Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

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If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

Family drama, Italian-American style: House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)

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The enduring greatness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and the flaws in his larger subsequent films Cleopatra and The Barefoot Contessa have left him with a reputation for making staid, dialogue-heavy pictures. I think it would be more fair to say Eve was the peak of his career (as it was for many of the people involved), but many of his films are well worth watching. Between the noir 5 Fingers, gothic melodrama Dragonwyck, and seaside romance The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it’s also wrong to say he couldn’t make a visually interesting film.

Funnily enough, though, House of Strangers is indeed a film that’ll make you feel like someone needs to open a window. In its talkiness and textured set design it bears a resemblance to Eve, despite its dissimilar story. Made just a year earlier, it’s a strong entry from Mankiewicz that makes excellent use of its actors.

Gino Moretti (Edward G. Robinson) is an Italian immigrant who started out as a barber and now owns a bank, but has alienated his family along the way. Of his four sons, lawyer Max (Richard Conte) is the only one he treats with respect. The other three, who all work in the Moretti bank, are displeased with the salaries that their father metes out to them.

The film opens with Max released from prison after serving a seven year sentence. His father has been dead for five years; will Max seek revenge against his double-crossing brothers, as his father would have wanted, or will he leave New York with Irene (Susan Hayward), who has been waiting for him?

Robinson was hardly new to playing Italians, but this one isn’t a gangster. A criminal and a bully, but not a schemer on a grand scale. Gino is simultaneously human and larger-than life, blind to his own flaws. A scene where he insists on playing opera music full blast during dinner is enough to drive the viewer insane, let alone his family, but it’s the kind of tyranny that might seem innocuous to outsiders. It turns out, though, that he’s a traitor to his own community – and sees this as his American right.

Robinson makes full use of his role, and Hayward and the supporting players are quite good, but the film would not work without Conte. Max is a complicated character who has a dark streak, but Conte manages to make him sympathetic. It’s easy to get caught up in the outcome of his decision – and even then, the film just may take his choice away from him.

House of Strangers feels a little long, especially in the scenes involving Max and Irene’s romance. Impressive location filming involving a boxing match and New York streets broadens the film’s scope and helps keep things lively. Nonetheless, a bit of editing at the script level could have kept the story moving along better.

Mankiewicz did not write this film (Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Jerome Weidman), but it involves plenty of dialogue that the viewer needs to follow closely. As with All About Eve, clever lines are scattered throughout, treated as though they’re of no particular importance. Conte and Hayward also give performances somewhat like Gary Merrill and Bette Davis in Eve. Perhaps Mankiewicz, who did write Eve‘s screenplay and based the main couple on his own parents, directed Conte and Hayward in a similar way.

House of Strangers was remade in 1954 as a western. This film, Broken Lance, did not lack for action or panoramic landscapes, and certainly didn’t feel stuffy. It also made interesting changes, such as increasing the mother role in the story: here played by Katy Jurado, she’s an Indian woman who the local townspeople pretend is Mexican, to give her marriage to Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) a semblance of respectability. Devereaux’s older sons are from an earlier marriage, which puts a twist on the relationship between them and youngest son Joe. The film has fine performances from Jurado, Tracy, and Richard Widmark as one of the older sons. It’s also fun to see how well the story has been adapted into a different genre.

House of Strangers, however, remains a stronger film than Broken Lance. It’s a quality drama with vivid characters, intricate dialogue, and committed performances. It seems to have a throughline to The Godfather, in which Conte also appeared. It’s definitely a must-see if you like Robinson – and I doubt the character of anyone who doesn’t. Another winner from Mankiewicz.

“It’s a bum’s world for a bum”: Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)

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Watching Emperor of the North, it’s hard to believe that Robert Aldrich was also capable of directing such high camp as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George. Women only speak a couple of lines in this film, and are treated entirely as sex objects or background figures. Emperor of the North is all about men – and one of its strengths is that it depicts the unique word of certain men in such convincing detail.

The film is set in the Great Depression, a time when hobos rode the rails. Unemployed and forced to live outside of society, the hobos had their own culture with traditions and norms. As a rare man with a job, it’s a point of pride for train conductor Stack (Ernest Borgnine) that he takes his work seriously. Not only is he determined to prevent any hobos from riding his train, he’s willing to kill any who try. For No. 1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo famous amongst his kind, pride is something worth risking his life for. The stakes of this film are nothing more than a man hitching a ride on a train – but this may well mean a fight to the death.

No. 1’s plans are complicated by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young man new to being a hobo, who’s determined to make a name for himself. It’s through the interactions between the two –sometimes willingly given lessons on No. 1’s part, sometimes clumsy attempts at imitation on Cigaret’s– that we get many insights into the peculiarities of hobo life. How do you stop a train? Why wear a belt rather than suspenders? How hard should you fight to hang onto a turkey? The slang flows thick and fast; pay attention, and you might work out just what an Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title) is to a hobo. It probably means something different to you and me.

Aside from an action sequence set in early morning fog, which doesn’t quite look convincing, Emperor of the North is a well-made film. The trains could not have been easy to handle, but the scenes taking place on them feel believable. Some moments don’t even look especially safe. You may never have expected to be watching a film set in this world, but you’ll easily get drawn into it. Of course, if the time period has a particular appeal for you, definitely seek the film out.

And then there’s the actors. Carradine is appropriately annoying as the big-toothed, thick-skulled Cigaret, while Marvin is made for roles such as the taciturn yet charismatic No. 1. Borgnine is the standout, however; he makes Stack one of cinema’s ultimate sadists, petty and ferocious even in a goofy conductor’s hat.

The film culminates in a faceoff between Stack and No. 1 that has to be seen to be believed, one that’s a whole different kind of nasty to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford conflict in Baby Jane. It’s to Aldrich’s credit that he could make such different kinds of films, and to this level of quality.

In search of the thylacine: The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011)

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The Hunter may have a famous Hollywood name in leading man Willem Dafoe, but it’s steeped in Australian history and contemporary Australian issues – specifically, Tasmanian. It also has a streak of speculative fiction, which it treats in a straight-faced manner that becomes highly meaningful where it intersects with the real world. It’s an underseen film that should have a broad appeal to those who are willing to follow the story where it leads.

Dafoe is Martin, a professional hunter who’s been employed by a mysterious corporation to go to Tasmania and retrieve specimens from a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. This oddly mournful-looking animal has been extinct since 1936, wiped out by a combination of disease and government sponsored extermination. The last individual in captivity died through simple neglect, and is preserved through haunting footage taken by naturalist David Fleay, which appears in this film’s credits. Though Martin is ostensibly a disinterested observer, he becomes drawn into the tragedy of the thylacine, as well as the ongoing environmental battles that are still being fought in Tasmania today.

The book by Julia Leigh that The Hunter is based on is told through Martin’s perspective, but the film puts us firmly outside his head. This leads to subtle character development and leaves us guessing at how his experiences change him. During his work, he lodges with Lucy (Frances O’Connor), whose environmentalist husband also believed that there are still thylacines out there, and is now is missing and presumed dead. Lucy has become too depressed to look after her children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Martin’s deepening connection with the family could seem trite, were it not for the fact that it isn’t always clear what he feels about them. Martin is an inexpressive character, speaking little, and spending much of the film outdoors and alone. Dafoe creates a sense that there is something going on behind Martin’s barriers, and ably handles the moments where they crumble completely.

The film’s supporting cast is also strong. Davies and Woodlock are vital to the film’s success, and they seem natural in their roles. Sam Neill conveys a good deal as local man Jack, who, unlike Martin, is sure of what he wants but is unable to reach for it. O’Connor’s character could have been given more space, but she works well enough where given the chance.

Beyond the many scenes exploring Tasmania’s unique landscapes with wonderful clarity, The Hunter has a couple of standout points. One features excellent use of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” which was signed off on by the man himself. Another involves a terribly tense sequence that feels quite different from the rest of the film, but which the film would be weaker without. It suggests that Nettheim has more in his bag of tricks to show audiences in the future.

Nettheim claims he had no intentions of delivering a political message here. However, it is the contrast between Tasmania’s beauty and depictions of environmental destruction and exploitation that gives the film its power. Were it pure fiction, The Hunter would seem a little unambitious, but the authenticity of this film’s portrayal of the stakes that have been and still are at play in Tasmania, and all around the world, lend impact to this story.

Sympathy for Norman Bates: Peacock (Michael Lander, 2010)

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When Inception hit in mid-2010, Cillian Murphy and Ellen Paige had already shared the screen a few months before in Peacock, a film with a far more modest budget. Peacock’s failings, however, don’t include lack of ambition. Its aim is no less than to revive one of cinema’s most famous characters: Norman Bates.

Murphy is John, an incredibly withdrawn man living in his dead mother’s house, doing his best to avoid speaking to anyone else in the small town of Peacock. Murphy is also Emma, the alternate personality who looks after John and follows a strict timetable in which they abdicate control of his body to each other. After a train derails while Emma is in the backyard, the townspeople meet her for the first time and assume she’s John’s wife. Emma decides she doesn’t want to stay confined any longer, and ventures out into the world. Of course, this has significant implications for John, including the likelihood that his terrible history will repeat itself.

Peacock expects the viewer to spend the film guessing at what exactly is going on with John and Emma. Some of it is obvious if you’ve twigged onto the Norman Bates similarities, but other matters are more ambiguous. Are John and Emma aware of each other’s existence? Which of them is stronger, and who needs who more? What was John’s mother’s role in his life? Most effectively, the story plays with the viewer’s expectations of which character should be more sympathetic.

This film is peopled with an unusual combination of familiar faces. Keith Carradine, in full charmer mode, is a local politician. Bill Pullman, sporting terrible hair, is John’s manipulative boss. Susan Sarandon is the head of a local women’s shelter, reaching out to Emma, who she sees as a downtrodden wife. Ellen Paige is a waitress with an unlikely connection to John, and she falls short in comparison to the other actors. Her accent is inconsistent, her stuttering unconvincing, and her whole demeanour inauthentic. Perhaps she was cast for her fairly androgynous features, an interesting face to put opposite Murphy, or perhaps for the one or two roles that she’s been coasting on for years.

Peacock has an oddball premise, but it’s the moments of dark weirdness that jar its believability. Through ellipses, silences, flashbacks, and repetition, it explores John and Emma’s lives. Its mysteries are intriguing, but when presented in this manner, certain elements of the story are difficult to accept. I would have preferred for the film to be either more straight-forward in its telling or less lurid in some of its plot points. As it is, the tone is uncomfortable and the whole film feels unbalanced.

None of these problems matter, however, with this lead actor. Murphy strongly delineates John and Emma, he all hunched shoulders and hostile fear, she quiet steeliness behind a demure demeanour. Excellent makeup is a help, but the inevitable scene where Murphy is playing one of these characters pretending to be the other is so masterfully done that it’s instantly clear what he’s doing. The film rests entirely on Murphy’s performance, and he makes its weak points tolerable. His commitment to pursuing challenging, unconventional roles no matter how far his star rises could not be more obvious in the contrast between Inception and Peacock.

Bette’s (boring?) breakthrough: Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)

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Honestly, Of Human Bondage is barely interesting for any reason other than its lead actors. Not that it’s badly made, or that it overstays its welcome; it’s just too self-serious and slight. It condenses the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, focusing on the plotline in which medical student Philip (Howard) becomes obsessed with Mildred, a cold-hearted, manipulative waitress who pulls him into her downward spiral. The story has an air of being over-simplified, leaving a little too much unexplained or unexpressed. Nothing has as much impact as it should, and much needs to be read between the lines.

Mildred was a breakthrough role for Bette Davis; greater things still did not come easily for her after this, but she proved herself as a daring actor here. She got the role because no one else wanted to touch it. Stridently unglamourous, Mildred ruins every chance she has to improve her life, unwilling to change her cruel nature. By the end, she’s suffering from a disease that’s probably syphilis, Davis applying her own makeup to appear withered and grotesque. It’s a dangerous character flaw for Philip to be unable to resist her. (I’ve variously read that Mildred emerged from Maugham’s misogyny, or that she was in fact based on a man he was involved with. Rather different theories, those.)

Davis was doing things that we still see today as the mark of a fine female actor, willingly making herself unlikeable and unpleasing to the eye. She received a Best Actress Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous, but the general consensus is that the award was really for her performance here. Perhaps the Academy just needed some time to get over their shock.

The problem with Davis doing things that are more common today is that it brings her into comparison with the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and she’s nowhere near as assured. (Yet.) Basing her accent on that of a cockney woman who lived with her for a few weeks led to grating and clumsy results. To her credit, she hardly sounds like her usual self at all. Still, Davis seems to be trying so hard that she’s all but bursting at the seams.

This must be said however: Davis will get a reaction out of you. You may think she’s awful, you may think she’s annoying, but you most certainly will dislike Mildred, and you will remember her.

As for Howard – he’s far more controlled than Davis. He’s theater acting, and the contrast between them strains the whole film. Taken on his own, however, it is a fine performance. Though Philip is a similar character to Squier in The Petrified Forest, there’s clear differences between them. Philip is coarser, more grounded. His rare outbursts are well earned.

Davis would have many more opportunities to deliver better performances, in better films. Howard did not; he died just nine years later, in a plane shot down by Germans over the Bay of Biscay. It’s not so easy to find him in a good film, and in a role that suits him. For that reason alone, Of Human Bondage is significant for anyone who appreciates his talent, and wishes he had had more time in which to show it.

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.

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.

Poitier takes to the screen: No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

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Sidney Poitier makes his film debut in No Way Out, and befittingly, it’s a daring drama about racial hatred. Poitier is Luther Brooks, a recently graduated doctor who has already faced prejudice and financial difficulties, but whose life takes a turn for the worse when he falls afoul of Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark). Ray and his brother Johnny are injured in a stickup, but Johnny dies while Brooks tries to treat him for an unrelated but more serious illness. Ray was already a rabid racist, but Johnny’s death gives him a vendetta against Brooks and the nearby African-American community. Meanwhile, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), Johnny’s ex-wife, can’t bring herself to help Brooks at the expense of her own reputation.

No Way Out is, obviously, a message film, and to its credit, it gives quite a bit of subtlety to the message. Ray is ferocious in his hatred for black people, hurling invectives left and right in a way that‘s still shocking. However, even people who work with and know Brooks use a few of those words themselves. Doctor McNally tries to remain colour blind, supporting Brooks as he would any other competent doctor, but Brooks and the hospital head alike consider him naïve for not acknowledging the issues right under his nose. Brooks is always under inequitable scrutiny. Other black characters in the film are only too willing to respond to an oncoming race riot by starting one themselves. Few people in No Way Out, black or white, are able to escape the circumstances they’ve been born into, and how these have shaped them.

No Way Out is a little lacking on the entertainment side. The pace is slow from beginning to end, and sometimes the way the story fits together is too obvious. However, it does have thick tension and some strikingly shot moments, particularly the riot. Poitier is, predictably, a charismatic presence, Darnell makes Edie a tough but troubled character, and Widmark plays Ray without restraint. (I’ve read that he apologised to Poitier after each take.) All of this makes No Way Out a film to watch if you’re in the mood for one that’s about something, even if it’s not quite satisfying as a thriller.