Thursday, January 03, 2019
Monday, November 12, 2018
I remember thinking of this film as an entertaining but minor entry in the tiny Bogart/Bacall canon, rather hamstrung by its evident origins as a stage play. Today it seemed very different indeed, partly because although Bogart and Bacall are both very fine in it, it's barely about their relationship at all, nor are they the most interesting characters, and if it seems less purely entertaining than The Big Sleep it's because much more is at stake here. All the performances (including an excellent rogue's gallery of familiar character actors) are very fine indeed, particularly Edward G. Robinson, who manages to meaningfully refer to his old gangster performances without pastiching himself. The limitation of the setting for most of the film to a single hotel, while a hurricane rages outside, now seems to me very effectively managed, with Karl Freund's cinematography achieving beautiful effects with subtle movements, compositions, and focus pulls, while remaining in the service of the narrative at all times. The ending does rather fall away, descending into satisfying but implausible heroics and the cliché of a villain who can't comprehend that money isn't everything for everybody. But during the body of the film there are some wonderful studies of cowardice and humiliation; A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's excellent biography of Bogart plausibly makes a case for an allegory of the recent HUAC hearings (John Huston was apparently proud of getting a quotation from FDR past the Breen office). The most notable scene of humiliation is of course Claire Trevor's enforced singing of her old torch song in search of a drink. The scene would bear comparison with the famous audition sequence in Mulholland Dr., expertly dissected by George Toles. The drama trades on the tension between our comprehension that the narrative has set the song up to be a failure and our hope that it will, nevertheless, be a triumph. The failure is edged into very delicately – at the beginning things could go either way, and I don't think it would be easy to pinpoint the exact moment at which we realise it's all coming apart.
(A final aside: at one point one of the thugs responds to a policeman he has just beaten up describing how 'the lights went out again' by dryly announcing 'I'm the electrician', which makes me wonder if this film is a source for Scott Walker's extraordinary song.)