that has been stationary for decades. There’s no tension in these sequences, partly because the film doesn’t make the progression of events clear enough, partly because the budget limitations on the animation become starkly obvious, and partly because Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa seem able to handle things on their own anyway. One of them even rips a tyre free from its securing ropes and hurls it at the baddies to slow them down.

Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa are competent, non-sexualised characters. The film’s treatment of the other policewomen is questionable, however. Are they portrayed as weak, or are they simply in over their heads and trying their best? Points must certainly be taken away for the scene in which all of the women in Bokuto Station prepare for a gunfight by ripping their skirts for better ease of movement, with their boss goggling at how far up the rips go.

The film is less than 90 minutes long, but the quality drops so much during the second half that it feels interminable. There’s too many broken laws of physics, too many unearned feel-good character moments, and too many static shots of Tokyo streets. (Yes, even I got sick of them after a while.) This is certainly the last time I go near the franchise.

Screwball schemes and frilly dresses: The Flame of New Orleans (Rene Clair, 1941)

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Universal’s Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection box set is good value, including as it does not one but three, count ‘em, three Josef von Sternberg films. This leaves The Flame of New Orleans and Golden Earrings as filler, but as far as filler goes, Flame in particular is a nicely silly film that’s a pleasure to watch. It literally invites you in. A narrator tells us that in New Orleans, in 1841, a wedding dress was found in the river. Promising that we’ll learn how this came about, the narrator leaves us, the camera temporarily acting as our point of view as it moves into an opera house, servants beckoning us forward, until we encounter Lili (Dietrich). Disguised as Countess Claire Ledoux, she’s engaged in a scheme to ensnare the wealthy Charles Giraud (Roland Young). However, her affections for ship captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) keep things from running smoothly, and quicker than you can say “Positively the same dame,” Lili’s disguising herself as her own cousin to cover up her mistakes.

It’s not difficult to guess how this story’s going to end, but because the film embraces its silliness, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen scene by scene. We get a fake-stickup foiled by a runaway monkey, a highwire act that leads to a duel, a quick costume change, a spot of trellis-climbing gone awry… Even Dietrich’s obligatory musical number turns into a neat little set piece; she performs it with a panicked expression as rumours about Lili’s conduct in Russia and Europe spread around the room. Through it all, the film is often genuinely funny, no more so when Dietrich reacts to a high society lady trying to explain the ordeals that Lili will face on her wedding night.

Also of note is Theresa Harris as Clementine. Harris spent most of her career, by virtue of being black, getting uncredited roles as maids. Clementine, however, is more than a servant; as well as getting some good comedic scenes, she shows herself to be as intelligent as Lili, working with her as a team. At one point, Clementine even obstructs Lili’s unwillingness to go through with their plans. Lili messes things up more for Clementine than for herself by the end, but the film gives Clementine a romance with local carriage driver Samuel (Clarence Muse) as compensation.

The Flame of New Orleans is no classic, but watched decades after it was made, it has acquired a campy charm. It’s a visual treat, with large sets, and even larger hats for Dietrich. The star plays both her roles with good humour. Perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is that Young and Cabot, though fine, don’t make enough of their parts. They’re not quite distinctive enough, which leaves Harris (like Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express) as the actor who has the most interesting interactions with Dietrich but relatively little screentime. A film that focused more on the two of them would be a better one – but as a bit of 40s fun, Flame is fun enough.

Woman with a gun: Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1989)

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Though Blue Steel‘s coolly elegant style and thematic focus on androgyny and obsession place it firmly within Kathryn Bigelow’s oeuvre, it’s such a weak film that I would swear it only got made in the aftermath of The Silence of the Lambs – if it hadn’t been released two years earlier. Though it’s also about an inexperienced female law enforcement officer (in this case, a member of the NYPD) and her relationship with a psychopath, it’s in no way comparable in quality. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Megan Turner, a cop whose first night on patrol goes terribly wrong. After interrupting an armed robbery, without backup, she shoots the perpetrator in self-defense, only for Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) to steal the dead man’s weapon from the crime scene. He’s developed an obsession with guns, and with Megan, that sends him on a killing spree.

Megan starts the movie looking incompetent (why not wait for backup or immediately retrieve the weapon?), but her oversights are partly attributable to the patchiness of Bigelow and Eric Red’s script. The plot is so disconnected that it manages to become abstract, scenes and images strung together without making any logical sense. Few of the character motivations in this movie make sense either – if Megan behaved in an intelligent fashion, she would be an oddity.

The film plays around with ideas of gender in ways that are, again, not coherent, but are interesting. An early shot establishes that Megan wears a white, lacy bra beneath her uniform, but it’s the outer layer that counts. On her first walk home from graduation, a couple of women react to her as though she’s an attractive man, and she jokingly responds as though she is. There’s a tension between her off-duty attire and the uniform (and how people treat her depending on what she’s wearing) throughout the film. By the final scenes, she’s even dressed in a (stolen) male police officer’s uniform. Part of the reason Hunt is drawn to her is the power her gun signifies, but if she weren’t a woman, he would not have fixated on her. Other men, whether her father or potential dates, feel threatened by or resentful about her job. At least fellow officer Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) likes Megan on-duty and off, but he will pay a high price for Megan’s heroics. Worse, Megan can’t help her mother (Louise Fletcher) or her best friend (Elizabeth Peña); Mann is her only partial consolation. (Could the naming choices in this film be any more obvious?)

Blue Steel’s cast do their best with the material. Jamie Lee Curtis, one of Hollywood’s most simultaneously masculine and feminine actors, is the perfect choice for Megan. Ron Silver chews the scenery as Hunt, while Kevin Dunn shows why he’s still getting cast as the senior cop who yells at his subordinates, 25 years later. Brown is awesome as always. Fletcher and Peña’s roles are disappointingly undeveloped. Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore gets low billing as the would be-thief, but would earn a larger role in Point Break. (And is there another connection in James Cameron’s casting of Curtis in True Lies?)

With a stronger plot, Blue Steel could have better explored its themes. However, by its end, it doesn’t want to be anything more than an action flick. The final shootout looks good (Megan reloading her gun one-handed is a striking moment), but the film misses a chance to get some characterisation in amongst the slo-mo. Hunt’s ruminations on death and killing are the most notable features of his mania, but the final scenes neither prove nor refute his beliefs. He and Megan just shoot at each other. The film is not only a fairly negative take on a woman who tries to function in a man’s world, but it’s not a good film, either.

A lesser Lang, a better Baxter: The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953)

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The Blue Gardenia lacks the extra creative push that could have made it an impactful film, and it falls short of its own clear potential. It stars Anne Baxter as Norah, a telephone operator who makes the mistake of going out with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) on an impulse. Hurt after being dumped by her boyfriend, having eagerly awaited his return from Korea, Norah doesn’t recognise the signs that Prebble has predatory intentions. Following a drunken struggle with him back in his apartment, she wakes with no recollection of what happened. Prebble is dead, and while the police are hunting for Norah, newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) offers to help the mysterious murderess he’s dubbed the Blue Gardenia.

Anne Baxter may be remembered for her knack for playing “bad girls,” Eve of All About Eve among them, but she gets to show another side of her talents here. Norah starts out as an upbeat, easy-going character, and Baxter plays her as downright cute when she’s drunk. When her life turns upside-down, Norah is just as sympathetic as Edward G. Robinson’s fellow hapless, unlikely criminal in Fritz Lang’s more famous The Woman in the Window. Her dilemmas are more complex, too. Norah has to listen to her roommates Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell) paint the Blue Gardenia as someone who deserved what she got. No one seems to care about her plight besides Mayo – and in his own way, he’s as duplicitous as Prebble.

The Blue Gardenia is laced with social commentary. Lang, one of the many German directors who immigrated to the US to escape the rise of Nazism, seems to take glee in portraying 1950s America as being full of untrustworthy people who find pleasure in others’ suffering. He cites the McCarthy hearings as having influenced his feelings at the time. In some ways, the film pulls no punches. In other ways, however, it doesn’t seem interested in giving its treatment of the newspaper business more than a few token jabs.

The film works best in its examination of Norah as a woman who’s misused by every man she comes into contact with. Prebble’s attempt to rape her is surprisingly frank for a film of this era. Her drunkenness and ignorance of his intentions are shown as being part of his gameplan, even as they are later used by others to lay the responsibility for Prebble’s actions entirely on Norah’s shoulders. The scene in which Prebble attacks her is set to Nat “King” Cole’s “The Blue Gardenia,” and the contrast between the smooth music and the unfolding violence is so effective that it’s no wonder that Zach Snyder would think to use one of Cole’s songs for a brutal fight scene in Watchmen about 60 years later. (Cole himself makes a charming appearance earlier in the film.) Unwanted pregnancy must have been too sharp an issue for the film to deal with at length, but it also plays a part in the story.

Some people do not see The Blue Gardenia as a film noir. I’d say there are three reasons for this: firstly, that the film focuses a good deal on Norah and her roommates (none of them a noir stereotype), sometimes taking a lighter tone; secondly, the well-debated matter of whether or not directors of the 40s and 50s were consciously making “film noirs” rather than crime films or melodramas; and thirdly, that only rarely does this film truly look like a noir. The blame for this must lie with Lang. Some of his other American films prove that he was capable of bringing atmosphere, texture, and a marked visual style to simple stories. However, the lighting in The Blue Gardenia is flat for the most part, with only one scene standing out as having Lang’s touch. When Norah goes to meet Mayo for the first time, his office is lit by a flashing neon sign, and she moves uncertainly through the temporary shadows it casts. However, the scene pales in comparison to, say, the similarly-lit final hotel room scene in Lang’s Scarlet Street.

The mystery’s missing pieces are not difficult to guess. The predictability need not be a problem, however. The real problem is that the story does not have a sense of urgency. It often seems to be moving at a crawl, and there’s no atmosphere to cloud the fact. It’s hard not to wish that the social commentary was given more detail, and that Baxter’s strong central performance could have been harnessed by a better paced plot.

The Blue Gardenia clearly has talent behind it. Lang did direct some viciously wonderful films in Hollywood. In addition to Baxter, Conte (adept at being likeable in an unlikely way) sells his character, and Sothern and Donnell are full of personality and verve. As if that wasn’t enough, the story was written by Vera Caspary, whose novel Laura was adapted into one of the most beloved film noirs of all time. However, the end product is lacking the time and attention that could have improved it. It’s the film’s potential that makes it so disappointing.

Carter fantastic: The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

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The writing of Angela Carter adapted into a film – does life get any better than this? Let’s hope so, because it’s only happened twice, but that just makes The Company of Wolves something to treasure all the more. It’s taken from several stories in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a volume devoted to deconstructing fairy tales. Carter’s view of Little Red Riding Hood is that it’s a story that aims, through equating men with wolves, at making girls afraid of their burgeoning sexuality, and this forms the basis of the film.

Neil Jordan collaborated with Carter on the script, and the director seems to have been well-suited to working with this feminist author. Many of his films –Interview with a Vampire, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Byzantium, The Brave One, Breakfast on Pluto, etc– feel more darkly feminine than masculine. He might joke that the target audience for The Company of Wolves is preteen girls and dogs, but his ideas for broadening the film’s scope only enhanced Carter’s material, and he shows a great sensibility for it.

Ostensibly, The Company of Wolves is a dream in the mind of young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). It contains stories within stories, with various tellers. The modern day mixes with what is seemingly an eighteenth century English village. Some moments operate on dream logic, more about feeling than meaning. These meld admirably well with the story’s more straightforward aspects.

The film’s visual richness belies its identity as an independent British film. The wolves, most of which are in fact malamutes, are often lit so that their eyes reflect in a predatory fashion. Images such as life size toys and stork eggs containing baby dolls harken back to the story’s source within Rosaleen’s mind. Meanwhile, the main set, the village and surrounding forest, is impressively large. It’s a detailed environment, populated by animals (not always British), that changes with the seasons. Like the period costumes and the romantic yet folksy score, it approaches realism while maintaining an unreal aspect.

The story is dependent upon special effects, some of which have dated more than others over the past thirty years. The animatronics are strongly unconvincing at times, but the concepts behind them, such as the famous werewolf transformation in which the wolf’s muzzle bursts through the man’s screaming mouth, are often inventive. The film is better in moments where it is more judicious about what to show, as when a group of humans transform bit by bit, with the camera frequently focusing instead on distortions in a mirror.

Jordan mixes well-established actors with some who are inexperienced. Patterson is one of the latter, as is Micha Bergese, a dancer, who plays the Huntsman. Patterson’s innocence and Bergese’s physicality seem to come naturally, and are ideal for their roles. The far more famous Angela Lansbury is perfect as Rosaleen’s grandmother; this is certainly no Disney film. David Warner is, as ever, quite good as Rosaleen’s father, though once you know that he had recently broken both his legs and sat down at every opportunity, you won’t be able not to notice. And most surprisingly, a post-Zod Terence Stamp appears in an uncredited cameo as The Devil himself.

After weaving through various stories, The Company of Wolves culminates in Rosaleen becoming a Little Red Riding Hood figure. The interactions between her and the Huntsman tease at what we expect from the story, while being quite different. Rosaleen should by now be prepared to meet her grandmother’s expectations and defend herself from the Huntsman, but perhaps she has not learned the lesson she was supposed to. Perhaps she is willing to change, and to be consumed.

The Company of Wolves is open to interpretation. Jordan himself doesn’t think the ending fits the rest of the film. Meaning is there if you want to find it, however, both in the individual stories, and the way they combine and conflict in Rosaleen’s psyche. The way the film is unclear about its intent, yet full of purpose, is a mark both of Carter’s intelligence and Jordan’s affinity for her work.

Stagey and striking: The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936)

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Between the wordy dialogue, which often involves characters detailing their entire autobiographies, and the studio set, its walls wrapped around with a painted facsimile of Arizona desert and sky, The Petrified Forest is clearly adapted from a play. I would say, however, that this is not an overwhelming drawback. The Petrified Forest succeeds because it maintains its tension throughout and proceeds at an energetic pace, helped by snappy editing. It’s also remarkable for its uniformly strong performances, including those from Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and, most of all, Humphrey Bogart, whose career was launched with his portrayal of desperate gangster Duke Mantee.

Mantee is on the run, and seeks refuge in the remote Black Mesa gas station. Among his hostages are Gabby (Davis) and Alan Squier (Howard). Waitress Gabby is as ambitious as Squier is aimless. He’s British, and an intellectual, and though he’s seen parts of the world Gabby longs to visit, he doesn’t know where to settle himself. Gabby is a painter and, seeing that Squier is more cultured than the average visitor to the station (owned by her father), quickly falls for him.

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Mantee does not appear onscreen for more than half an hour, but the characters follow his flight from the law on the radio. When he does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. Through Bogart’s glowering, shown as much with his body as with his face, he is constantly a threatening presence. Mantee is no thug, however; his mind is clearly ticking over at full speed. And when Bogart needs to show hurt, he can really show hurt. The actor was in debt, suffering personal hardships, and his career seemed to be going nowhere; he needed success, and this role got him noticed by critics and by audiences, for all the right reasons.

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Howard makes Squier the quintessential old world intellectual, a man whose time has passed. He has a ghostly pallor from the beginning of the film, and at times an unearthly, insightful glint comes into his eye. He’s more set upon grander goals than matters of life and death, and finds them, uncalled for, in this hostage situation.

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Mantee and Squire are vividly contrasting figures. However, there’s an unlikely connection between them. No wonder that Howard fought hard for Bogart to join him in reprising their roles from Broadway; the two are a large part of why The Petrified Forest is such a striking film.

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Davis makes a strong contribution through her performance, too. At the time, she was as ambitious as Gabby, bent on achieving on higher quality roles than those her studio had been giving her. (A rare such role was in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, which also starred Howard.) Here, she is lively without being restless, forceful without being exaggerated. Gabby does not seem much like a Davis-type role, and so could probably have been well-played by any number of other actors, but that only makes Davis more interesting here.

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This film shows America at an uncertain point in its history. The remnants of the Wild West still remain: old man Gramp Maple (Charlie Grapewin) often reminisces about nearly being shot by Billy the Kid, and there’s a photo of someone who looks very much like Wild Bill Hickock on the wall. The expansion is over, however, and where to from here? And what needs to be left behind? These questions are examined through the characters’ interactions, which makes the film work on a thematic level, while it maintains enough pacing and tension to keep from feeling stuffy. It helps that in its criticism of America’s treatment of women and black people, the film is well ahead of its time.

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The Petrified Forest would make for a great double (or triple) feature with a couple of other Bogart films. In The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955), he once again played a criminal on the run, with a group of hostages to keep the police at bay – only this time, the setting is American suburbia, bringing the social criticism even closer to home. In Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), it was Bogart’s turn to be the hostage, and the gangster was played by the man who came close to portraying Mantee on film: Edward G. Robinson. Just as a dust storm heightens the tension in The Petrified Forest, the characters in Key Largo are trapped by a hurricane. The similarities and differences between these films, and Bogart’s performances, are fascinating. All three are also well worth watching for their own merits. The Petrified Forest, though, must receive special note for the way it defined Bogart’s career, and the films that followed it.

A delightful romance: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)

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I knew just enough about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to not expect a good deal from it. However, I was curious to see Joseph L. Mankiewicz working again with Dragonwyck star Gene Tierney. Having low expectations left me open to the surprise of finding that this familiar story is far from trite, and sparkles with charm, intelligence and humour. In some ways, it reflects interestingly back on Dragonwyck. Most importantly, it creates a world that’s a pleasure to spend time in.

You probably know this story too, if not from the film, then from the 1960s sitcom of the same name. Widow Lucy Muir (Tierney) moves into a house by the sea, hoping to start a new life, only to find that the house is still occupied by the ghost of the former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). What develops is a love story with a lot of respect for plot pacing and character nuances.

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Lucy is a complicated woman. She thought she loved her husband, but found she was mistaken, after their wedding. She’s now more interested in escaping her mother and sister-in-law than mourning him. She has a prim manner and yet also has a rebellious streak. Tierney seems well suited to the warmth and good humour of the character.

Gregg may seem like a caricature, being salty as he is. Harrison has enough charisma, however, that this becomes unimportant. His funniest moment may be when Lucy (who he insists on calling “Lucia”) starts crying and he barks at her, “Belay that!” The character is a fine foil for Lucy, as he has no regards for the respectable standards that she also (inwardly) balks at. She finds his outrageousness delightful, even if she wouldn’t always admit it.

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has some visual similarities to Dragonwyck. They don’t share the same cinematographer; Charles Lang worked on the former, and Arthur C. Miller worked on the latter. While both had highly distinguished careers, I have to wonder if Mankiewicz had a strong influence on the look of both films. He’s generally more respected as a writer than as a director, but perhaps his visual style is underestimated by people who don’t look much further than films such as All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa.

I praised Dragonwyck’s gothic atmosphere, and something similar can be seen again in a couple of scenes here. What I didn’t mention, however, is that Mankiewicz’s earlier film also sometimes had scenes in pleasant, open rooms; Gull Cottage looks much the same. The changing backdrops beyond the window in Lucy’s bedroom further open up the set.

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Dragonwyck’s outdoor scenes were also quite striking, and here, the coastline beyond Lucy’s house is always a treat. The sheep-dotted hillsides are another resemblance to that earlier film.

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On the whole, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir feels open and airy, and full of story possibilities. It’s no surprise, really that this story was adapted for TV. It seems at various points as though it could have gone in a number of directions. The addition of George “Memoirs of a Cad” Sanders as a potential suitor for Lucy is only one of them, though Sanders is not unwelcome. Neither is the quick passage of many years towards the end of the story, which is unexpected, but thoughtful and well-paced. If you’ve never seen this film and thought there probably isn’t much to it, take a look anyway; Mankiewicz, Tierney and Harrison may surprise and delight you.

Noir on a dark night: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

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Sorry, Wrong Number’s plot is based in 1940s technology that well and truly dates it, but the film has lost none of its suspense over the years. The technology in question is the telephone, the clunky kind, with operators and switchboards keeping the connections going behind the scenes. Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bed-ridden heir to a toiletry products empire, overhears a disturbing conversation when she tries to make a call. It seems to be about a plan to kill a woman at 11:15 that night. Alone in her house, she calls everyone she can think of to try to prevent the murder, but encounters disinterest from the authorities and a bafflingly complex mystery involving the people in her own life. The danger may be closer to home than she first thought.

Leona is not a likeable character. The more we learn about her marriage and her illness, the more selfish and pathetic she becomes. It would be a mistake not to see that this is how Stanwyck plays the part. Aside from Leona’s old college friend, Sally (Ann Richards), everyone else in the film is only barely more pleasant, from Leona’s husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), to her magnate father, J.B. (Ed Begley). None of them seem especially malicious, per se, but Sorry, Wrong Number is a true film noir in which anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, can be corrupted or simply make terrible mistakes.

The film is not just bleak, but at times achieves a downright eerie quality. Much of the story is told in flashbacks from multiple perspectives, strongly influenced by the teller’s bias or lack of knowledge. When Sally describes following Henry out to Staten Island, the things she witnesses are mystifyingly strange. The music and day-for-night filming make the mystery unnerving. And one of the last phone calls Leona takes is thoroughly cryptic, even as it tells us the facts we have been waiting to hear. The painting shown in this caller’s hotel room would be haunting even if Leona’s next call didn’t reveal how it reflects upon what that caller intends to do next.

Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a radio play, and clearly would work in audio form. However, Anatole Litvek gives the film some nice visual touches, such as Sally at a train station, trying to stay on the phone but out of her husband’s sight, or the scenes on Staten Island. He uses several long shots that tell a story in themselves, whether by moving slowly around a room to show the occupant’s belongings, or moving from a clock over to Leona in bed, then out her window and down a level to show a figure outside her house.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based upon a premise that is irresistible despite being dated, and involves a mystery that manages to be truly mysterious. We can easily guess that Leona may be the woman intended to die at 11:15, but the why of it is a complex question. The film has strong performances, particularly from Stanwyck and Lancaster. In fine noir style, it depicts a dark world in which everyone is connected and yet help still could not be further away.

The air heavy with greed: The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941)

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The Little Foxes is the third of three films that William Wyler made with Bette Davis, and that represent some of her best acting. It followed 1938’s Jezebel, a sweeping southern drama, and 1940’s The Letter, a Singapore-set film noir. Though The Little Foxes has some strong merits, it never escapes its origins as an adaptation from the stage play by Lillian Hellman. Wyler opens up the story as best he can, but its dense dialogue keeps it from feeling cinematic. Furthermore, an oppressive atmosphere is inherent to this story, which gives the film some stuffiness that is entirely appropriate, but may deter the viewer.

Set in 1900, The Little Foxes is about a family in America’s Deep South, some of whom are hungry for money at any cost. The most ambitious of them all is Regina Giddens, played by Davis. Though Tallulah Bankhead had great success as Regina on Broadway, Davis scored the role when it was put to film, which certainly didn’t help the relationship between the two women. More importantly, there’s a significant difference between the conceptions each actor had of the character: Bankhead played Regina as a woman trying to survive in a man’s world, but Davis was convinced that Regina is simply evil.

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While Regina uses every talent she has to gain control over her family, Davis herself controls every frame she’s in. Clothed in some of her most flattering costumes, she projects such reptilian malevolence that she becomes as beguiling as a cobra. She’s also not afraid to show ugliness, which benefited this and many of her other roles.

Most interestingly, Davis is always using her wardrobe to express Regina’s character. In one scene, she’s tossing back her gown’s improbably long sleeves; in another, she’s lifting the hem of her gown, with a clenched fist, so she can climb a flight of stairs; in another, just before she commits her most abhorrent act, she lifts back her veil and takes down her hat, which is topped by a dead bird. Regina wants to own things, and this desire restricts her. Her interactions with the things she wears show her anxiety, emphasise her ability to be alluring, and indicate when we are seeing her true face.

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Three of the men in the Hubbard family are just as rotten as Regina. Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) is the source of the family’s wealth, which he earned by marrying Birdie (Patricia Collinge), an aristocrat. Birdie’s reward is physical and emotional abuse, and a responsive alcoholism. Ben (Charles Dingle), meanwhile, is a jovial man to whom cruelty comes easy. He may well be a match for Regina.

Even if Davis is playing Regina as full of venom, it’s still plain to see that the character is responding to the challenges she faces as a woman, including the way her brothers treat her. Ben tells her that she’d get more from men if she used a smile, which is not only patronising, but is also a lie. If she let her brothers walk all over her, they’d do it in a second. Unfortunately for Ben and Oscar, they need her husband, Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), to invest in their scheme. So, they need her to convince him, and she takes full advantage of this.

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Oscar and Birdie have a son, Leo, who is played by Dan Duryea, making a distinguished film debut. Oscar and Ben plan to marry him off to Regina’s daughter, Xan (Teresa Wright). This is bad news for Xan, and not just because they’re first cousins. Leo is entirely vapid, unremittingly stupid, and so lazy that he can barely seem to expel enough air to speak. The only thing that gets him energetic, apart from fearing that Ben and Oscar’s plans might go awry, is thinking about what he’d like to do to a woman.

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Xan is actually the film’s centre. Her real name being Alexandra, she is clinging to childhood in an effort to avoid facing what’s going on around her. She is aided by Birdie, who does everything she can to prevent Xan’s life becoming like hers, a family servant, Addie (Jessica Grayson), who offers perspective on how the Hubbards effect their town’s poor, and David Hewitt (Richard Carlson). David is a socially conscious writer who flirts liberally with Xan, but can’t stand her near-sightedness.

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Xan will be most influenced by her father. He’s a decent man, but a severe heart condition leaves him weak. Much of the film’s tension comes from watching Horace attempting to fight as well he can. Regina responds by spitting at him, “I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.” The moment is shocking not just for Davis’ performance, but for how undeserving Horace is of such hate.

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Wyler has clearly attempted to make this story visually interesting. He often uses reflections to open up the interiors, or to show what the characters are feeling. He also shoots the primary set, the Giddens house, from a variety of angles. The staircase in particular often emphasises the power dynamics at work. At a couple of points, Wyler has characters move into the frame while remaining unnoticed by the others. However, he doesn’t often put the camera in motion, which adds to the film’s static nature.

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The Little Foxes is not shot as though it’s a play, but the dense script keeps the film feeling heavy and uncomfortable to watch. However, the story itself is not meant to be pleasant. With many fine performances and masterful writing, The Little Foxes shows us what it is meant to show: a parable about how petty greed is, and how easily it hurts people who aren’t guarded against it. The Hubbards are one small family, but the world has plenty of their kind.