Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

Bette outshines film: Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)

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In Dark Victory, Bette Davis gives one of her most legendary performances as fatally ill socialite Judith Traherne, but the curious thing about this film is that’s there’s not much to it other than its lead actor. Though competently made, it has hardly any substance beyond Davis’ commitment to playing a character who manages to transcend limitations that, before she developed her brain tumour, she never knew she had.

The supporting cast do little to distinguish themselves. Amongst them are: George Brent as Doctor Frederick Steele, who diagnoses Judith, falls in love with her, and tries to cure her; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann King, Judith’s secretary and best friend; and, most bizarrely, Humphrey Bogart as Michael O’Leary, the Irishman who runs Judith’s stables. Perhaps the actors are at fault for not bringing much to the screen, or perhaps the film is designed to make them barely more than cardboard cutouts for Davis to react to. There’s also an actor who plays one of Judith’s drunken friends, who is so underwritten that I found myself wondering how it felt to be in that part. My sympathies were misplaced; not being an American, I didn’t instantly recognise the actor as Ronald Reagan.

Dark Victory is built around how Davis plays her role. Headstrong but playful, Judith is a far cry from Davis’ usual commanding, selfish divas. She’s a sympathetic character, though not without her flaws. Her gradual acceptance of her fate, and her ability to meet it with eyes open, is terribly moving. It doesn’t even matter that the film is hugely manipulative and takes sudden religious overtones in its last moments that had not been hinted in anything that had come before.

One of the reasons I watch so many Bette Davis films is that they are often interesting for reasons beyond her performance, more so than is the case for plenty of equally talented actors. Dark Victory, however, while not a bad film, is focused upon Davis to the exclusion of almost everything else. As such, she’s the only reason to watch it.

Stanwyck and MacMurray, together (yet) again: There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

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Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Joan Bennett star in a Douglas Sirk movie? I am THERE. I was a bit disappointed that it’s in black and white, given the amazing things Sirk does with colour, but it may be to the story’s benefit. If I’m not mistaken, There’s Always Tomorrow is more low key than Sirk’s best known films, and this lays the social criticism bare.

Clifford Groves (MacMurray) owns a successful toy company and spends his life working to provide for his wife Marion (Bennett) and their three children. Despite everything he’s done for them, however, none of them seem to have time for him, and his life feels rote and pointless. When old coworker and friend Norma (Stanwyck) reappears on his doorstep, Clifford longs more and more to escape his middle-class American dream.

Despite the lack of colour, TAT’s blocking and staging exemplifies Sirk’s signature style. Screens, stairs, posts, and windows enclose and separate the characters, signifying their barely contained emotions. The suburban home becomes the cage that Clifford feels it to be.

More wooden actors could have drained the life out of these characters, but the leads play their roles genuinely. MacMurray is the film’s heart, and Stanwyck is its head. Clifford stays likeable and relatable, while Norma’s understanding of the situation, and all the people involved, is refreshing and incisive. Bennett, in a fairly thankless role, makes the audience frustrated with Marion yet still, perhaps, envious of the certainty that comes with her complacency. These leads even had me believing in the ending, despite the fact that we should never stop at taking things at face value where Sirk is concerned.

Though TAT is, of course, of its time, the turmoils it shows are still relatable—just not necessarily in such gender-specific ways. The cultural ideal of having a large house, a marriage, children and money to spare still endures. It comes with no guarantee of happiness or meaning, however, and we all have paths that will never, and can never be taken. TAT is full of the melodrama’s near-foolish coincidences and ironies, but its themes play out thoughtfully, and movingly, in black and white.