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Cinematic Shorts: Gaslight

Wowza!

Gaslight (1944)

     Gaslight is one of my favorite movies of all time. I discovered it early in my classic movie foray because I was really into Joseph Cotton. The story is a wonderful mystery full of suspense and intrigue and really has all the markings of a Hitchcock film without actually being one. The director is instead George Cukor, who has more than enough experience to make such a masterpiece.

     The story is about Ingrid Berman‘s Paula and her husband Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, and the woman slow decent into madness. Paula’s aunt/guardian was a famous opera singer who was murdered by a thief hoping to seize some valuable jewels. Ten years later Paula returns to her aunt’s house with a new husband but starts having flashbacks to the terrifying past.

     Gregory presents himself as a creepy character from the start, always patronizing his wife into a submissive role. He pats her and tells her she confused when her items start disappearing. Paula has also been noticing a strange change in the gaslights in their London flat. The flames seem to go down as though someone has turned up the gas in another part of the home, except no one has. This does not help the woman’s mental state any, but she has one ally on her side: Joseph Cotton as a fan of Paula’s aunt who mistakes the young woman for her relative. He starts to gather that something sinister is afoot in Paula’s home and pokes his nose in enough to save the woman.

     The story for Gaslight is really fascinating and creative and the actual gaslights in the home make for such a cool device alluding to the answer to all of our questions. Bergman gave an Academy Award-winning performance as Paula as no one can deny how deftly she conveys a weakening of the mind. Besides Bergman, also nominated for Oscars were  Boyer and Angela Lansbury, who makes her screen debut as the cockney, sassy maid. The picture was also nominated for cinematography, writing, art direction and Best Picture.

     I think I could watch Gaslight every day and never be tired of it. Ryan and I love to imitate Boyer’s chiding utterance of “Paauullaa” in that French accent of his as it is both absurd and creepy. This movie sort of ruined Boyer for me as anything but a sinister actor, however. Watching him in Love Affair was a challenge.

"I told you, there's nothing wrong with the lighting, Paula!"

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Claire & Markheim

Ring a Ding Ding

     Another duo of Screen Directors Playhouse episodes have again impressed me, and both offered “twist” endings. Claire conveyed quite the familiar plot as it largely reflects the story Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier that hit the big screen in 1940 under Hitchcock’s direction. Both stories deal with a deceased wife and the new wife that has joined the household. Unlike Rebecca, however, Claire uses a cat by that name to intimidate the new woman of the house instead of a devoted housekeeper.

     Angela Lansbury plays the new woman whose husband was married to her school friend before drowning in the lake outside their home. As Vera, Lansbury conveys the agitation of a woman living in the home of the friend whom she was unable to save from her fate because of the inability to swim. Add to that a Siamese cat that clearly does not like her, and Vera has all the makings of the “new Mrs. DeWinter.” The surprise ending comes in the revelation of what actually happened during the drowning incident.

     I am a huge fan of Rebecca so Claire was particularly enjoyable for me. The great back and forth the viewer endures of “is there or isn’t there something wrong here” makes for great suspense. Lansbury does a great job of convincing the viewer she is the victim. George Montgomery plays the husband, and the episode was directed by Frank Tuttle.

     Next up is Markheim based on a Robert Louis Stephenson story that predated Jekyll and Hyde yet had traces of the good-vs-evil struggle in every man. Ray Milland continues to impress me with this short work in which he plays a man who kills for money.

     Markheim begs entrance to a pawn shop late Christmas day where the unpleasant owner is surprised to find his regular customer is not there to sell, but “to buy”. After chatting a while with the shop owner and asking him to suggest a gift for his fiance, Markheim finally plunges a knife into the businessman’s back. The ticking of the clocks becomes overpowering and fade into the pounding beat of a heart. Markheim snatches a key from the shop owner’s belt and begins his search for the store safe. Upstairs he find the key fits a dresser drawer that contains naught but a giant key rink holding a hundred keys. Markheim’s anxiety convinces him he hears feet climbing the stairs outside the room and eventually he is joined by someone, the devil to be precise.

     Rod Steiger plays the “mysterious stranger”, as he is billed, and knows all about Markheim’s crime and his past. The man addicted to playing the stock exchange has worked his way up to the crime of murder. His past dealings in the pawn shop have been to hock stolen items. The devil offers to reveal where the safe is hidden, but the duo is interrupted by the return of the shop owner’s maid. The stranger tells Markheim if he kills just this once more he can return to a life of good and can even make a death-bed repentance if he wants to. The surprise comes in what Markheim actually does at the film’s close.

     This great story was directed by Fred Zinneman. The shop is littered with antiques and an excessive number of ticking clocks that help to heighten the viewer’s experience with Markheim’s anxiety leading up to and after the murder. Milland gives a great performance as a desperate, nervous man making his first foray into killing another. Again he has me singing his praises.

     As I’ve mentioned before about Screen Directors Playhouse, these half-hour films do a tremendous job of cramming what feels like a full-length feature into the allotted time without making the story feel rushed or cut short. Truly a fabulous series.

Samson and Delilah

Gasser

Samson and Delilah (1950)

     Biblical tales typically fail to grab my interest, probably primarily because the time period does not interest me. And frankly, I should probably stop using George Sanders as a guidepost for which movies I pursue. Samson and Delilah was alright, and Hedy Lamarr thoroughly sexy, but it was kind of a middle-of-the-road movie for me.

     I really knew nothing of the story beyond Samson’s hair being the source of his overwhelming strength. Turns out Samson, a Danite (the people who worship the traditional Lord and are considered second-class citizens), is in love with a Philistine woman, briefly played by possibly the most lovely Angela Lansbury I’ve seen to date. Samson, played by Victor Mature, selects her as his bride after killing a lion with his bare hands and impressing the Philistine leader, The Saran, personified by George Sanders. The bride-to-be’s sister, Delilah, has already made her affections for Samson known and is bitter over her rejection, but it is the other Philistine men who cannot handle the Danite’s entrance into their society. When Lansbury’s character betrays her husband to the other Philistines on their wedding day, a battle ensues that involves her death by her own people. Samson flees and Delilah begins plotting her revenge.

     After the Danite people have been thoroughly “taxed” and tortured for not giving up the strongman and Samson continues to kill Philistines, he is finally located by Delilah when he stumbles upon her secluded caravan. Delilah has by now taken up with the Saran and has been promised incredible wealth if she can find the source of Samson’s strength and take it from him. Some thorough seduction ensues and once the two are genuinely in love, the Danite reveals that like the mane of a lion, his hair is the symbol of his strength. A bit of jealousy over another woman makes Delilah shake her affection for the man, and she drugs him and shears his hair. She requires he not be killed nor his blood drawn, but the Philistines blind his eyes with heat before tethering him to the millstone where he grinds the city’s grain.

     Delilah has a change of heart when she sees her love in this state. She conspires to set him free only after a certain amount of time passes and his hair has grown long again. He rediscovers his strength and manages to take out the entire Philistine population in one strong push.

     As you can tell from what might be my longest synopsis of a movie, Samson and Delilah is the sort of epic and extravagant tale for which Director Cecil B. DeMille was well known. Paramount Pictures had cut back on lavish dramas of this sort during WWII, but it was 1950 and time for DeMille to bring back his popular style of filmmaking. This was Lamarr’s first color picture and the last big success she would have. The Austrian actress is absolutely stunning in the colorful picture and a great pick for this role. I have not seen many of her films and had not given much thought to her acting ability before now, but she really does a great job as Delilah — a woman torn between love and jealousy. It’s not a picture I would see again, but it is an interesting tale.

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