Format: Amazon Watch Party
Viewing: 2nd? 3rd?
Director: Michael Curtiz
I remembered really liking this movie, but not many plot details. What I really recall was that this was that age of post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford when she was having a second or third wind in Hollywood and back at the center of movies.
This one would be a fabulous bit of film for a good old-fashioned "gender in cinema" student paper, with a tough-as-nails female lead who still has to navigate the mid-20th Century gender and sexual politics and the less-than-ideal male figures around her. Not to mention the presentation of other women in the film who do not have the benefit of being Joan Crawford.
Our plot: a woman decides this time she's not going to flee with a perpetually bankrupt carnival always one step ahead of creditors. She meets a young Deputy Sherriff (Zachary Scott) who is being held in place for future political maneuvering by the Sherriff, Sydney Greenstreet in loathsome toad mode. Scott is supposed to be betrothed to a pill of a socialite, and the local political machinery determines he should run for Senate, which means he needs to drop the carnival trash, and get back with his connected lady friend and get married. This breaks Joanie's heart, and to keep her in line when she declares she won't be broken, Greenstreet throws her in the hoosegow.
After, she finds work at the local Roadhouse where politicos come to plot and drink too much. She meets one of the political maker/ breakers (David Brian). While maybe a shrewd move to hook up with the guy, it becomes maybe something more and Greenstreet decides to make some power moves.
It's really a heck of a dark, sweaty, cynical bit of film. I do not always like those films, but this one, I do. Look, I'm sure Michael Curtiz made a bad film or two, but if you want to follow a director who could do anything, and always make an A-list picture, he's the top of my list next to Robert Wise and Spielberg. Still, I couldn't point to a "well, that's a Curtiz trademark". There's just always a clarity of story, intention, and performances pulled out of everyone in front of the lens.
The movie tilts into noir-land, pitting an unwilling participant against a corrupt underworld, full of malice and power. But it's also arguably a "woman's picture", and the fusion of the two works like crazy here, powered by Crawford and Greenstreet, but with Brian and Zachary Scott doing some thankless heavy lifting. Which seems to have been the story of Scott's Hollywood career.
I've dwelt a bit on Joan Crawford's career post-Mildred Pierce before in these digital pages. In an era where J-Lo is playing lead romantic roles at 50 whilst in her skivvies*, it's extremely difficult to project back to 1949 and talk about how wild it was to see a woman over 40 playing a desirable woman. By this age, women were playing moms and even grandmothers in many films.
If I have a bit of a laugh now, it's just that here and in Mildred Pierce, she's supposed to be a working woman/ lower-class figure, but, by GOD, she's going to look good doing it. There's almost a bit of hand-waving to her audience of "oh, you get it. Working class. Blah blah blah." as she still looks like a million bucks and is lit with laser-like precision. Not exactly a Charlize Theron-style transformation here. But mostly, I just like the infamously tough Crawford playing more sympathetic but still super-tough characters. If anyone knew what it was like to have it rough and get to the top, it was this product of Lawton, Oklahoma (coincidentally, Jamie's hometown) who made her way to the top of the industry a few times.
*this is a feature, not a bug